20 years. Wow, that's a long time. So long there is now an entire generation of Reds who never saw us claim that historic Treble. And that just makes me feel old. Old but...privileged.
For me, The Treble was the culmination of five years hard work. Watching United in the 90s was a relatively easy experience. We won far more than we lost but in Europe we were often found wanting. And occasionally embarrassed.
Like going out to Galatasaray on away goals in 93/94, or our 4-0 drubbing at the Camp Nou the following season, or crashing out of the Uefa Cup in the first round to Rotor Volgograd (who?!) in 95, or losing our record of being unbeaten at home in European competition to Fener-fucking-bahce.
But it was all a learning curve. Each year you could see us getting better in European competition, feeling more comfortable, feeling like we belonged. Ironically, the season we lost to Fenerbahce was the season we truly found our feet, reaching the semi-final before losing both legs to Dortmund 1-0.
The following season we were knocked out in the quarter-finals by Monaco on the away goals rule (0-0 at home, 1-1 in Monaco). Nevertheless, the progress on the pitch was evident.
And then came 1999, even given our previous domestic success, a season that will stick in the mind of every Red alive to experience it, in part or in whole. This is how I remember that season.
It started in defeat to Arsenal in the Charity Shield. Wenger's Double winners hammered us 3-0. A friendly it was not, as I recall, and Arsenal simply bullied us into submission that day. I can't help thinking that was the catalyst some extent. No way Ferguson was going to let that happen to us again that season.
Off the field, by the way, the club was plagued by rumours of a BSkyB takeover, surely a distraction even for the most focused player (and no doubt manager). It really was a MENTAL season.
Next came two games against LKS Lodz (pronounced "wudge" for some reason) in the qualifying round of the European Cup. Between those two games were two entirely forgettable draws against Leicester City (2-2) and West Ham (0-0). We beat Lodz 2-0 at home and drew a third game in a row in Poland (0-0).
It seemed that until qualification for the European Cup was assured our season was effectively on hold.
United were drawn in a group of death, with little Brondby joined by Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Two comfortable wins in the league led us to the first meeting with Barcelona. This is a game you couldn't possibly fail to remember if you saw it.
Six goals, two penalties, a red card, Xavi's Champions League debut (yes, it really IS that long ago!) and Beckham at his best.
United led twice, Giggs and Scholes scoring inside 25 minutes to put United 2-0 up and send Old Trafford into raptures. Barca though, under Louis van Gaal of all people, were made of tough stuff in 1998 and scored twice to level the game through Sonny Anderson and Giovanni's penalty, awarded for a Jaap Stam foul on Rivaldo (who reacted like he'd been hit by a truck).
Beckham's sublime free kick put United ahead once more but Barca won another penalty thanks to Nicky Butt's handball which also got him sent off. Luis Enrique slotted it away and Barcelona left with a point while United were just left wondering what could have been.
Losing 3-0 to Arsenal AGAIN just four days later - as well as Nicky Butt getting sent off AGAIN - had most of us thinking we weren't going to have the best of seasons and the Gunners were going to clean up again. But then we beat Liverpool 2-0 and things looked far rosier, as they tend to do when this happens.
We won through an early Irwin penalty and a late Scholes goal in a bit of a battle. Perfect preparation for a trip to Munich to face Bayern...
Another draw. 2-2 with Scholes and Yorke giving United the lead after Elber had put Bayern up. We were denied AGAIN though, as Elber scored a late, late equaliser.
I felt robbed. We SHOULD have had six points, not two in my view, and the joy of beating the scousers was long gone.
There's not a lot I can remember specifically about the games before the rematch with Barcelona. Only that there were goals. Lots and lots of goals!
The away leg in Spain was another belter. Anderson gave the Catalans the lead in the first minute before Yorke then Cole put us ahead. Rivaldo levelled it up...Yorke put us ahead again...Rivaldo equalised...and it was just like Old Trafford all over again. Feeling fucking robbed.
Three more games (including going out of the League Cup against Spurs) and it was Bayern Munich at home. A game in which both sides could qualify as long as they didn't lose. That makes for a shit game of football and it really was. Keane scored, Salihamidzic equalised and the rest of the game was played at walking pace with the news that that would do both clubs. Truly awful if completely understandable.
And with the Champions League out of the way until March, United could concentrate on the league. Which they did to mostly devastating effect. We didn't lose another league game all season apart from an inexplicable 3-2 defeat to Boro in December. Last minute winners (or loss savers) became our trademark.
I looked through the list of games from that season to see if any really stood out in my memory. There was the 8-1 annihilation of Forest in which Ole scored four goals in 10 minutes, the 2-2 draw with Liverpool at Anfield in which Irwin got SO unfairly sent off and Paul fucking Ince scored an 89th minute equaliser for the scouse bastards and, of course, the 2-1 victory over Spurs on the last day of the season which, in hindsight, was a walk in the park but absolute torture at the time, even after Andy Cole scored the winner.
Plenty of you will likely remember other games. I really don't. A lot of 98/99 is a blur. Call it the madness of the season or the amount of alcohol consumed, whatever...it is what it is.
The FA Cup
While all that was going on there was the small matter of the FA Cup too. Plenty of memories from that.
In the fourth round we faced Liverpool at Old Trafford. Michael Owen scored in the first few minutes. The rest of the game was watched from behind a constantly full pint. The nerves and tension were unbearable. I think Keane hit the post twice but I KNOW Yorkie scored with a minute or so to go. Cue wild celebrations which only got wilder when Ole scored the winner a minute later. Ah, Ole...you fucking legend.
In fact, if you look at the FA Cup run, it was FAR more eventful than anything that went on in the league.
Fulham were beaten 1-0 in the fifth round before we faced Chelsea in March. It was only four days after we'd beaten Inter 2-0 in the European Cup (Yorke got both) and we looked knackered. I remember Cole and Yorke were rested so it was no surprise it ended 0-0, no disrespect to Solskjaer and Sheringham. The replay at Chelsea three days later was easier to watch. 2-0 to us and Yorkie scored twice again.
Pulling Arsenal out of the hat for the semi finals seemed inevitable and it happened.
Before we could face our then arch-rivals we had the small matter of ensuring we got past Inter in the European Cup. Inter battered us for the most of the game, it was another one of those nervy bastard games. When they scored it got really bad, but thankfully our Ginger Prince equalised with a couple of minutes to go and we could all relax. Another semi final to look forward to...and whispers of the Treble began in earnest.
The league was proving to be a breather for me. The tension of the FA and European Cups was relieved by 'just' league games. Even drawing 1-1 with Wimbledon before the Juventus first leg was fine by me.
I look at that Juventus line up now and it seems even more unbelievable we beat them. Look at it:
Peruzzi, Mirkovic, Montero, Conte, Di Livio, Inzaghi, Iuliano, Deschamps, Pessotto, Zidane, Davids
There were few better sides in the WORLD then, let alone Europe. But what most of the sides in the world lacked was United's belief, desire to play to the final whistle and utter refusal to lose a football match. Our own Class of 99 wasn't that bad either.
Conte's first half opener was cancelled out by Ryan Giggs in the 91st minute. For what felt like the fifth or sixth time that season, I went nuts...along with everyone else.
Following United has never been better than 1998/99. It never will be again. Sorry.
No time to rest though. The FA Cup semi final against Arsenal was days later. The final score, as I'm sure you will remember, was 0-0 but Roy Keane (I think) had a perfectly good goal ruled out for offside. I was infuriated. And to make matters worse I was in London, watching in a North London pub. One not particularly sympathetic to Spurs. It was only because I was with my sister and her colleagues (she's a copper) that I lived through that day, I'm sure. We ended up going out for the rest of the day and getting well and truly smashed...overall, it was a great day but I always remember it for the injustice of that goal that never was.
Without it though, we'd never have had THAT replay, THAT missed penalty, THAT goal, THAT celebration and broken Wenger's heart...
"I saw that goal again when Giggs retired. I think that goal won them the treble because, if Bergkamp scores, I think the game is over. It was a trauma for us and a positive for them. That goal was certainly what decided their season."
In some ways, he's probably right. For me though, it was just another example of our refusal to fucking lose that season. At the time, in the thick of it, we were riding a rollercoaster, taking every game as it came, battling on and hoping. Looking back, it was just an iron will. Nobody could have knocked us out of our stride that season, no-one. Anyway, we were in a final and closing in on the league. And if the players weren't tired, I was. I went on holiday with a couple of mates.
Aside from being in Turin, there wasn't a better place to watch that return leg against Juventus than the bar I was in in Spain. What a weird and wonderful mix of English, Spanish and Norwegians it was. And ALL of them wanted United to win.
If the season was putting us all through the wringer, this game managed to do it 90 minutes. Just to recap, Juve went 2-0 up inside 11 minutes through Inzaghi (I seem to recall one of them was dodgy but I might be wrong). Keane pulled one back from a Beckham corner.
At 2-1 Juve still looked dangerous and I was thinking we wouldn't do it, it was a step too far, even for this team. Then Keane got himself booked, meaning he'd miss the final anyway...and I got to watch one of the best individual performances I have ever seen. We all know Keane. Hard as fuck and not prone to self pity. He shrugged it off, bullied Juventus into submission almost singlehandedly and allowed first Yorke then Cole to get the goals we needed.
In my view that was our best performance of the season (if you ignore the first 11 minutes). It was certainly my favourite game of the season, even ahead of the Arsenal and Liverpool games in the FA Cup. I bet you have your own.
We were in the final. Of the European Cup. The final of the European Cup. We were in Busby land now.
Yet there was still no respite, no break. There a slew of league games to play and an FA Cup final to contend with. In the league we stuttered somewhat. Of the remaining six games we drew three, including that Liverpool game I remember so vividly. But it was enough to keep us ahead of Arsenal in the long run before the defeat of Spurs won it.
No disrespect to Newcastle but with the league won, the FA Cup final was an absolute stroll. I remember being bored for most of it. Scholes and Sheringham won it, of course, but it really was one of the least memorable games of the season. The Geordis didn't bother turning up...I reckon they knew they had lost the minute we wrapped up the league.
Which, after all that, leads us to the 26th of May 1999.
There isn't one of us alive and old enough at the time that doesn't remember where they were for that final.
A lucky few - and it is a few - were in Barcelona and they have their own treasured memories. For the rest of us it will have been a pub or club or mates house. For me, it was the pub. My local. My home from home. I was well pissed before at least an hour before the kick off but once that match against Bayern Munich started I couldn't look away. Even despite the fact we were by far the worst team on the pitch for the majority of it. It was like my whole future hung on the result (ridiculous, I know, but at the time...that's just how it felt).
I watched in horror as Basler scored in the sixth minute. I watched helplessly as chances went begging or were snuffed out. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when Scholl hit the post after chipping Schmeichel. And again when Jancker hits the bar. Began to cry (yes, really) when Sheringham's shot is brilliantly saved by Kahn. Pleaded internally with God, the Devil and anyone else who would listen when three minutes of injury time were shown. Then Giggs shot, Sheringham swivelled and the whole fucking pub went up. We were all still celebrating when Solskjaer toed that beautiful bastard ball into the back of the German goal.
I couldn't describe the feeling of elation at that moment if I tried and, as I'm sure you will agree, I've rambled on almost long enough anyhow.
Memories are like snapshots now. Solskjaer sliding on his knees, Kuffour banging the ground, tears of frustration in his eyes, the loathsome Lothar Matthaus crying HIS eyes out, Ferguson holding the trophy aloft, the interview - "Football, bloody hell."...all of it indelibly inked into my mind.
Now here we are, 20 years later. Solskjaer is at the wheel and tonight we play Barcelona in the knockout stages of that very same competition. We're a shadow of our former selves as a team, and possibly as supporters, but what we must always remind ourselves is that we experienced that season and are very, VERY fortunate to have done so. We have our memories and nobody can take them away.
Like United have always done, we will rise to those heights (or close to them perhaps) again. Maybe not soon, but eventually.
Football. Bloody hell.