Sir Alex Ferguson and Steve McClaren.

McClaren: 1999 was like a comic-book story

Steve McClaren will be back at Old Trafford on Sunday for the Treble Reunion game against Bayern Munich, sitting with Sir Alex Ferguson again in the dug-out.

He was introduced as assistant manager during the 1998/99 season and soon ended up winning all three of the major prizes, which he describes as the highlight of his career. By working with a squad of tremendous professionals, all with an insatiable appetite for winning, he was able to implement some of his own ideas and innovations into an already well-oiled machine.

With a chance to reflect on events 20 years ago, the former England manager paid tribute to the likes of Sir Alex and David Beckham, who will both be at the stadium this weekend.

Jim Ryan and Steve McClaren.
Steve McClaren attends his first game as United assistant manager - at Nottingham Forest, alongside Jim Ryan.

”It’s flown by,” he told us. “It will be great to see the old faces again, especially the gaffer and quite a few of the players who I’ve not caught up with. Manchester United is built on history, tradition and celebration of momentous occasions. That’s what makes United great – they talk about now and the future but never forget the past.”

McClaren’s first game was an 8-1 victory at Nottingham Forest, a record on the road in the Premier League, and he never really looked back. Indeed, in each of his three seasons at the club, the Reds won the title and he was a big influence as a key member of the backroom team.

”It was a whirlwind,” he recalled. “I joined on the Thursday and the game on the Saturday was the 8-1 win against Nottingham Forest. So I was wondering what to do on Monday morning in training! And then ending, five months later, unbeaten with three trophies so it was a dream come true and something that sometimes you only read about in comic books. For me, it was certainly the toughest but the most memorable five months in my career.

“I think the beauty of coming to Manchester United was the gaffer’s openness to new ideas and innovation. ProZone, sports psychology, sports science, analytics – it was the beginning of that. It was not only him but definitely the players. The players were a group that wanted to be the best. In some dressing rooms, you get a certain 10-15 per cent like that but, in that dressing room, it was 100 per cent of people who wanted to get better, wanted to win and wanted to improve.

”You’re always looking for the edge. I think the edge was just what the gaffer brought together in that dressing room in terms of the characters. When you looked around, there were so many leaders in there. So many people who could take a game by the scruff of the neck and win games. I think that was the highlight of me going into that kind of environment, with that kind of culture, fierceness, toughness and brutality of those players and their will to win.”

Steve McClaren on the victory parade.
Steve McClaren on the open-top bus in Manchester after the Treble success.

One such player was Beckham, named Man of the Match in the Champions League final against Sunday’s opponents after enduring the fall-out to his red card in the previous summer’s World Cup clash with Argentina. Jeered up and down the country in 1998/99, he responded with the sort of resilience that would become his hallmark.

”Some people crumble,” explained McClaren.“I’d say 99 per cent of people crumble under all that pressure and, at times, hatred, but David thrived on it. It motivated him and gave him strength and steeliness, a mental toughness to overcome that and become better and more determined as a player. He was so influential and one of those players, like I say, who can take a game by the scruff of the neck and win it themselves. A bit like Roy Keane did in the Juventus semi-final.”

For all the brilliance of the individuals, it was a squad game – something the manager introduced really, with four strikers competing for places and nobody guaranteed a spot with so many versatile options available across the park.

“You don’t survive 27 years and win so many trophies and stay at the top of the game without having strengths and one of them was certainly the way the gaffer handled those players and the squad,” added McClaren. ”He planned the season and planned every game, three or four weeks ahead. He pulled players into his office the day before games or on the day of the game to explain why they weren’t playing, whether it was resting, tactical, getting ready or saving energy for the next game.

“A perfect example was when Dwight Yorke was left out of the FA Cup final. He’d never played in one and not played at Wembley so he was desperate for that game, probably more so than even the Champions League final!

”The players never understood it but they accepted it and it was about respect. That was the key thing. They knew their role in the team and knew it was for the benefit of the squad. That was the strength of the dressing room. They wanted to play every minute of every game, and they were actually capable of doing that, but the gaffer introduced squad rotation first and that was the foundation he built the club on.

Jesper Blomqvist, Steve McClaren and Dwight Yorke.
Dwight Yorke was desperate to play in the 1999 FA Cup final against Newcastle.
Steve McClaren, Sir Alex Ferguson and David Beckham will all be at Old Trafford on Sunday for the Treble Reunion game against Bayern Munich, to raise funds for Manchester United Foundation. You can also attend by ordering tickets on 0161 868 800 or visiting www.manutd.com/treblereunion.

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