When you think of Manchester United in 1999, you think of an all-conquering, legendary side. The Class of 92, bolstered by the likes of Roy Keane, Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Jaap Stam and Peter Schmeichel. You think of a team held up as one of the greatest club sides in English footballing history because they were one of the greatest club sides in English footballing history.
But what we don’t remember is that United spent that season – or the end of it at least – on a knife edge. They won three trophies, but they may have won none. We remember the trophies and the style of play, but would we remember it if they’d been knocked out in the semis?
So often, one goal changes the course of footballing history, and it’s not always an overstatement to say that individual goals have changed the course of human history. The 1954 World Cup final saw West Germany find its feet as a nation in its own right after the destruction and division of the Second World War, whilst the pain of losing that final saw Hungarians take to the streets with the oppressive Communist regime powerless to rein in the demonstrations.
The emotion caused by defeat in a football match led – at least loosely – to an uprising in 1956, crowds spurred on by the memory of ‘54 and the regime’s inability to do anything about it. But, as Jonathan Wilson once remarked darkly, ‘it turns out Soviet tanks can do something….’
Perhaps such high-brow political consequences seem overblown when talking about Manchester United in 1999. After all, it didn’t lead to a new and battered state taking its place amongst the nations of the world, nor did it lead to uprising or a brutal and bloody crackdown.
Though what you can’t overstate is the importance to modern football of Manchester United’s treble-winning season. Without that, United’s place at the forefront of the early 2000s boom in football’s venture with global corporatism may not have happened – or at least may not have been so huge. The treble put them above every other team at just the right time to take advantage of football’s explosion of capitalism.
But every trophy they won that season rested on some crucial, knife-edge moments. It would be overstating it to say that they were dominant in every competition that season. The Champions League final is the obvious example, with two injury time goals wresting the title out of Bayern Munich’s grasp. But Ryan Giggs’ extra-time winner in the FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal minutes after Peter Schmeichel crucially saved a Dennis Bergkamp penalty brought United through to the final; just as fine a margin as their Champions League win was to be a few weeks later.
It’s also easy to forget that they won the league title by a single point, too. But you don’t have to be dominant, you just have to win. Especially when it comes to the record books.
It’s also not as though United weren’t deserving of silverware that season, either. Arsenal may only have finished a point below United in the table, but the Yorke and Andy Cole partnership helped United find the net 21 times more than Arsenal that season.
Between them, the two contributed to 35 Premier League goals and were joint-top and second-top scorers that season. Still, in the end, it all came down to just one of those goals.
When Manchester United faced Tottenham Hotspur in the final game of the season, they held a one point lead. Only a few days earlier, Arsenal lost 1-0 to a very late Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink winner. Had they held out for a draw, United and Arsenal would have been level on points and level on goal difference.
Instead, United held an advantage that was quickly wiped out by Les Ferdinand as Spurs took the lead at Old Trafford. But a great strike from David Beckham levelled the match before half time, and all United needed to do was seal the victory in the second half.
Just after half time, they did.
A ball over the top sent Cole through on goal, his first touch took the ball down just enough, but it made the finish extremely difficult. The ball now behind him and Spurs goalkeeper Ian Walker advancing quickly, Cole improvised and sent the ball over Walker’s head with a delicate chip.
United led 2-1, the nerves were gone and the first part of an historic treble was completed.
But it could have been so different. United had Ryan Giggs and Peter Schmeichel to thank in the FA Cup semi final, they had Andy Cole – and David Beckham who scored the equaliser just before half time – to thank for their comeback in the final game of the Premier League season, had Cole not have settled the nerves early in the second half, the tension would have grown and United may have fallen at the very start of their glorious charge to the treble.
And then they had Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to thank for the late and great comeback in the Champions League final, too.
But that’s not something that takes the varnish off United’s achievements in 1999, in fact that’s the varnish itself. The fact that Sir Alex Ferguson could rely on a different player each time shows not only the individual quality in his squad, but also how well they worked together as a team to have the character and the togetherness to come back from the brink so often and win three competitions in the same year whilst under such immense pressure on each front.
The Giggs goal against Arsenal at Villa Park in the FA Cup, along with the Solskjaer and Sheringham goals against Bayern Munich in the Camp Nou in the Champions League are remembered for their importance, and in Giggs’ case for its greatness, too.
But Cole’s goal on the final day of the Premier League season was just as important, and the wondrous finish when he still had so much work to do is simply emblematic of the final few weeks of United’s season – brilliance under pressure to produce a title-winning moment. The moment that spawned the treble’s endgame.