“Nobody will ever win a European Cup final more dramatically than this,” declared ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley on 26 May 1999, and who could argue otherwise? Not only had Manchester United won European football’s biggest prize in the most incredible way possible; they had also achieved what no other English side had ever done before.
United were not averse to winning in Europe, they had become the first English side to lift the European Cup back in 1968 at Wembley as well as claiming the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991; but with this triumph they had not only become the best side in Europe, they had also become the first English side to win the domestic title, FA Cup and European Cup in the same season.
The final few weeks of the 1998/99 season had been epic to say the least. Having beaten Arsenal in a thrilling semi-final at Villa Park United to secure an FA Cup final place, just a few weeks later United would pip the Gunners to the Premier League title on the final game of the season; setting up the very real possibility of winning all three major tournaments in one campaign.
This was something that no side from these shores had achieved before with only Liverpool coming close most recently in 1977, but nobody at Old Trafford was taking anything for granted, following the famous old footballing adage of taking one game at a time.
But when Alex Ferguson’s men defeated Newcastle at Wembley on May 22 to complete the double an unprecedented hat-trick was very much on with only Bayern Munich, who were also going for a treble themselves after winning the Bundesliga, standing between them and the ultimate trophy haul.
But as so often in this most incredible of campaigns United would make things hard for themselves and with barely 10 minutes on the clock a foul by Ronny Johnsen close to his own area allowed Bayern midfielder Mario Basler to blast his free-kick past Peter Schmeichel to put Bayern in front.
For the rest of the game the Bavarians were by far the better side and United’s hope of winning the European Cup for the second time in their history looked to be fading fast as the attacking play that had epitomized their season was easily dealt with by Bayern’s rigid defence.
United were under-strength in the middle of the park having lost Paul Scholes and Roy Keane to suspension and their German opponents took full advantage as Mehmet Scholl hit the inside of the post and then ten minutes later Carsten Jancker’s overhead kick hit the underside of the bar. Bayern should have been out of sight.
Perhaps United’s greatest weapon that season was their strength in depth, always able to call on impact players to come off the bench and change the game just as it seemed to be slipping away from them, so with 20 minutes left ageing marksman Teddy Sheringham was brought on with the instructions from his manager still ringing in his ears. “Go out there and get us that goal.”
Still trailing and entering the final ten minutes United’s manager was forced to play his final card, throwing on the ultimate super sub Ole Gunnar Solskjær for striker Andy Cole; United knew that if they were to do the unthinkable it was now or never.
By this time the Reds’ pressure was relentless as their German opponents tired and they threw everything at Bayern’s goal in the hope that one chance could lead to the equalizer; but Ron Atkinson in the ITV commentary box that night felt they could do better, “If they equalise I think they’ll go on and win this,” he said.
Entering three minutes of injury time United were awarded a corner and goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel was waved up into the opposing penalty area in a last-ditch effort to save the game. “Can Manchester United score, they always score,” enquired commentator Tyldesley
Bayern looked to have cleared the danger only for the ball to fall to Ryan Giggs on the edge of the box whose scuffed shot was directed home by substitute Sheringham and extra-time beckoned; but United and Ferguson had other ideas and like Atkinson felt that the game was there to be won.
Sure enough just seconds later another Beckham corner was whipped into the box and there was United’s other substitute Solskjær to flick the ball high into the net. “And Solskjaer has won it!” shrieked Tyldesley.
The Bayern players fell to their knees and just seconds after the game restarted the final whistle sounded to spark scenes of wild celebrations both in the stands and on the pitch. United had indeed reached the promised land and achieved something never done before in what still remains the most dramatic finale Europe’s top club competition has ever witnessed.
To put such an extraordinary game and incredible finish into words is virtually impossible. However, when asked for his thoughts by Gary Newbon during a live post-match interview in the tunnel at the Nou Camp that night United manager Alex Ferguson used just three to sum it up perfectly: “Football. Bloody hell!”