Alex Ferguson’s teams famously kicked on in the New Year, and traditionally Spring has often been a productive time for Manchester United. It’s when ‘the real football is played.’ It is a time when teams are fighting for league position, both at the top and bottom of the table and there seems to be more on the line than earlier before. It shouldn’t be considered true, but results matter more in March than they do in September. To the players and the supporters, from New Years onwards, they can see the finish line for the season and they all chomp at the bit that little bit more as each game progresses.
For reasons both good and bad, March has been an occasion of madness in Manchester, with everyday games becoming title deciders and champions showing their true pedigree. That said, it hasn’t always been fruitful, but it has always been memorable. Perhaps the most enduring and clichéd March of them all was 1996 when Manchester United produced their greatest show of strength and dominance, managing to topple Newcastle from their role as early season favourites and establish Fergie’s Fledglings (later to be rebranded as the Class of ’92) as a powerhouse of English football.
At one point trailing league leaders and supreme pace setters Newcastle United by twelve points, in early March 1996, Manchester United paid a visit to St James Park for a top of the table clash that was destined to play an important part in the title run in. United were depleted on the night and the central defensive partnership of Gary Neville and Steve Bruce appeared little match for Les Ferdinand, David Ginola and Faustino Asprilla.
The opening twenty minutes of the game was as heavy an onslaught of attacking football that an Alex Ferguson team experienced in the Premier League and it was the goalkeeping heroics of Peter Schmeichel which kept the tie scoreless. It was arguably Schmeichel’s finest game in a Manchester United shirt at St James Park that night. Individual saves might always be celebrated – such as the Bergkamp penalty in ‘99 or the Rapid Vienna wonder scoop – but it was Schmeichel’s tour-de-force which kept Manchester United in the title race that night until Eric Cantona scored early in the second half to swing the title firmly in United’s favour.
It was to begin a run of form, for both United and Cantona, that would be career defining. Cantona had missed much of the previous season and only returned in early October following his ban for kicking a supporter. His initial games were rusty, but by March, Cantona was once again Manchester United’s talisman and his form epitomised his importance. That goal against Newcastle sparked the start of Cantona scoring in six consecutive league games (five wins; and in four of those games, Cantona’s was the only goal scored by United).
Fast forward to the treble winning season and it was Andy Cole’s double against Newcastle United at St. James Park that once again kept league title ambitions alive. More importantly that March however, were the fixtures against Inter Milan wherein Dwight Yorke’s double at Old Trafford was enough to see Manchester United through to the semi-finals of the Champions League, on their way to the historic treble.
The mid-noughties brought the era of Chelsea domination to the Premier League under José Mourinho in what seemed the most formidable team to ever play in the league. They were a well drilled, defensively adept counter-acting unit, and United struggled greatly against them during the early years. Mourinho appeared to have had Ferguson’s number but it was the phenomenal start to the 2006-07 season that properly set them on their way to regaining their league crown.
It was a trip to Liverpool in March 2007 that imbued confidence in United fans that Mourinho’s Chelsea would be toppled. In what had proved a disappointing game from beginning to end, Manchester United were awarded a free kick in the dying moments of the game. Cristiano Ronaldo drilled the free kick at Pepe Reina only to have the Spaniard parry the shot into the path of John O’Shea who then buried the ball in the net. It might be Irish pride, but for this writer, there were few more satisfying goals scored at Anfield than O’Shea’s injury time winner.
Even Louis Van Gaal got in on March Madness at Old Trafford. Arguably the best post-Ferguson run of form before Ole Gunnar Solskjaer arrived was achieved in March 2015 when Van Gaal briefly found a magical elixir to see Manchester United dispatch Tottenham, Aston Villa and Liverpool with style and aplomb before later drifting back into possession-based mediocrity.
Having said that, it hasn’t always been positive. In 1992, a run of losses and draws were central to United losing the title to Leeds. A home loss to Marc Overmars’ Arsenal in March 1998 handed the title to the Gunners while 2009 saw a dismal 4-1 defeat to Liverpool at Old Trafford which appeared to hand the initiative to the Scousers in the title race. Losing 4-1 might seem a dismal home scoreline against Liverpool, it probably wasn’t to be Manchester United’s worst moment of recent years against Liverpool. That indignity was saved for David Moyes, whose lowest moment was probably the 3-0 home loss to the Scousers in March 2014, though the 3-0 home loss to City before the end of the month wasn’t any better.
The Cheltenham Festival takes place every year in March at a time when thoroughbreds truly show their power. More often than not, it has been a time when Manchester United teams have kicked into gear and produced some memorable moments on the way to end-of-year success.
Sometimes even when falling short, the results have still been memorable.
Andy Cole put five goals past Ipswich in a 9-0 route in March 1995. Wayne Rooney’s hat-trick away to West Ham in 2011 — which was probably the dead-cat-bounce moment of Rooney’s Manchester United career — almost single-handedly revived Manchester United’s title charge in that game. Manchester United may not win the Champions League this season, but there are few supporters of the current team who will not remember the comeback win against Paris Saint-Germain until their dying breath.
Supporting Manchester United is always a rollercoaster ride, and for some reason March has always been a month that has provided countless thrills. This year has produced one amazing night in Paris already, and Watford are just around the corner. Surely, we are due another screamer?