By James Johnson.
Read the complete journey: The Journey From 1 to 19
Ever since his arrival from Leeds United, Eric Cantona became the catalyst that saw Manchester United end the 26 year without a league title and become the dominant force in English football. The 96/97 season was the last Old Trafford would see of the influential Frenchman, and in true Cantona style he left on top, with a league winners medal and the adoration of the United faithful stronger than ever.
Man United didn’t top the table until January and suffered two of the worst defeats of Fergies reign. After getting spanked 5-0 by eventual runners up Newcastle United, United went to the south coast to play Southampton. A year after the grey shirt fiasco, ten man United were beaten 6-3 by the team who stayed in the division by the skin of their teeth.
However after only losing twice more in the league after the New Year the club won their fourth Premier League title (11th in total) by seven points.
The European cup by this point was becoming an obsession for Alex Ferguson and after losing the clubs long standing home unbeaten record in Europe to Fenerbache (I still remember the horror of seeing that ball loop over Peter Schmeichel) hopes were not high of winning the thing. When Porto visited Old Trafford however in the quarter finals and were brushed aside 4-0 by a Ryan Giggs inspired United expectations were suddenly lifted.
It wasn’t to be for United though as the eventual winners Borussia Dortmund knocked the English Champions out 2-0 on aggregate. This proved to be the point when Cantona decided it was time to retire.
United bounced back from this disappointment to beat Blackburn and Liverpool and edge towards the league title. The clubs top scorer in 96/97 turned out to be the clubs unknown summer signing, a certain Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. In his debut season he notched up an incredible 18 league goals, and set himself on the path of becoming a Manchester United legend.
“Football, bloody hell”
Never have three words summed up a season of football as well as the above. The quote of course is one of Fergie’s after he took United to the promised land. Without even looking at the year you know this part is about the treble season.
In the closest league title for years United went into the final league game knowing a win over Tottenham would clinch the first part of a never seen before treble. The game could have been the season explained in 90 minutes. Spurs went ahead through Les Ferdinand in the first half, and that’s when United stepped up a few gears. David Beckham scored before half time to make it one all. It then took the man who has never received enough recognition of his time at Old Trafford to step forward. Andy Cole scored a superb goal to put United in the lead and within touch of the title.
The season began with a last minute goal getting us out of trouble against Leicester City and from that point on last minute goals and excitement became the staple diet of the season.
Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer all got into double figures in the league to propel United towards the league title that was only a small part of the story of the 98/99 season.
The 1999/00 season saw what is widely regarded as the most one sided year of the Premier League era. United went through the season unbeaten at Old Trafford, only lost three times away from home and won the league by 18 points from Arsenal.
It was also the season in which for the first time ever the holders of the F.A Cup did not defend it. Due to the English F.A wanting to host the 2006 World Cup, they urged United to enter the World Club Championships in Brazil, in order to gain favour from other countries voting on the location of the upcoming World Cup. By doing this United were due to be away at the time of the 3rd round of the cup and were told that they couldn’t enter a team comprising of youth and reserve players in the place of the first team.
As United were in the blistering heat of Brazil having in all intents and purposes a mid season break their titles challengers failed to apply any pressure on them by winning games, and as such United came back rested and determined to win back to back titles.
In half of the games United played in the league (19) in 99/00 the team scored three or more goals, this included 5-1 victories over both Newcastle United and Everton and a 7-1 demolition of West Ham United.
Once again it was the Yorke and Cole partnership that did most of the damage to the rest of the league as they scored 39 goals between them in the Premiership, which was better than both Watford (35) and Sheffield Wednesday (38) could manage on their own.
The 00/01 season saw United become only the fourth team in the history of English football to win three league titles in a row. (The other three are Huddersfield Town 23/24, 24/25, 25/26, Arsenal 32/33, 33/34, 34/35 and Liverpool 81/82, 82/83, 83/84).
Once again United finished ahead of Arsenal, this time by ten points. It could have been much more but United lost the last three games after sealing the title well before the end of the season.
The highlight for many apart from winning three titles in a row was the complete demolition of Arsenal at Old Trafford. 67000 people were there to witness United destroy Thierry Henry and co 6-1.
Whilst winning the title was pleasing for all people connected with the club, the meek surrender in Europe to eventual winners Bayern Munich left a bitter taste in the mouth, especially with the talent at Fergie’s disposal. It is believed that this failure in Europe began to convince Fergie that adopting a flat 4-4-2 in Europe was no longer viable, and as such he began to experiment with new tactics, tactics that would seven years later be integral to European success.
Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s 25 league goals pushed United towards another league title in 02/03. The Dutchman added another 19 goals in the cup and Europe to end the season on an incredible 44 goals in all competitions.
Back to back defeats against Bolton and Leeds in mid September gave United an early stumbling block, but a rise in the performance levels, which included the team winning 15 of the last 18 league games led United to their 15th league title. The last league defeat of the season occurred on Boxing day to Middlesbrough and from that point they didn’t look back.
The main contribution to the points total came at Old Trafford where United failed to win in only three games throughout the league campaign.
This would prove to be the first and last league title Van Nistelrooy would win at Old Trafford and also be the last season the class of 92 would be together. After a defeat to Arsenal in the F.A Cup David Beckham was hit by a boot kicked by the irate Alex Ferguson. This began a breakdown in the relationship between the two and the England captain left for Real Madrid in the summer.
After this league win it would be three seasons of transition for the club before they would taste league success again.
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