It was the moment of a lifetime turned into a nightmare. I had travelled with my family to Barcelona for a day we hoped would end with Manchester United crowned kings of Europe.
But here we were searching frantically through the bins on the platform of some underground station, praying that the person who had just stolen my dad’s wallet had tossed it in the trash without noticing the tickets inside.
Of course it was a vain hope. Any Barcelona pick-pocket in operation on May 26, 1999 knew the treasure we possessed when seeing us wandering around like the uncertain tourists we were.
Sportsmail’s Laurie Whitwell (left) has relived his memories of attending Manchester United’s unforgettable night in Barcelona as they won the 1999 Champions League final
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was the matchwinner as United beat Bayern Munich 2-1 on May 26, 1999
Solskjaer and his team-mates hold aloft the European Cup after coming from behind to win
It had happened fast. In the crush of bodies a small woman with ginger hair, who has always been pictured in my mind as Miriam Margolyes, barged into my dad as we boarded the train. She apologised, my dad and I got on, but my mum, sister and cousin Fran couldn’t, and in a mad few seconds we hopped off again. My mum said something like, ‘No need to rush.’ We were trying to get to the beach but it was morning and there was plenty of time.
We got the next train in a much more orderly fashion and the carriage pulled away slowly. Except then my dad started patting his trousers. Slowly at first, then hurriedly. His face told the story. A plummeting panic descended. The tickets were gone.
That sinking sensation will be familiar to anyone unfortunate enough to have been burgled, or lost a phone, or left a bag on a bus. Only this felt magnified beyond all control. We would be missing the biggest match of a generation. It was a heist of memories yet to be made. We’d have our faces pressed up against the glass. Look At What You Could’ve Won!
I’m pretty sure I cried.
We raced back to our original station, Maria Cristina, scoured every inch in a panic, then went out onto the streets to peer through the masses in forlorn optimism we might spot that woman. No chance, there were thousands of people. The warm sun felt like a cruel irony. Rainy Manchester would have been a comfort.
Whitwell and his family had tickets for the Nou Camp final but his dad was pick-pocketed
It had been that kind of climate a few weeks earlier when my dad, Fran and I stood in a snaking queue outside Old Trafford, waiting for hours to secure the tickets. We’d qualified because we had stubs for all that season’s cup games, including round three of the League Cup against Bury, when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored in extra-time. The 106th minute, late even by his standards.
We’d been there for all the Champions League matches at Old Trafford. The qualifying round against LKS Lodz, the 3-3 with Barcelona, 6-2 over Brondby, and 1-1 with Bayern Munich, the 2-0 over Inter and the 1-1 with Juventus, when Ryan Giggs equalised in stoppage time.
Those were special nights when the stadium carried a mystical quality, partly because I was 12 but more because the Champions League was a rare experience for everyone. A visit by Rapid Vienna? Wow. Fenerbahce? How different. The flares that went up as United thumped Porto 4-0 in the 1997 quarter-final still stand out now.
We had also been there, peering down from the Stretford End, when Solskjaer scored to beat Liverpool in the FA Cup. The whole stand lent the same way as David James because of Solskjaer’s body-swerve before he put the ball in the opposite corner.
We were there at Villa Park for the semi-final too. Two lads had offered to mind my dad’s car as we parked up on some industrial estate. In these circumstances that usually means you hand over a fiver and your windows stay intact. My dad stuck to the code and gave them cash. After witnessing Giggs’ hairy chest in all its glory we danced back down the road and found to our amazement the two lads were still there, actually minding the car as they’d promised. In the euphoria my dad handed over another £10 note.
They had been to many United games that term – including their FA Cup semi win over Arsenal
So maybe, as we trudged round La Rambla, all was not lost. Luckily we had travelled officially so had these packs containing our flight tickets, acting as proof of our circumstances. We walked to a location where United officials were posted, a bar I think, and told a suited man our story. He assured us he would do everything to assist. But we had to wait. My dad and Fran went to see if they could buy some tickets off a tout. We stayed outside the Nou Camp, for hours, on edge.
As the afternoon wore on we were accompanied by hundreds of fans who had been sold flights and tickets by a travel company, Millwest. Only there were no tickets. It was a scam. Frustrations rose. Police on horse back began corralling us into a smaller area as kick-off approached. It was quite scary.
Dad and Fran arrived back. They’d had no luck. There was a big screen outside the ground and I said watching the match that way would be fine. We would have the atmosphere at least.
My dad rejected that idea. We would try to get inside. The first cordon was made up of police with dogs. Helmet, truncheon, the lot. In broken Spanish my dad tried to explain what had happened and ask if we could pass through. Somehow, this worked, presumably the sight of a family carried a certain persuasion. Or perhaps he could not bear to hear ‘Por favor’ butchered any longer.
Next we approached a gate where a crowd had gathered. A Spanish steward with fire in his eyes was blocking the way. He was studying a ticket in his hands. Then he ripped it up in front of its distraught owner. He seemed to be claiming it was a forgery. Another fan in a similar situation was carried out, tears rolling down his eyes.
Whitwell was content to watch the game on TV following the unfortunate pick-pocket incident
We left to try another gate and stopped at No 7. It has stayed in my mind for some reason. There we found the suited man from United. And he was selling tickets to people. My mum was enraged. A few choice words came out. In an instant he revealed he had three tickets left and we could have them for free. It is incredible to recall but they were only €12 face value.
They were not seated together but that didn’t matter. My mum and sister immediately proposed they be the ones to miss out. Reluctantly, Dad, Fran and I went through the gate. But as we did so another United steward interjected. He’d heard our story and took matters into his own hands. With my dad he went round to each turnstile, relayed what had happened, and asked if all five of us could pass through. Eventually he found someone, an elderly gentleman with glasses, who agreed.
In a dizzying minute we hopped over the barrier, expressing our gratitude on the way, then followed our steward through the Nou Camp. He tried to get us down to the first tier but that would have meant a Ninja Warrior style leap that none of us fancied so instead we stepped out into tier two, just as the pre-match show was being wheeled away.
Usually you emerge into a stadium in good time, with plenty of empty seats to be filled. The noise gradually gathers. Yet here one of the world’s most iconic grounds was full already. It was an awesome sight and sound to behold. We took a few moments to gasp it in.
Everyone was stood up, so once we collected ourselves we nudged our way into one of the rows and began singing. At one stage a Spanish steward asked us to sit down, unfortunately not a request the 40,000 odd United fans could abide.
Yet, through a series of fortuitous events the family managed to find a way into the stadium
Whitwell was just 12 but the memories haven’t faded from sitting in the United end that night
His sister managed to catch the moment on camera when Teddy Sheringham equalised at 1-1
At half-time my sister reminded my dad that he’d forgotten to put on his ‘lucky’ jeans. He’d worn them for every game we’d attended, and hadn’t lost. But the day’s events had put that superstition to the back of his mind. So now, down he went to the toilets and got changed. He obviously claims sole credit for the turnaround.
My sister spent the last few minutes with her eye behind her camera, finger on the button, convinced an equaliser would come, and managed to click just at the moment the ball hit the back of the net from Teddy Sheringham’s shot, before some players even realised. I still look at that photograph – one developed at Boots after a few days rather than posted instantly on Instagram – and wonder about the juddering thoughts in the minds of those pictured in that split-second.
Solskjaer’s goal was of course mind-bending and the celebrations began. The United players formed a guard of honour for Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, both suited, both sheepish holding the trophy, and nobody wanted the night to end.
Outside the ground we discovered the big screen I had advocated had been switched off prior to kick-off.
We had an early morning flight to catch so went straight to the airport, no sleep. Once back in Manchester, to our pleasure we bumped into the United steward who had made it all happen. My dad sent him a bottle of champagne and wrote a letter praising him to the club.
A few weeks later we received our own post: my dad’s wallet. A United fan from Malta had found it outside the Nou Camp, with nothing inside but my dad’s driving licence and a picture of us.