It is 18 years ago to the day since Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored twice in injury time to win United the Champions League against Bayern Munich and with it completing an unprecedented Treble.
You go through certain moments in your life when you can remember exactly where you were when you first heard of a news event that shook the world.
I can remember being in total shock when news emerged that Ayrton Senna had died at Imola. I can remember where I was when Princess Diana died and the same when the Twin Towers were attacked on September 11th.
United winning the Champions League in such dramatic circumstances isn’t exactly on a par with the above tragedies, but the significance of that night had a profound effect on me as a football fan. I didn’t know it at the time, but the emotional joy of that victory has not come close to being felt since. Not in sporting terms anyway.
The Champions League became something of a Holy Grail for me as a football fan when I was younger. My first memories of European competition was the Cup Winner’s Cup campaign that took us to glory in Rotterdam in ’91 against Barcelona. I always liked that competition and was sad to see it go when it did.
Carlos Valderrama’s barnett in the Quarter-Final, the relative unknown of Legia Warsaw in the Semis and then Mark Hughes’ incredible winner in the Final. I was hooked from then on.
Though we dominated the domestic scene throughout the 90s, we never quite got to grips with The Champions League until the latter part of the decade. It seems strange when you look back to the days when you were only allowed a quota of foreign players for those games. I remember watching in awe as a patched up United were humbled in the Nou Camp by a Romario-inspired Barcelona.
After Semi-Final and Quarter-Final exits in 1997 and 1998, United were handed the proverbial “Group of Death” for the 1998/99 season. In the days when only the group winners were guaranteed a passage into the Knockout Stage, Fergie’s men would qualify as the second-best runner up from the Group Stage, winning just two of their six games – both against whipping boys Brondby.
I would imagine you would get some pretty decent odds on home and away 3-3 draws with Barcelona today. I can recall Rivaldo being absolutely outstanding at the Nou Camp, but United also scored some great goals in two memorable encounters.
We negotiated our way past Inter Milan before setting up a titanic Semi-Final with Juventus. The Old Lady had been something of a nemesis for us during the 90’s. Our 3-2 win at Old Trafford in the 97/98 season was another one of those famous European nights, but following a 1st leg 1-1 draw, we would need to win in Turin to progress to The Champions League Final for the first time.
It wasn’t looking promising as we found ourselves 2-0 down early on. The Roy Keane=inspired come back still remains one of the greatest turn around’s in Champions League history for my money. It had been a long road, but we were heading to the Nou Camp again for a showpiece with the Germans Bayern Munich.
With United having already completed two legs of the potential Treble, the stage was set to end a long wait for European glory. Things didn’t start well with Mario Basler wrong-footing Schmeichel with a cleverly disguised free-kick from the edge of the penalty area.
We just never got going and in all honesty, Bayern should have put the game to bed with some guilt-edge opportunities striking the woodwork in the second half. I was desperate for us to do ourselves justice on the big stage. All the heartache in the previous seasons, learning how to play against the best sides in Europe had led to this moment, but it just wasn’t happening for us.
I felt myself get more and more disconsolate with every minute that passed. As the clock counted down into the last few minutes, I started to cry. I was gutted that we’d got to the Final and not played anywhere near the level we were capable of. I could have taken some comfort if we’d have played well, but had just come up short on the night.
We were on the brink and forced a corner. Clive Tyldesley has made a living on his commentary from injury time in the ’99 Champions League Final. He gets on my nerves the majority of the time these days! However, no matter how many times I watch it, I still get the same shiver down my spine, the same tingles of emotion when I hear “UNITED NEED TO SCORE, THEY ALWAYS SCORE…” and seconds later “SHERINGHAM!!! NAME ON THE TROPHY!!” The joy, the relief, the emotion – it was nothing I had ever experienced and probably never will again. I was in such a state – I still couldn’t stop crying like a baby!!
United forced another corner. “BECKHAM, SHERINGHAM AND SOLSKJAER HAS WON IT!!” you just could not write it!! Me, my brother and my Dad embraced and jumped up and down in absolute delirium as the winner went in. It was a special moment that will be with me forever. I remember burying my head in the sofa – still crying – my Dad and my brother had no idea why! I had no idea why, but we were part of a moment in time that already 18 years on, doesn’t seem like it could ever happen again.
I know it might seem a strange thing to say, but part of my love and passion for the professional game died that night. The Champions League was always that competition that created special moments, but now we had won it, it felt like there was nothing else left to win. It was like playing a computer game for so long without quite being able to defeat the Boss at the end of it, but now we had, that was it – where can we go from here?
That is why you have to admire the likes of Ryan Giggs who kept coming back year after year with the same hunger and desire to win the same prize over and over again. As a United supporter, I became accustomed to the regularity of the league championship wins and even when we lifted the Champions League again in 2008, that joy and satisfaction was never quite the same.
Maybe the circumstances in which 1999 unfolded made it the special night it was. Maybe it was because it was the first European Cup won in my lifetime. Maybe as I’ve got older and had kids, other priorities have made Football less significant. I cannot put my finger on exactly what it is, but it will take something of stratospheric proportions to beat the feeling felt on that great night.
I felt a bit like Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch. You wait so long for something that when that moment finally arrives, nothing ever feels quite the same again…