"The trip to Australia in 1999 remains one of the greatest I've ever undertaken," recalls the former Manchester United and Sydney FC striker Dwight Yorke. "And it was made extra special for me by meeting the most extraordinarily beautiful girl it has ever been my pleasure to know."
Most of his former team-mates smile and agree that Manchester United's pre-season trip Down Under was their best ever trip. From Rio to Tokyo, Liverpool to Cape Town, they travelled the world together and encountered hysteria across the globe. Despite the two games in Australia only being friendly matches, remembering it is an obvious pleasure for participants.
When United fans recall 1999, the glorious treble is first on the list, replete with images of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's extended toe winning the European Cup in the last minute against Bayern Munich in Barcelona. Sir Alex Ferguson and great players like Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Andrew Cole, Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane and Jaap Stam had won the Champions League for the first time. Few remember that United's next game was in Melbourne's MCG two months later, the first of a four game
pre-season tour which also took in matches in Sydney, Shanghai and Hong Kong. With United's stock at an all-time high, the average crowds were a staggering 80,000 across the four games.
Pre-season trips to Asia had become bi-annual events as United tried to cash in on their global support, connecting with fans from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, yet they had never played Australia's biggest venues before.
The Reds had gone Down Under four times previously in the '60s and '70s, staying on one trip in the unpretentious Coogee Bay Hotel, where legendary midfielder Pat Crerand awoke to find a thief in his room. Maintaining his status as the team's hard man, he shouted: "Come here, you bastard!" and gave chase in his pyjamas. The robber sprinted off with his $200 bounty before he stopped, looking Crerand in the eyes, to reveal a revolver by his waist. "Come any closer and I'm going to kill you," he said. Crerand chased no more and the incident remains his memory of Australia.
Most of the feted '90s United players had never ventured so far and were initially lukewarm about the idea of travelling to the other side of the world to play friendly matches, yet United had accepted a reported £2m from controversial entrepreneur Rene Rivkin to play two games, one at the MCG and another at Stadium Australia.
There is no city of more than a million people further from Manchester than Melbourne, but the club saw it as an opportunity to cash in, and the United players arrived in Melbourne on three separate flights (bizarrely, for insurance purposes) to be greeted by a huge red billboard proclaiming: 'Melbourne Welcomes Manchester United'. United's arrival made headline news as pictures of the tanned and tired players filled the local newspapers.
There were some local issues. Rivkin had all the promotional rights and ignored the 600 strong United official supporters club in Victoria in favour of a cringeworthy question and answer session in the vast Crown Hotel, where the job of introducing the players was given to someone who had no idea at all.
"And who are you then?" the announcer asked a mortifyingly embarrassed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the man who'd just scored the most famous goal in world football that year.
Aside from that, the players found Australia very agreeable, even in mid-winter.
"A top, top trip," remembers striker Andrew Cole. "I've travelled to the world and I've never been to anywhere as good as Australia in 1999. It may have been a long way to travel, but the football was good, the competition far higher than we usually got. Sydney and Melbourne were fantastic cities and it was an honour to play in the MCG and the Olympic Stadium a year before the Olympics. I'm from a big cricket family - my dad, who is from Jamaica, has never seen me play a game of football in my life - but when I told him that I'd played at the MCG he was well impressed. The only problem was that he thought I'd played cricket!"
It was a pleasant surprise for the players. United's previous two long distance tours had been to Asia and such was the fan hysteria, the players could barely leave their hotel rooms.
"I always knew that United were popular, but it was another thing to see it with your own eyes and it wasn't always a good thing on the pre-season tours," remembers midfielder Nicky Butt. "I liked the tours when I was younger. I was away with my mates and we'd have free nights to enjoy ourselves, but towards the end of my time at United, it was crap. Becks (David Beckham) had it worse than anyone. We'd be in a hotel for ten days and weren't allowed out for our own safety."
At one hotel in Thailand in 1997, Butt returned from a training session attended by 30,000 to be met by a flag reading: 'Nicky Butt - you are my God'.
"I still get letters now from people in Thailand," he reveals. "It was mad over there. We couldn't even leave the floor our rooms were on and there had to be security on each floor."
Australia was different. The United players were barely recognised when they walked around the city centres, but there was another significant reason why the players enjoyed themselves so much. Sir Alex Ferguson. Or rather, the absence of manager Sir Alex Ferguson. The United manager's achievements that year were enough to earn him a knighthood, the presentation of which caused him to miss the Australian leg of the tour. He had an appointment with the Queen, while United's most high-profile player David Beckham was also absent. Having just married Victoria, he wouldn't be in Victoria. That left the recently appointed assistant manager Steve McClaren at the helm.
Continues On Next Page...