Manchester United travel to Tottenham Hotspur on (super) Sunday evening in one of the Premier League's "marquee" fixtures as a side feted for their ability to comeback: eight wins from losing positions in the league this season. But this impressive statistic is not new. Sir Alex Ferguson has built a dynasty on come-from-behind wins and this fixture, in its October 2001 edition, provided one of his most famous. Here's how it happened.
United, who hadn't won at White Hart Lane in their last four visits, made a somewhat awkward start. Dean Richards an £8.1 million buy from Southampton (who, it's fair to say didn't quite work out at Spurs) made his debut and scored - converting Darren "Sicknote" Anderton's corner after 15 minutes to put Spurs in front. Then (Sir) Les Ferdinand collected a through-ball from Gus Poyet (now you're talking) and lashed it in for 2-0. THEN Christian Zeige made it 3-0 with what can only be described as a "sweet" diving header. Tottenham, if my memory (or this Youtube video) serves, looked great. This Youtube video ("Part 2" to give it its full, and fully evocative, title) tells, however, a different story: one in which Manchester United look freaking awesome.
Andy "Andrew" Cole scored very early in the second half with a diving header of the "stooping" variety, acclaimed saviour of punditry Gary Neville providing the assist: 3-1. Strangely, Tottenham goalkeeper Neil Sullivan - NEIL SULLIVAN!!! - looks completely out of puff (he's played one minute of football this half) as he watches the red swarm regroup, like he knows what's coming. "Could this be the start of a comeback?" asks Martin Tyler to some air that, mercifully, does not contain Andy Gray's bulbous and excitable head. Laurent Blanc (yes, him) added a "towering" header to David Beckham's (yes, him) corner to make it 3-2 just before the hour. A "poacher's" header from Ruud van Nistelrooy - after a cross from Mikael Silvestre (no, it can't be him) - ties things up, then, after 72 minutes and by this time everyone, not just Tottenham's prematurely knackered goalie, knows what's coming. The camera grants us a long shot of Glenn "karma" Hoddle looking like he wishes his lips will open up and swallow the rest of his face.
They don't, instead United got a quick fourth. In the 78th minute, Juan Sebastion Veron (yes!) scored "the pick of the goals": taking a lay off from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (or Chicharito 1.0) and "lashing" it beyond the visibly ageing Sullivan. Then Glenn Hoddle said something to someone (it is not thought to have had any effect or known even to have had any bearing on reality). Another lovely bit of play from Solskjaer then resulted in a ball bouncing "invitingly" in front of captain-for-the-day Beckham*: 5-3. Comeback complete. "The outcome", says Tyler, "was inevitable".
And that is the point; United comebacks are not - of course - inevitable in any literal sense (they do, occasionally, lose). Their gift is in making them appear so. Against no other Premier League team is a lead so emotionally fragile; almost every team has a United capitulation horror story. Alex Ferguson, with Ryan Giggs (who didn't actually play in thisgame) and Paul Scholes (who did), has created an almost unendurable weight of history - the Sky cameras documented Sullivan's labours under it well in this match - that leading teams in individual matches have also to face the demons of their past selves and past opponents who are literally, if only partially, present. That is an argument forcontinuity, as well as an explanation of United's continuing ability to comeback. It tells us nothing about what will happen on Sunday except that we should be aware of the history - the players involved will be, after all.
* Beckham, incidentally, would score a more iconic, more memorable - and even later - goal later that week. Against Greece.
** As evidence for the routine nature of the United comeback, here's the inestimable David Lacey's Guardian match-report of Tottenham Hotspur 3-5 Manchester United.