Capturing the majesty of Manchester United's Treble season in mere prose is a brutally difficult feat. How can you do justice with words to that extraordinary twelve months, between the summers of 1998 and 1999, when the English club claimed the Premier League title, the FA Cup and UEFA Champions League?
Well, the Promised Land by Daniel Harris provides the answer. Harris is a rare character: a passionate Manchester United fan, who retains the discipline to step away from the euphoria and provide a calmly forensic take on events at Old Trafford. What he has produced, shirking no nuance, is as fine an account of this period as you are likely to read.
Harris, who was in the Nou Camp when his team became champions of Europe in wildly improbable circumstances, resists the temptation to tell the story of the Treble as a first-person narrative. Instead, he chooses a conventional narrative structure - he gives a chapter to each month - and mostly relates the tale at a Jack Keroauc tempo, taking a pit stop every so often to deliver a pithy take on proceedings. "MUTV began transmitting", he writes of the club's offical TV channel, "in its early years not quite the defiling marriage of anodyne and doctrinaire that we see today."
Elsewhere, in describing each of the team's goals and major passages of play in faithful detail, Harris gets lyrical. "Ryan Giggs didn't need to do what anyone said", he writes of the Welsh winger's performance against Bayern Munich in a UEFA Champions League group match. "He had produced a mesmeric half of football doing whatever his instinct ordered from his technique. The smooth, hypnotic unpredictability was like watching water over rocks, guessing what was coming next as futile as predicting the stride pattern of a greyhound".
The most resonant section of the book, though, is a paragraph where Harris explains the pre-ordained manner in which Manchester United's miraculous season seemed to unfold. "There's a Hebrew principle, gam zu letovah, generally used by religious people to excuse all the horrendous badness visited by God upon the world," he writes. "Roughly translated, it means 'this is also for the best', and works by applauding an overall plan unintelligible to human minds - and is applicable to every single misfortune that befell United during the season, all contributing to the perfect outcome and each of which can be loved with a great and overwhelming affection. Gam zu letovah."
What Harris then goes on to express best of all is just how unlikely these events all were. It's unlikely that an algorithm could have created a set of fixtures more testing. In the Premier League, United had to see off excellent challenges from Arsenal, Chelsea and Leeds. In the FA Cup, they saw off Arsenal and Chelsea again, as well as Liverpool, before defeating Newcastle, another top-flight side, in the final. In the UEFA Champions League, they had to make their way past Barcelona, Inter Milan, Bayern Munich and Juventus. It was a schedule of almost farcical difficulty. And, at the heart of it all, were a cast of uniquely competitive characters, headed by Sir Alex Ferguson.
As the book progresses, the extent of his influence over these players becomes clear: long before those final two minutes in the Nou Camp against Bayern Munich, Ferguson had infused his men with such remarkable amounts of self-belief that it would have taken a higher power at its most vengeful to stop them. "You hope your personality and character eventually seeps into their pores and I think we've got a few players who in their own way have developed the character in the shape and form I thought I was like and I think I'm like as a person", said Ferguson. As Harris notes, "'In their own way': the four words that reveal the genius of the master man-manager."
And so they did it all in their own way: the four-man midfield of Keane, Scholes, Beckham and Giggs that Harris considers perhaps the most complete of all time, the four superb forwards in Solskjaer, Sheringham, Yorke and Cole, the formidable backline of Neville, Stam, Irwin, Johnsen and Schmeichel, Butt, Berg and Blomqvist off the bench. Each of these men and more did their all to bring United thrillingly through or over each barrier: gam zu letovah, indeed. And, recording it all, is Harris, whose The Promised Land looks rightly destined for the bottom of many a Manchester United fan's stocking in the festive season ahead.