The Ones That We Missed Out On!
Sir Alex Ferguson has spent 25 years as the manager of Manchester United and he has won the Premier League 12 times, FA Cup 5 times, League Cup 4 times, the Champions League twice, 10 Community/Charity Shields and one each of the now defunct Cup Winners’ Cup, Intercontinental Cup, FIFA World Club Cup and UEFA Super Cup. In his time, he has build and rebuilt at least 4 teams that have contributed in a large part to the trophies he has won and the legacy he has built at Old Trafford. The biggest and the highlight of all his achievements would undoubtedly be the Treble of 1999. Hours away from our big FA Cup tie against our neighbours and current Premier League leaders, Manchester City, let’s look back to understand how special the Treble triumph was. What better way to do that then by assessing the trophies that we missed out on, on a couple of occasions as one of Sir Alex’s great teams went close to winning the Treble before and after 1999.
The first successful team that Sir Alex built was one that remains my favourite of all-time, the team of 1994. The team that won the first ever Double in Manchester United’s history, the Double of the English Premier League and the FA Cup. In that season, Sir Alex was revolutionary in the sense that he had a squad of about 18 players that he rotated with at a time when teams normally relied on 12 or 13 players to win league titles. Of course the 18 or so players that Sir Alex used to win the Double would be a small number in the modern-day context when teams need a squad of 22-25 players to challenge and win trophies but in those days, we had a squad stronger than anyone else as we built on our first league title triumph in 26 years the season before. Sir Alex was managing a squad of fiery personalities and natural leaders. There was certainly more than one captain in the side aside from joint club captains, Steve Bruce and the original Captain Marvel himself, Bryan Robson. In that side, we had Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and future club captains Roy Keane, Eric Cantona and Peter Schmeichel. I was in awe of that side and would certainly be frightened to face them as an opposition because they could beat anyone with the trademark slick attacking play and if there was a need to, they wouldn’t be shy of battling against the likes of Wimbledon in a physical contest. This wasn’t a side that could be bullied or beaten easily on the pitch.
For the benefit of the younger readers that missed out on watching such a great side in action, let me just bring you through the team. In goal, we had none other than the Big Dane himself, Schmeichel with his commanding presence in goal, having a love/hate relationship with his defenders in front of him and pulling off some amazing and terrific saves, not to mention his organisational skills. Behind him, we had a reliable stand-in, in Les Sealey. In defence, we had two reliable and ever dependable full backs in Paul Parker and Denis Irwin who went about their task quietly and were hardly noticed but hardly ever have they put in performances that were not 8 or 9 out of 10 per week. As back-up, the duo had an experienced full back in Clayton Blackmore. In central defence, we had the rock solid duo of Bruce and Gary Pallister, a combination of force and guile. It is certainly one of the best central defensive partnerships in Manchester United’s history. In midfield, we had flying, pacy and skilful wingers in Andrei Kanchelskis, Ryan Giggs and my personal favourite, Lee Sharpe who created lots of goals and scored them too causing mayhem to full backs all over England with their wing play regardless of which pair was selected to play by Sir Alex. In centre of midfield, we have the guts and blood duo of Paul Ince and at that time the most expensive footballer in England, Roy Keane. These midfielders could be defending in their own box at one moment and then break at the next moment to score at the other end. Behind them, they had a legend in Robson, the original all-action midfielder and the experienced squad player, current assistant manager, Mike Phelan who could fill in other positions in midfield too.
In attack, we had the class of another personal and all-time favourite, Cantona married with the strength and force of Hughes. Both were capable of scoring spectacular goals out of nothing with Hughes in particular having the ability to score a goal out of nothing when it was needed the most. His forte would have to be his volleys. As back-up, we had the efficient Scot, Brian McClair who could play in centre of midfield too and for some time fans have believed him to be Sir Alex’s favourite son, being a fellow Scot. However, to McClair’s merit, he had displayed his ability to score on his own from before Cantona’s arrival at the club and carried it on in the Frenchman’s presence. We also had current TV presenter/pundit, Dion Dublin in attack too who could also double up as an auxiliary centre back. We won the title that season 8 points ahead of our closest rivals, Blackburn Rovers and with a goal difference of +42, 15 ahead of Blackburn. We sealed our Double with a rather flattering win of 4-0 against our bogey team of that season, Chelsea in a wet Wembley. We made it to the final of the League Cup too, known in the guise of the Coca-Cola Cup in those days but were disappointingly beaten 3-1 by Aston Villa in the final. Had United won that game they had started off as favourites, they would have clinched their first-ever Treble, a Treble of domestic honours, a clean sweep of domestic titles as well as they had won the Charity Shield at the start of the season too. I would feel that would have been well-deserved as United were by far and away the best side in English football that season.
Post 1994, United did win the Treble of English Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League in 1999. Post the Treble of 1999, United reinforced their dominance especially in England, stagnated and went into transition before bouncing back to win the league title in 2006-07. In 2007-08, Sir Alex had built another formidable team; reinforcing the title winning team of 2006-07 with the signings of Owen Hargreaves, Carlos Tevez, Nani and Anderson. United won their third Double in their history but this Double isn’t known as the traditional one but rather the European Double as United won the league title and the Champions League in yet another memorable season of swashbuckling football at its best. Our club captain, Gary Neville was absent throughout the entire season due to injury but we coped with it. United started the season slowly but slowly found its form and clicked into gear as the new signings settled in and started producing the goods. In goal, we had the calming presence of Edwin van der Sar who played an integral part at the end of the last season to help United end its 4 year drought of having not won the Premier League title. The Dutchman was ably deputised by the Pole Tomasz Kuszczak as Sir Alex made good use of the squad to rotate and keep the players fresh. The season prior to this, United ran out of steam at the end of the season due to a lack of squad depth and made up for it aptly in 2007-08. In defence, the injury prone Wes Brown deputised for Neville at right back and thankfully he remained injury free till the end of the season to slowly get use to playing as an auxiliary right back. At left back, Patrice Evra carried on from his swashbuckling performances of last season into this season with his dynamic play, acting as a second winger at times. In central defence, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic carried on from where they left off in the previous season by consolidating a formidable partnership in central defence, a partnership not seen since the time of Bruce and Pallister in the 90s. We also had Gerard Pique in central defence, who is now one of the best defenders in the world, his time at United certainly helped in his development as he played a bit-part role in the team as a youngster. Also in defence was the experienced Frenchman, Mikael Silvestre who didn’t play quite as much this season as age catched on with the Frenchman but made his contribution nevertheless when called upon.
In midfield, we had the upcoming youngster and new signing Nani on the wings with his compatriot, Cristiano Ronaldo who became the world’s best player with his performances and his goals that season; scoring a record of 42 goals in a season from a midfield position. Without doubt, he still remains one of the best players of the world helped in large part by his time in England with the Red Devils. The presence of the evergreen Welshman, Ryan Giggs certainly helped as he played sparingly keeping him fresh for the bigger games and lesser on the wings. His experience was used more in central midfield. We had the versatile new signing, Owen Hargreaves in midfield too, who was able to play in central midfield, right wing and right back. Wherever he played, he made it very difficult for Sir Alex to drop him as he lived up to the price tag that he was paid for by Sir Alex to Bayern Munich. 2006-07’s central midfield pairing of Michael Carrick and another evergreen Paul Scholes had competition but were also able to rest more in the presence of Hargreaves, young and another new signing, Anderson and the energetic Scotsman, Darren Fletcher who found his forte as a big game player. Also out on the wings was another big-game player, the ever reliable and dependable, South Korean Park Ji Sung.
In attack, to accommodate, United’s abundance of talent and choices in central midfield, United occasionally played with only one striker. This tactical choice was also made whenever United played in big games or in Europe as United played with a 4-5-1. With Ronaldo in breath-taking form and doubling up as another attacker at times and Giggs and Nani capable of doing the same, United had Wayne Rooney and new signing Carlos Tevez and the injury prone Louis Saha in attack. Rooney and Tevez formed a good partnership up front almost akin to the Cole and Yorke partnership of 99. Saha was sidelined with injuries frequently thus wasn’t used quite as often but managed to weigh in with 5 goals in 24 appearances in the season. At the start of the season, United had another striker on its roster in club legend, one of the heroes of 99, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer but he retired due to injuries 5 days into the season. In a dominant display in the season, United only won the title ahead of nearest challenger Chelsea by 2 points but had a far superior goal difference of +58, 19 better than Chelsea. United beat the same side in the final of the Champions League in an eventful final in Moscow that was settled on penalty kicks. The missing piece in the jigsaw of a season that had otherwise been dominated by United, was the FA Cup. United lost the FA Cup in the 6th Round at home against Portsmouth in a strange match which United dominated from start to finish but somehow couldn’t manage to find the back of the net as decisions went against the side and the Portsmouth goal seemed to live a charmed life.
The match was made stranger by the presence of Ferdinand in goal with approximately 15 minutes left of the match. Van Der Sar who started the game in goal was substituted at half time due to injury. His replacement, Kuszczak was then sent off for a professional foul on Milan Baros and from the resulting penalty, Portsmouth scored to grab an unlikely victory. They went on to win only their second FA Cup in their history with a 1-0 win over Welsh side Cardiff City. In a season of strange results and upsets in the FA Cup that season, United’s result was true to form to that season’s results in the oldest cup competition in the world. Had United won that tie against Portsmouth, they would have progressed into the semi-finals and final and they would have probably faced West Bromwich Albion and Cardiff City respectively thereafter. It is not a given that United would win either or both those ties because anything could have happened on the football pitch but they would certainly have been overwhelming favourites to win both matches considering the form they were in that season.
From the seasons of 1993-94 and 2007-08, we would have noticed that all it takes is for one game to go wrong or not go your way to lose a cup or title. That is how small the margin is between winning and losing which makes the Treble of 1999 all that more special because everything fell for us that season; from refereeing decisions, dramatic goals, great performances as a team and individually and not forgetting great goals as well. That is what makes winning a Treble or a Quadruple so difficult to achieve and so very special.