UTD Unscripted: My Memory Lane
There’s a little corner of the old White Hart Lane that was very special to me.
Right near where the away fans used to be, I stood there as a 14-year-old schoolboy. I’d come over from South Africa and was on Tottenham’s books, and I’d sit there to watch their home games. I’ll never forget the first time I saw United play there. It was in 1992, the game when Giggsy nutmegged one Spurs defender, went around another, went around the goalkeeper and scored a great goal.
The next season when United came back, I was there again. This time I had one of the best experiences of my life and also probably my biggest regret.
I always carried a tennis ball with me so that I could kick it around. On matchdays at White Hart Lane, I’d go into the away dressing room to clean up with the other schoolboys and each time I’d get the ball out and we’d be kicking it around. This happened through the years I was at Spurs and in all those years, one player came over to kick the ball with us.
It was just for a few seconds, but it was like something out of a movie. Seriously, I’m sure it was all in slow motion: him walking over, joining in, all the boys looking at each other and going: wooooooooooooow; all of it happened in slow motion.
Now, this is the part that still eats me inside.
I had a camera with me, so I had pictures with Eric, with the boss, with all the United lads afterwards as they were coming out to the team bus. I got home to my digs and immediately went to get the film out of the camera so I could go and get the pictures developed.
There was no film.
Don’t even… I mean, it’s devastating just to think back to it, so I can’t say I ever really got over it, but I suppose it did soften the blow a little bit that I ended up joining United!
That was in 1999, just after the squad had won the Treble, but you’d never have known it if you’d been there. From the moment I’d first arrived in England, I trained like I knew I had to work harder than everybody else just to make it, so it was normal for me to give everything. When I got to United, though, it stood out that everyone was like that.
This is the team who has just won everything, but the way they were training, there was no sign of that. None of the ‘we’ve just won the Treble’, nothing like that. I couldn’t believe it. I quickly understood: if I want to play here, that’s how I train. That’s how I work. If Roy Keane’s at the front leading, I’ll just keep my head down and work hard and sacrifice for the team, then do my best when the opportunities come. When you see Keaney training like he did, when you see Becks sprinting back to help out Gary Neville defensively, or Giggsy sprinting back, you know that you don’t have a choice. There are no excuses. The best players in the team – some of the best in the world – are running, so I’d better run!
When I coach the U23s now, I talk to them about how it was then. We had probably one of the most talented teams in world football, but the work ethic was amazing. That’s what stood out to me. The intensity and the way these guys were working was just ridiculous.
We won the league in my first two seasons at United, but we kept adding more quality too. Veron, Ruud… the standard of the squad was just a joke. It was ridiculous, looking back at that group of players. There were other good teams too, and Arsenal were probably the only ones who could match us at that time. In my third season they won the Double.
That didn’t go down well with us.
We weren’t good losers, so we took it harshly. Losing a game meant that there wasn’t a good feeling around the place, so losing the league – especially after winning three in a row – was particularly tough. The training ground was just silent at first, but then you come back for the next pre-season and you work harder than ever before. The attitude was never about pointing fingers or blaming people for what had gone wrong; we just looked at what we could do individually and collectively to get better and help the team. Then there was the boss to make sure the players were always hungry. He knew who to keep, who to move on, who was hungry, who was not, and he kept us grounded.
The message in the summer of 2002 was simple: come back stronger, prepared, fitter and mentally ready to have another go at winning the league.
We started the season okay, and about halfway through the campaign we went to Anfield and I had one of the best afternoons of my life, let alone my time at United. Diego Forlan scored twice and it’s just the best feeling to win there. The best. There’s nothing like it. Celebrating with Diego in front of our fans there, knowing how important and difficult it is to win at Anfield… it’s just an amazing feeling. I’d been to Anfield before and lost. The boss talked to us in the changing room afterwards and told us to remember the feeling. Never ever did I go back and lose again. It reminded us to make sure that whenever we go there, we gave everything and that’s what we did.
Most seasons, we tended to get better in the run-in. Be there or thereabouts for the run-in and then go for it. In 2003, I think it was around March that our form really picked up. We had some huge games and we got up so much momentum that we became unstoppable. In particular, Ruud and Scholesy were unbelievable.
Scholesy was a genius. Simple as that. You want to give the ball to him all the time. You just smile and run when you’re playing with Scholesy. His vision is just different to everyone else’s. He’d kick the crap out of everyone in training but then at the same time he could find people, pick people out, see things before anyone else did. It was an absolute joy and a privilege to play with him every day.
And Ruud… well. Ruud was a machine. Had he stayed at United longer he’d have scored more goals and ended up breaking all the club records, I think. Every day in training he was relentless. He was like Ole; every time he got an opportunity in training, he would hit the target. Boom, hits the target, makes the keeper work, always with a clean strike. His movement off the ball was a joke, and when you’ve got someone like that playing with Veron (another genius), Scholesy, Becks… just make the run and you’ll get the ball. Run into the right space with the right movement and they’ll find you. Ruud knew how to do that perfectly.
We’d win games and Ruud would be upset if he hadn’t scored. That’s how obsessed or passionate the guy was with scoring goals. It dominated his thinking. Whenever I got an assist for him, I was so happy because I knew how much it meant to him just to score any goal. It felt good because the guy was obsessed with scoring. When we won but he didn’t score, he’d be the one player who didn’t look happy in the dressing room afterwards. He wouldn’t hide it, his head would be down, but that’s how obsessed he was with scoring.
That season, he just didn’t stop scoring. Ruud got a hat-trick against Fulham, a couple against Liverpool when we hammered them at Old Trafford. Another up at Newcastle, who were third, when we won 6-2. Ole scored, then set up Scholesy for a volley, Scholesy scored another fantastic goal in the top corner. Sir Bobby Robson was still their manager at the time and I really enjoyed that game because I had to mark Kieron Dyer. It was just a perfect day and a result that showed what form we were in.
Arsenal had led from the front, but we were catching them up and we had to go to Highbury right near the end of the season. You could always sense when we were playing Arsenal or Liverpool, just from the training beforehand. Something changed around Carrington. That was the same every season. I think we really enjoyed playing Arsenal, enjoyed competing with them because at the same time they would give it back and the lads liked that because it was normal for us. It was the same attitude as ever: play to the end, fight for everything every single day.
We didn’t win the game at Highbury, but we won the battle. My goodness, what a game that was. In the first half Ruud picked the ball up, nutmegged Sol Campbell and he was away. Keown tried to catch him but he couldn’t get near him and Ruud just chipped it over the keeper. Henry scored a couple in the second half, one deflected, one offside, but Giggsy equalised immediately and it finished 2-2.
The boss was number one at psychology, so to see him celebrating with our fans afterwards said it all. Nobody could get near him in mind games. He was sending a message to Arsenal, to us, to the whole Premier League: we’re going to take this title.
It was one of those games where you know that if you get a good result there, it puts you in a good place. You’ve gone to your biggest rivals’ place, played well and got a result that gives you a good chance of winning the league. That gave us a lot of confidence coming away from Highbury. I think they probably knew that as well.
Around that time we had another huge fixture in Europe, against Real Madrid at Old Trafford. We’d lost the first leg and I remember coming on in the last 15 or 10 minutes and I was just a little bit angry, so I started kicking everyone. I’d had experiences with Real during my time with Atletico, plus in my first season at United we were knocked out of the Champions League by Redondo, Raul and the others. They just kept beating us, and it was like: come on, we’ve got get one over them. But then at the same time you have to hold your hands up and look at their team that night: Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Figo, Zidane… I mean, come on. They made it all so effortless.
It was hard of me to accept that they were better than us, so I dealt with it by coming on, disrupting their flow, getting amongst them, ruffling a couple of feathers. Zidane in that game was art. I was sat on the bench going: come on, this guy’s not even sweating! It was just brilliance. It was a joy, really, seeing such brilliance and genius. I was like: right, if I’m going to get anywhere near him, I’m just going to have to kick him. Can I see if I can put him off his game? Did it work? No. He just carried on as normal!
So I was annoyed – as we all were – to get knocked out of Europe, but our sights were still set on the title. And, for me, we had a particularly special day at White Hart Lane. Arsenal had dropped points the day before and we had the chance to go ahead of them with just a couple of games left, but it was one of those games where Kasey Keller was just having a personal battle with Ruud. It was one of those games where you’re thinking: oh no, what if he keeps saving them? They’ll get one chance and score and we’ll lose the title.
Thankfully Scholesy popped up with about 20 minutes to go, and then I got on as a sub. In the last minute, I don’t remember who gave me the ball but they yelled “Go on Quinny, get up there.” So I was just running forward. I looked up and saw my options.
THERE’S RUUD! OK RUUD!
I just decided to give him the ball and he buried his finish like he always did. It had to be right in the corner with the way Keller was playing.
I think every single player ran to that corner to celebrate with our fans. We all knew how important that result was. It was so special for all of us, but for me it was incredible because there I was, right near the spot where I’d watched United all those years earlier. Now I was celebrating an assist for a goal which was going to go a long way towards winning us the title. It’s seriously crazy when I sit and think about it.
Then we went in the away dressing room afterwards, that same dressing room I’d cleaned as a schoolboy, and the celebrations we had… oh, I just loved it. That was such a special moment in my life.
We beat Charlton in our next game, Arsenal lost to Leeds and we were champions. That meant that we could go to Everton on the final day knowing that we’d get the trophy at the end of the game.
That was such a special day – though one of my main memories is getting roped into one of Scholesy’s little games that he liked to play. Becks pinged the ball towards me in midfield, Scholesy was about to head it and he faked it, so the ball hit my chest. Lee Carsley was between us and the ball hit me in the chest, went over his head, back to Scholesy, who headed it back to me. I’m still in shock, like: I didn’t want to be part of this! I just wanted to play!
We ended up doing headers to each other, with Carsley jumping for it in-between us, the United fans near us cheering “Olé!” and I’m thinking: NO, IT’S NOT AN OLÉ MOMENT! Even now, people tell me they love that little sequence, but it’s nothing to do with me, I was just a part of Scholesy’s game!
Afterwards, it's hard to describe the feeling of satisfaction you get when you pick up the Premier League trophy, because you’ve worked the whole season every day and that’s your reward. We did it as a team, you played your part. You’re a champion and that’s an unreal feeling but I’d picked up a medal a couple of months after joining, when we won the Intercontinental Cup and I hadn’t done anything, so medals weren’t the main thing for me.
What mattered more in that moment, to be honest, is that I could feel the approval of my team-mates, and once you get the approval of your boss, your team-mates, that’s what I wanted more than the Premier League medal.
Looking back, I cherish every moment I got to play with Scholesy, Keaney, Becks, Veron and the others. Wearing the Red shirt was pure joy for me. For me as a kid, I’d idolised guys like Giggsy, who I’d tried to emulate while I was growing up as a player, so to end up winning the league with them 10 years later was something that you can’t even put into words.