To mark the 10th anniversary of RoM, there will be several articles remembering some of the best moments for Manchester United fans over the past decade. Dan Stapleton has spoken about one of his favourite memories.
The news filters through that Bolton have equalised at Stamford Bridge. United have been handed a lifeline on this day of judgment in the title race. An Alan Stubbs free-kick had deflected off Michel Carrick and past Edwin van der Sar to give Everton the lead early on in the game and United have looked ineffective ever since. They need the helping hand from their north-west rivals at Chelsea. No sooner has the news of Bolton’s goal reached both the stands and the bench than Manuel Fernandes, with one swing of his right foot, fires Everton two in front.
The whole season had been building toward that day. Manchester United, having won eight of the first eleven Premier League titles, had now gone three seasons without lifting the trophy. The season had started with uncertainty over Cristiano Ronaldo’s future after his part in Portugal’s victory over England in the quarter finals of that summer’s World Cup. Sir Alex Ferguson had managed to diffuse the situation and get rid of any animosity that might have been boiling between the Portuguese and his club team-mate Wayne Rooney. The two had combined well over the season and had provided many of the season’s turning points.
It was Ronaldo’s solo goal at Fulham two months prior that had won a game in which United had looked second best in the 88th minute. It was his free-kick in front of the Kop a few weeks later that was deflected in the direction of John O’Shea and the Irishman struck to put United 12 points clear of second-placed Chelsea. But since Anfield, United had struggled and been dropping points, the lowest ebb coming in a defeat at Fratton Park in which a previously in-sync Van der Sar and Rio Ferdinand had combined for the latter’s own goal in Portsmouth’s defeat of the Reds.
Yet despite stumbles in pursuit of the league title, United had really been impressing in Europe with the famous 7-1 defeat of Roma starting the month of April and they came into the Everton game off the back of an exhilarating victory over AC Milan in the home leg of the Champions League semi-final. Ronaldo sat on the bench at Goodison in preparation for the return leg at the San Siro the following Wednesday. To rest his star man for such an important league game was generally regarded as a gamble by Ferguson given that United’s lead at the top had been cut to just three points. With four games to go, including a trip to Stamford Bridge, this was a must-win.
Fernandes’ goal at the beginning of the second half felt like the end. Despite a season where last minute goals and comebacks had been relatively commonplace, United looked abject and out on their feet at Goodison. With Ferguson still effusing to budge and risk Ronaldo, the Reds needed a gift. They got on. Iain Turner, the Everton goalkeeper only brought in due to the ineligibility of on-loan Tim Howard, dropped a routine cross at the feet of O’Shea and the Irishman, just like he did on the other side of Stanley Park, poked the ball into the net to give United another lifeline.
Ronaldo, who had been pestering Ferguson to be involved all game, was promptly told to warm up and get stripped by the Scot. The 22 year old had been crowned both PFA Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year the previous Sunday and he immediately made his presence felt in the penalty box as Carrick’s corner found him and his header was parried by Turner into the path of ex-Red Phil Neville who contrived to turn the ball into his own net. This extraordinary turn of events left United with the impetus and they turned the screw. With twelve minutes to go and after several chances at both ends, Tony Hibbert found himself under an awful lot of pressure from United’s high front line. Hibbert gifted the ball to Ronaldo 25 yards from goal and, after feinting to shoot, found O’Shea on the right wing and his cross deflected into the path of Rooney, who calmly brought the ball under control, turned a flailing Hibbert and slotted the ball past Turner to put United in front against his old club.
A few sticky moments are seen through by the Reds as squeaky bum time really comes to the fore but a lot of the nerves are alleviated as the news comes through that Chelsea have dropped two vital points at home. A wildly gesturing Ferguson tries to get that message across to the players but late substitute Chris Eagles is put through and calmly places the ball into the bottom corner to emphasise what an extraordinary day it has turned out to be for the club.
A week later, a hard fought victory in the derby at Eastlands sends the team eight points clear at the top and Chelsea surrender the title the following day with a draw at the Emirates. Having not won the title in four years, reclaiming it had become an obsession amongst the United supporters and that Saturday afternoon at Goodison was the first time in those four years that they had begun to believe it really was going to happen. “And now you’re gonna believe us..”