Anyone who remembers the last time Tottenham beat Man Utd at home will also remember Willem Korsten. But most people don’t.
It was the final game of the 2000/2001 season and United had already wrapped up the league title at a canter. Spurs’ season had followed a familiar narrative of pre-season optimism giving way to mid-table obscurity, but it was also a time for optimism. The club had a new chairman named Daniel Levy, who had cleverly endeared himself to the fans by sacking Arsenal legend George Graham and replacing him with Tottenham legend Glenn Hoddle.
Seventeen minutes into the match at White Hart Lane, a Spurs corner was partially cleared to Dutch winger Korsten, who deftly controlled the ball with his chest before lobbing the goalkeeper with a spectacular, dipping left-footed volley from 25 yards. He spun away in celebration, kissing his palm and raising it towards the jubilant home crowd. Player and fans were united in dreams of rejuvenation.
“That goal against United was a rocket,” recalled one Spurs fan. “Korsten was lovely to watch - a similar kind of player to Brian Laudrup. He was the only George Graham signing that was an actual proper footballer.”
Tottenham’s struggles in the Graham era had been mirrored by those of Korsten, who was repeatedly hit by injuries following a £1.5m arrival from Vitesse Arnhem in 1999. The signing was a controversial one, with Korsten having impressed on loan at Leeds the previous season.
“We picked him out of nowhere, gave him a stage and he looked like a man possessed. We offered him a contract after giving him a platform and he stuck two fingers up at us and went to London instead,” said one fan on the Dirty Leeds website.
Playing on the left of midfield in David O'Leary’s exciting young Leeds team, Korsten made a sufficient impact in his 10 appearances to get Leeds fans very upset when he turned down a permanent move to Elland Road. But the Whites’ loss would be Tottenham’s gain, in theory.
“It was a bit of a coup because he was a talented young player and Leeds thought he was going to sign for them,” said a Spurs fan on the Fighting Cock website. However, it would be six months before Korsten made his Tottenham debut, with his first start coming at a hostile Elland Road in January 2000.
It’s tempting to wonder whether there was a Yorkshire-based witch among the unforgiving home fans that day, because Korsten’s career subsequently seemed cursed.
“He was very talented but he only played about quarter of a season’s worth of football in two years - he was always in rehab,” said another Spurs fan.
Consistently denied an injury-free run in the team, Korsten had made 26 appearances (14 as a substitute) and scored just once before the United game. But that would be the day everything finally came together.
After a Paul Scholes equaliser had cancelled out that sensational early volley, Korsten restored Tottenham’s lead with fine right-footed drive. The match finished 3-1 to Spurs, with Korsten claiming two goals and a man of the match award.
“That performance got everyone thinking, ‘What a player we have here’,” remembered one Spurs fan.
And maybe in a parallel universe somewhere, this story could continue with Korsten’s career taking off from that moment and him scoring many more goals in a Tottenham shirt. A universe where Spurs beat United at home every season and Hoddle fulfils his destiny as the club’s saviour.
But in the universe we currently inhabit, Hoddle only lasted two more years in the job and the Red Devils have been invincible at the Lane ever since. As for Korsten, he did not play professional football again. The Dutchman was forced to retire aged 26 due to injury, with that match-winning United display his last, forgotten act. A callously abrupt ending.
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