UTD Unscripted: Bother by the Bosporus

You don’t necessarily realise it at the time, but when you’ve got hundreds of noisy locals meeting you at the airport, following you to your hotel and calling your room in the night to disrupt your sleep ahead of the following day’s game, you’re actually picking up valuable experience.

Looking back on our first ever trip to Turkey to face Galatasaray, back in 1993, the whole experience created a memory that will live with me forever. I genuinely don’t think there’s any better place in the world to play a game of football, in terms of atmosphere, than Turkey. I really don’t.

Back then, we were fairly new to the Champions League as it was only United’s third game in the competition since the 1960s, but certainly when you come up against Turkish opposition - and I don’t mean this with any disrespect - you would think you had enough over them to get through. Unfortunately, we soon discovered that they were a really good side and we ended up only drawing the first leg at Old Trafford 3-3, having gone two goals up early on. We were obviously disappointed after letting that one slip, but we still should have had enough to go out there for the second leg and get through, even if we were hamstrung by UEFA’s ‘foreigners’ rule.

It was a really difficult place to go, though, and Galatasaray and their supporters made it really hard for us, pretty much from the moment we landed in Istanbul. Yes, some of the rules may not have been adhered to – I’ve no doubt about that – but it’s still etched in my memory, it really is. You could see at first sight how atmospheric football was in Turkey.

You’re playing for Manchester United and you’ve got to be able to handle any atmosphere. We have it here when we go to our big rivals, but I suppose it did come as a bit of a shock when we got to the airport to be greeted by the Galatasaray fans and their ‘Welcome to Hell’ banner. They were alongside us chanting every step of the way, even after we got on the coach. Cars were driving beside us and tooting their horns and whatever. It was certainly different but you’re playing for United and you’ve got to be able to handle that. 
Denis Irwin says

“I don’t think there’s any better place for atmosphere than Turkey. I really don’t.”

When we got to the stadium the following day, however, things got even more hostile. Before the game, we were right underneath the pitch in the dressing room. In order to go out and have a look around at the pitch beforehand, we had to go round a long tunnel and come out to up through a hole in the ground order to reach the pitch. Once we came out into the arena, it was incredible.

The ground was packed to the rafters already; apparently the crowd were in the ground four hours before kick-off! You had one side singing to the other side, then another side sung and then they’d all join together, singing and jumping around. It was an unbelievable atmosphere. They were playing Manchester United, we were a huge team. The game of football has grown massively in the last 30 years but United were still a huge draw back in 1993. For them, it was an opportunity to put on a bit of a show and they certainly did that.

When the game kicked off, it was an incredible place to play football really, very hostile. Pally said it made Anfield look like a tea party, and I know what he’s saying: when you go to Liverpool and Leeds, there’s a great atmosphere there and you’ve got to get a handle on it, but I don’t think anywhere compares with Turkey. There’s a great atmosphere in Greece when you go to face teams over there, but that night at Galatasaray, at an old stadium, it was just incredible. I think there were 30,000 to 40,000 people there, bouncing all night. They have it all the time when they play their local rivals Fenerbahce and Besiktas and I’m sure Basaksehir are the same – though obviously it’s not the same during these times we’re currently experiencing.

If you love your football, it’s a great place to go just to sample it, even if you’re not playing. I’ve been back to Turkey a couple of times watching games and there’s still a great atmosphere there.

Unfortunately, the result didn’t go well for us that night. We just didn’t play well enough on the night to win the game. I’m not making any excuses, but it was a really bumpy pitch and it made it hard for us to play our football. We never really got going, didn’t have enough to win it and we ended up drawing 0-0, which put us out on away goals.

The game only really became interesting after the final whistle!

We got pelted with objects by the fans and I think Eric decided to have a fight with the riot police, which didn’t go down too well! We were on our way down the stairs and he had an altercation with one of the riot police. I think Robbo was first in there to help, really just to get Eric out of there, because we weren’t going to win any situation there. It just added to the whole trip, I suppose, with the disappointment at going out and what happened at the end. 
Denis Irwin says

“The game only really became interesting after the final whistle! We got pelted!”

Not that it was finished then, either. A few bricks were thrown at the bus after the game. It was just one thing after another. They were in great spirits after the game because they’d upset the applecart and knocked the great Manchester United out of the European Cup, but it was just mad, it really was. When you go into any away game, normally there’s a group of home fans who’ll give you a bit of stick on the way in. That’s part and parcel of it. This went a lot further than all that.

The whole trip was a huge learning curve, because it was our first time back into the European Cup, so it was a huge learning curve and it came so quick. It’s a memory that will always be there because of the atmosphere alone, but at the time it gave us lessons to learn from. We went back there the following year and got the same result in the group stage, which wasn’t so bad, even though we ended up going out again.
Denis Irwin says

“A few bricks were thrown at our bus. That trip was a huge learning curve.”

In the end, all the experiences – Galatasaray in particular – do help you. You need experience in Europe, you really do. You need to have been down that road before. I know it’s a cup competition and sometimes you can get away with it in cup competitions, but not in the Champions League. We were hugely disappointed to go out to Dortmund in 1997 and Monaco here in 1998 before we won it in 1999. Those three or four years, even though it seemed like a long, long time, were a huge learning curve in Europe.

It was a totally different style to the Premier League at the time. The Premier League didn’t have so many foreign players and it was a bit gung-ho, a bit off-the-cuff. It wasn’t as tactical as it was in some parts of Europe. It probably wasn’t as technical either, as we’ve improved massively on that. A lot of countries you go to, the teams would play for the first 10 minutes and the fans would get right behind them. You’d have to handle that first 10 to 15 minutes and get over it and then play your own football. If you went to Turkey and Greece that was the case and then you’d go to Spain which was a lot more technical and tactical. It was all a learning curve and we got there eventually.

Nowadays, there aren’t as many secrets or surprises in European football. You used to play in Turkey and Greece and you wouldn’t know so much about the opposition, whereas now everybody knows who they’re facing and every game is available somewhere in the world. I have to say, though, we were on the receiving end of a shock in Istanbul three weeks ago when we lost to Basaksehir. Like I say, though, European football is a learning curve and the return game at Old Trafford gives the boys an opportunity to show that they’ve learned from the lessons out in Istanbul.

I know from experience that those trips can be a bit of an eye-opener!

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