“The trip to Australia in 1999 remains one of the greatest I’ve ever undertaken,” remembers Dwight Yorke, a broad smile spread across his face. “And it was made extra special for me by meeting the most extraordinarily beautiful girl it has ever been my pleasure to know.”
Most of his former team-mates grin and agree that Manchester United’s pre-season trip Down Under was their best ever. Of course, when United fans recall 1999, the glorious Treble is first on the list, replete with images of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s extended toe winning the Champions League in the last minute against Bayern Munich in Barcelona. That famous night saw Sir Alex Ferguson, along with great players like Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane and Jaap Stam, win Europe’s biggest prize for the first time.
What few people remember is that United’s next game was at Melbourne’s MCG two months later, the first of a four-game pre-season global tour which also took in money-spinning matches in Sydney, Shanghai and Hong Kong. With United’s stock at an all-time high, the average crowds were a staggering 80,000 across the games.
Pre-season trips to Asia had become bi-annual events as United tried to cash in on their global support, connecting with fans from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, yet they had never played Australia’s biggest venues before.
The Reds had gone to Oz four times previously in the ’60s and ’70s, staying on one trip in the unpretentious Coogee Bay Hotel in Sydney, where United’s legendary Scottish midfielder Pat Crerand awoke to find a thief in his room. Maintaining his status as the team’s hard man, he shouted, “Come here, you bastard!” and gave chase in his pyjamas.
The robber sprinted off with his $200 bounty before he stopped, looking Crerand in the eyes, to reveal a revolver by his waist. “Come any closer and I’m going to kill you,” he told the player. Crerand chased no more and the incident remains his strongest memory of Australia.
Most of United’s feted ’90s stars had never ventured so far, and were initially lukewarm about the idea of travelling to the other side of the world to play friendly matches. Yet United had accepted a reported $3.1m (£2m) from controversial entrepreneur Rene Rivkin to play two games, one at the MCG and another at Stadium Australia.
There are few cities on Earth further from Manchester than Melbourne, but the club saw it as an opportunity to cash in, and the United players arrived in the Victoria capital on three separate flights (bizarrely, for insurance purposes) to be greeted by a huge red billboard proclaiming: ‘Melbourne welcomes Manchester United’. The club’s arrival made headline news as pictures of the tanned and tired players filled the local newspapers.
There were some local issues, though. Rivkin had all the promotional rights and ignored the requests of United’s 600-strong supporters’ club in Victoria in favour of a cringeworthy question-and-answer session in the vast Crown hotel, where the job of introducing the players was given to someone who had no idea who they were.
“And who are you then?” the announcer asked a mortifyingly embarrassed Solskjaer, the man who’d scored the most famous goal in world football that year. Aside from that, the players found Australia very agreeable, even in mid-winter.
“A top, top trip,” remembers striker Andrew Cole. “I’ve travelled the world and I’ve never been anywhere as good as Australia in 1999. It may have been a long way to travel, but the football was good; the competition far higher than we usually got. Sydney and Melbourne were fantastic cities and it was an honour to play in the MCG and Sydney’s Olympic Stadium a year before the Olympics.
“I’m from a big cricket family and my dad, who is from Jamaica, has never seen me play a game of football in my life – but when I told him that I’d played at the MCG he was well impressed. The only problem was that he thought I’d played cricket!”
It was a pleasant surprise for the players. United’s last two long-distance tours had been to Asia, and such was the fan hysteria that the players could barely leave their hotel rooms.
“I always knew that United were popular, but it was another thing to see it with your own eyes and it wasn’t always a good thing,” remembers midfielder Nicky Butt. “I liked the tours when I was younger. I was away with my mates and we’d have free nights to enjoy ourselves, but towards the end of my time at United it was crap. Becks had it worse than anyone. We’d be in a hotel for 10 days and weren’t allowed out for our own safety.”
At one hotel in Thailand in 1997, Butt returned from a training session attended by 30,000 to be met by a flag reading: ‘Nicky Butt – you are my god’. “I still get letters from people in Thailand,” he reveals. “It was mad over there. We couldn’t even leave the floor our rooms were on and there had to be security on each floor.”
Australia was different. The United players were barely recognised when they walked around the city centres, but there was another significant reason why the players enjoyed themselves so much: Sir Alex Ferguson. Or rather, the absence of Sir Alex Ferguson.
The United manager’s achievements that year earned him a knighthood, the presentation of which caused him to miss the Australian leg of the tour. He had an appointment with the Queen, while United’s most high-profile player, David Beckham, was also absent. Having just got married to Victoria, he wouldn’t be in Victoria (hold the jokes, please).
That left recently-appointed assistant manager Steve McClaren at the helm. “Steve was in charge, and while we respected him, we took absolute liberties,” recalls Cole. “We just weren’t scared of him like we were with the manager. He gave us curfews but we just ignored them. He’d only been at the club for six months and hadn’t built up the authority to discipline us.”
United’s first game was in the MCG, capacity 95,000, against an under-strength Socceroos. A crowd of 1,500 watched United train the day before the match, many of them complaining about the high ticket prices of between $50 to $70 (between £30 and £50 today) set by Rivkin to recoup his outlay.
The controversial businessman was convicted of insider trading four years later in 2003 and took his own life in 2005, but he was happy then with the 70,000 crowd that turned up to see United triumph 2-0. The pitch cut up badly and stand-in United captain Denis Irwin (regular skipper Roy Keane was also absent from the trip) griped: “The surface was hardly conducive to good football. You needed three touches when normally you’d need just one, and that doesn’t help.”
The game also saw the debut of new United goalkeeper, Australian Mark Bosnich. “Bozza had taken the hardest job in football,” recalls Yorke, “which was following Peter Schmeichel. I knew Bozza was a big character who was up for the challenge and it was great to have my old Villa team-mate in the team.”
United flew north to Sydney on a luxury plane chartered by the promoter, where the players began to let their hair down. “We had a few good nights out and broke the curfew that had been put on us,” grins Butt. “We stayed out until four in the morning in Sydney at a big casino nightclub called Star City. I was with Giggsy and we were ducking and diving up and down fire escapes so that we didn’t get caught going back to our rooms late. We got away with it, but Yorkey and Bozza got caught coming in at five o’clock. They got bollocked.”
“There can't be anywhere on the planet with as many beautiful women as Australia,” adds Yorke, who unsurprisingly joined Sydney FC in 2005. “We’d been under a strict lockdown in Melbourne, with no visitors allowed and security guards stationed in the lifts just to make sure. I had to beat security with the oldest trick in the book – bribery – to sneak a girl into my room.”
By Sydney, Yorke was again ignoring the curfews and returning home very late. United had a training session at the Olympic Stadium the following day. “We were stretching on the pitch, then I heard someone snoring,” recalls Butt. “It was Yorkey. He’d fallen asleep. We were all giggling, but no one woke him up. He was fast asleep, but he was still sat up. After four or five minutes of stretching we got up to jog, leaving Yorkey asleep in the middle of the field.”
Cole tried to help his strike partner out. “I was shouting, ‘Yorkey! Yorkey! Yorkey!’” he says. “He made a bit of a noise as if he’d heard us, but he was comatose.”
“Yorkey snoozing in the middle of the Olympic Stadium remains the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in football,” laughs Butt. “The story got back to the manager, who came out to meet us a few days later in Hong Kong. He went nuts.”
“I’m lucky that I don’t get hangovers,” laughs Yorke, “but after 20 minutes my head was starting to spin. I was relieved when we started to do some stretches and thought I’d take the opportunity of lying down for a minute to stretch. Big mistake. Within two seconds I was fast asleep. The next thing I knew I was being drenched with water and I woke to find the lads killing themselves with laughter.
Sydney offered even more delights. “We were invited on Rivkin’s big yacht in Sydney Harbour,” remembers Cole. “You don’t always have the time to reflect when you’re a footballer, but I was looking at the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House thinking, ‘How lucky am I that being good at football has given me this?’”
Cole’s sunny mood would darken following the Sydney game, which United won 1-0, again against the Socceroos. The crowd of 78,000 ensured that Rivkin made a profit and his audacious gamble paid off, but the game is chiefly remembered for a poor challenge by Cole on Simon Colosimo.
“It all went wrong,” recalls Cole. “I was involved in a challenge with a young player. The ball was in the air and I was watching it. The next thing I knew the player was underneath me and I was somehow standing on him. He got a serious injury.”
Colosimo was stretchered off, having torn his anterior cruciate and medial ligaments – an injury which would keep him out for nine months.
“Everyone accused me of doing him on purpose,” says Cole. “I didn’t. The media was in my case, as were some of the Australian players. Emotions were running high and they were accusing me of ‘doing’ a fellow professional. I wasn't that kind of footballer. Look at the rest of my career. Was I a dirty player? No. Was I interested in being a dirty player on a pre-season game? No.
“I tried to contact the player, but he didn’t want to speak to me. I tried to reason with some of his team-mates but they were having none of it. I heard recently that he was still playing and I was pleased about that. I would have hated to have stopped someone making a career.”
One United player would also come to badly rue the injury he picked up on the tour. Sweden international Jesper Blomqvist had signed for United at the start of the Treble-winning season a year earlier for £4.4m from Italian club Parma, but he was desperately low on confidence.
He admitted being so overwhelmed before the Champions League final that when he knew he was starting, he sat in his hotel room overlooking the sea south of Barcelona and wrote a list to coach himself. “It said: ‘You can do it... You are faster than the rest... You are in good shape...’” Blomqvist revealed.
It was a tactic he had used before to self-motivate. Now he was using it to conquer his overpowering pre-match nerves. The new season would, he hoped, present the opportunity for a fresh start. “I felt great that summer,” he says. “Some players like Dwight Yorke can arrive at a club and settle straightaway. I needed more time to build relationships with people. But after the Treble win I felt sure of myself and settled at United.
"I felt that the coach and the rest of the group believed in me. I was ready to move on another step because United fans had not seen the best of me. In Melbourne, I scored a great goal and believed I was on my way. Then my knee swelled up in Hong Kong. That was the beginning of the troubles.”
Blomqvist’s voice trails off and he sighs. “Everything was very difficult from then on. I had an operation, but I couldn’t run properly. I just thought it was another little injury but it became a series of operations. After a while I became afraid.” Blomqvist’s career soon tailed off, and he was back playing in Sweden before his 30th birthday.
After the victory in Sydney, the United team went out in the city to celebrate. On a high-scoring night off the pitch, Yorke was in his element in a nightclub surrounded by beautiful women. “I was on the lookout for one in particular who I’d been told would be there – Gabby Richens, one of the hottest babes in Australia,” smiles Yorke.
“She was also known as ‘the Pleasure Machine’, a nickname she got from an airline advertising campaign in which she had steamed up the screens with a striptease. When I saw her, I was transfixed. There was no time like that moment to approach her.”
Yorke and Richens hit it off and swapped numbers. The following night, he dodged another hotel curfew and arranged for her to pick him up at the back entrance of the players’ hotel, after which she showed him the sights of Sydney. He was “pleasantly surprised” when she agreed to come back to his hotel – as was the security at the hotel employed to make sure that no guests were brought back.
“Listen, mate,” Yorke explained to the guard. “I’ve got Gabby coming up.” “Oh yeah?” he said. “Gabby who?” “You know, the Pleasure Machine.”
Yorke claims the guard’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. “I gave him a hundred US dollars but I would have parted with a year’s win bonuses if necessary,” he adds. “We had a spectacular night until she left at 6am.”
United headed to Hong Kong to finish their tour later that day. Yorke has never stopped smiling since about his experiences in Australia. “The summer of 1999?” he says. “Unforgettable. Simply unforgettable.”
This feature originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of FourFourTwo.
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