Manchester United’s grey kit: Gary Neville reflects on 1996 defeat at Southampton

Gary Neville has recalled one of the most memorable meetings between Manchester United and Southampton when Sir Alex Ferguson’s side famously changed kits halfway through a 3-1 defeat.

Monday marks 24 years since one of the most bizarre incidents at a Premier League match as Manchester United changed strips at half-time at The Dell on 13 April 1996.

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United had won 11 of their previous 12 games to overhaul Newcastle United at the top of the Premier League table. But goals from Ken Monkou, Neil Shipperley and Matt Le Tissier had put the hosts into a commanding lead against Ferguson’s punch-drunk side.

Gary Pallister was absent while David May was only named as a substitute, meaning Neville was selected at centre-half on a day to forget for the visitors, but the Sky Sports pundit has revealed there was purpose behind his manager’s unexpected actions.

Neville told The Football Show: “Why would we have had another spare kit ready? It never came across well, because you’re losing and you change your shirts at half-time.

“It’s a bit unique, but there was a bit of science behind it. Sir Alex had employed a couple of years before Professor Gail Stephenson from Liverpool University, and we had her as our ‘eye coach’.

“It’s going to sound really daft this, but one of the great theories around football that was presented at United at the time was that match sharpness was nothing to do with your physical fitness. It was to do with your eye muscles being able to react to things happening on the pitch.

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“Sir Alex had this in his head before the game that this kit was a problem because he’d been told by Gail. We had a full set of kit ready to put on at half-time. You don’t take another kit to a game unless you’re thinking there’s a problem with it. He had this in his head, but it didn’t come across very well.”

“There were no conversations… it was ‘get the kits off’ from the kit man Albert [Morgan]. We lost in the kit previously [at Arsenal and Liverpool]. Sir Alex did have his superstitions and his beliefs, but I genuinely think he felt there was a problem with this kit and the Southampton game was the final straw!

“I’m not sure the shirt suppliers at time were too happy as I’m not sure they sold too many after that!”

United’s loss was Southampton’s gain as United were unable to claw back the three-goal deficit on their way to a first league defeat in 13 games.

It proved a crucial win for the Saints, who survived on the final day of the season on goal difference after Manchester City drew 2-2 against Liverpool, memorably thinking that a point was enough as Southampton played out a stalemate with Wimbledon.

‘I didn’t realise what happened until after the game!’

Matt Le Tissier told The Football Show: “I thought it was one of the worst excuses I’ve ever heard from a team that’s just got battered. It took the attention away from the performance, which was probably the idea.

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“The first-half performance, I’m sure Gary will agree, was not one of their best ones down the years. To be fair, we were hanging on a little bit second-half, but I’m not sure the grey shirts, and not being able to pick each other out was a reasonable excuse.

“I didn’t realise until after the game what had happened. I was walking to my car and one of the reporters asked me what I thought about them changing their kit at half-time. I looked at him and went, ‘did they?’ I had no idea. Obviously, I was so focused on my own team, that I didn’t really care what the opposition were in – so long as I was able to see my own players!”

United would still go on to win the Premier League by four points, with four of their six defeats coming in the infamous grey strip, including an opening-day loss at Aston Villa.

From the moment of that curtain-raiser at Villa Park, the benefits for the opponents must have lingered in the back of Ferguson’s mind, and while shirt sales may have plummeted not long after its final official appearance on the south coast, they have become a collector’s item.

Neville added: “Sir Alex had been told by Gail that grey was the worst possible colour to spot players in with fans in the background. So he had it in his head that the players couldn’t see each other as much because of this kit. He believed in his coaching staff and Gail was our ‘eye coach’.

“We used to do eye exercises before every game, even though I sometimes struggled to pick out my team-mates in red shirts! But there was a bit of science behind it even if it didn’t look good to the outside that we changed our kit at half-time.

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