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.
Before kick off, there was panic. The team selection was baffling; for such an intense rivalry, this wasn’t the way to go. Fans wanted to see a side strong enough to avenge Leeds United on their 1-0 FA Cup victory the last time these two sides met – rather than a makeshift one. As it happened, it barely mattered that United had players out of position or lined up in a lopsided formation. This was a stroll; and so easy it was that Dimitar Berbatov filled in as a centre-half in the last ten minutes without any difficulty – looking a man ready to nonchalantly pull out a cigar and taunt the hosts on their lack of chances.
Manchester United have swept aside teams this season with a fearsome front four – Nani on the right, Ashley Young on the left and two forwards in the middle; however, they set up a touch eccentrically in this instance. Fielding no less than four strikers, they looked destined to put the ball past Leeds’ keeper Andrew Lonergan every time they surged forward. Neither Mame Diouf and Kiko Macheda were entirely convincing, but were enthusiastic and still caused Leeds problems when taken on individually. It allowed both Michael Owen and Berbatov to flourish in a duopoly that would pose problems for any Premier League side, their style of play perfectly complimenting the other.
Owen was particularly fantastic. He was clinical and his movement, predictably, ran rings around the home side. He has a knack for being at the right place when required and scored the first goal of the evening to set the tone for the rest of the game. United dominated and kept coming at Leeds; despite a change in personnel, the fringes played the game in identical fashion and didn’t look like backing down.
Sir Alex has never been afraid to experiment with his side. There have been occasions where it doesn’t work but he has a firm belief that the players at his disposal can get the job done. That, he has found, has been more successful than not and again, it was the case here at Elland Road. An inexperience back four which included two midfielders – Carrick and Valencia – looked assured alongside debutant Ezekiel Fryers while Fabio da Silva was hardly forced into doing any defensive work.
Fryers has been tipped to do big things and the signs are good for the immediate future. He appears comfortable on the ball and reads the game well. Carrick, who later took the armband, has the attributes to make a decent makeshift centre-back as his conversion into a holding player has seen his defensive abilities improve considerably – along with having a cool head and a good understanding of a situation, he is particularly good at prizing the ball away from the other team.
The midfield two of Park and Ryan Giggs were magnificent, playing with relative ease and nullifying the opposition’s midfield. Leeds struggled to create chances and perhaps only once tested young Ben Amos in goal. The game was already over in effect when Owen made it 2-0, but that didn’t prevent Giggs from scoring a wonderful solo goal where he poked the ball between a player’s legs, ran and latched onto it and then vigorously thrashed it past the goalkeeper with his laces. Soon, Paul Pogba was brought on and he played in a similar vein; his first touch was an accurate long-range pass and the Frenchman, although a little jittery, had no trouble against a mediocre Leeds side who are better than this; promotion is an achievable target.
Of course, not every game will be this easy for United but it was an encouraging performance by a group of players with something to prove, nonetheless. It says a lot about their strength in-depth that their fifth choice striker is Michael Owen – a player with plenty to offer as shown by his two goals. They had limited resources in defence, but that shouldn’t be a problem when Nemanja Vidic, Rafael and Rio Ferdinand return to action.
‘…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.
All characters and events in this piece – even those based on real people – are entirely fictional. Obviously.
In the away team dressing room, Manchester United are toasting another victory. Assistant manager Mike Phelan praises the team on their performance. He was particularly impressed with Phil Jones, a player who has only been with the club a few months, and goes to have a chat with him soon after…
Mike Phelan: Good game, son.
He reaches out to give him a pat on the back.
It’s like you’ve been here five years.
Phil Jones: Thanks sir, although I don’t need the praise. It’s easy this football lark.
PJ: Yeah. Easy. You want me to tell you a secret?
MP: What’s that?
PJ: I wasn’t half trying. It was great fun, though. The look on their faces. Huffing and puffing, trying ever so hard to get the ball. You know, I was preparing to go all Joker on ‘em. “Why so serious” and all that.
MP: Don’t know what you’re getting at, son. You know, arrogance in football takes you nowhere. Humans make mistakes – they’re full of flaws – just look at what Ando’s wearing. You’re a good player with plenty of potential. Don’t let one or two games get to your head. You stay grounded, and look towards the next game. You understand?
PJ: You ever seen the Dark Knight, Mike?
MP: I beg your pardon?
PJ: Bit long, don’t you think? I mean, great film and all, and Christopher Nolan knows how to make a good movie, but it drags on towards the end. And there was too much chit chat in it. I want less of that, and a bit more kapow, you know. Smash his face in Batman, what you waiting for?!
MP: Were you even listening to me, son? You need to sort out that attitude of yours. Like I said, arrogance takes you nowhere.
PJ: Calm down, sir. You know, all that talking…have you ever considered auditioning for the next Batman film? You’d be perfect what with all that yapping you do.
MP: Eh? There’s something wrong with you, Phillip. Don’t get so smart with me. You don’t know who you’re messing with.
PJ: I’m fine. I’m not the one shouting at a man trying to put his boxers on.
Phelan, embarrassed and slightly baffled, surveys the changing room. He then sighs as he sees Michael Carrick moving sideways, crab-like.
MP: Alright, lad. I’m going to sort that out. Michael’s doing that thing again. But remember my words – the wise words of Mike Phelan, your father figure, your go-to-man – lose the arrogance. It ain’t gonna take you anywhere.
Phelan turns away…and then turns back. He takes a deep breath.
I need to tell you something.
PJ: What’s that?
MP: I happen to think you’re the greatest to have ever lived. And not just in a footballing sense. You’re the greatest man to have ever lived. Ever. You’re like some sort of omnipotent being. Like Paulo Maldini merged with Chuck Norris merged with Green Giant from the sweetcorn adverts.
Phelan takes another deep breath and stares into Jones’ eyes.
I see the way Jonny Evans looks at you. With envy. And lust. Pure lust. I don’t even blame him. You play the game effortlessly. Like a young Mike Phelan. But better. You’re good at right back, even better in central defence. Can even do a job in midfield.
PJ: I can play up front too. But the gaffer insists letting Rooney play there. Imagine it, though. Imagine me. Playing as a striker. I’d make Wayne look like Marlon Harewood. Make Hernandez look like Des O’Connor. Make Michael Owen look like, well, Michael Owen. I’d strike fear into any defence. We’d beat Barcelona every week. Imagine that.
MP: But you mustn’t let the world know of your God-like talent. Just play half-arsed and you’ll still reach the levels of Rio Ferdinand. You’ll captain your club and country one day. Become renowned as one of the best centre halves in the world. Make fun of Piers Morgan’s weight on your Twitter page and sell t-shirts. Your life is mapped out for you. When you turn 57 and you’re finally past your peak, you can do anything you want. Watch Batman endlessly. You know what I’m talking about, the good ones with Danny DeVito.
PJ: And do more.
PJ: Yeah. Football is just too easy, you see. I want to do something else. I want to restore peace in the East. Rescue a cat. Tell Michael McIntyre that, frankly, I don’t find him funny. Cover a Sinatra song but do it better. Beat Vidic in a staring contest. Do it all, you know. I can be greater than you, Mike. Be the King of the Kings. Me, Phil Jones, the greatest man that ever lived. Imagine that.
Back in 1991, English football witnessed the start of a spectacular and exciting league campaign. Despite Arsenal and Liverpool having shared the tag of Champions in the four years prior, it was Leeds United and Manchester United that ended up slugging it out for the 1991/1992 title. Refreshingly for the neutral, neither team had the so-called nous and experience to call upon from previous title challenges, and it thus culminated into a fascinating story of bravery, belief and even a calamitous own goal.
Over at Old Trafford, Alex Ferguson was once again conjuring up ideas of ending Manchester United’s 24 year wait without the Division One title. At 49, the fiery Scot had slowly begun to reap the benefits of his hard work at the club since his appointment in January 1986. Yet the United side back in 1991 bared no real resemblance to the youthful sides Ferguson has become so famous for producing over the last 15 years.
Back then, Ferguson’s teams were built of steel, experience and resilience, and didn’t have the abundance of youth players that have since broke through the ranks under Fergie’s tenure. Lee Sharpe was the exception, winning the PFA Young Player of the Year for the 1990/91 season. Sharpe himself however, was bought as a youngster by Ferguson, arriving from Torquay at the tender age of 17. The tall winger was in and out of Fergie’s side until late 1990, when some electrifying performances on the left wing ensured that Sharpe was never again considered for the more conservative left-back position that he had experienced in earlier games for the club.
Mark Robins had been a hero 12 months earlier, after scoring a multitude of vital goals of that helped United not only stay up in Division One, but helped the club win the FA Cup. However he had still failed to displace a strike partnership between Mark Hughes and Brian McClair, which had got back on track in the 90/91 season, with McClair rediscovering his goalscoring form and Hughes winning the PFA Player of the Year for the second time in three seasons.
Still supplying Hughes and McClair from central midfield was Bryan Robson, although injuries to the skipper had cost him almost half a season in the previous campaign. The increasingly-improving Paul Ince was now an ever-present in the United engine room, and Neil Webb, when he wasn’t the target of criticism from some United fans, added a calmness and composure to United’s central areas.
In the summer of 1991, United’s defence was strengthened enormously by the signings of Paul Parker and Peter Schmeichel. Schmeichel’s imperious presence and world-class agility ensured Jim Leighton would never play another game for the club, whilst the popular Les Sealey left for Aston Villa after just one full season at Old Trafford.
Parker had always impressed Ferguson during his QPR days, with his pace and man-marking skills the epitome of an established England international. Indeed, despite his lack of height, Parker’s defensive talents persuaded Ferguson to play him ahead of Gary Pallister, who dropped to the bench in the Reds’ early fixtures. United kept a clean sheet in those games against Notts County, Aston Villa and Everton, though Pallister eventually won his place back at the expense of Clayton Blackmore, with Parker switching to full back.
United’s team had often looked imbalanced in the 1990/91 season. Due to injuries to Danny Wallace, Ferguson often employed Mike Phelan at right-midfield, but a lack pace or real attacking threat seemed to handicap the side. This was particularly noticeable when Sharpe was having such an explosive and effective impact on the opposite flank.
Ferguson’s answer to his problems was the signing of lightning-quick winger Andrei Kanchelskis. The Russian, signed on the back end of the 90/91 season, settled in quickly, and suddenly United had an attacking symmetry that would excite the fans and get the manager believing his side could capture that evasive league title. Even a bout of meningitis to Lee Sharpe couldn’t dampen Ferguson’s optimism, as a young Welsh starlet called Ryan Giggs, formerly Wilson, had emerged from the United youth-system to take Sharpe’s place and be touted as the finest prospect in British football since George Best. High praise indeed, and Giggs went on to win the PFA Young Player of the Year in 1992 in his first full season.
Along with Wallace and Phelan, Ferguson could still call on the likes of Blackmore and Mal Donaghy to provide the squad with the depth that it had lacked over the last 12 months. The quality of Ferguson’s new-look squad was evident as United stormed out of the traps.