First Football Read: Minutes from success or failure – The magnificent Manchester United treble

A brief read covering the 1998-99 season which culminated in a historic treble for Manchester United

 

Only seven clubs have ever won the European treble in continental football history, a feat which combines a domestic double of the top-flight league and primary cup competition, plus the Champions League. Celtic achieved the feat in 1967, winning Scottish Football League, Scottish FA Cup and the European Cup.

When Manchester United spectacularly ended the 20th century with their trio of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League crowns, Alex Ferguson's team became the first ever English side to win the European treble; a feat which no other English club has yet come close to matching, almost two decades later.

Perhaps what makes the 1998-99 success of Manchester United so memorable is the manner in which they achieved it, because it was a European Treble that could so very nearly have eluded them, but for key moments in decisive games that season; not least a Camp Nou conclusion to the campaign of mythical proportions.

Premier League

The key aspect of the 1998-99 Premier League campaign was how fiercely the title race was fought for, with three teams jostling for position heading into the final run of games. The first half of the season had been habitually sluggish for Manchester United, only briefly topping the table in the middle of December having already lost three games and drawing too many for comfort.

Pre-Abramovich Chelsea had been setting the pace through most of the early season, whilst the previous campaign’s Premier League and FA Cup double winners, Arsenal, were within touching distance and looking just as strong. A far cry for both, and the Red Devils, compared to the current 2017-18 campaign with noisy neighbours Manchester City currently setting the pace. Premier League title odds for the United side managed by José Mourinho have lengthened with most bookmakers, but with the side looking like the only serious challenger to City, many betting enthusiasts have used a free bet offer with United at 16/1 in the latest football odds.

Just as they are now, Manchester United were playing catch-up as the campaign headed into 1999, but their form in January was exceptional. West Ham were hammered 4-1, then Leicester were trounced 6-1, then after 1-0 wins against Charlton Athletic and Derby County, Nottingham Forest were annihilated 8-1 at the City Ground; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scoring an incredible four goals in the last ten minutes from the bench.

Sir Alex Ferguson

Sir Alex Ferguson

Meanwhile, Arsenal had gained a huge boost to their chances with a crucial win against Chelsea on 31st January at Highbury, in the midst of an unbeatable run of form which included a draw at Old Trafford on 17th February. The Gunners topped the table heading into the final month of May and as the Premier League title odds swung back in their favour, United sat in second and Chelsea slipped to third after three straight draws in April. A narrow win at Middlesbrough then put United back on top with two games remaining, whilst crucially, Arsenal suffered defeat away at Leeds United. The title race would be decided on the final day of the season.

Not without irony, Arsenal’s bitter North London rivals Tottenham would be Manchester United’s opponents in their final game of the campaign. In what turned out to be a nerve-shredding encounter at Old Trafford, Les Ferdinand silenced the crowd with a 24th-minute strike for Spurs. David Beckham equalised before the break, then Andy Cole fired his side into the lead in the 47th minute, but the result was far from certain.

Tense and end-to-end at Old Trafford, United couldn’t kill the game off and Spurs were having their fair share of chances, whilst, at Highbury, Nwankwo Kano had fired Arsenal into the lead against Aston Villa. Steffan Iversen was denied an equaliser for the visitors by Peter Schmeichel and the nerves were jangling, but with much jubilation at the final whistle, Alex Ferguson’s side held on to claim the Premier League crown.

 

FA Cup

Middlesbrough were brushed aside in the third round, but in the fourth round, United were paired with arch-rivals Liverpool. In what could have been an omen for encounters yet to come in the season, the Red Devils mounted a spectacular comeback at Old Trafford after trailing the Merseyside team; Dwight Yorke equalised in the 88th minute and Solskjaer scored a stoppage-time winner.

Round five produced a draw made in media heaven, with Alex Ferguson pitted against Kevin Keegan once more, albeit with the latter managing third-tier Fulham this time. Nevertheless, a single goal from Andy Cole proved to be the difference on the day. In the Sixth Round United were presented with another tough obstacle in the shape of Chelsea. After a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford, a challenging replay away at Stamford Bridge was required, but the Red Devils produced one of their best performances of the season, leaving London with a 2-0 victory thanks to a brace of goals from Dwight Yorke.

Manchester United and Arsenal were neck and neck in the Premier League title race, so few eyebrows were raised when the two were paired in the FA Cup Semi-finals. In a tense affair at Villa Park, there was controversy when Roy Keane had a goal disallowed and Nelson Vivas was sent off in extra time. However, the 0-0 draw was a fair reflection of an even game and the best was yet to come in the replay.

David Beckham and Dennis Bergkamp scored superb goals either side of half-time in a pulsating match filled with flair and style, incidents and emotions, between the two best teams in the country. Arsenal thought they had the lead when Nicolas Anelka slotted home, but his goal was disallowed. In the ensuing melee of complaining players, Roy Keane was dismissed and United needed a string of fine Schmeichel saves. 1-1 at the end of ninety minutes and with the game in extra-time - the ‘Great Dane’ - was the hero again after Ray Parlour was felled inside the area by Phil Neville, saving the resulting penalty struck by Bergkamp.

If the game hadn’t produced enough thrills already, Ryan Giggs then produced what is widely considered to be the best goal in FA Cup history. Picking up a loose ball deep in his own half, the Welsh wizard set off on a mazy run, dribbling through the entire Arsenal defence to smash the ball past David Seaman. An individual moment of absolute brilliance, and a pivotal moment in the season that earned United their place in the Final.

After the gruelling route to Wembley and the remarkable events of the Semi-finals, the final itself against Newcastle United proved to be somewhat of an anti-climax. Manchester United dominated from start to finish, with little resistance from the Magpies, as Teddy Sheringham and Paul Scholes scored in each half to secure a comfortable victory. The tenth FA Cup win for United, securing a historic third league and cup Double.

Manchester United fans celebrate their 1999 FA Cup win at Wembley Stadium

Manchester United fans celebrate their 1999 FA Cup win at Wembley Stadium

Champions League

Manchester United cruised through their preliminary round tie against Polish side, LKS Lodz. Their reward was the “Group of death” in that season’s Champions League. Danish champions Brondby would prove to be the underdogs, but fearsomely, this group also featured European giants Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

Brondby were comfortably thrashed both home and away, but either side of those two matches, it was the encounters with the Bavarian and Catalan sides which produced the greatest spectacles. Twice United went in front against Bayern Munich, twice the Germans escaped with draws. Twice the Red Devils were leading against Barcelona, yet twice they too recovered to draw. In the end, Alex Ferguson’s side finished second in the group and were reliant on results in other groups to progress, but the fortune they merited was with them and progress they did.

The Quarter-final draw paired United with Inter Milan, which also threw up a tasty re-encounter between David Beckham and Diego Simeone, after the spat between the two at the 1998 World Cup had resulted in the Englishman being sent off against Argentina. In the end, that proved to be of little consequence and Manchester United solidly dealt with their Italian rivals via a 3-1 aggregate win, though a tense encounter at the San Siro required a late Paul Scholes goal to kill the tie.

Another foe from Italy awaited in the Semi-final in the shape of a very powerful Juventus. Antonio Conte headed his side into the lead at Old Trafford, before Giggs produced a stoppage-time equaliser. United faced the prospect of a difficult second leg; having never won on Italian soil, a special performance was needed. After Filippo Inzaghi opened the scoring and it looked like the Red Devils were going to fall short. Booked and guaranteed to miss the final, Roy Keane lead the comeback in spectacular fashion. His equaliser led the charge and Yorke put his side ahead before the break. Cole added a third before the end and Ferguson’s side reached the final at the end of a special night at Stadio delle Alpi.

Ferguson had to shuffle his midfield pack with Keane and Scholes suspended for the Camp Nou final in Barcelona. Blomqvist started on the left, Giggs on the right, with Beckham and Butt in the centre as they faced Group opponents Bayern Munich once more. The Bavarian giants made the perfect start after Mario Basler scored a free-kick after just six minutes and his team continued to dominate.

Mehmet Scholl hit the post, then Carsten Jancker hit the crossbar, whilst Schmeichel produced save after save and United looked a beaten side, even with the introduction of Solskjaer and Sheringham to freshen things up in attack. German legend Lothar Matthaus had been substituted and sat smiling on the bench, when the fourth official indicated three minutes of stoppage time; he was moments from lifting the only trophy that had eluded him in his illustrious career.

However, fate can be a fickle friend and destiny was calling when United pushed forward to earn a last-minute corner and even Schmeichel trotted forward to add his presence. Beckham swung in a ball that Samuel Cuffour could only partially clear, Giggs volleyed the ball back into the area and Sheringham arrived with the finish. The Red Devils had somehow found a way back and Bayern buckled. Immediately after the restart and with seconds left of stoppage-time, United won another corner. Another Beckham cross was met by a flicked header from Sheringham, then Solskjaer prodded the ball into the roof of the net. The mixture of surprise and elation on his face said it all, and United had completed one of the greatest European comebacks of all time.

The verdict of Matthaus later was that Manchester United were “lucky” to have won, with his Bayern Munich colleagues stunned and inconsolable. Ferguson and his side had achieved his personal Holy Grail with the club, fittingly on the 90th birthday of Sir Matt Busby, who had lead the last United side to do so in 1968. The Red Devils had unquestionably had their lucky moments throughout the European competition, and their domestic season. However, the undeniable truth is that they deserved their magnificent European Treble triumph. This team had never given up any game, or even moment, as a lost cause. They had battled to the very end with every last ounce of team effort.

Article Published: 18th November 2017

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