Retrospective #9: The moment that birthed the modern Manchester United
Imagine a time when Arsenal had a decent back four –
No, not ‘The Invincibles” – they were a pale shadow of the 1998/99 quartet that stood as a brick wall. In front of Seaman roamed Adams, Dixon, Keown and Winterburn – together they allowed a miserly 17 goals, thirteen less than the next best record that season. United were no slouchers either. A combination of youth, experience and man management resulted in what is still now considered one of the greatest United squads ever patched together by Sir Alex Ferguson. It was indeed the Irresistible Force versus the Immovable Object.
But this squad always seemed to struggle against Arsenal that season. The curtain raiser that is the Community Shield ended up being an inauspicious start for the world’s most expensive defender – Jaap Stam. A month later we were equally demolished at Highbury – our heaviest away defeat in two years; 3-0. No matter how goal shy we weren’t in the Champions League and the ease with which we progressed through the FA Cup, there was the sense that in front of Arsenal we were underdogs. In a rare moment of humility Sir Alex conceded defeat and said, “We were second best in every challenge. Arsenal were far more determined. We were tip-toeing through the game.“
Then came that game; 14th April 1999.
– Now, imagine playing against that back four with a tired Sheringham and an ineffective Solskjaer. Only to concede a penalty in the 90th minute while being the equivalent of 10 men down – Keane was sent off.
Left with the task of leading kids into the FA Cup Final, Schmeichel did this:
Skip to 3:20
United certainly has history. One hundred and thirty three years worth. Much within that history precedes Schmeichel’s moment – chronologically, emotionally and inspirationally. Actually, in retrospect I must admit that it was bold of me to consider Schmeichel’s save as the defining moment. Even within the game it’s hard to prove Schmeichel was the focal point that helped us win. Especially when it was two pieces of individual genius that won what is still one of the greatest FA Cup Semi-Finals.
But it’s heretical to think the Great Dane had no effect. Surely a last minute save like that would be an exhilarating moment of self-realisation for all the players? The belief that they could be branded the most sought after label in football, a media endorsed ‘Treble Winning Team’, suddenly returned. Whether it was the fresh legs in Giggs, the determination to end a goal drought in Yorke or the growing genius in Scholes, there was a sense of rejuvenated spirit in the squad.
This spirit infected our games for the rest of the season. Turin was a performace that defied the assertion that “individuals play the game, but teams win championships.” But you couldn’t help but think the squad performed with a renewed sense of purpose and wasn’t just about the brilliance of Roy Keane. Similarly the 1999 Champions League final was also a testament to the new-found determination within the squad.
These were all qualities that the supporters had seen glimpses of. Whether it be the classiccomeback, although supporters then wouldn’t know it, in the FA Cup 4th round game against Liverpool. Where a late Yorke goal and an off-the-bench Solskjaer strike allowed us to progress. Or goal gluts against Nottingham Forest, Barnsley and Ipswich. The supporters cherished such moments. The general feeling was that they were getting a sneak preview of an even more fruitful future.
And so an image was formed of United. We became global ambassadors of football. One of the most attractive sides in Europe. Went on to win the Intercontinental Cup – the first and only English club to do so. We became too good for some and unstoppable to others.
One only needs to ask a United supporter to look within themselves when we’re a few goals down during a match. The response would usually be of casual ignorance – the belief that the players will stage a comeback. Otherwise supporters are nonchalantly arrogant.
So this identity became what it is now; the consequence of an incredibly successful campaign that seems to have stemmed from a genuinely lost moment.
Peter Schmeichel hasn’t been the direct cause of any of this. Without a doubt. He’d be considered a God instead of the legendary status he holds. Neither am I trying to argue that he was the reason.
It’s difficult to gauge why people have forgotten about that moment. Was it Giggs’ piece of wizardry 20 minutes into extra time? Or were our minds clouded, and have been since, by the sheer reality of what happened that season? Regardless of how you see it, there seems to a central point to where it begins. It seems irrational to choose a point in time earlier than Schmeichel’s save. Arguably, it’s just as irrational to choose that save as the moment.
But it’s the consequences. A genuine sense of destiny seemed to have been instilled into the Old Trafford faithful and the players that day. That anything was possible.
Look where we are now.