United break through to a new dimension

As mentioned in my “Name on the Trophy” blog on 21st September, where I’d recently discovered three e-mails from 26th May 2004 from my old work e-mail address in London to my hotmail account. It was something that I had completely forgotten I’d done, but now so glad I had as it has been a fascinating read that I’d like to share with you.

The e-mails were entitled “Name on the Trophy!!! 26/05/1999 (1), (2) and (3)” and it was a load of quotes from the world of TV commentary from the day, as well as various newspaper reports from the days after the event. Below is one of those reports and I have many more to come, enjoy reading them. I certainly have.

RED flares illuminated a clock that showed 90 minutes – the nominal end of the game. United’s hearts were about to break. In time that existed only in some alternative cosmic dimension, Manchester United went from 1-0 down to winning the European Cup. Lothar Matthäus was wrong. Twenty-two men run around for 90 minutes and then the English win.

Bayern Munich were in the mood to give Manchester United trouble last night but not a treble. Sir Matt Busby, who would have been 90 yesterday, must have twitched a little in his grave. All we saw through the smoke and noise and chaos was Teddy Sheringham’s boot swinging a desperately poked ball into the net.

Wonderful. Extra time and maybe penalties. But then Ole Gunnar Solskjaer dragged another goal from a game that was chugging deliriously towards another 30-minute ordeal. The synopsis is simple. This was the greatest comeback in European football, possibly the history of the game. League, FA Cup and now European Champions’ Cup – United have exhausted and thrilled us in them all.

A season that has been raining eulogies threatened to turn into elegies for all but the final script-defying seconds. United had got close to reviving the spirit of 1968 but still not close enough. An apparently routine assignment in their own domestic cup seemed to stand between Bayern and Germany’s own first treble. Alex Ferguson, who insists he will retire at 60, was running out of chances. Cut to the 91st minute: Bayern’s gallant players are scattered across the turf in impossible and abject despair.

Bayern’s sudden, matador strike at a time when most people back in Britain were probably still plonking tea mugs on coasters raised the dread thought that English teams are destined to make grievous errors against the Germans. The foul by Ronny Johnsen on Carsten Jancker was the product of a desperate attempt to recover position. Then came Mario Basler’s free kick, which penetrated a gap in the United wall punched open by clever movements from Jancker and Marcus Babbel, who pulled Jaap Stam and Jesper Blomqvist away.

The hole-in-the-wall gang had struck. Penalty shoot-outs are normally the problem, but this time it was free kicks. Remember Turin, the United players must have whispered to themselves. But there was a sense that, unlike Juventus, this Bayern Munich side would be singularly unwilling to yield. They did finally, but so late in a magnificent day.

Barcelona is a city so sensuously stuffed with art that only a tense, painstakingly fought match could have done justice to the setting. The locals had shown their visitors how to celebrate the beautiful on Monday with a teeming pageant to mark Barca’s successful defence of their league title. Hot, rowdy and excitable, but with its usual understated nobility, this repository of Catalan culture invited two treble-chasing teams into the Nou Camp to experience the centrifugal thrill of playing in the continent’s finest footballing arena.

Just north of the Olympic village, where such a good time was had by all in 1992, and half an hour’s walk from Gaudi’s unfinished master work, the Sagrada Familia, the Nou Camp has the hum and pull of a great architectural treasure. It is probably the only European stadium capable of absorbing such tidal crashes of passion and noise. Last night, it was like one of those white-knuckle rides a large part of you just wants to get off. With its mountainously steep stands, there is always the sensation of falling into the crucible below, where, last night, two sets of scurrying ant-like men had to suppress all thought of how much was at stake and stick to the simple business of winning a ball game.

United are the Esperanto of football supporting. The club have done such a fine job of marketing the United mystique that there were banners here from Croatia, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Malta and Australia. “Man United – The Religion,” said one. For religion read “brand”. Allegiance to United is a brilliantly manufactured obsession. It is love on the net, marriage by club magazine. Not that there is anything wrong with that. The world is full of such electronic communities. United are the game’s favourite international pen pals. Last night, they needed all the support they could get.

When an opening ceremony reminiscent of a mini Super Bowl ended, there was little initially to encourage the belief that all those transcontinental airfares had been money well spent. Without Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, Ferguson fielded an experimental United midfield in one of the most daring acts of his 13-year Old Trafford career. Both his most formidable wide players were moved from their usual positions. David Beckham was transferred to the centre of midfield and Ryan Giggs switched to the right flank to accommodate Blomqvist on the left. The most likely explanation is that Ferguson felt safer with Johnsen alongside Stam in defence than he would have done with David May. Hence the need for Beckham to bolster a central midfield staffed by a reservist in Nicky Butt.

In the first half, both sides of Ferguson’s normally wide-flowing team were emasculated. Using his left foot as he galloped down the right-hand side, Giggs was carried inside rather than outside his marker. On the opposite wing, Blomqvist lacked the requisite gas to go past Babbel. Thus play became congested in the centre of the pitch where Bayern’s wing-backs acted as the string tying Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole into a sack created by their three central defenders. Not good. For once there was no howling dervish from United, no unstoppable force ripping into a foreign defence, just uncertain, crab-like incursions that lacked the usual fluency and conviction.

The experiment was abandoned two-thirds of the way into the game. Off came Blomqvist, on came Sheringham. Giggs went left and Beckham right while Cole, Yorke and Sheringham all hunted for that precious equalising goal. But Bayern still held their shape and nerve: a smothering grey blanket laid expertly across the pitch. By now, the suffering of United’s supporters had lasted well over an hour. In Europe, some would say, it had lasted 31 years.

Bayern Munich may never get over the trauma of what happened to them in a handful of seconds. None of us in the Nou Camp will ever forget we were there.

#17 United break through to a new dimension- Telegraph
By Paul Hayward

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