UTD Unscripted: The fall of Roma
This is not normal.
We’d been drawn against Roma in the Champions League quarter-finals and they really did have a good team at the time. The first leg out in Rome was tough. Tactically it was a challenge because Roma didn’t have a striker, they just had Francesco Totti dropping deep, usually flicking the ball on, one-touch, to one of their runners. It was a bit different to how Barcelona used that false nine approach a few years later, in the sense that Barcelona had the runners, but there was a lot more play in midfield, whereas Roma would send the ball in to Totti and you’d literally have four of his team-mates – two high midfielders and two wingers – just bombing forward. It was something quite new that we hadn’t really come up against and they did it really well. Totti was top, to be honest. Sometimes you come up against players with reputations and you maybe think: actually, he wasn’t quite as good as I thought, but he was certainly one of those where you come away thinking: yeah, top player.
As for the Stadio Olimpico, what a great place to play football. The atmosphere was incredible. There was a bit of trouble between United fans and the police in the stands, so there was a right edge to the game and you could feel it in the stadium. It was my first season at the club, so really I was still having my first taste of the Champions League, playing big away games of that nature, so it was tough but I loved it.
Of course, we always do things the hard way. Having Scholesy sent off after half-an-hour was a blow, then we went 1-0 down not long afterwards. One thing that stands out, I remember, was that we were warned beforehand by the staff about Roma’s multi-ball system, whereby when the ball went out of play for a corner, the ballboys would run on and put the balls right on the corner spot so Totti could literally run up and just take it immediately. We were warned by the manager and the coaches, but their first goal came from it. Ball goes out and before you know it, the corner’s coming in and Taddei scored from it.
We were desperate to get an away goal to take into the second leg; that was something the manager always encouraged us to do because he appreciated the importance of having that away goal in the bag if you needed it when you got home. Losing Scholesy and then going behind was a double blow. The crowd was up, the atmosphere grew even more and suddenly, because of the way they played, you suddenly felt like everything was being thrown at you, so you had to knuckle down and dig deep. It was a proper, bite-down-on-your-gum-shield situation.
We landed a big blow in the second half when we got that away goal on the counter attack. Cristiano went on a great run down the right and fed Ole. Now, Ole doesn’t get enough credit for his ability as a right winger, if you ask me. He had a great delivery in him, as he showed on that occasion by putting a brilliant ball in for Wazza, who took his time and put in a great finish. Huge goal. We’d been under pressure and hadn’t seen much of the ball, so we were hanging in, but that goal gave us a massive boost for the rest of the game and going into the second leg. It gave us a real sense that it was game on. We conceded a second and lost 2-1, but I remember the manager coming in afterwards and he was quite happy with the result, very positive.
“When we get them back home, we’re in a good position,”he said, so we went into the second leg in a very positive frame of mind anyway.
Of course, we were going into the game without a huge player since Scholesy was suspended, but that meant I had Fletch next to me and I loved playing with him. We played some big games together and a lot of it comes from trusting each other and having the belief that you can rely on the person playing next to you. Obviously, playing with Scholesy, you’ve got that in abundance anyway, but with Fletch I had a great understanding and really enjoyed playing with him. We’d do each other’s work, if you like. We were happy to do each other’s running where we needed to because we were on the same wavelength. We had that determination between us, that understanding.
So I had no worries at all about Scholesy not playing, but I was thinking a lot about my thigh.
I was struggling with a dead leg during the warm up. I was never not going to play, but I remember coming in and thinking more about my thigh than I was about the game.
I hope I’m alright, I hope I’m alright.
It probably helped me a little bit because it meant I wasn’t getting over-excited before kick-off. I was just hoping it wasn’t going to be stiff at the start of the game. In the meantime, the manager was repeating to us:
“Pass it forward, run forward.”He’d usually tell us that before a game anyway, but that night he said it extra. Then you get out there, the atmosphere’s electric and that just fired us up even more.
About 10 minutes in, Ronaldo picked the ball up on the right-hand side. There was space in front of me around the edge of the box and Ronaldo was coming inside, I saw that space and thought: that’s where I need to get into.
Ronaldo found me and my touch was just slightly under my feet but I strongly remember thinking: the keeper’s just off his line.
It’s weird, sometimes, the things you see and recognise out on the pitch over a distance. You might get a sense from one step that someone is coming towards you, or you might sense that a full-back is a little too narrow… for whatever reason, your senses just tell you. I remember that recognition. We’re talking a split-second, but I still remember seeing it, feeling like he was coming closer to me and I just felt if I could dig it out then I’d have a decent chance of it going in. Actually, my touch being so bad probably made my decision for me, because if it was out of my feet then I probably wouldn’t have done it, but the fact that the ball was tucked under my feet really only left me with that kind of finish to try.
When you watch it back, it’s a strange goal and it probably looks a little bit lucky - I’m not saying it wasn’t - but it was one of those moments where it happened probably how I meant to do it. It didn’t come off very often during my career, but I did just sense the keeper taking that step towards me, coming off his line a little bit and I thought: if I can dig it with a little bit of topspin then it’s got a chance.
It all came together quite nicely in the end!
A few minutes later, Smudger scored a great goal to put us two up. The manager always said about passing forward as quick as you can, and that goal summed it up. It was one-touch all the way through, then a lovely pass around the corner from Giggsy to Smudger. Again it was about emotion. You’ve got Smudger playing up top who hadn’t played up there loads, he’d been out with his long-term injury and he was probably surprised to be playing in some ways. The energy he’d give us, the energy of Fletch and then the energy that we were all thriving off, it was all summed up in that goal. Bang. Bang. Bang. Goal.
The noise was big for the first goal and it got even bigger for the second goal. Then it just went on from there. I don’t think anyone could take a deep breath to understand what was happening. It was relentless. Go again and again and again. Credit to the boys because every time we scored, we’d go again, keeping building and building.
Giggsy was on fire. I remember him playing off the front, with Wazza on the left, I think, and Giggsy playing as a no.10 off Smudger, and our third goal was the same. It was just back to front, Giggsy crosses for Wazza to finish. Bang, a goal from nowhere which just took your breath away. We still rode that wave of noise. One celebration was topped by the next and then the next. The energy we had from that was amazing. We strangled Roma in the end because it was too much for them to deal with.
On the stroke of half-time, Ronaldo scored another brilliant goal and suddenly we were walking back to the dressing room four goals up. We wanted the big start, we believed we could get it and create waves, and we certainly did that, but we would never have thought we would be four up at half-time. It’s a tricky one because you come in at 4-0 and as much as part of you is telling you that the game’s over and you’ve done great, there’s still a part of you that says: it wouldn’t take much for them to get back into the game. One quick goal, maybe one more and suddenly it’s game on, so it was mixed feelings. Pure excitement and adrenaline, but you’ve still got to control it and think: we’ve got a job to do second half. Do it all over again. They’re a challenge, those moments, as a player, because you need to keep the adrenaline up but it’s not always easy to do.
We did. We scored again less than five minutes into the second half. It was a ridiculous ball in from Giggsy again for Ronaldo’s second goal. One touch cross, incredible. That first goal straight after half-time just kept the ball rolling. If that goal had gone to them or gone a bit longer, the game might have gone a little bit flat, but the fact that we managed to score again just took the roof off again.
On the hour I scored again, probably one of the best goals, maybe one of the best hits, of my career. Sometimes you just hit them. It happens in training where you just hit the top corner and you just think: That was nice. Where did that come from? I probably didn’t even realise how far out I was, but again it was probably just off the back of how the night was going. Everything was so positive, the boys were flying, I was so confident, everything was coming off. That wave of noise and everything else just told me to shoot. I probably should never have shot from there, but I was just in the moment. Same as the first goal: you get that split-second of what you want to do before you get it and I managed to strike it just as I wanted to.
I saw it go in the top corner and just started laughing.
I remember running off with Wazza, just smiling and laughing at him as if to say: What’s going on here? In that moment there, there was probably a bit of realisation that it probably didn’t get much better than that. It was something special. Maybe there was something in the air that night – even Roma’s goal was brilliant. Daniele De Rossi – another top player – scored a hell of a goal that just gets lost.
Sometimes in training when one team just clicks and they’re flying, smiling, shouting, loud, enjoying themselves, it makes them run faster and try harder, gives them more energy, adrenaline, buzz… it was like that. You try things you wouldn’t normally try and you just do it. Every time we tried something it came off. Even Patrice came on at right-back and put one in from outside the box! That was probably the worst goal of the lot, mind – a little pea roller into the bottom corner.
I was off the pitch by that point. I came off with about 20 minutes to go. I remember Mick Phelan, when I came and sat in the dugout, he leant across and said:
“How much did you cost again?”I just looked at him and he said:
“I think you’ve just paid most of it off,”and started laughing. It was a tongue-in-cheek remark from Mick, but there was probably a bit more to it than that for myself. It did feel like: I’m part of it now, certainly more than I did before that game. I did already feel part of the club because everyone had been so welcoming and the season had gone so well, but that was a moment where it sort of dawned on me: this is it. Mick didn’t mean it like that, but I took a lot of confidence from that.
It was quite loud and boisterous in the dressing room afterwards, obviously we were very satisfied and everyone felt such a buzz. After the game I went to Wings, a Chinese restaurant in Manchester, for a quick bite to eat with my family and the whole restaurant stood and clapped us in. It was madness.
That result meant a lot to us as a group. After Roma, there was a sense that it wasn’t just a normal quarter-final that we’d got through, there was a different side to it and there was an appreciation that it was special, but there was also a genuine feeling after that, that we had a chance to go on and win the thing. We hadn’t won the league at that point for three years so as a group we were still looking to be successful and that was another stepping stone for us. We can win things, win leagues, challenge for Champions Leagues. As well as that one-off game, it meant a lot more than that for us as a group. That season we won the league. The next year we won the league and the Champions League, and the confidence to win those trophies was massively helped by nights like Roma.
You don’t often get nights like that, where every player is probably playing at eight out of ten or above. That’s probably why I started laughing, because of the realisation: this is not normal for us all to be having this kind of night at the same time. Everything coming together in the quarter-final of the Champions League. There were times where we scored a few goals against teams in the league or what have you, but to do it on that stage, against a team like that, was what you strive to achieve. It was just one of those nights where everything came together and everyone found a way to give their very best.