The greatest season in United’s history began against a backdrop of potential takeovers, summer signings (remember them?) and the media vilification of one of its star names. Martin Edwards gave the green light to the signings of Jaap Stam and Jesper Blomqvist. The on-off deal to wrap up Dwight Yorke from Aston Villa, was signed, sealed and delivered, eventually.
David Beckham, meanwhile, returned from the World Cup as public enemy number one. This followed his infamous red card thanks to some complete sh*thousery on the part of Diego Simeone.
On the takeover front, BskyB looked to have bought United at one point, although the bid was finally blocked by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in March 1999. That bid was worth north of £500 billion.
This week’s Throwback Thursday will hopefully take away some of the mither caused from the latest lockdown. So, crack open a cold one, and put your feet up for a few…
The season started with the traditional Wembley curtain raiser. Roy Keane returned from a season long cruciate injury, and Stam debuted in defence. Sadly, for United, they were roundly beaten by Arsenal with Jaap Stam given the run-around on a boiling hot day in a 3-0 defeat. Anyone listening on the radio would instantly know when Beckham received the ball, as a deafening cacophony of jeers greeted his every touch!
Next up was the small matter of Champions League qualification. LKS Lodz were comfortably despatched in a 2-0 first leg victory thanks to goals from Giggs and Cole. The Premier League opener pitted United against Leicester City who found themselves two up, with fifteen minutes remaining, thanks to goals from Heskey and Tony Cottee. Teddy Sheringham netted after cleverly diverting a weak Beckham shot to give United hope. Then in the final minute, United won a free kick. Beckham curled it up and over the wall and beat the goalkeeper at the near post, and set off towards the crowd with the commentator declaring “BECKHAM’S BACK… LOVE HIM OR HATE HIM… YOU CAN’T KEEP A GOOD FOOTBALLER DOWN!” Relief around Old Trafford, and maybe a precedent set for games further down the road? The only other matter of real note, was that Dwight Yorke’s on-off transfer from Villa was completed. The Trinidad & Tobago international made his debut at the Boleyn Ground in a goalless draw as Beckham returned to London for the first time since St. Etienne. The United coach was targeted with stones and bottles, as a 500 West Ham mob tried to intimidate United. Beckham had a torrid reception and was roundly jeered, Hammers fans still bitter at his involvement in England failing to qualify.
Yorke’s Old Trafford account was soon up and running when he netted twice in a 4-1 rout of Charlton Athletic. He followed that up with another goal against Coventry City, however, was unable to do anything to stop Arsenal who racked up a 3-0 home victory. Towards the end of the month, Liverpool were well beaten 2-0 thanks to an Irwin penalty and a trademark tracer missile from Scholes’ left foot. Sandwiched in amongst all of this, United had drawn Barcelona and Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League. The first game against Barcelona was a high scoring affair with Giggs and Scholes sending United into a two nil lead. Sonny Anderson pulled one back for Barcelona and then Jaap Stam was harshly adjudged to have fouled Rivaldo. Giovanni netted the spot kick. Beckham restored United’s lead with a glorious free kick at the Stretford End. Barcelona were not finished though, and when Anderson hit the post, Butt handled on the line and was dismissed. Luis Enrique stepped up to dispatch the penalty. In Munich the spoils were shared as Yorke and Scholes were on target in a 2-2 draw.
United had a rampant month, scoring thirteen goals in the league without being beaten. The pick of the bunch was a 5-1 demolition of Wimbledon, with Beckham, Cole, Giggs and Yorke on the scoresheet. In the Champions League, Peter Schmeichel’s old club Brøndby, the Group of Death’s whipping boys were beaten 6-2 in Denmark.
United started the month with a goalless draw against Newcastle, it was one of the rare occasions where they didn’t score. Wins against Blackburn and Leeds United, sandwiched a rare loss, this time away at Sheffield Wednesday. It was a chance to go top, but it extended a barren run to eight games without a win against the Owls. Meanwhile in the Champions League, Brøndby were drubbed 5-0. You had to feel sorry for the Danes. They had already been thumped 6-0 in a pre season friendly! After this there was the small matter of Barcelona at Camp Nou. Another fantastic feast of football was served up by the two European giants. Sonny Anderson scored in the first minute for Barça. He had the chance to make it two, but was thwarted by Schmeichel. Two minutes later, Blomqvist and Yorke combined and it was the ex-Villa man who found the net. Into the second half and after eight minutes, Yorke and Cole combined to stun the Catalans. Cole found the net, but the one-two between them was the stuff of dreams. Four minutes later, Rivaldo wrong footed Schmeichel with a wonderful curling free kick. Rivaldo and Yorke then trades chances, before a Beckham cross was met by the diving head of Dwight Yorke. The kamikahze match was now 3-2 to United and a famous victory was on the cards. Sadly, Rivaldo had other ideas. The Brazilian found the equaliser with a stunning overhead kick, before rattling the bar with a thunderous long range effort.
The Christmas month saw Champions League qualification courtesy of a 1-1 draw against Bayern Munich. However, in the league, United faltered. There were three consecutive draws against Villa, Spurs and Chelsea (twice), whilst a defeat await at Middlesborough would have done nothing to cement Championship credentials in many fans minds. The only win would come on Boxing Day as Forest were sent back to the City Ground on the end of a 3-0 defeat, thanks to goals from Johnsen (2) and Giggs. December also saw United depart the League Cup in the fifth round at the hands of Spurs.
United kicked off the New Year by knocking Middlesborough out of the FA Cup. Their next action in the league would be disrupted by a power cut. It didn’t prevent them from dismantling West Ham 4-1 with goals from Yorke, Cole (2) and Solskjaer. Yorke and Cole would combine again in a 6-2 away win at Leicester City. The 4th round of the FA Cup brought the visit of Liverpool to Old Trafford. An early goal from Owen in the second minute put the visitors in front. United then lay siege to the Liverpool goal and hit the woodwork twice. It looked to be the old enemy that would progress, before late goals from Yorke and Solskjaer in injury time, sparked wild euphoria in the United end. To add injury to insult, the first United goal came from a debatable free kick when Johnsen went down under a challenge by Redknapp. Thank goodness for no VAR. At the end of the month, Yorke settled an away game at Charlton in the 89th minute.
Only one game is really worth talking about in February. City Ground, Nottingham and Dwight Yorke on a hattrick with two goals already, gets hooked for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It’s the 80th minute and United are home and dry. There’s no need to go for more goals. Not so much “park the bus”, but maybe just see the game out? No such luck. This is Manchester United we’re talking about after all. Ten minutes later and Solskjaer walks off with the match ball and four goals to his name. It was a Premier League record for goals scored by a substitute. There were only ten shots on target which meant a 90% shot to goal ratio.
United only played twice in the league in March, claiming victories against Newcastle thanks to two Andy Cole goals, and 3-1 against Everton. A rare collectors item as Gary Neville found the back of the net. The main focus was in the Champions League. As if by fate, United were drawn against Internazionale of Milan. It of course, brought David Beckham and Diego Simeone together again, which added spice to the occasion. A frosty pre match handshake and onto the game. Beckham’s first tackle on the Argentinian showed that he wasn’t going to bottle the occasion. Inter knew that he was a threat and having shaved the bar with his first free kick, he found Yorke unmarked in the penalty area to give United a sixth minute lead. Simeone then almost equalised, but his 30 yard effort whistled past the post. The pace of the game picked up, causing the Old Trafford pitch to cut up after days of heavy rain. On the stroke of half time, the combination between Yorke and Beckham struck again with the former heading in another trademark Beckham cross. It was pretty much one way traffic from United although Simeone scored with a diving header from a corner, only to see it ruled out for a push – who knew that karma wore red, white and black? Inter plugged away and were unlucky not to get an all important away goal; Henning Berg made an heroic goal line clearance. In the return, Ronaldo started despite his injury problems. Nicola Ventol put the Italians one up and pushed relentlessly for another goal. United rode their luck and had the woodwork, Henning Berg and the referee to thank for keeping the score down. Paul Scholes popped up in the 88th minute to keep his cool and sidefoot past Pagliuca after Cole’s header left him unmarked on the six yard line. In the FA Cup, a replay was needed to see off Chelsea. Two goals from Yorke, the second a sublime lob with the outside of his right foot sent United through.
The title race was close with Arsenal and United pushing each other every step of the way. But in April, United dropped points and drew 1-1 away at Wimbledon (Beckham) and Leeds (Cole). Both draws either side of a 3-0 win against Sheffield Wednesday which saw Sheringham, Solskjaer and Scholes on target. In the FA Cup, the title challengers, United and Arsenal were drawn together to play at Villa Park. The game finished 1-1, but United were unlucky to see a Roy Keane goal ruled out for offside. Arsenal ended the game with 10 men having had Nelson Vivas sent off. The replay a few days later, would go down in FA Cup folklore. United were the first to score. A deft touch from Sheringham and a superb curling shot from Beckham, completely wrong footed Seaman in goal. So one nil to United at the break, but parity was restored with a fine goal from Bergkamp. Having turned on a sixpence, he beat Schmeichel from long range. The tide had turned and from being “all United”, suddenly Arsenal were in the ascendancy. Bergkamp tried his luck again, causing Schmeichel to spill the ball to the onrushing Anelka. The Frenchman coolly rounded Schmeichel to score and ran off celebrating, oblivious to the raised offside flag, much to the amusement of the United fans. Roy Keane then saw red for a challenge on Overmars and just when everyone had probably settled for penalties, Phil Neville brought down Ray Parlour, to give Arsenal a penalty, and match point. Bergkamp stepped up, but was thwarted by a heroic save from Schmeichel. The game that had had everything, had only one thing missing; a winner. Cue Patrick Vieira. There was no obvious danger when Vieira sidefooted the ball across the centre of the field towards Lee Dixon. But the pass fell short. Ryan Giggs smelt blood, and was onto it in a flash. He picked the ball up and surged at the Arsenal defence. Past Vieira. Past Dixon. Past Keown and Dixon (again), on the edge of the penalty area. Before being one on one with David Seaman. A last gasp lunging block from Tony Adams, was still not enough as Giggs rifled the ball into the roof of the net from close range. Giggs ran off shirtless to celebrate chased by a pack of teammates, into a small invasion of delirious travelling reds. It was a real momentum shift and if any belief of any fighting spirit was needed, perhaps it came from this? Of course, in the midst of all this nonsense, United had a Champions League semi final against Juventus to sort out. The first leg at home had ended 1-1 as United needed a lifeline from a late Giggs goal to keep them in the tie, following Antonio Conte’s away goal for the visitors. For much of the game, Juventus’ Champions League pedigree was there for all to see and for United to still be in the tie at the end of the game, was at least something. Zidane and Davids had run the show from the centre of the park and Juventus created several decent chances. United although inferior had a penalty shout turned down, and a Sheringham goal ruled out for offside. But in Turin, Juventus quickly went into a 2-0 lead. Inzaghi netted both times, the first stealing in unnoticed at the back post, the second, cruelly deflected off Stam and up and over Schmeichel. United seemingly dead and buried, found hope in the 24th minute. A Beckham corner from the left, met with a towering header by Roy Keane. It was to be a defining moment for the United skipper. Soon after, Keane fouled Zidane to pick up the booking that would rule him out of the final. Ten minutes after the first goal, United were level on the night. Cole found Yorke who headed into the Juventus net. In the second half the Italians made changes and started to threaten, but Stam and Johnsen held firm. Cole had a glorious chance to put United in front and Irwin hit the post before Inzaghi thought he’d scored, only to see the flag raised. Both teams were giving everything but it would be United who would prevail. As Juve pushed forward, Yorke burst through only to be brought down by Peruzzi. Thankfully Andy Cole was on hand to sidefoot home and send United through to the final. United celebrated the win, which came at a cost of losing Keane and Scholes for the final in Barcelona.
Trophies aren’t won in May, but they certainly can be lost in May. Had United ended up empty handed, I don’t think anyone would have had cause for complaint. They had faced the biggest teams domestically and in Europe and found themselves with an FA Cup and Champions League Final as a bonus to challenging for the title. There were six games in which to decide the fate of the Premier League. A home win against Villa preceded a visit to Anfield. United went 2-0 up, only to be pegged back following a Redknapp penalty. In the 76th minute, Irwin was dismissed for a second bookable offence, giving Liverpool a man advantage. In the 88th minute, former midfielder Paul Ince delivered a devastating blow with an equaliser that swung the Championship pendulum back towards North London. United then beat Middlesborough thanks to Dwight Yorke, before a goalless draw against Blackburn Rovers, who had former United assistant Brian Kidd in charge. It set up United’s last game of the season at home to Tottenham in perfect style. Win, and there would be no need to worry about what Arsenal might be doing at Villa Park. True to form, United went 1-0 down. Les Ferdinand gave the visitors a shock lead in the 24th minute and both the Spurs fans and players seemed too stunned to celebrate properly. Parity was restored in the 43rd minute when David Beckham smacked in the equaliser that was almost “free kick” like in it’s execution. Three minutes into the second half, and Andy Cole gave United the lead. It was a cool finish given the circumstances. Cole controlled a long pass from Neville before hooking the ball over Ian Walker at the Stretford End. United were Champions!
With one trophy in the bag, United headed towards Wembley in confident mood. Roy Keane, banned for the Champions League, saw his afternoon ended early, following a tackle by Speed. Solskjaer replaced him and played on the right of midfield with Beckham switched to the middle. Newcastle just had no answer and were easily swept aside by United thanks to goals from Sheringham and Scholes.
The final game of this incredible season saw United lock horns with Bayern Munich again, who they had faced in the group stage. United had to reshuffle their midfield. Giggs taking to the right hand side with Beckham and Butt in for Keane and Scholes. Mario Basler gave Bayern the lead in the sixth minute. It was the fourth time United found themselves behind in Europe and the germans proceeded to dominate the game. Yorke had a chance after Stam’s header ricocheted into his path, but the ball drifted wide. Another half chance fell to Cole in the 35th minute but still the equaliser eluded United. United came out fighting in the second half after a spirited half time team talk from Ferguson. A Giggs corner found Johnsen, but the header was too high to trouble Kahn. United’s best chance fell to Blomqvist, but he was unable to convert an inch-perfect ball from Giggs. The pace of the game and atmosphere was was electric. Ferguson then made the first change that would prove pivotal; Sheringham on for Blomqvist. This meant Beckham moved out to play more in his accustomed role. Bayern made their own change, bringing on Scholl for Zickler. Effenburg attempted to lob Schmeichel before a 30 yard Basler run ended with Scholl chipping Schmeichel, but it rebounded off the post directly back into the arms of the big Danish keeper. Ferguson then replaced Cole with Solskjaer, who almost equalised immediately, only to be denied by Kahn. With five minutes remaining, Jancker beat Schmeichel with an overhead kick but was denied by the crossbar.
Three minutes of injury time was announced and history tells us that the UEFA officials had placed ribbons in the colours of Bayern Munich, passed on their commiserations to the watching Bobby Charlton, and were heading down ready to present the old trophy to Bayern Munich.
Then United won a corner. Peter Schmeichel found himself, in his last United game, in the Munich penalty area. Beckham swung the ball in. Towards the towering Schmeichel. Missed it. Dwight Yorke. Not really anywhere near it. Suddenly there was chaos in the Bayern ranks. Cleared. Giggs with a shot. Scuffed admittedly. But there was the alert Sheringham to help it over the line. A glance at the linesman, no flag and United were level. Unbelievable! United had saved themselves, when seemingly dead and burie and now had a chance to compose themselves ready for extra time. The game restarted and Irwin cleared the ball down the line. Solskjaer kept up the momentum and won United another corner. Some fans were still shocked and elated at the equaliser. Beckham raced over to take it. Years of practice came down to this moment as he swung it in, onto the head of Sheringham… AND SOLSKJAER HAS WON IT!
History made. A cartwheeling Schmeichel. Bobby shedding a tear, no doubt remembering his own triumphs, and tragedy. Nobody will ever win a European Cup more dramatically than this.
Champions of England. Champions of Europe. Everything their hearts desired.
Football eh? Bloody hell…!