Why Man Utd’s Treble in 1999 would always be superior to Manchester City’s in 2023

Ian Watson
Manchester United lift the Champions League trophy in 1999 alongside an image of pensive Pep Guardiola.

Manchester United were the first to do it – sort of – and no-one will ever do it more dramatically. And they definitely did not cheat while beating teams that were actually pretty decent.

It’s a tough time for Manchester United fans right now. While the club dallies and the fanbase tears itself apart over the ownership of the club, across Manchester, City are cantering towards the Treble.

It is an achievement that remains United’s crowning glory, unique in English football and a part of the club’s identity. At least until City do what’s necessary. But here, with tongue partly in cheek, is why United’s Treble will always be better than City’s…


United were first
Who was the second person to run a four-minute mile? Who was the second climber to the summit of Everest?

United were the first team to win the Treble and that’s important. It means the achievement will always be synonymous with them. If City pull it off, fair f***s. But they aren’t breaking new ground. United were trailblazers in 1999. Twenty-four years on, City are just following in their footsteps.

Granted, United weren’t the first European side to do it. Or even the first British club. Celtic, PSV and Ajax all completed the set but, coming from farmers’ leagues, two of the three parts were almost gimmes. No-one under 50 years old saw Celtic’s and Ajax’s Trebles, while PSV won only three games en route to the European Cup in 1988, including no wins from the quarter-final onwards, which merits a great big honking asterisk by the trophy in the club museum. Not as big as the one next to City’s mind.

So United were the first English team to win any Treble, and the first European side to win a proper one.


United did it in style
For many United fans, football – nay, life – peaked on May 26, 1999. At the very back of spattered minds that glorious Wednesday night was the nagging thought that never, ever would it be this good again.

Matt Dickinson had it right in his book ‘1999: Manchester United, The Treble And All That’: ‘Another English team will win the Treble one day. But they cannot possibly win it like this.’

United’s route to winning it all was an adrenaline-fuelled head f*** of a rollercoaster, ridden though weeks of glorious, petrifying jeopardy. The highs were so because United were terrifyingly close to the lows. It could have fallen apart at any moment and so often it nearly did.

The Premier League title race went to the final boot of the ball between United and an Arsenal side already proven winners. In the FA Cup came the comeback against Liverpool. The semi-final, against that double-hard Arsenal team, taken to a replay and extra-time only by a last-minute penalty save from Peter Schmeichel. Still swinging but down to 10 men and on the ropes, Ryan Giggs went and scored one of the greatest goals of all time.

And then there’s the Nou Camp. United were poor in the Champions League final, which only heightened the buzz when Bayern – themselves chasing a Treble – were left on their backs while their ribbons were hurriedly removed from the European Cup after Teddy Sheringham’s sweep and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s poke had not only dragged the Red Devils back from the dead but delivered them to the promised land. No European Cup has been won like that before or since that night in Barcelona, and certainly no Treble has been secured amid such a frenzy.

City are bloody brilliant but where’s the jeopardy? Where’s the drama? Maybe it’s still to come but Pep’s brand of ruthless efficiency is hardly material for a blockbuster thriller. You couldn’t write the 1999 script. In 2023, you probably couldn’t sell it.


City the best of a bad bunch
Part of the jeopardy void in City’s march to the Treble could be attributed to the absence of a genuine challenge.

In the Premier League, City have been riding in Arsenal’s slipstream for much of the season before they went through gears and made for the line. It was a two-horse race: one, in the context of experience and nous, a thoroughbred stallion; the other a wee pony now being rewarded with sugar lumps just for taking part.

The title will be won with games to spare. They face a maddeningly inconsistent side in the FA Cup final who don’t like leaving home after winning a semi against a side from a lower division with other more pressing concerns. And between them and the European Cup is the third-best team in Italy.

En route to Istanbul – which will always be renowned for a different European Cup final, not City’s – Guardiola’s side have faced some big teams. As United did in 1999. City have beaten a Bayern Munich in need of a rebuild, and the two teams currently behind the faltering Bavarians in the Bundesliga. And, of course, the biggest game so far: battering a Real Madrid currently miles off the pace behind a basketcase Barcelona.

United took on the best of Spain and Germany, as well as an Inter side featuring Ronaldo, and Juventus with Zinedine Zidane and Alessandro Del Piero. And in the Premier League, it was an Arsenal team of battle-hardened winners, not title virgins.

Mikel Arteta looks dejected during Arsenal vs Brighton


Those 115 chargesw3
City will probably win the Treble, but will they get to keep it?

Wonderful though some of their football has been, we can’t gloss over the fact that hanging over them are 115 (one hundred and fifteen) charges for alleged breaches of financial rules between 2009 and 2018.

UEFA have already tried to bring City to justice for breaking FFP rules and had the original verdict stood, they would have been suspended from this season’s Champions League. They wriggled out of the ban, not because they were innocent but because ‘most of the alleged breaches were either not established or time-barred’. They were still made to pay a €10million fine.

Christ knows when City will have their next day in court. But if the Premier League makes any of those many, many charges stick, as Jamie Carragher says, the Treble and plenty more besides will be worthless.