Manchester United Players Recall Defining Comeback Win Against Bayern in 1999

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Manchester United Players Recall Defining Comeback Win Against Bayern in 1999
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Half-time in the Manchester United dressing room at the Camp Nou, May 26, 1999. Alex Ferguson is rallying the troops, as per Michael Crick's book, The Boss:

You will be six feet away from the European Cup, but you won’t be able to touch it, of course. And I want you to think about that fact that you’ll have been so close to it and for many of you it will be the closest you’ll ever get. And you will hate that thought for the rest of your lives. So just make sure you don’t lose. Don’t you dare come back in here without giving your all.

Ferguson left his players in no doubt about the personal consequences of failing to overturn the 0-1 scoreline in their Champions League final against Bayern Munich. Jesper Blomqvist, United’s Swedish winger, had underperformed, like most of the team.

Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Blomqvist remembers vividly how he felt the night before, waiting in his hotel room in Sitges, the smart, beachside town 20 miles south of Barcelona.

"I wrote a list to coach myself. It said: 'You can do it. You are faster than the rest. You are in good shape'."

It was a tactic he had used before to self-motivate. Now he was using it to conquer his overpowering nerves. He had signed at the start of the 1998-99 treble season for a £4.4 million fee from Italian club Parma, but he was desperately low on confidence.  

Blomqvist had known for three weeks that he would play in Barcelona because of suspensions to midfielders Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. Ryan Giggs would move to the right wing, with Nicky Butt and David Beckham occupying the centre.

Although Blomqvist played 38 games in the treble season, his own injuries had a debilitating effect in the final weeks of the season.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

"They meant that I wasn’t playing in the run-in," he told me recently. "I hadn’t played for three weeks so I wasn’t feeling so sure of myself. I was the type of player who needed to feel the support of my team-mates and coach, but I could understand if they were a little uneasy because I’d not been playing.

"I should have been enjoying the occasion. My parents had flown over from Sweden, and the team had flown to Spain on Concorde, but I was not relaxed because I felt too much pressure. I didn’t sleep very well the night before the game."

Blomqvist saw little of the preparations inside Camp Nou. He was too busy trying to get a grip on himself.

He didn’t see the great Catalan soprano Montserrat Caballe singing "Barcelona," the anthem of the 1992 Olympics which she’d written with Freddie Mercury in Barcelona’s Ritz hotel. He missed the sun dipping behind the towering tiers of the 98,600-capacity stadium and the mountain of Tibidabo, but he remembers the thousands and thousands of Manchester United supporters who’d travelled to see the club’s first European Cup final outside England.

And he didn’t want to let them down.

Gary M. Prior/Getty Images

"My legs weren’t responding as normal," he recalled. "I looked around the Camp Nou, and they felt like jelly."

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Ironically, in a game devoid of quality football and (for long periods) excitement, Blomqvist came closest to scoring.

"It was a half chance, but it was our best chance to score," he recalled. "But I didn’t. Bayern were a much better team."

Teddy Sheringham replaced Blomqvist after 67 minutes and had a greater impact on the game, making intelligent runs down the left side. Blomqvist did not know it then, but he would never play competitively again for Manchester United. Due to a knee injury, it would be two years before he played another competitive game of football.

Phil Cole/Getty Images

Back on the pitch, Mancunian midfielder Nicky Butt was feeling the strain.

"I was knackered," he said. "I thought we’d lost the game. We were crap."

He'd fixed tickets for 50 mates.

"I remember having to write out the 50 names and addresses of all the people who wanted tickets," he recalls. And he saw more of Bayern's opening sixth-minute goal, a Mario Basler free-kick, than most.

Sir Alex Ferguson later recalled, "When Basler prepared to take the free-kick and Markus Babbel set about blocking out Nicky Butt on the end of our defensive wall, I was itching to run on the field to stop Nicky from falling for the ploy. But I was hopeless as a gap was created, and so was Peter Schmeichel as Basler swept his shot into the net."

Ben Radford/Getty Images

"I couldn’t do much," Butt agreed. "And after they went ahead, they hit the bar and the post. I was knackered."

But United had something left from two substitutes: first, a last-minute equaliser from Sheringham.

Phil Cole/Getty Images

"When Teddy scored the equaliser, I could only think, 'I’m knackered, and now we have extra time'," Butt said. "Then Ole (Gunnar Solskjaer) scored the winner. We went nuts. It’s hard for me to put it into words.

"We stayed on the pitch for an hour after the game celebrating in front of the fans. I knew that all my mates and family were in there somewhere. In the end, we were told to stop celebrating and leave the pitch so that the fans could start to leave."

Butt remembers his feelings vividly. 

"I walked back to the dressing room. I’d reached the top. There was no higher that I could go. We’d won the treble and it felt brilliant."

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The players eventually made it to the towering Arts Hotel by Barcelona’s seafront, and Butt finally got to see his family.

"My brother turned up with three or four of his mates. They tried to stop him coming in at first, but then they were allowed in. It was amazing. I didn’t sleep for two-and-a-half days."

"I can’t explain how we won the game," Gary Neville said. "It just happened. In a way, it was supernatural. It was like nothing I have ever experienced in my life before. This team never gives up. It fights to the end, and that reflects the manager’s spirit."

Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

United will need a dose of that spirit Tuesday against the Germans, as well as a large dose of the good fortune present in those dramatic final minutes in Barcelona.

 

All quotes, unless otherwise noted, were gathered firsthand by Andy for this article. 

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