Why Manchester United’s 1998/99 treble winners are still easily the best team in English club history
Manchester United’s treble – the best treble there is to win if you’re an English football team – happened 20 years ago this Sunday. You might hear about it this week, with the players set to recreate their Champions League final against Bayern Munich at Old Trafford on Sunday in aid of United’s foundation.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be there fresh from having his head fried as United’s manager. His winning goal was probably the greatest single moment in United’s history, and the line “...and Solskjaer has won it!” arguably commentator Clive Tyldesley’s most famous words. I asked him about them.
“It was nearly 20 million (UK viewers) and that doesn’t happen now,” says the commentator who only took over as ITV’s senior man for the 1998/99 season.
“A big World Cup game might get 16 million, but never for a club game. BT Sport would have around two million for a Champions League final.”
Bayern quickly went ahead in a poor game where United, missing Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, disappointed.
“There was no sign of United replying until the last five minutes,” recalls Tyldesley. “[Lothar] Matthaus left the field. Bayern hit the woodwork twice in the 82nd and 84th minutes. I was preparing words for glorious failure, one short of a treble that went beyond United’s dreams.”
But Manchester United were not finished.
“Then there was a spark; United found form in the four or five minutes leading to the equalising goal,” remembers Tyldesley. “Ron Atkinson, sitting alongside me, sensed it.
“The reaction to the goals was a very important part of my career. If I’d got the second and third goals as wrong, as I’d got the first one (Tyldesley thought Mario Basler’s shot had been deflected past Peter Schmeichel), I wouldn’t be talking to you now.
“I’m aware that it’s part of the story now for a lot of people. As a broadcaster I’m proudest of the pauses I took after the two goals to give myself some thinking time. It’s three or four seconds and I had to put my arm across to restrain Ron, who was going for his microphone after Teddy’s equaliser.
“I’d been taught by my great mentor Reg Gutteridge to use the roar for the goal for some thinking time.
“It’s lovely when people come up to me and say: ‘Can they score, they always score’ or ‘name on the trophy’ or ‘... and Solskjaer has won it’ – though that broke the golden rule of television commentary as the game hadn’t finished. You’ve never won it until the final whistle.”
None of the 50,000 United fans inside the Camp Nou knew any of this as they celebrated for hours. I was in the second tier behind the south goal with my father and my brother. It felt right to spend the greatest moment that a club can have with the man who’d given me a love of football. He passed away in November, and when I think of the treble, I think of standing with him – and him moaning about the performance.
“United didn’t turn up son, they let themselves down.”
“Yeah, but we’ve just won the Treble.”
“I don’t care, son, this is a great team and they didn’t turn up.”
The greatest teams don’t just dominate domestically, as this excellent Manchester City have done this season – they win the top European trophies too. Manchester United won the Treble in 1999 and were then crowned world champions later that year. It still irritates me that they didn’t win the Super Cup.
In 2008, United won the Premier League and the Champions League. It still annoys Patrice Evra like crazy that they didn’t win the FA Cup after losing 1-0 at home to eventual winners Portsmouth in the sixth round. But United went on to be crowned world champions in 2008, even if they didn’t pick up the Super Cup that year either after losing to Zenit in Monaco. The players regret that now.
When the pressure was on in the league and in Europe, United didn’t buckle in 1999. Look at the teams they beat in the FA Cup en route to the final: Premier League Middlesbrough, Liverpool, Fulham, Chelsea – over two matches, the second away – and Arsenal over two incredible semi-final matches. Look at who Manchester City beat this season: Rotherham United and Burnley at home, Newport and Swansea away, Brighton in the semis and Watford in the final. You can only beat who you have to beat, but still…
United fans are massively proud of the Treble. Deep down, they respect City’s outgoing captain Vincent Kompany for being a belting leader of men and a fine person, but they also delight in the “Here’s to you Vincent Kompany, you’ll never win the Treble and you know… Woahhhh!” song.
Well, he’ll never win the biggest one.
Kompany has been at the club for longer than Sheikh Mansour’s squillions, despite which City haven’t got beyond the semi-finals of the Champions League.
In 1998/99, United came through a qualifying game against LKS Lodz, a group stage with Bayern Munich, Barcelona and whipping boys Brondby, a last eight match against Inter when Serie A was stronger than now, and a semi-final against a Juventus side considered to be the best in the world.
Indeed, Roy Keane maintains that they were the best he ever played against. When the pressure was really on, United went to Turin and beat them 3-2, having first gone 2-0 down. That win came only a week after the glorious 2-1 extra-time semi-final win against a brilliant Arsenal at Villa Park.
Pep Guardiola’s City side are the best English team of this decade, but United’s treble winners are the best English club side in history. And with things so bad at Old Trafford at present after a pitifully poor end to the season, you can’t blame us for temporarily preferring to live in the past.
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