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United: the vaguely acceptable face of mania, obsession and ecstasy.

Not just the most dramatic end to a football match that we’ll ever see, or even the most dramatic end to a football match that anyone will ever see, but the single most dramatic, consuming event that most of us will ever see in the course of our lives. United: the vaguely acceptable face of mania, obsession and ecstasy.

There’ve been last-minute goals before; there’ve even been two last minute goals before. But never in the last minute of the European Cup final, for a team trailing by one, needing a win to secure an unprecedented Treble.

And yet it’s not the success that’s truly special, but the glory. 1998–99 featured every single aspect that could possibly be desired of any season, and there’s never been another remotely like it. Astounding, varied games, featuring kickings, robberies, comebacks and thrillers, amazing goals, exceptional competition, absurd characters, elephantine testicles and staggering plot twists. Or, put another way, it encompassed so much of what makes United, sport and life so compelling.

The team itself was a classic United composition, featuring a core of local kids mixed with expensive signings and previously unknowns, melding icons, greats and at least a couple of all-time greats. More than half played the season of their lives.

And amongst them were few you had to like despite yourself. There was no constant justification that the players were just passing through, and they played with a definitive love and fight.

Then, of course, there’s Fergie – “this man on the touchline, he’s not on the pitch but he’s running everything, his whole heart was in it,” said Bobby Charlton after watching him at Aberdeen.

Writing in the summer of 2013, the feeling that a significant aspect of our lives is being attended to by him has yet to dissipate entirely, that joyous security of knowing that something over which you have no control is under control. If another team improved, well, he would make sure that United did the same, and if not, compensate for any shortfall in talent by making the difference himself – only he could mitigate his own appalling errors with his own appalling brilliance. He’s made our lives better, and it’s embarrassingly hard to conceive of how they’d have been without him. It is only football, but it makes us very euphoric; it is only reflected glory, but never has there been such a powerful mirror. Would we be different people without 23 years of immense, intense pleasure?

Crucially, Fergie understood that football is simple and humans are complex, and had an instinctive, considered and profound feel for both. It’s because of him that life is something that happens while United are winning things, mainly in inspiring style, and his addiction to the buzz of existing is a strong lesson. For all his faults, the world is a better place for his presence, and that’s a mightily rare accolade.

You have to wonder how it’s possible to sustain an argument his Treble team wasn’t the most brilliant that England has ever seen; in 52 years of trying, United are the only team to win all three major trophies in the same season, achieved with the highest possible tariff of difficulty and close to the highest possible standard of execution. But given that we’re here for our gratification, let’s gratify ourselves and spell it out.

United won arguably the best league in British football history. They finished above an excellent Chelsea side, holders of European and domestic trophies, and which lost only three games all season. They finished above an exceptionally tough and balanced Arsenal side, defending double champions, boasting one of the tightest defences ever assembled and abetted by an easy Cup run and early European elimination.

United, on the other hand, reached Wembley after playing a Premier League side in every round but one, including Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal. To win the European Cup, they escaped a group containing Barcelona and Bayern Munich, then despatched both Italian sides in the competition, without resorting to away goals or extra-time – and then Bayern Munich, without resorting to extra time or penalties. That there were moments when it all might have slipped away serves only to accentuate the quality of opposition and illuminate United’s durability and brilliance under pressure.

And through it all, they attempted fast, exciting, original football, regardless of the opposition, and proved that they could perform in any circumstance. Famous for late goals, they were just as devastating early, and required little in the way of tactics: defend properly, attack whenever possible.

Late seventies’ Liverpool may have won more European Cups, but they didn’t play 13 times to get them, the games, all knockout, generally easy until the last eight, and even afterwards, the clubs they beat were not comparable in quality to those faced by United. Similarly, those finishing second and third domestically were not remotely the equal of their 1998–99 counterparts.

Another comparator is, apparently, the Arsenal of 2003–04. But again, as with Chelsea in 2004–06, the standard of challengers was miserable, and both failed in Europe, where the same was roughly so. You can only beat who’s there, but every protagonist is defined by his antagonists, and quite simply, there weren’t any.

It’s true that Arsenal remained unbeaten in one competition all season, but also lost as many times in the Champions League as United did overall, their longest such sequence 31 games, United’s 33. But in any event, avoiding defeat has never been the point.

Every year, the Arsenal players from that period – they call themselves “the Invincibles” – meet up to celebrate themselves. They never won another title. Every year, the United players from their season – they do not call themselves “the Treblincibles” – do not meet up to celebrate themselves. They won the next two titles.

And then there are the great United sides. The Busby Babes would have become the best, but could not, and 1965–68 iteration had the best individuals, but nothing like the quality or consistency. And of Fergie’s finest, though the 1994 lot were hamstrung in Europe, it’s nonetheless hard to argue for the ability of its defence to cope with the leading attackers of the day, while the 2007–2008 team was more solid than that which won the Treble, but neither as complete nor destructive further forward, excellent but not eternal.

So, with the order of things established, the difficulty is what happens next. Should any team repeat the achievement – well, it’s been done already, in circumstances we can be sure are superior, which is a very nice feeling; United have won football. But, paradoxically, they have also beaten every future United, which brings with it a strangeness of its own: each time one threatens the Treble, there brews a guilt, of being sure that it’s not good enough, almost hoping that it doesn’t cheapen the achievement by turning out to be good enough, followed by relief when it isn’t good enough.

But let’s not finish with existential crisis. Fergie later observed that the celebrations begun by Solskjær’s goal will never really stop. “Just thinking about it can put me in party mood,” he said. And he’s right; part of us shall forever remain in the Promised Land, and part of the Promised Land shall forever remain part of us. Savour it, every day of your life.

This extract is taken from Daniel Harris’ excellent book, The Promised Land, now available for just £6.25 on Amazon.



  1. Tommy says:

    Came through the post this morning, happy days!

  2. wayne barker says:

    I was in Reno Flamingo Hilton sportsbook with a buddie who’d come over from England it was the first day of the holiday we bet Utd to win pretty heavy went fucking mental when that goal went in.

  3. Fletch™ says:

    Top story Wayne, Cheers.

    Me? Dispare to Euphoria in 2 minutes. You literally could not write the script of that season.
    The number of comebacks and last minute reverses of fortune was incredible. Sometimes felt we didn’t want it. But then, it all came good!

    Football, bloody hell!!!!!!

  4. UnitedFaithful says:

    I remember going to the prayer room at half time and praying to god.The exacts words that came out of my mouth were Please God don’t let my united loose
    turns out even god is a red.

  5. Fletch™ says:

    Top blog entry from Daniel. Book is on my list. Can’t wait!

    Off topic:
    Speaking of top red reads. You lads deserve to take a peak at a letter to the Guardian from a true Red treasure. United fan Giles Oakley, cancer survivor and living every day with a red anecdote that you will not get anywhere else!

  6. Zulu-Utd-Malta says:

    That day was the best day of my 55 years on this planet,much better than winning the National Lottery.

    I would like so much to see Ole’ back to our beloved Man Utd at some capacity.I’m sure he is capable oof doing a fantastic job for us !

    By the way— This was a very good post. Cheers from Man Utd supporters club Malta.

  7. Tommy says:


    Great to hear from people from Malta, the oldest supporters club in the world is the one in Malta

  8. sir matt martin says:

    here goes the fukin war vet again, are u back from war? War vet my ass, little old granny from canada. people like Wayne bakass. should be with the apes.

  9. Mark Reid says:

    What a fete it was amazing gives me chills still.

  10. Gazzer says:

    I’ve been fretting about Moyes recently and how it was probably a huge mistake to clear out the coaching staff who provide such a link to the players.

    But this post brings us all back to focusing on the positive. That was such an exhilarating time, it will remain in our memories long after we forget our current disappointments.

    Maybe Fergie isn’t up there with Mandela, but he’s enriched the lives of millions around the world in a big big way

  11. sir matt martin says:

    Beckham into Sheringham and
    solskjaer has won it? has there ever been a better line of commentary ?

  12. John says:

    Greatest manager of all time sums it up perfectly “Football, bloody hell.”

  13. John says: [ Irrelevant to the thread, however, its good to look into the human side of David Moyes.]

  14. John says: [David moyes could to with coaches like clement atm...more English players, coaches and managers need to go abroad as well and gain experiences!!]

  15. sir matt martin says:

    he realy needs too, and he needs an assistant as well.

  16. John says: [ Am I the only one who thinks, our ex-players keep criticising our players ONLY coz they don't/can't criticize our manager moyes?...I mean players too are to blame but just look into bleacherreport article, moyes too have a point to prove but NONE of the ex-players point out their comment towards him directly!! If we sign good players in cm then would that act as a magic pill to our performance or is it just one of the excuses? Shitty has good players in cm too but so did/does madrid but managers came and went, a lot of them...Time shall reveal!!]

  17. John says:

    ^ and so did/does real madrid

  18. John says:

    Out of curiousity, WHAT IS THE MINIMUM OUTCOME ACCEPTABLE THIS SEASON UNDER DAVID MOYES TO MANCHESTER UNITED FANS HERE? And WHY? [This is something I really want to know from fellow reds of this blog! Please try to be honest.]

  19. John says:

    ^ just want to clarify that, by above question, I don’t mean “what may” be acceptable to owner/board and so on. I only want to know “MINUMUM ACCEPTABLE OR OK SEASON TO YOU PERSONALLY”. Whatever it may be come the end of season we will all be United supporters irrespective of how the season ends. However, what do you think the “minimum” outcome “Should or must” be TO YOU under moyes this season and express your personal reasons behind your frank and honest opinion? …really bored of deflection here, just wanted to know frank and honest answer!

  20. wayne barker says:

    Player power isn’t good at any club any player with a fuck you attitude should be gone.RVP doesn’t come across as a diva but if all the rumors are true about him not being happy with the training and wants out so be it
    Unlike most clubs player power has never been to take hold and it shouldn’t now,dont need to be going down the road of revolving door managers
    The Moyes haters are just getting boring no matter what happens imo Moyes will be given time to sort this squad out which means whatever happens this year he’ll be given at least another season to get rid of the dead wood and bring new players in

  21. UnitedFaithful says:

    The idea that he has taken over a team of Champions doesn’t hold any water,yes the team did win the league last season but they did it with Fergie at the helm,a man we all consider incarnation of the football gods,a freak of nature,Moyes hasn’t even had half a season with this team yet and he is supposed to work wonders with some of the average players we have at our squad,I am not blaming only the midfield for our downfall but seasoned pros like RVP,Carrick,Pat,Vida,Rio massively under performed whether due to injury or off form while our best player is a man who doesn’t even wanna play for us and a 18 year old.

  22. UnitedFaithful says:

    Tom Cleverley admits he has been ‘average’ for Manchester United this season but he has vowed to improve his form.

    The England midfielder has had firm question marks put over his future at the club with David Moyes planning on buying at least one midfielder in January.

    But despite admitting he has been poor this term, Cleverley says he will get better – and prove his worth at Old Trafford.

    ‘At the moment, I feel like I’ve got more to give,’ Cleverley told United Review.

    ‘I’ve had a few average games, a few more than I would prefer.

    ‘But I felt this time last year was when I hit my best form of the season, when we were playing every few days.

    ‘I’m the type of player who prefers that and, if I can get into a rhythm, then hopefully I can add more than just appearances to my record, I can also add some stand-out performances.’

    Cleverley is being tipped for a future as a pass-focused attacking midfielder, but he says he is also learning the defensive side of the game, in order to become the complete package.

    ‘I’m definitely developing the defensive side of my game and tactically the manager is teaching me a lot of things,’ added Cleverley.

    ‘Maybe the creative side of my game can improve a little bit too but I realise that’s not my only job in the team and sometimes I’ve got to sacrifice that part.’


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