by David Yaffe-Bellany
For Sir Alex Ferguson, 1998/99 was a year of exorcism. The demons of European under performance, highlighted by the ineptitude of the Premier League’s finest on the continental stage, had Ferguson’s place in football’s coaching pantheon under threat. All that was about to change.
For the multi dimensional Ferguson, the seeds of success were sown in the transfer market. Two additions, one up front, one at the back – Jaap Stam from PSV Eindhoven and Dwight Yorke from Aston Villa – proved pivotal.
The two major signings complemented a squad already packed with top-class talent – academy graduates like Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham combining with arrivals from years past such as Roy Keane, Andy Cole and Peter Schmeichel. The squad was talented, the manager brilliant, yet the start of the new season was undermined by happenings elsewhere.
United, a club who at that point considered itself the occupant of a certain moral high ground, was wanted by the almost certainly crooked Rupert Murdoch. In his fabulous book, Barça, Jimmy Burns eloquently described the situation. “There is genuine fear that the club will lose its identity to a global business empire which treats human beings like cogs in a machine: a world muddled by complicated intercompany borrowings and financing and equally complex joint ventures, and simplified only in its ability to make of violence and sex marketable commodities. ” Cue fan protests, leaflets and secret meetings. The only thing missing was green and gold neckwear.
For all the furore off the field, the opening weeks on it were underwhelming. A sloppy United side stumbled to an unimpressive 2-2 draw with Leicester on opening day, followed by another stalemate away at West Ham. In between, a place in the group stage of the Champions League was secured courtesy of a 2-0 aggregate win over LSK Lodz. In a season defined by excitement, the start had been misleading.
Four games into the new Premier League campaign, and attentions were turned to Ferguson’s bane, the competition which had proved the downfall of Cantona; an unattainable prize despite success on the domestic front. The venue, Old Trafford. The opponents, Barcelona.
If ever one match encapsulated the essence of a team’s season, it was this one – the 3-3 draw at Old Trafford remains one of the greatest European matches ever played there. Goals from Giggs, Scholes and a vintage free kick by Beckham were not enough to beat a Barça side too stubborn to give in. For United fans, the match was but a taster – a sign of things to come.
The change in fortunes which eventually led to Premier League success was triggered by a strike partnership better perhaps than any other in European football. Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke: a match made in heaven.
“I think they were the best in Europe, they were unbelievable.” said Ferguson some time after the treble success. “It was a partnership that just took off immediately. I don’t know why, the chemistry or something just clicked between the two of them but it developed into an unbelievable partnership. So much so that I found difficulty, great difficulty, in keeping Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer warm and happy, that’s how effective Cole and Yorke were. I was very fortunate to have four great strikers like that when you think about it, really fortunate. And yes, it created headaches at time, you know, picking the right two but that season Cole and Yorke were unbelievable. For most of the time Cole and Yorke’s form dictated exactly who we were going to be playing all the time.”
Yorke and Cole were the original double act. In an era slowly shifting towards completion, the strike duo were one of the last great partnerships, before their species was tactically usurped by the increasingly popular 4-5-1. Different from the traditional big-small combination, Cole and Yorke had a connection bordering on the psychic; an ability to know where the other was at all times. Yorke’s rare ability to get on with the notoriously friendless Cole probably helped too.
Aided and abetted by the prodigious creative skills of Beckham, Scholes and Giggs, the Yorke-Cole combination fast became the most important piece of English football’s premier jigsaw puzzle. Sitting proudly with his jaw moving at a pace of knots was the creator, Alex Ferguson. He hadn’t acquired the knighthood quite yet, but his success in controlling the man nicknamed “All Night Dwight,” (for one season at least) in and of itself surely warranted the honours he would later receive.
Like all wily puzzle-builders, he started with the corners, the foundation of United’s sumptuous sky scraper, players like Roy Keane and Peter Schmeichel. Roaring every time a shot filtered through, the Great Dane echoed sentiments made loud and clear by Keane in midfield; forever perfectionists, mistakes as common as a misplaced pass sparked bouts of fury from both. For many United fans, Keane remains the true hero of the treble campaign – a season symbolized by that brave header in Turin. “Roy Keane with a captain’s goal,” and all that.
The prodigal son, David Beckham, worked hard to silence critics still bellowing for his execution, as well as fans still singing about Diego Simeone. His crossing was, as ever, immaculate, his dead ball striking even more so. Off the field he remained a super star, and on it helped bandage a wounded reputation. Two corners taken in stoppage time at the Camp Nou proved the pinnacle though. Indeed, the pressure a corner-taker faces in such a situation should not be underestimated.
On the other wing, Giggsy ran defenses ragged, most notably in the FA Cup semi final – his slaloming dribble the most spectacular of moments. “He just bobbed and weaved and kept on going, and when he needed a finish, my God did he give us one” said Andy Gray. A moment encased in amber by the ever eloquent Scotsman.
The members of Fergie’s “supporting cast” played their bit too, Solskjaer scoring four in fifteen minutes at Nottingham Forest, and Sheringham popping up with the odd goal as well. The two were also on hand to deliver a couple of the most stunning moments in Manchester United’s vast history. But more on that later.
By March, United’s charge had picked up steam, the soon to be champions preparing for the onset of “squeaky bum time.” To the fans’ relief, Murdoch’s bid to take over the club fell through, as did Inter’s Champions League quarter-final challenge. The stage was set for a three-pronged battle, a triumvirate of triumphs lay ahead, but it was by no means a guarantee, football’s fickle fancy just wouldn’t have it that way.
United, as always, made it hard for themselves. They went two-nil down away to Juventus before rallying to reach the Champions League final – a theme of brinkmanship later replicated at Villa Park, when only a last minute penalty save by Peter Schmeichel prevented an exit at the hands of Arsenal in the FA Cup. The final weekends of the season weren’t any simpler.
Needing a win to guarantee Premier League glory on the final day of the season, Fergie’s men went down 1-0 at home to Tottenham. United’s subsequent comeback was not their first, nor was it destined to be their last. Goals from Beckham and Cole steadied the ship, though news of Arsenal’s exploits elsewhere ensured that the closing stages were typically tense. Celebrations at the final whistle were tempered by a sense of the bigger picture, victory here was just a starter, a whetting of the appetite before the real feast began.
Of United’s three wins, the final of the FA Cup was the most routine. A comfortable 2-0 defeat of Newcastle seems especially easy in retrospect, especially considering what lay ahead.
George Best claims he left early, a folly which has befallen so many unfortunate football fans who didn’t think twice when tempted by the worst premonitions of even a legend like Best. How though, after following United all season, anyone could possibly have given up is beyond me.
The story is a familiar one, the protagonists legends. The very touchline on which Ole Solskjaer warmed-up remains one of InsideUnited magazine’s ‘Top 100 places to visit’ over the summer. The fact that it is located in the heart of arguably football’s most majestic stadium doesn’t feature.
The two goals in stoppage time which won Manchester United the 1998/99 Champions League have been replayed on innumerable occasions, the commentary on top of them holy dialogue – Clive Tyldesley, forever the narrator of dreams. Beckham’s two corners, one eventually scuffed home by Sheringham, the other prodded in by Solskjaer are the two most iconic set pieces of all time – ineffable patches on United’s richly colored treble quilt.
But forget the poems, love songs and articles written. Only one line need be repeated in remembrance. “Football. Bloody hell,” said Ferguson. Perhaps, the three most fitting words ever spoken.