The Treble was one glorious moment in time
'Is this their moment?” What happened next, be it Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s face, ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley’s pitch or the primal roar of every United supporter inside the Nou Camp, is a moment that never ceases to resonate.
"Beckham, into Sheringham, and Solskjaer has won it." Then it all comes flooding back. Up go the goosebumps. That prod of a ball, three yards from toe to net, is the vessel for a series of unforgettable moments. It is Keane against Juventus, Stam against Zamorano, Giggs against Arsenal and hundreds more from a season in which nanoseconds on the field parlayed into unforgettable nights, weeks and months.
Whether you were alive in the Treble season or not, whether or not you were fortunate enough to be in the Nou Camp, Villa Park or Highfield Road along the way, being a Manchester United supporter of any age includes a stake in that one moment.
It was the end of a road which twisted and turned, sank and rose, upon which a journey began in inky gloom. The 1997/98 campaign was supposed to have been the season in which United, perennial champions, finally bridged the gap to success in the Champions League.
Instead, beset by key injuries in the second half of the campaign, the Reds conceded a hefty lead at the head of the Premier League table, exited the FA Cup against lowly Barnsley and trudged out of Europe after an away goals defeat to an uninspiring Monaco side. The emergence of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal as a new and serious threat left Alex Ferguson with much to contemplate as the Gunners celebrated ending the season as Double winners. The Scot, as ever, was swift and decisive in his actions. In came Jaap Stam as the world’s most expensive defender, Jesper Blomqvist as high-end cover for Ryan Giggs, and Dwight Yorke as the costliest player in the club’s history.
The trio of newcomers entered a dressing room still hurt by the previous campaign, but also carrying fresh scars. David Beckham, red-carded for flicking a boot at Argentina’s Diego Simeone, had been left to carry the can for England’s quadrennial early World Cup exit, and a nation already bored of United’s dominance of the 1990s was gleefully ready to remind him at every turn. “That whole season was just incredible,” reflected Solskjaer, whose own campaign began with the decision to turn down a firm offer to join Tottenham.
“So much happened. Even at the very start, all the abuse that Becks was getting after the World Cup only made him more determined to succeed, and it inspired the rest of us too, because he was one of us. The team spirit in that squad was so special. We just never gave up. If you wanted to play for Alex Ferguson, you gave everything. There were never any lost causes.” The opening day of the Premier League season reflected that spirit. With 10 minutes to go, United were two goals down at home to Martin O’Neill’s Leicester City. Beckham then assisted a Teddy Sheringham header before curling home a brilliant injury-time equaliser. The tone had been set for nine sensational months, fit to burst with highlights.
In any other campaign, winning 8-1 away from home – which remains a Premier League record – would be relentlessly celebrated through the years. United’s romp at Nottingham Forest might not even make the top 10 games of the Treble campaign when juxtaposed with the final three matches of the campaign, semi-finals against Juventus and Arsenal, the last-gasp FA Cup success over Liverpool, a thrilling replay win at Chelsea, a barnstorming Old Trafford triumph over Internazionale, two all-time classic draws with Barcelona and a pulsating group-stage draw in Munich. Ratcheting up an 11-2 win over the course of two group meetings with Brondby is almost a footnote. While the destination was the ultimate, so was the journey.
All along the way, a stellar cast played out the most magical tale. Football has yet to produce a stronger midfield four than Beckham, Keane, Scholes and Giggs or a striking quartet to rival to the varied menace of Cole, Yorke, Solskjaer and Sheringham. Behind a front six hell-bent on scoring the opposition into submission, full-backs Irwin and Neville lent unstinting support in attack, leaving Stam, Johnsen and Schmeichel to man the fort. Butt, Berg, Blomqvist, May, Brown and Phil Neville enjoyed regular and important cameos, while a clutch of youngsters learnt their trade on the job at a scarcely believable time in their lives.
Off the field, Ferguson overcame the departure of the unstintingly popular assistant manager Brian Kidd by promoting equally beloved first-team coach Jim Ryan, then identifying Steve McClaren as the ideal long-term replacement. Standards were as high off the field as on it, making for an environment where, three months from the end of the season, Ryan was already chalking off the wins required to clinch the Treble. Though the Scot’s countdown was tongue-in-cheek at first, it gained momentum with every passing outing. Nevertheless, with three games to go, United had still won nothing beyond a headful of memories. The reward for passing every sapping test was an 11-day, three game series of must-win challenges: beat Tottenham, Newcastle and Bayern Munich to achieve something which had never been done before in the history of the English game; something which bookies had rated an 80/1 shot at the start of the season.
Of course, it wouldn’t be done the easy way. Tottenham took the lead before superb goals from Beckham and Cole secured the return of the Premier League title. Inspirational skipper Keane had to limp out of the FA Cup final against Newcastle after nine minutes before his replacement, Sheringham, duly opened the scoring. Scholes rounded off the scoring at Wembley to secure a domestic Double, before then joining Keane on the sidelines in Barcelona four days later, with their double suspension forcing Ferguson to completely reconfigure his midfield for the Champions League final.
The result was a disjointed display against a robotic Bayern side, who led from the sixth minute, as a long, hard season finally caught up with the Reds. Nevertheless, fortune favoured the brave as the manager gambled, threw on substitutes Sheringham and Solskjaer and watched the tide turn his way. Then came injury-time. You know what happened next.
Keane, sat up in the stands among the 90,245 in the crowd, later said: “I doubt we’ll ever see three minutes of football like that again.” History was made. “The sound of that final whistle was like an electric shock,” beamed Beckham. “I sprinted with my arms stretched out beside me, almost the length of the pitch and down to our fans. The roar that broke out from the United fans when the game finished was deafening and I felt like I was being shot out of a gun towards them. I don’t know if I’ll experience moments, or see celebrations, quite like those ever again.”
While there could be no appropriate compensation for not being inside the Nou Camp at that moment, television commentator Tyldesley soundtracked the occasion magnificently: “Champions of England, champions of Europe, winners of the FA Cup… everything their hearts desired. Down and out, not a bit of it. They are never out. Memories are made of this forever and a day.”
Now, two decades on, time has scuffed no sheen from a campaign which remains preserved, alone, as the benchmark for this and every other club in England. Should anybody match the Treble, or even better it by hooking the League Cup into the mix, it would be near-unfathomable for the deed to be achieved in the same fashion as United’s 1998/99 season.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s men didn’t breeze through an uncompetitive league and easy FA Cup draws before sashaying to the Treble against fallen European giants. Every single step of the way was littered with daunting obstacles: dethroning a magnificent Arsenal team on the final day of the league season; beating England’s best teams in the FA Cup; overcoming a deathly group stage draw and a series of ominous opponents in the Champions League.
Nobody does it better. Nobody could.
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