29 games. 288 days. Three major trophies.
When Manchester United headed to Stamford Bridge on October 3rd 1999 all of the above had been experienced, celebrated and savoured at Old Trafford since Sir Alex Ferguson and co. last tasted defeat - a 3-2 loss at home to Middlesbrough in December of the previous year.
Within 27 seconds of Dermot Gallagher blowing his whistle on an autumnal afternoon in west London, United were behind. They never recovered.
Massimo Taibi had never expected to be playing for Manchester United. If it wasn’t for decisions made and injuries suffered hundreds of miles away from his Venice home he never would have done. Deemed not good enough by AC Milan on two occasions, he swapped mid-table life in Serie A for the champions of Europe for a fee of £4.5 million.
Taibi didn’t speak English, so the club got a local Italian restaurant owner to bark translated instructions pitchside. He wore baggy tracksuit bottoms, with his luminescent yellow jersey tucked into them.
In his third game for United, Taibi fumbled a Matt Le Tissier daisycutter, and let it squirm through his legs. The Sun labelled him the ‘Blind Venetian’. Already fighting to keep alive an improbable dream, he came into Chelsea away as eager to make amends as he was under pressure.
When Dan Petrescu floated an unthreatening ball towards the edge of the box, a goalkeeper in possession of confidence and experience would not have hesitated to stay put and let Dennis Irwin deal with things.
Taibi rushed out, clattered Irwin and Gus Poyet nodded into what must have seemed an inexplicably empty net before the game was a minute old. “What a start to this match!” roared Andy Gray, on commentary duty for Sky.
Taibi never played for United again.
If one man on the pitch that day could have empathised with the Italian it was probably Chris Sutton. Signed for £10 million from Blackburn that summer, Sutton was the third most expensive domestic transfer of all time. Come October, he was yet to get off the mark in the league, and Chelsea fans were voicing their displeasure.
In the 16th minute, Albert Ferrer looped the ball in from the same side and angle Petrescu had. This time Taibi stayed rooted to the goal line. Sutton got the wrong side of Henning Berg, rose serenely into the air, and his header drifted slowly past a despairing Taibi. Chelsea fans in the ground apparently cried “about time!”
Sutton never scored a Premier League goal for Chelsea again.
With 20 minutes passed, an already livid Ferguson checked his watch, and jogged from his seat in the stands to pitchside. From there he saw his team implode.
Dennis Wise ‘challenged’ Nicky Butt in a 50/50 with his boot raised. As Butt lay prone on the turf with Wise slouched over him, Wise remarked, “That hurt didn’t it, you ginger bastard?” Butt responded by kneeing Wise in the midriff, and getting a red card. Ferguson later commented that Wise could start a row in an empty house.
Butt’s crime wasn’t as bad as Paul Scholes’ though, who planted his studs into Sutton’s thigh and kicked the striker as he writhed in pain on the floor. He’d get his first booking 30 minutes later for two-footing Petrescu.
A United side that had not lost for 10 months disintegrated.
Soon Poyet had a second, and again Taibi could have done better. The ‘keeper parried a Frank Leboeuf effort that was straight at him to the delighted Uruguayan. An apoplectic Ferguson seethed silently from the sideline, his half-time words for once falling on deaf ears.
Berg slid a low Gianfranco Zola cross into his own net as the tragicomedy continued. A delirious atmosphere took hold at Stamford Bridge - it was as if the school bully had visibly soiled himself on stage for all to see.
With 10 minutes left in the game 20-year-old Jody Morris, on as a substitute, found himself in almost unfathomable space in the box and fired in through Taibi’s legs. As he was embraced by his teammates, Morris mimed himself playing a trumpet. It was all a bit surreal. United had been utterly humiliated.
Chelsea ended the weekend just two points behind the holders, with two games in hand and already four strikes ahead on goal difference. Match-goers say there was a real air of belief that day, that a guard had changed and anything was possible for Gianluca Vialli’s charges. Even the UK number one single at the time was a song called ‘Blue’.
But it hadn’t. United went on to win the second of three consecutive titles and Chelsea finished a disappointing 5th. Vialli was sacked five games into the following season, whilst Ferguson managed at Old Trafford for a further 14 years.
What is striking is how few casualties there were from United’s capitulation. Ferguson did not lose trust in players who had already delivered for him, and his team proved to be as resolute as he was. Taibi was immediately binned, and Berg left at the end of the season, but most players went on to have long and illustrious careers with The Reds.
Chelsea would have to wait for Roman Abramovich’s money and five seasons before they could celebrate the title it looked like they might in 2000 on that day in October. Of that matchday squad, only Celestine Babayaro and Carlo Cudicini were still around then. They made a combined seven Premier League appearances that season, and neither was given a winners medal.
Morris will line up as Chelsea’s assistant manager in October as United visit again, 20 years after their ‘99 nightmare. In the other dugout will be Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, on the bench that day as well. When remembering the match in 2016, Morris was succinct: “It was a good 'un, this one”.
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