Twenty-one years ago on Tuesday, inside the tunnel of Villa Park, the man then known simply as Alex Ferguson ignored a question.
His team had just played their 53rd game of the 1998/99 season. They took on their biggest title rivals, Arsenal, for the second time in four days and the fifth time since the Charity Shield in August. Arsenal were still the defending league champions. They had thumped United 3-0 at Wembley, beaten them by the same score at Highbury, drawn 1-1 under the floodlights at Old Trafford, and drew 0-0 in the first FA Cup semi-final in Birmingham. All of this setting up their fifth and final meeting of the season in the replay on the 14th of April, the last semi-final replay of its kind. Boy, did English football save its best for last.
With the winner already set to play Newcastle at Wembley, the stakes for this match were high enough. Then there’s the further context that the two clubs were at the height of their rule over English football. After Blackburn won the league in 1995, a club not named Manchester United or Arsenal wouldn’t win the league again until 2005. The two clubs were Goliaths. Not to be forgotten is that this was the prime of intense personal rivalries between the two clubs as well, most notably Ferguson/Wenger and Keane/Vieira.
To say that the semi-final replay was filled with drama is understating what might be one of the most intense football matches ever played.
The volume within the ground was turned up to 11 by a brilliant move from two of United’s stars of the season. Teddy Sheringham (who came to Man United and won the lot) laying the ball off for David Beckham, who curled the ball past David Seaman from 30 yards out like only David Beckham can. Some say the side-net at Villa Park is still rattling. This prompted an excited Martin Tyler to exclaim “What a goal!” If there was ever a goal to win the last semi-final replay ever, that could’ve been it. However — even if they always found a way — nothing came easy for that famous United side.
Dennis Bergkamp (because who else) equalised for Arsenal in the second half. His goal from nearly the same distance as Beckham’s prompting the line “Never write them off” from Tyler. Little did he know that this could’ve been said about either of these great teams. Arsenal thought that they had nabbed a winner late in normal time, only for Nicolas Anelka to be rightly judged offside. After Roy Keane was sent off for his second bookable offence, a clumsy challenge from an exhausted Phil Neville awarded Arsenal a penalty kick in injury time.
In Manchester United’s 53rd game of that season, and in the last ever FA Cup semi-final replay, it could’ve all come crashing down. Losing the game in injury time was possibly enough to derail their league title push, and ravage the teams confidence before the second leg of the Champions League semi-final against Juventus in Turin. Bergkamp (because, after all, who else) stepped up to put his side into Wembley. But there is something to be said about fate wearing red, white, and black. Bergkamp’s weak effort was palmed away by Peter Schmeichel, in his last season in United re- err, green, causing a frenzy in the stand behind the goal. United finds a way.
A poor pass by Patrick Vieira strayed to the legs of a 25-year-old Welshman who was born Ryan Wilson, and simply put, the rest is history. In his 1999 autobiography, Ferguson calls it “one of the best goals ever scored in major football.” Tyler’s shrieking “GIGGS!” ringing through the ears of United fans for decades to come. United were through to the FA Cup final, due to play Newcastle, and perhaps just maybe, the “impossible” Treble was on. And at Villa Park in Birmingham, the pitch was filled with red, white, and black.
The ‘99 semi-final replay is one of the most famous matches in United’s history. When given the context, it might be one of the most compelling. But, if you want a perfect summation of the night’s events, it’s best to ask one of its main protagonists: Alex Ferguson.
Gary Newbon was simply doing his job, and in his defence, he asked a great question. The sports commentator asking the Scottish manager, fresh off one of his finest victories, a probing question about the nature of his team’s victory. Smartly asking if the manager was unhappy about the needed extra time, and his captain’s sending off. After all, this was squeaky bum time for the club in three separate competitions, the added effort surely displeasing the Boss.
But, Alex Ferguson handled it like only Alex Ferguson could. His answer was perhaps one of his most profound in his long career at the club, one filled with quotable moment after quotable moment.
This was nearly halfway through Fergie’s reign in Manchester. Several seasons before his short-lived “retirement plan.” He was the master manipulator of the press conference; an expert selector of words in the prime of the mind games era. He wasn’t having it, and didn’t take the bait of Newbon’s question, simply ignoring it all together. As only Alex Ferguson could.
“Look, who’s to know what’s going to happen in football, Gary. It could all blow up in my face at the end of the day. But, can you forget moments like this? Those supporters will be talking about that for years. The players will be talking about that for years.”
It wasn’t just the magic from Giggs that is remembered from that match. It isn’t just the Beckham wonder goal, the Schmeichel save against Bergkamp, or the schadenfreude of watching Anelka’s minutes-long celebration for an illegitimate goal. It was the specific moment in time that these events happened. United were top of the league, into the FA Cup final, soon travelling to Turin with a chance to advance to the club’s first European Cup final in thirty-one years. How could life be better as a fan of the team? As a manager who’s dedicated his life to the game? Or a player who’s done the same?
With these words Alex Ferguson could’ve summed up his entire United career to that point, and in hindsight, his entire 27 year stint with the club. A run that gave fans, players, and the manager alike so many of these moments. Times where you’re instantly transported to where you were when they happened, but maybe more importantly, how they made you feel.
He was right. We haven’t stopped talking about it.
“That’s what football’s about. Trying to reach peaks and climaxes to a season, which we’re doing at the moment.”
With the second main takeaway to this press conference, Ferguson completely summed up what it’s like to be a football person in 15 words. Every year in August, there’s the hope that this is the year. It is the feeling that gets you out of bed on match days. What carries you to the ground even in the most dreary and rainy weather. The chasing of a high unlike any other. One that makes all of the valleys and bad results worth it. Climbing to those peaks. The culmination of all the hard work as a player or manager, the intense emotion of experiencing it as a fan. It’s the feeling that sucks you into the game, and doesn’t let you go.
“We’re in a final. We’ve got something in the bank for ourselves. Now we go and try and win this league now.”
The sign-off to this interview is as classic Ferguson as it gets. He stood in front of the nation, on his stage, and played the hits. Mind games that no manager before and no manager since have been able to duplicate. If you know anything about the man, you know that this was his warning shot right back at the team they had just defeated. The line that at the time probably sent chills down the spine of every Arsenal supporter. Because after all, when Alex Ferguson wants to win the league he almost always did.
A master of his craft, both on and off the pitch, Fergie played the press like a fiddle. The “warning shot” his favourite weapon of offence. From his appointment in 1986, until his retirement in 2013, he was the king of the back-page headline. His most famous being printed on t-shirts, banners, and even tattoos about knocking a certain rival club clad in red off a certain resting place (which he did). He says in that same quote that “you can print that,” and print it we did. In a way, it was his own way to mirror how his team played on the pitch. Attack, attack, attack.
The Ferguson era was the most successful in the history of English football, possibly world football, and maybe even sport in general. I don’t have to go into specifics about that time. You know the stats. Smack dab in the middle of that career, the most amazing single season a team had ever completed. Sixty-three matches in all competitions, only five losses (no more than one in succession), 33 games unbeaten, and in the end the Treble that no one thought possible.
A week following the replay at Villa Park, United triumphed over Juventus in Turin in another of the club’s famous matches. Another moment that takes you back to where you were, how you felt. In the next month they were crowned Champions of England for the 12th time, dispatched Newcastle in the FA Cup Final at Wembley, and on Sir Matt Busby’s 90th birthday, became Champions of Europe for the first time in thirty-one years. The dream became a reality. Five hundred thousand people welcomed the team home from Barcelona. Peaks and climaxes, what the game is all about.
Over the summer, Alex Ferguson ascended to a new personal peak, adopting the name that he would be known as for the rest of his career: Sir Alex Ferguson. His reign at Old Trafford filled with memorable one-liners, quotes, and mind games galore. Each one a teaching moment about sport, about football, and even sometimes about life. Each warning shot stinging his opponents, each jab at the referees slicing, even those that warranted a touch line ban.
No one has perfectly and so eloquently summed up a match, a moment, and an experience in the game better than Alex Ferguson did on that day. And in typical Fergie fashion, only he could be the one to one-up himself, when he did so at the Nou Camp a month later.
”Football. Bloody Hell.”