Tuesday, May 20, 2008

1999 Champions League Final revisited, my story...

IT was the Sunday morning when we left Manchester Airport for Gerona, the plane was supposed to be full of holiday-makers, but perhaps not surprisingly it appeared to consist mainly of Manchester United fans who were heading to Barcelona for the Champions League final where we would face German club Bayern Munich. The previous day the Red Devils had secured the double when trouncing Newcastle at Wembley. If we could overcome the Bavarian club, a historic treble was very much on.

Our travelling party on the Gerona flight consisted of six people, though we were to meet up with Peter and his other half in Barcelona. Of the party of eight I was the only one who didn't have a ticket for the final. I actually had a match ticket, but I'd promised that to my then 16 year old son, his seat was located in the 'Gods' - the top tier the Nou Camp. Although my son's match-ticket only cost £12, it was priceless given we had waited 31 years to reach this stage of Europe's premier club competition and so the demand for tickets for this game was not unsurprisingly unprecedented.

However, I had some hopes of securing a ticket for the final while in Spain as one of our group had a contact - no less than a Barcelona director. During the knockout phase of the competition we had been told that there would be no problems acquiring tickets if the Reds should reach the final. We had been led to believe that Barcelona could receive up 20,000 tickets and so there'd be no problem should United get to the final. But, when we flew out of Manchester on that Sunday morning, all I had was a half decent forgery in my back pocket, it would have to be used as a last resort.

An hour into that Sunday morning flight, a middle aged ticketless United fan asked me "have you got a final ticket then?" I answered him by saying "no, but I was hoping to have one later in the week". As things turned out we were staying in the same hotel - that Red who I'd never even met before later said to me that he was the luckiest man in the whole of Spain as he ended with my son’s £12 match ticket.

Our contact had finally come up trumps on the Tuesday before the game, there waiting at the ticket office was four tickets on the halfway line - the best tickets in the stadium. From having seven tickets between our party of eight - we had 11 tickets. Unbelievable, but 100% true.

Prior to arranging our trip back home I had told a few other Red mates that we might have spares, but they all turned down the chance of coming to Spain with us. They were totally gutted when they later discovered what had happened.

We sold the £12 ticket to the ticketless Red on the plane whose first question was "do you have a ticket then?" Two Irish Reds who we'd never met before had the remaining spares.

Myself and my son would be together in the United end of the Nou Camp, centrally in the middle tier - position A.

Come the day of the game we took the bus and then the train from Lloret de Mar to Barcelona. United and Bayern fans mingled without any problems. It was a glorious sunny day. We spent the afternoon drinking and enjoying ourselves down the Ramblas and again there was little or no trouble, it was the most perfect day.

Getting into the Nou Camp that night was another story, the police were struggling to control the huge numbers of fans outside the ground. We later discovered that there was as many Reds outside as there was inside the Nou Camp.

Once inside we were totally awe-struck at the magnificence of the stadium, its steep tiers reaching up ever skywards. The Nou Camp is a truly fitting venue for any final and to be there on that night of all nights was a truly magical and unforgettable experience.

The game kicked-off and somehow we conceded a soft-goal from a free-kick. Worryingly, United were not playing as they had done in the previous rounds. Gone was the all-out attacking style that had led to us scoring so many goals. Instead, we looked nervous and apprehensive. At half-time, I had a conversation with a few Reds confidently saying that I believed if we scored one, we would score two and go on to win the game.

The second-half started and there was no sign of the substitutes, the fans sensed that Fergie needed to make changes, but he didn't do so and as the game went on Bayern started to look the stronger of the two teams. Then at last Fergie sent on Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Edward Paul 'Teddy' Sheringham - almost immediately we had a couple of half chances, which were not taken.

With the game looking beyond us and with ten minutes remaining, I spoke to the those Reds again saying "it isn't happening". We really thought that the game was very nearly up. Carsten Janker had hit the United crossbar. The Germans players had started their victory celebrations early when waving to their expectant fans.

We fans didn't know this at the time, but the Bayern colours were being pinned to the Champions League Trophy. With just a few minutes to go Lennart Johansson had started to make his way down to the presentation area in readiness for the final whistle.

Then United attacked down our left wing, the Reds fans seemed to sense that it was now or never. United won a throw-in, before it was taken, I had looked up at the big digital clock in the Nou Camp which was bang on 90 minutes. A huge roar went around the ground as the United fans gave it one last massive effort to will that ball into the Bayern net.

Gary Neville took the throw-in from which we won a corner and then all hell broke loose as Sheringham equalised after Giggs had initially miss-hit his shot. Within seconds of the restart, United were on the attack again and won another corner, now it was turn of the "smiling assassin" Ole Gunnar Solskjær to put the ball in the Bayern net.

Amidst the mass of sprawling bodies and sheer unbridled joy, I somehow managed to compose myself enough to once again look up at that clock, when I'd last looked on 90 minutes we were losing 0-1, but now it read 92 minutes 2-1 to United. Was this really happening I asked myself?

It was all over for Bayern. Their players were on the pitch on their knees, some of them in tears. The Germans didn't know what had hit them, they must still wonder how they lost that game in such circumstances.

We eventually left the ground after celebrating for what seemed like ages. We had arranged to meet our drivers' outside the Cathedral, Segrada Familia. All public transport had been cancelled, no doubt for fear of trouble and so we had a very long walk. Even the Spanish seemed to be genuinely pleased that United had won the game - some Spanish dustbin men who were working into the early hours were chanting "Manchester, Manchester".

The next day, we bumped into two old Dutchmen, on realising that we were English fans they'd said to us "did you see the game - some of the Germans were crying?!" There's no love lost between the Dutch and Germans and the spectacle of Bayern losing in such a manner had clearly been the highlight of their day.

Our hotel was full of Reds, some had been to the game like us, but many had been unable to get back to Lloret. It turned out that many of the travelling Red Army had slept on the Ramblas - they must have slept soundly in knowledge that an unprecedented treble had been won.

It wasn't until later the following day that we also realised that there was a fair few coincidences surrounding this epic match; It was the last final of the 1990s, on the very day we lifted the trophy it would have been Sir Matt Busby's 90th Birthday, as he was born on 26 May 1909. United equalised in the 90th minute. Was it really meant to be?

If anyone is looking for omens for the game in Moscow, I also have another coincidence for you as five days before the 1999 final an old mate had asked me to attend an evening with George Best as guest at Old Trafford. I haven't been out socially with that lad since 1999, not until this Saturday night just gone that is - which again was five days before the clash with Chelsea in Moscow...this time, he's going to the final and sadly I won’t be...



4 comments:

  1. nice article. enjoyed that. dont think i can handle us winning in that fashion again to be honest.

    then again, i'd take anything. u might've got tickets this time? apparently tickets went on general sale monday 20/05/08..outta nowhere! some problem with peoples existing tickets.

    oh well. ITV it is.

    p.s. Man Utd to win 2-1 and Rooney to score.

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  2. Thanks. Regarding these tickets. IF you read my blog on regular basis you know that I tipped off the fans on the May 14th that United could be about to put 3,000 tickets on general sale.... Remember where you heard it first!

    Actually, it's the cost of flights and no accommodation that has stopped me this time. Added to which it is my wife's birthday tomorrow. I am being a good boy.

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  3. You go through another such night, and you are in danger of cardiac metamolstrousis. :P

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  4. Great story. Hope that we get the same result tonight, although I hope we don't leave it until the 94th minute to win it this time.

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