Ah, the first year of the Premier League, the gift that kept on giving, to players’ and agents’ bank balances. The glamour, the glitz and the gaudiness – all these things were not able to ruin what was Manchester United’s first league title in over 400 years. And how auspiciously the season did start. What an opening! There were two losses in two games, to Sheffield United and then Everton, and then the season really turned around against Ipswich Town. Well, they managed not to lose, drawing one-all courtesy of Denis Irwin, the white Fabio. Then they actually really did turn it around, winning five games on the bounce, with the archetypally talismanic Dion Dublin scoring in the 88th minute against Southampton at The Dell, also known as the most horrible stadium in the world. You wouldn’t have guessed it from the start to the season, but this was the beginning of Manchester United’s and Sky’s dominance over a new era of fitba.
While the opening scorers in Manchester United’s first Premier League season might have reflected the more prosaic, if no less enjoyable, make-up of the squad, so they showed the revolution in personnel in the treble-winning season. Teddy Sheringham and David Beckham both had their brushes with the new kind of fame associated with football, and Dwight Yorke joined United for the kind of money made possible by the preposterous amounts being flung from Sky to the Premier League to clubs to players to horribly decorated Cheshire mansions. The season began with disappointing draws against Leicester City and West Ham, and wins over Charlton and Coventry were to be expected. What is most interesting of all is the defeat to Arsenal. United were humped, hindered by a Nicky Butt red card in his second consecutive game, and they lost 3-0. It wasn’t apparent then, but while they lost heavily to Arsenal this time, they would ultimately see them off. The 1999 race to the title was the most tense and most precarious ever seen, demanding ever increasing amounts of guts and determination to secure victory. As we all know, United had just enough of both when it mattered.
A hurricane of piss. If neither 93/94 nor 98/99 hinted at the wild success and orgasmic happenings to come later, the opening games of 2004-5 were a reasonable indicator of future fuck-ups. The opening match was against a newly rich Chelsea, in their first season with Jose Mourinho in charge. Against a newly rich Chelsea, United’s first eleven was a disgrace:
Man Utd: Howard, Silvestre, Gary Neville, Keane, Fortune, Miller, O’Shea, Djemba-Djemba, Giggs, Scholes, Smith. Subs: Ricardo, Phil Neville, Bellion, Richardson, Forlan.
Liam Miller and Eric Djemba-Djemba were Alex Ferguson’s greatest midfield folly before simply not buying them at all after 2007. David Bellion foreshadowed some inexplicable purchases to come, like, oh, I don’t know, Bebe. It really was a truly dreadful side, and although injuries provided some excuses, it showed what could be expected for the season – giving it up to Chelsea. In the first five games, the scores for United were Alan Smith, Bellion and Gabriel Heinze. A Leeds fan, a waste of money and a traitor. The season didn’t get any better.
Michael Carrick is a very good footballer, but it’s an indictment of United that he’s their most important one, and even worse, their best midfielder. At a club with the ambitions of United, they should be aiming a little higher. That’s the case in 2013, and something very similar was said in 2006. United hadn’t won the league in three years, and Chelsea had added Michael Ballack and Andriy Shevchenko. Oh no! United had replaced Roy Keane with Carrick. Oh no!
It turned out to be a masterstroke. Instead of playing two midfielders carrying the water for a crocked Keane, Ferguson came up with a new plan. Give the ball to Scholes or Carrick, they give it to Giggs or Ronaldo, and then they give it to Rooney or Saha to score. There had been hints of the plan in the previous year, when Ruud Van Nistelrooy was dropped for Louis Saha in the League Cup against Wigan, but that looked more like a spat than some amazing insight.
How well it worked. The first game was against Fulham, and they dicked them 5-1. Then they just kept winning, blowing teams away with a swagger and desperation that was unrecognisable from previous years against Chelsea. While they may have won 4 of their 5 games, and showed they weren’t messing anymore, what is most important of those victories is the blueprint to copy. By destroying teams with pace and technical ability, United picked up forty six points out of a possible first 51.
Doom, doom, doom. No signings except Wilfried Zaha and Guillermo Varela. We’re going to lose to Swansea, we’re going to lose to Swansea, we’re going to lose to Swansea. Oh shit, I forgot how good Robin Van Persie is! United are gonna win the league!
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