May 26 marked the 21st anniversary since Manchester United won the 1999 Champions League. Rob Smyth revisits that mythical final in Barcelona - when legends were forged and Sir Alex Ferguson left his mark on the grandest stage of all.
The story of Manchester United’s Treble started with a third-choice referee. Steve Bruce’s immortal winner against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993 came in the sixth minute of time added on by John Hilditch, who was only refereeing because of injuries to John Martin before the game and Mike Peck during it. There were some late goals under Ferguson before that, but Bruce’s header was the symbolic start of the phenomenon that would become known as Fergie Time.
“Last-minute goals encapsulate my history at United,” said Ferguson in 2014. “I love them. I could talk about them all the time.” He loved them for their euphoric impact – “the electricity in the dressing-room is unbelievable” – and what they signified. Ferguson aimed to build teams in his own image, and nothing reflected his character like the furious refusal to acknowledge the concept of defeat.
Take almost any of Ferguson’s triumphs at United, from the 1990 FA Cup final to the valedictory Premier League title in 2012-13, and you’ll find comebacks and late goals that either saved or won a match. On the biggest night of his career, they did both.
1. Eyeing up Everest
Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates after Manchester United beat Juventus in the semi-finals
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Nothing put fire in the eyes of Sir Alex Ferguson like European football. He was obsessed with it for umpteen reasons; three in particular. It awakened the small boy in him, the one who sneaked into Hampden Park to watch Real Madrid beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the 1960 final. It brought a glamour and prestige that even 13 domestic titles could not provide. And it was the acid test of his intelligence, tactical awareness and man-management ability. Ferguson resented the cultural cringe that has been a part of English football throughout the Premier League era, and raged against the idea that European football was intrinsically superior.
For most of the 1990s, however, he had to accept it was presently superior. English teams were out of their depth in the new Champions League, and United had an extended adolescence in the tournament: humiliated in 1993-94 and 1994-95, intrepid semi-finalists in 1996-97 and frustrated quarter-finalists a year later. David Beckham said the challenge was “a bit like learning football all over again”.
By 1998-99, Ferguson knew they were ready to compete on equal terms. Only once during the season, in the first group game, as they struggled to contain Louis van Gaal’s Barcelona during a wild 3-3 draw at Old Trafford, did he doubt whether they were good enough to win it. Though he occasionally tried to argue otherwise, everybody knew the Champions League was Ferguson’s Everest, his everything – not least because he said so himself. “I’m working on it,” he said in an interview in 1994. “I’m trying to make it the Everest in my mind, you know.”
Over the next few years, we certainly knew.
2. Targeting the Treble
Manchester United line up prior to the 1999 Champions League final
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The 1999 Champions League final was the first without a Serie A side for eight years. United put out both Italian teams, Internazionale in the quarter-final and Juventus in the semis. That was after they and Bayern had navigated the definitive Group of Death – it also included Barcelona and Brondby, with only one team guaranteed to qualify. In the end, United went through as one of the two best runners-up behind Bayern, with both matches between the teams ending in a draw.
Bayern, like United, were aiming to become the first team from one of Europe’s five big leagues to do the Treble. (Celtic did so in 1967, Ajax in 1972 and PSV Eindhoven in 1988.) They were in the final of both the DFB-Pokal and the Champions League. For the first time, the final was contested by two teams who were not champions the previous season; Arsenal and Kaiserslautern won the title in England and Germany in 1997-98, though United and Bayern had regained it by the time they went to Barcelona.
They had another thing in common – both were missing two of their better players. Roy Keane and Paul Scholes were suspended after receiving second yellow cards against Juventus; Keane’s absence meant Peter Schmeichel would captain United in his last game for the club. Bixente Lizarazu, the World Cup-winning left-back who Ferguson later tried to sign, and the excellent Brazilian forward Giovane Elber were injured for Bayern.
United were 11-10 favourites with Ladbrokes, with Bayern 15-8. Those odds owed as much to giddiness and goodwill than a dispassionate appraisal of the merits of each team. The match was played on what would have been Sir Matt Busby’s 90th birthday, and there was a pervasive sense of destiny in the pre-match coverage.
The match was the last of United’s 11-day trilogy. On 16 May, they beat Spurs 2-1 at Old Trafford to win the Premier League title, pipping an utterly magnificent Arsenal team by a point. On 22 May, four days before Barcelona, they beat Newcastle 2-0 in the FA Cup final. The disparity between the sides was such it felt like a pre-European Cup final friendly. When the United centre-back David May went in at half-time, with his team leading 1-0, he said to Scholes: “I am not even tired. I can't believe this is a cup final.”
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ronny Johnsen celebrate the second leg of United's treble
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United’s win completed their third Double in six seasons. They had celebrated with gusto a week earlier after regaining the title; this time the party was low-key – mainly because they were so close to Barcelona, perhaps also because the win had been so undemanding. On the Sunday they went to Bisham Abbey, the England training complex, to begin preparations. That evening they practised penalties after training before watching a 40-minute video highlighting the most important points from the two group games against Bayern.
The next day they flew by Concorde to the peaceful seaside resort of Sitges. Ferguson always placed huge importance on preparation for a cup final. He was ridiculed by some when, in his most recent autobiography, he said one of the main reasons United lost the 2009 Champions League final defeat to Barcelona was because they picked a poor hotel. Yet 18 years earlier, when they beat Barcelona 2-1 in the Cup Winners’ Cup final, he said the quality of their Rotterdam hotel was a major factor in their victory.
He was equally happy with the Meliá Gran Hotel in Sitges, and everyone agreed the atmosphere was extremely relaxed. Beckham later said it felt like they were there for a fortnight. There were a few minor stresses – Nicky Butt’s main memory was of having to write 50 names and addresses of people who wanted tickets, and Ferguson had to discourage Beckham from sunbathing a couple of times – but that was all. “The mood,” said Andy Cole in Andy Mitten’s book Glory Glory!, “was almost like the preparation for a third-round Milk Cup tie at some third division club.”
Ferguson’s good cheer was briefly interrupted when he administered the hairdryer to a group of fans who were around the hotel and, in his eyes, interrupting the players’ preparation. He later apologised.
On the Monday night, the group who would later become known as the Class of 92 sat on the hotel balcony discussing the historical significance of what would happen in 48 hours’ time. Giggs was the eldest at 25, Phil Neville the youngest at 22. It wasn’t even four years since they were told kids couldn’t win anything; now they had the chance to win everything.
May and Teddy Sheringham, who shared a room, were like detectives trying to spot clues as to the XI for the final – and, specifically, whether they would start. Both thought they had a good chance; both were wrong. The announcement of the XI was the first of three team talks given by Ferguson and his assistant Steve McClaren in the two days before the game. The second focused on Bayern’s tactics, which Ferguson felt were to score and then shut the game down, and the third covered set-pieces for and against.
The absence of Keane and Scholes left Ferguson with a giant hole in the centre of the pitch. Nicky Butt, who had gone from substitute to MVP, was not even allowed a place on the subs' bench for the FA Cup final. Most assumed Butt’s midfield partner would be Ronny Johnsen, the Norwegian centre-back, who had played there in the second leg of the quarter-final against Internazionale. Giggs and Beckham were the other main contenders, with Phil Neville an outside option. If Johnsen played, May would come into the defence.
Ferguson had already decided that he could not go into the game without some penetration from central midfield. Usually that came from the passing of Keane and Scholes, and the late runs of the latter. With both unavailable, Ferguson’s first instinct was to use Giggs in the centre. At that stage of his career he had played only a handful of games in that position – but he was usually impressive, and his dribbling was even more devastating when he started from a central position. Ferguson wanted Giggs to attack Lothar Matthaus, Bayern’s 38-year-old sweeper, who had been harassed into mistakes for both of United’s goals in the group game in Munich.
David Beckham and Ryan Giggs in the 1999 FA Cup final
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A tackle from Gary Speed changed everything. It put Keane out of the FA Cup final in the first few minutes, forcing a United reshuffle. Beckham moved into the centre of midfield, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer went to the right wing and Sheringham came on up front. Beckham played with such class and authority, controlling the match with his short and long passing, that Ferguson changed his plans. He considered the size of the Nou Camp pitch and the quality of Stefan Effenberg’s passing in Bayern’s midfield, and decided he wanted an equivalent to “control the passing momentum”.
Ferguson knew Bayern were worried about United’s width – they lobbied successfully to have the pitch made narrower, to the exact specifications of their own pitch in Munich – and wanted two genuine wingers. Jesper Blomqvist had never really played on the right, whereas Giggs had done so on a few occasions that season – most notably when United hammered Brondby 6-2. Giggs said he was “comfortable” playing on the right, though he has more recently spoken of his irritation at not being picked in the centre of midfield.
The team that Ferguson picked was a bespoke solution to a bespoke problem. Indeed, in his first three Champions League finals at United, he picked an XI that had never played together before, and would never do so again.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Stam, Johnsen, Irwin; Giggs, Beckham, Butt, Blomqvist; Yorke, Cole.
Bayern announced their team two days before the match, with the coach Ottmar Hitzfeld happily telling everyone that Markus Babbel had been picked at right-wing-back because of the threat of Giggs. As it turned out, he was up against Blomqvist.
Sir Alex Ferguson talks to Roy Keane on the eve of the match
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It’s probably fair to assume Roy Keane’s internal monologue was not an easy listen in the build-up to the game. He, Scholes and the injured Henning Berg – whose two goal-line clearances in the quarter-final against Internazionale probably kept United in the competition – could watch but not take part on what should have been the biggest night of their careers. Keane later described the kick-off in Barcelona as his worst moment in football. “It’s astonishing how out of things you feel if you’re not playing,” he said in his first autobiography. “It’s as if a glass partition descends between you and the players who are in the side.”
Keane was sharing a room with Denis Irwin, a dubious idea given one was playing and one not. He had a few drinks with Scholes and some United fans on the Monday night before sneaking to bed. On the Tuesday, as the team trained at the Nou Camp, Ferguson sensed reality had landed one between Keane’s eyes. Ned Kelly, United’s head of security, remembered Ferguson coming to see him about Keane during training. “I think it’s just hit him how big a game he’s missing out on, and I don’t want to have to deal with any dramas,” said Ferguson. “Keep an eye on him.”
Kelly selflessly sat drinking until 4am with Keane, Scholes, Berg and some of Keane’s family and friends. If you feel out of it, as Keane did, you might as well get out of it. Ferguson’s intuition had been right; Keane later said it was during that training session that he fully realised what he was going to miss out on.
For others, the night before was when they fully realised what they were about to take part in. Cole’s internal organs started to inform him this wasn’t a Milk Cup tie after all, while Blomqvist – who had been given three weeks’ notice by Ferguson that he would be playing in the final, but had barely kicked a ball in that time – walked round his hotel room reading aloud motivational slogans in an attempt to boost his confidence.
It may have been Christmas Eve for Beckham, whose boyish love of football was evident in everything he did, but he was soundly asleep by 10.30pm. He’d left training with an ice pack on his thigh, which made for some scare stories in the English press the next morning, but knew he would almost certainly be fit to play.
Ferguson wore a roundnecked 1960s United shirt during that training session, drawing an unspoken connection with the club’s only previous European Cup win 31 years earlier. The historical context was inescapable. Bayern had not won the tournament since 1976, and no English side had been in a final since the Heysel disaster of 1985. United were the first English team to win the European Cup in 1968; in a sense, following England's period of exile, they had another chance to become the first to win it.
4. A 'nightmare' start
Sir Alex Ferguson at Camp Nou
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The United party did have one problem with the hotel facilities: the clocks ran too slowly on the day of the game. The match did not kick off until 8.45pm local time, and the players had to find ways to kill time and control their increasing nerves. Stam tried a John Grisham novel, until he realised he wasn’t reading so much as looking at words.
The players had a siesta after lunch, but Stam’s snoring was such that his room-mate Ole Gunnar Solskjaer couldn’t sleep. He tried to watch one of those new Digital Versatile Discs but couldn’t concentrate, so called his best friend in Norway to ask where he’d be watching the game. His friend, a nurse, was on the night shift and told Solskjaer he’d only be able to watch the first 75 minutes. Solskjaer suggested, politely but firmly, that he find someone to fill in for an hour. “I had this feeling something big was going to happen to me,” said Solskjaer in the Manchester United Opus. “It's hard to explain. I just had a premonition I was going to do something that night.”
Everyone on the coach knew it was the biggest game we’d ever played
When an impatient Stam arrived early in the lobby for the trip to the ground, half the squad were already there. Keane noted that, during the coach journey, even the usual jokers, Butt and Giggs, hardly said a word. “The manager was palpably uptight,” said Keane. “This was not just another game. Everyone on the coach knew it was the biggest game we’d ever played.”
The atmosphere in the dressing-room walked the line between subdued and focused. Ferguson told his team they had nothing to worry about, that Bayern were not as good as the Arsenal team they had seen off in the Premier League and FA Cup. He also reminded them that Bayern’s gameplan would be to score early and shut the game down.
The warning was delivered with feeling because United had made a habit of handicapping themselves during their European run. They conceded the opening goal after 11 minutes away to Bayern, after six minutes at Juventus in the semi-final, and after 49 seconds against Barcelona in the group stages.
In the final they went behind after six minutes. The game hadn’t settled down when Beckham miscontrolled a difficult ball in midfield and Bayern counter-attacked. Carsten Jancker was challenged clumsily on the edge of the area by Johnsen, and Mario Basler stroked a simple free-kick into the bottom corner. It was the second time Schmeichel had conceded a free-kick at that end of the Nou Camp in the Champions League that season; the first was from Rivaldo in the group game against Barcelona. Each time, the ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley said the free-kicks were deflected. But neither were. On both occasions, Schmeichel wrongfooted himself by taking a presumptuous step in the wrong direction. Basler’s free-kick, which was relatively tame, went straight into the corner. Schmeichel complained that he couldn’t see it because of the jockeying of Basler, Butt, Jancker and Stam on the edge of the wall. “I think,” said Cole in his autobiography, “that p****d off a lot of the chaps.”
Mario Basler scores against Manchester United in the 1999 final
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The match situation was not unusual to United, but the gravity of it was. They had never been behind in a game of such importance and for most of the match they laboured for an equaliser, never approaching their best.
There were a few reasons for that. One was fatigue – half the team were carrying injuries, and the match was United’s 63rd of the season. They were without Keane, whose radiant mental strength and relentless, progressive passing sparked their famous comeback against Juventus in the semi-finals. There was also a bit of stage fright. “We were too inhibited,” said Giggs in his autobiography. “I hate to say it, but the occasion got to us a bit.” He wasn’t the only one who felt that way. “We never turned up for the final,” said Cole in the Manchester Evening News. “I was very disappointed with my performance. It’s one of my few regrets in football that I didn’t do the business in the biggest game I started.”
Blomqvist felt his own legs “weren’t responding as normal … they were like jelly.” Apart from a 90-second spell early in the second half, United did not threaten to overwhelm Bayern until right at the end of the match. And though Bayern never had any sustained pressure of their own, they did create the clearer chances on the break. Even Ferguson, who will argue until his dying day that United were the better team because their intent was so much greater, accepted they created almost nothing. “I honestly can’t think of anything exciting or significant,” he said in The Unique Treble, “until those last three incredible minutes.”
It’s not that United were battered by Bayern. They weren’t even outplayed. They had more possession, more corners and more shots on target. But their touches were slightly heavy, their decision making slightly awry and their tempo well below the usual quick-quick-quicker approach. Tyldesley summarised it neatly when he said, late in the first half, that United were “creating openings rather than chances”.
We were plunged into a nightmare
Aside from Beckham, who overshadowed Effenberg in midfield with and without the ball, United’s attack struggled. Giggs provided plenty of electricity but most of the things he tried didn’t quite come off. Blomqvist had the kind of anonymous game he feared, while Yorke – who in the 1998-99 season was the best forward in European football along with Andriy Shevchenko – was the biggest disappointment of the lot. Ferguson thought he had never seen him look so nervous on a football field. Or, presumably, off it.
The redeployment of Giggs and Beckham, and Blomqvist’s struggles, meant there were no crosses of any quality. “We were plunged,” said Ferguson in Managing My Life, “into the nightmare of chasing the game against opponents who could emphasise their strengths and hide their limitations by applying a policy of unambitious containment.”
It may have been unambitious, but it was also accomplished. There was a resilience and authority to Bayern’s defending that was not always evident at the other end, where Johnsen and Schmeichel were very jittery for the first half hour. United were grateful for the majestic Stam, who was a nose ahead of Beckham as their outstanding performer. The best player on the pitch was the youngest, the 22-year-old Ghanaian Samuel Kuffour. He and his fellow marker Thomas Linke nagged United’s forwards incessantly, while Jens Jeremies did the same in midfield. Matthaus, who started as a sweeper, was asked by Hitzfeld to move up into midfield where possible so that Jeremies could push up closer to Beckham. It meant that Bayern flitted between two formations, 1-4-2-3 and a 4-1-2-3.
After Basler’s goal neither side created a clear chance in a scruffy first half, though Bayern had the better half-chances and deserved to lead. Zickler shot wide from Basler’s cross and headed a bouncing ball too close to Schmeichel from 12 yards. The closest United came was when a long throw from Neville almost fell for Cole on the six-yard line. He was about to shoot when Linke’s desperate tackle diverted the ball off him and just wide.
5. Turning the tide
Sir Alex Ferguson gives Teddy Sheringham his final instructions
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The only thing United could really claim in the first half was the moral high ground. They did not think much of Bayern’s attacking approach, which partly involved feeding off long balls forward to Jancker. Sheringham said they played “like Wimbledon”. That was a little harsh – there was an order and purpose to Bayern’s counter-attacks, especially when Basler was carrying the ball. They also had one of Europe’s best passers in Effenberg, even if he did have a quiet game.
During half-time, Ferguson told Stam to win the ball back quicker and more aggressively, and for the players to pass the ball quicker and more aggressively. He then gave a short speech inspired by the Scottish striker Steve Archibald. He had played under Ferguson at Aberdeen, when they had an affectionate but tempestuous relationship, and later played for Barcelona under Terry Venables. Archibald still lived in the city and came to see United train the night before the game. He told Ferguson that one of his abiding memories of the 1986 final, when Barcelona lost to Steaua Bucharest on penalties, was that at the end he had to walk right past the European Cup knowing he could not touch it.
Don’t you dare come back in here without giving your all
Ferguson liked the story but only wanted to accentuate the positive to his players before the game. At half-time, however, things were getting desperate. “If you lose you will be six feet away from the European Cup, but you won’t be able to touch it, of course,” he said. “And I want you to think about that fact that you’ll have been so close to it and for many of you it will be the closest you’ll ever get. And you will hate that thought for the rest of your lives. So just make sure you don’t lose. Don’t you dare come back in here without giving your all.”
Ferguson spoke to Sheringham at length during the break, telling him that he would come on after 20 minutes of the second half if it was still 1-0. “That p****d me off,” said Solskjaer in an interview with FourFourTwo in 2016. “I thought, ‘I’ve scored 17 goals for you this season, mostly coming on as sub – aren’t you going to speak to me?’”
Sheringham secretly hoped United wouldn’t score so that he’d have the chance to play in a European Cup final. He had little to worry about. The match drifted along with little goalmouth incident, although the buzzing atmosphere made the game feel more exciting than it was. Blomqvist missed United’s first good chance in the 56th minute, scooping over the bar from six yards after stretching to beat Babbel to a speculative cross from the right by Giggs. Ferguson gave Sheringham the call to replace Blomqvist after 65 minutes and spent a couple of minutes talking to him on the touchline. “Come on,” said an impatient Sheringham. “Get me on now.”
Sheringham’s introduction meant a change of shape for United, whose freestyle formation was closest to a diamond midfield – Butt deepest, Giggs on the left and Beckham right, with Yorke behind the front two and Sheringham also pulling left. It left them dangerously exposed to counter-attacks, but Ferguson was always of the view that you may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb. “We could never have started with that line-up; it would have been brave going on suicidal,” said Gary Neville in his autobiography, Red. “A final twenty minutes of desperation was another matter.”
Bayern responded to United’s substitution by bringing on Mehmet Scholl for Zickler. It was a clever move which allowed Scholl, a defter, smarter player, to exploit the enormous space in front of the United defence. “We were living on the edge and we knew it,” said Cole. “Time, and patience, were running out in equal measure.”
Mario Basler infuriated the United players with his antics
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Patience was running out in more ways than one. A number of United players, especially Sheringham and Stam, were irked by what they saw as showmanship from Bayern, and one player in particular. “When Basler took Bayern’s corners he was an absolute disgrace,” said Stam in his autobiography, Head to Head. “He was posing and milking the applause, believing he was the man of the moment, having scored what he thought was the winning goal.”
Basler was almost a caricature of the arrogant German footballer. He strutted around the field like he had been given his own TV show for the night, with an audience of 200 million. In the first half he tried to score with a free-kick from an absurd angle on the right. In the second half he twice tried to chip Schmeichel from the halfway line. On another occasion, when he broke dangerously down the left and was cut off just inside the area by Stam, Basler cockily led Stam all the way back into his own half before playing the ball even further back to Kuffour. He turned what was essentially a superb piece of defending from Stam into a demonstration of his own assumed superiority. He might as well have been blowing a dog whistle at Stam.
I’m going to hit the arrogant w****r if he carries on
For all the showboating, Basler was one of the few attackers on either side who was invigorated rather than inhibited by the occasion. At one point, as he munificently accepted more applause for his very existence, Stam turned to Johnsen. “I’m going to hit the arrogant w****r if he carries on,” he said. Before Johnsen could respond, Stam heard somebody else shout, “You’d have to get in line.” He didn’t specify whether the comment came from a United or Bayern player.
Bayern might have scored four times between the 73rd and 84th minute. They created a series of opportunities on the counter-attack, mostly after intercepting weary passes from United players. Schmeichel made good saves from Effenberg and Scholl, who also hit the post with a gorgeous disguised chip from the edge of the box. That came after a swaggering run from deep inside his own half by Basler, who twisted Johnsen inside out on the edge of the area without touching the ball before then giving it to Scholl. As the ball sailed over Schmeichel’s head, his heart sank, because he knew it was in and it was over. Instead it drifted just enough to hit the post and bounce straight back to Schmeichel.
Five minutes later, Jancker hit the bar with an overhead kick from close range. By then Bayern had substituted Matthaus, who had almost nothing left. “After 75 minutes I told the coach I was feeling tired,” he said in FourFourTwo. “I’d been making different runs in midfield than when I’d played sweeper, where I didn’t have to run as much. I didn’t tell the coach that he had to take me off – only that I was tired and if he did want to substitute me, I would agree.”
Most of the United players' legs were going, too, but they were given a bit of impetus by the arrival of Solskjaer in the 81st minute. His reputation as a deadly substitute had been established that season, especially with the injury-time winner in the FA Cup against Liverpool and an absurd four goals in 11 minutes at Nottingham Forest. His irritation that Ferguson had not spoken to him at the break was still in his mind, but so was another half-time team talk 11 days earlier. United were drawing 1-1 in their final league game at home to Spurs, a match they needed to win to regain the title. “Don’t worry lads, keep playing like you are and you’ll get your goal,” said Ferguson. “And if we haven’t scored with 15 minutes to go I’ll just put Ole on.”
Solskjaer wasn’t needed, as Cole scored the winner early in the second half, but his confidence went through the roof and stayed there, even when he was p****d off.
When Solskjaer came on in Barcelona, he attacked the game like a man who’d had a premonition it was going to be his night. His first touch, 22 seconds after coming on, was a good header that forced a decent flying save from Oliver Kahn – the first serious save he’d had to make in the match.
They've gone. We've got them
Whether it was fatigue, nerves, Solskjaer’s introduction, the removal of Matthaus or a combination of all four, the match underwent a character change in the 87th minute. Bayern, who had kept United at arm’s length with almost disdainful ease for most of the game, suddenly fell off a cliff. United created four opportunities in barely 90 seconds. Sheringham’s shot was saved by Kahn after a backheel from Solskjaer; Yorke headed Beckham’s cross too far in front of Sheringham and then missed an excellent chance, miskicking desperately after a low cross from Gary Neville. Finally Kahn danced across his line to make another comfortable save from Solskjaer’s header.
On the bench, Keane turned to the reserve team coach Jimmy Ryan. “They’ve gone,” he said. “We’ve got them.” In his autobiography, Keane elaborated on that observation. “For a team with their reputation Bayern were by now a shambles, as bad as bad can be: they were actually ‘bottling’ it big time.”
A United goal was palpably in the post, but there were only a few minutes for it to arrive. The German television commentator Marcel Reif wasn’t alone in thinking they’d left it too late. "Maybe I shouldn't say this, and I promise never to say it again, ever,” he began. “Football, as Gary Lineker once said, is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win."
Beckham’s impatient foul on Effenberg in the 89th minute allowed Bayern to waste more seconds by replacing Basler with Hasan Salihamidzic. “Basler and Matthaus left the pitch as though they had just collected Oscars,” sniffed Stam, who like approximately 100.00 per cent of Dutch footballers did not hold their German counterparts in the highest regard. “After watching those tossers proclaim themselves as winners I was even more determined to find that extra bit of energy in my cramping legs. I wanted to beat them move than any other opponent I’d faced.”
Jaap Stam in action against Bayern Munich
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Beckham remembers looking to the touchline during that break in play and seeing the European Cup trophy with Bayern ribbons attached to it. Ferguson had made peace with the result and was thinking about what he would say to the press. “I was already composing myself,” he said, “to take defeat with dignity.”
The press had already had their say about him. Most panned him for taking one gamble too many on the biggest night of his life by moving Giggs and Beckham from their natural positions. The story goes that Ferguson later amused himself by getting copies of all the match reports that never saw the light of day because they were desperately rewritten at the end of the game. The view that Ferguson messed up tactically is a little simplistic. There were plenty of times in his career when he tinkered too much but on this occasion he was placed in an invidious position by the absence of Keane and Scholes. “It is fair to say the team shape didn’t work great, but I don’t think the manager could have done much different,” said Neville. “It was just a tired performance by us… As a team we had been sprinting so hard for so long.”
Though Beckham’s crossing was missed, he was easily United’s best attacking player among the starting XI. “I didn’t need a European Cup final to prove to myself that I could play centre midfield at the highest level,” he said, “but it was still great to do it.” He would end the year as runner-up to Rivaldo in both the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year.
There wasn’t such consensus over Giggs’s performance. He was a threat, if an erratic one, and Ferguson heard the left-back Tarnat call for help on a number of occasions. Ferguson argues the strain of repelling Giggs contributed significantly to the fatigue which suddenly overwhelmed Bayern at the end of the match. Giggs doesn’t necessarily agree. “I did as he asked,” said Giggs in the Daily Mail earlier this year. “I kept going at Tarnat but kept losing the ball. To be honest, I was s**t that night.”
Teddy Sheringham celebrates his goal
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Giggs, Butt and Neville were among those who thought the game was up. “I kept looking up at the clock,” said Neville in his Times column. “It was ticking down towards the end of the second half and I just thought that the Germans had gone and done us again.”
But thinking you’ve lost and giving up are two different things entirely. In the 90th minute, as the board went up to show three added minutes, Babbel played a loose pass back towards Linke. He was pressured by Solskjaer into conceding a throw-in on the left wing, at which point Neville sprinted across the field to take a long throw. “I was absolutely knackered,” he said. “I’ve wondered a few times since, ‘Why did I do that? What was I doing running all that way?’ And it’s simple, really: it’s what I’d been taught to do since I was a kid at United. You keep playing, you keep trying, you keep sprinting until the death.”
As Neville gathered himself, the board went up to show there would be three additional minutes. His throw was headed clear towards Beckham, one of the few players on the pitch who still looked fresh. He beat Scholl to the loose ball and then evaded his attempted challenge before playing a good pass to release United’s left-winger: Gary Neville. He was still in position from the throw-in; as he ran towards the ball and prepared to cross with his left foot, every step betrayed a furious concentration not to cock it up. He did enough to keep the ball alive: his low cross hit a Bayern defender, deflected into the area and was put behind by the stretching Effenberg.
With Beckham preparing to take the corner, Schmeichel charged past the halfway line. “Can you f*****g believe him?' said Ferguson to McClaren. This wasn’t on the chalkboard when Ferguson asked his assistant to run through set-pieces before the game. The last time Schmeichel had done something similar, against Arsenal 14 months earlier, he pulled his hamstring trying to get back and missed the European Cup defeat to Monaco three days later. Schmeichel’s gesture was in keeping with Ferguson’s philosophy that United might as well lose 2-0 as 1-0. Perhaps Ferguson’s unimpressed response was because he felt it compromised the dignity with which he wanted to accept defeat.
It was only when Sheringham saw Schmeichel that he realised how little time was left. As Beckham watched Schmeichel galumphing forward, his brain registered two things. The first was all the b*********s he received from Schmeichel as a young player during training if his crosses weren’t up to scratch; the second was that instead of whipping the corner as he usually did, he should float it towards Schmeichel in an attempt to cause maximum havoc.
Teddy Sheringham scores past Oliver Kahn
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Beckham’s corner skimmed off the head of Linke, who was under pressure from Schmeichel, and reached Yorke beyond the far post. He headed it back towards the centre, where the substitute Fink sliced what should have been a routine volleyed clearance straight to Giggs on the edge of the area. Giggs may have been comfortable playing on the right wing, but he was less comfortable on his right foot. He mis-hit a shot to such an extent that it span like a leg-break past Linke and straight to Sheringham. He swivelled to drag the ball into the net from six yards, becoming the first person to score a goal in the European Cup final with his tibialis posterior muscle. Or, as he put it more evocatively in the Times last month, “it was a scruffy scuff off my sock”.
Sheringham’s first instinct was to check whether he had been flagged offside, even though he knew he wasn’t. Bayern were instantly flattened. “I just thought, ‘I can’t do this any more’,” said Babbel in the Sunday Times. “It wasn’t the body saying that, it was the mind. Something faded in me, in the whole team. The truth is that right then, at that moment, at 1-1, I knew we would lose.”
In the 58 seconds between the equaliser and the kick-off, the United players went through all kinds of emotions. Beckham “felt like crying”; Solskjaer was chuffed because he would get to play another 30 minutes in a European Cup final; a shattered Butt started running round to try to get the blood going in his legs. Sheringham looked up, trying to comprehend the vastness of the stadium, the occasion and what he had just done. As he did so, Schmeichel ran back to his goal. When he got there he started breathing demonstratively in an attempt to focus and get his pulse down. He needn’t have bothered. He’d already had his last touch of the ball as a Manchester United player.
Teddy Sheringham scored five goals in the 1998-99 campaign. It was his least prolific season between 1986 and 2007. He hardly played until April – partly because of injury, partly because of a desperate hangover from a miserable end to the 1997-98 with United and England. When he was picked in a big game, away to Bayern in the group stage, he played very well – and then scored a last-minute own goal while trying to redeem a mistake from Schmeichel. At the start of 1999, with Sheringham’s morale through the floor, Ferguson told him his chance would come at the business end of the season. It did. He started the astonishing FA Cup semi-final replay against Arsenal, making the opening goal for Beckham, and then became an unlikely pillar of the Treble. “Life,” he said after the game, “feels pretty good right now.”
United celebrate Solskjaer's late winner
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McClaren interrupted the celebration of Sheringham’s equaliser to implore Ferguson to restructure the team so that they weren’t so exposed defensively. The short-lived Golden Goal rule was in use, which meant the first goal in extra-time would be the last. “Steve,” said Ferguson. “This game isn’t finished.” He started shouting at the players to get back to the halfway line so that the game could resume as quickly as possible.
There were 26 seconds between Bayern kicking off and Solskjaer winning a corner for United. Beckham ran across to take it, again struggling to make room because the photographers were so close to the pitch. This time there was no Schmeichel, so he whipped an inswinger to the near post. Sheringham, who had a free run, thought he was going to score again. He jumped a fraction too early, however, and knew he would not be able to steer a header at goal. In a split-second he went to plan B: hang in the air for as long as possible and divert the ball across the six-yard box.
When Sheringham flicked the ball on, Stam at the far post thought he was about to score the winner. Instead Solskjaer instinctively stabbed the ball into the net from a few yards. It was a tap-in in name, but not in nature; this was an unusual and deceptively brilliant finish, because the only place he could score was the roof of the net. “Pure instinct,” he said later. And even purer ecstasy. “I don’t believe it, but it’s happened,” said the commentator Alan Green on Radio Five Live. Belief was the word of the night: United’s in the face of apparently inevitable defeat, and the disbelief of those who were watching. “Unbelievable,” said Terry Venables on ITV. “That word is used too frequently, too easily, but that was unbelievable.”
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer watches his shot fly into the net
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Solskjaer’s first thought, like Sheringham, was that he might be offside. He wasn’t – there were two men on the line – but the only person in his peripheral version was his marker Kuffour. As the corner was taken, Kuffour had a firm grip of Solskjaer’s shirt in the six-yard box. Then Kahn shoved Kuffour out of his personal space. Had he not done so, Sheringham’s header would have been cleared by Kuffour. Instead it unwittingly created a gap for Sheringham’s header to reach Solskjaer.
Cole missed what happened, his view obstructed by the spring of anticipation from the bench. Phil Neville was celebrating even before the goal was scored, and led a charge of the United bench, straight down the touchline to jump around with the other players. “The celebrations begun by that goal,” said Ferguson, “will never stop.”
Once he knew he wasn’t offside, Solskjaer mimicked the knee-slide with which Basler had celebrated earlier in the match. It’s sometimes suggested that Solskjaer’s celebration was the root cause of the knee injury that kept him out for almost three years in the mid-2000s, but that’s a myth. He did however strain ligaments and miss a couple games from Norway that summer. “It was worth it.”
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer celebrates his goal
Image credit: Getty Images
It was rare to see Solskjaer celebrate a goal with such abandon. His attitude to finishing never really changed: it was his job, he was good at it, and to go wild when he scored would be like a postman celebrating delivering the mail. When Solskjaer signed for United in 1996, Ferguson told him he would spend six months in the reserves to acclimatise to English football. But he was so good in training that Ferguson put him on the bench for the third league game of the season, when he came off the bench for his debut to slam a late equaliser against Blackburn. The speed of Solskjaer’s progress, and the savage precision of his finishing, took everybody by surprise – except himself.
“I’m a humble lad,” he said in an MUTV interview in 2018, “but I don’t think there’s any better finisher than me, still.” The most impressive things about Solskjaer’s finishing were the context of his goals, the range – any distance or angle, any of the three main body parts – and the sheer expertise. Most of his finishes, as his team-mate Jordi Cruyff observed in Glory Glory!, looked like they had been calculated by a computer. “I never really tensed up when I got chances,” said Solskjaer. “For me there’s no such thing as a great save, it’s just a bad finish.”
Solskjaer prided himself on the intensity and authenticity of his finishing practice. “In training, even though it looks stupid sometimes, I always do things at match pace,” he told the Manchester United Opus. “[If] you take one, two, three, four, five touches, fanny about and score a goal… there’s no point. Do it as if it’s a game. Do things at match pace.”
Do it as if it’s the last minute of the European Cup final.
When United beat Ipswich 4-0 in September 2001, Solskjaer sliced a cross into the net from a tight angle. He could easily have claimed that he meant it, and he had scored enough unique goals in the past to make that a credible scenario. Instead he walked off with an air of mild disgust.
I wasn’t as nice on the pitch as I am off it
The secret to Solskjaer’s popularity, apart from his innate decency, is his ability to combine qualities which, if not quite mutually exclusive, are hard for most human beings to synchronise. He’s friendly and upbeat, yet nobody’s fool. He’s modest yet charismatic. And he’s a nice guy with an edge. Would you clap in Stuart Pearce’s face after he scored an own goal, as Solskjaer did in 2001?
“I had the eye of the tiger,” he said. “I wasn’t as nice on the pitch as I am off it.” It’s sometimes forgotten that it was Solskjaer who effectively ended Beckham’s career at Old Trafford by developing into a high-class right-winger – an excellent crosser, if not in Beckham’s class, and a Thomas Muller-style space invader who provided a superior goal threat. It was especially cruel that, at the start of the 2003-04 season, when he was finally a regular, Solskjaer suffered the knee injury that kept him out for the best part of three years.
The Bayern goal did not earn Solskjaer the adoration of United fans; it validated what they had seen for the previous two and a half years. There’s an innate humility in Scandinavian culture, and Solskjaer says he felt a connection with Manchester people. “We don’t think we’re something we’re not, we just want to work hard,” he said. “I feel Mancunians are mentally strong.” He loved being at United, even if it meant being an irregular starter, and turned down a £5.5m move to Spurs in August 1998 when he heard it was the board, rather than Ferguson, who had sanctioned the deal.
Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer celebrate the win
Image credit: Getty Images
He started United’s first Champions League group game a month later, the 3-3 draw at home to Barcelona, but between that and the final he made only two substitute appearances in the competition, both against Brondby. When United played Bayern at home in the group stage in December, he wasn’t even on the bench. “I felt important anyway because I played in the FA Cup and League,” he said. “ I scored quite a few goals that season.”
Solskjaer gets all the credit for scoring the winner against Bayern, yet he deserves more praise for changing the mood of the game. It feels like a statement of the bleedin’ obvious to say a player should attack the game when they come on and their team is losing, yet there are millions of examples of a match passing a substitute by, no matter how willing they may be. Solskjaer studied opposing defences from the bench and developed the ability to blend seamlessly into the match.
He was involved seven times against Bayern, and six of those were impactful. There were two headers at goal and a backheel to create another chance for Sheringham; he pressured Linke to concede the throw-in that ultimately led to the first goal; he won a corner straight after the equaliser; and then he gave all Manchester United fans the greatest moment of their sport-watching lives.
“I do believe some subjects simply cannot be encapsulated in words,” wrote Richard Kurt in United! Despatches from Old Trafford. “The seconds before you touch a new lover for the first time, the harmonies on ‘Pet Sounds’, the sight of 600 United ‘boys’ steaming through a cordon… and now you can add Solskjaer’s goal.”
9. Football, bloody hell
Pierluigi Collina tries to lift Samuel Kuffour to his feet
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Many of the Bayern players didn’t even want to kick off. The referee Pierluigi Collina went round trying to persuade them to get off the floor, literally if not metaphorically. He started to lift the devastated Kuffour, who then flopped back to the ground. When the game did resume there was time for one last long ball forward, a clearance from Butt and then three deliciously theatrical peeps on the whistle from Collina.
It’s hard to believe that, in the entire history of association football, there have ever been such extremes of collective emotion as there were in that moment. Bayern were hit by the sort of raw trauma that makes a mockery of the word ‘sport’, while a number of United players collapsed on the floor in a combination of exhaustion, exhilaration, confusion and gratitude. Giggs fell on his front and wept on a football field for the only time in his career. “I’ve never known anything like the emotion that spilled out in that moment,” he said, “and I never will again.”
Gary Neville collapsed on his back for the second time in a minute. He had done so when Solskjaer scored, because he was too exhausted to run half the length of the field. “That’s an out-of-body experience, that,” said Neville of the final whistle. His fatigue was particularly understandable; he was the only United player to start each of the last 10 games of the season. In all, he started the last 28.
There was one exception to the widespread fatigue. Beckham just kept running, all the way down the other end of the field to the United fans. “I don’t know if I’ll experience moments, or see celebrations, quite like those ever again," he said. Everybody recognised straight away that this was seismic stuff, and not only because of the fury with which a devastated Kuffour was pounding the ground.
I can’t believe it I can’t believe it
In the last 20 years, million of words have been spoken and written in an attempt to contextualise the miracle of Barcelona. None have done it as much justice as the three that came out of Alex Ferguson’s mouth when he spoke to ITV’s Garry Newbon less than two minutes after the final whistle. “I can’t believe it I can’t believe it. Football, bloody hell. But they never give in – and that’s what won it. I’m so proud of them.”
There is a lovely moment just before that interview, a split second when a frazzled Ferguson inhales extravagantly in an attempt to compose himself. Everybody knew what it meant for him. “Europe had become a personal crusade,” he said in The Unique Treble. “I knew I would never be judged a great manager until I won the European Cup.”
Sir Alex Ferguson leads the celebrations
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He always thought he would win it one day. But not as part of a Treble, and not with two goals in injury time at the end of a season full of epic matches, death-defying comebacks, unbelievable drama and exhilarating football. Ferguson’s managerial career was complete. He won another 15 major trophies after that.
Throughout the 1990s, as United took a crash course in European football, Ferguson spoke with wonder about the suddenness of opposition attacks, how sophisticated teams like Barcelona could kill you with a Hitchcockian thrust of the dagger. It was quite a twist on that theme for his side to then score twice in 101 seconds to win the European Cup.
This was the summit of unreality
That’s how long there was between Sheringham and Solskjaer’s goals – and the ball was in play for only 28 of those. Two goals in 28 seconds of playing time: there has never been such a sudden, savage twist in a game of such importance. Rinus Michels, the godfather of Total Football, was asked afterwards if he had seen anything comparable. "Of course," he said. “In my dreams. This was the summit of unreality. Neither I nor any person involved in this extraordinary game have ever, or will ever see such a finish."
It was a short enough period for one fan to enter London’s Blackwall Tunnel with United 1-0 down and emerge when they were 2-1 up, though quite what he was doing entering a tunnel at that moment in time is another matter. It was a short enough period, so legend has it, for various dignitaries including Lennart Johansson, Gerhard Aigner and Franz Beckenbauer to miss both goals after entering the lift in the bowels of Nou Camp to go down for the presentation.
George Best also missed the ending, having left the stadium with a couple of minutes remaining. Eric Cantona, who lived in Barcelona at the time, couldn’t even get into the stadium after walking into the wrong jobsworth before the game.
10. A triumph in Ferguson's image
The Bayern players can only watch as United lift the trophy
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“Tonight it was not the best team that won, but the luckiest,” said Matthaus after the game. “It’s bitter, sad and unbelievable.”
The match is a rare example of history being written by the losers – not just Bayern, but the millions of supporters of Liverpool, Manchester City, Leeds, Arsenal and the rest – and the neutrals. The legend of the 1999 Champions League final is that Manchester United fell over their own feet for 90 minutes and then scored twice. “I’ve never wasted a second worrying about our performance in the first 88 minutes,” said Neville in Red, his autobiography. The United players all felt the same, and will happily point any naysayers in the direction of the final score: Expected Goals 0-3 Actual Trophies.
Ferguson saw things differently. He said “Bayern tried to back into the winners’ enclosure” by killing the game when they went ahead. “Some of the stuff written about how Bayern outplayed us was weird. So were many of the assessments of Beckham and Giggs. Beckham was the star of the midfield show and Giggs worried them plenty.” It wasn’t an exclusively Fergusonian viewpoint. On ITV’s coverage, Ruud Gullit said, not entirely without relish, that Bayern’s approach was “absolutely c**p”, while in The Sun Jimmy Greaves took a similar line. “This was not just a triumph for Manchester United but for football in general. It was a triumph of good over evil.”
It wasn't an accident
It would absurd to suggest that United were not fortunate. Bayern had the better chances – by far the better chances – and Sheringham’s equalising goal could have been sped up and accompanied by the Benny Hill theme. But there’s no point receiving luck if you don’t know how to ride it, and the way United won the game was entirely consistent with the personality and achievements of that particular team. "It wasn't an accident," said Ferguson to UEFA in 2015. “That team did it so many times that season. They had a fantastic desire to win and a great team spirit.” They came from behind to win or draw 17 matches in the Treble season; to prove it wasn’t a fluke, they did it 16 times in 1999-2000.
There was an almost identical victory four months before Bayern, when they came from 1-0 down to beat Liverpool 2-1 in the FA Cup, with Yorke scoring in the 88th minute and Solskjaer striking an injury-time winner. It was, Ferguson said later, “the first sign we might be on a momentous roll”, and United’s ability to score late goals started to gather the power of a judicial precedent.
To those on the inside, United’s modest performance against Bayern enhanced rather than diminished their legend, because it revealed the depth of their collective character. It was the ultimate triumph of the human spirit.
A lot was made of Ferguson’s half-time team talk, when he told the players they would not be able to touch the European Cup if they did not win. It was a lovely line – but it had very little to do with the result. Gary Neville can’t even remember Ferguson saying it, though others confirmed he did. There was no sudden epiphany for the team. The comeback was because of the culture that Ferguson had meticulously created over 13 years at the club – a culture in which standards of excellence and especially hard work were non-negotiable and where, in Ferguson’s words, “the only time to give up is when you die”.
It's often said that great sports coaches deal in the 1 percenters that give their team an advantage. In reality, they are more like 0.0001 percenters. There were hundreds of thousands of infinitesimal actions from Ferguson, spread over a number of years, which culminated in the Treble. The aside about Solskjaer in the dressing-room 10 days earlier; advising Ryan Giggs, two days before the FA Cup semi-final replay against Arsenal, to run with the ball more because it scared the life out of defenders; his judicious use of the hairdryer and what he calls the two most powerful words in the English language, “well done”. It all adds up.
Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
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Ferguson wasn’t perfect, but he got more right than anyone else. He made the players better than the sum of their parts and the team better than the sum of its parts. And his players were devoted to him. “Ultimately, this was his achievement,” said Keane, who at that stage was effectively Ferguson’s player-assistant-manager. “I could easily lay aside my personal disappointment at missing the final, for in truth it was an honour to captain the team that delivered for a great manager and a great club.”
Solskjaer cherishes a picture of him and Ferguson, taken in the dressing-room after the game. “I will always remember thinking at that moment: ‘You deserve this – you deserve so much to win the Champions League’. We did it for him, as a manager. You almost well up when you think about it. He was that kind of manager.”
My whole approach to life could be boiled down to 101 seconds of injury time
Even Ferguson, who had started to accept defeat, didn’t quite realise the power of the culture he had created. But he knew exactly what he had created – a football team that doubled up as a mirror. “If I had to pick drive or talent as the most potent fuel, it would be the former,” he said in Leading. “To me drive means a combination of a willingness to work hard, emotional fortitude, enormous powers of concentration and a refusal to admit defeat.”
For Ferguson, adversity was the greatest opportunity: to prove people wrong, to shut them up, to demonstrate how good he was. “My whole approach to life,” said Ferguson, “could be boiled down to 101 seconds of injury time.”
That approach came less from a love of success and more from a fear and hatred of failure. "I hope that part of the result of that is that 20 years from now, when they talk about the chief characteristic of this particular team, they will always be remembered for their last-minute goals, for never giving in.”
And for keeping their nerve. One of the reasons United were so successful at the end of a match is that they really panicked. They would gamble by pushing more men forward but they rarely altered their way of playing. In the very first Premier League match, as United unsuccessfully chased an equaliser at Sheffield United, Ferguson was shown shouting a message to Denis Irwin. “Denis! Denis! Keep playing football.”
Ferguson helped his players realise the stresses and strains – physical and especially mental – that the opposition suffered when defending for their life against United. And the whole thing perpetuated itself.
11. Recrimination and celebration
Lothar Matthaus walks past the trophy
Image credit: Eurosport
Jaap Stam said Matthaus and Basler left the field like they had just collected Oscars when being substituted. The Bayern coach, Ottmar Hitzfeld, deserved one for his acting performance after the game. He took the defeat with remarkable grace, betraying not a flicker of anger or bitterness. “It could take days or even weeks to recover from this,” he said, “but I must say that Manchester are great champions.”
His players couldn’t or didn’t bother trying to hide their feelings. When Matthaus received his losers’ medal, he took it off immediately. Basler didn’t even want a medal – he walked straight down the tunnel and had nothing to do with the presentation. “I cannot find the words,” said Effenberg, possibly for the first time in his life. “I find it hard to describe. Can football really be so brutal?”
The players who took it hardest were Jancker, who wept uncontrollably on the field and was physically sick when he saw the goals on TV later that night, and Kuffour, who provided one of the defining images of the match when he slammed his fist repeatedly into the ground. Scholl, the substitute who almost won it for Bayern, cracked when he reached the door of the team coach. He put his hands over his face and started to shout. “S**t, this is unbelievable! This is unbelievable! I should have won this!”
A few journalists approached Scholl, who elaborated on his frustration at not scoring a second goal. As he did so, Kahn ran down the steps and shoved the journalists away. “How can you do this?” he said to Scholl as he bundled him onto the coach. Scholl was later fined after saying Matthaus “always goes off when it gets tight”, as was the unused substitute Thomas Helmer for unfurling the middle finger of both hands after the game. He presented them in the general direction of the crowd; it was quite a coincidence that Hitzfeld happened to be walking past at that precise moment.
Effenberg eventually found the vocabulary to call Matthaus a “quitter”. Few people knew what it was like to play in a European Cup final at the age of 38, and Effenberg and Scholl never found out. Effenberg last played in Qatar at the age of 35; by the time Scholl was 38, he had retired and was coaching Bayern’s Under-13s.
A distraught Samuel Kuffour after the final whistle
Image credit: Eurosport
No tale of a German defeat would be complete without the word ‘schadenfreude’. There was plenty going around the United team, especially among those who had been irked by Bayern’s showboating. Stam saw some Bayern players looking at the trophy as they walked past it. “Great,” he thought. “Have a good look but don’t touch it. It doesn’t belong to you.” There was a bit of sympathy for Bayern from the man who inserted the dagger. "To lose in that way must be terrible," said Solskjaer. "To win it that way is that much better."
The European Cup final of 1999 produced two miracles: United’s victory, and Bayern’s response. Most teams would have suffered irreparable psychological damage. Two days after the final, Hitzfeld gave the longest speech of his career. The gist, in his words, was: 'There are two possibilities now. Either we can drown ourselves in our own private grief or we can show how we react.'
They lost that season’s German Cup final on penalties but within two years they experienced the purest catharsis. They won the European Cup in 2000-01, dismissing a fading United with ease along the way. Most of the players from 1999 were involved when they beat Valencia in the final – but not Matthaus, who is one of the greatest players never to win the European Cup. And not Basler, who was sold to Kaiserslautern a few months later after one indiscretion too many. He was involved in a fracas in restaurant, which reportedly started when Basler took offence because somebody tried to take a photo of him. While he was sitting in a chair, which was on a table, with a bottle of wine balancing on his head.
Manchester United celebrate their win at the Nou Camp
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The hour after the match, when United stayed on the pitch to celebrate first with each other and then the supporters, has stayed with every player. Many of them, including Stam and Cole, made a point of taking a step back to try to take it all in, and to register unique images in their mind’s eye. David May didn’t worry about any of that. “I saw the trophy on a chair and thought, ‘I’m having that’,” he said in Glory Glory! “So I picked it up and the rest is history, I ended up in half the pictures.”
Schmeichel, captain for the night in the absence of Keane, asked Ferguson to lift the trophy with him. The height difference made for a slightly awkward trophy share, but neither man was letting go of it in a hurry.
Over the next hour they individually raised the trophy to the United supporters. May acted as master of ceremonies, ssshing the crowd before each player took their turn. One of the loudest cheers of the whole night came when Keane and Scholes reluctantly walked through a guard of honour. To this day, Keane says he did not win the European Cup in 1999. “No matter how many people tell me I deserve that Champions League medal, I know I don’t. In fact, you could argue that my indiscipline came very close to costing us the treble.”
Paul Scholes and Roy Keane have their chance with the trophy
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The on-field celebrations were the first of three parties. The players returned to the dressing-room, all trying to make sense of what the hell had just happened. Ned Kelly, the security manager, later recalled Ferguson sitting alone in the corner, his head in his hands, staring at the ground. The second party took place at the team hotel, where around 300 people were waiting. The team got back around 2am – most enlivened after quaffing champagne on an empty stomach – and started playing catch-up with their guests. “I could relive that night every other night for the rest of my life,” said May. “Everyone was singing away, everyone was with their families. It was brilliant.”
Cole recalled some hotel staff trying to shut things down at around 3am. “It wasn’t,” he said, “the most diplomatic of discussions.”
Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon and his wife Yasmin tried to get in the party and were refused entry. Even those who hardly ever had a drink, like Beckham, tucked in like students in happy hour. “I am happy to admit,” said Beckham, “that I was totally legless.”
Who would want a night like that to end?
Stam described the drinking as “awesome”. It was also themed. Every player who drank shorts – like Giggs, who was on Jack Daniels throughout – dealt exclusively in trebles. Yorke led a party that went off to explore Barcelona’s nightlife. Gary Neville walked along the port at sunrise with some mates, commiserating with Bayern Munich fans. “Who,” he said, “would want a night like that to end?”
The hotel staff did. They started to wrap things up at around 6am because they needed to set the tables for breakfast.
One of the guests was Foo Foo Lamarr, a drag artist from Manchester who was friends with some of the players’ parents. When he was asked to go on stage to give a speech, he was heckled by James Edwards, son of the chairman Martin. Giggs’ mum raised a polite objection and was told to shut up. Giggs, in his words, “went berserk”. He took a swing at Edwards, but by then he had treble vision: he missed, hit a chair and fell over. Giggs and Edwards ended up on the floor, flailing at each other, before others broke the fight up. While Giggs was being restrained, he felt his nose crunch. He had broken it against Internazionale earlier in the season, and it started haemorrhaging blood.
Daniel Gomez, who was in charge of security outside the hotel to stop gatecrashers, was surprised to be called inside. “When I got there, I saw Ryan Giggs. He had a bloody nose, but was very calm. He was sat down with a very fat man looking after him. There was another man there too. He was angry. We escorted him from the hotel. We didn't call the police, because they had enough on their hands controlling the fans.”
David Beckham kisses the Champions League trophy
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Giggs got to his room around 8am and decided to rest his head for half an hour. He was woken up by thumping on his door two hours later – it was Albert Morgan, the kit man, telling him he was late for the coach. Giggs stirred with a broken nose and “as bad a hangover as I’ve ever had”, and soon found out that the man he’d be fighting was the son of the United chairman. “I thought he was an ordinary punter.”
A few days later the story reached the tabloids, who doorstepped Martin Edwards for comment. “I can’t,” he said. “I’m late for my squash match.”
Some of the players postponed their hangovers over breakfast and then on the flight home. As the plane approached Manchester, Keane was asked by the United secretary Ken Ramsden to lead the team off the plane, carrying the European Cup. It wasn’t the most productive conversation. Instead, Schmeichel led United off the plane.
A parade around Manchester was the end of the celebrations. On the Thursday night, less than 24 hours after those 101 seconds, the players went their separate ways. In those days there were no WhatsApp groups or any AOL-based equivalent, so that was the last most saw of each other until David Beckham’s wedding six weeks later.
After the most exhausting four months of his life, McClaren was also ready to go on holiday – until Ferguson called him in and the rest of the staff in at 9am the next day to plan for the following season.
12. Oh what a Knight
Sir Alex Ferguson shows off the Champions League trophy
Image credit: Getty Images
Before the Champions League final, Alex Ferguson was 50-1 to be knighted. Two days later, he was 2-1. The Sun gathered all kinds of celebrity support for the idea of Sir Alex: it came from Emma Bunton, Shaznay Lewis of All Saints, Mike Baldwin, Ronan Keating, Caprice, Chris Evans and Zoe Ball. On 12 June, he was he was included in the Queen’s birthday honours.
During that hazy summer, it was assumed a young United team would win multiple European Cups. "We have a great team spirit,” said Butt. “We're young, so hopefully we can dominate for the next 10 years. We've got to try and make that happen. We must not be one-year wonders."
But they were, at least in Europe. They won only one knockout game in the next seven seasons; and although they won the league title by a mile in the next two seasons, they eventually lost their domestic aura as well. There are various reasons for that, including the inability of some players to deal with the subconscious realisation that they could never top the high of Barcelona. How do you go again after something like that? Where do you go from the summit of Everest?
Dwight Yorke knew where he wanted to go. He was only half joking when he asked Ferguson if he could take a year off to “get over” what he and United had achieved. “He wanted to go round the world celebrating,” said David May in the Undr the Cosh podcast. May didn’t seem to be joking, and Yorke also mentions it in his autobiography. Either way, he didn’t get over it; he was never the same player again.
Dwight Yorke leads the celebrations
Image credit: Getty Images
United didn’t become serial European champions, but they did leave a legacy. The Treble has since been done in Italy, Germany and Spain, but no side in any country has won it quite like United, and it’s hard to imagine they ever will. Hugh McIlvanney’s words, written in the Sunday Times four days after the final, are as true now as they were then. “With Manchester United, it is never over until the Fat Lady has a heart attack. Wherever the current representatives of Old Trafford stand in the all-time league table of great football teams, they yield to nobody as producers of drama.”
In the Promised Land, his definitive book of United’s 1998-99 campaign, Daniel Harris puts the case for United’s Treble being the greatest season of all. “It’s not the success that’s truly special, but the glory,” he says. “1998–99 featured every single aspect that could possibly be desired of any season, and there’s never been another remotely like it. Astounding, varied games, featuring kickings, robberies, comebacks and thrillers, amazing goals, exceptional competition, absurd characters, elephantine testicles and staggering plot twists. Or, put another way, it encompassed so much of what makes United, sport and life so compelling.”
English football was more democratic back then, which meant United had to fight for everything. From the famous January FA Cup tie against Liverpool onwards, they played 43 hours of football spread across 28 matches. And during those 2580 minutes, they were almost always living on their nerves. Only 318 minutes were spent with a cushion of more than one goal - and over a third of those minutes came in the fraught Champions League tie against Internazionale, when a two-goal lead felt anything but secure.
United could only truly relax, with a cushion of at least three goals, for 67 minutes out of 43 hours. They had to go to the well again and again and again, and that was just in January and February. “It was the fighting spirit that won us the Treble,” said Gary Neville. “It wouldn’t have been half the story if we’d thrashed Bayern 3-0.”