No, this wasn’t the game with the grey kit. Man United used that particular excuse the season before when we beat them 3-1 at The Dell.
I’m writing this post for one reason only. When trying to find information about it earlier today I was disgusted to find that one of the greatest Premier League victories ever seen is barely documented on the internet. It’s my duty as a Saint to address this injustice. Though I’ll never be able to change the fact that we were still last on Match of the Day. We best the reigning champions 6-3. And we were last. On MOTD. Last?
This game was unlike any I’ve ever experienced in my life. The only games to come close were to come later. January 1997, at home to Newcastle. The Magpies hadn’t beaten us at home for over 20 years but we were 2-0 with just minutes to go. A scrambled Maddison header on the line was seemingly too little, too late. But Magic Matt Le Tiss had othjer ideas, salvaging a point with an injury time volley from 20 yards. Euphoria. It was Le Tiss again in 2002 when, by his own admission, Matt had waddled his way through an unfit and mainly forgettable season. But it was our last ever game at The Dell and there was only one man who could deliver a fitting end, as impossible as it seemed on that day. We were 2-2 with Arsenal when Matt pottered off the bench to score an injury time winner. The last goal at The Dell. His last goal for the club. An amazing, amazing day.
Oh, and Liverpool’s Champions League win in 2005 was pretty special too.
But I digress.
October 26th, 1996. Just a few weeks after England’s unbearable exit from Euro 96 at the hands of Germany and a few months after Kevin Keegan’s glorious “I’d love that” rant aimed at Man Utd, who had gone on to overturn Newcastle’s seemingly un-overturnable lead to claim the league, and the domestic double.
This match came at a time when I was going to nearly every home game at The Dell. It was also exactly one week after I survived what can rightly be described as an horrific car crash. I was in a bad way. Broken nose, shattered nerves. Head was all over the place. I nearly didn’t go to the game, god forbid. But I did. And for 90 minutes and a good few hours afterwards it was all forgotten.
United were on incredible form. Their season had kicked off with Beckham’s 50-yard chip at Wimbledon and they’d barely lost a game since. Apart from the week before when Newcastle had the nerve to thump them 5-0. Which undoubtedly would have annoyed United.
We were fearful in the stands. I remember the bloke next to me observing that the players “looked well fucked off” when they emerged from the tunnel. That means “angry”, and he was right. All of which meant we gave them a particularly hostile reception, with the notable exception of Eric Cantona who, despite being a Manc, was greeted with an appreciative round of applause upon his appearance from the tunnel. He was the best Manc, after all. Though no Le Tiss, obviously.
Our season so far under Souness had been mixed, and continued to be so, leading to yet another final day escape. We were good at those until Harry ‘Judas’ Redknapp came along.
The match didn’t take long to get going. Unspectacular but admirably solid Norwegian striker Egil Ostenstad saw his shot parried by Peter Schmeichel in just the sixth minute only for Israeli midfield marvel Eyal Berkovic, our man of the match on the day for sure, to tuck in the spillage. Roy Keane was booked amidst the celebrations and, quite tragically, saw a second yellow in just the 20th minute. We gave him the ‘wanker’ as he left down the tunnel. It was 1996 – he gave us the wanker back. Fair play.
But better was yet to come. Weaving his way around the Man Utd defense, Magic Matt then proceeded to do the impossible – chip all six feet and four inches of Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, who at the time was barely off his line. He had the decency to do it right in front of me, too. Honestly, I love Matthew Le Tissier. Actually love him. Even though he’s a man.
Being the selfish twats they are, however, United wouldn’t leave us be and quickly emerging superstar David Beckham selfishly curled in a free kick just before the break. But we were spared a tense half time, fortunately, after Ostenstad made it 3-1 from a tight angle.
Just ten minutes after the re-start, though, and fresh from a proper Ferguson-style grilling United were back on the offensive. Amazingly, it was the hapless David May who scored their second. The next 30 minutes was, frankly, dreadful for us Saints. United kept coming at us. They were relentless. Beckham had a free kick go unbearably close and we could feel the points slipping from our grasp. But the next ten minutes more than made up for it. They were possibly the best ten minutes of my life.
As was fitting for such a performance, in the 83rd Berkovic sent us into raptures with a breathtaking 25 yard volley to regain our two goal lead. Just two minutes later the Israeli then delivered an exquisite through ball for Ostenstad, whose second of the match made it 5-2 and sealed the win. But there was still more to come. Ginger Scholes pulled one back, not that it had any effect on our mood. I don’t think I’ve ever hugged other men so affectionately. I could have happily bummed or indeed been bummed by any of the fellas around me when Ostenstad completed his hat-trick in the 90th minute with a tidy finish that went in off Phil Neville. The FA still gave it to our boy, though, as was only fitting.
I work in an office with video gamers. Of our eight editorial team members, four have little or no interest in football. I don’t necessarily blame them. 22 blokes kicking a ball of leather around a bit of grass is stupid, undeniably. But the reason why football is genuinely magical is that it’s not really about 22 blokes, grass and leather. It’s about togetherness, tribal rivalries, saddening failure and glorious victory.
Ever see that scene in The Next Generation where Geordie tries to describe ‘anger’ to Data without referencing other emotions? In short, he can’t. Describing how it feels to support a football team is much the same. You either get it or you don’t. You just can’t understand it until you experience it. I mean, in all honesty I don’t really understand it myself. It’s beyond logic and totally irrational. But it’s inside you. It’s ingrained. And for all the pain that comes with it, it’s a wonderful thing. My life would be demonstrably less without it.
If you don’t support a football team then you’ll never know how I felt that day, in that rickety old stadium filled with 15,250+ fans, seeing my shitty old Southampton FC toppling one of the best clubs in the world. And I feel sorry for you.
Don’t feel too sorry for yourself, however. You’ll never feel how I did when Saints were relegated. Or when we went into administration. Or when we got relegated again. Or when Le Tissier’s consortium bid failed. Or when our savior Markus Liebherr died.
It really is a funny old game.