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UTD Unscripted: A steep learning curve

Sunday 03 May 2020 05:00

I remember the first European draw we had during my time at Manchester United. English clubs had been banned from Europe for five years and then, because we’d won the FA Cup in 1990, we were in the hat for the 1990/91 European Cup Winners’ Cup.

We were all keen to see who we got, and as news of the draw came through… well, it was a little underwhelming.
Pecsi Munkas.
Are they non-league?
I don’t mean to be too disrespectful, but there wasn’t anyone in our dressing room who’d heard of them before. But hey ho, it was a trip out to Hungary, it was a game in Europe and after a period of waiting for it, it was nice for English clubs to be able to play in European competition again, however low-key a start it was.
My overwhelming memory of Pecsi Munkas was seeing a few Father Christmases among our fans. We trained the night before the game and there they were, watching on, which was especially odd because it was September. That stayed with me, as you’d expect.
We won home and away, and the other thing I remember most is that we got a free-kick about 35 yards out. I only ever took two free-kicks for Manchester United in what could be called shooting range. The more famous one is the one I scored against Blackburn on the night we lifted our first Premier League title. The first was this one. Archie Knox, our assistant manager, was on the sidelines shouting at me to have a go and, despite my doubts, I decided to take it on.
It must have bounced four times before it hit the keeper.
I looked back over at Archie and he was just laughing at me, as were most of the team and the fans.
Needless to say, I never took another free-kick until Blackburn.
I had a bit more luck in front of goal in the next step on our European journey. Again, it was low-key, with a tie against Wrexham. Even though it was only 40 minutes away from us, UEFA rules meant that the night before the away leg, we had to stay in the country in which the game was being played, so what would have been a coach ride on the day became an overnight stay in Wales for us.
We won 3-0 away, and it was a nice night for me because it was one of the better goals I scored in my time at Old Trafford. Bouncing ball, took a step back and crashed it into the roof of the net. As you can see when you look back, I enjoyed that one! Technically, yeah, I’d scored my first ever goal in European football, but I’ve got to admit it doesn’t feel the same when it’s against a team from the Football League. It was a different matter for Mark Hughes. Sparky had an injury, his ankle had ballooned, but he was desperate to play in that tie because it was on Welsh soil.
Gary Pallister says

"We won 3-0 away at Wrexham, and it was a nice night for me because it was one of the better goals I scored. Bouncing ball, took a step back and crashed it into the roof of the net."

It didn’t feel like we’d really arrived in European football at the time. Montpellier was a really tough fixture, so that changed all that. That was my first introduction to playing against Laurent Blanc, who obviously came to United later on. I remember watching Laurent and thinking: Who is this kid? He looked sensational. So cool on the ball. He looked like a midfield player even though he was playing centre-back. He was classy even then.
Montpellier, without doubt, was our toughest fixture on the road to Rotterdam, but we got through that 3-1 on aggregate, then we made our way past Legia Warsaw in the semi-finals and got a proper glamour tie in the final: Barcelona in Rotterdam.
We felt quite fortunate that Hristo Stoichkov was suspended and had to miss the game. They were really hampered without him and we found out to our cost, years later, that he was some player. It was a bonus for us but they still had a side filled with plenty of quality, so we had to get our tactics spot-on and that’s what we did on the night. I thought we were the better team, limited them to very few chances and certainly carved out enough chances of our own to win it. Sparky got a couple of goals and, although we were hanging on a little bit and Clayton Blackmore had to kick one off the line in the last couple of minutes, it felt deserved to me. To prove that they were a good side, Barcelona won the European Cup the following year, so it showed what an immense hurdle we’d overcome on the night.
But you soon learn that European football is unforgiving. The next season we were straight back in the Cup Winners’ Cup as defending cup holders, and we squeaked past Athinaikos of Greece after extra-time before going out to Atletico Madrid in the second round. The damage was done over in Spain where we let in a couple of late goals and lost 3-0. I picked up an injury ahead of the second leg and the gaffer asked me to go on the bench, just in case we got back into the tie. Sparky scored really early to give us hope, so we were in the tie and he threw me on with about 25 minutes to go and told me to play upfront. I got on the pitch and within two minutes Bernd Schuster scored to end the tie, so that plan went out of the window! They were no mugs, Atletico Madrid, and that tie showed us the importance of coming back to Old Trafford with an away goal. Without one, it was just too much of an uphill task.
Having finished second, we went into the UEFA Cup in 1992/93, and that was hardly a European campaign to write home about. We drew 0-0 with Torpedo Moscow at Old Trafford, then again out in Russia, even after extra-time, so we went to penalties.
Earlier that year, we’d gone out of the FA Cup on penalties against Southampton, and Neil Webb missed one for us. When we picked the five takers in Moscow, Webby was one of them. We were sat around as the penalties were being taken, and I’m looking at Webby, and he just doesn’t look comfortable at all.
I still don’t know what possessed me, but I walked over to him and said: “Webby, I feel alright; do you want me to take this one?”
Oh, s***!
But I could see that he just didn’t want to do it because of the Southampton miss. I felt ok, so up I went. I tried to give the keeper the eyes, put it right down his throat and that was us out of Europe for another season.
The main aim that season was to win the Premier League, anyway, after waiting 26 years to be champions. Of course, that meant qualifying for the European Cup and it was massive, huge for us to be in that. You want to play in the biggest competitions against the biggest sides in Europe and that was the place to be. Let’s face it: a huge part of Manchester United’s history is based on the Babes and their foray into Europe, then after the tragedy in Munich, Sir Matt built another team to go on and win the European Cup, so Manchester United is steeped in that competition. For us to get a chance to play in it was what we all dreamed of. The monkey off the back was getting that title first, but it opened up other avenues to get United back to the glories that it once had. After years of disappointment we were back at the big table.
The players were very excited and I daresay the manager was too. He’d won a couple of European competitions already; winning the Cup Winners’ Cup with us and also with Aberdeen, and I think he loved the challenge. Like the players, once the title was out of the way then the next big fish to fry was the European Cup.
Our preparation changed for the games in Europe and we knew that it was something the manager was desperate to do well in. We all wanted to prove that United were ready to mix it with the big boys again. If we played on a Saturday and had a European game the following week then we’d be in on the Sunday rather than having a day off. Warming down, massages, then we’d probably be looking at videos of the opposition, looking at different strengths and weaknesses, which was completely new and different for us. You didn’t need that with English teams because you knew what to expect, but with Europe you were going into the unknown. These players and their tactics were unfamiliar to us, and that’s something the manager was trying to make us aware of, so we weren’t going into the lions’ den unprepared.
Talk about going into the unknown, our first European Cup tie – United’s first European Cup tie since the late 1960s – was against Kispest Honved, so it was another low-key tie, another trip to Hungary and, honestly, all I can remember about the tie is that we went through!
The second round, though… that was a little more memorable.
The main lesson we all took from our tie against Galatasaray was that none of us wanted to be taking our holidays in Turkey anytime soon! I’ve never seen anything like it. Football-wise, it was disappointing. Everybody in Turkey seemed to play their part in the whole thing. They let Galatasaray fans into the airport so as we came through, we were greeted with banners telling us that we were going to die, we had people shouting and screaming at us, and the police allowed all that, so we knew what we faced straight away. We made it to the bus and I remember looking around and there were a lot of shocked faces on there, especially among the younger lads.
It was a relief to get to our hotel, which was a beautiful place – a former palace, actually – and it was so, so grand. The reception area itself was huge, probably the size of a football pitch itself, and I was one of the last guys off the coach into reception. As I passed through, marvelling at the place, I walked past a bellboy – he was maybe 20, 21 – pushing a load of luggage. I just let on to him and said: “Morning!”
He looked me dead in the eye, just ran his finger across his throat and walked off!
I just stopped, looked to see if anybody else had seen it happen, but nobody had. I just stood there in complete disbelief. That wasn’t the end of it. The lads were getting phone calls to their rooms and all sorts, just from locals trying to disrupt our preparations for the game.
We hadn’t helped ourselves in the first leg, when we’d gone 2-0 up and let it slip, and even though we ended up rescuing a 3-3 draw, we should have put that game to bed when we had the chance. The manager often said that the roof can fall in on you in Europe, and that’s what happened that night.
Going into the second game I failed a fitness test and ended up in the stands, so I was watching on and we were all confident that we could still win over there. I remember Sharpie scoring a goal but it was incorrectly given as offside. That would have made all the difference because it ended up 0-0 and that cost us the tie. The atmosphere in the stadium was really intimidating, a policeman hit Eric with his baton after the final whistle and started a bit of a scrap in the tunnel, then we had the bus bricked on the way back to the airport, so that was a memorable one. I’m not against passion in football, obviously, but the police and the fans overstepped the mark then. It left a sour taste in the mouth.
That opened our eyes to the kind of shenanigans that can go on when you play away from home in Europe. People watching you train, your facilities not being up to scratch, delays getting to the ground, the hotel being surrounded by supporters chanting to disturb players’ sleep… a lot of things go on.
Imagine the joy we felt when we were drawn against Galatasaray again the following season! By this point, 1994/95, the competition had taken on a group-stage format. We went over there and drew 0-0 again, which was a decent result, and then in the final game of the group we battered them 4-0 on the night when a lot of young lads played; Simon Davies and Becks both scored.
It’s still a learning process, and that was the night that we kind of showed that we’d learnt from the intimidation and, even though it counted for nothing in terms of qualification, we absolutely crushed them. We should have done that the previous year, but we were constantly taking on new information and becoming a stronger European side.
Gary Pallister says

"We were greeted with banners telling us that we were going to die, we had people shouting and screaming at us ... I remember looking around and there were a lot of shocked faces, especially among the younger lads."

We weren’t ready to win the European Cup at that stage, though, and that was probably best underlined during the group-stage games between ourselves and Barcelona.
In the first one, a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford, the gaffer still talks about this one because he left out Brucey and played Paul Parker alongside me at centre-back, telling Parks to stay with Romario. I immediately thought it would just confuse things, so I just said to Parks: “I’ll stay left, you stay right.” My thinking was that it just made things difficult for us in terms of keeping our shape.

Unfortunately, Romario ran off Parks, in behind me to score the first of their two goals and we’re probably both as much to blame as each other for that one. The gaffer wasn’t happy at the time and he still kills me for not listening to him, even now! That was my first introduction to Romario, who was a real livewire, but it was a superb game and we scored a couple of great goals through Sparky and Sharpie to take a deserved draw.
Next time, at the Nou Camp, it was a different story.
I was led a merry dance that night by Romario and Denis was led a merry dance by Stoichkov. Romario was unbelievably quick; it’s the only time in my career I could walk off the pitch, hold up my hands and say: “Yeah, I couldn’t get anywhere near him.”
You usually have a bit of give and take, sometimes the guy you’re marking plays better than you do, but I remember him standing me up near the halfway line and I thought to myself: Okay, let’s see what you’ve got. Next thing I know, he’s gone past me and I’m just like… oh my God. The thing about him was that he’d gone AWOL from Barcelona and been at the Rio carnival for a week beforehand. He came back, got fined and they stuck him straight back in the team against us. I always joke that I’m not quite sure how hard he was partying out in Rio, but he was certainly on a different planet to the one I was on that night! After that game, I just came off and thought to myself…
What was that?
We were hampered by the foreigners rule, I should point out. No Schmeichel, no Eric, and we ended up having to leave out three of what I would regard to be our strongest starting line-up, but even if we had a full complement, they were the superior team on that night, certainly.
We got well thumped. We were lucky to get away with a 4-0 defeat; they were on a different level that night and that was one of the steepest parts of the learning curve. That was a real eye-opener. The football they played that night was great. That game and the first time we played Juventus, they were the games that told the players we really had to find another level. The level at which we could win the Premier League wasn’t high enough to make us champions of Europe.
With bowing out of the Champions League and missing out on the Premier League on the final day of 1994/95, that meant a return to the UEFA Cup in 1995/96, and a memorable encounter with Rotor Volgograd of Russia.
The first leg was away and that was an eye-opener. Taller players like myself and Peter Schmeichel found our feet would hang over the edge of the bed – they were that small – and the towels they gave us in the shower room were tea towels to dry yourself down with. Parks might have been alright but me and Schmikes struggled a wee bit! There was a phone exchange in the hotel, like something from ‘Allo ‘Allo, where you had to change wires and sockets to make calls. We walked around the city and all we saw were Ladas. It wasn’t the most glamorous, the tie wasn’t great and we drew 0-0 over there before a nightmare first half back at Old Trafford had us 2-0 down at half-time. We came back in the second half and Schmikes actually equalised, but once again we were out on away goals. We had a much younger team that season, with the Class of ’92 lads coming in on a regular basis, and that was a real harsh lesson for them.
For education purposes, you couldn’t do much better than our next European game; an away trip to Juventus in the following season’s Champions League. They were the holders but it wasn’t just the quality of their play; it was their work rate – that was what really took everybody by surprise. They chased us in that first half and never gave us an inch. Everywhere on the pitch they just chased us down instantly. We came off at the end of that first half and agreed: it’s impossible for them to do that again in the second half, and it was. It eased down in the second half and we got a bit more of a foothold in the game, but that first half they must have enjoyed about 90 per cent of the possession. They gave us a right going over and it should have been more than the 1-0 result suggests.
Had we played it again, knowing how they’d approach it, we could have prepared for that and made it a very similar match. We could have upped our own tempo, but it took us by surprise that they put so much into that first half.
We accepted that we weren’t as good as them, but we knew we were improving as a team all the time. We lost 1-0 to Juventus again later in the group stage at Old Trafford, but we still made it through to the knockout stages after taking enough points off Rapid Vienna and Fenerbahce. We beat both of them away from home, which required really good performances.
Gary Pallister says

"Romario was unbelievably quick; it’s the only time in my career I could walk off the pitch, hold up my hands and say: 'Yeah, I couldn’t get anywhere near him.'"

The quarter-final draw pitted us against Porto, and that was a pivotal tie for us in our development. They were a decent side at the time, they’d been in the Champions League for a number of years, but we were exceptional in the first leg at Old Trafford. That night was a really great atmosphere and we banged in four goals. It was weird because we knew they were still a decent side, so even though we went over there with a four-goal advantage in the return leg, they had a couple of chances in the first few minutes. That reminded us that we needed to keep our concentration because we didn’t want them getting one or two and it turning into a proper scrap. We kept it to 0-0, they lost their momentum and I remember everyone coming off the pitch after that game with blisters, because the ground was that hard. Everyone was having their feet doused in iodine to harden the blisters before our next game later that week.
But what still, to this day, sticks most in the mind about that campaign is the semi-final against Borussia Dortmund. We battered them home and away – it was men against boys at Old Trafford – but they won both games 1-0 and both goals deflected off me. Perhaps it just wasn’t meant to be. I always say that we wouldn’t have scored if we’d played three games against Dortmund because we just missed chance after chance after chance. We’d hit the post and had one cleared off the line in Germany, so when they scored late on, that gave them a huge advantage. Again, the importance of the away goal was underlined for all the lads. We overran them at Old Trafford but just couldn’t do the one thing we needed to do. Maybe I’m doing Dortmund a disservice because I didn’t give them a cat in hell’s chance of beating Juventus in the final, but they managed to do that too.
We knew we should have reached that final, so the next season we began in style. We felt that we were ready. We beat Kosice 3-0 away in our first game, which was the perfect start, and our first home game of the group stage was the best opportunity to make a statement: Juventus, again.
It was massive, absolutely massive, for us to beat them. While we were waiting to go out on the pitch, we got the news that Keaney was going to be missing for nine months, having done his cruciate at Leeds a few days earlier. That news came through just prior to the game, and that was a huge blow to the team because Roy was pivotal in that side; a real driving force. We were already dealing with that huge mental blow when we went 1-0 down inside 30 seconds.
You’re stood there, thinking to yourself:
We’ve lost Keaney.

We’re playing Juventus.

We’re 1-0 down after 30 seconds.
We had to really pick ourselves up from that position, and we really dug in and did so. We produced one of the truly fantastic nights at Old Trafford. We stormed back and Juventus just couldn’t handle us. We went 3-1 up and although Zidane scored a last-minute free-kick, we were worthy winners.
That was another major move forward for us in our development. Mentally, going out and beating a side as good as Juventus, who had been our nemesis, who had taught us a lesson the previous season, was absolutely huge. Results like that give you a belief that the Champions League is obtainable. It’s within your grasp. If you can beat them, you can beat anybody.
We’re ready now.
In my time at United, that was probably the biggest result we had.
We qualified with five wins from six, including a tasty couple of wins over Feyenoord. I had a bit of a ding-dong with their centre-back, Ulrich van Gobbel, and I remember sizing him up and thinking: “This lad’s got muscles on muscles!” That was the game when Paul Bosvelt put in an absolutely shocking challenge on Denis and somehow didn’t even get booked for it. They took him off straight away, which was a smart move because I think there might have been a bit of retribution if he’d stayed on. How he wasn’t red carded or even punished retrospectively is beyond me. But we were getting that kind of treatment and winning 3-1 at a really hostile venue, and you only got those kind of results when you’re on the right lines.
Then, Monaco happened.
Gary Pallister says

"We really dug in. We stormed back and Juventus just couldn’t handle us. That was another major move forward for us in our development."

I picked up an injury just before the first leg while ruled me out of the whole tie, and we had a lot of injuries go against us during the course of the season. Keaney was still out, of course, Giggsy pulled his hamstring against Derby and Schmikes injured himself against Arsenal in the game before the second leg against Monaco. We’d drawn 0-0 over there but we were missing most of our spine for the second leg, plus I think maybe Becks, Scholesy and Butty were carrying knocks. We went 1-0 down very early on, and even though I was sat up there in the stands alongside the other injured lads, I still thought we’d get back in the game. Ole equalised early in the second half but we just couldn’t find a winner. I certainly felt we were a better team than Monaco, but we were out. Even with the injuries, we should have beaten them, but the Champions League is an unforgiving competition, as we’d seen so many times.
That was my final season at Old Trafford. I rejoined Middlesbrough ahead of the 1998/99 season and I think everybody remembers what happened that season!
The United lads were still my friends, of course, so I watched all their Champions League games in the Treble season. When you play that long for that club, it gets in your blood. You’re part of that family, so I wasn’t on the pitch with them through that campaign but I was certainly cheering them on from home.
You could see that they were definitely ready to win it in 1998/99. The core of the team by that point was Becks, Scholesy, Butty, the Nevilles, Giggsy… these guys had been on a lot of adventures in Europe and gleaned a lot of knowledge over a number of years. They were in the prime of their lives, the prime of their careers, so they were always going to be fighting to reach finals at that stage. That was the quality they had.
It was a long journey in Europe for United, from 1990 to 1999, but those steps, those big victories, are all part of the mental strength you need; having the belief that these sides you put on a pedestal – Juventus, Barcelona, AC Milan and so on – are beatable. You saw in 1998/99 that the players had built that belief that there was nobody to be afraid of. Getting out of such a tough group, then beating Inter and Juventus in the knockouts; they had evolved into an outstanding team.
I watched the final against Bayern at home. Usually I watched them in the pub, but that night I was at home and I spent almost the whole night frustrated by what was happening. Bayern had more clear-cut chances but I didn’t think we played that badly. It just didn’t look like it was going to be our night. The balance of the team had all gone to pot, because if you take icons like Keane and Scholes out of any team, that’s what happens. To compensate that, you move Becks and Giggsy off their usual wings, so of course we were imbalanced. But we stayed in the game until Fergie time, and that’s when we always had a chance.
Nobody should have been surprised because we’d been doing that for years. The Brucey pair against Sheffield Wednesday was such a big deal in getting the title in 1993, and that was possibly the start of it. So we always had that chance, and when Teddy equalised, then Ole popped up to win it, I was off the settee, leaping, screaming, probably looking pretty stupid, but I couldn’t have cared less.
I won’t lie: I was slightly envious that I wasn’t there to complete the journey with the lads. But you never know: we’d conceded two goals that had deflected off me in the semi-finals a couple of years earlier, so if I’d been in the team still, I might have scuppered the Treble! I’m quite happy to not overthink it. It would have been nice to complete my set of medals with the Champions League, but to have had the career I had – especially considering the start I had in my footballing life – I’m not sad about missing out on one piece of silverware.
I knew all the lads inside the dressing room except Jesper, Jaap and Yorkie, so I’d been on that journey with those guys for many years. I couldn’t have been prouder of them or happier for them. I knew what it meant to the club, the players and the manager. Even though I’d left, I still felt a part of it because I’d been part of that journey, been through all the experiences with them, and I had such a fantastic time along the way.

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Utd Unscripted: Exceptional stories, brilliantly told