Manchester United's mad 1999 trip to Australia: all-nighters and dirty Dwight Down Under

Manchester United Australia tour

Picture the scene: you’ve just won the Treble, you’re 10,000 miles from home and Steve McClaren has been left in charge. The chief protagonists relive the craziest of pre-season jollies 

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“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.

Chasing the cash

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.

"Who are you then?"

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.”