PL25: Butt bites as Manchester United are outclassed at Stamford Bridge

To celebrate 25 years of the Premier League each week in Football Fancast we’re going to be looking back at a memorable game that took place on the corresponding date. This time out we revisit an unexpected landslide of goals that had the champions reeling.

There were precisely no clues that this massacre was coming. In the weeks that led up to Chelsea’s hosting of the treble-winning Manchester United, the Blues had contested five 1-0s, four in their favour. These were encouraging signs that Gianluca Vialli’s side were continuing on an upward trajectory that saw them finish third the previous season, securing Champions League football for the first time ever but it’s also fair to say that optimism at this early stage of the 1999/00 campaign was muted. Their £10m summer signing Chris Sutton had yet to break his duck, not helped by spearheading a side whose stylish efficiency was so far hesitant, and worse still their small totem of brilliance Gianfranco Zola was suffering an unusual spell of ordinariness. They were winning, but only just.

As for United it was business as usual as they travelled to the Bridge unbeaten from their opening nine games and in doing so lengthening a period without defeat that stretched right back to December. Already they had come away from Highbury and Anfield with all three points and this despite losing Peter Schmeichel in the summer and replacing him with Mark Bosnich before swiftly realising the Australian was now a bit rubbish. In September they offered Venezia £4.5m for a keeper Sir Alex Ferguson believed would go on to be Schmeichel’s successor and provide some much-needed stability in nets. His name was Massimo Taibi.

In hindsight there is the clue, right there, as the hapless Italian who would soon be termed the ‘Blind Venetian’ carried on a trend for glaring errors that saw him flap at a Liverpool free-kick and attempt to stop a harmless daisy cutter from Southampton’s Matt Le Tissier with air instead of his body. From August to October United had looked ominously good but the machine had a broken part.

Just 27 seconds in and the gremlin surfaced once again when Taibi waited for a floated cross to reach him allowing Gus Poyet to steal in and nod home from close range. Sixteen minutes later and Chelsea’s season was symbolically ignited when Sutton got off the mark. This would be his only league goal of the season but nobody knew that at the time and the pressure evaporating from his shoulders was almost visible in his celebration.

With Ferguson chewing gum ten to the dozen on the touchline United were reeling, but with more than three quarters of the game still to play it would have taken a brave soul to back against them staging a revival. It’s what they did. It was their M.O. but just five minutes after going two down the visitors also found themselves a man down too. The agitator – naturally – was Dennis Wise as the diminutive mischief-maker performed a karate-style flying kick in the direction of Nicky Butt, elbow meaningfully jutted out, the ball very much of secondary importance. The contact was minimal but as both players adjusted to being on the turf, Wise enacted his fait accompli, a sneaky pinch of the inside of Butt’s thigh. Born and raised in Gorton, Manchester, where fists deal with matters not girly pinches, Butt’s reaction was one of outrage and entirely understandable. His lash-out however cost his team dear.

There was still five minutes until the break when Ferguson took his leave to warm up his hairdryer but whatever was said at half-time had little effect as Chelsea simply resumed their dominance, putting away a further three amidst a litany of two-footed challenges and square-ups.

Prior to the fifth, a thumper from Jody Morris in the game’s last knockings, the Chelsea supporters crowed, “What’s it like to be outclassed?” and if the contest is best recalled for the Butt/Wise fracas that’s what it amounted to. Indeed, the final half hour was described by the BBC as ‘resembling a training match’.

It was a humping nobody saw coming even with Taibi in such jittery turmoil but looking back now there was a further clue, one that had not yet fully materialised.

During their Premier League imperiousness it’s been a rare event for Manchester United to be ‘outclassed’ and on the wrong end of a hiding. There was this one while Newcastle’s 5-0 thumping springs to mind too. Then there was the 6-1 drubbing dished out by their neighbours and rivals City at Old Trafford in 2011 and the famous 6-3 defeat at The Dell that was comically blamed on the hue of their shirts. Last season Chelsea almost repeated their feat with a 4-0 trouncing at the Bridge.

What unites them all, along with their rarity, is that each occurred in October. Jose Mourinho had better tread carefully in the weeks ahead, especially with Liverpool and Tottenham on the horizon this month. The clues are there.

What happened next?

With 37-year-old reserve stopper Raimond van der Gouw installed in goal for the rest of the season, United recovered impressively to romp to a sixth title. No team has since boasted a bigger points margin.

For Chelsea this memorable afternoon proved to be a false dawn though, a fifth-placed finish in the league and a magnificent victory over Barcelona in the Champions League were significant consolations.