February, 1998. Manchester United are twelve points clear at the top of the table and on course for a tilt at only a second-ever European crown.
They have just beaten Derby County 2-0 in front of yet another then-capacity crowd at Old Trafford (a shade over 55,000 people), but – worryingly – Ryan Giggs has torn his hamstring; this after Roy Keane’s knee ruled him out for the entire season the previous September. No matter. United look indomitable, to the point that Manchester-based bookmaker Fred Done pays out £17,000 in bets placed by punters for a third successive Premier League victory.
Fast forward one month.
March, 1998. Further hit by injuries, bad form, and a lack of confidence, Manchester United drop points in the league away to Sheffield Wednesday (0-2), at Upton Park against West Ham (1-1), and, crucially, at home to their nearest rivals, Arsenal (0-1).
To make matters worse, AS Monaco edge passed them on the away goals rule in the UEFA Champions League, while a loss to Barnsley away in an FA Cup replay means that United will finish astonishingly the season empty-handed.
Arsenal go on to deservedly win a domestic League and cup Double, but the sentiment within the United camp is that injuries and fatigue has cost them dear.
In response, Ferguson plots an audacious summer of spending, identifying the weaknesses in not only his team, but his entire squad. Moving once again one step ahead of the times, the canny Scot has realised that football in the dying days of the twentieth century is no longer about a strong starting XI.
Rather, and as we all now know, it is about a strong twenty-five man squad that can stand the rigours of a long and arduous season where teams play three times a week, and which is spent fighting on multiple fronts at home and abroad in the very furthermost corners of an increasingly-open Europe.
Three high-profile purchases are made that make the world sit up and take notice of United’s intent. The Dutch defensive monster, Jaap Stam, arrives from PSV Eindhoven for a tidy £10.5m, a British record for a defender until the Rio Ferdinand transfer for nearly three times that amount in 2002.
Jesper Blomqvist, the Swedish teenager who single-handedly destroyed Manchester United’s European Cup ambitions in the 1995/96 season when playing for IFK Gothenburg, is also bought in, in his case from Italian giants AC Parma, in what is no doubt a precaution against Giggs’ precarious hamstrings.
But it is up front that Fergie raises many an eyebrow when he splashes out £12.5m on Aston Villa’s Trinidadian striker, Dwight Yorke. In an unprecedented move in the English game, Manchester United amass four international forwards in their squad when Yorke joins England’s Teddy Sheringham, brought in as Eric Cantona’s replacement in the summer of 1997, the prolific Andy Cole, and Norwegian Ole Gunnar Solkskjaer.
All up, the squad contains over twenty players who are on active international duty for their countries at the time.
Captained by a fit-again and hungry-as-ever Roy Keane, and commanded by the utterly dominant Peter Schmeichel in goal, 17 different players scored 126 goals that season in a freely-attacking style made possible by a midfield that contained Scholes, Giggs and Beckham, all in their youthful glory.
This team captured the imagination of everybody watching football at the time, as Ferguson built the first-ever super squad – but definitely not the last.
Fans and pundits alike, however, all began asking themselves: How could they possibly all play? What does Fergie need all them for? Where’s he going to fit them all in? But Ferguson had seen the future, yet again, and – over the next three years – the Manchester United juggernaut rolled to three successive titles, each one seemingly easier than the last.
In 2000, United posted by a record that will most likely stand for all time when they won the English Premier League by margin of 18 points in 2001. No, that isn’t an error – a full 18 points! In 2001, it was 10 points. The 1999 victory was the squeakiest of the three-in-a-row titles, won from a very impressive – and unlucky – Arsenal on the last day of the league season by a solitary point.
No other team in the Premier League era has matched the feat of winning three league titles on the spin, and it looks unlikely that any team ever will again.
It was not just in the League, however, that Ferguson’s squad-based approach bore success. In the 1998/99, United captured their third Double in five years when they beat Newcastle United 2-0 in the FA Cup Final after again overcoming Arsenal in an epic semi-final replay as part of an even greater triumph when they added to this achievement – that was at one time considered a once-in-a-generation event – with one of the most dramatic victories ever seen in the European Cup.
League and Cup safely in the bag, Manchester United’s most glorious season culminated in the Champions’ League Final against Germany’s Bayern Munich at Barcelona’s Camp Nou in May, 1999. The match has since gone down in history and folklore.
United went one down on the stroke of six minutes when a Mario Basler free-kick found its way past Schmeichel to silence the travelling English fans. Bayern were desperately unlucky not to go further ahead and secure the European Cup on a number of occasions, including a Carsten Jancker overhead kick that smashed off the cross-bar and out late on, but not before Mehmet Scholl saw one of his shots hit a post.
Then the impossible dream came true. Into the three minutes of injury time added on by referee Pierluigi Collina to the regulatory 90, United famously scored from two corners in quick-succession to take the European Cup home for the first time in 31 years since Matt Busby’s, team captained by Bobby Charlton, claimed glory on the Wembley turf in 1968.
It is a truly unbelievable moment in sport, and is still talked about as the most defining moment in Alex Ferguson’s entire 26-and-a-half-year reign at Old Trafford. The manner in which the European Cup was won both epitomised and symbolised the supreme mental qualities and will to victory embodied by every one of Ferguson’s Manchester United teams.
In the never-say-die attitude that paid off in the most glorious of ways after it seemed that all hope was lost after going into the very final seconds of the match, this team wove its own legend into the rich tapestry of footballing history in a manner befitting the attacking style built around home-grown talent that so hallmarked each of Alex Ferguson’s teams, and – indeed – Manchester United as a proud and historic club founded on the sacred memory of the fallen Busby Babes.
Ferguson and his Manchester United players became immortals of the game that night in Catalunya, when, on a rare occasion of loyalties being laid to rest for one night, it seemed that fans of every English club were willing United to victory over the Germans.
Alex Ferguson became Sir Alex Ferguson for his services to football, while the ‘Class of ‘92’ – the FA Youth Cup winning team containing Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, and David Beckham – finally graduated with first class honours to join the high table of world football.
Their adulation was such that half a million people lined the streets of Manchester to welcome their conquering champions home.
Globally, Manchester United’s on-field success meant that their popularity translated into their becoming the richest club in the world by the summer of 1999.
Asia, in particular, found a symbol to which to attach its footballing allegiance – and its dollars. The bars of distant places, including the likes of Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Japan and Australia, are to this day packed by fervent fans in the ungodly hours of a Sunday morning every time United take to the field.
Millions more watch on television, their heroes’ matches beamed directly into their homes by satellite – all for a small premium, of course.
With an estimated following of over a billion people, spawned largely from the magic of that 1999 Treble success, it is worth considering this astonishing statistic: Manchester United is loved by one person in every seven in the entire world.
Ferguson had at last done it. He had won his much-coveted European trophy, and, in the process, his Manchester United assumed not just English but global dominance. Glory, glory, Man United.
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