As he sat on the balcony of his room at the Hotel Arts in Sitges, Alex Ferguson gazed out over the Mediterranean and counted down to the biggest game of his career.
‘All my working life had been a preparation for the challenge that was awaiting Manchester United a few miles away in the Nou Camp,’ he recalled of May 26, 1999. ‘But the European Cup had proved so cruelly elusive that I had to steel myself against the possibility of yet another disappointment.’
Elsewhere at United’s luxury hotel base that day, captain Roy Keane — suspended for the Champions League final against Bayern Munich — headed for the bar, leaving his room-mate Denis Irwin to get some rest.
Alex Ferguson looks out from the cockpit of a Concorde aeroplane, as his team fly to Barcelona
Jaap Stam, too, had gone back to bed after lunch and was snoring so loudly that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer couldn’t sleep. He phoned his best friend, a nurse in Norway, to make sure he would be watching the match on television.
‘He said he had to leave 15 minutes before the end because he was working nights, but I told him to get someone to fill in,’ said Solskjaer. ‘I had this feeling something big was going to happen to me.’
The United striker had felt rather sick on the short hop aboard Concorde flight BA9044 to Barcelona from Heathrow after United completed the second part of the Treble by beating Newcastle in the FA Cup final at Wembley.
United hardly touched a drop of alcohol afterwards, having celebrated in style when winning the Premier League title (Keane spent a night in the cells following a bar room fracas in Manchester).
‘Put your medals away, there is more to do,’ said Ferguson. On the Sunday, he moved his players from the Royal Lancaster Hotel in London to Bisham Abbey in Buckinghamshire countryside where they practised penalties.
Everything was going well until a grinning Dwight Yorke infuriated Peter Schmeichel by beating the big Dane with a cheeky panenka.
Ferguson and the Manchester United bench watch their side go behind in Barcelona
‘You can’t do that to Schmeichel,’ says Ferguson’s No 2 Steve McClaren. ‘Peter picked the ball out of the net and tried to volley it at Yorke, but missed him. He chased him and when they finally came together Peter went absolutely mad — but Yorkey promised us he would panenka the Bayern keeper too.’
United’s preparations extended to having team chef Jesper Jesperson and nutritionist Trevor Lea in Barcelona. So too was the players versus staff quiz, a staple of any European trip.
Physio Dave Fevre recalls Ferguson giving any member of his team a ‘deadly stare’ if they came up with a wrong answer, while McClaren describes how ‘the gaffer threw a knife or fork’ at Nicky Butt because he thought the midfielder was cheating on a question about art. Butt, remember, was the one player United couldn’t be without at the Nou Camp because Keane and Paul Scholes were banned.
United trained at the cavernous venue on the Tuesday evening where kit man Albert Morgan was horrified to discover Schmeichel’s gloves had been stolen.
‘It was a nightmare for me,’ he said. ‘I had left his match gloves and spares at the hotel, and Big Pete wouldn’t wear any other. The Barcelona kit man lent me a pair and I begged Pete to put them on, but he told me to eff off!’
As match day dawned, Morgan remembers going to a nudist beach with some of the staff and having ‘a bit of a laugh and joke’ as United tried to pass the time.
Alex Ferguson instructs substitute Teddy Sheringham during the Champions League Final
Typically, Bayern opted for a more conservative base in Sants near Barcelona’s main station. The Treble-chasing Germans had wrapped up the Bundesliga title two weeks earlier and spent that time practising with the official match ball.
‘I don’t know how we managed to get it,’ said coach Ottmar Hitzfeld. ‘I said it would be nice if we did and (general manager) Uli Hoeness sorted it out for us. Generally, though, preparation was no different to any Bundesliga game.’
Hitzfeld dispels the notion that Bayern had the width of the Nou Camp pitch reduced to match their Olympiastadion and blunt United’s threat from the wings.
On the night before the final, veteran sweeper Lothar Matthaus knocked on the door of centre-back Sammy Kuffour’s hotel room.
‘He said that if we handle Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke then we have won this game,’ recalls Kuffour. Matthaus could not have been more wrong.
The final fell on what would have been Sir Matt Busby’s 90th birthday. United fans flooded into Catalonia and Barcelona airport reported its busiest ever day.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, now Manchester United manager, scored the winner in the 93rd minute
It was their team’s 63rd fixture of a marathon season having avoided defeat for 32 games since December. Keane recalls the usual banter being muted on the way to the stadium and Ferguson appearing ‘palpably uptight’.
Morgan had got to the ground early as usual to prepare the dressing room. ‘Then the boys were in and within 30 seconds your piece of art you had laid out was like a little boy’s bedroom,’ he says. Ferguson seized his chance to inspire his players in his pre-match team talk.
‘He said tonight they could fly to the moon,’ recalls McClaren. ‘Were the players ready after that? Damn right, they were ready. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up as well.’
Hitzfeld opted for a more simple message before his players had been through their usual routine of playing keepy-uppie with a ball in the showers. He wanted to target United’s centre backs, Stam and Ronny Johnsen, believing they were vulnerable to players running directly at them.
It paid off after only a few minutes when Johnsen brought down Carsten Jancker on the edge of the box. Bayern had practised a free-kick drill where Markus Babbel peeled off the wall to create a gap for Mario Basler to score and it worked a treat.
Bayern Munich’s Carsten Jancker is consoled by non-playing teammate Bixente Lizarazu
Cole, however, was not impressed by Schmeichel’s failure to keep it out. ‘The accusing looks were directed at Big Pete who stared back and said, “I just couldn’t see it”,’ says the former England striker. ‘I think that p****d off a lot of the chaps. He should have adjusted the wall until he could.’
A lop-sided United — with David Beckham in the middle, Ryan Giggs on the right and Jesper Blomqvist on the left — trailed at half-time when Ferguson gave his rousing speech about walking back past the European Cup and not being able to touch it unless they won.
Ferguson’s words had little effect at first as Bayern continued to dominate. Schmeichel saved from Stefan Effenberg before Mehmet Scholl and Jancker hit the woodwork. ‘When I saw it (Jancker’s overhead kick) hit the bar and come straight back to me I knew we were going to win,’ claimed the United keeper.
Still, Bayern were confident they had it in the bag and infuriated United with their arrogance. Basler, above all, was getting under their skin with his showboating.
Stam recalled: ‘He was posing and milking the applause. I was livid. I wanted to run over to the side of the pitch and smack him in the head. I told Ronny Johnsen, “I’m going to hit the arrogant w****r if he carries on,” as we prepared to defend a corner.’
Red Devils boss Ferguson celebrates after his side won the Champions League in Barcelona
United still had a pair of aces up their sleeve, however. The first of them was Teddy Sheringham.
‘We needed a spark,’ admits Gary Neville. ‘It came when Teddy replaced Jesper, allowing Giggsy to move back to his best position on the left and Becks to the right.
‘Yorkie dropped into the hole, and suddenly we started flowing like a team. We could never have started with that line-up. It would have been brave going on suicidal.’
Just as important was the departure of 38-year-old Matthaus who succumbed to a calf problem. ‘If I was Matthaus, I would have played that game until the last drop of my blood,’ said Kuffour.
Still, United had hardly threatened. George Best gave up and left his seat in the stadium with 10 minutes left, and Ferguson’s pre-match doubts returned.
‘I was just starting to adjust to losing the game,’ he said. ‘I had reminded myself to keep my dignity, and accept that it wasn’t going to be our year.’
Referee Pierluigi Collina added on three minutes of injury time, a decision that surprised Marcel Reif, commentator for German channel RTL.
‘Italian referees seem to add more time when it’s a good game,’ said Reif at the time. ‘Only Collina knows where the extra time has come from.’
The Italian referee recoils at the suggestion now. ‘Do you think that even as a joke someone can complain over three minutes of added time?’ said Collina, pointing out that under today’s rules he would have added even more.
United players celebrate completing the treble in 1999 after beating Bayern Munich
Schmeichel, captain for the night on his last appearance before leaving United, decided to go for broke by charging up-field for Beckham’s corner in the first minute of injury time and was surprised that his manager objected.
‘I was a little bit disappointed with Ferguson because he always gave me the impression he would consider it a lack of winning instinct if I didn’t go up at the end of a game that was slipping away from us,’ recalled Schmeichel.
In the confusion, Matthaus’s replacement Thorsten Fink scuffed a clearance to Giggs and his wayward shot was turned in by Sheringham.
‘I swear I felt like crying,’ said Beckham. ‘I was shattered. I looked over and saw Gary (Neville) celebrating on his own. He was happy, but he couldn’t get his legs to carry him over to the rest of us to celebrate.’
Clive Tyldesley, in his first season as ITV’s lead commentator, had phoned Ferguson at the team hotel before lunch to get the team news. He could sense what was coming next.
‘You won’t find “name on the trophy” or “reaching the promised land”, on my notes but it was all a bit Biblical, Game of Thrones almost,’ said Tyldesley. ‘An unstoppable act of nature had taken hold of the football match.’
Ferguson and goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel hold the Champions League trophy aloft
Ferguson had sent on Solskjaer as a replacement for Cole and his pre-match premonition was about to come true. ‘He knew he was p*****g me off, but he got the best out of me by doing that,’ said the Norwegian.
Another Beckham corner, Sheringham’s flick-on and Solskjaer stuck out a boot to score one of the most famous goals of all time. Bayern players collapsed to the floor. One of the most poignant moments of the night was Collina trying to physically haul them to their feet.
‘It was a human reaction, absolutely,’ said the referee. ‘I didn’t realise I was doing that. We could have finished it at that moment but there were 20 seconds and the show must go on.’
UEFA president Lennart Johansson had left his seat in the VIP box and taken an elevator down to the pitch to present Bayern with the Cup, missing the 101 seconds it needed for United to change the colour of the ribbons on the trophy.
‘Johansson came over to our bench to offer his congratulations before he realised we were losing,’ revealed Bayern substitute Thomas Helmer.
At the final whistle, the enduring image is of a distraught Kuffour beating the turf in frustration. Now a preacher in Ghana, he always said that he would never watch the final again and has been good to his word.
Thomas Helmer (top) describes an eerily silent dressing room for half an hour after the game
‘Even now, I go mad if I see the pictures from that game,’ admits his team-mate Babbel. Matthaus calls it his worst feeling in football. For Effenberg, defeat ‘stripped us of our dignity’.
Helmer describes an eerily silent dressing room for fully half an hour after the game. ‘It felt like no one was even breathing,’ he said.
Bayern still had to endure an official banquet before they could drown their sorrows at a private function at the team hotel where celebrity chef Alfons Schuhbeck put on weisswurst and beer.
Meanwhile, United’s party was in full swing. Morgan remembers being thrown in the bath by the medical team, and Yorke walking around the dressing room screaming repeatedly ‘we minced them!’
Ferguson thanked the players for the best night of his life as they guzzled champagne in the dressing room.
Indeed, it was the early hours before they arrived at an after-match function where chairman Martin Edwards celebrated by dancing on a table with a Cuban cigar in his mouth.
When Giggs suffered a broken nose in a brawl with a ‘loud mouthed punter’ who was heckling the Mancunian drag queen Frank ‘Foo Foo’ Lammar, it turned out to be Edwards’ son James.
While Neville chose to spend the night walking the streets of Barcelona, desperate for the day not to finish, Yorke drew on Jordi Cruyff’s local knowledge and ended up in a strip club.
The last word belongs to Ferguson. ‘As we prepared for the Champions League final nine years later in 2008, I played the DVD of the last three minutes of the 1999 game to emphasise to the players the importance of never, ever capitulating,’ he wrote later. ‘For me, the only time to give up is when you are dead.’