Watching Manchester United in 1998/99 was an exhilarating rollercoaster ride from start to finish and still the very best single season that any English club in over 150 years of organised football has ever experienced.
This was a team built on a perfect blend of home-grown players approaching their peaks, the best Premier League talent poached from elsewhere and carefully selected foreign imports.
Alex Ferguson wasn’t shy of spending money to get the right player to improve his team, breaking the club’s transfer record twice in a matter of months in the summer of 1998 to sign Jaap Stam (£10.5m from PSV Eindhoven) and Dwight Yorke (£12.6m from Aston Villa).
In the years prior, Roy Keane and Andy Cole had already been British record buys.
But Fergie also liked a bargain. Little known Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was picked up for £1.5m in 1996, famously directly compared to the £15m that Newcastle paid for Alan Shearer, with Norwegian international teammate Ronny Johnson costing £1.2m that same summer.
Beneath any spending was a culture of hard work that polished arguably the best crop of home-grown youngsters English has ever seen. The likes of Keane and Cole, and later Yorke, arrived at United and found new levels. It all made for a squad with phenomenal strength in depth.
United’s iconic treble XI rolls off the tongue: Peter Schmeichel, Gary Neville, Jaap Stam, Ronny Johnsen, Denis Irwin, David Beckham, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole.
But that particular XI started together just twice in the entirety of the 1998/99 season. One was the famous Champions League quarter-final win over Inter at Old Trafford when Yorke and Beckham twice combined to see off the Italian giants. The other was a less than remarkable Premier League clash with Coventry that United won by a single goal from Giggs.
When it came to the Champions League final, Scholes and Keane were both missing, meaning Nicky Butt and Jesper Blomqvist filled in. Stam and Yorke were left out of the team that started the FA Cup final, with David May and Solskjaer coming in. May had also played the decisive Premier League game against Tottenham, while Cole was rested initially and Teddy Sheringham started.
Despite not featuring in the famous XI, Butt played 47 times in all competitions, while Phil Neville played in 44. Solskjaer made 37 appearances overall, more than half of them off the bench, while Blomqvist played 38 times, which was only three games fewer than Giggs.
Ferguson could rest and rotate his team in the knowledge that whoever he left out would be replaced by someone equally as hungry and capable as anyone else in the side.
The United side of 1998/99 has become legendary not just for its achievements – the only English team to date to win Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League honours in the same season – but for the way it fought doggedly until the very end.
Throughout the season in every competition, United refused to give in. That attitude as much as anything else is why they lost only four times in all competitions, and not at all after Christmas, ultimately paving the way for the trophies that came.
In the Premier League opener against Leicester in August, Sheringham and Beckham scored late to secure a 2-2 draw and avoid beginning the season with a defeat. A few weeks later in October, Jordi Cruyff snatched a point for United against Derby with an 86th minute equaliser.
Butt got a 77th minute winner in a 3-2 victory over a strong Leeds side in November. Yorke got an 89th minute winner against Charlton in January, while Giggs’ aforementioned goal to beat Coventry in February came in the 79th minute. Each one of those games contributed to United finishing a single point ahead of reigning champions Arsenal by the campaign’s close in May.
Of course, the most famous result en-route to clinching a fifth Premier League title in seven years and the first part of the treble was the 2-1 comeback win, albeit not a late one, against Spurs on the final day of the season at Old Trafford.
United’s never say die attitude was no different in other competitions. Twice, they trailed in early rounds of the FA Cup and might have met a swift exit but for their resolve.
Middlesbrough briefly led at Old Trafford in the third round, before a 3-1 comeback victory. Liverpool were then on the brink of dumping Ferguson’s men out in round four, but for an 88th minute equaliser from Yorke and a 90th minute winner from Solskjaer.
United’s most celebrated late goals came in the Champions League - they had already been top scorers in the group stage, netting 20 in six games and no group winner got more than 12. Indeed, Bayern Munich, who topped United’s group, got only nine.
But long before the final, when Sheringham and Solskjaer stunned Bayern in stoppage time, the team preserved an unbeaten record with a number of late goals.
Scholes scored in the 88th minute to draw 1-1 with Inter in Milan in the quarter-final to prevent a late aggregate comeback. Giggs then scored in stoppage time in the semi-final first leg against Juventus to give United a foothold in the tie, before the team as a whole fought back from 2-0 down in the second leg to win 3-2 on the night and 4-3 overall.
It was not some kind of all-conquering dominance that have United their successes in 1999, but a resilience and a defiance to perform when it mattered most and an utter refusal to give up.