Winter is a wonderful time, and Christmas is even more special. It is special because amongst all the utter, utter tedium of hanging out at home and eating the worst meat of all time, turkey, you get to watch an enormous amount of football. Christmas has so many games that it can destroy a season – just watch Arsenal fall apart in the next few months – and it poses a gruelling test. More often than not, United have come out with some success, ready to start the traditional strong finish to the season. And sometimes they’ve just been crap.
1 January 1996 – Tottenham Hotspur 4-1 Manchester United
In the warm up, Paul Scholes fell ill. Before the warm up, Peter Schmeichel injured his calf and Kevin Pilkington, Barcelona’s nemesis, started in goal. Added to that, both Phil and Gary Neville, not yet the reliable or excellent, respectively, defenders they would prove to be for United, made up half of a weakened defence.
But the piece de resistance of the United defence was William Prunier. Eric Cantona’s mate, who would be humiliated by him in Cantona’s testimonial a few years later, was notably first embarrassed here. It will go down in United history that William Prunier was one of the most useless signings ever made by United.
Which is, of course, unfair. He had shown in training enough for Alex Ferguson to request to extend his trial period, but the defender turned him down. He was only playing because United were in the middle of an injury crisis.
While United fans might remember him with disgust and embarrassment, they should remember it was he who walked away, not the club who turfed him out. He would go on to an entirely respectable career at Montpellier, Napoli and Toulouse, retiring in 2004. Having been recruited by Ferguson for his ball-playing ability rather than for a no-nonsense approach, Prunier is in fact the template for future United signings like Laurent Blanc and Rio Ferdinand.
21 December 1996 – Manchester United 5-0 Sunderland
It might have set Manchester United on the trail of yet another title, but this game should be appreciated for what it means in just one respect. This was Eric Cantona’s finest moment of the season and gave fans something to remember him by, before they realised that this would his last season ever.
He has scored more important goals, and he has scored goals that came at times of greater pressure. But in this game, having been criticised for his recent form – and unbeknownst to the fans, realised his time was up – and with United 4-0, Cantona was able to effect something mesmeric. Starting a run from midfield after precise footwork to evade challenges, he played a 1-2 with Brian McClair and scored the most beautiful goal of his time at United. The celebration was understand and cool at the time, but is poignant in retrospect.
19 December 1998 Manchester United 2-3 Middlesbrough
Before Sven Goran Eriksson and before David Moyes, United had already replaced Alex Ferguson. For the game against Middlesbrough, United had Jimmy Ryan as their manager, replacing Ferguson, as he was at a funeral in Scotland.
United were without Jaap Stam, and a miserable defeat saw United in third place. Third place in the Premier League, without Ferguson, and without Stam. This was the eleventh consecutive game that United had failed to keep a clean sheet, and the game proved that they weren’t always able to keep coming back from the dead.
And so what happened next? They came back from the dead against Liverpool in the FA Cup. They came back from the dead as a 10-man team against Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final. They came back from the dead home and away to Juventus. They came back from the dead against Bayern Munich, winning the Champions League final in a manner that makes the hair stand up on the back of your balls.
13 December 2010 – Manchester United 1-0 Arsenal
In the recent past, and since then, and before then, Manchester United beat Arsenal because they had a mixture of physical flimsiness, too many bad players, and mental blocks against United. This match was no different.
The game was notable for one of the last hurrahs of Ji-Sung Park’s success as a defensive winger in the big games. Before anyone decides to launch a full-scale war at the term, ‘defensive winger,’ that’s what Park was, so there. A player regarded as hugely intelligent and disruptive (to the opposition) by Alex Ferguson and the rest of the coaching staff, it was Park who scored the only goal of the game.
With 20-year-old Wojciech Szczesny making his Premier League debut, United exploited the fact that Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie (when he was just a dirty bastard rather than our dirty bastard) were on the bench, and won the game to reclaim top spot and go on to win the league. Again.
26 December 2012 – Manchester United 4-3 Newcastle United
Whereas United under Moyes give up in the last 15 minutes, United under Ferguson used to win games. The previous winter Wayne Rooney had done something to ensure that some people watched a bereft United lose at home to a terrible Blackburn Rovers, in an Irish pub on New Year’s Day, a pub that smelt of piss at the start of the game and piss and disappointment at the end.
But last season, United got Robin van Persie and had a will to win that compensated for one of the most imbalanced squad in recent history. James Perch scored after four minutes, but then Jonny Evans equalised, and then scored an own goal. Patrice Evra, still yet to receive an apology for being racially abused by Luis Suarez (and he’s still waiting), scored United’s second equaliser. But Papiss Cisse scored to put Newcastle ahead until van Persie popped up with another equaliser.
In the last minute of the game, Michael Carrick – now apparently dissatisfied with Moyes and certainly out of form under him – slid the ball through to Javier Hernandez – not apparently dissatisfied with Moyes and certainly out of form under him – finished from close range to put United on course for their last title for some time to come (possibly). It’s games like this that make you realise what United lost in Ferguson. For all his faults – and there were plenty – United scored in the last minute, United had determination, United had an aura of success and all the players tried for the manager. Treasure matches like this, because there’s no way of knowing when they’ll be back.