The title race of 1999 is often swallowed-up in the bigger story of what was one of the finest sporting achievements in history; but that league campaign was actually one of the greatest ever in its own right.
Manchester United’s title success of 1998/99 had pretty much everything and would go down to the wire with all the nail biting drama that a final day finish throws up, and to make matters more interesting there were more than just two sides in scintillating form going into the final furlong; meaning it would be a three-way race almost right to the end.
Such were the incredibly high standards set by Manchester United and Arsenal it felt like a draw could cost either of them the league never mind a defeat with Manchester United eventually finishing only a point ahead of Arsenal and four ahead of Chelsea, who are often the forgotten players of the campaign who lost only three games in finishing third.
Of course, by today’s standards the Reds’ final points tally of just 79, one ahead of Arsenal’s 78, was extremely low and in the years since no champion has failed to top such a total; but the nature in which the season unfolded and the excitement it generated meant it was almost a case of less-is-more.
Unlike now the teams involved in the battle for football’s biggest prize were often content to stay on the shoulder of the leaders, keeping in touch until Christmas before mounting a final charge for the line – unthinkable today when any serious gap by the New Year would see most teams considered to be out of the reckoning – and it was John Gregory’s Aston Villa who blazed a trail in the early stages by winning four of their first five in the league and not tasting defeat until November.
But Villa would merely end up performing the role of the early season pacesetters as their form dropped-away drastically in the second-half of the season and eventually finished sixth with Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United seizing their opportunity to charge for the line in an enthralling blanket finish.
This latest battle in what would become a running duel between Ferguson and Wenger certainly didn’t disappoint as a concoction of grudging respect and mutual dislike produced the most compelling of contests as United, with their sensational forward-line of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, went toe-to-toe with Arsenal’s legendary defence of Dixon, Winterburn, Bould and Adams; while the likes of Bergkamp, Petit, Viera, Keane, Beckham and Scholes added extra spice.
Following something of a slow start – including four draws from their first five games – Arsenal embarked on a ridiculously good run after Christmas, conceding only two goals in 14 games and with the addition of Kanu, who joined in February, they won 15 out of 19 games; a spell which more than enabled them to keep in touch at the top of the table as the season reached its climax.
United also started poorly, as was so often the way back then, with two draws and a defeat from their first five games of the campaign seeing them drop as low as 10th but after a miserable December – in which they recorded just one win from six including a 1-1 draw with Chelsea – clicked into gear just at the right time as the leaders rounded the final corner before what would be a sprint for the finishing line.
They won 10 and drew two of their next 12 games after the festive period, allowing them to open up a narrow lead over the Gunners in March and April having started the New Year in blistering fashion by putting 10 goals past Leicester City and West Ham in the space of a week before hammering Nottingham Forest 8-1 at the City Ground in February.
All the while Chelsea, who had gone top after Christmas and at one point had been the favourites to lift the Premier League title, were keeping up with the pace. They benefited from a 1-1 draw between United and Arsenal at Old Trafford in February and when a defeat to West Ham seemed to have ended their title hopes they responded with three wins on the bounce to move within just two points of leaders United once more.
United played only two league fixtures in March as the cups took priority, beating Everton and Newcastle, but gifted Arsenal the chance to go top for the first time all season in April after drawing at Leeds and Wimbledon either side of a win over Sheffield Wednesday; Wenger’s side seized their chance and hammered Middlesbrough 6-1 at the Riverside before beating Wimbledon 5-1 a week later to all but wipe-out United’s sizeable goal-difference advantage.
A scrappy 2-1 over Villa in United’s penultimate home game courtesy of a David Beckham free kick, a highly controversial 2-2 draw at Anfield and a narrow 1-0 away win at Middlesborough , while a victory for the Gunners over North London rivals Spurs 3-0, meant that going into the final week of the season both United and Arsenal had almost identical records.
Both had 75 points from 36 games, not to mention a +42 goal difference and United were ahead only on goals scored as the two sides faced tricky midweek away ties at Blackburn and Leeds with the very real possibility that goal difference might play a vital part in the season’s outcome.
But that wouldn’t be the case as neither side managed to grab wins which could have all but sealed the title. In fact, both sides failed to find the net as Arsenal went down 1-0 to Leeds, courtesy of a late Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink winner, while United could only manage a 0-0 at Ewood Park, a valuable point which would set up a final Sunday of the season decider as Chelsea’s challenge withered at the final fence courtesy of four draws from seven games.
With United a point clear and needing to beat Spurs at home on the final day to complete the first-leg of a once unlikely looking Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League treble the nerves were jangling and things became even more uncomfortable for the home crowd when the Reds went 1-0 down through an early Les Ferdinand goal.
However, the incurring theme of the 1998/99 season was ‘Never Give Up’ and Ferguson’s side eventually managed to get over the line thanks to a fine first-half strike from David Beckham and a clever lob from Andy Cole in the second to secure a win that sent Old Trafford crazy and sealed the club’s twelfth championship – their third in four seasons.
The finer details of the 1999 title race might well have been lost in the mists of time but it was without doubt one of the greatest top-flight tussles ever which enabled United to set the foundations for one of the greatest achievements, not just in the history of the club, but the game as a whole.