This season marks 20 years since Manchester United’s incredible Treble campaign of 1998/99.
As part of our series to celebrate the anniversary, we’re tracking that story month by month. After a mixed August, we move into an improved September for the Reds, featuring a first league victory and an epic Champions League encounter at Old Trafford…
If Alex Ferguson hoped an international break and a new month would reboot his side after an iffy August, any such optimism took a dent 32 minutes into September’s opener at home to Charlton Athletic
Newly promoted Charlton had made an unbeaten start to 1998/99 and Alan Curbishley had been named August’s manager of the month, so when skipper Mark Kinsella put the Addicks ahead at Old Trafford, United needed a momentum-shifting moment. Step forward Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Making his first start of the season, the Norwegian drove home from 20 yards to restore parity within minutes. Dwight Yorke then notched his maiden Reds goal to complete a stirring first-half turnaround. After the break, the two added another strike apiece to seal a confidence-boosting 4-1 victory.
That bounce carried over to the next league match three days later, at home to Gordon Strachan’s Coventry City. There would be no concession to the former Reds midfielder – Yorke continued his scoring momentum with the opener, and Ronny Johnsen diverted an errant Paul Scholes drive to make it 2-0 and take three points from a dominant display.
Meanwhile, the Champions League group stage draw had pitched United into what was quickly dubbed the ‘Group of Death’. As well as La Liga champions Barcelona, the Reds had to contend with Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich, while Danish outfit Brondby – Peter Schmeichel’s previous club – made up the quartet. Barcelona were our first opponents, at Old Trafford – and the performance United put on in a 3-3 draw with the Catalan heavyweights set the bar high for the campaign ahead.
Then came a daunting trip to Highbury to face nemeses Arsenal – the Double-holders and our conquerors in three consecutive meetings, including a 3-0 win at Wembley in the previous month's Charity Shield clash. However, Arsene Wenger’s men had made less than a roaring start to the season, following an opening-day win with four straight draws (three of them 0-0) prior to United’s visit. Painfully, though, they chose this game to hit their straps, chalking up another 3-0 scoreline and, to add to the woes of the below-par Reds Nicky Butt was sent off for the second successive match.
A rebound was needed… and who should be next on the fixture list but Liverpool. The game pitted together fierce rivals but ones on opposite longer-term trajectories – though the management duo (for now) of Roy Evans and Gerard Houllier had got Liverpool off to a decent start. But in a classy display, United topped-and-tailed a feisty encounter with decisive goals, Denis Irwin netting from the spot on 19 minutes and Paul Scholes ramming home a sweet left-footer 11 minutes from time.
To complete as challenging a four-match run as you could ever expect, the Reds travelled to Munich for Champions League matchday two – and another early season encounter that would have parallels with what was to come later. In this forerunner to a certain night the following May, late drama stole the show. The smiles were on German faces on this occasion, however – Giovane Elber scored a 90th-minute equaliser to make it 2-2, after goals from Yorke and Scholes had overturned his own opener for Bayern. The spoils of the month, then – one played out amid unrest at a proposed takeover of the club by BskyB – were nine league points, a much-improved Premier League position and an unbeaten beginning to the Champions League in a rock-hard group.
Ship steadied. October ahoy.
PLAYER IN FOCUS: DWIGHT YORKE
The Tobagan with the infectious smile lit up and lifted the dressing room as soon as he arrived from Aston Villa, dissipating the pall of regret that still existed from the previous season’s disappointment. Yorke's effect on the pitch in September was equally positive, getting off the mark against Charlton and never looking back.
TREBLE MOMENTUM MOMENT
The Champions League had become a major preoccupation, and the previous season’s semi-final defeat to Borussia Dortmund still rankled. Kicking off with such intent against Barcelona set the tone for what was to come. United stormed out at Old Trafford and traded blows with Rivaldo, Figo and co in rumbustious fashion. Giggs opened the scoring with a header reminiscent of Tommy Taylor before Scholes made it 2-0 inside half an hour. The Catalans fought back to parity before Beckham applied his surgical right boot to a free-kick for a fabulous third. Luis Enrique’s 71st-minute penalty (Nicky Butt’s handball earning a red card) denied the Reds victory – but as an opening statement, it was a bold and portentous one.
THE MONTH’S STATS
9 Sep 1998: United 4 Charlton Athletic 1
12 Sep 1998: United 2 Coventry City 0
16 Sep 1998: United 3 Barcelona 3
(Champions League group stage)
20 Sep 1998: Arsenal 3 United 0
24 Sep 1998: United 2 Liverpool 0
30 Sep 1998: Bayern Munich 2 United 2
(Champions League group stage)
LEAGUE POSITION (as of 30 September 1998)
6 – Schmeichel, Stam, Keane, Beckham, Yorke
4 – Yorke
This article first appeared in Inside United, the club’s official monthly magazine, which is marking the 20th anniversary of the Treble all season.