#Treble99: When Solskjaer knocked Liverpool out
Today is the 20-year anniversary of our FA Cup fourth-round tie against Liverpool, when Alex Ferguson's Manchester United came from behind to secure a famous win en route to winning the Treble.
Though the meeting came in the cup, Liverpool would certainly test United’s credentials in a tie billed as a battle of the strike partnerships: Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke against Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler.
United’s main men had already plundered 31 goals between them in all competitions, but that was just one more than their Anfield counterparts, and the visitors’ menace was underlined in just the second minute at Old Trafford when Owen headed the opening goal to send 8,000 travelling supporters wild.
Amassed in the Scoreboard End, it was the visitors who crowed for the vast majority of the game as United created and spurned chances aplenty against a Liverpool team defending as if their lives depended on it. In typical style, however, Ferguson rolled the dice and hit the jackpot.
‘It was a terrible start,’ lamented the United manager. ‘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.’
"The manager was used to risk in those days," said Denis Irwin. "He brought me off, put Ole [Gunnar Solskjaer] on and went three at the back, which he did quite regularly, to put an extra man up front. The manager was never afraid to gamble.
"Even in a league match, we have gone three at the back to get a result and even more so in the cups – we had thrown the kitchen sink at it and taken a risk. We were an attacking side, so sometimes it was the best way to go – particularly in a cup game – and that embodied what spirit there was in the team."
Roy Keane might have had a hat-trick, twice hitting the post and having another effort deflect millimetres wide of David James’s goal, but inevitably it was United’s leading scorer who hauled his side back on terms with just two minutes to go. As Liverpool protested the award of a free-kick against Jamie Redknapp, David Beckham picked out Cole, whose vital knock-down was turned home by Yorke at the back post.
"We had some magical moments within that season, but that was incredible,’ grinned Yorke. "We were one-nil down with two or three minutes to play, we were just pushing and thought it was one of those days and we weren’t going to score at all. But then everything changed. Liverpool had played well, defended well and they thought they’d won, but then we snatched it from them."
And, for all the pre-match chatter devoted to the four first-choice strikers, it was another forward, Solskjaer, who would have the final say of the afternoon. In his ten minutes on the field, the Norwegian hadn’t once touched the ball, yet he would need only the most fleeting involvement to alter the course of the entire season.
"I had three touches of the ball, I think. That’s all I had," said Solskjaer. ‘After we’d equalised, we just go straight up again. Jaap hoofs a ball up in behind, Scholesy gets it, so I run into his path, really, and just take the ball off him. I use one touch to take it off him, one touch to set myself, and then another to shoot through Jamie Carragher’s legs. Those are the only touches I had in that game, I think.
‘Sometimes you’ve just got to make the most of it as a sub. That was my job whenever I came on: to be in and around the box. I wasn’t there to create chances for everyone else, I was just there to smell where the ball was going to land and that’s where I was probably better than most."
The delights were layered: FA Cup progress, having come back from the brink of exit, at the expense of Liverpool. The squad was flooded with a collective high, and the afternoon is regarded by almost the entire squad as the result which kick-started the season’s historic run-in.
"After Christmas, it all started to click,’ said Gary Neville, "but the season really started with the Liverpool game. Coming back against them in the last minute in the FA Cup was massive. You can forget about the first half of the season – you always do at United, you never remember anything – but that was the game that started everything.
"From then on, everybody was right and everybody was at it."
Match-winner Solskjaer was the embodiment of Ferguson’s squad rotation policy at its best. Ever a consummate professional, the Norwegian knuckled down, trained harder and ensured that every time he was called upon, he was ready. With a sizeable squad full of such levels of professionalism, the United manager was delighted to see his approach bearing fruit.
"This is the kind of pool we need,’ he said. "It’s good for competition and it’s also for the long-term benefit of the club if we are to stay in the league, FA Cup and European Cup. There’s still a lot of football to be played and they will all play their part. They all want to play and it’s unfortunate that some of them have to be left out. But I hope they recognise the qualities of this club and the nature of football nowadays means they will all get their turn."
Sunday 24 January 1999 | FA Cup fourth round | Old Trafford | Attendance: 54,591
Manchester United 2 (Yorke 88, Solskjaer 90)
Liverpool 1 (Owen 3)
United: Schmeichel; G.Neville, Berg (Johnsen 81), Stam, Irwin (Solskjaer 81); Beckham, Butt (Scholes 68), Keane, Giggs; Yorke, Cole.
Subs not used: van der Gouw, P.Neville.
Booked: Butt, Keane, Giggs, Scholes.
Liverpool: James; Carragher, Matteo, Harkness; Heggem, Redknapp, Ince (McAteer 71), Berger, Bjornebye; Owen, Fowler.
Subs not used: Friedel, Kvarme, McManaman, Leonhardsen.
Booked: Matteo, Owen.
Man of the Match: Ryan Giggs. The surest sign yet that the winger was back to his best after returning from a broken foot. Never gave Heggem a moment’s peace and was constantly probing for a route back into the game.