When Manchester United’s players traipsed back into the away dressing room at White Hart Lane on Saturday, September 29, 2001, they were expecting the hairdryer to be out.
United had conceded three unanswered first-half goals to Tottenham and a pattern had been continued. This was the fifth away game of that season, the sixth if you include the Charity Shield at the Millennium Stadium, and Sir Alex Ferguson’s side had won none of them.
They had shipped two to Liverpool in the Charity Shield, two at Blackburn, one at Aston Villa, four at Newcastle and two more at Deportivo La Coruna. The first-half onslaught at White Hart Lane made it 14 goals conceded on their travels in five-and-a-half games of football and United had the worst away defence in the Premier League.
But rather than going into a dressing room rage, Ferguson stayed ice cool and his players responded. The five goals they scored in the second half make this victory perhaps their greatest Premier League comeback, in an era when they made a habit of never knowing when they were beaten.
Asked after the game what half-time message had inspired a comeback that left most of White Hart Lane stunned, Ferguson said in his typical brusqueness: “I’m not saying exactly what I said to them at half-time! Why am I always asked that?”
He might have kept it a secret then, but the team talk has become public as the years have gone by and it sums up the genius of Ferguson, always knowing how best to get a response from his players.
The BBC’s match report from an incredible game says of the first half, “The White Hart Lane faithful cannot have seen a finer 45 minutes from their side in many years”, and they certainly ran United ragged before the break.
Dean Richards opened the scoring on 15 minutes, netting on his debut for the club and Les Ferdinand doubled the advantage, capitalising on some suspect defending from Laurent Blanc.
On the stroke of half-time Christian Ziege made it three, but if that hammer blow had ruined Ferguson’s half-time plans, it didn’t show.
This was the season after Steve McClaren had left his role as Ferguson’s assistant and Old Trafford stalwart Jimmy Ryan was helping to fill the void. Speaking to the club’s official website last year, he described the tension as the players and staff trooped in at half-time.
“Half-time comes, I go into the dressing room and I thought there were going to be plates and cups thrown about; I’d seen that before,” he said of Ferguson’s famous rage.
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“He comes in. The players slowly come in and sit down.
“There’s a pot of tea; the manager goes across to it…
“He gets a cup, pours himself a tea and just starts drinking it.
“The tension is growing, getting bigger and bigger.
“I’m even thinking to myself: should I say something before he does?
“He turns and walks into a little side room, I think it was a medical room. He comes back a minute or two later, just drinking his tea. You’re looking at him, he’s looking at everybody and he looks like he’s boiling, but he drinks his tea, puts it down. Two or three minutes of the break are left now.”
In his autobiography, Ferguson revealed he knew exactly what the players were expecting during the half-time interval.
“As they traipsed into the dressing room, three goals down, the players were braced for a rollicking,” he wrote in his autobiography. Instead they got a clear-headed message.
As Ryan remembers, Ferguson’s first instruction was a change. Mikael Silvestre was to come on for Denis Irwin.
Ferguson himself knew the game wasn’t over. Rather than anger, he told his players how they could turn the match around.
“Instead I sat down and said: ‘Right, I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. We’re going to score the first goal in this second half and see where it takes us. We get at them right away, and we get the first goal.’,” he said.
“Teddy [Sheringham, the former United striker] was the Tottenham captain and, as the teams emerged back into the corridor, I saw Teddy stop and say: ‘Now, don’t let them get an early goal.’ We scored in the first minute.”
That was Ferguson’s account, but Ryan remembers a succinct message as well just as the players began to file back out towards the tunnel.
“The referee’s whistle goes, everybody starts to stand up. He goes: “Okay, now get it f***ing sorted.” That’s all he said,” he remembered.
“The players went out, scored within one minute and absolutely mullered Tottenham 5-3.”
United’s comeback began immediately, with Andy Cole converting a David Beckham cross inside the first minute of the second half. Martin Tyler, on commentary duty for Sky Sports, opined “could this be the start of a comeback?” It certainly was.
Cole remembers a similarly silent half-time dressing room, but recalls the comeback as one of his best games for the club. The striker certainly relished games against Tottenham, scoring the title-clinching goal against the same opposition in 1999.
“To go 3-0 down and we came in at half-time and I remember the manager [Sir Alex Ferguson] not saying a word for 15 minutes,” said Cole.
“Then, once the bell went, he said: ‘Okay, you’d better go out there and win the game’.
“We did that and it’s one of my favourite games. People remember me for the goal in 1999 but the 5-3 was fantastic, to come back from 3-0 down.
“I know everyone talks about my goal in 1999, when I was fortunate enough to get the winner at home to Tottenham but the 5-3 was special. I’m not saying the 1999 one wasn’t special but I’m fortunate enough to have experienced both of them.”
Jeff Winter was the referee for the day and as soon as Cole scored so early in the second half, he knew things were about to get interesting.
He recalled in 2013: “United scored relatively early and when we got back to the halfway line I looked at my assistants with a clenched fist and said, ‘Right, let’s get concentrating, this game is going to kick off.’ Teddy [Sheringham] saw me do it and there has always been this age-old conspiracy theory that all refs are United fans, so he said, ‘happy with that, were you?’
“I said, ‘Teddy, you’ve got it all wrong’, but he wasn’t too pleased. But my thoughts at half-time proved well-founded as United went on to complete one of the best comebacks in Premier League history.”
Beckham was in inspired form at this point – a week later his free-kick in the final minute at Old Trafford against Greece would confirm England’s 2002 World Cup berth – and he created the second as well, a corner headed home by Blanc for the only Premier League goal of his United career.
By now United had the wind in their sails. Ruud van Nistelrooy levelled matters with 18 minutes to go and four minutes later Juan Sebastian Veron put United ahead. Beckham, fittingly, would add the gloss with a rasping drive late on.
After the match Tottenham boss Glenn Hoddle spoke for the rest of the Premier League when he remarked: “Gawd help the rest of us if they start keeping clean sheets.”
Unfortunately for United, they didn’t. The 45 goals they conceded in 38 Premier League games was the joint-highest total between winning the first title under Ferguson and his retirement and it means they would only finish third, a run of three successive Premier League titles ended.
But this astonishing comeback did at least confirm United’s hold over Spurs. After the five-star showing in the second half in North London, United would win 4-0 at Old Trafford later in the season and this was a run when they scored 14 successive goals in matches between the two clubs.
As Ferguson would say himself, “lads, it’s Tottenham.” The stunning comeback at White Hart Lane in 2001 certainly added to the mythology of that statement.