It is part of me now. Over a decade on and snippets of the commentary still float to the surface of my mind at least a dozen times a day. Standing in a queue for a cashpoint, ‘Can United score? They always score.’ Half asleep in the shower, ‘Giggs with the shot… Sheringham!’ Bored at the cinema, ‘Name on the trophy.’ I’d love to say my subconscious foists Shakespearean monologues upon me without warning, or sage advice from family members, or even simply lines from pop songs. But no, apropos of nothing, any hour of the day, I am liable to think of Clive Tyldesley. A warm shiver runs up my spine and I smile. It remains the only thing guaranteed to raise the hairs on the back of my neck simply by its recall. This sensation even occurred just now as I typed those bits of commentary, a Proustian memory of childhood happiness. Fourteen years old. Wednesday, 26th May 1999.
I have been fortunate enough to attend some pretty memorable United games over the years. The good (5-3 at White Hart Lane from 3-0 down, Beckham from the halfway line against Wimbledon, 4-3 City, 8-2 Arsenal), the bad (surrendering a 40 year unbeaten home record in Europe against Fenerbache on my first midweek trip, 1-6 City) and the ugly (Eric’s kung fu kick on Matthew ‘it’s an early bath for you’ Simmons, any game involving Luke Chadwick). Despite these experiences, I have still watched the large majority of the games in my life from the living room. For me, football viewing is a pursuit that requires concentration therefore I would always opt for the lounge over a lager, pubs doing little for me on a match day. I was a season ticket holder by the time United reached another Champions League final. My father and I went to Moscow in 2008 and though the day would certainly make an appearance in any list of my top five ever, there can only be one candidate for the top one. Moscow was more recent and I was in attendance yet ’99 remains more vivid, a day never to be bettered that I can recall with perfect clarity.
My Dad did try to get tickets. He was quoted ludicrous prices that suddenly didn’t look quite so ludicrous at quarter to ten the evening of the game. In the end we watched the game as we had so many before, in the living room with our pals Gary and Mark (closest friends since they met at school in the mid ‘60s and kicked a stone along the ground insisting they both got to be Bobby Charlton). Given this was how we watched the vast majority of United’s games in the ‘90, it somehow seems fitting that we should have failed to land tickets. Gary, as always, brought a chocolate orange.
Since the advent of Sky, Gary has joined us for all televised United games. A heady mix of polite and superstitious, he brought an orange (as we have come to refer to them) to the first one in ’92, United won, and he has continued to do so ever since. Like life, football is a thing over which we have little control despite constantly trying to kid ourselves otherwise. I have the unique responsibility of deciding when the orange is opened depending on how the game is going. By way of a rough guide, if the game is 0-0 then it will usually be opened around the hour mark, when Sir Alex might think about a substitution. If United go behind then we will open it earlier. Everyone must have at least one slice. The good people at Terry’s have got Fergie out of a lot of tight jams over the years without a single word of thanks. As a side note, Gary is the same man who stages mock Champions League draws in his kitchen using pots and pans. He adheres to all the appropriate stipulations regarding grouping and can narrow United’s possible opponents down to a miniscule shortlist on the eve of the actual draw itself. In brief, we are not normal.
I used to joke that, being born and raised in North London, naturally I am a Manchester United fan. This was largely a defence mechanism, attacking myself before the usual glory hunting accusations that were only ever resolved with the airing of my childhood photographs from the late ‘80s in a United strip. In truth, I have known very few United fans worthy of the name around my age. At school, there were none. One boy, not untypical, claimed he was only interested in televised games. When I asked him how he followed Saturday games at 3 o’clock, he casually informed me that ‘Saturday games aren’t important’. We never spoke again.
At school I came to epitomise all things United. Teachers would mock me if their team had beaten mine (Mr. Middleton, a West Ham fan, memorably said I looked like Barthez when I put my hand up to answer a question in double Chemistry the day after that ill-fated attempt to put Di Canio off), friends knew my mood would be determined by the weekend’s fixtures and I generally became a focal reference point for the world’s greatest football club. United might be the most well supported team on earth but you wouldn’t have known it in this leafy suburb and I considered my role an ambassadorial one. I wore my status like a badge of honour. A friend told me years later that my inability to stomach any criticism of the club reminded him of Gary Neville. I believe it was aimed as a barb but I can think of no greater compliment.
That Wednesday, lessons passed by in a blur. My nervous excitement was unmatched before or since. United had had so many great moments already that season, just one more huge effort and this team would be indelibly marked in the history books for all eternity. No English team had ever won the treble; to do so in the era of the Champions League would have seem far-fetched in a Hollywood film, and that’s before we even contemplate the manner of victory. 1999. Blur sang, ‘End of a century, it’s nothing special.’ How wrong they were. Prince was closer to the truth. Tonight we’re gonna party.
A few teachers mentioned the game and wished me luck whilst others were less good-natured. I can safely say I learnt nothing at school that day but it was a rare occasion where lack of concentration was not the issue. I was quiet and focused from assembly to final period but I was contemplating matters far more important than trigonometry or the Treaty of Versailles. How would we cope without Scholes and Keane? Would the exhaustion of this gruelling campaign finally catch up with the team? Would Gary have found the perfect orange?
The only concession I publicly made to the magnitude of the occasion was the flag I had stashed away in my bag. Red, white and black and emblazoned with the legend, ‘Champions League Final 1999’, it had been purchased on a recent trip to Old Trafford. I boarded the school bus alone that evening. I have no memory of the whereabouts of my friends but I can recall precisely what happened next. I made my way to the back of the vehicle, a tactic unheard of if you weren’t in the later years and utterly without precedent in my school career up to that point. I retrieved the flag and draped it over the glass with pride when the driver of the bus behind ours caught my eye. Expecting the finger, I was delighted with the three he gave me. He pointed at me as if to say ‘you’, which in this instance translates as ‘United’ then held up two fingers on hand and one on the other. 2-1 United. Simple really. I could have saved myself an awful lot of bother if I’d just trusted him and had an early night.
Perhaps the enormity of the day clouds my memory but I recall another period of solitude once I arrived home from school. I don’t recall seeing my brother or sister. I have no idea where my Mum was. Possibly they were around and I was just lost in my own world of anxiety. The same might be true of my friends on the bus. No English team had been in the European Cup final since Heysel, at which time I was but a few months old. Nothing could be left to chance. I made my way into the living room and did something rather strange.
I approached the mantelpiece and placed two significant belongings beneath the print of Monet’s Bridge over a Pool of Water Lillies. First up was the bottle of Manchester United wine we had purchased on one of my very first trips to Old Trafford. Originally a tongue in cheek purchase from the Megastore, somehow over the years it had been decided that this bottle was only to be opened in the event of United winning the European Cup. The second item was a miniature figurine of our Lord and Saviour, Eric Cantona. It was at this point that the madness set in.
I am not a religious person. I don’t attend synagogue nor do I pray. I am inclined, however, to make deals with God. The God whose very existence I doubt. I am twenty-seven years old and cannot recall the last time someone told me to ‘make a wish’ and I didn’t opt for United to win the league or European Cup. Another favourite technique is to barter with God during a long and sleepless night. Let him know that it’s OK for, say, a situation with a girl not to work out, if it means United will triumph. As with any relationship, there has to be a bit of give and take.
To this day I have no idea why I did what I did next. Given my constant dialogue with the Lord, I am clearly not a staunch and fearless atheist. Despite this, I put on a yarmulke and the tallis I had not worn since my Bar Mitzvah and began to recite the Shema to Eric Daniel Pierre Cantona. It is the only prayer I know by heart (well, the first few lines) and many consider it the most important part of any service. The first verse captures the Monotheistic essence of Judaism with the refrain: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.’ To the casual observer I would have looked like any orthodox Jew praying at the Wailing Wall but in place of one of the most sacred sites on earth was a six-inch poor likeness of a French centre forward. What on earth possessed me? Why did I think this was anything like appropriate? A prayer highlighting the essential tenet of Judaism that there is only one God and there I was desecrating Commandments two and three in one fell swoop (You shall have no other Gods before me and You shall not make yourself an idol). Fortunately it was Eric and I recalled with relief that one need only fear false idols. Still, given the outcome, if there is someone upstairs then I can safely say he doesn’t bear a grudge. Or, more likely, just as many of us had always suspected, Eric is God. Not for nothing was his nickname simply, ‘Dieu’.
Come kick-off, we opted for a conventional 4-3-1 formation with myself, my Dad, Gary and Mark closest to the TV, the Arsenal contingent of my brother, mother and grandfather in the cheap seats and my sister upstairs in her bedroom. There was a rare, unspoken belief that nothing could possibly go wrong. Even Tyldesley alluded to this tacit understanding as the teams shook hands when he stated, ‘surely nobody is going to spoil it all for them now.’ The Champions League music played. I felt proud and privileged in equal measure. We were on the brink of the treble, not bad for a team that qualified as runners up in the league the previous season.
Mario Basler opened the scoring for Bayern Munich in the sixth minute but that’s OK, we never make it easy for ourselves and assorted other clichés. As with the commentary extracts quoted earlier, I can recall countless gems without the need to consult video footage or the Internet. I’m almost certain the word ‘balmy’ was invented for the occasion given Tyldesley cannot refer to the night as anything but ‘that balmy night in Barcelona’ and I don’t recall hearing it before then. Another highlight (far more amusing in hindsight than when trailing by a goal to nil) was Ron Atkinson labelling Jens Jeremies ‘a little ratter in midfield.’ Taken to task by our Clive, Big Ron insisted it was a compliment. ‘Great player but an unfortunate face.’ Ferguson’s predecessor at United would eventually lose his job as a result of his stupidity whilst commentating on a European game but at the time he was simply a buffoonish figure, endearing in a dodgy car dealer kind of way.
Time ticked away as is its wont. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the clock ticks faster when your team is behind. United hardly threatened. Halftime came and went. Nothing changed. Bayern hit the woodwork twice. The chocolate orange was opened. We silently ate our slices. Sheringham and Solskjaer were brought on. My grandfather, Zigi, a genial Holocaust survivor, nonchalantly declared, ‘they’ll both score’ in a futile bid to lift our spirits. It was the second accurate prediction of the day I viewed with weary scepticism. Lothar Matthäus, arguably the greatest ever German footballer, was substituted with four minutes remaining and arrogantly conducted the Bayern fans like an orchestra. The Champions League is the only major trophy that eluded this titan of the game. I believe the word is hubris.
Mark had given up. Having spent the second half perusing magazines (a superstition designed to indicate he no longer cared about the outcome and lull the fates into a false sense of security), he now declared: ‘I think it was just one game too many.’ Past tense. Gary later claimed that in his heart he still felt we had a chance but I know I was inclined to agree with Mark’s fatalism. For all the magic of the campaign, we just weren’t creating anything.
Out of nothing we won a corner. United had scored in every single Champions League game that season. Not for nothing was Tyldesley telling us ‘they always score’. This was a different time, an era when Beckham was still routinely abused up and down the country off the back of his red card at the World Cup. He was also in the form of his life. Peter Schmeichel, the greatest goalkeeper in the club’s history playing one last time for the champions, came forward, just as he had so many times over the years in times of need. We were all standing by this point. Please United. Please. One last big push.
A cross, a failure to clear, a mishit shot from Giggs and then, as you probably recall, Teddy Sheringham equalised. Pandemonium in Canons Drive. A sound emerged from my lungs somewhere between a squawk and a song. I raced round the coffee table and down the hall. Everyone was running and hugging and screaming. My Dad later informed me that he and Gary had gone to hug and had failed to coordinate the move properly in their excitement, the result being that their heads came together in a near-kiss. The commentator said ‘name on the trophy’ but none of us heard. We didn’t need to hear. We all knew. Tears rolled down my cheeks. My Mum tried to calm me down but it was pointless. It remains the only time I have cried with joy. The Flaming Lips were right, ‘happiness makes you cry.’
The next thing I can recall I was back in the lounge and United had another corner. We remained on our feet. Tyldesley, another in prophetic mood, wondered aloud, ‘is this their moment?’ Sheringham nodded it on and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the most loveable footballer of the modern age, poked the ball into the roof of the net.
A blur. The camera cut to and fro. First we saw a dumbfounded Matthäus on the bench. Then Schmeichel celebrated with a cartwheel, a skill I can only assume he was saving for a special occasion, as he’d never done it before. Samuel Kuffour wept as openly as a sportsman ever has in defeat, beating the ground in frustration. Sir Bobby Charlton grinned and poked his tongue through his teeth like a schoolboy. Our own celebrations were marginally more restrained than for the first goal, I think we all knew from that point on that there was only one outcome. Even the spectre of the golden goal held no fear once we’d equallised. In the words of assistant coach Steve McClaren, ‘I don’t think this team ever loses, it just runs out of time.’
Gary somewhat typically insisted, ‘we can still blow this.’ I’m still not sure whether this was a joke, pessimism or simply a bid to keep fate onside for those final few seconds. If the latter, he needn’t have bothered since Collina could barely rouse the Bayern players from the floor to take the centre let alone mount an attack. A few seconds later he blew the final whistle and triggered the third riotous celebration in as many minutes. As The Sun would have it on Thursday morning, ‘Our subs sink Germans’.
Whilst reds all over the globe were celebrating with beer or champagne, we were knocking back the official Manchester United red wine. It was pretty disgusting but boy did it taste sweet. A mere glance at the empty bottle in front of me as I type brings a smile to my face. There was much to ponder in those minutes that followed.
Solskjaer had never scored another goal like it. The baby-faced assassin later revealed he’d had a hunch he’d come off the bench and nab one. He’d called many of his relatives to inform them. It seems everyone was Nostradamus for the day. Ten years to the day, almost to the minute, since Michael Thomas had concluded the English league season in the most dramatic fashion imaginable, Ole had done the same in Europe. The other significant thing about the date was that it would have been Sir Matt Busby’s ninetieth birthday. In Fergie’s words, ‘I think he was up there doing a lot of the kicking.’ Eric was actually born on 24th May and I sometimes wish he’d been born two days later so we could have the full set. They say you can’t have everything but the 1998/1999 season shows that simply isn’t true.
Less well documented is the fact that ITV cut to an advert break during the celebrations and ceased broadcasting altogether about half an hour after the game ended. Thinking fast, we switched over to RTL (the channel we’d watched the Bayern group games on since British TV didn’t yet show all English Champions League games as a matter of course). It was a surreal juxtaposition with the jubilation on ITV as we witnessed a succession of distraught players interviewed with my grandfather and mother on translation duties. They were all ‘sick as a parrot’ or words to that effect.
David May memorably hogged the limelight and soaked up the acclaim. I often hope those photographs will be placed in a time capsule and football historians of the future will just assume that’s Beckham or Giggs.
Two things of note happened the next day. Firstly, I turned to my friend Marc in maths and said, ‘it’s a strange sensation, the realisation that there is no chance things will ever be this good again.’ The thought didn’t depress me; it was simply a statement of fact. That truly was as good as it could possibly get. A season that special deserved a dramatic denouement and we got that and then some. George Best probably didn’t have many regrets but leaving his seat in the Nou Camp with a few minutes remaining has to go down as an error. Still, he scored in a European Cup final so I guess we can call that 1-1.
The other noteworthy incident involved my grandmother. Zigi’s wife, Jeanette, has absolutely no interest in sport whatsoever. She has never watched a game in her life. That morning when she turned on the television and saw that Manchester United had made history and were the main story on the news, she cried. She had no idea what any of it meant but knew how happy it must have made her son-in-law and grandson. That is the definition of unconditional love. It’s how I feel about United. Anyway, it’s taken me over three thousand words to sum up what Fergie managed in three just moments after the final whistle.
‘Football. Bloody hell.’