Fergie at United pt3/5: Domestic domination and Treble triumph

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Having examined Sir Alex Ferguson's frequently fraught first five years and increasingly successful second five-year spell, Vithushan Ehantharajah examines the turn of the century at Old Trafford as Fergie set his sights on conquering Europe...

The turn of the century was perhaps the most impressive time of Alex Ferguson’s reign at Old Trafford. Manchester United dealt with the rise of a strong and exciting Double-winning Arsenal side, responding with an emphatic and historic Treble. This was the period when Manchester United established themselves as a ruthless juggernaut with an insatiable goal-lust tempered by a mentality impervious to uncertainty.

In summer 1995, Alex Ferguson had sold Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis and Mark Hughes and put his faith in the cream of the 1992 FA Youth Cup-winning team. Over the following summer, Fergie continued to clear out his first great team.

He was presumably ecstatic when Leeds offered an eye-popping £4.5m for Lee Sharpe, who had struggled to be picked over Ryan Giggs and the emerging David Beckham, while he could happily give free transfers to Steve Bruce and Paul Parker due to the existence of ready-made replacements in David May and Gary Neville.

Just turned 21, Neville had really come of age in United's defence, flitting between centre-back and right-back as required; that summer, he also cemented his place in England's Euro 96 team. As Ferguson said of the 5ft 11in defender, "If he was an inch taller, he'd be the best centre-half in Britain. His father's 6ft 2in – I'd check the milkman…"   

Ferguson also astutely acquired a couple of Norwegians in goalscorer Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and versatile defender Ronny Johnsen, later adding midfielder Jordi Cruyff and Czech winger Karel Poborsky.

The squad looked stronger than ever, but Ferguson was again frustrated by his main target. Alan Shearer, who had been on Fergie's wish-list for almost a decade, wanted to leave Blackburn; with a fee agreed, he held extensive talks with the United manager. However, a last-minute call from Kevin Keegan persuaded Shearer to join hometown club Newcastle instead for a world-record £15m.

Shearer's Magpies debut was a 4-0 Charity Shield drubbing by the side he'd rejected, but an early-season run of one loss in 13 games had been brought to a shuddering halt at St James' Park as Newcastle hammered the champions 5-0 in what many saw as a changing of the guard at the top of the Premier League. Inevitably, Shearer scored.

Reeling, United squeaked past Swindon 2-1 in a home League Cup tie in front of just 31,000 fans – but then collapsed 6-3 at Southampton in farcical circumstances, claiming their grey away shirts hampered visibility. They then lost home games to Fenerbahce and Chelsea and by Bonfire Night were sixth in the league behind Arsenal, under new manager Arsene Wenger.

Pulling together in adversity, United inflicted Wenger's first defeat to start a 16-match unbeaten league run. Beckham was increasingly influential and Solksjaer an instant Stretford End hero with several key goals.

Their Christmas form was highlighted by a tremendous 5-0 win over Sunderland. Solskjaer scored twice, but the game is best known for a moment of impudent brilliance from captain Eric Cantona as he took the ball from the halfway line, danced past a few players, played a one-two with Brian McClair and chipped delightfully over the onrushing Lionel Perez.

By the time the unbeaten league run ended in March, United were four points clear at the top – and although they had quickly exited both domestic cups, they had beaten Porto 4-0 in the home leg of their Champions League quarter-final. Sadly for Ferguson, those were United's last goals of the continental campaign. The formality of a second leg in Portugal produced a goalless draw, but United seemed overawed to be in the semi-finals and lost 1-0 in each leg to eventual winners Borussia Dortmund.

The disappointment had little effect on their league form and they marched to another league title, seven points ahead of Newcastle, Arsenal and Liverpool. Solskjaer ended the season as United’s top scorer with 19 goals in all competitions, but the real story was David Beckham.

Having announced himself to the world in the Premier League opener at Wimbledon with a stunning injury-time lob from the halfway line, United's No.10 ended the season as PFA Young Player of the Year and a regular in the England side Glenn Hoddle was building for France 98. For Beckham and United, the future looked excellent domestically, and they had grand designs further afield…
1996-97: Premier League winners, FA Cup R4, League Cup R4, Champions League SF, Charity Shield winners

Having broken United's 26-year wait for a top-flight title, Alex Ferguson was well aware that the new season marked the 30th anniversary of their only triumph in Europe's top club competition. The plan was to build a side brimming with youthful potential around the talismanic Eric Cantona.

Imagine the manager's surprise, then, when the brooding Frenchman suddenly retired at the end of the 1996-97 season. Not yet 31, the captain had helped United to four league titles in five years and surely possessed the footballing brain to cope with diminishing athleticism, but that brain had simply lost the enthusiasm for football.

Ferguson desperately tried to dissuade the Frenchman but knew it was to no avail. Now he had to get by without the man who had led United to four league titles in five years. It was a big ask. "Of all the many qualities a good team must possess, the supreme essential for me is penetration," Ferguson reflected. "Eric brought the can-opener."

With little time to reflect, Fergie quickly made Roy Keane his captain, gave David Beckham inherited Cantona's iconic No.7 shirt and signed 31-year-old Teddy Sheringham from Tottenham for £3.5m. Also arriving to boost Old Tarfford's burgeoning Scandinavian community were £1.2m striker Erik Nevland and Blackburn's £5m defender Henning Berg.

Four clean sheets and five wins helped United started the season on top of the league, and the rest of the league feared it would be the same old story. But in late September, Roy Keane injured himself attempting to tackle Leeds' Alf Inge Haaland, who stood over the prone captain claiming he was feigning injury. In fact Keane had ruptured his cruciate ligament and would miss the rest of the season.

Keane vs Haaland: To be continued…

Meanwhile, in North London, a new power was rising. Having replaced Bruce Rioch in October 1996, former Grampus Eight manager Arsene Wenger had steered Arsenal to third place – and incurred the wrath of Fergie. After the Frenchman's complaint that the season had been extended in order to accommodate Manchester United, Ferguson reacted angrily that “He’s a novice: he should keep his opinions to Japanese football.”

The first encounter between the two this season came in early November at Highbury. In their previous two games United had beaten Barnsley 7-0 and Sheffield Wednesday 6-1, but the Gunners won an excellent game 3-2 to cut the gap to one point. However, United then won six league games on the bounce and by Boxing Day were 13 points clear of erratic Arsenal, with Blackburn the nearest title challengers six points back.

United started 1998 falteringly but still entered March 11 points clear at the top of the table and, having topped their Champions League group, facing a quarter-final tie with Monaco. One publicity-hungry (and United-mad) bookmaker paid out on punters who'd backed Ferguson's side to win the Premier League.

However, Arsenal had three games in hand over the champions, and were coming into fine form, with the solid defence inherited from George Graham now acting as a platform for the talents of Patrick Vieira, Emanuel Petit, Marc Overmars, Dennis Bergkamp and Nicolas Anelka. And in Manchester, the wheels were starting to fall off.

A loss at Sheffield Wednesday and a draw at West Ham weren't the ideal preparation for an Old Trafford showdown with Arsenal. A gritty game came to life 15 minutes from time when Overmars sprinted onto a Nicolas Anelka flick on to fire through the legs of an injured Schmeichel, giving Arsenal a valuable 1-0 win.

After the game, Wenger refused to rule out United, and Ferguson was typically bullish but the defeat looked to have caused a psychological blow to his side. Although still six points clear, they had played three games more and Arsenal were in irresistible form: the Old Trafford win was the fifth of what would prove to be 13 successive league wins in which Wenger's men conceded just two goals.

Later that week, a 1-1 draw at home to Monaco – after a goalless draw at the Stade Louis II stadium – meant United were knocked out on away goals. Further draws against Newcastle and Liverpool, coupled with Arsenal's unrelenting charge, saw United lose top spot in the middle of April.

United won their remaining three games, but Arsenal kept winning until the title was clinched, also going on to claim the FA Cup and their own second Double. Ferguson congratulated Wenger on his achievement, but was quick to point out that his side had inconceivably thrown their title away.
1997-98: Premier League 2nd, FA Cup R5, League Cup R3, UEFA Champions League quarter-final

It can't have been a contented United squad that reconvened for the new season. New star David Beckham had been widely blamed for England's World Cup exit after his red card for a petulant kick at Argentina's Diego Simeone – and although protective of his young charge, Beckham's club manager was still seething about the way United had handed Arsenal the title in spring.

Ferguson signalled his intent to shake things up by signing Dutch centre-back Jaap Stam for £10.6m (a record for United, the Netherlands and any defender) and shunting Gary Pallister, who had played 42 times the previous season, back to Middlesbrough for £2.5m.

Also leaving was Brian McClair, while Peter Schmeichel announced that it would be his last season at Old Trafford. Parma's £4.4m winger Jesper Blomqvist added back-up but the £12.6m signing of Aston Villa striker Dwight Yorke, to add to Cole, Sheringham and Solskjaer, gave Ferguson an unmatchable quartet of top-quality front-men.

Losing the Charity Shield 3-0 to Arsenal can't have helped Fergie's feelings, and United went 2-0 down at home to Leicester in their opening league game – until they levelled through sub Sheringham and an injury-time Beckham free-kick.

The following week Beckham was the centre of attention again, this time unsavoury, as United visited West Ham. The team bus was pelted with bottles and stones, while Beckham was subject to obscene chanting throughout the game. As a result, Ferguson ordered his players and staff to refuse any media interviews after the game.

There were other off-field troubles to contend with as satellite broadcaster BSkyB launched a takeover bid for the club. The bid was widely unpopular but after being raised from £575m to £623.4m it was accepted by the club's PLC board on September 9, triggering a long fan campaign and an investigation by the Monopolies & Mergers Commission which lasted for much of the season until the bid was ruled illegal in March.

Against such distractions, United again lost 3-0 to champions Arsenal – their heaviest away defeat in more than two years. In addition, the team had been drawn in a Champions League 'group of death' with Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Brondby. In the event, United racked up 11 goals in two wins against Schmeichel's old side, while sharing four entertaining draws with the German and Spanish giants.

That allowed United to qualify with Bayern but the Barcelona games in particular gave the side belief they could go toe-to-toe with Europe's finest. A specific positive was the partnership building between Yorke and Cole, their development of a telepathic understanding clear for all to see with a sublime goal in a 3-3 draw at the Camp Nou.

Even so, after defeat at home by Bryan Robson's Middlesbrough just before Christmas, United – already out of the League Cup early on, as was becoming traditional – were third in the league behind Arsenal and Chelsea. They quite simply didn't lose again all season, embarking on a 33-game unbeaten run that would write them into legend.

With a new sense of drive and purpose, and strikers firing in from all angles, United steadily climbed the table. They beat West Ham 4-1 and Leicester 6-2, went top of the table through 1-0 wins against Charlton and Derby – and then hammered Nottingham Forest 8-1, with sub Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scoring four times in the last 10 minutes against Ron Atkinson's new side.

A 1-1 home draw with Arsenal ended a run of eight straight wins but kept the Red Devils top of the league, and the FA Cup campaign was also going nicely. United were drawn at home four times, but played five top-flight teams during the campaign: after beating Middlesbrough, United came from behind to beat Liverpool with very late goals from Yorke and Solskjaer. United then beat third-tier Fulham and, after a Stamford Bridge replay, title contenders Chelsea to set up yet another clash with Arsenal in the semi-final.

Before that, though, there were the Champions League knock-outs to attend to. Two Yorke goals from Beckham crosses saw off Inter Milan 2-0 at Old Trafford, although Beckham's mate Diego Simeone had a second-half goal disallowed for pushing. An away goal would have made it very hard for Ferguson's young side in the return leg; United had never won on Italian soil, and Inter pulled out all the tricks – elbows, dives and some excellent football, going 1-0 up and threatening extra time until a late equaliser from sub Scholes killed the tie. As Ferguson remarked, Scholes "went into that cauldron as calmly as someone popping round the corner for a newspaper".

United were installed as favourites but drawn against Juventus, again with the first leg at home; Ryan Giggs's injury-time equaliser cancelled outed Antonio Conte’s away goal. Then it was Villa Park for the FA Cup semi-final with Arsenal; a goal-free two hours meant the sides reconvened the following Wednesday for a widely-acknowledged classic.

Beckham's long-ranger opener was levelled by a deflected Dennis Bergkamp shot. A disallowed Anelka goal was followed on the hour by the dismissal of Keane for two bookable offences; in injury time Phil Neville gave away a penalty but Bergkamp's penalty was excellently saved by Schmeichel.

The stage was set for one of the most memorable goals in FA Cup history, one which helped cement the idea that this team didn't know how to lose. Picking u
a loose pass in his own half from Patrick Vieira, Giggs slalomed past most of the Arsenal defence and hammered into the roof of the net, celebrating what turned out to be the winner by displaying his startlingly hairy chest to the world.

After a routine league win over Sheffield Wednesday, United resumed their European campaign at Juventus. Two early Pippo Inzaghi goals put the home side in a seemingly unassailable 3-1 aggregate lead until Roy Keane got hold of the match. Despite picking up a yellow that would rule him out of the final anyway, the captain dragged his team back into it, converting a Beckham cross to start a fightback continued by Yorke's equaliser just before half-time and capped by Cole's second-half winner.

Ferguson later expressed his admiration for captain Keane in the most generous terms. "The minute he was booked and out of the final he seemed to redouble his efforts to get the team there. It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have ever seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player."

Thanks in no small part to Keane, United were in the Camp Nou final against Bayern Munich, but first, there was the small matter of the tightest league title race in years, complicated by United's game in hand and the teams playing on different days. Arsenal and United swapped the lead several times, but the Gunners' 1-0 loss to Leeds in the final midweek put Ferguson's side ahead by a point. Now Wenger had to pray Spurs did their deadly rivals a favour by winning the closing league game.

They tried their best, Les Ferdinand's goal stunning Old Trafford until a Beckham equaliser just before half-time. Ferguson brought on Andy Cole and the striker scored the winner two minutes into the second half with a calculated lob over Ian Walker. That left a nervy last 43 minutes for United, especially when Arsenal went ahead through Kanu at Highbury, but they managed to hold on to regain their crown.

A week later United clinched their third Double in six years with a fairly routine 2-0 win over Newcastle through early sub Sheringham and Scholes. Thoughts were already on the potential Treble at the Camp Nou, on what would have been Sir Matt Busby's 90th birthday.
Without first-choice central midfielders Scholes and Keane, Ferguson brought in Nicky Butt and Jesper Blomqvist, with Beckham in the middle and Schmeichel the captain on his farewell appearance. Mario Basler gave Bayern Munich a first-half lead, and Ferguson had to work his half-time magic.

"At the end of this game," he told the United players, "the European Cup will be only six feet away from you and if we lose you'll not even be able to touch it. And for many of you that will be the closest you ever get. Don't you dare come back in here without giving your all."

"Get out there and let's see what happens..."

United pressed but Bayern held firm. As ever, Ferguson sent on his spare strikers, Solksjaer and Sheringham, while trying to compose himself to be gracious in defeat: "I was reminding myself to keep my dignity and to accept that this was not going to be our year after all." Except it was, thanks to arguably the most memorable climax to any football match.

In injury time, United won a corner; with Schmeichel up, Beckham swung the ball in before it was partially cleared to Giggs on the edge of the box. As he volleyed the ball back in, Sheringham swivelled on the ball and levelled the score. Extra time would have felt like a victory, but United won another corner. With Schmeichel staying back, Sheringham this time turned provider, as he nodded into the path of Solskjaer, who hit the ball into the roof of the net to give United a last-gasp, somewhat undeserved, utterly unforgettable victory. As Ferguson grinned to a camera in the post-match melée, “Football – bloody hell!”
1998-99: Premier League winners, FA Cup winners, League Cup quarter-final, UEFA Champions League winners

Immediately knighted, the new Sir Alex's first job was to replace Peter Schmeichel. Former United trainee Mark Bosnich took a free from Aston Villa, while Italian keeper Massimo Taibi arrived from Venezia for £4.5m. In the event, Taibi became a byword for goalkeeping failure and Ferguson's fallibility, his Old Trafford career lasting just four games after a horrendous error against Southampton at Old Trafford.

Also arriving were defenders Mickael Silvestre and Quinton Fortune; with Ronny Johnsen and emerging youth-teamer Wes Brown both missing much of the season with injury, Silvestre would end up playing three dozen times.

There were other issues for Ferguson to deal with. As European champions, United were invited to take part in the World Club Championship in Brazil; chasing votes for the hosting of the 2006 World Cup, the FA suggested with quiet firmness that United withdraw from the FA Cup – the first time the winners had ever done such a thing. The move drew widespread criticism, not helped by United's failure to get past the group stages in Brazil.

"So we're going to win the World Cup?"

Any season would struggle to follow a Treble-winning campaign, and there was a distinct feeling of 'after the Lord Mayor's show'. United lost the Charity Shield to Arsenal and the European Super Cup to Lazio and exited the League Cup at the first hurdle.

In the league, United were as dominant as ever, with Yorke and Cole picking up where they left off: together with Solskjaer, they had registered 53 goals in United’s Treble-winning campaign. While the Norwegian was now getting used to a spot on the bench, he was still more than willing to do his bit when he got the chance, and registered four goals against Everton at the beginning of December, repeating the feat he had achieved against Nottingham Forest in the previous season.

In fact United’s impressive league run was only halted by their trip to Brazil. After returning from their much-maligned trip, they started haltingly but found their way back to form and the top of the table.

The season's major lesson came in Europe. After easing their way through two Champions League group stages, United were drawn in an enticing quarter-final against Real Madrid. A goalless draw at the Bernabeu seemed to set up a glory night at Old Trafford, but United's attacking game left them open to being picked off by the Spanish giants, who went 3-0 up before Beckham and Scholes made the scoreline respectable.

It seemed that Ferguson had little left to learn in England: United only lost three league games in the entire season, finishing 18 points clear of runners-up Arsenal, amassing 91 points, 97 goals and a +52 goal difference. But even as the media lauded his fearless 4-4-2, the Scot knew United couldn't always rely on bravado against the continent's top teams: they had to get tactically cannier.

1999-2000: Premier League winners, League Cup R3, Champions League quarter-finals

Still seeking an adequate replacement for Peter Schmeichel, Ferguson paid Monaco £7.8m for charismatic France goalkeeper Fabien Barthez. Fergie was also keen to sign PSV's goal-grabbing Ruud van Nistelrooy, but the striker snapped his cruciate ligament during training. Even so, Ferguson stayed in contact with PSV, tracking the striker's rehabilitation with a view to signing his man the following year.

Another coup was the move to Carrington, a purpose-built training centre providing the latest state-of-the-art facilities and – arguably as importantly – greater security and privacy. As Sir Alex grinned in his new surroundings, "the journalists call this place Colditz. That's right. And that's just the way we like it."

After last season, the Premier League looked to be a one horse race, as – despite again losing the Charity Shield, this time to Chelsea – United were quickest off the block. By the New Year, they had only lost twice, albeit to title rivals Arsenal and Liverpool.

However, the gulf between Fergie’s champions and their challengers was highlighted when an under-strength Arsenal came to Old Trafford. In one of the most one-sided matches that season, United were four up inside half an hour, with Dwight Yorke taking out the frustrations of a stop-start season by netting a hat-trick inside 20 minutes. United eased off in the second half but the customary late goal – from former Spurs man Sheringham – made it a 6-1 embarrassment for Arsenal and put United 16 points clear at the top. In February.

"Imagine beating title rivals 6-1!"

By that time United were out of both domestic cups: their customary early League Cup exit was followed by an FA Cup Fourth Round defeat to West Ham at Old Trafford, Fabien Barthez revealing his eccentric side by appealing for offside instead of stopping Paolo di Canio stroking home the winner.

United’s Champions League campaign was also gathering speed as they ambled through the first group stages, before going unbeaten in the second group stages, to set up a showdown with Bayern Munich, who were out for revenge after United’s smash and grab in 1999. This time, Bayern were definitely the better side, following a 1-0 win at Old Trafford with a 2-1 win in Munich, before eventually going on to win the competition.

On the home front, United cruised to the league title before losing the last three games allowed Arsenal to close the winning margin to 10 points. The first manager to win three successive top-flight English titles, Ferguson had now won seven Premier Leagues in nine years to prove his club's domestic mastery. Perhaps the biggest worry was within the camp, where Roy Keane seemed increasingly difficult to manage, despite Ferguson's wholehearted public defence of his skipper.

In April's ill-tempered Manchester derby, Keane was sent off for a vicious knee-high challenge on Alf Inge Haaland. Widely condemned by the media, the foul was cold-dish revenge for Haaland's behaviour when the Irishman had injured himself at Leeds in late 1997. Keane's subsequent comments in his August 2002 autobiography proved his intent and earned him further FA censure.

It wasn't the first time that Keane had been the centre of controversy.  After United’s November Champions League clash with Dynamo Kyiv, he lambasted the crowd for what he felt was a dire atmosphere.

"Sometimes you wonder, do they understand the game of football? We're 1-0 up, then there are one or two stray passes and they're getting on players' backs. It's just not on. At the end of the day they need to get behind the team.

"Away from home our fans are fantastic, I'd call them the hardcore fans. But at home they have a few drinks and probably the prawn sandwiches, and they don't realise what's going on out on the pitch. I don't think some of the people who come to Old Trafford can spell 'football', never mind understand it."

In disparaging corporate customers, Keane had caught a widespread mood among the earthier supporters, at United and beyond. Caught between his captain and his board, Ferguson refused to be drawn on the subject but was reportedly unhappy with Keane’s comments. How long could United's siege mentality protect their increasingly outspoken skipper?

2000-2001: Premier League winners, FA Cup R4, League Cup R4, Champions League quarter-finals

Tomorrow: Fergie's fourth five-year spell – New formations and new challengers 
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