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Remembering Tottenham: William Prunier's United nightmare

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Come back in time to 1996, when Spurs ended the career of one of United's least celebrated defenders.

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Welcome to an occasional series in which tBB revisits a old match against whichever team Manchester United happen to be playing at the weekend. Today, Tottenham, and the end of a brief and ignominious United career ...

Odd things happen when United play Tottenham. Things like Gary Lineker scoring from outside the box, or Gazza getting sent off for dissent. Things like United roaring back from 3-0 down at half-time to win 5-3, or Roy Carroll making a perfectly comfortable, entirely routine, don't-know-what-you're-all-shouting-about save from Pedro Mendes. This is a fixture where the peculiar is never too far away.

On New Year's Day 1996, United travelled to White Hart Lane. Newcastle topped the table, but United were in second, and the gap, which had swollen to ten points on Boxing Day after United lost back-to-back away games at Elland Road and Anfield, was back down to four; United, in their previous game, had beaten Newcastle at Old Trafford. Spurs were having a decent season themselves: though Jurgen Klinsmann had moved on, Teddy Sheringham was flourishing behind Chris Armstrong, and when the calendar changed they were in fourth place, jostling with the pack for a UEFA Cup spot.

Should be a tight game then. And it might have been, except it wasn't: Spurs thumped United 4-1. The following day, Newcastle beat Arsenal 2-0 at home, and the gap was back up to seven points. Soon it would be twelve. And there could, Shirley, be no coming back from that.

What went wrong for United? Well, two things. Firstly, while there's no such thing as a close 4-1, this was definitely a close 4-1, and United created chances all through the game. Cantona had a header scrambled off the line at 0-0, Cole scored the equaliser seconds after United went behind, and at 3-1 Ian Walker made two excellent saves either side of another goalline clearance, before Andy Cole hooked a volley past the far post. Even after the fourth went in, United kept coming, and Cole had a remarkably dextrous overhead kick ruled out for a high foot.

The second thing is all wrapped up in the strange tale of William Prunier, a regular entrant in the inglorious competition that is Worst Manchester United Footballer Ever. Prunier came through Auxerre's academy alongside Eric Cantona and spent most of his career in Burgundy, a cultured, generally well-respected centre-half who picked up a solitary cap for France in 1992. How he found his way onto Ferguson's radar isn't quite clear, though it has been suggested that Cantona played a part behind the scenes.

But Prunier was a trialist; he wasn't really supposed to be playing in the first team at all. While United were definitely in need of defensive cover, since Gary Pallister had been laid up with back trouble since the end of November, he was only thrown into action after Steve Bruce and David May picked up injuries either side of Christmas. And while he did well in his first game against QPR at Old Trafford — "William Prunier becomes an instant hero of the Old Trafford hordes on a debut when he was in the mood to storm the Bastille," proclaimed the Independent, after he hit the bar and set up a goal for Andy Cole — Ferguson counselled caution:

We will play William [against Tottenham] and what we will see is how he defends away from home. There is always that thing about European defenders and how quickly they can pick up the pace. It's a far quicker tempo here ... I thought William improved as the game went on [but] Teddy Sheringham is more experienced and we will have a better idea after seeing that.

And see we did. United's defence on the day was weakened even further by the absence of Denis Irwin (suspended, we think), and so Prunier took to the field in North London with an out-of-favour Paul Parker at right back, a young Gary Neville alongside him in the centre, and an even younger Phil Neville at left back. To make matters worse, Peter Schmeichel was some way off full fitness: he couldn't take goal kicks, didn't do much diving in the first 45 minutes, and was replaced at half time by Kevin Pilkington.

That Prunier was rubbish that day is beyond contestation — the tone was set by his first touch, a crossfield pass to absolutely nobody — but so was everybody else, and they were all playing in a defence held together with sticky tape and crossed fingers. He was more-or-less blameless for the second and fourth goals, and while he was marking fresh air for Tottenham's opener, it came after Gary Neville had ambled out to the left flank and fallen over, while Schmeichel barely moved. Even the third owed as much to Neville the Younger losing his man for the knockdown as to Prunier's failure to track Chris Armstrong, though the Frenchman did fall rather splendidly onto his arse as the ball went in, which is never a good look.

Perhaps, in another universe, Prunier made his debut alongside Bruce, Irwin and a fully-fit Schmeichel, picked himself up a permanent contract, and made a handful of competent appearances over the next couple of seasons before retiring as a well-respected minor character in the great United saga. Instead, in this universe, he's generally regarded as a something of a joke, a frequent presence in comedy XIs and Worst Of lists. Even his appearance in Ferguson's second autobiography is less than flattering:

Patrice Evra, in that high-pitched way, said to me one day: 'Boss, did you have William Prunier?'

Ryan Giggs' face dropped as he waited for the response.

'Aye, we had him on trial once,' I snapped.

'On trial?' Evra squeaked back. He was not going to let it drop. 'How long?'

'Two games.'

'A two-game trial?'

'Yes, and it was a disaster!'

Prunier and United parted ways after this game; though Ferguson offered to extend his trial, perhaps out of pity, Prunier preferred to shuttle off to Denmark. Bruce and Pallister both returned from injury the following week, and United only lost one more game before the end of the season, as Kevin Keegan melted down, Newcastle stumbled, and United collected the double. A happy ending, then, if not for the star of the show. Au revoir, William. We hardly knew you.

United: Peter Schmeichel, Paul Parker, William Prunier, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, David Beckham, Roy Keane, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona, Andy Cole

Goals: Cole 36'

Tottenham: Ian Walker, Dean Austin, Colin Calderwood, Sol Campbell, Justin Edinburgh, Darren Caskey, Stuart Nethercott, Ronny Rosenthal, Ilie Dumitrescu, Teddy Sheringham, Chris Armstrong

Goals: Sheringham 35', Campbell 45', Armstrong 48', 66'