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“The players don’t like the grey strip,” said manager Alex Ferguson. “They find it difficult to pick each other out. We had to change the strip.” As far as excuses go for being 3-0 down at half-time, that was one of the more unusual ones, but then Manchester United being 3-0 down at half-time was unusual in itself.
Perennial relegation battlers Southampton regularly finished close to the drop zone whilst Manchester United were at the other end of table busy winning titles. Despite this, it was Southampton who had the upper hand when the top of the table side visited in Aprill 1996 and put on their grey away kit, and they would take control again when the same opponents came to town some six months later.
In April 1996 Manchester United were on course to regain the Premier League title having lost out to Blackburn Rovers the previous campaign. The Red Devils had found form in the new year whilst challengers Newcastle United had blown the twelve point lead they’d had at Christmas. Travelling to Southampton with four games remaining Man Utd were now in the driving seat.
Southampton, on the other hand, were fighting for their lives, the Saints were staring the possibility of relegation right in the face and were running out of time to save themselves. If Man Utd had little room for a slip up, Southampton had probably even less.
Now a housing estate, the Dell was the home ground of Southampton until 2001, and this small, compact and in places odd shaped ground was full to capacity for the visit of Man United with over 15,000 present.
Southampton’s star player was Matt Le Tissier, a one club player, he would spend his whole career at the Saints. When Le Tissier scored on the stroke of half-time he unbelievably put the home side 3-0 up in what were incredible scenes. Southampton were firing on all cylinders right from the off, particularly Le Tissier who seemed to be involved in everything, and as well as scoring he also had a hand in the first goal.
The hosts were 1-0 up after 11 minutes when a Le Tissier, from a free-kick, crossed the ball into the box and Dutchman Ken Monkou fired home after his initial header was saved. 1-0 became 2-0 twelve minutes later, Jim Magilton found Alan Neilson who crossed the ball into the box where Neil Shipperley was waiting to slot the ball into the bottom corner. Shipperley set up the third on 42 minutes when Peter Schmeichel in the Man Utd goal was unable to collect Shipperly’s high ball into the box and it fell to Le Tissier who controlled it with his left foot before firing a diagonal shot into the bottom corner of the net. It was rampant stuff from Southampton who could have scored more whilst the best Man Utd had mustered was a tame effort from Ryan Giggs.
Manchester United came out for the second half looking like a different team, literally. Paul Scholes was brought on to replace Nicky Butt but that was not the only change. “Get that kit off, you’re getting changed,” is what Lee Sharpe remembered Ferguson saying at half-time. When speaking to The Guardian in 2006, the midfielder, who was on the pitch that day, claimed these the were the manager’s first words to his team at the interval.
Having played the first half in that grey away strip, Ferguson claimed the players were struggling to pick out each other whilst wearing it and asked permission for them to change. The players came out for the second half in their blue and white third strip. The grey shirts which they had worn four times previously, and picked up only one point whilst doing so were never worn again.
In the second half Man Utd looked a much better side, but Southampton held firm, and although the visitors did find the net their goal did not come until the 89th minute, clearly too little, too late. For the record, Giggs slotted home from close range. 3-1 the final score.
Despite the defeat, Man Utd did still in, the end, win the league title and although they would eventually be fined £10,000 by the FA for their half-time shirt swap, in the grand scheme of things, I doubt they really cared.
Fast forward about six months and having won the FA Carling Premiership, as it was then known, Man Utd again travelled to the Dell to face Southampton but this time in rather different circumstances. The Red Devils had drawn four of their opening nine league games and the trip to Southampton, which would be their eleventh match, came after an astonishing 5-0 defeat at last season’s title challengers Newcastle in match number 10. With the visitors on the back of such a bewildering defeat, the hosts were no doubt smelling blood again.
There would no be half-time kit changes on this occasion, but on the pitch, events would be even more dramatic. The match would be a nine goal thriller in front of another sell out crowd at The Dell. There were two goals apiece for Eyal Berkovic and Egil Østenstad and one for Le Tissier whilst it took only six minutes for the opening goal to arrive.
Although it was Berkovic who scored the first goal, Østenstad had a hand in it too, Østenstad saw his initial shot saved before Berkovic was able to fire home from the rebound. Things got worse for Man Utd 15 minutes later when Roy Keane was sent off whilst a further 15 minutes on 1-0 became 2-0. Le Tissier found his way past two defenders before hitting a shot that curled and dipped its way into the centre of the goal from just outside the box. A real goal of the season contender for any season – it was stunning!
A David Beckham free-kick saw Man Utd pull one back on 41 minutes whilst on the stroke of half-time Southampton grabbed a third when Østenstad scored from a very acute angle. 3-1 at the interval and Manchester United were left stunned at The Dell for the second visit in a row. But what would the second half have in store?
Another Beckham free-kick saw David May head home on 56 minutes to make it 3-2 – the visitors were right back in the game. Though if Man Utd thought that goal would be a catalyst to go on and win the game it didn’t seem to pan out that way. We had to wait until 83 minutes for another goal and it wasn’t scored by a Man Utd player. Berkovic grabbed his second by firing home from the edge of the box in what was another stunning strike for Southampton. The home sides two goal lead was restored and soon increased when two minutes later Østenstad slotted home to make it 5-2. Man Utd did not know what had hit them!
Two goals in three minutes and The Dell crowd was going wild, but there was still more to come. Paul Scholes pulled one back the for visitors four minutes later but that was quickly followed by a Gary Neville own goal and you could be forgiven for losing track of the scoreline – for the record, it was Southampton 6-3 Man Utd. That was how it finished and the Saints had defeated the Red Devils again to make it two wins in a row against their illustrious opponents.
Man Utd recovered to win the league again that season whilst the next two encounters between the pair took place at Old Trafford and the home side won both games by a single goal margin. Man Utd’s next visit to the Dell, however, saw another Southampton win. The hosts won the match by one goal to nil but when Man Utd visited again later that year they won 3-0 and the short winning streak at home to the mighty Man Utd was over for the team still struggling at the wrong end of the table.
Southampton were relegated from the Premier League in 2005 and did not return for seven years, as for Manchester United well we all know how successful they turned out to be! Those two games between the sides at The Dell in 1996 will, however, go down in Premier League folklore. That half-time kit change was one of many iconic moments in an what was an iconic season whilst when the pair met again later that same year the match was an absolute classic. It was a golden period for the Premier League and these were two golden games.