Back in 1999, Manchester United were at the apex of their time under Sir Alex Ferguson. Though the Govan native would go on to win multiple Premier League titles and more, the turn of the century represented the Red Devils’ most successful period, the 1998/99 campaign the best in their history.
They remained unbeaten in the English top flight from Boxing Day 1998 until the end of the league season, but with six games to go were knocked off of their perch. Top spot was regained with three matches left but with Arsenal breathing down their necks; it meant United had to beat Tottenham Hotpsur on the final day to ensure that the trophy would be heading back to Old Trafford after a year away.
Les Ferdinand’s opener wasn’t in the script but goals either side of half-time from David Beckham and Andy Cole, coupled with a scrappy, backs-against-the-wall performance, saw the hosts win the title in front of their own fans for the first time since the days of Sir Matt Busby.
A Dennis Bergkamp penalty miss away from being knocked out of the FA Cup at the semi-final stage, and three minutes from losing the Champions League final to Bayern Munich, were both fabulous moments that added to the sense of theatre at the business end of that season. Fergie’s men nevertheless saw off each and every challenge to become the first English side to do the treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League, a record they still hold to this day.
The names of Giggs, Sheringham, Solksjaer, Yorke, Cole, Beckham, Keane, Schmeichel et al, will be forever etched in United folklore. Not so their team-mate, Nick Culkin, a man who holds a record that none of his contemporaries will ever beat.
Culkin, a goalkeeper, had already been at the club for nigh on four years by the time the European Cup had been proudly held aloft at the Camp Nou on that balmy Spanish evening in May. Signed from York City as a 17-year-old in September 1995, he cost United £100,000, which was a significant investment at the time.
Ostensibly a youth-teamer and reserve player to begin with, he managed to work his way up to a position of third-choice goalkeeper with the first-team and did manage to get a half of football with them after two years of being at the club.
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Peter Schmeichel had already played the first 45 minutes against SK Brann during United’s pre-season tour of Scandinavia at the start of the 1997/98 season, and Culkin continued the Dane’s good work in keeping a clean sheet in the 4-0 victory.
His lack of playing time might well have caused a lesser mortal to cut his losses but Culkin was made of sterner stuff. He had to be. This was Manchester United after all. Any sign of weakness and the exit door was opened for you. To give up on a career at the Theatre of Dreams at that point would’ve spelt professional suicide, and after all, he was still just 19-years-old. If he were to bide his time, then surely the breaks would come.
Schmeichel’s decision to move onto pastures new at the end of the treble-winning campaign would prove pivotal, despite the fact that Ferguson had signed Mark Bosnich from Aston Villa on a free transfer as his replacement.
The Australian had made three appearances for the club at the beginning of the decade before having his contract cancelled, and judging by how unfit he was at the start of the 1999/00 season, it’s a wonder Ferguson didn’t meter out the same punishment.
Unable to be considered in those early games, it unexpectedly gave Culkin a boost. For however long it might last, he would be reserve keeper to Raymond van der Gouw, a position previously held by the Dutchman when understudy to Schmeichel. After years of sitting around, waiting and wondering, he now had what he thought was a genuine chance at finally making his mark at United. Though it would need an injury to van der Gouw for Culkin to realise his dream, he had to look beyond any misfortune for his colleague.
Not long into the season – four games, in fact – he would get his wish.
United had already drawn at Everton on the opening day and then beaten both Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds at home before heading to Highbury to play an Arsenal side that had taken them all the way in the previous season and who hadn’t lost at home since Boxing Day 1997. The game was billed as the ‘first ever interactive match’ by Sky Sports, promising new camera angles and the like for those who were unable to attend in person.
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Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira were in their pomp and though it wasn’t the infamous game where Keane went after the Frenchman in the tunnel, there was more than enough fire and brimstone in this Molotov cocktail of an encounter to keep everyone happy. The old ground was packed to the rafters with 38,147 crammed in – a season’s best attendance for the Gunners. The majority would have left disappointed with the result but not the fare served up on the day.
Freddie Ljungberg had given the hosts a half-time lead with his second goal for the club, his only other strike also coming against United in the previous campaign. Keane would equalise on 59 and an end-to-end encounter exploded into life five minutes from time when the fiery Irishman got involved with Vieira. Like rutting stags, both used their foreheads against the other whilst standing their ground.
Referee Graham Poll was quick to defuse the situation and the one that occurred immediately afterwards when the Frenchman also went head-to-head with Jaap Stam. He must’ve been in forgiving mood because no cards were shown, not even a yellow.
The north Londoners then fell behind with two minutes left. Who else but Keane, stroking the ball past an advancing Alex Manninger, sent half of the Clock End into rapture Coincidentally, Manninger was only on the pitch because first choice, David Seaman, was unavailable.
As the match ticked into its 94th minute, Stam was penalised for climbing all over Ray Parlour and Arsenal were handed an unlikely lifeline, one which would preserve their home record. With every player being urged forward by those behind the north bank goal which the Gunners were attacking, Dennis Bergkamp flighted a perfectly weighted free-kick into the area.
Matthew Upson rose highest and connected with a towering back post downward header. Van der Gouw managed to save it on his line but with only one hand on the ball as he fell backwards into the net. Just as he managed to get his other palm on it, Martin Keown came steaming in with a challenge that carried the force of a stampeding herd. Once the Arsenal defender’s knee connected with van der Gouw’s temple, it was clear that the Dutchman wouldn’t be able to continue.
Pandemonium in the stands because of the late equaliser soon turned to disbelief as it became clear that Poll had disallowed the goal. Amidst the kerfuffle, Nick Culkin had been woken from his slumber on the bench because Fergie had been immediately made aware by his medical team that van der Gouw’s day was over.
Four ambulance staff were needed to assist the two from United, and when the keeper was carried off on a stretcher, dazed and confused, the seriousness of the injury was immediately apparent. After four years, Nick Culkin’s time had finally come.
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TV footage from the game shows the number 31 nervously waiting to be called on. Without even a short warm-up or sprint down the line, the goalkeeper was being thrust into the spotlight for the biggest moment of his career and the clock had already registered 100 minutes before the free-kick could be taken.
Sprinting onto the pitch and waving his colleagues forward as he did so, Culkin no doubt expected that the time spent tending to van der Gouw would be added on, giving the Gunners the chance to grab their second.
After studding the turf a few times, Culkin placed the ball on the edge of the six-yard box. As the infringement had effectively happened inside the goal, play had to be restarted as though a goal-kick were being taken. He leathered the ball expecting to find a teammate, however Poll’s whistle would deny him even that.
As soon as Culkin made contact, full-time was signalled. A debut that has been recognised as a second long, was actually a fraction of that. The ball was still sailing on its upward trajectory when Poll brought proceedings to a close. In fact, it had taken less than two seconds from the start of his run-up to address the ball until contact was made, but the ball wasn’t technically in play until Culkin had kicked it.
Hands aloft as he made as swift an exit off of the hallowed turf as he had when coming on seconds before, it’s doubtful that anyone would’ve realised that this occasion would be the first and last time he’d turn out for United’s first team – least of all Culkin himself.
Van der Gouw returned just three days later away against Coventry and played again five days after that in a 5-1 hammering of Newcastle. When Ferguson secured the services of Massimo Taibi by the time of the next Premier League fixture, on 11 September, the writing was on the wall.
With Bosnich, van der Gouw and now Taibi ahead of him in the pecking order, Culkin upped and left, signing for Queens Park Rangers, where he made 22 appearances in a three-year period before a long-standing knee injury forced him to retire at the ripe old age of 26. Spells at Radcliffe Bourough, Prescot Cables and FC United of Manchester peppered his retirement and he can now be found at the latter as goalkeeping coach and working as a gardener in the Manchester area.
Though his time at United had never panned out in the way he imagined when signing on that fateful September day in 1995, Culkin’s is at least a Premier League career that will remain in the history books forever – which is more than can be said for many.
By Jason Pettigrove @jasonpettigrove