After half-a-decade of unprecedented triumph and jubilation, Man United fans demand yet more success. The gut-wrenching defeat against the mighty Barcelona side in this year’s UCL final has put a shadow of displeasure amongst the United faithful. The sight of a 69-year old Alex Ferguson sitting in the dugout with trembling hands, seconds before the final whistle, was a sight that no United supporter would ever forget. Although the pain of the defeat subsided, the sad sight of our beloved manager irked like a dagger through the heart.
Still, one cannot lose sight of the progress our side has made in the recent past. It wasn’t always this bright and it won’t always remain this brilliant. Perspective is needed now than ever before, as the present day scenario is like a dream, compared to the situation back in the summer of ’06.
Let’s transport ourselves 5 years back and see how it all looked like:
Chelsea’s domination looked ominous
The “Roman Abramovich revolution” at Chelsea was in full bloom for two years in succession when they swept all in their wake. United, on the other hand, had gone three years without winning the league title, and to be fair, Man United hadn’t even come close. The Mourinho-led mechanical Chelsea had dismantled the competition to a one-horse race and our proud club was relegated to the honor of competing for the runners up spot.
On the European front, there was light at the other end of the tunnel but only of an incoming train. Sir Alex for the first time looked devoid of ideas, as Manchester United finished bottom of their Champions’ league group for the first time ever. Needless to say the murmurs amongst fans and critics grew louder than ever before.
Legends bid adieu
However, that wasn’t even close to being the end of the Devils’ woes as inspirational captain Roy Keane and the club parted ways in bitter fashion. The separation’s effects were felt off the pitch as well as on it, as United had to make do with O’shea and Giggs in central midfield for a few games.
Things usually get worse before they eventually get any better, in United’s case it couldn’t be more true. United’s leading light, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, had a rift with the club and Ferguson showed him the door; much to the horror of United fans. 150 Goals for the Old Trafford club in five jaw-dropping years at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’. How Fergie could ever let him go and not replace him with any striker of note was the question on every Red Devil’s lip. More than the goals, Rudd was a fan favorite. He was the pied piper of the Red Army. ‘RVN’ had made himself indispensible to the United cause.
No Rudd, no Keano and no big name arrivals - back then, the fans had every reason to worry. Although Michael Carrick was signed by the club, it didn’t bring much joy among the fans as they had their hearts set on a big name arrival ala Gattuso.
The two-time defending champions Chelsea, on the other hand, bought stars to further dazzle their fans with excitement. German captain and midfielder Michael Ballack and Ukrainian striker Andriy Shevchenko arrived amongst much fan fare to further strengthen the already-strong Chelsea squad and send their competitors in a state of insomnia. How one could ever compete with Chelsea was a mystery back then.
The Rooney- Ronaldo conflict
As United fans were trying to get on with their business and concentrate on the season ahead, further blows were dealt and this time it threatened to derail United’s season even before a ball had been kicked. United were banking heavily on their two R’s – Rooney and Ronaldo – to lead them into a new dawn. However, in a World Cup knockout encounter during the summer, the two seemingly had a rift after the much-publicized “winking” episode. Ronaldo was held responsible for Rooney’s dismissal against Portugal and hence, for England’s exit from the World Cup.
The country was seething with anger and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo was the center of the storm. Ronnie would go on to get booed and jeered all around the British Isles throughout the season as the English refused to accept their country’s shortcomings, and found a convenient scapegoat. Rumor mills went overboard with news of Ronaldo’s refusal to comeback to Old Trafford after the World Cup fiasco. Could Rooney and Ronaldo co-exist, and if not, which one would Ferguson let go? Thankfully for the United faithful, the gaffer nipped the controversy in the bud and the Portuguese superstar returned back to England to carve his name amongst the greats of Old Trafford.
Final nail in the coffin
Just when fans thought the storm had past, the heavens opened up again. Scholes and Rooney were sent off in a preseason friendly in Amsterdam and despite the match not being a competitive game, the duo were banned from league games.
That was the prelude to the season 06-07. If that scared the fans into sleepless nights, then their worries surely weren’t unwarranted. It all seemed genuinely dark back then, but things were set right only 5 minutes into the start of the campaign.
Let’s relive some memorable matches of one of the most exciting seasons in recent Manchester United history.
Man United 5-1 Fulham
After a turbulent prelude to the campaign and after all that could seemingly go wrong, went wrong, the first game of the season felt like an oasis in a desert. United unleashed the Rooney-Saha-Ronaldo trio on an unsuspecting Fulham side and the Londoners had no clue what him them. Old Trafford was rocking as the Red Devils put on a breathtaking display and surged into a 3-0 lead within the first quarter of an hour. Rooney and Ronaldo co-existed and how the smiles were back in the United camp. Best start by the club in 21 years, and for once, Mourinho’s Chelsea didn’t steal a march on Fergie’s United.
Liverpool 0-1 Man United
John O’shea will always be remembered for this - the perfect smash and grab job. United managed to keep Liverpool at bay as Van Der Sar made some stupendous saves. Peter Crouch thought he had given the Merseyside club the lead, only for the ‘Flying Dutchman’ to thwart his goal bound effort with a super save to savor. Paul Scholes was sent off for throwing his arm towards Xabi Alonso, although no contact was made as United looked to hang on for a precious point. In the dying embers of the game, the Red Devils won a free kick and with it, a chance to throw bodies into the Liverpool box. Ronaldo went for goal, but his shot was parried and O’shea slammed the ball into the Liverpool net in stoppage time. Wild celebrations followed as O’shea fulfilled one of Gary Neville’s lifelong dreams.
Fulham 1-2 Man United
The reverse fixture was an even more enthralling event than the one at Old Trafford on the opening day of the season. Brian McBride gave Fulham the lead after he made the most of some confusion in United’s box. VDS kept United in the game after Ryan Giggs had equalized off a brilliantly struck volley. As Fulham huffed and puffed for a winner, the Red Devils held firm. Finally, the Portuguese wizard picked up the ball in United’s half, ran down the left wing, skipped past Fulham players, left defenders in his wake and slotted the ball into the net. The ability to hit back on that day, after they had been under the cosh the whole afternoon, really marked them down as potential champions.
Tottenham 0-4 Man United
White hart lane was the venue and Man United were in red-hot form, as they decimated the Londoners in their own backyard. Cristiano Ronaldo was the architect once again; the Portuguese completely ran riot and poor old Spurs were left clueless. Goals from Ronaldo, Scholes, Vidic and Giggs had given Ferguson’s side a handsome lead and so the gaffer made all his three changes. However, Edwin Van Der Sar broke his nose and United were without any substitutions. But cometh the hour, cometh the O’shea! John O’shea stepped up and even made a brilliant save one-on-one against Robbie Keane as United’s bench smirked in delight.
Man United 4-1 Bolton Wanderers
Another breathtaking United display at the Theatre and another club left licking their wounds. This game, however, will always be remembered for “that” goal. This goal symbolized everything the club prides in - pure counter attacking football at its absolute best, with two of the club’s heart throbs at the heart of everything good. Rooney and Ronaldo showed how football is just a simple game and there is untold beauty in that simplicity.
Everton 2-4 Man United
Goodison Park is a tough place to get a result on the best of days, but when you are chasing a league title, it is the last place you can bank on to get the crucial three points. Chelsea were playing at the same time against Bolton at Stamford Bridge and as per normal routine, the Stamford Bridge club took the lead. United were two down after 50 minutes of the game, and the title looked to be slipping away as problems mounted in pursuit of the championship. United were dealt a life line when Everton’s stand-in goal keeper fumbled the ball and who else but John O’Shea poked it in! Ferguson threw caution to the wind and CR7 was summoned. Another corner kick, another goal, as Phil Neville scored for United in the blue half of Merseyside. With time running out, Wayne Rooney found the winner against his former club and news from Stamford Bridge almost handed United the title as Bolton came back to snatch a point. Ferguson and United reclaimed the summit when even the most ardent of Reds around the world had doubted them.