How Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United won the treble 25 years on | Manchester United

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Tottenham’s Les Ferdinand worried his goal would hand Arsenal the title. Rob Lee recalls Newcastle “squabbles” going into the FA Cup final. Raimond van der Gouw predicted 2-1 but trailing 1-0 with a few minutes left told Phil Neville that Champions League glory against Bayern Munich in Barcelona would be “difficult now”. Recollections from players involved in the three defining games of Manchester United’s treble, the first in English football history, entering Sir Alex Ferguson’s team into immortality across 10 glorious days a quarter of a century ago on Sunday.

As Tottenham arrived at a sun-dappled Old Trafford on 16 May 1999 for the final match of the Premier League campaign, Ferguson’s team had 76 points, one more than Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal. Yet, after 24 minutes, disaster struck as Ferdinand scored in a moment of difficult emotion for the childhood Spurs fan.

“We were all aware of the situation as Spurs players and me being a Spurs fan – if we won the game and Arsenal won [against Aston Villa at Highbury] our reputations in north London would plummet,” the former England striker remembers. “As players you are aware of it no matter what you say. You want to get out there and win but you understand what the consequences of winning are. I remember scoring and thinking: ‘Bloody hell what have we done here?’

“The celebrations were muted, I mean the players jumped on me and I had the elation of scoring; you feel this first and foremost. It had been quite a horrible season in terms of injuries so I hadn’t played that many games. But after we celebrated we started running back to the halfway line, and you think: ‘That put us 1-0 up, that could win Arsenal the title.’ How much worse could my season get?”

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“I grew up in Ladbroke Grove [west London] as an armchair Spurs fan,” Ferdinand says. “My cousin was a Liverpool fan, he used to have all the Liverpool kit and stuff like that and I was: ‘No no no, I’m not going to support a team outside of London, I’m going to support a team inside of London.’ At the time Tottenham was the glamour club.”

Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s dramatic winner completed a stunning turnaround against Bayern Munich. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

Ferdinand’s strike, a chip, hushed the majority of those inside Old Trafford. “The ball had come over the top and I saw [Peter] Schmeichel start to come out and I thought the only way I can score is to try and lob it over his head with the outside of my boot,” says Ferdinand. “In terms of that, it was picture perfect.”

Spurs held the lead for only 18 minutes. United responded via David Beckham’s sweeping equaliser as the home side came at George Graham’s visitors in waves. “We were under relentless pressure,” says Ferdinand. “They had effort after effort after effort – Ian Walker [Tottenham’s goalkeeper] pulled off some good saves and they missed some good chances.”

At the interval, Ferguson removed Teddy Sheringham and introduced Andy Cole, the player who would score United’s winner two minutes into the second half, meaning the Premier League crown and the first leg of a tilt at history was United’s. “I didn’t celebrate but I wanted to because you knew what it was going to mean,” Ferdinand says.

Arsenal beat Villa 1-0 but lost their grip on the title. United, meanwhile, moved on to Wembley the following Saturday where Newcastle stood between Ferguson’s men and the FA Cup. As Lee recalls, the newly crowned champions were given an extra edge due to all not being cordial within the Tyneside club. Ruud Gullit was a divisive figure as manager, seen in his demotion of Lee as captain without informing the midfielder of the decision. “There were a few things going on behind the scenes, a few squabbles going on,” says Lee. “It wasn’t a happy camp.”

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Ferguson started Cole and Ole Gunnar Solskjær in attack at Wembley on 22 May, with Dwight Yorke and Sheringham dropping to the bench, and the Scot suffered a blow after only nine minutes when Roy Keane had to come off due to an ankle injury. According to Lee, United lost “a hard as nails, complete midfielder” in that moment. As Keane was suspended for the Champions League final the following Wednesday, that also meant the Irishman’s participation in United’s treble quest was over.

Paul Scholes sealed Manchester United’s FA Cup triumph with a goal against Newcastle. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Sheringham came on for Keane and scored two minutes later. “The only thing in my mind was to try and win a trophy – that was the main thing,” says Lee. “We were well pleased when Roy went off and then Teddy comes on and scores after a few minutes, so it was a struggle after that.”

On 53 minutes Paul Scholes doubled United’s lead and the FA Cup was theirs. “They had a great team. You can’t take that away from them,” Lee says. “So it was always going to be tough, but as I say there were a few things going on in the background. [And] we didn’t play well. I don’t know what it was – it just wasn’t our day sort of thing.”

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United had claimed the third double of Ferguson’s reign, following those in 1994 and 1996, and now eyed becoming a team for the ages.

After jetting to Barcelona on Concorde, the starting XI Ferguson chose to face Bayern was a surprise given it featured Beckham as a replacement for the suspended Scholes in central midfield. Ryan Giggs was also switched to the right wing, with the unheralded Jesper Blomqvist drafted on to the left flank.

Mario Basler scored after six minutes to give the Bundesliga champions the lead. United were disjointed, turning in their poorest display of the season. As time ebbed away, Van der Gouw, reserve to Schmeichel, turned to Neville on the bench. “My prediction had been 2-1 to us and with 10 minutes left we were 1-0 down [and] Lothar Matthäus went off,” the Dutchman says.

Alex Ferguson celebrates with his players after their remarkable treble. Photograph: Andreu Dalmau/EPA

Ferguson removed Blomqvist for Sheringham on 67 minutes and then, with nine minutes left, he replaced Cole with Solskjær. What unfolded in the three added minutes was fantasy stuff.

“We scored the first goal from Teddy after the 90th and all the subs came off the bench and were sprinting to the players and celebrating,” Van der Gouw says. The equaliser came from a Beckham corner. As did, moments later, Solskjær’s winner, the Norwegian stabbing in from close range following Sheringham’s flick on. “To describe the feeling is really hard,” says Van der Gouw. “You can use many words, but it is: ‘Wow.’

“How can you say – happiness. The most exciting feeling. The game was over, the highest level of football. You have won the Champions League, and it was so special. And also, we were 1-0 down, we did it so many times that season – came back. And this was the last trophy after we won the Premier League, the FA Cup, and now the Champions League.”

Greatness was Ferguson’s and his players. A feat that lives on 25 years later and will as long as football is played.



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