During a time when Manchester United dominated the Premier League landscape, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side could never be written off.
Ferguson had instilled a will-to-win and character into his title-collecting side that meant comebacks and late winners had become a common occurrence. Even by their standards however, a turnaround at Tottenham in 2001/02 was something else.
Manchester United had began the season as defending champions, in search of becoming the first English team to win four consecutive top-flight titles. The first of those had come as part of a historic treble, while the second was earned with a then-record 18-point margin from runners-up Arsenal.
United were unquestionably the Premier League’s best, but their latest defence had seen fragilities exposed.
Ferguson’s team had kept only one clean sheet from their first six games, a run which had included a 4-3 defeat to Newcastle at St James’ Park. On the road their record had also been questioned, without a win in three Premier League away games, while defeat in the Charity Shield added further to the narrative that all was not well.
The trip to Tottenham was another game in which defensive issues were evident, as the north Londoners ran riot in a one-sided first half. Dean Richards marked his debut for Spurs with the opening goal, as the defender got away from Ruud van Nistelrooy to glance home Christian Ziege’s corner kick at the near post.
Soon, Spurs were two ahead. Les Ferdinand beat the offside trap and flashed a low effort past Fabien Barthez into the far corner. As good as Spurs had been, the visitors had been awful.
The third goal arrived on the stroke of half-time, with pedestrian defending from United allowing Gus Poyet to wander onto a loose ball and cross towards the back post. Arriving unmarked was Ziege, who headed home to send Spurs into dreamland and into half-time three goals to the good.
It ain’t over till the fat lady sings, or so we’re told, and while she was not quite bursting into song, the vocal cords were certainly being warmed back stage.
Spurs had been rampant, while United had looked anything but Premier League champions.
Ferguson was no stranger to turning team talks into tirades and perhaps even a fly on the dressing room wall would have made a swift exit to avoid the Scot’s scorn. Within seconds of the restart the visitors had a lifeline, as Andy Cole guided Gary Neville’s cross past Neil Sullivan.
At no point was this a game that could be called an even contest. Spurs had swaggered into a three-goal first-half lead, but were shaken in the second. Cole’s goal had appeared to unnerve the north Londoners and that apprehension turned to panic as Laurent Blanc powered home a second United goal.
Within four minutes of Blanc’s bullet from David Beckham’s corner, Manchester United were level. Mikael Silvestre – on as a half-time substitute – fired over a first-time cross and Ruud van Nistelrooy arrived to nod home. Three headers. Three goals. 3-3.
United smelt blood, and by now the champions were in full groove. The turnaround was complete after a fine team goal, one which saw Paul Scholes and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer combine before Juan Sebastien Veron fired home.
Solskjaer was not on the scoresheet, but the Norwegian had been crucial to the comeback. Introduced five minutes before the break after Nicky Butt’s rib injury, he was at the centre of a team transformed.
A shellshocked Spurs could do little as Beckham blasted in a fifth unanswered second-half goal for the visitors, a sweetly struck effort that served as salt to north London wounds.
“As they traipsed into the dressing room, three goals down, the players were braced for a rollicking,” Ferguson recalled in his autobiography.
“Instead I sat down and said: ‘Right, I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. We’re going to score the first goal in this second half and see where it takes us. We get at them right away, and we get the first goal.’
“Teddy [Sheringham, the former United striker] was the Tottenham captain and, as the teams emerged back into the corridor, I saw Teddy stop and say: ‘Now, don’t let them get an early goal.’ We scored in the first minute.
“You could see Spurs deflate while we puffed ourselves up… just incredible.”
United’s comeback was not enough to propel them to another Premier League crown, as the club’s defensive issues allowed Arsenal to claim the title.
It was, however, emblematic of an era in which Ferguson’s team never quite knew when they were beaten. In a catalogue of comebacks and thrilling turnarounds, their White Hart Lane revival ranks near the very top.