In any other campaign, winning 8-1 away from home – which remains a Premier League record – would be relentlessly celebrated through the years. United’s romp at Nottingham Forest might not even make the top 10 games of the Treble campaign when juxtaposed with the final three matches of the campaign, semi-finals against Juventus and Arsenal, the last-gasp FA Cup success over Liverpool, a thrilling replay win at Chelsea, a barnstorming Old Trafford triumph over Internazionale, two all-time classic draws with Barcelona and a pulsating group-stage draw in Munich. Ratcheting up an 11-2 win over the course of two group meetings with Brondby is almost a footnote. While the destination was the ultimate, so was the journey.
All along the way, a stellar cast played
out the most magical tale. Football has yet to
produce a stronger midfield four than Beckham,
Keane, Scholes and Giggs or a striking quartet
to rival to the varied menace of Cole, Yorke,
Solskjaer and Sheringham. Behind a front
six hell-bent on scoring the opposition into
submission, full-backs Irwin and Neville lent
unstinting support in attack, leaving Stam,
Johnsen and Schmeichel to man the fort.
Butt, Berg, Blomqvist, May, Brown and Phil
Neville enjoyed regular and important cameos,
while a clutch of youngsters learnt their trade on
the job at a scarcely believable time in their lives.
Off the field, Ferguson overcame the departure of
the unstintingly popular assistant manager Brian Kidd
by promoting equally beloved first-team coach Jim
Ryan, then identifying Steve McClaren as the ideal
long-term replacement. Standards were as high off the
field as on it, making for an environment where, three
months from the end of the season, Ryan was already
chalking off the wins required to clinch the Treble.
Though the Scot’s countdown was tongue-in-cheek
at first, it gained momentum with every passing
outing. Nevertheless, with three games to go,
United had still won nothing beyond a headful of
memories. The reward for passing every sapping
test was an 11-day, three game series of must-win
challenges: beat Tottenham, Newcastle and
Bayern Munich to achieve something which had
never been done before in the history of the
English game; something which bookies had
rated an 80/1 shot at the start of the season.
Of course, it wouldn’t be done the easy way.
Tottenham took the lead before superb goals
from Beckham and Cole secured the return of
the Premier League title. Inspirational skipper
Keane had to limp out of the FA Cup final
against Newcastle after nine minutes before
his replacement, Sheringham, duly opened
the scoring. Scholes rounded off the scoring at
Wembley to secure a domestic Double, before
then joining Keane on the sidelines in Barcelona
four days later, with their double suspension
forcing Ferguson to completely reconfigure
his midfield for the Champions League final.