Manchester United started the new decade, century and millennium in typical pioneering fashion. They entered a brand
new competition the FIFA Club World Championship in Brazil but at the expense of their participation in the FA Cup, of which
they were the holders.
The January jaunt to South America didn't result in any silverware beating the Brazilian sides in their own backyard
and stifling climate was a bridge too far but it gave the Reds valuable relaxation time in the sun. Rejuvenated by this, they
raced ahead of their rivals in the title race when they returned to England. They achieved their sixth Premiership title early,
in April, and still without a convincing replacement for Peter Schmeichel.
Several goalkeepers including Mark Bosnich tried and failed to establish themselves during the 1999/2000
season. So it was hardly surprising when Fabien Barthez joined United in July 2000, fresh from adding the
European Championships crown to his World Cup winners medal. The eccentric but brilliant French goalkeeper helped United to
win their third successive title in 2000/01, a feat that had previously been achieved by only a handful of clubs in England.
Liverpool had been the last team to do it, in 1982, 1983 and 1984, but this was under the supervision of two different managers
Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan.
Sir Alex Ferguson had been at the helm for all three of United's back-to-back
titles, and was therefore the first manager in English football to achieve the hat-trick. On the back of this latest trophy,
Fergie announced he would be retiring from management at the end of the 2001/02 season. Meanwhile, his right-hand man Steve
McClaren announced he would be leaving immediately to replace Bryan Robson as Middlesbrough manager.Ferguson
filled the gap left by McClaren by promoting ex-players Jim Ryan and Mike Phelan to the
posts of assistant manager and first team coach respectively. But Sir Alex then created another troublesome void by offloading
star defender Jaap Stam to Lazio in a transfer that took everyone by surprise, including the player!
One of Barthez's World Cup-winning team-mates, Laurent Blanc, joined United on a free transfer to play
in Stam's position and forge a new partnership with Wes Brown, Gary Neville or Ronny
Many people assumed Blanc would be Fergie's last signing as United manager, especially after the expensive acquisitions
of Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Sebastian Veron. But Sir Alex splashed the cash again in
January 2002, to sign Uruguayan striker Diego Forlan from Independiente.
It was difficult to see where Forlan would fit in, given that van Nistelrooy had just set a new Premiership record by scoring
in eight consecutive league games. United had won all those games to rejoin the title race, having previously lost more matches
(six by early December) than was usual for their trail-blazing standards.
Copyright, Manchester United PLC, 2002