By J Hutcherson (June 2, 2020) US Soccer Players – On May 26, 1999, Manchester United scored twice in stoppage time to win the Champions League. It’s a classic moment in large part because so many people around the world saw it live. Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel running up the field to join the United attack. Bayern Munich trying to shake off that equalizer only to see United set up all over again. There’s no argument that this separated then from now in the modern era of the Champions League. The question worth asking is just how good Manchester United was in 1998-99?
Manchester United lost the 1997-98 Premier League to Arsenal by one point after winning back-to-back titles. United manager Alex Ferguson was leading a transition from the Cantona era to his new group of superstars. Though it’s easy to see what Ferguson had now, what would end up looking like an all-star team required work in the transfer market alongside the best youth player recruitment and development in the league. Manchester United was working hard in the 90s, with the payoff a team of marquee talent. That doesn’t always translate into trophies.
The big addition to the 1998-99 version of United was Dwight Yorke moving from Aston Villa and Jaap Stam joining from PSV Eindhoven. Both would establish themselves in the starting lineup. Yorke’s partnership with Andy Cole became one of the best striker tandems in the league. Add in Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and United had an elite group of forwards. In midfield, Roy Keane was the leader everybody remembers alongside Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, and David Beckham. Jaap Stam joined Gary and Phil Neville in defense, the weakest part of the lineup, but playing in front of one of the best goalkeepers in the league in Schmeichel. What Ferguson had created was a squad with an answer to almost everything. It wasn’t just the class of ’92 players developed at the club coming of age at the right time. It also wasn’t the careful additions of players that would immediately fit his style. Setting aside the basic idea that a club puts together squad of professional players to win games, there was a synchronicity that tended to show up when needed.
The Premier League
Manchester United started the season one of the favorites to win the league. This wasn’t a surprise package, and the biggest question was what they’d get out of Schmeichel’s final season. Their goalkeeper announced in November would leave for Portugal’s Sporting. This would turn into major angst for the club over several seasons as their goalkeeper spot turned into an ongoing problem. All involved were well aware that might be an issue, so make the best of the situation now. That situation was questionable following a 3-0 loss at Arsenal on September 20. If, like the previous season, Arsenal was the team to beat it required actually beating Arsenal. United lost their second game of the season 3-1 at Sheffield Wednesday on November 21. They drew three games in a row in December before losing 3-2 at home to Middlesbrough on December 19. For a team wanting a title race, dropping nine points in four games was an issue. United responded by not losing another game that season. That undefeated run included winning 14 out of 20 games. United didn’t beat Arsenal, drawing 1-1 at home on February 17, but they did win the Premier League by all of a point over the Gunners.
The FA Cup
For Manchester United, the 1998-99 FA Cup meant playing through an odd scenario of mostly Premier League teams at home. They started against Middlesbrough, winning 3-1 at Old Trafford. Then it was 2-1 over Liverpool, again at home. Fulham, then in the Second Division, lost 1-0 at Old Trafford. Shocked looks, it was home to Chelsea but a 0-0 draw meant the first road game of the FA Cup. United won 2-0, setting up a semifinal against Arsenal. For anybody wanting the FA Cup to provide the clear statement for who was the better team that season, sorry to disappoint. At Villa Park, the game finished scoreless through extra time. In the replay also at Villa Park, United scored in extra time to advance 2-1. Giggs’s 109th minute goal became famous for his shirtless celebration as well as pointing to late-game heroics from this squad. It’s that semifinal that everybody remembers, with Manchester United not having much trouble seeing off Newcastle 2-0 in the final on May 22.
The Champions League
United exited the 1997-98 Champions League on the away goals rule to Monaco in the quarterfinals, back then the first round of the knockout stage. The previous season they had lost to Borussia Dortmund in the semifinals. Whatever expectations there were for United in 1998-99, it meant getting to the knockout round at a minimum. Finishing second in the Premier League meant qualifying, with United knocking out Lodz 2-0 on aggregate. Drawn into Group D, they faced Bayern Munich, Barcelona, and Brondby with no guarantee that more than one team would advance. Draws would make the difference for United, going undefeated in the group but only winning twice. That left them in 2nd-place with 10 points to Bayern’s 11, good enough for Group D to advance two teams. United drew Inter Milan in the quarterfinals, winning 2-0 at home and taking the series 3-1. United drew 1-1 at home with Juventus in the semifinals, setting up one of the best games in Champions League history.
Juventus vs Manchester United
With Juventus holding onto an away goal, the Italian champions looked in control at home against Manchester United on April 21. They doubled down on that perception with goals from Pippo Inzaghi in the 6th and 11th minutes. United responded quickly. Roy Keane pulled a goal back in the 24th with Dwight Yorke equalizing in the 34th. United needed another goal, but it would be a long time coming. Andy Cole finally delivered in the 84th minute, advancing United to the Champions League final.
Manchester United vs Bayern Munich
Barcelona’s Camp Nou hosted the 1998-99 Champions League final, with Bayern Munich taking the early lead from a Mario Basler free kick in the 6th minute. At this point, playing from behind wasn’t exactly an issue for United. This team understood what the full 90 meant, not panicking for long stretches as they worked for an equalizer. They also absorbed the unavailability of Roy Keane and Nicky Butt, reworking the midfield and defense. It’s easy to make too much of that considering the depth of United’s bench. Ferguson designed this squad to have multiple options and recourses. Taking advantage of that was part of his season-long planning. Ferguson had Sheringham and Solskjaer on the bench, using both of them late to revive the United attack. Joining Yorke, they put together a threatening run of chances that seemed to culminate in a goalmouth scramble to equalize in stoppage time. You can credit most of United’s players on the field when the ball went in, but it was Sheringham getting the goal. Two minutes later, a second corner led to their winner. Solskjaer toe-poked the ball and United had the lead. Time and motivation wasn’t on Bayern’s side, with the double gut punch costing them the trophy.
So how good was Manchester United in 1998-99?
One point in the league since Arsenal had the tiebreaker. Extra time in the FA Cup. Stoppage time in the Champions League. There’s a reason Bayern Munich had no qualms raising the concept of luck in explaining how the title slipped away. Premier League teams might have echoed a similar sentiment. It’s not fair to what Ferguson and his staff put together, much less the players on the field, but it’s still a point. United’s treble wasn’t a straightforward showing of strength home and abroad. Instead, it was a season of close calls with slight margin for error. That United navigated that in three of the four competitions was the story then and now. There’s no cliche to encapsulate how good this version of United turned out to be. Ferguson saw an opportunity with Schmeichel’s last season in what some might have seen as a transition for the squad. Instead, he turned it into three more trophies.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson:
- How good was Borussia Dortmund in 1996-97?
- How good was the ’01 Miami Fusion?
- How good was the ’81 Chicago Sting?
- How good was the ’98 Chicago Fire?
Logo courtesy of Manchester United