You remember the painful moments almost as much as the joyous ones. The games that take all summer and sometimes longer to get over; the games that, whenever you think back to them, a bitter sense of disappointment remains, like a wound that has never healed.
For Manchester United that means a game like the 1-1 draw at West Ham in 1995 on the last day of the season, which allowed Blackburn to win the league; the defeats at home by Nottingham Forest and away by West Ham in 1992, which meant Leeds won the league; the Marc Overmars goal in 1998 at Old Trafford that tipped the balance of the title Arsenal’s way and the Sylvain Wiltord goal in 2002 that saw Arsenal crowned champions.
Well, you can now add another game to that list: Everton at home, April 22, 2012. United were 4-2 up with eight minutes to play, a result that would have seen them maintain a five-point lead that weekend over Manchester City in the title race with just three games to go. Of course, Everton scored two late goals and City then beat United the following week to go top on goal difference, a lead they maintained to win the title.
Which is why today’s match against Everton comes at such a good time for United. If ever there were a moment to take stock, this is it.
In the last 12 days it feels as though the title race has taken a significant turn, with United beating Southampton and then recording that hard-fought 1-0 win at Fulham, while City dropped points at QPR and then at home to Liverpool. In fact, when Wayne Rooney cut in from the left late on at Craven Cottage, moved on to his right foot and scored with that excellent finish last Saturday, it felt like an important moment.
It is about this time of year that, as a player at a club looking to win trophies, you feel the season really gets going. The Champions League is back, the FA Cup is at the fifth-round stage and the title run-in begins in earnest. And the talk last week in the media, among fans and probably even at the clubs, is that United won’t lose it now, not with a nine-point lead before today’s games.
It’s getting to the time of year where a local bookie will start paying out on a United title win. And though this season is sure to have twists and turns yet, even the most cautious and sensible football people would have United as huge favourites.
However, if you were a player at that club, that is a thought you would be banishing from your mind. All week, you would be hearing, not just from United fans but from opponents, too: ‘You’ll win it now. The title is United’s’. I’ve heard it myself all week from people I’ve met.
But, as an experienced player, the minute you hear that, you have to get it out of your mind. You don’t let that thought register. You have to discipline yourself to ignore it, to let it go in one ear and out the other. You can be sure Sir Alex Ferguson will be insisting on that.
Because if you needed a sobering warning after the intoxication of a good week, playing Everton today should be it. Just 10 months ago, with those eight minutes to play, the league was as good as finished. And yet eight minutes later all had changed.
That’s why, despite the excitement of a tie against Real Madrid this week, it is the domestic business of a home game against Everton that will be uppermost in the players’ minds. Because Real Madrid is a dream. It is one of the outstanding ties, a game that every football fan would want to watch between two of the biggest clubs in the world.
But while winning the Champions League is something United would desperately want to do this year, winning the league is something they have to do.
Don’t get me wrong, the tie against Real Madrid on Wednesday is one that has me excited already. It is a privilege to be going there and watching it. I played in the Bernabeu three times — twice for United and once for England — and it is a truly imposing place. United have never won there, although they did record a 3-3 draw there in the 1968 European Cup semi-final, knocking Real out before winning the trophy at Wembley.
And although I felt I played quite well in 2000 when United drew 0-0 there before losing the return leg, the game in 2003 was a different experience. I remember they soaked the pitch through just before kick off — of course, they had left it dry for training the day before — and it was as fast as lightning, as quick as any pitch I’ve played on.
And I have to say, it caught me out. I just remember in the first half thinking: ‘I’m not in control here’. There were people running in behind my left shoulder, my right shoulder and people dropping off in space behind me.
Every defender has that moment in his career when you feel like you’re playing against 14 men and you can’t slow the game down in your mind. And my head was racing, which isn’t good as a defender.
You’re always trying to slow movements down in your mind, to anticipate and intercept. But that night I had Roberto Carlos flying past me with Raul, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo to contend with as well. We lost 3-1 and went out despite winning the return leg 4-3. That night I was out of control, something that only happened a few times as a United player: against Juventus in 1996 when we played them away, the best European team I ever faced; against Arsenal at their peak with Robert Pires, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Ashley Cole combining and that night in Madrid.
I don’t think this Madrid team are as good as their 2000 and 2003 teams. The 2000 team won the Champions League and although the 2003 team didn’t, they were the Galactico team and one of the great sides. The current side have fallen away from their high standards of last season and there is uncertainty over the harmony of the dressing room. Their situation is the reverse of United’s: they can’t win the league, so they have to win the Champions League to salvage the season.
But United are more than capable of going to that stadium and handling the ball with as much confidence as their opponents. They have risen to the occasion in big games this season against Liverpool, Arsenal, City and Chelsea and can do so again. And while the Champions League has always been enormously important to United over the last 20 years, the priority has always been to make sure your bed is made properly at home.
Sir Alex Ferguson and United very rarely make the same mistake twice.– Mail On Sunday