Years from now, when you lie dying on your deathbed surrounded by beautiful grandkids in your gold-plated mansion, there’s a good chance your final moments won’t be spent reliving United’s 2-1 win over Leicester City in 2018.
While the Reds’ opening-day victory was certainly a welcome one, especially after the summer soap opera, it was hardly a win that will be remembered – except for one thing. Paul Labille Pogba’s penalty – sorry Luke, but not every full back’s first United goal is etched into memory, just ask Paul Parker.*
Pogba’s penalty may not have dampened the flames of the raging fire between him and the manager but it was memorable in that not only was it a completely bonkers way to take a penalty, it also gave the most-talked about footballer on the planet a goal after just two minutes.
There was a time when United were as renowned for winning and converting penalties as Boris Johnson is for being a gobshite, but those days seem as distant as Fergie’s touchline grandad-like celebration now. Thankfully I’ve compiled a list of the top five Manchester United penalties of the Premier League era – just to remind you that United not only used to win the lot, but do it by boiling as much piss as possible.
5. Eric Cantona vs Chelsea FA Cup final 1994. Second penalty. Why not the first?? I hear you cry. Well allow me to elucidate, after putting United one nil up in the cup final against a Chelsea side that had already beaten the Reds twice that season, Eric Cantona stepped up to take his second penalty of the afternoon. Chelsea skipper Dennis Wise offered Eric his second bet of the day as he whispered in the Frenchman’s ear “hundred quid says you miss it” doubling his initial fifty-pound bet. Eric had gone to Dmitri Kharine’s left for the first one. And with the pressure on, did so again, sending the Chelsea keeper the wrong way for the second time that day. 2-0 twenty minutes to go, Eric at his arrogant best, this game was over and it only got better as the Reds won 4-0 to lift their first-ever double. For sheer poetic Eric-ness it’s that second penalty sucking the life out of Chelsea with Gallic bravado that truly deserves its place in history.
4. Ruud van Nistelrooy vs Arsenal 2004.
“49, 49 undefeated” may just be one of the most cringe-worthy chants since that one comparing Phil Jones to Kun Aguero but it could have been a lot worse. Ruud van Nistelrooy’s penalty after Wayne Rooney was ‘fouled’ by Sol Campbell not only helped to end the Gunners record-breaking unbeaten run but gave the striker redemption from the previous year’s fixture, when he’d missed from the spot, leading to the infamous scenes of Martin Keown impersonating a sniffed-up gymnast with mental problems. It also helped Arsenal embark on a run without loss that the Premier League had never witnessed before, since and maybe never will. Thankfully Ruud wasn’t to be denied twice when the two sides met in October 2004, with Arsenal top of the league and United in sixth as Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea threatened to end the North London/Manchester axis of dominance.
As Rooney fell to the floor in the 73rd minute the pressure was on van Nistelrooy and he didn’t disappoint, burying his penalty before Rooney made sure of the win late on. After the game the two sides took part in what became known as the Battle of the Buffet as a food fight kicked off in the tunnel, yes, grown men having a food fight after a game of football. There are no words. More importantly than ending Arsenal’s winning run, Sir Alex Ferguson feels that day in October actually derailed Wenger’s career, claiming the loss “scrambled Wenger’s brain.” United eventually recovered from their mid-noughties slumber – lifting five titles in the next nine years, while Arsenal have never lifted the title since. And it’s all thanks to Ruud’s penalty.
3. Cristiano Ronaldo vs Wigan 2008.
In many ways it shows the ludicrous level of success achieved under Sir Alex Ferguson that a penalty that practically won the Reds the Premier League has been more or less forgotten about. While a 2-0 win away at Wigan is hardly what every United fan dreams of, Ronaldo’s penalty at the DW for the final league game of the season in 2008 helped the Reds get one hand on the trophy and set them on the path to a historic double. Ryan Giggs sealed the win with a well taken goal in the second half as United finished two points above Avram Grant’s Chelsea side, before embarking on a trip to Moscow and a date with destiny…
2. Eric Cantona vs Liverpool 1995.
A penalty that seals a draw against a side that would finish the season eleven points behind United hardly seems like one deserving of a place in history but in many ways it represented a reassertion of the established Premier League order. When Eric Cantona stopped on his way off the pitch at Selhurst Park for a quick debate around racial harmony with a friendly Palace fan, it could very well have signalled the end of United’s 90s dominance.
Had Eric left football to pursue poetry, painting or maybe a professional kung-fu career, the Reds would have lost the talisman who Sir Alex wisely built his team around. But thankfully Eric stayed. It wasn’t just the fact he stayed that mattered, when he returned from his ban – amazingly they banned him for kicking seven shades of sh*t out of said Palace fan – he faced a Liverpool side threatening to become the new force in English football.
While United had their Class of 92, the Reds of Merseyside had a group of young players that little bit more experienced who by rights should have been challenging for titles for years to come. United had Paul Scholes, David Beckham et al, Liverpool had Steve McManaman, Jamie Redknapp, Jason McAteer, Stan Collymore and Robbie Fowler. It was a group of young players that threatened to bring the title back to Merseyside after a six-year hiatus and keep it there, but thankfully from United’s point of view, the team lacked discipline off the pitch and a true leader on it. While United had Cantona – hell bent on regaining the title that had been denied him not on a playing field, but in an office. When Eric stepped up to equalise from the spot in the 71st minute it signalled the return of the King, the end of the young Scouse pretenders and a big step to the double winning season that announced Sir Alex’s second great United side.
1. John Terry vs United 2008.
Okay so technically it’s not a United penalty it’s a Chelsea one, but it’s my list and if you don’t like it you can make your own. A rain soaked Luzhniki, a missed Ronaldo penalty, a series of converted Chelsea ones, John Terry stepping up, straightening his captain’s armband, Ballack celebrating, Rio pointing, van Der Sar going the wrong way, Terry slipping, the ball hitting the outside of the post, tears, cheers, more penalties, van Der Sar saving from Anelka (was he smiling as he saved it? I’m sure he was), United victorious, more Terry tears, Sir Bobby Charlton on hand to celebrate 50 years after Munich, Sir Alex grinning, United players running, more rain, more celebrations, more tears, Viva John fucking Terry!
*Paul Parker’s first ever goal for United – in fact his only league one for the Reds– came against Spurs at Old Trafford.