The Treble

Of course, it used to be the double. Between Aston Villa before the turn of the century (20th century) and Bill Nicholson’s Spurs, no side won both League and FA Cup in the same season. It’s become a little less remarkable since then.

But English clubs have been competing for the European Cup since 1956, with only the Heysel interval to interrupt. In those fifty-one seasons, only one team have managed a double-plus-European-Cup, Manchester United in the remarkable 1998-9 campaign. Critics of their performance in the 1999 Final forget that United had met, and beaten, every other major team in that year’s tournament – including Bayern Munich.

The surprising thing is that it took so long to happen. It’s a sizeable ask, as they say. But there have been quite a number of teams whose quality has been such as to make short work of League and Cup – as United did in ’98-9 – leaving them with the mental space to take on the biggest prize of them all.

Manchester United nearly did it at the first time of asking in 1956-7. Injury, and the only team in Europe that was truly more talented, did for them. What follows is really very violent:

Surely, given time, it would have come to that team, but time, of course, was precisely what they didn’t have.

Four years later, Spurs followed their double year with a European Cup Semi-Final against Benfica – losing narrowly to the trophy’s second “great” side, an FA Cup victory, and third place in the First Division, only four points behind shock winners Ipswich and one behind FA Cup rivals Burnley:

These early treble attempts presuppose one thing that no longer applied by 1998-9: retaining the League title. It’s a tall order, as Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal career aptly demonstrates. In 1965, Liverpool were perhaps fortunate to reach the European Cup semi-final, as their quarter-final against Cologne was decided by the toss of a coin. But once there, only sharp practice on the part of Inter kept them from the Final. The same year, Liverpool won the FA Cup; yet, in the League, they were well off the pace, finishing a mediocre seventh:

It was a similar story a year later for Manchester United. The Best-Law-Charlton side at its height reached the European Cup semi-final, to be denied by injury, weather and dogged opponents; a superb cup run was unexpectedly halted in the FA Cup Final by Everton, and the League… faded away long before the season’s end as Liverpool ran away with the title.

Such experiences leave you to reflect on the differences made by a modern squad approach, different from the first-eleven emphasis of the 1950s and 1960s.

The “other” double – League and European Cup – came close for United in 1967-8, but no near-treble, as Spurs despatched them in the FA Cup Third Round. The following year, both Manchester clubs were in the European Cup, but finished 11th (United) and 13th (City) in the League, results that would lead nowadays to the manager’s sacking and financial ruin. United did make it to the European Cup semi-final, where sharp practice etc.:

So we come to 1970 and to Leeds United. Theirs was, in my opinion, the greatest season ever produced by a club of the pre-Heysel era. It was done without money, in a rugby city, at a time when the talent available to the First Division was as deep and widely spread as never before. Six, perhaps eight, clubs were serious title contenders.

A European Cup semi-final:

A notorious FA Cup Final – and replay!

And second in the league.

There’s the sense of history going wrong here, isn’t there, in the year that the Beatles split up.

Two years on, Derby County made a rather shadow-boxed attempt at the feat, finishing in yet more dodgy Italian behaviour in the European Cup semi-final, reaching the FA Cup Quarter Final, and finishing a long way back in seventh in the League.

In the pre-Heysel era, Liverpool would come closer than anyone to bringing home all three trophies. The climax to a memorable season (certainly the first I remember clearly):

Even the ’85 Liverpool of Ian Rush couldn’t come close. Yet – defeat in the Heysel “final” coupled with defeat to Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-final, plus coming a distant second to Everton’s second great post-war side – it all makes for a great season.

It wasn’t. Traditional values, the good old days, the working class game, uncommercialized football, people? Reflect for a moment that such series as “The Real Football Factories”, to say nothing of all those hooligan autobiographies, postdate these scenes. (Footage includes the dead – you have been warned).

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