Manchester United, Southampton and a curse that goes beyond grey shirts

The Saints love to make life hell for The Red Devils.

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Manchester United travel to Southampton this weekend and, as is often the case with this fixture, you’ll likely hear pessimistic fans bring up the ‘grey shirt’ episode.

For those who don’t remember – which probably isn’t too many of you – Alex Ferguson blamed new grey shirts for United slipping to a 3-0 half-time deficit at Southampton’s old ground The Dell, and made the unprecedented step of getting his team to change clothes at the break.

However, to focus on that one game would ignore plenty of other slip-ups: few teams have registered great records against a United side with more Premier League titles than any other club, but Southampton have done better than might have been expected of a team with more finishes in the bottom half of the table than the top.

Seven wins from 38 games doesn’t sound impressive, but the stat includes some memorable victories, the most striking of which came just six months after that eventual 3-1 reverse.

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Having survived relegation on goal difference the previous season – helped in no small part by the win against United – Southampton brought in Graeme Souness as manager, giving the Scot licence to recruit a number of new faces. Two of them, Norwegian striker Egil Østenstad and Israeli playmaker Eyal Berkovic, put United to the sword in October.

This was the era of tucked-in shirts and enforced politeness, with Berkovic slamming home the opener inside the opening 10 minutes and racing to the touchline to celebrate without his red and white striped shirt moving an inch.

It felt like watching a perfectly put-together team of wait staff pull out the tablecloth from a banquet table and use it to whip the diners.

After an early red card for Roy Keane, Southampton ran riot. Østenstad scored a hat-trick while Berkovic added another of his own with a fantastic rising drive, but the pick of the goals came from Matt Le Tissier.

Having seen Newcastle’s Philippe Albert lift the ball over Peter Schmeichel the previous week, Le Tissier did the same to the United keeper. Ferguson’s side weren’t just being beaten, they were being humiliated.

The game ended 6-3 to Southampton – after all, a team with David Beckham free-kicks to call upon wasn’t going to draw a blank – but there’s something about 6-3 that feels a bit more of a humbling than a 5-2. What’s more, it wasn’t the only time in the 90s when United scored three against the south coast side and failed to win.

In September 1999, Schmeichel had moved to Sporting and the reigning treble winners were looking to find a long-term replacement. Mark Bosnich would play more than half of the games that season, but when Southampton came to Old Trafford the man in goal was Massimo Taibi.

The Italian had joined after impressing for Venezia in Serie A, and seemed a strong contender for the number one jersey when he put in decent performances against Liverpool and Wimbledon, but that soon changed.

Le Tissier didn’t catch his shot especially cleanly, and Taibi was right behind it. He took a moment to eye up the ball, positioned himself sensibly, and gathered the ball safely into his chest.

Wait, not that, the other thing. He opened up a wormhole in his body and let the ball slip through as he stared into the ground and prayed the TV cameras weren’t switched on.

In the 20 years since the Taibi game, United have been caused problems by Southampton on a few more occasions.

There was the Marian Pahars-inspired 2-1 victory in 2001, the third time the Latvian scored in his first four outings against United, and James Beattie’s late winner at the start of the 2003-04 season.

There have even been a couple of surprise wins at Old Trafford since the Saints’ return to the top-flight in 2012, with Charlie Austin popping up with a dramatic late winner during Louis van Gaal’s time in charge.

For all that though, Southampton are yet to beat United at home since moving to St Mary’s.

They came close in 2018, throwing away a two-goal lead in what proved to be Mark Hughes’ final game in charge, but haven’t been able to earn more than a point against the Red Devils.

Could 2019 be the year?

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