It was April 1996, and Manchester United were flying high. They had won 11 of their previous 12 games as they chased down Newcastle United at the top of the Premier League table in a thrilling title race, but one of the more bizarre incidents of that most exciting of seasons came at The Dell when they faced relegation-threatened Southampton.
Embarking on a seemingly unstoppable run, which had seen them close a 12 point gap at the top of the table since the turn of the year, many thought the trip to the south coast would merely be a formality on their way to the club’s third title in four seasons.
However, on a warm spring day in the old home of the Saints Alex Ferguson’s men, who had been so formidable since Christmas, found themselves derailed by a team who were fighting for their own Premier League lives and were seemingly aided in their quest for three points by United’s choice of kit that day.
In an incredible first-half showing the home side took United apart with goals from Ken Monkou, Neil Shipperley and Matt Le Tissier giving the hosts a deserved three-goal lead at the break as the champions looked to be the shadow of their recent selves – quite literally it would seem.
United fans watching in disbelief might have been demanding that something had to change during the interval but when the two sides emerged from the tunnel for the second half nobody could have believed to what extent.
Whereas United had been playing in their new change kit of grey shirts and white shorts in the first 45 minutes as they took to the field this time they were now decked out in their alternative colours of blue and white stripes with a furious Alex Ferguson, instead of turning his anger on his players, instead claimed that his side couldn’t see each other because of the dull strip.
Ferguson was the true master of deflecting any unwanted attention away from his players following a defeat or a poor performance, often blaming the referee, the state of the pitch, or injuries for his side's failure to win a game, usually resulting in the next day’s newspapers leading with his controversial opinions rather than a high-profile loss, and this game was no exception.
"The manager just stormed in at half time and said: 'Get that kit off, you're getting changed,'" United’s Lee Sharpe told The Guardian in 2006. "Those were the first words he said at half-time. Personally I felt that we were playing really poorly, and that we couldn't really blame anything or anyone but ourselves."
As it turned out, the switch appeared to do the trick as United did pull a consolation goal back in the second period with Southampton failing to add to their tally in an eventual 3-1 victory for the Saints.
Ferguson was adamant about what was to blame rather than who, however. "The players don't like the grey strip," he told reporters. "They couldn't pick each other out. They said it was difficult to see their teammates at distance.”
Cynics at the time suggested that the change was something of a publicity stunt at a time when United were more than fond of introducing multiple kits on a yearly basis, though a little further investigation might suggest the Reds’ boss had a point.
United had worn the grey strip four times previously, drawing once to Nottingham Forest and losing the other three games to Aston Villa, Arsenal and Liverpool. The fifth, that day at Southampton, would be the last as the shirt never saw the light of day again.
Remembering the incident back in 2012 Ferguson appeared to stand by his decision: “Yeah, I remember that grey strip. Who can forget it?” he said. “I changed the kits at half-time and we got charged £10,000 for it. It was the best £10,000 I ever spent.”
As it turned out that would be as costly as it got for United as, although Newcastle beat Aston Villa at home 24 hours later to reduce the gap between the sides to three points with only three games left to play, United rallied to win their final three games of the season and clinch the Premier League title once more.
Of course had the outcome of that season been different and Manchester United not gone on to win the title it’s safe to say that their manager would have probably made more of the kit debacle of April 13, 1996 as well as paying out considerably more in fines.