"Only an outright fanatic would suggest that Manchester United are certain to beat Southampton," suggested the Guardian's Eric Todd ahead of this Villa Park semi-final in 1963. Saints were only a mid-table Second Division side at the time, but they were a club on an upward trajectory. United were still reeling from the horrors of Munich, and although their side was built around the British record signing Denis Law (£115,000) and a rejuvenated Bobby Charlton (recently the subject of a £300,000 bid from Barcelona), they were nevertheless battling relegation.
"The difference in league status counts for no more than does the fact that United have the costlier equipment," continued Todd. "Southampton's Cup record is an imposing one ... United will not have things all their own way." Much expectation ahead of the game for Ted Bates's side, then, with their star man Terry Paine, David Burnside, George O'Brien and the flying winger John Sydenham expected to cause their more illustrious opponents bother. But they failed to turn up. Paine was "feebly supported" and "not at his best", while "Ken Wimshurst had not the touch, Burnside was too erratic and O'Brien took his frustrations too hard".
"Manchester United are fourth from the bottom of the First Division and played in a style appropriate to their position," sighed Todd, who added that "Southampton are seventh from the bottom of the Second Division and also played to their league contest." The teams ground it out, United winning by a single Law goal, a hilariously scrappy effort: the Scottish striker attempted to head home from close range, missed the ball altogether like a drunk sticking the nut on fresh air in the car park of an Aberdonian pub, and then toe-poked the loose ball home.
The goal had come after 22 minutes. What followed was so bad that one punter, who had shimmied up a floodlight pylon to get a better view, came down with 30 minutes still to play, preferring to be handcuffed and led away by the police than suffer any more of the fare being offered up. So, in itself, hardly a classic worth remembering. And yet along with the final – which they certainly were expected to lose against championship near-misses Leicester City – it represents a real turning point in United's history. Their post-Munich hoodoo was put to bed, and not for the last time, a game against Southampton marked the end of a lean spell and set in motion an era of great success.
So then George Best came, bringing domestic and European titles with him, and soon enough George Best went. The easy version of the Best story finishes at Wembley in 1968, after which United go into steady decline, the winger eventually buggering off to sample the delights of hedonism, like you wouldn't do it too. That ignores, however, a quite incredible Indian summer for the player in the autumn of 1971. An Indian summer being a preposterous description for the acts of a 25-year-old, but this is what we've been left to deal with.
Indeed, a large proportion of Best's best – signature moments caught in the garish living colour of classic-era Match of the Day – came during this season. He scored a plasma-kneading hat-trick against West Ham. He was the star man in a 2-2 draw at Anfield. He frustrated Manchester City so much in a 3-3 stalemate at Maine Road that Francis Lee found himself performing that brazen accusatory swan dive, one of the genuine slapstick moments in All Sport. He went on that meander against Sheffield United, left to right, shoulders as yo-yos, so repeatedly did he drop them to amble past his man, before threading the ball home. Along with a similarly excitable Law and Charlton – both ageing heroes enjoying proper pukka Indian summers – Best led Frank O'Farrell's side to the top of the tree by Christmas.
The match at Southampton was arguably the crowning glory of the run. Saints were by now a First Division side and a decent one at that – they, and specifically Ted MacDougall, had given United a proper smack in the mouth in August 1969, a 4-1 spanking at Old Trafford – but this was old men against boys. We would be doing you a disservice if we didn't leave the description of Best's hat-trick in a 5-2 win to the Guardian's relentlessly majestic Frank Keating, who was at the Dell to witness an "extravagant pleasure".
"In the first minutes Best bent to flick Kidd's cross past Martin with less trouble than he takes over his hair any morning ... after the interval Best trapped it, shook one hip to send McGrath slithering right, the other to send Martin airily left and planted the ball precisely between them ... then Gabriel blocked Best's approach but the little man somehow squeezed it upwards and into the net with his head, off the post ... when he left the field 20 minutes from the end, he was given a standing salute [by a crowd that] was only partisan for the opening moments."
O'Farrell's side fell off the pace disastrously during the second half of the season, quite literally, the older chaps in the team running out of puff around Best. But this was a performance worth remembering, yet is so often forgotten. "Best covered up a multitude of sins," recalled his manager. "After some games we won when we shouldn't have I used to say 'Thank God for George'."
Hey pop kids!!! Anyone for some raging pro-United Guardian bias?!? You love it, you lot, don't you? Gertcha! Here goes, then, with the leader column of the Guardian on the morning of the 1976 FA Cup final between Manchester United and Southampton. "A newspaper can sit quite comfortably astride any convenient fence and say, for example, that though Manchester United are a glamorous footballing side, nevertheless Southampton have the romance of the underdog to set alongside the talent of Channon. Or vice versa. Wembley today, however, is no occasion for vice or versa. Manchester must win. A loss will be a disaster ... Throughout the season, dismantling dour defence after dour defence, United have sent a dozen managers back to the drawing board. The repercussions, exhilarating already, will gain permanence if Manchester United gain a major trophy. Football will win if they win."
Imagine if this newspaper – if any newspaper – had the chutzpah to publish something like this today. The bottom half of the internet would shear off and frisbee away into outer space, powered solely by the hot heat of disproportionate outrage, never to return. Something which may or may not give our current leader writers pause. But back in the day, opinions were tolerated in the adult fashion. David Lacey, while acknowledging the skills of Mick Channon, Jim McCalliog, Peter Osgood and Paul Gilchrist, suggested that "evenness of talent is not Southampton's strength" and that they would in all probability "bow to the inevitability of Manchester's speed and accuracy ... the outcome appears to be a question of how rather than who – a dangerous presumption, as Sunderland demonstrated in 1973."
A dangerous presumption indeed, as Lacey recognised after Bobby Stokes had fizzed home a late winner – destined to remain forever an offside controversy thanks to shaky camerawork – to stun Wembley and the wider world. "There were even those who felt that a win for Southampton might be bad for football because it would mean a stifling of Manchester's ingenuity and a reaffirmation that at the last defensive methods brought the best rewards. The course of the game did not bear this out. Certainly those who had come along on a sunny May Day hoping to be enthralled by a pageant of United's talents were disappointed, but Southampton created more scoring opportunities and while their play was based on a broad defensive platform, in no way could their performance be described as negative."
United's league season had petered out spectacularly – the title was in their hands at the end of March, but they ended the season trailing Liverpool and QPR after unexpected defeats to Ipswich and Stoke City – and their Cup challenge ended rather lamely too. They started off the stronger side, but were continually caught offside, losing heart quickly. Sammy McIlroy hit the bar with a header, but that was the sum total of their efforts in the final. In the first half, McCalliog sent Channon clear with a raking pass down the middle. Alex Stepney saved, but could do nothing when McCalliog repeated the trick for Stokes on 84 minutes. It would not be the last time Saints humbled United in the FA Cup – in 1992, Tim Flowers famously went on a demented pitch-long celebratory charge after his side triumphed in the first FA Cup penalty shootout involving top-flight teams, having been slightly fortunate to hold United to a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford, Bryan Robson heading home a ghost goal, unnoticed by the officials – but this was the big one.
Southampton were welcomed back to the city by a crowd of 175,000 as their team bus wound its way through the streets for 19 miles. United, too, were whisked to a civic reception, though their nine-mile tour was rather more muted. "With no cup to wave," reported the Guardian, "United had a flat cardboard replica fastened to the front of their bus instead." What the paper's leader writer thought of this "glamorous" state of affairs is not known.
Unquestionably the most important defeat in Manchester United's history. Ron Atkinson's side had thrown away the league the season before; after winning the first 10 games on the bounce, they somehow managed to end up fourth in a one-horse race behind Liverpool, Everton and West Ham United. The hangover was severe; they started the 1986-87 season poorly. Abysmally, in fact: after their first nine matches, they were joint bottom of the table, having lost to Arsenal, West Ham, Charlton, Watford, Everton and Chelsea. Their only victory was a 5-1 skittering of Southampton at Old Trafford, and even then the Guardian reported that Big Ron had the look of "a man who had just discovered a mouse in his pork pie".
United's form was certainly hard to swallow, though after that start they improved with back-to-back wins against Sheffield Wednesday and Luton Town, before drawing at Manchester City. But the team were still in relegation bother and still had a fragile underbelly. And in a Littlewoods Cup third-round replay at the Dell, Southampton thrashed United silly. With an ageing Jimmy Case imperious in midfield, Saints blew their visitors away. George Lawrence opened the scoring in the first half with a 20-yard smash. On 71 minutes, Danny Wallace was set up by Colin Clarke to make it 2-0. Then an 18-year-old forward called Matthew Le Tissier turned up to unveil an art piece called harbinger: he scored his first club goal with a saucy lob over Chris Turner, then added a fourth with a close-range header. Peter Davenport pulled a wholly pointless goal back for United, but Big Ron's days were numbered.
We all know what happened next. A quick nod, though, to Fergie's first game in charge of United against the Saints. All eyes were on Mark Dennis, Southampton's robust full back, who was in hot water with the FA for repeated disciplinary problems. So it was with some surprise that Dennis was the victim in what was then the fastest top-flight sending off of all time. United's Liam O'Brien was the recipient of the red card, after 85 seconds, for splitting Dennis's shin pad. Nick Holmes put Saints ahead on four minutes, Jesper Olsen equalised in 11 and the game was momentarily stopped soon after for a spot of brawling in the stands. The remaining 75 minutes were a total non-event. Fergie's reaction to O'Brien's dismissal? "It was a bad decision." Le Tissier's wasn't the last harbinger of the era, then.
A quite amazing triptych, given Southampton's perpetual struggles against relegation during this period, and United having become firmly established as the best team in the land by some considerable distance. The first is famous for those grey kits. "The players don't like the grey strip," claimed Sir Alex Ferguson, after his team changed into blue and white for the second half of their match at the Dell, having shipped three goals. "They find it difficult to pick each other out. We had to change the strip." A much mocked act, but then sports stars have a habit of making psychological mountains out of molehills, and United's record over four matches in the shirts was nothing short of appalling: losses at Aston Villa, Arsenal, Liverpool and a draw at Nottingham Forest. And it could be argued that United's improved second-half performance in their third strip won them the title. This defeat allowed Newcastle to within three points of them at the top, the Toon with a game in hand. But goal difference was a factor at the time, and it could be argued that another 45 minutes of grey hell could have tipped the advantage from United to Newcastle and affected the sides during the run-in. Clever Fergie, even if he was making it all up on the spot.
The most outrageous scoreline and incident-packed game is the one sandwiched in the middle. United lost Roy Keane – looking feral in a wild beard – to two yellow cards. A slightly harsh decision – he was booked for dissent, then a marginally late tackle on Claus Lundekvam – but United could have had few complains, as Eric Cantona really should have walked for an all-out kick-and-punch assault on the mountainous Ulrich van Gobbel (followed by triple pike with salchow dive to floor). Saints manager Graeme Souness, who knows a thing or two about starting rammies, showed a far-from-grudging admiration of the United striker's work: "I saw who he was involved with. He must be very brave." Ten-man United threatened an outrageous comeback inspired by the tireless work of David Beckham, but at 3-2 a stunning Eyal Berkovic volley put paid to that, the first goal of four scored in the final seven minutes. Egil Ostenstad was a hat-trick hero for Saints, although one goal was later pettily taken off him and awarded to Gary Neville instead, but as usual it mattered little, for Matthew Le Tissier was the real star turn. Turning David May and Gary Pallister, he lifted a ludicrous chip up and over Peter Schmeichel. "It might scrape into my top 10," yawned Le Tiss later.
That result came off the back of United's 5-0 loss at Newcastle, and would be followed by a 2-1 defeat by Chelsea at Old Trafford. It was the first time United had lost three on the spin in the Premier League era. Eleven goals in seven days, for United it felt like the roof was caving in. But of course they regrouped to win the title easily. So it's somewhat eyebrow-raising to note that perhaps the least interesting match of these three was the one with the most repercussions for United. The third win in a row for Saints at the Dell came courtesy of an early Kevin Davies strike, augmented by a long series of Paul Jones saves. Had United won, they would have gone eight clear of nearest challengers Blackburn Rovers – and 14 points ahead of fifth-placed Arsenal. As it was? "It's given people hope, and that's a nice Christian thing to do." He was aware the door had been left ajar by his side, unravelling slowly without his injured pivot Keane. Arsène knew, but so did Fergie. Clever Fergie.
After all that Dell misery, United deserved something from the tatty yet gorgeous old place before it was razed to the ground. And so it came in 2000, the culmination of the first proper cakewalk in the English top flight since Liverpool had waltzed to the title in 1983 with 26 days to spare. United retained their title with four games still remaining, sealing the deal on a drama-free afternoon at the Dell.
Mesmeric as an attacking force, as they had been for the entire season, they were out of sight before 30 minutes had been played. David Beckham opened the scoring with a free kick, Phil Neville forced an own goal out of Saints stalwart Francis Benali, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer added a third on 29 minutes. Marian Pahars pulled back a late consolation, but the result was payback for an embarrassing afternoon for United earlier in the season, a 3-3 draw which saw Pahars do the unthinkable by nutmegging Jaap Stam, Le Tissier embarrass Massimo Taibi with the softest of shots and Paul Jones make the Greatest But Most Futile save of all time.
And even then United weren't quite happy. Three days earlier, they'd allowed themselves to be hustled out of the European Cup by Fernando Redondo and Real Madrid in the European Cup. A needless defeat given the respective quality of the two sides at the time – Madrid finished fifth in La Liga that season – and one which slightly soured their celebrations. Or the celebrations of one man, at least. "Even though we won the Premiership easily, there was a serious danger that we were fooling ourselves. We had failed to defend the Champions League ... Defeat by Real Madrid was OK, because you couldn't do it every year. Why not? Liverpool did. Real did. Juventus did. Bayern did. I kept my mouth shut. Except to family and close friends." No need to insult your intelligence by naming the man whose biography we're quoting from, is there?