Part of our new “Historic Games” series, we look back on some of the greatest football games ever played, re-evaluating their significance and impact often with the help of genuine newspaper coverage from the game.
As the football history books show, only one club in over a century of English football has ever managed to capture the Continental Treble. And for that Manchester United side, mere facts and figures will never adequately represent the incredible circumstances of their triumph, culminating in the 1999 UEFA Champions League final, one of the games heavily featured in our exquisite personalised Manchester United book.
United entered the Nou Camp on 26th May 1999 as underdogs, partly because they had already finished behind their opponents Bayern Munich six months earlier in the group stage, but perhaps more due to the fact that they were without their captain; Roy Keane was suspended after picking up a yellow card during a heroic, selfless performance in Turin in the semi-final, on a night where the Red Devils came from 2-0 down against the Italian champions Juventus in dramatic fashion.
Man United celebrate their treble victory in the Nou Camp (Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1999_UEFA_Champions_League_celebration_(edited).jpg)
Indeed, United’s route to the treble had been balanced on a knife edge several times already. After winning the Premier League by a single point on the final day of the season (again needing to come from behind), they had been a single kick away from being eliminated from the F.A. Cup in the semi-final replay; in the final moments, United conceded a penalty following a rash challenge from Phil Neville, the result of a long night, competition and season as a whole. Up stepped Arsenal’s talisman Dennis Bergkamp, who had already scored earlier in the evening. Alas, the United net would not ripple again, as United’s goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, so crucial to the club’s success throughout the decade, saved Bergkamp’s spot-kick, setting the scene for Ryan Giggs’ now-legendary dazzling run and finish. It was a goal that will forever be remembered for its sheer quality, but more importantly as the strike that sent United to Wembley for the final, and a somewhat routine victory over Newcastle.
Schmeichel, in what would be his last of 398 appearances for the club, was the man chosen to lead the side out at the Nou Camp in Keane’s absence. Fittingly, throughout the night, the Great Dane would keep United in the contest with a string of vital saves. But his first real involvement, after just six minutes, was to pick the ball out of his own net, having stood by helpless as a Mario Basler free-kick wriggled around a poorly-positioned United wall. First blood to the Germans.
For much of the game, the two sides battled out a tight affair, sharing possession and exchanging a flurry of half-chances and snatched-at openings. Bayern would go as far as beating Schmeichel twice, but on both occasions, the woodwork came to United’s rescue. And so, at one-nil it would remain, for eighty-four cagey minutes of normal time. United’s two substitutes, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, had both been close to drawing their side level in the final twenty. But to suggest that this fact was a foreshadowing of what was to come could never be apt. In truth, nobody could have foreseen the events of those three minutes of stoppage time.
As David Beckham prepared himself to take a corner, for which Schmeichel had advanced from his own box into the opposition’s, commentator Clive Tyldesley prophetically remarked, “Can Manchester United score? They always score.” The half-cleared corner bobbled around the area like a pinball, until fortuitously finding its way to Sheringham’s feet, six yards out. A man with 250 career goals to his name was never going to miss.
The second was far more direct. With Bayern still on the ropes, reeling from the prospect of an additional half-hour of extra time, another Beckham corner was flicked on by Sheringham and poked into the roof of the net by Solskjaer. Referee Pierluigi Collina would later describe the resultant noise in the stadium as “like a lion’s roar”. United had done the unthinkable, in even more unthinkable circumstances.
Remarkably, Bayern Munich had also come into the match with a league and cup in tow; they too playing for their country’s first ever treble. According to sources in the stadium, the trophy had already been decorated in Bayern’s colours prior to the end of normal time. Three minutes later, one the most spectacular endings in the history of sport ensured that the final European Cup of the century would be, and always will be, Red.