To mark the 10th anniversary of RoM today, having asked lots of people to reflect on their favourite moment over the past decade, I will now share my own.
I remember walking in to the ground full of nerves on the night we played Barcelona. We were so close to our first Champions League final since 1999 and it felt long overdue.
While the immediate stress came from having to beat Barcelona, it was also very prevalent in my thoughts that if we did manage to beat the Spaniards, we’d have to overcome Liverpool or Chelsea in the final to lift our third European Cup.
Two months earlier we had lost to Manchester City at home on the game closest to the 50th anniversary of Munich Air Disaster, City’s first win at Old Trafford since 1974. I was furious with the team. Sir Alex Ferguson tried to make excuses for them afterwards, claiming that the occasion had got to them, but I wasn’t interested. There was no way to soften the blow. I remember talking to my dad afterwards and saying, half seriously, the only way I would forgive them for this shambles was if we won the European Cup.
At that stage, we had Lyon in the next round, who we were fairly confident of beating, but Moscow was still a long way off.
Still, we did beat Lyon, and then we beat Roma, albeit not by the impressive 7-1 scoreline of the season before, and then we were drawn against Barcelona.
We drew 0-0 away from home after Cristiano Ronaldo missed an early penalty. Had we won the penalty in the 60th minute, you’d have felt confident he would have put it away. But he hadn’t steadied himself and missed the target.
United then went on to stop a team containing Lionel Messi, Yaya Toure, Samuel Eto’o, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and co. from scoring at the Nou Camp, even though we were without Nemanja Vidic.
In some ways, this set up the second leg nicely, with Barcelona not having the advantage of more goals scored. But our failure to get an away goal meant we knew we were in trouble if Barcelona managed to beat Van der Sar at Old Trafford.
We needn’t have worried though. The defensive performance United put in that night was arguably the best we’ve ever seen. This wasn’t a familiar tactic for United, and it was one that was more forced than chosen, given the way Barcelona dominated possession, but they were outstanding. Our back four comprised of Owen Hargreaves at right-back thanks to Gary Neville’s injury, Rio Ferdinand, Wes Brown thanks to Vidic’s injury and Patrice Evra. Everyone pulled their weight that evening though, with Barcelona resorting to passing from one side of the field to the other (which might be a more familiar approach for United fans these days) but failing to penetrate. In fact, they had just seven attempts on goal all game, three of those on target.
However, the only attempt that mattered for either side that night was Paul Scholes’.
With just 14 minutes played, Rio Ferdinand and Michael Carrick played a one-two in our half of the pitch, before releasing Cristiano Ronaldo. Whenever he got on the ball, the expectation rose, and the crowd were urging him forward. Ronaldo got in to a good position on the edge of the area, but after taking the ball past Yaya Toure, he was tackled by Gianluca Zambrotta, who ended up playing the ball straight to Scholes.
Scholes took one touch to play it in front of him, then leathered it in to the corner of Victor Valdes’ goal.
There are occasions at Old Trafford when you wish there was a big screen to show replays. It would come at the cost of the number of fans who can get inside the ground. But when you see a player score such a quality goal, on such a huge occasion, you’re desperate to see it again.
This was Scholes’ 10th Champions League semi-final and this goal ensured he was still the highest scoring Englishman in the competition. Having missed out on the 1999 final through suspension, he had to be there this time, and it was fitting he scored the goal to get us there.
Much is made of supporters being the 12th man, but often, it’s a load of nonsense. Let’s be honest, Aston Villa’s 12th man at the Holte End, as proclaimed by their banner, is having little impact on their season. But I can honestly say that on that evening, it was the first and last time I remember Old Trafford being anything like that.
Of course, there have been great atmospheres since, and several of those fell during the dismal season of David Moyes. But that sheer desperation for the players to get the job done, to reach the final, to have a go at winning the European Cup on the year that marked the 50th anniversary of Munich and the 40th year of us first winning the competition, has been unrivalled by any match that has followed. Without getting too soft, it was fairly emotional, particularly when “we’ll never die” was sung by all four stands. It was a huge occasion and everyone inside the stadium seemed to recognise that.
It’s only through reading match reports now that I know just how early the goal was scored. From my memory, it was much later than that. Now, I can’t imagine how we made it through a further 75 minutes, plus six minutes of injury time, without having a nervous breakdown. Never have I been more desperate for a final whistle to blow than that evening.
When Thierry Henry was subbed on with an hour played, I could already read tomorrow’s papers, them gleefully celebrating the away goal scored by a former Arsenal player to knock us out. Remember, the hatred for Arsenal was still pretty intense then, and the 4-0 victory we celebrated over them in the FA Cup 10 days earlier was still fresh.
However, our makeshift back four, with two of the regular starters unavailable, prevented Henry from saving the day, and United were through to the final. When the whistle blew, the relief was as intense as ever I can remember it. Having known with every passing minute we were closer to the final, but also left with less time to recover if Barcelona scored, meant knowing it was all over and we were through was incredible.
There have been loads of great nights at Old Trafford over the past decade, and we really are spoilt, but for me, this was the very best.