Football’s history is littered with scandal and disgraceful episodes. From Cantona’s Kung fu kick to Maradona’s hand of god, from Marseille and Juventus’s match fixing scandals to Zidane’s headbut, football has always loved a good scandal.
This piece will address one of the greatest scandals in Premier League history, a scandal so big, so heinous, so unfair it makes the possibility of a 39th game or the title being gifted to Liverpool after an incomplete season seem like chicken feed. I am of course referring to David Ginola winning both the PFA and FWA player of the year awards in 1999.
1999 saw the greatest single season in English football history as Manchester United won the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League.
The Premier League win saw them fight off a great Arsenal team who had won the double the previous season in what is arguably the only time two great sides peaked concurrently in the last 40 years. (Of course Liverpool and Manchester City might be on course to argue that point)
Manchester United also had to see off Chelsea in the title race who finished only four points behind United and led at various times. Indeed such was the quality of the run in between December 19th and the end of the season United, Arsenal and Chelsea lost only 3 games combined as United held on on the final day of the season. Aside from a win against an emerging lower league Fulham the FA Cup win saw them face Premier League Middlesbrough, as well as titanic ties against Liverpool, Chelsea twice, Arsenal twice and then Newcastle in the final. The Champions League win saw the play a group of Rivaldo and Figo’s Barcelona, Bayern Munich featuring Kahn and Effenberg and Brondby with only the group winner guaranteed to qualify. They then faced Ronaldo’s Inter Milan, the great Juventus team of Zidane and Inzaghi who were off the back of three consecutive Champions League final appearances. They then beat Bayern in the final to complete the historic treble and cap a season where the best teams and players in England and in the World had been beaten in an astonishing season where only 4 games of 62 were lost.
David Ginola scored a great goal away at Division 1 Barnsley in the cup.
The Frenchman had a typically enigmatic season and would end the season with 3 league goals and 10 assists. His cup goal against Barnsley helped Spurs to Old Trafford where they were beaten 2-0 by Newcastle at the Semi Final stage. To be fair to Ginola Spurs did knock out Manchester United on the way to winning the League Cup. Ginola scored a superb goal at White Hart Lane, which in truth is at least the equal of his Barnsley goal. He also gave Gary Neville an absolute chasing in a league game that season which saw the usually dependable full back sent off for two fouls on Ginola before half time. Still 7 goals in 41 games and 10 league assists – only 7th most in the league does not a player of the year make.
Ginola’s biggest strength was always the style in which he did things but a Premier League record of 21 goals and 42 assists in 195 appearances seems scant production for a player of his talents, in particular the goals record. Indeed his tally of 3 league goals is the second lowest of any PFA player of the year in Premier League history, with only N’Golo Kante’s tally of 1 lower when he won in 2017. Of the other 4 non forward players to have won it John Terry is the lowest with 3 league goals, Paul Magrath and Virgil Van Dijk registered 4 and Roy Keane notched 5.
Having hopefully established a United player probably should have won the award – although an honourable mention must go to to Dennis Bergkamp whose 29 league games produced 25 goals and assists – we need to look at the contenders from United.
The squad players of Nicky Butt, Henning Berg, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer all played huge parts through the season but aren’t player of the year worthy. The established best 11 of that era was Schmeichel; G Neville, Stam, Johnson, Irwin; Beckham, Scholes, Keane, Giggs; Cole, Yorke. Interestingly enough that actual 11 only started one league game together ever – a one nil win v Coventry in 1999.
Of that eleven the whole back 4 can be ruled out as possible winners. All 4 had fine, steady seasons but nothing out of the ordinary in terms of players of the year material although, Neville, Stam and Irwin were all in the 1999 team of the season. Peter Schmeichel gets nowhere near the award having suffered a truly awful final season at the club. He managed to salvage his legacy with the Bergkamp semi final penalty save and captaining the team in the Champions League final but in truth his final season was a poor one with laughable errors against Sheffield Wednesday, Bayern Munich and Barcelona pre Christmas leading to a holiday and news of his leaving the club the summer of 1999. Schmeichel was also at fault for the openers of both the league decider against Spurs and in the Champions League Final.
Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes are both United legends but their 98/99 seasons were decent and unspectacular with moments of genius thrown in. Scholes scored vital goals against Inter Milan and in the cup final but was often left out for Butt and was still firmly in Roy Keane’s shadow as a midfield playmaker. Giggs had an injury disrupted season and his best moments were saved for the cups with two important goals against Barcelona and Juventus as well as an assist in the final against Bayern Munich. He also scored THAT goal against Arsenal in the cup semi.
Andy Cole had a superb season and finished with 24 goals and a sublime lob in the title decider which laid to rest the ghosts of Upton Park when his misses cost United the title. However finishing 5 goals behind his strike partner means he misses out on the award.
Starting with an immense Man of the match performance against Liverpool in the 1996 FA Cup final, Roy Keane became the most influential player in British football for the next 7 years. Those 7 years saw him become United’s captain, heartbeat and playmaker. Long before Paul Scholes was lauded as a midfield genius, Keane set the tempo of every football match he played in which his rhythmic, penetrating passing and a manic work rate and an aura which inspired all around him.
Between 1996 and 2003 Manchester United lost 38 league matches, Keane missed 19 of those and was off the field by the end of a further 4. He missed the 5-0 thrashings by Newcastle in 1996 and Chelsea in 1999. His absence saw United nearly blow the final of the Champions League. Perhaps most tellingly of all was his self enforced absence through injury in 1997/98 which saw United surrender a title with two games to spare to Arsenal.
It therefore feels sacrilegious to only place Keane third in the player of the year rankings but his impact in 1999 was of a consistent nature, Keane surely had the highest bottom level of any player in the Premier League era, but this season missed the standout moments that a player of the year needs, Turin aside, and he will have to settle for third. Having said that he was voted the Manchester United player of the year in 1999 but his peak was the following year when he was the clubs top Champions League scorer, as well as notching the winner in the Club World Cup final and scoring two at Highbury in a 2-1 win against Arsenal which set the platform to win the league by 18 points. Keane deservedly won both PFA and FWA Player of the Year award in 2000 so at least some justice was served there.
The same can’t be said for the top 2 in this redoing of the 1999 award with both never winning the Player of the year award, indeed it is a strange quick that of this treble squad only 3 would ever win a Player of the Year award, Keane in 2000 and then Sheringham in 2001 in a weak year and before Liverpool had completed their cup treble. Ryan Giggs award in 2009 was more down to a mix of a lifetime achievement award, sentimentality and a run of great performances in a central midfield role in the Spring as awards were being voted on.
Second place is given to Dwight Yorke who registered an astonishing 29 goals and 20 assists in his debut season. Yorke brought a swagger back to United that had been missing since Cantona’s retirement. More crucially he lit a fire under Andy Cole’s career and formed the deadliest strike partnership in Europe for a season. (Apologies to Rebrov and Shevchenko lovers)
Yorke was responsible for United’s opening goal 16 times in the season and can feel unlucky to only be second. However a slight dip in form towards the end of the season saw only 3 goals in the last 13 games and 3 scoreless performances in the last crucial 10 days of the season against Spurs Newcastle and Bayern Munich.
The winner of the award is a player whose career has divided opinion for many years. He was also second in the World Player of the Year award. It is of course the average looking David Beckham.
Beckham came into the season facing disgraceful abuse from his World Cup red card in the last great World Cup game v Argentina. Summoning up mental strength beyond the realms of most people Beckham’s redemption started on the first day of the league season. 2-0 at home to Leicester with only 10 minutes to go Beckham first had a shot deflected in by Sheringham before scoring a last minute free kick. From there Beckham would notch 9 goals and 20 assists as again and again he proved to be a driving force from right midfield.
Whilst 9 goals sounds a fairly average figure it needs to be considered he was a genuine midfielder not a right forward like a Salah or Sterling. His energy was often used to defend with Neville as well as providing attacking thrust. The other noticeable aspect of his goals was the importance of them. His six league goals consisted of the aforementioned last minute equaliser against Leicester, a winner against Aston Villa on May 1st and the equaliser on a tense final day against Spurs.
His only FA Cup goal was a quite sublime opener in the FA Cup semi final replay where he gives Seaman the eyes from about 30 yards
He also scored two Champions League goals, both free kicks, one which put a ten man United 3-2 up against Barcelona and the other the opener against Brondby.
His assists that season were where Beckham really shone. His trademark crosses from right wing were a constant source of United goals and Beckham was joint 2nd for assists in the league with 11. He also contributed an astonishing 8 assists in 10 Champions League games. Setting up goals against Barcelona twice, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan twice and Juventus on the way to the final. The final saw Beckham play in central midfield and was probably United’s best player. His two corners that night led to both goals as even under the highest pressure his technique shone through.
The crosses for the goals on that run are astonishing. The opening Champions League game saw a once in a lifetime batshit crazy 3-3 draw against Barcelona that happened twice in the same group stage. Beckham’s cross for Giggs opener and then free kick were right out of the top drawer.
He then followed it up with a great cross for Yorke in away Munich and Barcelona.
The highlights though were two great balls in the Quarter final against Inter Milan, the game saw Beckham face his Argentina nemesis Simeone but two gorgeous crosses, the first a delightfully delicate cross on the run, to Dwight Yorke gave United the win
He also found time that same month for this cross for Scholes’ second for England in a vital qualifier.
The consistency of Beckham’s crossing that season was incredible especially in key situations. That combined with his monstrous work rate saw him emerge as United’s key player that season. It also led to accusations of him being one dimensional with the famous George Best quote “he can not kick with his left foot, he can not head a ball, he can’t tackle and he doesn’t score many goals, apart from that he’s alright” being a widely held view of Beckham. This combined with his good looks, pop star wife and at the time flamboyant haircuts led to him being dismissed as a sarong wearing overrated show pony.
Looking at Beckham’s career 20 years after its peak reveals a slightly different story. Like many England stars since, Owen, Rooney, Gerrard and Scholes, Beckham was probably never as good as his most ardent fans insisted nor as bad as his biggest detractors stated. The truth lies in the middle. Whilst the modern social media dominated landscape would certainly have been harsh on Beckham’s lifestyle it may have also helped his career legacy. In the late 90s assist stats were rarely mentioned, plus as the Best quote highlights flaws were accentuated, with strengths downplayed. Indeed looking at Beckham’s strengths and career with a 2020 mindset the most modern player that springs to mind is Kevin de Bruyne. Beckham and de Bruyne are both hard working players although Beckham probably provides more for his team defensively – partly due to high selfless work rate but also down to his more defensive positioning and an understandable change in modern formations and thinking which sees de Bruyne play higher up the pitch. Their goal numbers in the Premier League are nearly identical. De Bruyne scores at 0.21 goals per game with Beckham’s at 0.23. De Bruyne leads the assist stats slightly with 0.42 assists per game to Beckham’s 0.30. This is mitigated slightly with Beckham leaving the league at 28 where he notched 51 assists in 4 seasons.
Whilst they don’t immediately spring off the page as similar players the quote “he can not kick with his left foot, he can not head a ball, he can’t tackle and he doesn’t score many goals, apart from that he’s alright” could easily be applied to de Bruyne now.
Regardless of his legacy one thing is for sure his assists, big game temperament, and hard work mean Beckham would have been a worthy winner of the 1999 Footballer of the year. Still that Ginola Barnsley goal was good eh!