UTD Unscripted: Champions League nights
During my career, I always went into my little bubble before I played a game, so there are so many games that I don’t remember. But I’ll never forget my first proper taste of the Champions League.
I was in my second season at IFK Gothenburg. We’d come through the qualifying round against Sparta Prague, and our reward was to be drawn in the same group as Barcelona, Galatasaray… and Manchester United.
Our first group game was at Old Trafford, and the night before we were allowed to train inside the empty stadium. That was my first ever encounter with Old Trafford and it blew me away straight away. It was an unbelievable pitch, but even though there were no people at all inside the stands, it felt like it was a full stadium. It was a fantastic feeling just to be there, and for me it was the biggest club stadium I’d been in at that stage in my career. I remember coming out onto the pitch and just looking around at all those seats, feeling the air of the place and just taking it all in. I still remember that training session because I was so excited just to be out on that pitch. It made me so eager to play the game the next night.
The problem when you actually play the game is that you don’t often have the possibility of enjoying it. Like I said, I always went into my bubble during a game, so I actually preferred the training session the night before the United game to the game itself!
Of course, it was a fantastic atmosphere, but after the game – which we lost 4-2 - I felt that we were a bit too afraid of United, too respectful. When we came off the pitch we definitely felt that we hadn’t played our best level. We felt that if we had shown more courage then we could have done more. So, when United flew to Gothenburg later in the group, we were well up for it.
When the second game came, it was really late in our season, almost winter. It was so cold, so windy and we had all the conditions and circumstances on our side. We had a really strong team as well and that was one of the biggest games we’d had during my time in the team. What can I say? I had a great game, more or less everything I did went my way. If I look back over the course of my career, it was one of my very best games I ever played. I gave Maysie a tough night that night. I love him though, we always have a laugh when we catch up now and he’s such a great lad.
I think Sir Alex was quite impressed by my performance, because he tried to sign me for United three times in total. Firstly, straight after that season, but I wasn’t ready to move and I felt I had more developing to do in Sweden. Secondly, at the end of our season in 1996, when I was at Parma, but I had already set my sights on joining AC Milan, who I thought was still the best team in Europe at that time. There was nothing that could change my mind about joining them.
Then of course, when Ferguson comes in for you for a third time, you realise that he really wants you! That’s a great feeling. He did that with other players – Ruud van Nistelrooy is another great example – Ferguson didn’t turn his back on a player that he really wanted. With Ruud, he stayed in contact after the move to United first fell through, then the transfer happened a year later. That was a huge confidence boost for me, knowing that he was still interested in me after I had turned United down twice. So, when I got assurances that I wasn’t just being signed to compete with Giggsy, I had to sign.
My first season at United meant another season in the Champions League, and what an unbelievable campaign that was. When I look back and think of my best games for the club and the best games of my career, the Champions League plays a major part in those memories. We had some really tough games, playing against Barcelona and Bayern Munich in our first two games. They were just great occasions to be a part of and we were perhaps a bit unlucky not to get more than just a point from each game.
I think of my displays in the two Brondby games as two of my best. I got an assist for Giggsy and I was involved in a couple of the other goals when we won 6-2 out in Denmark, but it was when we won 5-0 at home that I had a really good game. Again I was very involved in a couple of the goals, one of them was taking the ball from inside our area, running almost the length of the pitch and passing it to Becks, who crossed for Yorkie.
When you’re playing like that for a massive club like United in a competition like the Champions League, you feel fantastic. I was really in a good place at that time. My confidence was so high. When I arrived at United the previous summer, I had an injury and wasn’t playing in the beginning, and then I started to pick up and felt that my speed was back in me. It’s important, when you’ve been injured, that you recover your confidence to get past players and take them on. I started to feel that around that time. I’d scored my first goal for United at Everton a few days earlier and my confidence was shooting up all the time. I remember sitting and reading the matchday programme, seeing a page for Opta stats and I was top of all the midfield players in the Premier League at that particular time. That just fed my confidence.
That Brondby game was just a great night that we all enjoyed. Phil Neville scored too and he was taking the mickey out of me with his celebration – he pulled his sleeve over his hand like I always did – and that’s because we were quite close friends. We got to know each other really well, partly because we trained a lot together after sessions. We did extra work together because we wanted to. We both had that eagerness to constantly develop ourselves, get better and be ready to play whenever the manager wanted.
I started at Barcelona in our next group game and got another assist for Yorkie. The headlines were all about him and Coley that night though, because the two of them ripped Barcelona apart, practically by themselves. It’s fantastic to be in the same team as players playing like that. Coley and Yorkie were great friends off the pitch, so when you have that connection then it gives your football another dimension. You really get to know each other then. The things they were doing that night are hard to practice; you have to just really know each other to be able to do that.
We ended up drawing in Barcelona and again with Bayern at Old Trafford in our final group game, and just about made it through to the quarter-finals against Inter. Unfortunately for me, I was on the bench for the whole tie with Inter and the first leg of the semi-final against Juventus. Those were huge nights just to be involved in, but of course every player wants to play these games. When Giggsy injured his ankle after scoring against Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final replay, though, I got my opportunity to play in Turin.
I know a lot of people talk about that Arsenal game as maybe the best they’ve seen United play, but when people ask me which I rank as the best, I always say the second leg against Juventus. We were against two of the best teams in Europe that season in those two games, but I go for the Juventus game because it was away, we had a disadvantage before the second leg even started, then we were losing 2-0 early on and they had some amazing players in that team. To be able to turn that situation around, in Turin, in a Champions League semi-final, made that the best game of the whole season for me.
We had that great confidence in the team that we could beat anybody and turn any game around, but on the other hand you’re losing 2-0 against Juventus away, so when you’re stood there waiting to kick off after their second goal, it’s not a hill that you want to be at the bottom of. But we knew that we had played well and we were unfortunate to be 2-0 down so early in the game. After that it was about keeping on working and doing the right things. It could also be that Juventus started to ease off a little bit as well – that’s the danger when you’re 2-0 up early on.
Roy said later on that as soon as he scored to make it 2-1, he could see they were gone. That’s one of the funny things about the mental game in football, when you take a bigger lead, the other team gets a goal back and you can see them starting to take the confidence back and you have dropped a little bit. It’s so hard to find that energy and attitude to put it back, put it right and get on top again. That’s exactly what happened, I think, and we took all the momentum and just ran with it, winning 3-2 to book another meeting with Bayern in the final.
People often talk to me about Roy’s booking that ruled him out the final. We don’t need to talk about that again, whether it was down to my pass, his control or whatever. What I will say is that he was incredible that night. That really showed what Roy Keane is all about and what a great captain he was. Knowing that he was going to miss the Champions League final, he still put in one of the best performances of his career and to do that says so much about his character and personality.
With Roy and Scholesy both missing, I kind of knew that I would be starting the Champions League final, and it’s huge to know that you’re going to be playing in a game of that size. Like I said, though, the pressure on big games means you can’t always enjoy them, and that was the case in Barcelona.
We didn’t play well and Bayern were the better team, but it just came down to our belief in ourselves and being able to turn around so many games in the last minute. I missed a great chance to equalise early in the second half – probably our only chance of the first hour, really – but I wasn’t too disappointed with how things turned out!
Of course, I didn’t know that at the time I went off to be replaced by Teddy. Sitting and watching from the bench for the last 20 minutes was hard. So hard. But that team was special. We always kept the belief that we could score again, even if we weren’t playing well.
How we scored two, that maybe was a bit too much to make any sense at all!
Of course, we were all going mad on the side of the pitch when Teddy equalised, but so much of those last three minutes is a blur. I don’t remember whether I was already stood up when Ole scored or whether I jumped out of the bench; all I know is that I was suddenly off and running, like everybody else, to go and celebrate with the whole team because we knew we’d just made history.
After that, you get your hands on the Champions League trophy and you know that you’ve won the biggest competition in European football. You can’t describe that feeling properly. All of those Champions League nights are so special, but to get to the final and win it… there just isn’t another feeling like it.
Read more UTD Unscripted tales here.