The second to last time I felt the way I do now was on a miserable and rainy day as I walked out of Old Trafford last April. Richardson scored that day, getting his name on the scoresheet after Rooney did all the hard work. We drew 1-1 with Middlesbrough with four games left to play, and all Chelsea had to do was beat Newcastle away, and they would be just one point behind us. This was with a trip to Stamford Bridge still to come, as well as away trips to Everton and City to think about. It felt like agony. It made me feel like maybe I cared too much. Surely it can’t be normal for your chest to feel like it had collapsed and your stomach ripped out.
But we were let off the hook, and Chelsea drew 0-0 the following day. However, just seven days later, I was back in the depths of depression, and this time, it felt even worse. Fifty minutes played at Goodison and we were 2-0 down, whilst Chelsea were 2-1 up at home against Bolton. This just couldn’t be happening. Week in week out I had watched United walk all over the opposition, winning convincingly, always looking like the better side. And here we were, with just a couple of games left to play, and we were about to throw it all away to a team who’d looked so inferior to us all season. You have got to be shitting me.
Quickly things changed though. Bolton got an equaliser, O’Shea pulled one back for us after a ludicrous drop by Turner, Phil “still a Red” Neville put us on level terms, Rooney took the lead in splendid fashion, and just to really rub it in, youngster Eagles scored a sublime goal in the last minute. United were back on top. There were just twenty nine minutes between us being 2-0 down and Chelsea being 2-1 up, to us leading 3-2 and Chelsea drawing. It took twenty nine minutes for sickening agony to turn in to one the greatest feelings I’ve experienced as a United fan. That was the day it felt as though the trophy was really coming home.
There have been many occasions over the years where we’ve had that agony, only for the gaping hole of pain to be filled to the brim with ecstasy. A year we experienced more of these moments than ever was back in 98/99. It’s been a while since I’ve talked about the Treble, so hey, if ever there’s a time to talk about it, it’s on the back of the results we’ve had against Reading and Portsmouth.
In January 1999, we were drawn Liverpool in the 5th round of the FA Cup at Old Trafford. Michael Owen took the lead after just five minutes, and after hitting the woodwork and tirelessly working to equalise, it just wasn’t happening for us. We were on the brink of getting knocked out of the FA Cup at the hands of Liverpool. Then, magically, we came back to win 2-1 with goals from Solskjaer and Yorke in the last minutes of the game. For eighty five minutes we’d been contemplating the bragging rights they’d have and the pain of losing to our biggest rivals, and within two minutes, we were on top and the bragging rights were all ours.
Three months later, we’re at Villa Park, playing Arsenal in the FA Cup semi final. We go a goal ahead after a cracking shot from Beckham, but midway through the second half Arsenal equalise. Four minutes later, our captain and most influential player is sent off. The agony didn’t kick in until the end of normal time though, when Phil Neville gave away a penalty. As Bergkamp stood over the ball, looking at Peter Schmeichel who had his thigh strapped up due to injury, my stomach turned. After one 0-0 which went to extra time, and 90 minutes of a replay, our FA Cup was going to go up in smoke in the last minute. It was all over. Then magically, Schmeichel saved the penalty and Giggs went on to score the greatest ever FA Cup goal in injury time.
A week later we were in Turin, in the second leg of the European Cup. After ten minutes we’re two goals behind. On Italian soil even going one goal behind is a bad move, but two goals made our situation undoable. Here we were, painfully close to achieving what was dubbed the “impossible” Treble after Liverpool failed to do it, and with just ten minutes gone of the semi, it was all over. Then, fourteen minutes pass, and we’re 2-2, which would see us through on away goals, but just to really take the piss, we take the lead and win 3-2.
Another month goes by and we’re in the Nou Camp and have been a goal behind since the sixth minute. We’ve no Keane or Scholes, Beckham is playing in the centre (where he never played), Giggs is playing on the right (where he never played), and Blomqvist on the left (where he did play, and was shite). Things don’t look good. I won’t go on and on about this. We won, it was the best night of my life, and your life, and we did it after overcoming the agony of believing it just wasn’t going to happen. We won it all, and in all three competitions, there were times when it looked like it just couldn’t and wouldn’t happen. There were times when you had to be off your head to think we had a chance in hell. As I wrote about in October of 2006, The Comeback Kings, we have a history of beating the odds and achieving what people say we won’t.
As the final whistle went on the draw with Portsmouth, I can’t remember my exact words, but they were along the lines of “We are totally fucked now.” Two games gone, four points dropped, whilst Chelsea have picked up maximum points. Despite having over 40 shots in total against Portsmouth and Reading (no, I am not shitting you), we have scored just one goal. Whilst definitely this can be in part attributed to the fact we had one striker on the field for half of the Reading match (and no strikers for the other half), and one striker who hadn’t played any football in a month for the Portsmouth game, this still is not good enough. After a summer of high hopes and big talk, it is not good enough to come out and not win our opening two games. The worst may be yet to come though, facing a City side who have gelled faster than anticipated and picked up six points already at the weekend. It could quite easily go from bad to worse in just a few days, especially now we’re without Ronaldo, on top of Rooney, Saha, Neville and Solskjaer (and Heinze booooo), after his ridiculous behaviour.
So is that it then? With two games played and four points between us and Chelsea, we’re going to rule ourselves out? I’d certainly hope not. I feel the sickness, I feel the pain, but we’re not dropping these points with a handful of games to go, on the contrary, this is just the beginning. We always stress the importance of a good start after Arsenal’s unbeaten season, the Chelsea title wins following, and our title last season. It feels essential to keep up or lead the pack from the first whistle, and to have fallen behind so early is desperately disappointing. But we need to get a grip. This isn’t the first time we’ve drawn the opening two games of the season. When was the last time, I hear you cry… 1998/1999.
This hasn’t been the start we hoped for, but there’s a long way to go yet. We’ve changed our luck before, and we will change it again. Chin up, get behind your team, and support the Champions.