Opinion: Reds have unfinished business in Istanbul

Wednesday 29 November 2023 11:30

It was 1993 and Manchester United had finally ended a 26-year wait for the league title. One of the rewards was a crack at the European Cup (Champions League) for the first time since the glorious epochal and emotional triumph at Wembley in 1968.

Domestic league success had been hard to achieve so now the challenge of conquering the continent was one to embrace, as the club had done way back in the pioneering days of the 1950s. Yet our European Cup Winners’ Cup glory in 1991, against a team that would lift the European Cup a year later in Barcelona (at Wembley too) offered the belief that this was a step Alex Ferguson’s men were capable of taking.

On a personal level, I was at university and had gone back for the new autumn term with a permanent smile on my face, following that title triumph for my team in the previous May. United safely negotiated the first hurdle against the Hungarian side Honved and were then paired with Galatasaray.

I admit I was perhaps slightly complacent about the task, primarly because the Turkish national team were not the much respected force they are today. Often struggling in the international groups, it had not been that long since Bryan Robson scored a hat-trick in an 8-0 away win for England.

Little did I know this was the start of the real footballing emergence of the nation and their top side, backed by fanatical supporters and garnished by some excellent footballers who would become well-known names in the game, such as Tugay and 'the Bull of the Bosporus', Hakan Sukur.

My Story: Robbo recalls Istanbul '93 Video

My Story: Robbo recalls Istanbul '93

Bryan Robson recounts the most hostile of atmospheres at Galatasaray's Ali Sami Yen Stadium...

So the 3-3 draw at Old Trafford in the first leg was a surprise. We were even close to losing our proud unbeaten home record in Europe before Eric Cantona conjured up an equaliser, with the scalp instead going to Gala’s big rivals Fenerbahce three years later, in 1996.

With the away-goals rule in effect, we’d made life hard for ourselves anyway and things now looked far from straightforward. Entering the bearpit atmosphere at Istanbul Airport took things to another level. This was something that had never really been encountered before and brought a whole new world of complexity to the challenge facing Ferguson’s outstanding side.

I recall fitness doubts over Robson, something that always made me and most Reds shudder, even if the inspirational captain was approaching the end of his United career. He was battle-hardened though and, very much, the sort of man and character you desperately wanted by your side in environments like this.

The midfielder did play but things never got going at all. Certain games stick in my mind as being the ones that are most likely to haunt my dreams and this is definitely one of them. Others include West Ham on the final day of the 1994/95 season (by far the worst of this genre) and even a game in the fog at Crystal Palace more recently, just because barely being able to witness what was happening somehow made everything extremely stressful.
So what do I remember about the goalless draw at the Ali Sami Yen? I know I watched it in its entirety even though I think I only saw the first-leg highlights later in the evening (without knowing the score, of course). I hoped for something positive to happen but, bar a half-chance or so for either team, I couldn’t really tell you anymore.

The timewasting was akin to gamesmanship from decades before as the play became fractured and fractious. I may be being biased and unfair but I am sure there was lots of playacting and frustrating pause after frustrating pause. We did not perform well but were suffocated and strangled, in a tie unfolding in a tumultuous setting ready to boil over.

Surely, the referee would account for his and allow a lot of injury time? If we were playing to the current Premier league rules, we’d still be playing now. No, he didn’t and our European dream was over before we’d even managed to make it into the group stages.

It was too much for Cantona to take, this wasn’t an ideal setting for his short fuse, and it descended into chaos and a full-blown fight between United players and the police supposed to be offering security as they made their way down the steps towards the tunnel. Robbo, through no fault of his own, picked up another injury.

I have been lucky enough to travel abroad on numerous occasions to watch United, starting with the game at Rapid Vienna most memorable for the best save I’ve ever seen live, by Peter Schmeichel. I’ve had the unbelievable highs of Barcelona in 1999 and Moscow in 2008, plus the defeat in Rome a year later.

More recently, I’ve been blessed to be able to travel to places I’d never have been able to visit, in my capacity working for the club I love. Donetsk, Skopje, Athens, Astana and Chisinau among the cities offering cultural and footballing experiences I will never forget. I’ll also treasure trips to Paris and Stockholm for obvious reasons, considering the joy provided by those victories.

Yet, being spoilt, I’d always been enchanted by any prospect of going to Istanbul. A famous classical location, where east meets west. I hoped for a chance to go there if the circumstances dictated and it fell into place and, thankfully, an incredible journey is under way.

I don't know but maybe there is a sense of unfinished business, righting those wrongs 30 years ago and getting a proper understanding of why United did not show our true selves on that evening, due to the hostility faced in the arena. Of course, we have been back twice since and are yet to score away to Galatasaray, so it would be wonderful to see Erik ten Hag's Reds win here and overcome this sizeable obstacle.

So I reckon it’s not just about the location but the way United had to endure that kind of examination back in the day, intrigued by just the experience of it all and how febrile the atmosphere is. FC Copenhagen’s coach suggested the Parken noise levels would be 10 times that of Old Trafford, which didn’t feel fair or right.

Maybe it might be more of an argument this time around but we know the travelling Reds will somehow make themselves heard too. It promises to be some occasion, and some test, for United and I’m honoured I’ll be there to take it all in.

The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Manchester United Football Club.