Sir Alex’s Reign: 1996-2001
Some felt the wheels had come off for United during the 1996/97 season with heavy defeats to Newcastle (0-5) and Southampton (3-6) coming around the same time as the first-ever European home loss to Beskitas.
“What our country’s media seem to fail to recognise is that every club, no matter how successful they are, will find themselves in that sort of situation at some stage during a season,” said the boss. “For some reason, though, when it happens to United it attracts more coverage.”
The Reds rallied and a win at Liverpool helped set up another Premier League title triumph with success being sealed by defeats for the Merseysiders, despite a Michael Owen goal on his debut, and Newcastle while the champions were not in action. There was more European disappointment when Borussia Dortmund won the two-legged Champions League semi-final, even if the 4-0 pummeling of Porto had many predicting glory on the continent for the Reds.
Eric Cantona’s shock retirement at the end of the season again had pundits predicting the end of an era and, as had occured in 1995, United finished trophyless when being forced to compete without the talismanic Frenchman. Arsenal emerged as serious contenders and went on to clinch the Double after Marc Overmars scored the only goal of the game at Old Trafford to start the pendulum swinging the Gunners’ way.
Monaco ended the Champions League hopes for another year with a quarter-final triumph and the manager was forced to admit: “It all added up to a pretty depressing end to the season for us all but we mustn’t dwell on missed opportuities and past setbacks.” Teddy Sheringham endured taunts from Arsenal fans for failing to lift any silverware as Cantona’s chief replacement but new signings Jaap Stam and Dwight Yorke would help improve the squad.
And so to 1999. The Millennium may have been coming to an end but the Reds ensured this would be a year that no football fan would ever forget for other reasons. Emerging from a ‘group of death’ with Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Brondby in a blaze of goals, optimism that this could finally be the year a second European Cup would be winging its way to Old Trafford started to build.
The last-ever FA Cup semi-final replay was an all-time classic and provided the springboard for the Treble triumph. Arsenal were beaten in a humdinger at Villa Park as, after Peter Schmeichel saved Dennis Bergkamp’s 90th-minute penalty, ten-man United pulled off an unlikely win courtesy of one of the club’s greatest-ever goals by Ryan Giggs. Momentum carried the team through and the title was wrestled back from the Gunners on the very last day, the Reds coming from behind to sink Spurs 2-1 thanks to David Beckham and substitute Andy Cole.
Newcastle were ruthlessly dismissed in the FA Cup final but the really big one came in Barcelona a few days later. The late goals by Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer ensured the most incredible climax at Camp Nou and ended a 31-year wait for Europe’s biggest prize. The boss had introduced both substitutes at just the right time, rotating his squad to perfection, and even he was stunned by the drama, blurting out afterwards: “Football, eh? Bloody hell.”
Would this be the right time for the newly-knighted Scot to call it a day? Not in his eyes as he urged his side to another title triumph, the sixth in eight years. “Some people may have suggested that it could become more difficult to motivate the lads following so much recent success,” he stated. “It could but it hasn’t and that is definitely not a problem. In fact, that is the least of my worries as they are as keen to succeed today as they have ever been.”
A Champions League quarter-final exit to Real Madrid hurt the manager, even if winning the Inter-Continental Cup for the first time by beating Palmeiras in Tokyo brought a new trophy into the bulging cabinet. Even if the Premier League was sealed as early as 22 April, the game after the Real defeat, there was a tinge of sadness about the season as the club were controversially encouraged not to defend the FA Cup and pulled out of the competition to play in the Club World Championship instead.
The 2000/2001 campaign brought a third successive Premier League title becoming only the third time a club had achieved such a remarkable feat. It was perhaps an indication of how spoilt Reds fans had become when the tone of the boss’ notes at the end of the season was almost apologetic. “Many people have said that they were largely disappointed with the season,” he stated. “Particularly from Christmas onwards, even though we ended with the Premiership trophy on the sideboard. And, whilst I accept that the season did slow down for us to some degree after the title had been clinched, I thought we performed to a good level most of the time.”
A European exit to Bayern Munich, exacting revenge for their 1999 agony, and FA Cup defeat to Paolo Di Canio’s winner for West Ham at Old Trafford clearly upset the manager but nothing can take away from the fact that the title was clinched on 14 April, a hard-fought 4-2 win over Coventry being followed by Arsenal’s spectacular home capitulation to Middlesbrough.
It did still grate that things went downhill, understandably, afterwards as defeat in Munich was followed by a disappointing draw in the Manchester derby that was overshadowed by Roy Keane’s red card for a crude foul on Alf Inge Haaland. Losses in each of the final three games – to relegation-threatened Derby at home, Southampton and Tottenham smacked of complacency, something that can never usually be levelled against any of the manager’s teams.
And, in the summer of 2001, Sir Alex dropped a bombshell by confirming he would be retiring at the end of the following campaign and a changing of the guard seemed inevitable. With talk of bowing out on a high in the Champions League final in his native Glasgow and Sven-Goran Eriksson being lined up as his successor, nobody could have anticipated what was actually in store.
Sir Alex Timeline
1996-97: United win the Premier League
1996-97: Borussia Dortmund end Champions League hopes at the semi-final stage
1996-97: Eric Cantona announces his retirement from professional football
1997-98: Arsenal do The Double to leave United trophyless
1998-99: The Reds overpower the Gunners in an FA Cup classic to emerge as top dogs domestically
1998-99: Bayern Munich are beaten at Camp Nou to clinch an amazing Treble
1998-99: The manager is knighted and has a testimonial
1999-2000: United are pressured into withdrawing from the FA Cup
1999-2000: The Reds become world champions for the first time by beating Palmeiras
1999-2000: United overcome a sticky patch to retain the Premier League title
2000-01: A third successive title is secured when Arsenal lose at home to Middlesbrough
200-01: Sir Alex drops a bombshell by announcing the following season will be his last.
The boss looks on nervously during the European defeat to Dortmund
Eric Cantona stunned the football world with his retirement
Marc Overmars scores a vital goal in the 1998 title race
Dwight Yorke becomes the boss’ big striker signing
Ryan Giggs has scored one of the all-time great United goals
Andy Cole lobs the title-winning goal in the Treble year
Delight at the final whistle of the 1999 FA Cup final at Wembley
Delirium at Camp Nou as Ole Gunnar Solksjaer hits the winner
Sir Alex Ferguson with the Eropean Cup after the dramatic victory over Bayern Munich
Steve McClaren becomes a successful right-hand man
The trip to Rio in the World Club Championship proves a disappointing one
Paolo Di Canio dumps United out of the FA Cup at Old Trafford
Sir Alex and Roy Keane lift the title in 2001