'What Happens While United Are Making Other Plans'

In an extract from a new anthology of writing about Manchester United, Daniel Harris takes us through some of the key games in the treble season of 1999...

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Deepest Red - A Manchester United Anthology brings together some of the best United writers around - including our own Andi Thomas - revealing fresh insight into a club that has become a global sporting legend.

Here, in an excerpt from his chapter 'Life: What happens to you while United are busy making other plans,' Daniel Harris writes about a certain season at the end of the last century...

There's something very weird about peeling yourself off a pile-on and realising that, at twenty years old and from that second onwards, things are only getting worse. But if it's a pile-on in a Nou Camp gangway at 22.33 on 26th May 1999, then it's incontrovertible fact; there resides the intersection of ecstasy and despair. Nothing and no one is ever trumping that moment, and that includes both you and United.

And it gets worse. To spend any time with the treble winners, is to experience unavoidable ire at the dullard, indolent, fraudulent cretins - some absolutely, absolutely all relatively - that comprise our team nowadays. But given the misery that pollutes and defames our footballing lives these days, we're obligated to focus on the joy, so let's have a go. Here are the key games from United's greatest ever season:


Arsenal at Villa Park, FA Cup semi-final replay 14/4/12
"Don't watch it alone", warned Ferg, in the days when he cared what we did. "The more difficult it is, the more resilient they become," boasted Wenger, in the days when he was said things because they were true, not because he was desperate to make them so.

There's an argument to be made that the 1999 FA Cup semi-final replay represents the zenith of football in this miserable country; a spiralling, thumping, coruscating, defibrillating vaginal orgasm of a game, gushing and thrashing with every aspect that could possibly be desired from twenty-two men booting a pig's bladder around a field.

Rivalry and enmity had been building since the arrival of Arsène Wenger just after the start of the 1996-97 season, but at that point, though top of the league, Arsenal weren't really considered a threat. Nor were they the following season, until they suddenly snatched the title with a murderously poetic post-January charge that surprised everyone, setting up the following season's duel between two proper teams.

By the time they met at Villa Park, United led the league by a point and had a game in hand, but faced a marginally tougher run-in with the added complication of a European Cup semi-final second leg. In the event, the encounter was boring, miserable and tight, like the worst, perhaps only kind of teenage girlfriend, and almost nothing happened, though even Martin Tyler had to acknowledge United's "long periods of superiority."

By the time of the replay, the open net of a final with Newcastle tantalised as the reward for winning, but outside the ground, Paul Davis informed me that the score would be three-nil to Arsenal. I decided to persevere. Incredibly, the match wasn't close to a sell-out, increasing the smuggery of the skint student with a ten pound restricted view ticket; smuggery quickly punctured on seeing United's team. As he had been in the first game, Scholes was on the bench, but so too were Giggs and Yorke, with Cole left out altogether, which could never work.

Except, of course, that it could. Roy Keane stomped and pistoned around the pitch like Roy Keane in his pomp, like Roy Keane in his pomp against Airsenal, arms pumping, head doing its sideways motion, and United deservedly went in front on seventeen minutes. Picking up the second ball after a long Schmeichel clearance was headed away, Beckham found Sheringham who cleverly teed him up with a manoeuvre straight out of his captain's textbook, working the outside of his foot around the ball to earn some space away from Adams and the woolly-gloved Petit. But no one expected the astonishingly magnificent finish that came next, Beckham unfurling an outswinging full-toss that shrieked past Seaman, done with the eyes from twenty-five yards. "What a goal!" gushed Tyler, but only after pausing to contemplate the implausibility of what he'd just seen.

Before the game Beckham, was one of the two players selected by Ferg for a special word, the gist of which he explained to Hugh McIlvanney in the Sunday Times the next weekend:

"David, in his eagerness to have a crucial impact on a game, can occasionally over-elaborate. He has abilities that set him apart from every other player in Britain. Nobody else strikes the ball as well. The range and accuracy of his delivery, whether he is shooting, passing or putting over crosses, provide us with a weapon that is liable to win any match. In essence, my message to him was that he is at his deadliest when concentrating on the simple application of these tremendous skills." Best add 'good listener' to his long list of metrosexual credentials.

This was the first time that Arsenal had been behind in a game since the first week in January - in seventeen games, they'd conceded only five goals - and like United, they were unbeaten in all competitions in the period. The beauty of the rivalry at this stage was that each party was convinced of its superiority so committed fully to attack, producing a minor classic at Old Trafford in February, and making the disappointment of the first game all the more acute.

On this occasion United were dominant, wasting chances with Solksjaer the principal culprit, uncharacteristically rushing a shot and missing the target when fed by Keane. Shortly afterwards, Blomqvist's effort was saved, following yet another pythagorean pass from Sheringham, before Solskjær showed his wrasslin' strength in holding off Keown, hammering a trademark low show close to the keeper's legs that looked an easy save but wasn't. Seaman hung on, but only just.

In between times, Anelka snatched at a cross to lash high and wide, but when the equaliser appeared, it was out of nowhere, Bergkamp's shot from distance deflecting off Stam and scuttling past Schmeichel. Though United almost replied immediately, Sheringham just failing to connect with a low Beckham cross, for the first time Arsenal were in the game. And shortly afterwards, they thought they'd taken the lead, Schmeichel spilling another Bergkamp shot into the path of Anelka, who shuffled around him to tap in. Though the flag was up, Anelka was well into the crowd parading his magnificence with his friends before the terrible truth came to light, the United sections already swaying with laughter and thumbless hitchhikers.

Immediately afterwards, United were reduced to ten men, already-booked Keane sliding in on Overmars. Determined to deny the referee the pleasure of flourishing a second yellow card and then a red, he turned on his heel. Determined to enjoy the pleasure of flourishing a second yellow card and then a red, Elleray set off in pursuit, but he was already halfway towards the tunnel, where, I later discovered, an old friend was one of hundreds of Arsenal climbing over each other to flob at him.

United spent the remaining seventeen minutes penned inside their own half as Arsenal went in search of a winner, but they created little of note until, with seconds remaining, Parlour dragged himself outside Phil Neville who couldn't help but fold into a foul, conceding a penalty. Though Peter Schmeichel is the finest goalkeeper ever to toss an unnecessary bag into the back of a net (consider his almost Maradonesque contribution to Denmark's European Championship win in 1992), his record at saving penalties was dismal - the UEFA Cup shootout against Torpedo Moscow in 91-92, Everton away, League Cup 93-94 and Sheringham at Spurs in 94-95 was the extent of it. But cometh the hour cometh the future traitor; Bergkamp's firm but reachable effort was pushed aside and celebrated with a moment's elation before teammates were shooed away with great vengeance and furious anger. Extra-time.


The book is availble to buy in hardback or digital form here, or from Amazon here.

Daniel Harris is a writer - about football, mainly for The Guardian. He is author of the book On The Road, a journey through a season, and you can follow him on Twitter.

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