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99 review: Prime Video’s docuseries on winning year for Manchester United harks back to glory days of soccer

The three-parter is essentially celebratory but doesn’t shy away from hostilities

Watching 99 (Prime Video, all episodes from Friday, May 17), a three-part series about Manchester United’s historic treble of Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup in the 1998-99 season, feels like climbing into a time machine and being transported not just to a different century, but to a different football world.

Different and maybe also more honest and honourable: a world where the manager, not the players, called the shots, a transfer fee of £12.6m (the amount United paid Aston Villa for Dwight Yorke) was still considered enormous, loyalty to club was still a thing, and titles — and indeed trebles — had to be won the hard way, rather than bought with the petrodollars from a Saudi sugar daddy.

Full disclosure: I’ve been a United supporter all my life through thick (the 1968 European Cup victory), thin (relegation to the old Second Division in 1974), thick again (most of the Alex Ferguson era) and back to thin (pretty much everything that’s happened since).

99 is directed by Sampson Collins, who also made another three-parter, 2022’s excellent Gazza. That series was more than just the sad story of a brilliant, flawed and fragile talent; it was also a scorching indictment of how the rancid tabloid machine, typified by the unholy trinity of Rupert Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks and smug Piers Morgan, crushed Paul Gascoigne.

99 has no such aspirations. It’s essentially celebratory, although by no means a hagiography. It’s frank about the hostility between teammates (Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole; Roy Keane and Peter Schmeichel; Roy Keane and several others).

Fans will enjoy it as a dazzlingly produced deep-dive into the 10 days that shook the footballing world, during which Ferguson’s side did what many thought would be impossible.

Manchester City have done the treble since, of course. But in terms of history, tradition, romance, unpredictability, suspense and sheer “squeaky bum time” thrills (will any footballing moment ever match that extraordinary last-gasp reversal to beat Bayern Munich in the Champions League Final?), there’s just no comparison.

Alex Ferguson and the whole of the 1998-99 team — with the exception of Roy Keane, whose absence is disappointing if not entirely surprising — are interviewed, as are various backroom staff and former club chairman Martin Edwards.

Even now, 25 years on, many of the players still marvel at the fact that they pulled off the treble. “It was f***ing unbelievable,” says Phil Neville.

As outlined in the first episode, at the start of the season, even winning the Premier League looked like a tall order.

Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal had done the double the year before, pipping United to the Premier League by a single point and beating Newcastle United 2-1 in the FA Cup Final. For good measure, they thumped United 3-0 in the Charity Shield.

Voices of the kind that once said, “You’ll never win anything with kids” were writing United off. There was media talk of a player clear-out, and doubts about whether David Beckham, whose sending-off against Argentina at the World Cup had incurred the wrath of the ugly mob, would return to Old Trafford.

Beckham recalls here what Ferguson said to him: “Son, it’s gonna be tough, but get back to the Cliff (United’s training ground) and don’t worry about anything else.”

Behind the scenes, recalls Martin Edwards, there were questions hanging over Ferguson’s future. The board felt his horse-racing interests had become too much of a distraction.

In a revelation that comes as much of a surprise to Gary Neville as it will to viewers, Ferguson, who felt hurt and betrayed, actually tendered his resignation, which Edwards felt obliged to accept. Luckily, within a day Ferguson had changed his mind.

Cantona had retired. Peter Schmeichel was having a nightmare and planned to leave at the end of the season. Then came the post-Christmas turnaround, when the partnership of Cole and Yorke exploded, and everything changed.

For United fans, 99 is three fat slices of delicious nostalgia cake. For everyone else, it’s a reminder of a time when football still bore a resemblance to the People’s Game it started out being.

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