Treble achievement standing test of time
'All or Nothing' is the title of Amazon's sporting documentary series, including one on Manchester City's 2017/18 season.
Yet the Blues' Champions League assault was ended, quite emphatically (5-1 on aggregate), at the quarter-final stage by Liverpool. League One side Wigan Athletic knocked City out in the fifth round of the Emirates FA Cup.
This is not to downgrade their achievement in winning the Premier League and League Cup but it wasn't really a case of all or nothing. Nor, as it turned out, was Liverpool's campaign this term. For all the talk of them being among the league's greatest-ever teams, Jurgen Klopp's men ended up falling well short of any Treble.
And it seems to happen most years - stories emerge predicting the leading clubs will repeat United's feat but, thus far, they always fail.
In the closing stages of the 1998/99 season, it genuinely was all or nothing for United. We'd had the nothing four years earlier when drawing at West Ham United to miss out on the title and then suffering a hangover that led to defeat in the FA Cup final to Everton. Doubles in 1994 and 1996, only dejection in the year in between.
The Champions League added a whole new level of excitement to the Treble season. We hadn't reached the final of the competition since 1968, remember, and it remained the only time we'd won the European Cup.
So the stakes could not have been higher and it was only when we entered into the home straight that the stuff of dreams could only start to be contemplated.
After all, it was not like United were coasting to the title and able to rest players, even if Alex Ferguson did have a deep squad at his disposal. When we lost at home to Middlesbrough a week before Christmas, nobody would have predicted the Reds would remain unbeaten for the remainder of the campaign.
When Liverpool were leading heading into the final minutes at Old Trafford in the FA Cup fourth round, an exit from the competition appeared inevitable. Two rounds later, in the last eight, I think most of us had resigned ourselves to the run ending at Chelsea, who were among the best teams in the division, after they took us back to Stamford Bridge for a replay, following a 0-0 draw.
Of course, when Dennis Bergkamp stepped up to take the penalty in the semi-final, thoughts quickly turned to the prospect of the Gunners doing a second Double in successive years. Peter Schmeichel's save and Ryan Giggs's stupendous solo goal proved to be glorious turning points.
A week later, Juventus took an early two-goal lead in the Champions League semi-final second leg and all seemed lost again. Italian sides, particularly this mighty Juve one, simply did not leak goals at home. But, somehow, we turned it around.
A goalless draw at Blackburn Rovers set up the following scenario:
16 May: Tottenham (H) - Premier League
22 May: Newcastle (N) - FA Cup final
26 May: Bayern Munich (N) - Champions League final.
All or nothing.
The Reds needed to beat Spurs to be sure of the title and, predictably, fell behind in order to do things the hard way. No easy ride, even if the last thing any Tottenham fan wanted was for Arsenal to be handed the trophy.
Arsene Wenger's Londoners had been three points clear, having played a game more, as late as matchweek 38, after winning the derby with Spurs, while United drew 2-2 at Liverpool. But Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's late strike for Leeds against the leaders had opened the door, the night before our stalemate at Ewood Park.
Hence, matters were in our hands and we did the job, in stressful circumstances, securing the victory required to stay one point clear of Arsenal, who defeated Aston Villa on the final day.
"Peter Schmeichel's save and Ryan Giggs's stupendous solo goal proved to be glorious turning points."
As nervous as that day was at Old Trafford, the Wembley final with Newcastle United proved more straightforward, even though the manager shuffled his pack a little and lost inspirational skipper Roy Keane early on. A third Double in five years in the bag, after a 2-0 triumph, but the big one, the one that would define this team was on the horizon.
We all know the supernatural events that occurred in the Nou Camp against Bayern Munich. Anybody there knows how blessed we were to witness one of sport's most amazing finales. I've spoken to many of the heroes from that night and they are keen to point out how badly we played and there was a great deal of luck involved. Yet I feel this is used to sometimes downplay the overall achievement. That seems to have been the case this year.
Even the main man, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, suggested recently it is harder to do the Treble now than it was back then. I would never like to argue with the manager but, to be frank, I think he is wrong. It is probably just his natural humble nature, which he shares with his colleagues from 1999, which is behind such statements.
His reasoning was Arsenal were the only main challengers domestically, and yet Chelsea also topped the table and there was some strength in depth. Chelsea had Marcel Desailly, Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola. Hasselbaink was banging the goals in for Leeds. Alan Shearer was Newcastle's spearhead and talisman. Liverpool had a strikeforce of Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen. It was also more difficult to even enter the competition - we needed a play-off with LKS Lodz despite finishing runners-up to the Gunners in the Premier League.
"I've spoken to many of the heroes from that night and they are keen to point out how badly we played and there was a great deal of luck involved. Yet I feel this is used to sometimes downplay the overall achievement."
And, what's more, we did it the hard way.
Drawn in a European group of death containing Barcelona and Bayern Munich, we racked up 20 goals and provided some glorious entertainment in order to reach the knock-out stages. Two-legged ties with Inter Milan and Juventus, both at home first, were true tests of our mettle. Bayern, themselves going for a Treble, in the final. And we were deprived of Keane and Paul Scholes in midfield, prompting the boss to name a unique XI that was only ever fielded once.
In the FA Cup, we faced Middlesbrough, who had beaten us a couple of weeks earlier and finished ninth in the standings, Liverpool (seventh), Fulham (won the Second Division with 101 points), Chelsea (3rd) and Arsenal (2nd) before seeing off Newcastle (13th) at Wembley. I reckon that will compare favourably with most victors' runs in the competition if you are talking about difficulty of opponents.
So, for me, the Treble cannot ever be disrespected. Other teams will, no doubt, get close to it (let's not forget we had to beat Liverpool in 1977 to stop them pulling it off). Will anybody ever repeat it, though? Let's just say it is not as easy as people seem to think it is when the trophies start getting handed out and the pressure is truly on with glory or failure in the balance.
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