It’s easy to forget how, in the days between the formation and dissolution of the Sky Four, the Premier League was largely filled with utter dross. Stern John and Collins John would count themselves as solid, dependable Premier League strikers and Allardyceball was the dominant religion. The saving grace of those soulless days was United-Arsenal, whose long-running rivalry over that time was gloriously nasty as well as a brilliant spectacle.
United were flickering into a decline, although Arsenal’s would begin later and be far more severe. A ten-point deficit and third place were the legacies of the previous season, but Ruud van Nistelrooy’s ludicrous form sustained them as Arsenal wavered, a bonkers 3-2 defeat to Leeds United, prolonging their own agony for a further year, the final shot to the head.
The beast would be back the next season, of course, and the rivalry would intensify even further, before José Mourinho arrived on the scene and Arsene Wenger’s sad decline began. When he goes, let’s remember his side as they were. And the same for the equally-dead tenacity of United teams gone by.
The first time that the two title challengers ever played each other on the last day of the season came with United’s first title victory for over forty years, although by the time it came around, it was a bit of a damp squib. United were seventh in November, but would not lose from the middle of that month until March, after which consecutive away defeats to Portsmouth and Huddersfield left them level on points with Arsenal.
As the season drew to a close, United stepped up again, putting four past Liverpool, six past Burnley, and thumping Chelsea 3-0. Arsenal somehow matched them, but at the very last ran out of steam, succumbing to injuries and a loss of confidence which left them needing to beat United by seven goals on the last day to clinch the title.
Sensing the fear and desperation of the Gunners, United gave them a real shoeing, romping to a 6-1 win in which Roger Byrne, who scored in all but one of the last six games, finally stamped his emergence into Busby’s side. It all added to the notion of youth being the way forward, and the victory would have plenty of implications for the future.
In the years before Jimmy Hill invented the concept of football punditry, thereby ruining the sport for everyone, Match of the Day introductions were rather less bombastic and more quaint. Here, for instance, is how United’s 3-0 thumping of Liverpool was introduced.
You can watch the match itself here. It was a determined victory for United thanks to a brace from Denis Law, one of seven straight victories chalked up in the last eight games of the season, before United effectively secured the title at Arsenal. The victory would have greater ramifications, however, according to some – just as United emerged in the 90s at the perfect time to capitalise on Premier League riches, this was the first season that Match of the Day was broadcast on the BBC.
The new televisual interest in football coincided with United’s incredible team of the time, who, as they reclaimed the Busby Babes’ legacy, were entering a brave new world which would’ve been unrecognisable to any stars of the 1950s. It was also to make and then claim George Best, although on the pitch, the skill and aura of the Northern Irishman and the other two components of United’s legendary trio was already in full effect..
It was far from Modern Football as we know it, of course – on the good side, compare and contrast Robin van Persie’s recent nonchalant insistence that United wouldn’t be able to play good football in two games within three days, and Law’s back-to-back braces against Liverpool and Arsenal in this run-in. On the other side, there was the scrapping, with United’s FA Cup Semi-Final and replay against Leeds causing mayhem on pitch, terrace and street in Sheffield ad Nottingham. Prevailing in the league was more than adequate revenge.
This one is recent enough to have avoided any real historical contextualisation so far, and therefore also doesn’t need retelling, so perhaps it’s time for some revisionism: Subsequent events have now correctly cast Benitez as an ultimately short-sighted and inadequate leader, but although he would leave Liverpool in serious decline, his side did have one good shot in them.
And quite a shot it was – 2009 and present-day Liverpool Football Club are far enough away now that we can admit, as honest Reds, that we know how the Romans felt about Hannibal. For a couple of months, Liverpool were utterly terrifying, looking not only unbeatable but something even more dangerous – their 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid brought out the cold sweats more than their 4-1 victory at Old Trafford did, if only due to the prospect of actually having to go face-to-face with them in Europe.
It was the opposite of most of United’s storied title races – out of sorts, limping over the line ahead of a team that was in better form for most of the run-in. It was also amidst the lunacy of the Champions League clash with Chelsea that Liverpool appeared to spiral out of control, rather than in the face of anything United did. Despite that, it still gave us one of the great stories, and among all the twists and turns, we’ll remember it for one moment, and one man. The fact Federico Macheda has done absolutely nothing of note since will only add to the legend.
European triumphs have the obvious side-effect of detracting from what’s happening on the domestic front. Chelsea and Liverpool fans have been glad of it, and United certainly would’ve been in 1968 when they lost a lead in the First Division to Manchester City in pursuing glory at Wembley. But in 1999, United’s victory in Barcelona led to one of the great title-races being sadly overshadowed.
As Rob Smyth noted in his eulogy to this race: “It’s the same with title races: very rarely do all the challengers hurtle towards the line at full pelt. One is usually saddled with the egg and spoon or third leg that is loss of form, nerve or players through injury, and are overtaken at the last.” 1999 was different. It was scarcely even about the run-in, so consistent were the teams and so consistent were the plot twists, with so many dramatic turns that it ceased to be a shape recognisable outside the realms of theoretical physics. In short, the entire season was one big run-in.
Again, it’s criminal we should ever use the excuse of fixture congestion in 2013 – our superior pitches, training methods and rehabilitation are light years ahead of what there was in 1999, let alone the 1970s. And it’s not just about the frequency of games but rather their intensity. We currently have a United side which only gets out of second gear when it absolutely must, prepared to settle for a victory by a single goal, two at the most, refusing to turn on the style even when fifteen points ahead. In contrast, this United side had been far better going into the calendar year of 1999, and from there on simply went on an unstoppable run, thrashing decent sides and engaging in titanic struggles with great ones. To think – there are some who claim this set in 2013 are our finest ever squad.