The treble had been
called 'the impossible dream'. It was considered that the demands of English football made
it almost impossible for an English club to achieve 'the treble'.
Perhaps history will judge that
Manchester United were destined to be the first club to achieve it. Certainly some of the
events in the final matches of the season suggested a sense of destiny. And if any
further evidence of destiny is needed, the record books also show that only once before
had any team been within reach of the treble. Twenty two years previously, Liverpool
needed to win the F.A.Cup Final to claim the second of the three trophies that comprise
the treble. Liverpool lost, and in doing so confirmed the belief that the elusive treble
was beyond realistic expectation. It was Manchester United who beat them that day.
When United finally clinched the
treble, fate also decreed that their final match should be played on the day marking the
90th anniversary of Sir Matt Busby's birth, and against a club from Munich; both Sir Matt
and Munich forever linked with the history of Manchester United.
The treble meant firstly winning the
English Premier League - one of the most demanding football leagues in the world in which
every team was capable, on their day, of beating any other team. The Premiership was a
massive test of consistency and endurance.
Next was the F.A.Cup - the oldest,
most famous, and most competitively contested domestic club competition in football. To
win the F.A.Cup at Wembley is for many players the ultimate ambition. A domestic knockout
competition, the F.A.Cup offers no second chances - one defeat and the team is out.
Finally, and hardest of all, the
European Club Champions Cup. The most prestigious club competition in world football. The
cream of Europe's teams, the best from their respective countries, contest the Cup that
bestows the honour of European Champions. This was also a personal quest for both Alex
Ferguson and Manchester United. It was United under the legendary Sir Matt Busby who had
paved the way for English Clubs to enter the European Cup. In 1958, Sir Matt's young
prodigies, the Busby Babes were all but wiped out in the Munich air crash while returning
from a European game. It took Busby 10 more years to rebuild a team capable of winning the
European Cup which he finally did with his team built around Best, Law, and Charlton. Alex
Ferguson had made it his personal Holy Grail for United to be the champions of Europe
To win any one of these competitions
would be a success. To win all three was unthinkable.
Then, in the 1998-1999 season, Alex
Ferguson, later Sir Alex, assembled a squad and a team which swept all before them. As the
season reached its climax in May 1999, with the team within reach of all three trophies,
the dramatic events in those final matches will live in the memories of all football fans
who saw them.
The Premier League was eventually
won, by one point, on the last day of the season. If Arsenal won their last game of the
season, then only by also winning their final match against Tottenham were United assured
of winning the League. In what had become characteristic of United, they promptly went
one-nil down before coming back to beat Tottenham 2-1.
United's place in the F.A.Cup Final
had only been possible after two titanic Semi-Final battles, also against Arsenal. After a
drawn first match in which a United goal was harshly ruled off-side, there was a thrilling
replay in which United played the latter stages of the game with 10 men against the 11 of
Arsenal. With the full 90 minutes played and the score at 1-1, Arsenal were awarded a
penalty to take them through to the Final. United's Peter Schmeichel saved the penalty and
kept United in the competition. Then in extra time, there was "that goal". Ryan
Giggs received the ball in his own half, ran over half the length of the pitch evading
five Arsenal tackles on the way, before scoring what was heralded as one of the great
individual goals of all time.
On the day, the F.A. Cup Final
itself proved to be the easiest of the treble winning matches and United outplayed
Newcastle United to win 2-0.
Then there was the European
Champions Cup. Throughout the season in all competitions United had driven both Manager
and fans to despair by conceding one or even two goals and seemingly heading for defeat
before staging thrilling fight backs. The habit became such that it was accepted by both
the press and the Manager that they always seemed to make it difficult for themselves.
This hallmark of the treble team was most evident during their campaign to win the
European Champions Cup.
They had reached the Final in
sensational style, but nothing could compare with the drama of the Final itself played
against Bayern Munich in Barcelona. With the full 90 minutes played, United were losing
1-0 and the Bayern Munich colours had already been tied on the trophy. The UEFA officials,
on their way to make the presentation passed by the watching Sir Bobby Charlton and
commiserated with him on United's loss. The UEFA officials then went inside the Stadium to
prepare for the presentation while the referee allowed just 3 minutes of extra stoppage
time to be played.
When UEFA's officials emerged from
inside the Stadium for the presentation they could not understand why the winners looked
distraught while the losers were celebrating. Their astonishment was shared by all who had
seen what had happened. The answer of course was that in those three incredible minutes,
Manchester United had made history.