Manchester United missed the 1999/2000 FA Cup having won the competition the previous year. Just one of a potential 558 entrants shouldn’t be so important, should it?
The late 1990s were an optimistic time for England. Politically, New Labour had swept to power on the tidal waving of Union Flags, and Englishness was being celebrated in a way it had not been for some time.
The European Championships in 1996 had been a roaring success, with the hosts reaching the semi-final and coming the length of a boot-stud from the final, and the nation was eager for more.
The World Cup in 1998 was too soon, as that was to be held in France, but the competitions ahead of that were still up for grabs. To that end, money was pumped into the FA so that they might have a chance of persuading FIFA that England, the home of football, might once again be the home of football’s biggest tournament in 2006.
There were some trump cards they could play, not least in the Premier League, which was rivalled only by Italy’s Serie A for superstars and global appeal.
One of the biggest draws were Manchester Utd, who were beginning to put together something spectacular themselves.
May 1999 has gone down in the Old Trafford annals as one of the most successful months in the club’s history, with their unrivalled and envied treble coming together piece by piece. After clinching the league with a last day victory against Tottenham at Old Trafford, the Red Devils added the FA Cup to their cabinet, before that dramatic night in Barcelona saw them clinch the famous Champions League trophy as well.
That was where, in some ways, the trouble all began.
Winning the Champions League meant that United had qualified for not just the Toyota Cup, against the Copa Libertadores champions, but had earned a place in the brand new FIFA World Club Cup, to be held in Brazil in early 2000. An already tight schedule had become even more fraught.
Early in the summer of 1999, rumours began to circulate that Alex Ferguson’s side were being pressurised not to enter the FA Cup in favour of appealing to FIFA by ensuring they were at their very best for their new flagship club competition. It seemed unthinkable initially, but as June wore on, the idea became more and more concrete. Soon it was inevitable; at the end of the July, after lengthy talks with the FA, the decision was announced.
Even then, it didn’t seem entirely concrete. A place was to be left for United, just in case the idea was rescinded, but when the 1999/2000 competition began, there was to be no holders to knock out and, subsequently, one of the biggest draws for the smaller sides was also absent. A new age had begun, and global football was becoming more important than local.
Manchester United, a global force, were playing the role of a local pawn.
The early rounds of the FA Cup are where stories begin, where tales start to be told. This was as true in 1999 as ever. Although it looked likely that the holders would not defend their trophy, and the big draw of Manchester United would not be in the hat, that didn’t make the carrot of the third round any less desirable.
By the time the tournament had reached the will they/won’t they saga of the Red Devils, some names had already been made. The first round saw the usual smattering of non-league teams enjoying a rare moment in the spotlight. Hendon disposed of Bath City, with former Ipswich striker Boncho Gentchev finding the net.
Tamworth took Bury to extra time in a replay at Gigg Lane before Lutel James broke their hearts, while Wrexham ended Kettering Town’s hopes at the second time of asking, as well.
A Marco Gabbiadini penalty helped Darlington past Southport at Feethams, earning them a tie with a Gillingham side who had needed two attempts to creep past Cheltenham Town, a Brian McGlinchey goal thirteen minutes from time finally winning the tie at Priestfield.
The second round provided its usual filter between the non-league sides and the top two divisions, putting paid to Enfield, Hayes and Stalybridge Celtic amongst others. Meanwhile, Gillingham’s Bob Taylor lifted them past Darlington to ensure a 3-1 win, a place in the third round and the chance of a big tie.
At that stage, it still felt as though there was a sliver of a chance Manchester United might still be in the draw. There was rumours that they might move their potential fourth round tie, which was to be problematic date, and even some talk that they could enter a youth team for the third round so that at least they had entered, even if they fell on their sword somewhat having done so.
The pressure of the situation was getting to everyone, as noted by head of the FA David Davies. What’s more, there was momentum building behind the suggestion that FIFA would begin to rotate the hosting of the World Cup, and suddenly the sense of time ticking away felt very real indeed.
In the end, the third round draw was made on 21st November without them, and a separate draw was held on 1st December to determine a ‘lucky loser’, one of the teams who had been eliminated in the second round, to take their place in the third. Having already been given a visit to Aston Villa by the main draw, that spot was taken by Darlington whose chairman George Reynolds revealed a peculiar belief as a result.
“I had a feeling we were going to get it,” he told the press about the Lucky Loser spot, “because I had information before. I’ve got a direct line with him upstairs, and I gave him a ring and he said ‘You’re in with a chance’. I’ll give him a ring before the game and to know the result and I’ll let you know before the game. I’m the only one with his number. Its ex-directory, nobody else can have it but us”
Reynolds, a former safe-cracker, who was later jailed for tax evasion, might well have wished he had kept his mouth shut. Enfield’s then-manager Jim Chandler was none-too-convinced by the draw’s neutrality.
“I don’t know why the draw can’t be broadcast live,” he grumbled, “and I have my fears that it may be a fiddle.”
The draw was, in fact, shown live on Sky, but Chandler remained unappeased.
“That’s not the information I was given”, he added, “when I spoke to David Davies and asked if I could be present at the draw, he had a smirk on his face and said it had already been made and the FA were only waiting until the second round replays were over before announcing it.”
Enfield, as it happened, held on valiantly until beyond half time of their replay against Preston North End at Clarence Park before capitulating to a 3-0 defeat.
There was something of an irony to Darlington taking advantage of the ‘insurance policy’ of the lucky loser spot, as Reynolds famously refused to take insurance out on his properties (including the Hampstead Penthouse next to the Spice Girls) because of his dubious legal history.
Whatever the thinking about the fairness of the draw or the veracity of it, after it happened, while their conquerors from the previous round were busy drawing at Walsall before beating them in the replay, the Quakers’ second coming lasted only 90 minutes, as Aston Villa eased to a 2-1 victory to put them out for the second round in a row.
Villa went on to the final, where they lost to a Chelsea side who had got the taste for cup success some time ago. By that point, the absence of Manchester United was all but forgotten – when you’re down to the last two sides, you can’t presume anyone else would make it.
As it was, Chelsea had walloped United 5-0 early in the season at Stamford Bridge, and though Villa lost both league encounters with Alex Ferguson’s side, they did knock them out of the League Cup on Mark Bosnich’s return immediately after that West London humbling.
The semi finals were a different story. Bolton were still in Division 1 at that stage, but Newcastle Utd, despite being in tumult during the early season (when Manchester Utd recorded a 5-0 win at Old Trafford) had enough to trouble the holders with a Duncan Ferguson victory at St James’ Park.
Of course, there is no way of knowing how or if Manchester Utd had progressed had they been in the competition – though it isn’t too far fetched to think that, just like Darlington, they might have lost at Villa Park and rendered the rest of the story moot.
One thing that was missing was the sprinkle of stardust that comes with the big teams in the draw. Back in 1999, we had not quite reached the level of the Big 6. The previous league campaign, United, Arsenal and Chelsea were streets ahead of closest contenders Leeds. Additionally, there are always other big clubs like Liverpool and Tottenham that are noted in the cup draws; quite often one of the smaller clubs that make it through will have a link. At that stage, Huddersfield were managed by Steve Bruce, a draw for Bruce against Manchester Utd would have brought the cameras and some money into the coffers.
However, with United missing, that was one take left untold. As it was, the big teams did their best to nullify the magic before it could be cast. Second placed Arsenal beat Blackpool before a defeat on penalties to Leicester, so they also manage to avoid any romance. Chelsea made short work of all their opponents, the most well received of which was probably their home victory over Gillingham.
Meanwhile Liverpool won at top of Division 1 Huddersfield before Blackburn put them out at Anfield, and both Everton and Leeds progressed serenely until their elimination by fellow Premier League sides. In short, the big teams progressed as one would expect and the absence of Manchester Utd was felt perhaps only by television audiences.
Those television audiences were rewarded by the sight of Manchester Utd in the World Club Cup, and the sound of former stalwart defender Steve Bruce providing the kind of expert insight that might have been better kept for the dressing room at the club he was being paid a decent wage to manage.
As it was, Alex Ferguson’s side were eliminated during the group stages, after a difficult draw with Mexican side Necaxa and a humbling defeat to a Romario inspired Vasco da Gama. United returned to win the Premier League again. Bruce returned to Huddersfield to sell Marcus Stewart and watch his dreams of promotion slip through his hands like the sands of Copacabana Beach.
Firstly, and most importantly, no club has boycotted the FA Cup since the season in question. Manchester United might have expected a better return than 2 FA Cups and three final defeats since their boycott, but knockout competitions are tough.
Two Brazilian sides played out the World Club Cup final, a goalless draw that was settled on penalties. Edmunds missed for Vasco and Corinthians lifted the trophy.
The FA’s plan was not successful, either. Despite the carrot of Manchester Utd being dangled to FIFA, England has come no closer than the reserve list for any major tournament since, and in the summer of 2000, the 2006 World Cup was given to Germany a decision that led to one of the more memorable editions of the tournament.
FIFA did, for a short while, rotate host continents for the World Cup. South Africa benefited from this, as did Brazil, but that gambit was abandoned in 2007, perhaps with an eye to the fact that Oceania might be on the horizon next and that would bring it’s own problems – not least because the Socceroos left for Asia in 2006.
The World Club Cup is an established date on the calendar now, but that too suffered. It was not held between 2001 and 2004 because of lack of finances.
All of this adds up to the fact that the FA sent one of their biggest clubs on something of a wild goose chase in the winter of 1999 and nobody came out on top.
Steve Bruce, meanwhile, did get to manage against Manchester Utd. It took him 23 attempts to get the better of them and when he did, it was courtesy of a goal scored by a Matthew Longstaff, a player born in March 2000, on a day his Huddersfield side were beating Nottingham Forest.