Sir Alex Ferguson dreamed of winning the Champions League for years. On 26th May 1999, the surrounding area of Barcelona’s Nou Camp became swamped with Manchester United fans. Everywhere you looked there were United fans and colours. Their songs reverberated through the streets as if the city of Manchester had been teleported into Catalonia.
The final three minutes of the match against Bayern Munich contain some of the most dramatic scenes in British sporting history. United, a goal down to an early free kick, somehow scored twice in injury time and went on to lift the European Cup as part of a historic treble.
In the closing weeks of the 1999 season, United made it a regular occurrence to make things hard for themselves. In the first leg of the semi-final, they conceded a 25th minute away goal to Juventus only to find an equaliser in the 92nd minute. In the second leg, United found themselves 2-0 down inside the first 11 minutes and left it until the 84th minute to find the winner. Roy Keane and Paul Scholes both picked up suspensions which meant they would miss the final. Leaving it late and continuously complicating matters became a prevailing narrative for the season.
Sir Alex Ferguson is one of the world’s finest ever leaders. He never led a country or an army – but the quality and lasting impact of his leadership is undeniable. He fostered a cult of personality and shaped everything about Manchester United in his own image. His development of the scouting network, the growth of the youth academy, and change of mindset amongst the players and staff were all part of a winning formula. A formula that lasted over two decades.
Ferguson developed a mindset of resilience amongst his players. He once said: “My job was to make everyone understand that the impossible was possible.” Whatever the unpredictable nature of football threw up he was able to guide his players through the minefield and try to ensure they could continue to perform at the highest level. Often, their performance did not reach the highest level – but Ferguson had achieved something better for his team. Even when they didn’t play well, or close to their best, or had their backs to the wall, he created an aura of decisiveness about them. To be able to hang on until the end and bite the opponent when they didn’t think it was coming.
As manager, Ferguson led Manchester United into 1,500 matches where they won 895 times, drew 338, and lost 267. In all competitions Ferguson had a 60% win rate and under his management United lost only 18% of the time. The significance of the ‘Fergie Time’ phenomenon is best illustrated by the fact that 101 matches were won or drawn by a United goal after 85 minutes. In comparison, United lost or drew 51 times because of an opposition goal after 85 minutes.
The Treble winning season was the pinnacle of the careers of the graduates of United’s Class of 92. His faith in young players brought success in the years before but never on the same scale as what this side achieved in 1999. It was only fitting that the hero of the hour against Arsenal in the FA Cup Semi-Final Replay should be Ryan Giggs, the most decorated of all Ferguson’s discoveries. His incredible solo goal decided the tie in extra time and kept the treble alive.
The events of the game against Arsenal can be described as a microcosm of the entire 1999 season. The match had been lit up by an incredible David Beckham strike from open play that looked like one of his deadly trademark set-pieces in disguise. It was Beckham’s third goal in five games and the first time Arsenal had conceded for 690 minutes. Dennis Bergkamp scored a superb equaliser to help Arsenal keep to their part as the season’s main antagonist towards United. Roy Keane played magnificently, but like in many of his performances, he walked the dangerous line between aggressive and reckless, and earned himself a red card for his troubles.
Peter Schmeichel, who routinely won Manchester United points by keeping them in games and shutting out the opposition, saved a Bergkamp penalty. Arsenal had the better of the first half of extra time by taking full advantage of their extra man. But they couldn’t find a way past Schmeichel. Like so many times before, United were saved by an individual moment of magic and mastery.
Giggs’ goal represents the Welshman’s entire career in a single gliding run where he darted between players like smoke floating through the cracks in tree branches. He took on the entire Arsenal defence before he created an angle on his trusted left foot and crashed the ball into the roof of David Seaman’s net.
In this game, United were brave. Players gave everything on the field and took nothing off it. After the game, Arsene Wenger said: “The two teams are very close to each other and in the end the luckiest won.” He believed luck had been Arsenal’s downfall. Instead, he is blind to see United’s bravery and resilience blended with an incredible piece of decisiveness from Ryan Giggs as the reason for side’s misfortune.
For the majority of this team, Ferguson had discovered them, grown and nurtured them. It was only a matter of time before he led their ascension to greatness. And that time had come.