With Manchester United set to welcome Ligue 1 side St Etienne in their Europa League 1st Knockout Round match, it may well be inevitable for some fans to wonder how and why their team is now in Europe’s second-tier competition, when, just a few years ago, they were playing with Europe’s elite – the Champions League.
Of course, every United fan understands that the Europa League is still a prestigious tournament in its own right. To win it come the end of this season will definitely be a highlight for a club that has seen a dip in fortunes as of late.
Then again, the Champions League is a whole different level altogether. To play in that competition is an exhilarating ride, and to win it is pure bliss.
United would know – they had won it in the most spectacular way possible in 1999.
No football fan could ever forget that faithful day in Barcelona. More than ninety thousand fans had filled the historic Camp Nou to watch the Red Devil’s come face to face on the pitch against Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich.
Many knew the match would not be a goal-fest. After all, two of histories greatest goalkeepers were in attendence. United had Peter Schmeichel, Bayern had Oliver Kahn. Both sides also had near-impenetrable defences. The Red’s had the likes of Gary Neville, Jaap Stam, and Denis Irwin, while Bayern had their icons Lothar Matthaus and Markus Babbel at the back.
The match was not going to be a multiple-goal thriller – it was going to be a war of attrition, a game of wits and midfield duels, almost a battle of sudden death. Everyone could feel the tension before the match. When the referee blew his whistle, both sides immediately went on full throttle from the word go.
The Premier League winners started off solidly but immediately found themselves on the back foot when they conceded a goal in the sixth minute, thanks to Mario Basler. The Red Devils would up the tempo for much of the first-half but would be unable to unlock the sturdy Bayern defence.
The same story would be told in the second half. Despite the creativity possessed by the likes of David Beckham and Ryan Giggs at the flanks, United simply couldn’t get past Bayern’s back five, especially with the well-renowned Lothar Matthaus providing a robust defence as the Bavarian giants’ ever-present sweeper.
With United appearing to lose steam come a few seconds into added time, then UEFA President Lennart Johansson left his seat in the stands to make his way down the pitch. He had already ordered the trophy be decorated with Bayern ribbons.
Johansson was making his way through the tunnel, trophy in hand, when he heard the deafening roar echo through the walls around him. A louder, more excited, more frenzied roar would soon follow. When the UEFA chief finally made his way to the pitch come the final whistle, he was shocked to see the Bayern players so dejected.
“I can’t believe it,” Johansson said. “The winners were crying and the losers were dancing.”
In the five or so minutes Johansson took to get to the pitch, he missed one of the most awe-inspiring and jaw-dropping moments, if not the most, in sporting history.
In that short amount of time, United scored two goals – Teddy Sheringham equalised for United in the 91st minute, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer won it in the most spectacularly breathtaking fashion in the 93rd.
In his delight, Schmeichel jumped the line to be the first one to receive his winner’s medal, before sheepishly returning to the back of the queue with his boss Sir Alex Ferguson. It was Schmeichel’s final game in a United shirt.
As for Sir Alex, he would go on to establish United as a dominating force in English football, winning the Premier League for a record 13th time before eventually retiring in 2013.
When asked about his thoughts about the game, Ferguson could only manage to say three words. And yet those three words would soon become a historic tagline for years to come, a small catchphrase that serve as the most fool-proof response to any sceptic of the game.
“Football, eh? Bloody hell.”