On Saturday, Tottenham Hotspur ended a 23 year drought by beating Manchester United at Old Trafford in the league, securing the points with a 3-2 victory. In the Premiership era, their record on that ground in twenty games had been drawn three, lost seventeen, so few fans held much hope going into this weekend’s encounter. However, Andre Villas-Boas sent out a team that did not appear to be weighed down with history, as they dominated the opening forty-five minutes and made their more illustrious opponents appear ordinary. In particular, Sandro and Dembele controlled the midfield, using a mix of strength, agility and desire to outplay Giggs, Scholes and Carrick, and set the tempo for the first half.
Because of injuries to Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Kyle Naughton, centre-back Jan Vertonghen was forced to fill in at left-back and he made his mark from that position within the first two minutes – picking up a pass from Gareth Bale just inside the United half and ending his run with a deflected shot past Anders Lindergaard to give Tottenham an early lead. That advantage was doubled in the 32nd minute, when an attack by the home side was broken up by a strong tackle by Sandro on the edge of his own penalty area, the Brazilian then passed the ball out to Dembele, who pushed forward before releasing Gareth Bale and the Welshman’s pace took him past the Manchester United defence, allowing him to finish off the move clinically with his weaker right foot.
By half-time, United looked shell-shocked, they had managed only a single shot on target and had been unable to gain control of the match, looking nothing like the side who had missed out on the title last season on goal difference alone. For Tottenham fans everywhere, memories of the collapse at White Hart Lane in 2001 – 11 years to the day before this encounter – when Spurs had led 3-0 at half-time only to lose 5-3, and the 5-2 reverse at Old Trafford in 2009, after they had enjoyed a two goal advantage, tempered the excitement that would normally come from their first-half display. After the interval, Sir Alex Ferguson introduced Wayne Rooney from the bench, the striker coming on for the anonymous Ryan Giggs (this time not via a super-injunction) and the change made an almost immediate impact. In the 51st minute, Rooney played in a low cross from the right which Nani converted to make the score 2-1, giving that sinking feeling to the Tottenham faithful that they were about to witness another United comeback. However, within a minute, Gareth Bale was marauding into the home side’s penalty area and hit a shot that Lindegaard could only parry into the direction of Clint Dempsey, giving the American an easy finish for his first goal for Spurs. The sigh of relief for the away supporters lasted about as long as a breath does because, almost immediately, Shinji Kagawa wriggled free in the box and slotted the ball past Brad Friedel, to cut the deficit back to one.
For the rest of the match, Manchester United huffed and they puffed, but they could not break down a stubborn Tottenham defence. Wayne Rooney came closest – striking the middle of the post with a free-kick – and Michael Carrick hit the bar with a header, but Ferguson’s men could not grab an equaliser. Robin Van Persie – the former Arsenal captain, who is therefore strongly disliked by Tottenham fans – had a great chance to draw his new team level, but dragged his shot badly wide. The home fans were getting desperate and every time a player fell in the box, or a ball was near a Spurs player’s arm, shouts would go up for a penalty – but referee Chris Foy did not agree and Manchester United failed to get a chance from 12 yards for the first time in four league games. After four long minutes of stoppage time – which Sir Alex did not consider adequate despite the breakneck, non-stop pace of the game – the full-time whistle went and Tottenham had ended their long wait for success at Old Trafford.
The last time Spurs had won away at Manchester United – 1-0 in December 1989 with Gary Lineker scoring the winner – I was just 8 years old; Gareth Bale was six months; and the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were all still countries that existed in the world. In the time I had a season ticket at Tottenham, I got to watch them beat: Everton; Liverpool; Manchester City; Fulham; Newcastle; West Ham; Sunderland; Aston Villa; Wigan; Southampton; Cardiff; Wolves; Birmingham; Crystal Palace; Portsmouth; Nottingham Forest; Middlesbrough; Watford Braga; Slavia Prague and Bayer Leverkusen (plus several more teams I’m not remembering). Eventually, I got to see us break our hoodoo against Chelsea, when Spurs beat them 2-1 at the Lane on November 5th, 2006 (and no, I did not need to look up the date of that…). But I never saw us beat Manchester United or Arsenal. After I had moved away and had given up my season ticket, Tottenham beat Arsenal for the first time in a decade and have since enjoyed more success against our arch-rivals. Yet, they could not get it done against the most successful team in the Premiership era, as they had not won against them – even at home – since 2001. Twenty-two games later – including the 5-3 and 5-2 losses, not to mention the Pedro Mendes non-goal match – finally Spurs beat United.
More importantly than the win and the three points – which has moved Tottenham up to fifth place in the early Premiership table – it was the first time all season that they had played like the Spurs I know and love. Even if the game had ended in defeat, at least Villas-Boas sent out a side that looked hungry and wanted to attack, rather than the passive, indifferent performances they had given in the opening five fixtures of the campaign. Up next in the league is a home game against a struggling Aston Villa team, it is crucial that Tottenham keep up the momentum they gained from this victory and put in a performance with similar desire and passion in a slightly less glamorous match.
Even if they do not, we will always have Manchester.