90th minute… Losing 1-0. 92nd minute… Winning 2-1.
Wednesday 26 May, 1999 may have been one of the greatest nights of my life. Not just in sporting terms but in y’know, “general living” terms… On the eve of Manchester United’s third Champions League final in four years I’m thinking about that night a lot.
In 1999 I was 14 and had spent the last 7 or 8 years devouring Manchester United history. I knew the significance of the 1968 European Cup final, and what it meant for Sir Matt Busby to win the European Cup just 10 years after having one of the most promising teams in footballing history ripped apart by the Munich air disaster.
While seeing the blurry black and white VHS footage of Georgey Best leaving the Benfica goalkeeper José Henrique for dead (and yes it is still as good as I remember) to put United 2-1 up four minutes into extra time felt pretty special but that wasn’t my team, it just felt like watching icons from another era.
In April 1999, when Alex Ferguson got his Manchester United team into a European cup final at the fifth time of asking, it felt like a dream. When they came so close in 1997 only to lose out to Borussia Dortmund in the semi-finals, I thought maybe he’s just never going to make it. After the 1985 Heysel disaster which prevented English sides from taking place in European football for five years, the competition was dominated by great sides like AC Milan, Barcelona and Juventus. But for some reason I felt that once we could actually make it to a final we’d had a real chance whoever the opposition was.
You’ll have to forgive the optimism, but the 1999 season had been a little special. We saw Ryan Giggs’ greatest ever goal (he did take some clothes off but it was nothing to do with conquering that bird from Big Brother) which helped achieve a domestic double for the third time that decade. But United’s route to the European Cup final was far from routine.
United went a goal down away to Juventus in the second leg of their semi-final and would need three goals to progress. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
In one of the most forceful and selfless performances I’ve ever seen from a footballer, Roy Keane dragged his side back into the game with a headed goal, coming just moments after he himself had been ruled out of any potential final. Most players would have lost their mojo or started crying, but Keano was made of different stuff back in those days. United went on to win the game 3-2 booking their first European Cup final in 31 years.
But… after only 6 minutes, disaster struck. Mario Basler curled in a free-kick to put Bayern a goal up. [click the image for BBC's gloomy half-time report. Oh and nice website guys!]
I have both distinct and horribly jaded memories of the next hour and a half as the clock began to count down with Bayern holding on to their 1-0 lead. In those days we watched big United games as a family, or should I say the football-loving side of the family watched them!
This doesn’t include my Dad (evidently a true republican, no foreign sports for him! though he’s known to enjoy the odd penalty shoot-out) or my oldest sister Carol (she’s now a rugby-convert which is a start I guess). Instead my die-hard-red mum, middle-child-syndrome-sufferer-now-city-scum Linda, baby-of-the-clan-spurs-sympathiser Dawn and I sat nibbling away on the fingernails as waited for the inevitable United equaliser. And yet, as the clock ticked down to the regulation 90 minute mark while the UEFA officials began to fit the German team’s ribbons to the big-eared cup, doubts set in.
And then… a corner. Beckham trots down to the corner, the 50,000 United fans in the Nou Camp and the four United fans in Glenard began to feel a little hope. Maybe things weren’t over just yet.
And I guess the rest, as they say, is history.
sidenote 1: I also have some pretty great memories of the 2008 European Cup final. Parnell Street’s Wool shed. Ronaldo’s leap. Van der Sar putting off Anelka. John Terry’s arrogance and poor choice of studs combining brilliantly to knock him to the ground and send his penalty wide. Hargreaves’ trying to pay off ever penny of his £17m transfer fee. Andrew Corr and the 4 other Chelsea fans weeping together. The midnight Moscow rain. Abramovich looking dumbfounded. And Bobby Charlton lifting the cup in tribute to the 1958 team.
sidenote 2: I have done my best to blank out the 2009 final (though i enjoyed the co-commentator in this package, what a Paddy) . Most disappointing performance I’ve ever watched. In fact I prefer to think it never happened!
sidenote 3: United CAN beat Barcelona tomorrow/today (depending on your time zone). Despite what every single journalist and pundit says, they are not infallible. If United play the way they did in the first half against Chelsea earlier this month they can take home their 4th big eared cup. But the game is in Wembley where they buckled against a smelly Man City side last month so who knows which Man Utd side will show up. Can’t wait to find out! And so if it took United 31 years to win their second trophy, and 9 years to win the next, the length in between wins is sequentially decreasingly roughly by thirds (like a half-life, but a third-life), so… 9 divided by 3 is 3 (21, 9 , 3). 2008 + 3 = 2011! Victory is certain. Mathematics has told me so.