United play Southampton this Sunday, and this isn’t a fixture that traditionally generates much hype. But, aside from the Van Gaal / Koeman intrigue, it’s actually steeped in a quirky history that often seems to throw up an unexpected result.
I’ve always thought of this fixture as a bit of bogey game for United. I remember watching the FA Cup final in 1976 – I was a volunteer on a desolate and dusty kibbutz in northern Israel, albeit filled with an assortment of United fans from all over the world. We watched on a dodgy TV in the library room, eating chocolate brownies and drinking Nesher beer.
We settled down in the punishing heat of the Jordan Valley to watch our team filled with the stars of Pearson, Hill, Coppell and Buchan to name a few, and of course our European Cup winning goalkeeper Alex Stepney.
Surely the result was assured against a lowly second division Southampton? But on 84 minutes, and against the run of play, Bobby Stokes beat the offside trap to slip one past a flailing Alex Stepney, and our day was shrouded in despair as we were beaten 1-0.
Move on ten years and this fixture triggered a pivotal change, not just at Manchester United but for the whole of English football. In November 1986, following a poor start to the season and with United joint bottom, we travelled to the Dell to play Southampton in a third round replay in the then Littlewoods Cup.
A goal from and Danny Wallace, soon after to sign for United, made it 2-0, and then a hot prospect named Mathew Le Tissier added two more to make it a 4-1 humiliation on the night.
Two days later, Ron Atkinson was sacked and in came a manager not well-known outside Scotland – a certain Alex Ferguson from Aberdeen, who was to change Manchester United forever.
In 1996, United were locked in battle with Newcastle for the title, when they once again turned up at The Dell to play Southampton in a fixture that would both amuse and bemuse United fans. The team ran out onto the field wearing the disastrous all grey kit, and what followed was a comical first smattered with mistakes by United. So much so that at half time, 3-0 down, Sir Alex ordered the team to change their kit to a blue and white number.
Fergie explained after the game that the players couldn’t pick each other out and they hated the new kit. Thankfully it was never seen again.
A year later and United travelled to The Dell following a 5-0 thrashing by Newcastle. Surely United would bounce back? Surely Fergie would not allow such a score line again? After 90 minutes, the scoreboard read Southampton 6, Manchester United 3. Thankfully, we still won the league that year, but once again we discovered the trip to Southampton can throw up all kinds of strange results.
In 1998, I was living in Dubai with my new wife when we went down to the local hotel to watch United play Southampton. It was a very late kick off for us, and the game finished at around 2am. The result was a frustrating 1-0 to Southampton; I remember my groans when Kevin Davies scored, which woke my sleeping wife who at least showed dedication to accompany me to the televised game – it would be her last! That season, we lost the league to Arsenal and the three points dropped that night might just have made the difference.
We did finally get some semblance of revenge by sending Southampton down to the Championship in 2005, although I doubt there was really any malice involved. Southampton needed a win on the last day of the season and, despite taking an early lead, goals from Darren Fletcher and Ruud van Nistelrooy ended their 27-year stay in the top flight.
After seven years of trying, Southampton finally made it back to the Premier League, and here we are this weekend.
The result will hopefully go our way, but who knows what the Saints may have in store for us. Schneiderlin returns to his old club, and poor Luke Shaw was, I assume, looking forward to this game before that horrible tackle on Tuesday. Then there is the spikiness between Koeman and van Gaal to add a little more spice to the mix.
Let’s hope that history is kind to us this time, and that with a fit Rooney back in the squad, we can turn our usual domination and possession into goals.