When I was a teenager and still in the first flush of love for football, I got a ticket for Aston Villa’s European Cup quarter-final tie with Juventus at Villa Park.
It was the season after the 1982 World Cup and I could hardly believe I was going to watch Paolo Rossi, Marco Tardelli, Dino Zoff and some of the other heroes of Italy’s triumph in Spain in the flesh.
I took my place in the Holte End in plenty of time. Rossi scored in the first minute, right in front of me, a near-post header from an Antonio Cabrini cross. The Villa fans were silent but I can still remember how my heart leaped.
Zbigniew Boniek scored the winner when Juventus beat Aston Villa 2-1 in Birmingham in 1983
Villa, who were the holders, equalised in the second half but Juventus were some team. Michel Platini ran the game, Zbigniew Boniek scored the winner late on.
On the train home I resolved I would never watch a replay of the Rossi goal. I didn’t want the memory I had of it to be refracted by television footage.
I wanted to preserve it as my memory, the memory I had from being there, not a memory from watching an image on a screen. Awfully intense, I know, but I was 16 and that was how I felt. I didn’t see that goal again for more than 20 years.
There are times when you wonder whether football has lost the power to move you in the way it did. There are times when you think you have become addled by age and cynicism and experience and you’ll never feel that kind of thrill from watching a game again.
Then a night like the one at the Parc des Princes last Wednesday comes along and turns you into a kid again.
Manchester United’s 3-1 win over PSG in Paris last week was one of the great football nights
PSG v Manchester United was one of the great football nights, the kind of night that makes heroes of men, the kind of night that defines them for the rest of their lives, the kind of night that changes their lives, the kind of night when the odds seem impossible and yet they are overcome, the kind of night when clubs are reborn and fantasy merges with reality. The kind of night, to borrow a line from the American satirist James Thurber, that ‘brings your heart up under your ears’.
You want to remember every detail. You want to brand it on your brain. Getting off the metro at Porte d’Auteuil, flinching from the thunder of firecrackers exploding in the street, getting to the stadium and seeing the big sign above the main entrance that says ‘Ici, C’est Paris’.
Seeing the faces of the PSG stars — Kylian Mbappe, Edinson Cavani, Angel di Maria, Gianluigi Buffon and Marco Verratti — staring out from a banner and thinking you fear for United’s under-strength team this evening.
That you give them no chance of becoming the first team ever to recover from losing the home leg of a Champions League tie by two goals or more.
Seeing Paddy Crerand, one of the gatekeepers of the soul of the club, searching for his place in the press box. Being handed the teamsheets and seeing academy graduates Marcus Rashford, Andreas Pereira and Scott McTominay in a starting line-up ravaged by injury and Tahith Chong and Mason Greenwood on the bench.
Reading somewhere that Greenwood, who has never made a first-team appearance for United, is so young he’ll have to miss lessons at Ashton-on-Mersey school the following day.
United match-winner Marcus Rashford consoled PSG’s Kylian Mbappe after the game
Watching the game begin and hearing the incessant beat of the drum from the Virage Auteuil where the Ultras are bouncing up and down in orchestrated frenzy.
Noticing that Fred, who has had such a miserable season, is flying into tackles as if he knows that this match is his shot at redemption. Feeling surprised that your fist clenches instinctively when Romelu Lukaku goes round Buffon to score in the second minute.
Thinking like a journalist. Thinking what a story this would be if United could turn it around. Feeling something else taking over, too. Wondering if it might just be one of those nights that make you think irrational thoughts about destiny and glory.
Seeing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer right at the edge of his technical area in that yellow bib the officials had made him wear, more animated than you have ever seen him before. Remembering what he’d said the day before about intending to make this match ‘the best job interview I’ve ever done’.
Thinking of 1999. Thinking, even when PSG equalised, even when they were ripping United apart down the United right, that there was something about this match, thinking that PSG were missing chance after chance, thinking it was feeling a bit like the Champions League final in Barcelona when Bayern Munich were leading, Mehmet Scholl hit the post, Carsten Jancker hit the bar and somehow United clung on, ready for that magical denouement.
Wednesday brought back memories of 1999 when United beat Bayern Munich in Barcelona
They are clinging on now, too – and then Rashford, who has not lost the fearlessness of youth, shoots speculatively, Buffon spills it and Lukaku scores again.
The second half is a blur. Then Chong comes on, and then Greenwood. Suddenly the referee is running over to the touchline in the last minute, looking at a TV monitor, running back on to the pitch and pointing to the spot.
Sport still writes the best scripts. It still creates the most fantastical stories and lets them play out in front of you. When Rashford slammed in that penalty, the man in the seat next to me in the press box shoved me hard in the arm, all pretence of restraint gone.
Somebody did that in Sydney when Jonny Wilkinson kicked the winning drop goal in the World Cup final. Nearly knocked me into the row in front. Moments like that make dizzy kids of all of us.
As for the moment I want to freeze in my memory like I froze Rossi’s goal, it was the moment the final whistle went and United’s young team sprinted towards their fans at the far end of the ground. It felt like the moment a club got its soul back. It felt like the moment Manchester United became Manchester United again.
Mason Greenwood made his United debut as a 17-year-old at the Parc des Princes
In the press conference afterwards a Norwegian television journalist who had been over-excited even before the match waited for Solskjaer to sit down and then asked everyone in the crowded room to put their hands up if they thought he should get the manager’s job full-time.
Journalists are usually immune to such pleadings but on this occasion a forest of hands went up. Mine, too.
If by some act of madness Solskjaer is overlooked, he’ll always have Paris. The spirit he has breathed back into the club turned a sodden night by the Seine into an evening when the magic of football transcended everything.
I saw Crerand in the press conference. ‘Where does that stand in United’s history?’ I asked him. ‘Up there with Barcelona,’ he said. ‘I think he might get the job, don’t you.’ I hope so.
One day I’d like to thank Solskjaer for reminding me what a beautiful game this is. One day I’d like to thank him for making me feel 16 again.
I’d like to thank United interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for making me feel 16 again
The party’s over at Huddersfield
Huddersfield Town and David Wagner provided one of the stories of last season when they beat the odds to stay in the Premier League.
Their keeper Jonas Lossl gave us one of the moments of the season when he pulled off a miracle save at Chelsea to help earn Huddersfield the point that took them to safety.
Wagner left the club in January, Huddersfield are going down and Lossl, who has had another fine season and is out of contract in the summer, is being linked with Marseille and Monaco. The fairy story at Huddersfield is going to need a reboot.
Jonas Lossl is available on a free transfer this summer and likely to leave Huddersfield Town
Summer shot at glory
Phil Neville joined a small group of England football managers who have won a trophy last week when the women’s team beat Brazil and Japan and drew with the US to lift the SheBelieves Cup in America.
The World Cup in France is only a few months away. As women’s football grows and grows, England’s shot at winning it might yet provide the story of our summer.
Phil Neville celebrates with his England women’s side after they won the SheBelieves Cup