A group of workers respected by the public and determined to win a substantial pay rise.
A government equally resolute it would not be defeated by a union whose example might be followed by other public sector workers.
It was a recipe for a long and bitter dispute. Now, at last, the firefighters have made peace. But who has won?
In the early days, all the momentum was with the firefighters.
Firefighters have ended their long-running dispute
A new young leader, Andy Gilchrist, united the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) behind a claim for a rise to £30,000 a year.
They staged colourful and good-humoured rallies. They had a catchy slogan - "Y, because we're worth it".
Polls showed they had won huge public sympathy. Then the union won the backing of 87% of its members in a ballot on strike action.
By contrast, the government and the local authorities appeared to be in disarray.
It was unclear who was in charge of negotiations.
The deputy prime minister John Prescott was the man knocking heads together in his Whitehall offices, but it was obscure local government officials who had to work their way towards a deal in hour-upon-hour of painfully detailed negotiations.
The whole union movement was furious at what it saw as the government's vindictiveness
The lowest point for the government came last November when the employers and the union agreed a deal in all night talks, only for it to be blocked in the morning by Mr Prescott who described it as a blank cheque.
The whole union movement was furious at what it saw as the government's vindictiveness.
But during the eight-day strike that followed, the tide turned. The armed forces, equipped with their ageing green goddesses, coped pretty well. Ministers suddenly appeared confident they could tough it out, while the union started seeking an exit.
From then on, Mr Gilchrist seemed resigned to accepting reforms coupled with a smaller rise than had been claimed. What he now needed was a guarantee that his union would have a say in just how the fire service was changed.
Andy Gilchrist speaks to striking firefighters
For six months the union has been battling, not over the substance of the deal, but over a few words that would give its local officers a say in their chief fire officer's proposed new way of working.
Now Mr Gilchrist and his colleagues have decided they have got those words and he has described the settlement as a "damn good deal".
Now the employers will want to press ahead with their reforms - new shift patterns, the introduction of overtime, the closure of some fire stations at night.
But in some areas of the country, notably London and Merseyside, the deal was overwhelmingly rejected and there is a determination to resist reforms many firefighters believe will endanger safety.
The first national strike in the fire service for a quarter of a century is over, but local skirmishes could break out at any time.