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Published: 27 May 2002

2001-2002: How to lose the Premiership Title in 9 easy steps
by Red11 StatMan Paul Hinson

A look back at key moments in Manchester Uniteds season...

(1) Date: Saturday 14th April 2001:

Event: Two goals in the final 10 minutes from Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes wrap up a 4-2 victory against Coventry City at Old Trafford, Arsenals home defeat to Middlesbrough a few hours later confirms Uniteds 3rd Premiership title in a row and 7th in 9 years.

Consequence: The Reds domimance of English football was illustrated by the title being won with 5 matches to spare. Indeed, the gap between the chasing pack became a chasm as early as January. It is no surprise that the old enemy, complacency, began to kick in amongst the players. The last 3 League games were all lost, but Runners-up Arsenal were still 14 points adrift.

This I believe, had two effects. Firstly, the players relaxed, and began to think that the Premiership was going to be as easy to win again in 2001-02. The comfort zone was entered in those closing games, and it was subsequently difficult to escape from. Second, Sir Alex assessed the season, was unhappy with the Quarter-Final exit in the Champions League, and decided that his transfer activity in the Summer would be primarily focussed on success in Europe.

(2) Date: Friday June 1st 2001

Event: Assistant Manager Steve McClaren leaves to become Manager at Middlesbrough.

This stems from Sir Alex's statement of intent to retire which was announced in 2000. When it was made clear that McClaren was not going to be considered as a successor, it was only right that he looked after his own future and moved on.

Consequence: When Brian Kidd departed in 1998, many wondered whether United could recruit a replacement as good as the former Red. McClaren in the space of 3 months in the post, helped complete a unique treble, and 3 Premiership titles in a row suggested that his value to the club was not to be underestimated.

Losing such a valued member of his staff proved significant in 2001-02. Kidd and McClaren were able to stand up to the boss, question his decisions, offer input. When thinks began to go awry a few months later, was Jim Ryan and Mike Phelan up to such strong involvement?

(3) Date: June/July/August 2001

Event: Sir Alex had 2 main concerns, his defence and the fact that United had become predictable, particularly in Europe. With doubts over Ronny Johnsens fitness, there was also worries about Jaap Stam. The manager was not sure whether he was the same commanding figure after his Achilles injury.

Ferguson had fought hard to gain a substantial transfer fund to improve his squad. Lilian Thuram of Parma was the main target of his enquiries, but the club refused to sell. Another target, Bixente Lizarazu of Bayern Munich, was another that got away. After vainly trying other names on his list, he realised that as the new season drew closer, he was not going to get the new defensive lynchpin he craved.

The deal for PSV Eindhovens Ruud Van Nistelrooy was successfully resurrcted at a cost of 19.1 million. This took a big hole out of his transfer kitty, but the Cole/Yorke alliance had foundered as a pairing, and he knew that a goalscorer was needed.

For new creative talent in midfield, he chose Lazios Argentine maestro Juan Sebastian Veron. The Italians drove a hard bargain. Eventually it took 28 million before he got his man. Having missed out on defenders, he took a deep breath and convinced his board that it was a good deal. The remains of his kitty were used to get Roy Carroll as goalkeeping cover for Fabien Barthez.

Consequence: The inability to shape a new defence was to bite the manager quickly. The record fee laid out for Veron meant that expectation of him was to be incredibly high even before he had set foot in a foreign country and join a squad he had only read about before.

(4) Date: Sunday August 19th 2001

Event: United begin the Premiership season with a shaky 3-2 win at home to new boys Fulham. The Londoners twice take the lead through the pacy Louis Saha, with Jaap Stam and Gary Neville suffering a traumatic afternoon.

Consequence: This performance underlined what Ferguson had been thinking for some time. His Dutch lynchpin at the heart of the defence was not the same player prior to his Achilles injury. Within days Stam was transferred to Lazio, and with all the chosen bigname replacements unavailable, he opted to go for a Centre Back he had tried to sign many times in the past. Former French captain Laurent Blanc was unwanted at Internazionale, and came at no cost other than a seasons salary. At the age of 35, the knives were immediately sharpened. Was he too old? Too slow? A stopgap signed on the cheap?

(5) Date: Saturday October 20th 2001

Event: The Reds crashed to a 1-2 defeat at the hands of local rivals Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford. This humiliating loss followed a home defeat 3 days earlier against Deportivo La Coruna in the Champions League, jeopardising European progress.

Consequence: The Deportivo result came about mainly due to horrendous mistakes at the back, Barthez twice blundering. But the Bolton defeat was not down to the keeper. The team were collectively second-best to a well-organised hard-working Bolton side, and the alarm bells were ringing. Complacency is the word bandied about when setbacks like this occur at Old Trafford. But was it the manager equally culpable on this occasion? Gary Neville, Giggs, Van Nistelrooy, Blanc, all watched from the sidelines. Perhaps the rotation policy that served so well was not working now? Did it suggest that the strength in depth was illusory, that the players who came in did not fill the gaps as capably as in the past?

(6) Date: Saturday December 8th 2001

Event:: In a tepid display, United slump to their third Premiership defeat in a row, Jermaine Defoe heading the winner for West Ham United.

Consequence: With 15 games gone in the League, the Reds had already lost 6 of them, the maximum generally accepted for a side with title pretentions. Losses to Arsenal and Chelsea were dispiriting, and this too added to the talk of crisis. Liverpool and Arsenal were racing away, leaving United back in 9th place. Time for Sir Alex to recreate the siege mentality, and from this came a run of 8 successive Premiership wins to propel them back to the top by January. But the margin of error was now non-existent, and the failings and fumblings of the Autumn, based primarily on individual error, was to haunt them later.

(7) Date: Saturday March 23rd 2002

Event: United stumble to their 5th Premiership loss in their own backyard and 8th of the season. A mistake by Veron enabled Alain Boksic to grab the only goal of the game for Middlesbrough, guided by former Red Steve McClaren.

Consequence: This defeat in reality ended the title dream of 4-in-a-row. Arsenal lost just 3 games and the Reds were now helpless as the Gunners strung together a winning sequence that powered them to the League and FA Cup double. The loss to Middlesbrough came a few weeks after a reverse to them at the Riverside ended Fergusons interest in the FA Cup. Both results contained the same malaise, mistakes at the back, and failure to score. Despite the Van Nistelrooy/Solskjaer alliance that yielded a combined 60 goals, of the 6 Premiership defeats at Old Trafford, the Reds netted just once, and that was direct from a free kick.

(8) Date: Wednesday April 24th 2002

Event: In the Champions League Semi-Final first leg, Bayer Leverkusen twice come from behind to claim a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford.

Consequence: In my opinion this is where the season died for United. The team lacked the conviction and self-belief to overpower the Germans, whose work ethic eventually wore them down. The same lack of belief was evident in the return in Leverkusen a week later, where a 1-1 draw was insufficient.

(9) Date: Wednesday May 8th 2002

Event: Arsenal travel to Old Trafford and clinch the Premiership title with a 1-0 win. This means that United finish the season empty-handed for the first time in 4 years.

Consequence: The end of season fade-out may be a blessing in disguise in the long term. It reiterated the need for at least one new Centre Back, signalled the end for older players such as Irwin, Van der Gouw and Johnsen, and possibly removed any complacency that may have crept in. No doubt injuries to the defence played a part, plus the loss of Beckham for the critical closing weeks. Sir Alex would no doubt privately accept his share of any criticism, the tactical experimentation seemingly baffling some of the team, and 'rotation' needs to be utilised more carefully to avoid surprise upsets against some of the lesser lights. A new right-hand man, with new ideas, may also be a positive step. Expect a reinforced United to make a stronger challenge in 2002-03.

Red11 Statman Paul Hinson


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