Michael Owen battles with Jaap Stam

The story of United v Liverpool in 1999

Saturday 23 January 2021 11:00

Even in a campaign so replete with seminal moments as the Treble season, there is no understating the importance of this victory over Liverpool; it was an epochal comeback which spawned all the history made by Alex Ferguson’s team over the remainder of the campaign

Trailing Michael Owen’s header inside three minutes, United battered away at the visitors, straining every sinew and wringing every last drop of hope until, finally, Dwight Yorke tapped home an 88th-minute equaliser.

Then, rather than consolidate and settle for an Anfield replay, United pressed on for more and duly received it when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer struck an injury-time winner that shook Old Trafford to its foundations. The added gloss of schadenfreude capped an incredible day for Ferguson, his players and their supporters, but a mood of frustration had gripped Old Trafford for most of the game. It took Liverpool under three minutes to move ahead, as Vegard Heggem picked out Owen, who had strayed from Gary Neville and was free to nod home a simple opener.

“It was a terrible start,” lamented Alex Ferguson. “God almighty, you wouldn’t think a five foot, six inch striker would score with a header in the first minutes at Old Trafford. I wasn’t too pleased about that.”

United 2 Liverpool 1 Video

United 2 Liverpool 1

Goals from Yorke and Solskjaer completed a comeback for the ages against Liverpool on 24 January 1999...

Stunned by their lackadaisical start, United’s players took their time to warm to the occasion. When the cohesion required to create a chance finally arrived, it was thwarted by a combination of David James’s goal frame and ex-Reds midfielder Paul Ince. After James helped on David Beckham’s cross. Roy Keane directed his header against the inside of the near post, only for the ball to bounce across the line, strike Ince and rebound to James.

Liverpool’s 8,000 travelling supporters revelled in the near miss, and were almost in a state of pandemonium shortly afterwards when Robbie Fowler’s speculative right-footed curler arced fractionally past Peter Schmeichel’s top corner.

The visitors continued to threaten on the counter-attack, as Gerard Houllier allowed his side to sit deep for long periods – although, in fairness, they were often penned back by United’s breathless attempts at forcing a way into the game. Keane came agonisingly close twice more, first with a shot that struck Jamie Carragher and bounced inches wide, then with a low, left-footed effort which pinged the base of James’s post.

Owen’s pace continued to prove problematic at the other end, but as the game entered its final ten minutes his touch let him down after Jason McAteer put him through on goal. By that point, Ferguson had repeatedly rolled the dice, introducing Solskjaer and Paul Scholes for Denis Irwin and Nicky Butt, while Henning Berg made way for Ronny Johnsen.

Liverpool continued to defend heroically, but were undone by their own passion two minutes from the end when they vehemently protested the award of a free kick against Jamie Redknapp for a debatable foul on Johnsen.

“It was a crucial moment,” Houllier opined. “I didn’t think it was a foul and Jamie told me it wasn’t. That broke our concentration.”

Gary Neville goes up against Michael Owen.

With Liverpool’s players slow to resume their defensive positions, Beckham ignored the chance to shoot and clipped a ball to Andy Cole at the back post, and the striker headed perfectly into the path of Yorke for the simple close-range conversion.

Old Trafford erupted, and was still abuzz when, midway through the second of two added minutes, Jaap Stam’s long ball exposed Liverpool’s deep defensive line, landing at the feet of Scholes. Before the midfielder could shoot, however, Solskjaer – with his first touch of the game – nicked the ball, shaped to shoot into James’s far corner and instead drilled it through Carragher’s legs and into the Stretford End goal.

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It was bedlam in the stands as fans bounced and bellowed in undiluted joy, while Liverpool’s players dropped to the turf, spent.

“Liverpool’s players have every reason to be gutted,” puffed Ferguson. “They defended fantastically but sheer determination got us through.”

Between the two goals lay the substance of United’s season; a sense for momentum. They harnessed the impetus, the wave of emotion and relief that had greeted parity, and rode it all the way to victory over their fiercest rivals.

This is an excerpt from the book 'The Impossible Treble: the Official Story of United's Greatest Season' (SImon & Schuster, 2013).