Retrospective #8: The Forgotten Men of ‘99
‘…and Solskjaer has won it!’
Five words to lift the mood of any United fan. The moment our Norwegian hero stuck his foot out put the seal on a season we shall never forget. A season peppered with timeless memories of rapacious cavalier displays that thrilled the world. It is was a campaign rightly remembered for astonishing attacking feats yet I believe that an essential ingredient to our success has been routinely overlooked.
The most lauded component of the all-conquering ’99 side was the midfield quartet; Giggs, Keane, Scholes, Beckham. Honourable mentions go to Nicky Butt and Jesper Blomqvist but even they would concede that they were the supporting cast. Looking further forward, the other famous four trip off the tongue but when attention turns to the back it is more difficult. In an era where rotation was still generally enforced rather than routine, it is striking how rarely the same defence played consecutive games.
The appearance stats tell the story – whereas Gary Neville (55), Jaap Stam (50) and Denis Irwin (45) feature in the top ten for starts that season; there is no other defender who made over thirty appearances in all competitions. Not only that but the role of the players changed throughout the season – full backs playing both sides, right backs playing central, centre backs playing full back and even in the case of Ronny Johnsen moving into midfield.
The role of Gary Neville in the treble season deserves to be looked at closely. Ferguson lamented Neville’s lack of height as depriving him of a potentially great centre back. However, as had been seen in the past with Paul Parker and more recently with Silvestre, the manager has valued anticipation and pace in central areas. When Stam experienced early wobbles and failed to gel with either Johnsen or Berg, it was a shrewd decision to move Neville inside to the position in which he had excelled as youth team skipper. Neville never shied away from responsibility and the introduction of his assertive personality to the heart of the defence allowed the expensive Dutch acquisition to find his feet.
It would be easy to be hyperbolic about Stam’s issues in the first few weeks of his United career. Thrust into an environment that was unfamiliar, situated in front of a goalkeeper who was never shy of letting him know when he made a mistake; it was never going to be an easy transition. The Charity Shield aside, it is difficult to pinpoint a goal that can be attributed to a Stam error and the goals against column remained healthy. However the defence lacked a leader in the centre – both Johnsen and Berg possessed great ability but lacked the assertive nature necessary to lead a backline. This was the quality Stam was brought in to provide but, for the time being, it was more important that the new man be allowed to concentrate on adapting to English football.
Neville’s holiday from full back duties presented opportunities in the right back slot. The exciting young centre back prospect Wes Brown was introduced to the first team at full back and impressed in the position from which he would eventually influence a European Cup final. The more regular fill in for Gary Neville was his younger brother – whose willingness to push forward provided an important foil for Beckham. You could forgive Phil Neville for being slightly resentful that this partnership would never be given the chance to bloom as his older brother returned to his traditional role.
As the season progressed, and Stam emerged as the finest defender in the league, the defence became more settled. Stam grew in authority and formed a promising partnership with the technically excellent Johnsen. The swashbuckling style of the team meant the defence was always going to be exposed and it is remarkable how solid they continued to be despite the paucity of cover from midfield. It is tempting given his role in his final years to think of Keane as a Makelele style shield but this was far from the case. In 1999, he was the archetypal box-to-box midfielder. In my view, he had yet to fully develop his remarkable capacity for controlling the tempo of the game that so distinguished his performances post-millennium. Keane was regularly joining attacks and scored as many goals as Sheringham over the course of the season. The back four were regularly left to fend for themselves yet only three times after Christmas did the team concede two goals and on no occasion did this result in defeat.
Consistency in personnel was impossible over the final months of the season as the heavy schedule and consequent injury problems of Johnsen in particular took their toll. Henning Berg came to play a crucial role – seeming to save his best performances for the European stage. The footage of Zamorano failing to dislodge the gargantuan Stam when backing in cemented the Dutchman’s cult status yet over the two legs against Inter Milan, it was the Norwegian who twice prevented certain goals which could and probably would have curtailed our Champions League ambitions. Berg’s bicycle kick clearance when facing his own goal at the San Siro remains one of the most brilliant pieces of defending I have ever seen.
The strains of challenging for three trophies meant another former Blackburn Rovers employee would emerge from the wilderness to play an important role in the final weeks of the season. David May has become something of a figure of fun for his prominent celebrations in Barcelona (a ‘cheerleading’ persona he continues to revel in today) yet it is often forgotten that he started no less an occasion than the FA Cup final at Wembley along with vital victories away at Middlesborough and at home to Tottenham. The unfussy manner in which May slotted in and maintained the frugality of the backline characterises the tremendous efforts of the United rearguard that season.
In conclusion, it is quite right that a team blessed with world class attacking talents be principally remembered for the exploits going forward. All the great United teams have been built on attack (attack! attack!) yet without a strong platform in defence they would never have enjoyed the success that came their way. The Red backline may have lacked the illustrious names of the midfield quartet but there should be no underestimation of the fundamental role played by the eight unglamorous names who made the unthinkable a reality.