As a Manchester United fan I am looking forward to their meeting with Barcelona in the Champions League Final tomorrow. Ten years ago today, in Barcelona, United dramatically won the Champions League. Good reason to post the following, written for my book "Europe United".
Manchester United and Bayern Munich met in the Final at Barcelona’s Nou Camp Stadium, before a crowd of 90,245, on May 26 1999. Ironically both Finalists had only been runners-up in their domestic leagues the previous season. After progressing through the qualifiers, they had met in the group stage of this season’s European Cup, and drawn both of their matches. Both clubs were forced to field a weakened team for the Final. Bayern were without Bixente Lizarazu, a Frenchman, and Giovane Elber, a Brazilian, each of whom were carrying long-term injuries. United lacked Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, combative midfielders who were both suspended due to bookings picked up against Juventus. Keane’s role as captain was filled by Peter Schmeichel, the goalkeeper, who was making his final appearance for the club. United were managed by Alex Ferguson, who had been captivated by the European Cup when he attended Real Madrid’s 7-3 win against Eintracht Frankfurt, in his native Glasgow, as an eighteen year-old, back in 1960. Now Ferguson had the chance to win the competition, and emulate Matt Busby, a fellow Scotsman, who had led United to victory in 1968, on their only previous appearance in a European Cup Final. Bayern Munich’s coach was Ottmar Hitzfeld, who had led Borussia Dortmund to victory in the 1997 European Cup Final – after they had beaten Manchester United in the Semi Final. This was Bayern Munich’s sixth Final – the hat trick of wins in the mid-1970s being followed by defeats against Aston Villa, in 1982, and Porto, in 1987. The 1999 Final was being played on the anniversary of Bayern’s defeat against Aston Villa. The referee, Pierluigi Collina, became the first Italian to control a European Cup Final since 1991, with this being the first such contest since then that did not feature an Italian club. On the other hand, May 1999 had already seen Parma win the UEFA Cup, and Lazio become the last ever winners of the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. Collina was one of the world’s most recognisable referees, with his bald head, bulging eyes, and authoritative manner.
This match was one of the most dramatic Finals in the history of the competition. Bayern Munich struck first, with Mario Basler scoring from a free kick – wrong-footing Schmeichel – after five minutes. Despite this setback, United remained calm, had most of the possession during the remainder of the first half, and created the better goalscoring chances. Dwight Yorke went close to scoring on twenty minutes, and United threatened twice in the last five minutes of the half – firstly with a free kick from David Beckham, and then with a clever passing move that ended with Oliver Kahn, the Bayern goalkeeper, diving at the feet of Ryan Giggs.
Bayern nearly doubled their lead within two minutes of the restart, as Carsten Jancker made a powerful run into the United penalty area, followed by a shot from a narrow angle, which Schmeichel did well to push wide of the goal. Eight minutes later Manchester United in turn threatened, as a cross from Ryan Giggs on the right found Jesper Blomqvist, only for the latter to shoot over the bar from close range, as Kahn came to challenge him. United continued to enjoy the majority of play, and chances, as the second half progressed, but Bayern’s occasional attacks appeared more threatening. Schmeichel was the busier goalkeeper, and had to make an excellent save to deny Effenburg with seventeen minutes remaining. On seventy nine minutes Basler made a powerful run down the right wing, beating several United players, and then laid the ball off for Mehmet Scholl, whereupon the latter’s chipped shot beat Schmeichel, but hit a post. Five minutes later Bayern hit the woodwork again, with an overhead kick from Jancker striking the crossbar during a goalmouth scramble that followed a corner. In the minutes following this second reprieve, United pushed strongly for an equaliser, but Teddy Sheringham, Yorke, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer each failed to make the most of opportunities to score.
As the end of the scheduled forty five minutes of the second half arrived Bayern Munich still led 1-0. UEFA officials put Bayern’s ribbons on the trophy, but the signal from the fourth official that three minutes of stoppage time were due gave Manchester United hope. During recent years United had scored many winning or equalising goals in the closing minutes of vital matches – indeed they had done so in the second leg of this season’s Quarter Final, and in both legs of their Semi Final. At the start of stoppage time, United moved forward, and won a corner on the left. Schmeichel ran the length of the pitch to join the United attack in the Bayern Munich penalty area, and his presence put pressure on the opposition as David Beckham’s corner flew into the goalmouth. The Bayern defence only half-cleared the corner, with the ball reaching Ryan Giggs just outside the penalty area. Giggs drove the ball back towards the goal, and Sheringham calmly slotted it, on the turn, into the bottom left-hand corner of the net. United had finally scored the equaliser that their determined pressure merited. Having simultaneously avoided immediate defeat and seized the initiative from Bayern Munich, Manchester United sensed the possibility of scoring a further, decisive, goal in stoppage time, rather than enduring the tension of extra time. United attacked again, and Solskjaer won them another corner on the left. Beckham’s delivery was met at the near post by Sheringham, whose glancing header sent the ball across the goalmouth towards Solskjaer, who volleyed it into the top right-hand corner of the net. Schmeichel, who stayed in his own penalty area this time, celebrated the goal with a summersault – a moment memorably captured on television. Moments later Collina blew the final whistle, and Manchester United had suddenly won 2-1, with two goals scored in stoppage time – both by substitutes – after trailing for almost the entire match. The equaliser had been dramatic, but the way in which it was followed by a winning goal was simply sensational.
Manchester United’s players and management began to celebrate their victory almost in a state of disbelief, having faced defeat only a few minutes earlier. Alex Ferguson’s immediate comment to a television interviewer was “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it, football, bloody hell”. The Bayern Munich players reacted with equivalent despair, having lost due to a turnaround even more surprising than the latter part of the 1987 Final. The United players collected their winners’ medals, and the trophy was held aloft by Peter Schmeichel and Alex Ferguson. An excited Schmeichel said afterwards:
Not even Hans-Christian Andersen could have written a fairytale like that. One thing I have learned throughout my time with United is that we never give up, and we proved it tonight. You cannot get higher than this. Tonight is the night for Manchester United and champagne.
The victory was a dream finish to Schmeichel’s eight-year career with United. He had established his reputation as one of the greatest goalkeepers in the world during Denmark’s surprise victory in Euro 92, and been outstanding in the 2-0 win against Germany in the Final. Now he had thwarted the Germans again. Although they rode their luck in the Final, Manchester United were deserving winners of the competition, being unbeaten in their 13 matches, during which they scored 31 goals. They had also completed a unique treble, becoming the first English club to win the domestic championship, FA Cup, and European Cup in the same season. Besides dominating English football during the 1990s, they had been a major force in the European club competitions, winning the Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1991, and showing increasing ability during a series of campaigns in the European Cup. United had now won the European Cup for the first time in thirty one years, an echo of Real Madrid regaining the trophy in 1998 after a thirty two year gap. This Manchester United team had reached even greater heights than their predecessors of 1968. Indeed Manchester United were soon to convert their treble into a quadruple triumph, as on November 30 1999 they beat Palmeiras, of Brazil, 1-0 in Tokyo, with a goal from Roy Keane, to become the first English team to win the World Club Championship. Forty three years after Matt Busby had shown the foresight to lead United into Europe for the first time, they had finally won the silverware to match their claim to be the greatest club in the world.