On the 26th of May 1999 in the depths of the Nou Camp stadium in Barcelona, ITV presenter Gary Newbon stands in front of Alex Ferguson to conduct a post-match interview following the climactic end of the 1999 Champions League Final against Bayern Munich. Newbon begins by almost shrieking his interviewee’s name, blurting out a line that suggested the Scotsman’s team had put him through the ringer but that they had now achieved the dream. Before Ferguson responds it’s immediately apparent, he is both simultaneously ecstatic and exhausted, rocking back and forth still clearly coursing with adrenaline. Before responding to Newbon, Ferguson empties his lungs with a large exhale and places his hands on the back of his head, then revealing a beaming smile that stretched the width of his face he utters the line, “I can’t believe it, football…bloody hell.”
In that exact moment Ferguson evoked every emotion of happiness that was being felt by the United support, but in a flash he caught himself and snaps back into Ferguson the manager with the words “But they never give in and that’s what won it.”
Much has been written about Ferguson the man over the years, but within this series I intend to provide a deeper analysis of how his technical and tactical decisions would lead United to their most successful season to date. Let’s begin by providing some context as to the backdrop of English football, as well as understanding how United almost found themselves lagging behind during a period of significant change in European football.
During the formative years of the Premier League Manchester United set about establishing themselves as title challengers with their performances on the field, however in the press rooms and the TV studios across the country another competition was beginning to take place. Ferguson used the growing coverage football was receiving through press conferences and post-game interviews, using his standing in the game to both challenge the authorities as well as his opponent’s mental acumen. Suddenly English football was on high alert as Ferguson seemed to exert a control, either in fiction or fantasy, that separated his club from the pack.
United’s only anomaly during those early Premier League years came in the form of a 2nd place finish behind Blackburn Roversin the 94/95 season, with Kenny Dalglish’s stony faced determination a contributing factor in his side pipping United to the post. Dalglish’s eventual departure from Rovers took with it any realistic hope of Blackburn prolonging their stay at the top of the table, a vacancy that was to be filled by the newly promoted Newcastle United. While Kevin Keegan built a side that ran United close in the 95/96 campaign, their surrendering of a 12-point lead at the top of the table coincided with a capitulation on live TV that has since gone down in folklore. As Newcastle’s porous defense conspired to slowly drop points in the league, Ferguson delivered a jibe that brought into question how hard teams were trying against Newcastle compared to that of Manchester United. This sparked a response in Keegan that caused a visible meltdown while being interviewed by Richard Keys on Sky, illustrating that the pressure was simply too much for him as United leapfrogged them in the table. Roy Evans’ Liverpool was another side that always threatened to challenge United for the title throughout the 90s, yet they were constantly undermined by a mental fragility both in the dugout and on the field that negated the talent they had on offer.
Arsene Wenger’s arrival at Highbury in September 1996 represented a different challenge entirely for Ferguson, not simply because the Frenchman was an elite level coach with lots of experience, but that he was about to take on the United manager at his own game.
The first signs that Wenger was beginning to make an impact on Ferguson began to surface in April of 1997, with the normally collected Ferguson appearing rattled on camera.
Sure, the two are from diametrically opposed backgrounds, however they share a leadership style that carries a laser focus when working to cultivate a football club in their image. It’s perhaps a touch simplistic to suggest the removal of ketchup from the London Colney canteen and the addition of pre-work out stretching to the training regimen were all that was required to turn Arsenal into a successful team, however Wenger’s changing of the culture at Arsenal carried much of the same hallmarks as Ferguson’s early work at United in the late 80s.
In contrast to Dalglish, Evans and Keegan, Wenger built upon the ingredients of a readymade defensive unit by adding Emmanuel Petit, Giles Grimandi, Patrick Vieira and Remi Garde, showing that he was focused on expanding his side’s defensive base beyond the tried and trusted back five. With the core Wenger’s Arsenal requiring 6 or 7 players who had the tactical understanding to defend in two lines of four (within a 4-4-2) as well as starting out in a back 3 system (sometimes lining up in a 5-3-2 but morphing into a 3-4-1-2) he had the foundation upon which adding creativity in midfield and explosive pace in attack would form a formidable team on the counter. The additions of Marc Overmars, Nicolas Anelka, Luis Boa Morte and Christopher Wreh in the summer of 1997 also illustrated that the profile of an Arsenal attacker was changing, falling more in line with Wenger’s strategy rather than simply being a proven goal scorer.
While Wenger’s quiet revolution was taking place in North London Manchester United were also breaking the mold in the 96/97 season, challenging for honors both domestically and in Europe. United would claim top spot at the end of January 97 and would remain there through to the end of the campaign to retain their Premier League title. During this period, they would also progress to the Semi Final of the Champions League, the deepest they had gone in the competition under Ferguson. Two 1-0 losses to eventual winners Borussia Dortmund would bring an end to their Champions League ambitions, however this period illustrated that while Ferguson was adjusting tactically to fit the changing European game, his squad was still adjusting physically to playing an increased calendar of games.
The close of the 96/97 season would mark the end of Eric Cantona’s time at Manchester United, as he announced his retirement from football aged just 30. This departure would prove to be a significant loss for United, as the talismanic forward’s impact on the club ran beyond just his sparkling performances on the field. Cantona stood as one of Ferguson’s key senior players and helped him shape the work ethic and standards required of a United player. While a club of United’s stature could sign a competent on field replacement without many issues, having someone ready to replace his off-field value would certainly take time.
United began the 97/98 season with an away trip to Tottenham Hotspur, where new signing Teddy Sheringham would make his debut. The England striker would miss a first half penalty to deny United the lead, but two goals in the final 10 minutes from Nicky Butt and an own goal from Ramon Vega would give United three points from a tricky opening start. Arsenal weren’t so fortunate, with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink cancelling out Ian Wright’s opener to start their season with a draw at Elland Road against Leeds United.
Manchester United would only concede three goals in their opening nine matches, all of which United went undefeated. At the end of September they would suffer their first loss of the campaign to a 1st half David Wetherall strike, which was enough to give George Graham’s Leeds United their fourth win of the season. On the same weekend Arsenal would pick up their fourth draw in nine matches as they finished 2-2 at Goodison Park against an Everton side that looked very much like a relegation candidate.
At the beginning of November daylight was beginning to appear between United and Arsenal, as United claimed a 6-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday hot on the heels of a 7-0 win over Barnsley a week earlier. Arsenal found themselves on the back of a three-game winless streak, recording two 0-0 draws with Crystal Palace and Aston Villa before losing 3-0 to Derby County at the newly opened Pride Park.
Round 14 of the fixtures saw Arsenal face off against Manchester United at Highbury, in what would prove to be one of the games of the season.
18 year old Nicolas Anelka would open the scoring for Arsenal after picking the ball up at the top of the box and smashing a strike into the bottom corner at Peter Schmeichel’s front post. Arsenal doubled their lead through another wonderful strike, this time Patrick Vieira capitalizing on a poor clearance following an Arsenal corner. Vieira stepped onto the ball and hit a wonderful curling effort, first time, into the top corner with the ball kissing the underside of the cross bar on the way in.
A quick-fire double from Sheringham brought United level at half time, the first coming from a clinical header following a well flighted cross from Gary Neville and the second a beautiful hit on the half volley following a sumptuous flick pass from Giggs with the outside of his boot.
During the closing stages of a frantic second half Peter Schmeichel would make a world class save to prevent a deflected Christopher Wreh strike. But from the resulting corner David Platt would rise above David Beckham to nod home the winner, connecting perfectly with Nigel Winterburn’s cross to give Arsenal a 3-2 victory.
Remarkably, Arsenal would follow this win over United by losing to Sheffield Wednesday in Ron Atkinson’s first match back in charge of the Yorkshire club, while United walked over Wimbledon 5-2 at Selhurst Park.
Further losses at home to Liverpool and Blackburn, followed by a 1-1 draw with Tottenham in the North London derby, would see Arsenal close out 1997 in 5th position, but more importantly 11 points behind leaders Manchester United. United had responded to their loss at Highbury with six wins on the bounce, a run which would end with an away loss to Coventry City, a game United were leading 2-1 before goals from Dion Dublin and Darren Huckerby in the closing minutes reversed the score line to 3-2.
United kicked off 1998 by winning 2-0 over Tottenham Hotspur but followed that up with two losses to Southampton and Leicester, as well as a 1-1 draw with relegation strugglers Bolton Wanderers. At the same time Arsenal closed the gap at the top by clawing back 3 wins over Leeds United, Southampton and Chelsea.
Both sides recorded 100% winning records during February, but with several postponements Arsenal found themselves facing a backlog of fixtures during March, April and May which threatened to derail their bid for the title.
United had their own fixture pile up to contend with, starting with a tough 1-0 win away to Chelsea to close out February. March had typically been the period of the season in which Ferguson’s United used their experience to step up their efforts and move away from the chasing pack, however the added pressure of European competition in the spring was beginning to stretch his squad’s resources. Just four days after their trip to Stamford Bridge United would face Monaco in the first leg of the Champions League Quarter Finals, a match that would finish in a 0-0 stalemate. The following weekend Ferguson rotated the squad in an effort to manage his players energy levels, but in doing so they would return from the south of France and lose 2-0 to Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough. Four days later they followed this up with a disappointing 1-1 draw at Upton Park against West Ham United, heightening pressure further as they prepared for the visit of Arsenal to Old Trafford.
Arsenal had been in fine form prior to their trip to Manchester, recording six wins and three draws since their last loss to Blackburn in mid-December. A goal from Dutch winger Marc Overmars was enough to further expose a fragility in United’s defense, capitalizing on two missed headers from David May and Gary Neville following a simple long ball from Keown. Anelka set up Overmars with a simple headed pass, which he settled before applying a cool finish past Peter Schmeichel.
This result not only served to legitimize Arsenal’s title credentials, but it also moved them to within 6 points of United with the bonus of having three games in hand. Ferguson had one last attempt at playing with Wenger’s psyche as he cast doubt onto Arsenal’s ability to handle the pressure in these upcoming must win games, yet it was his own side that would falter when it mattered most.
The disappointment of the loss to Arsenal was compounded just four days later, as United faced off against Monaco in the 2nd leg of their Champions League Quarter Final at Old Trafford. A powerful strike by David Trezeguet put Monaco in front after only 5 minutes, however a goal on 53 minutes from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would at least give the home crowd faith of advancing. An ultra-professional performance from the French Champions would follow throughout the remainder of the second half, with Jean Tigana’s men seeing the game out to advance on the away goals rule.
As Ferguson wallowed in the disappointment of what could have been, Arsenal would use the confidence and momentum gained by their victory at Old Trafford to propel themselves into a daunting run of fixtures. Wenger’s side would eventually seal the title after a run of fourteen matches spanning from the end of January to the start of May, whereby they had accrued thirteen wins and with it twelve clean sheets. A 4-0 win over relegation strugglers Everton at Highbury was enough to secure Arsenal’s first league championship of the Premier League era, with their last top division triumph taking place back in 1991. The champions would also complete a league and cup double a few weeks later, overcoming Kenny Dalglish’s Newcastle side 2-0 at Wembley Stadium in the FA Cup Final.
What I found startling when looking back at coverage from this era, was the apparent shock at what Wenger had achieved in such a relatively short period of time. Beyond the trophies, he had brought about a seismic paradigm shift in what was now possible for a club like Arsenal, especially in an era where United had become so dominant.
With the advantage of time and distance it’s clear that the disappointment of the 97/98 season led to a sharpening of Ferguson’s focus as to how United would need to operate if they were to compete across both domestic and European fronts in the future, yet with all that said he didn’t miss the opportunity to air some of his grievances in this interesting end of season interview.
Ferguson speaks to the lack of experience of his younger players, which became especially testing during moments when his senior players were injured. Despite their superior talent their inability “help those around them” is something he felt will expedite their learning and make them better players in the future. Given the longevity of the players he is referring to, its hard to disagree with his assertion as we are now aware of how their careers would pan out.
He also speaks to the defensive issues that his side faced in the critical game with Arsenal in April, something he would rectify in the summer of 1998 with the signature of Dutch central defender Jaap Stam.
One other interesting point Ferguson raised was the Premier League’s scheduling of United’s league matches around their European calendar. Its hard to argue that British football was a late adopter of making allowances for their club’s European participation, but it was also during this period where the expansion of the Champions League format increased the overall total of games into double figures. Ferguson’s assessment that the Premier League should do more to help United compete is perhaps a little trite, especially when 12 players within his squad started in 25+ matches in a 53-game season. While the squad rotation culture we have become familiar with today was still in its infancy in the late 90s, it was becoming abundantly clear that clubs could no longer rely on a small core of players to line up in each important match.
Those associated with United didn’t have too long to wait until the World Cup arrived as the perfect distraction from the disappointing end of the 97/98 season. There were several United players that would represent their countries in France that summer, but perhaps the most acutely analyzed performance was that of David Beckham.
In his two and a half years as a first team player at United, Beckham had quickly established himself as a regular starting player on the right side of midfield. His unique striking ability provided quality deliveries from wide areas, as well as a genuine goal scoring threat from open play and direct free kicks. There was some dubiety from England manager Glenn Hoddle, as covered in our our mini-series, who not only questioned Beckham’s ability to operate as a wide man in his 3-5-2, but also had concerns over his pseudo-celebrity lifestyle and how it was affecting his focus as a professional footballer.
After his omission from the line up of England’s opening game against Tunisia in Marseille, when Beckham did eventually make the starting eleven he bounded around the field like a coiled spring, carrying a frustrated energy that led to moments of class and moments of madness in equal measure. Beckham’s tournament will undoubtedly be remembered for his red card against Argentina, a match which ended in England’s exit from the competition at the 2nd round stage. Given the nature of his sending off, a petulant kick out at the calf of Diego Simeone, the response from a notoriously harsh English press was feral. They presented Beckham as the cause and effect of England’s departure, a feeling that was picked up by the wider English football public and displayed with regularity during the following season.
Ferguson’s management of Beckham throughout the subsequent months was exemplary, providing him all the care and attention that had been sadly lacking by those at the FA. If anything, this entire episode enabled Ferguson to build upon the siege mentality he had so effectively cultivated at Old Trafford, using the negative media coverage to unify his squad’s energy ahead of the new season.
In stark contrast to the cloud that appeared to hang over Manchester United through much of early 1998, the garden couldn’t be any rosier for Arsenal. Tony Adams was enjoying an Indian summer in the twilight of his career, gaining critical acclaim for his performances at the heart of England’s defense at the World Cup. Dennis Bergkamp would score one of the goals of the tournament as Holland advanced past Argentina in the Quarter Finals, narrowly missing out in a place in the final as they lost 4-2 on penalties to Brazil. Wenger also welcomed back two of his countrymen, Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira, who’s summer heroics had helped France secure their first ever World Cup breezing past Brazil in the Final in Paris.
While the mood was markedly different between England’s leading title contenders ahead of the 98/99 campaign, football has a wonderful way of recalibrating expectations as soon as a new season gets underway. Join us in part two where we examine the summer transfer business that was to take place across the Premier League in the summer of 1998, as well as taking a deep dive into English Football’s curtain raiser where Manchester United met Arsenal at Wembley Stadium in a match that was anything but charitable.