Manchester United's Grey Kit And Football's Other Great Excuses

On This Day in 1996, the Red Devils made a pretty drastic half-time swap
16:00, 13 Apr 2020

Alex Ferguson was well-known for finding creative excuses when things didn't go Manchester United’s way, blaming referees, pitches, the weather or just about anything else for that matter rather than pointing the finger at his players - with one of the most memorable coming on April 13th, 1996 at Southampton.

Having won 11 of their previous 12 games his side were flying high as they chased down Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United at the top of the Premier League table in a thrilling title race, but that was all about to change as they made the trip to The Dell to face The Saints.

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The Red Devils’ seemingly unstoppable run, which had seen them close a 12 point gap at the top of the table since the turn of the year, led most to believe that the trip to the south coast was nothing more than a formality as Ferguson’s men chased a third league title in four seasons.

However, United, who had been so formidable since Christmas, were all but played off the park in the first-half by a side who were fighting to preserve their Premier League lives despite boasting such talent as Matthew Le Tissier, Francis Benali and Jim Magilton.

A blistering 45 minute spell with goals from Ken Monkou, Neil Shipperley and the aforementioned Le Tissier put the home side 3-0 up at the break as the champions did everything they could to stay in a game which, on paper, had looked a certainty before kick-off.

The bewildered United fans who had made the journey to Southampton that afternoon would no doubt have expected some pretty drastic changes to be made during the interval with their manager famed for his hairdryer-like half-time team-talks and change is what they got – just not in the way that anyone could have predicted.

The visitors had played the opening 45 minutes of the game in their grey Umbro away kit, but when they emerged from the tunnel for the second-half they were wearing totally different strip of blue and white shirts, blue shorts and blue socks; leaving the Saints players and the crowd somewhat bewildered.

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This wasn’t some kind of marketing masterpiece or pre-planned publicity stunt to promote the launch of a new away kit - not that you’d put it past the Old Trafford club back then – the dramatic change was made because according to Alex Ferguson his players: “Couldn't pick each other out. They said it was difficult to see their teammates at distance.”

United winger Lee Sharpe was a little more honest when it came to apportioning the blame however, telling The Guardian in 2006: "The manager just stormed in at half time and said, 'Get that kit off, you're getting changed,' Personally I felt that we were playing really poorly, and that we couldn't really blame anything or anyone but ourselves."

But maybe his gaffer did have a point as United had worn the seemingly invisible grey shirts on four previous occasions that season, drawing at Nottingham Forest and losing to Aston Villa, Arsenal and Liverpool.

Something which Gary Neville, also on the field that day, believes hadn’t escaped his manager’s attention, who even employed a vision specialist who advised him that the grey kit was not conducive to accurate passing.

"[The specialist] brought in a lot of eye and alertness exercises and said to Sir Alex to imagine a crowd behind you, there are colours you can see more than others. It is the reason people wear bright yellow on a motorway." Neville later revealed.

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Initially the switch appeared to have the desired effect as United pulled a goal back early in the second-half, before eventually going down 3-1, though they did bounce-back from the humiliation to win their remaining three fixtures and clinch another Premier League crown on the final day of the season.

For Ferguson’s part he received a £10,000 fine for demanding that his players change kits at half-time, claiming in 2012: “It was the best £10,000 I ever spent,” as the infamous grey shirts were consigned to the dustbin of history and never saw the light of day again.

But for one man involved that day, the sensational switcheroo completely passed him by. "If I'm honest, I didn't realise until after the game that they'd changed their kit," the former Saints midfielder Matthew Le Tissier told Sky Sports.

Of course, this is not the first far-fetched excuse a manager has used when their side has been defeated and certainly won’t be the last, so here are some of the other occasions bosses have given somewhat ridiculous reasons for their side being beaten - some believable, some not so.

Talking Ball-boys

When Alex Ferguson left Old Trafford in 2013 many saw Jose Mourinho as his natural successor, not just because of his managerial abilities, but the fact he could come up with some decent excuses too. Like in 2011 when in charge of Real Madrid he blamed a cup defeat to Barcelona on a lack of ball-boys. "There were no ball-boys in the second-half,” he said. “Something typical of small teams.” 

Pasta its best

When ten Tottenham players went down with a stomach bug after eating a pre-match meal at the Marriott hotel in West India Quay the night before a game with West Ham they blamed a dodgy lasagne for a loss, which ultimately cost them Champions League qualification at the climax of the 2005/6 season.

Calamity James

Former England goalkeeper David James earned the rather unfortunate nickname ‘Calamity James’ during his time at Liverpool after a series of high-profile blunders. But rather than blame the ball, the weather or even his defenders like most ‘keepers do; the big stopper claimed it was down to the fact that he’d been spending too much time playing Tekken II and Tomb Raider on his Playstation.

Genetic Deficiency 

When Scotland’s World Cup hopes were killed off by Slovenia following a 2-2 in 2017, then manager Gordon Strachan suggested his team had paid the price for being smaller than their rivals, saying after the match they needed to win in order to qualify: “Genetically we have to work at things, maybe we get big women and men together and see what we can do.”

Heavy Kit

Arsenal beat Liverpool in the FA Cup final at Wembley in 1971 to secure the first ever League and Cup double for the Gunners, but Liverpool legend Emlyn Hughes believed his side went down, not due to Charlie George’s brilliant 20-yard strike; but because the woollen shirts that the Liverpool players were wearing on that sweltering day were too thick.