“Manchester United don’t lose, they just run out of time.”
The words of Steve McClaren, who joined the club as a coach partway through the 1998/99 season, and to be fair, they didn’t run out of time often that season.
Even going back to the first game of the campaign, United had to fight from 2-0 down at home to Leicester, with David Beckham, in for a rough ride up and down the country after his red card in the World Cup that summer, scoring a stoppage time equaliser.
Manchester United would start as they meant to go on with the first of nine games in which they would score an equaliser or winner after the 80th minute.
In the FA Cup, United, against bitter rivals Liverpool, were 1-0 down in the 88th minute when Dwight Yorke equalised before Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (more on him later…) scored the winner moments later.
Then of course there was the FA Cup semi-final replay with Arsenal. Down to 10 men, and already saved once by the linesman’s flag, United conceded a penalty in the dying moments following a wretched Phil Neville challenge.
Peter Schmeichel saved the penalty, and United would win the game in extra time with one of the competition’s greatest ever goals, coming against a defence that had conceded just 17 times in the league that season.
And in Europe, in the second leg against Inter in the Champions League quarter-finals, Paul Scholes scored in the 88th minute to secure their path to the semi-finals.
In the first leg of the semi-final with Juventus, Ryan Giggs scored a 92nd-minute equaliser to give the Red Devils a fighting chance in Turin.
And despite conceding two early goals to Juventus, United battled back with three of their own to keep their treble hopes alive.
Looking at how Manchester United arrived at Camp Nou on 26th May 1999, one could be forgiven for thinking that an unprecedented treble win was written in the stars. Commentating on the final, Clive Tyldesley himself said after the equaliser that you had to feel this was their year.
Ahead of the Champions League final, Alex Ferguson’s men had played a whopping 62 fixtures in all competitions.
Nevertheless, United largely had a fully fit squad to choose from, with the exceptions of Scholes and Roy Keane, both missing through suspension.
There was nothing to pick between the two sides come kick-off, they had also met in the group stage and couldn’t be separated on either occasion.
While United had won a double and were chasing a treble having won the FA Cup the previous Saturday, Bayern were two games away from a treble of their own, with the DFB-Pokal final to come two weeks after the Champions League final.
They even had similar league records over the campaign; Manchester United amassed 79 points to Bayern’s 78.
So to that Wednesday evening in Barcelona.
Ever since their historic victory against Benfica in 1968, Manchester United fans had watched Leeds United, Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa contest European Cup finals.
United themselves had one of their greatest nights in Rotterdam winning the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991, but this was different; this was the big one.
It had been six long years of chastening experiences in Europe for Ferguson’s men; upon their return to the newly-created Champions League, United were dumped out on away goals by Galatasaray following their infamous trip to Hell.
The following year, they were totally dismantled by Barcelona, losing 4-0 at Camp Nou.
Two years later, they had a semi-final with Borussia Dortmund, only to lose both legs 1-0.
And in 1998, they’d be knocked out on away goals again, this time by Monaco.
The time for redemption had arrived. A raucous atmosphere greeted the treble-chasers, but after 31 years of waiting for this night, the life was quickly drained out of the United fans.
A clumsy challenge by Ronny Johnsen on Carsten Jancker saw Bayern awarded a free-kick on the edge of the area inside five minutes. Mario Basler, who presumably felt he was too close to goal to get the ball up and down over the wall, wrong-footed Peter Schmeichel in the United goal, and Bayern led.
The suggestion that the free-kick had taken a deflection – could a goalkeeper of Schmeichel’s calibre really be beaten so easily? – was quickly dismissed. Schmeichel took a step to his right, Basler went to his left.
The dream final off to a nightmare start.
The solace United could take is that they’d gone behind in each of their last three European ties and come back each time, and to their credit they responded brightly.
Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole had sights of the Bayern goal but United were unable to carve out a clear-cut chance; they were struggling to even create half chances.
Struggling to adapt without Keane and Scholes, with a makeshift midfield that had Beckham in the middle and Giggs on the right, the Germans had enough to keep United at arm’s length.
United had little trouble getting into Bayern territory, but sorely lacked a cutting edge against their opponents who snuffed out any threat with ease.
Going in behind at half-time and looking somewhat bereft of ideas, Ferguson gave his famous team-talk.
At the end of this game, the European Cup will be only six feet away from you, and you’ll not even able to touch it if we lose. Don’t you dare come back in here without giving your all.
Manchester United, indeed, gave their all. The finesse and guile wasn’t there, but the industry and desire certainly was. It appeared, however, as the game ebbed towards the seemingly inevitable conclusion, the conclusion that looked ominous from around the fifth minute of the game, that United would come up painfully short.
The team-talk didn’t quite have the desired effect – at least not straight away – as Bayern looked more likely to double their lead than surrender it, though Jesper Blomqvist had perhaps United’s best chance of the game, diving in to get on the end of GIggs’ cross inside the hour but unable to keep his effort down.
The longer the game wore on, the more apparent the differences in midfield were. United, sans Scholes and Keane, were against a midfield of Stefan Effenberg and Lothar Matthaus, with Jens Jeremies and the 1990 Ballon d’Or winner doing their best to deny Beckham any influence on proceedings.
And it’s not that United were fully out of the game; they were only 1-0 down after all, but they didn’t really look like scoring. They were seeing enough of the ball but failed to prise open a stubborn Bayern defence.
After the hour, Ferguson introduced Teddy Sheringham for Blomqvist, which Ottmar Hitzfeld countered by removing forward Alexander Zickler with midfielder Mehmet Scholl taking his place.
But with United pushing on, Bayern were threatening on the break. A dangerous run by goalscorer Basler found Scholl on the edge of the area, again spotting Schmeichel off his line as he had been several times throughout the night. The chip beat Schmeichel, but bounced harmlessly off the post into the Dane’s arms.
Far from a classic, it wasn’t until the last 10 minutes that Ferguson decided to throw caution to the wind with Bayern retreating deeper, content to defend their lead as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came on.
Solskjaer’s first touch was a header powered towards the near post which Oliver Kahn was equal to, but Bayern continued to counter.
Minutes after Scholl hit the post, the ball fell to Jancker in the six-yard box whose overhead kick hit the bar.
The half chances for United continued with Sheringham finding space in the area, but his volley lacked conviction. Seconds later, Neville’s cross ever so slightly eluded a wide open Dwight Yorke, with a Solskjaer header again calling Kahn into action.
United had created more chances in the last two minutes than they had in the first 85.
But the clock kept ticking; United weren’t about to lose, but they were about to run out of time.
Three minutes were signalled by the fourth official; three minutes for United to hopefully extend their season by 30 minutes.
Smart work by Beckham kept United’s attack alive, while Neville, in an unfamiliar position on the left wing, was able to win a corner.
Schmeichel, who’d scored in Europe against Rotor Volgograd four years earlier, was up to add another body in the box.
Beckham’s corner narrowly evaded Schmeichel but fell to Yorke at the back post whose header lacked any power; Thorsten Fink, who’d been on the pitch 10 minutes, sliced his clearance as far as Giggs on the edge of the area; on his weaker right foot, Giggs diverted the ball goalwards; Sheringham, as he so often was, found himself in the right place at the right time, with his semi-scuffed shot finding the bottom corner.
A quick check over the shoulder, the flag had stayed down. United were level.
After all the heroics throughout the season; the late equalisers, the late winners, the late penalty saves, the miraculous comebacks, United had done it once again on the greatest stage of all and extra-time loomed.
Extra-time where Bayern had already removed Lothar Matthaus and Mario Basler.
From 7.51pm to 9.37pm, it was hard to see Manchester United winning; suddenly it was hard to see them losing.
When play resumed, Denis Irwin tossed a long ball up for Solskjaer to chase. The fresh legs of Solskjaer took the ball to the corner flag but with no support arriving, the Norwegian won another corner.
Beckham again swung a cross in; an excellent run by Sheringham saw him meet the ball, heading into the six-yard box, with Solskjaer poking out his right boot to win the Champions League.
And just like that, United had won the treble.
In the blink of an eye, United had gone from 1-0 down to 2-1 up. The ball was actually in play for less than 30 seconds between the first and second goal and there was scarcely time to process the equaliser before the winner went in.
Franz Beckenbauer and a number of Bayern board members were making their way down to pitchside at the end of the 90 with the score 1-0. When he got out of the lift and arrived at the pitch, he saw the scoreboard read 2-1 to Manchester United, and presumed it was either a joke or a mistake. Both felt more likely than the reality.
But where there are winners, there are losers. And when there are winners in the most euphoric fashion, there are losers in the most agonising fashion.
When the equaliser went in, Matthaus looked shell-shocked. When the winner went in, referee Pierluigi Collina urged the Bayern players back to their feet to finish the game. Sammy Kuffour left fist-shaped craters in the Camp Nou pitch, unable to contain himself.
Bayern restarted the game, lumping the ball forward but it was all in vain. The final whistle blew and players from both teams collapsed to the ground; United in delight, Bayern in despair; both in disbelief.
Manchester United ran out of time on five occasions in the 1998/99 season.
But 26th May 1999 was not one of them.