There was never a season like it. Regardless of your leanings and predilections – whether you hated Manchester United with the heat of a shuttle launch or bathed them in every spare globe of love you had – their Treble-winning run in 1999 was, among other things, the most unignorable story in sport . As football writer Matt Dickinson puts it in his new book: “Another English team will win the Treble one day. But they cannot possibly win it like this.”
Memory is such a curious trick of the light. If you had even the smallest passing interest in English football through those months in the spring of 1999, certain snapshots remain universal. Ole Gunnar Solksjær’s flick to win the Champions League final against Bayern Munich stands above everything. But you had Roy Keane’s header against Juventus, you had Peter Schmeichel’s penalty save against Arsenal, Ryan Giggs’s winner that same night, Andy Cole’s lob to beat Spurs on the last day of the league and on and on and on.
Possibly the most surprising aspect of Dickinson’s book – entitled 1999: Manchester United, The Treble and All That – is that the season was so jam-packed with incidents that whole oceans of events have more or less been forgotten. But they’re all in here.
I do think and hope that some of the stories have a relevance to today and obviously ownership of football clubs definitely does
— Matt Dickinson
Alex Ferguson resigning in July 1998, albeit only for the length of the afternoon it took for United to call his bluff. BSkyB getting 99 per cent of the way towards buying United outright, only to be denied at the last hurdle by the UK government on the now-quaint basis that it “would have reinforced the trend towards growing inequalities between the larger, richer clubs and the smaller, poorer ones”. Schmeichel announcing he’d be leaving halfway through the season and instantly regretting it. Keane getting arrested and spending the night in the cells between the league win and the FA Cup final.
“When I decided I was going to do it,” Dickinson says, “I went back to draw up a sort of a hit list of things that I should include. And something like the Sky deal certainly wasn’t uppermost in my mind. But you start to go through the season and you find it and you go, ‘Blimey – that as well?’
“And of course in the context of the Super League and the Glazers and everything else, the relevance of it is obvious. Clearly there’s a lot of nostalgia in the book, you can’t avoid it. But I do think and hope that some of the stories have a relevance to today and obviously ownership of football clubs definitely does. But that happened a lot – I came across so many things that I had forgotten or thought happened in a different season.”
Dickinson was a football correspondent for The Times throughout. In almost 30 years of sports writing, he has covered World Cups, Olympics, Tours de France and everything in between. Nothing before or since could match that night in Barcelona when he spent 91 minutes writing one story and saw it all rendered null and void by the 102 seconds it took United to write the opposite one. “Easily the maddest night in the job,” he says now.
Revisiting it couldn’t be straightforward. It would be hard to find a sports story that has had more words written about it in the near quarter of a century since it happened. Pretty much everyone involved has written a book – plenty of them have written multiple ones. Every United documentary since then has referred to it in some shape or form and even in the wider world, it has long since been a piece of sporting lore. How do you find a fresh way to tell a story where everyone knows the ending?
“I guess I trusted the strength of the characters involved,” Dickinson says. “There’s enough revelations and tension in the dynamics between them and drama in the telling of it to keep the story moving that that wouldn’t be a problem. Hopefully people are willing to go along for the ride. That was why I went with 99 chapters as a structure as well. It meant that I could tell lots of different little stories along the way, rather than just a conventional diary of the season.”
The more I heard from the players, the more I looked into it, Keane becomes the driving force of the whole thing
Although most of the key personalities are interviewed for the book, there are no prizes for guessing who rebuffed the author. Dickinson tried Ferguson and Keane but lucked out on both occasions. In a way, it doesn’t matter – the pictures painted by the rest of the squad are probably more honest than the two chief bottle-washers themselves would have been. Nobody was more compelling.
“If we had kept all the tapes [of Ferguson’s press conferences] … some of them were absolutely vindictively personal. I remember one in particular to a colleague from the Mail that was absolutely outrageous. If anyone in the street tried to speak to you like that, you’d give them a quick punch.
“But of course, this was the great Alex Ferguson and it felt like part of our job to grapple with him. And there was a brilliant candour about it all. There was a rawness about it that you just don’t get nowadays. It felt like a daily battle. You were turning up wondering is he going to be the most interesting, charismatic character I’ve ever written about or is he going to rip my head off? Of course he could be rude and a bully but he could also be a million other things and that was the fascination.”
Nor for Keane, one story from Dickinson feels telling.
“The book is bookended by Beckham,” he says. “And at one stage I thought that in a cast of characters, Beckham would be the sort of central thread, going from getting sent off in the 1998 World Cup to winning the Treble and the whole redemption story, getting married at the end. But actually, in the research and the writing of the book, Keane became the arch protagonist.
“The more I heard from the players, the more I looked into it, Keane becomes the driving force of the whole thing. Coming back from his own injury, finding his own redemption in one of the great individual seasons. He emerged as the talismanic figure of the whole story. I still think it was a massively underrated season by any player over the last 30 years of English football.”
The world turns – and nothing turns the world like football. It is jarring at times reading the book to look back at the kind of football that the United side played. It was thrilling and relentless and so much of its time. Ferguson was an unrepentant 4-4-2 man in those days and the general thrust of United’s play was winning the battle through Keane and Scholes, get it wide to Giggs and Beckham, feed Yorke and Cole inside. Nary a false nine to be seen.
“The sense of macho, unsophisticated, testosterone air that surrounded them was so interesting to relive,” Dickinson says. “I guess I had a vague memory of it but I had forgotten just how that dressing room really was built on character above all else. These days, we all fancy ourselves as tactical geniuses and everyone talks about high-pressing and low blocks and so on. Punters talk about football in a completely different way now. There’s a language around it now that didn’t exist back then. That kind of chat then was unthinkable.
“These were some of the best players in the world. But they really did go in for what Ferguson kept saying – ‘Tactics don’t win matches, men win matches.’ They had this primal thing about them whereby when they talked about training, it was never about tactics or shape or anything like that. It was about going in and getting the balls out and smashing each other for two hours and walking off.”
In the end, it made them immortal. So much has happened since, right up to and including the latest comedy start to United’s current season, that it makes the 1999 season feel like an invention almost. A story of impossible illogic.
The best ones always are.
— 1999: Manchester United, the Treble and All That by Matt Dickinson (Simon & Schuster, €22.90) is out now.