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.