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Steve McClaren on Manchester United’s 1999 Champions League final win

Amid the mayhem of Teddy Sheringham’s injury-time equaliser for Manchester United in the 1999 Champions League final, assistant-manager Steve McClaren sought an urgent word with the boss, Sir Alex Ferguson.

‘I remember saying to him, gaffer it looks like extra-time now, could we get back into some kind of shape and not take so many risks,’ tells McClaren.

‘He looked at me and said: ‘Steve, sit down, this game ain’t over yet’. Sixty seconds later, we know what happened. I thought we had another half-hour but Ole stopped that. What a shame!’

Steve McClaren was Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant at the 1999 Champions League final 

McClaren is sipping coffee in the lounge of a north London hotel, mind whirring back 20 years to one of the greatest stories in British sport, summed up perfectly by Ferguson after beating Bayern Munich 2-1 with two late, late goals: ‘Football, bloody hell.’

United return to the scene, Barcelona’s Nou Camp, on Tuesday night needing to overturn a 1-0 first leg lead from this season’s quarter-final. At least they have a man in charge who knows about comebacks in Catalonia, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who scored the winner in ’99 to complete a historic Treble.

McClaren, who later went on to manage England and won major trophies with Middlesbrough and FC Twente, was just 38 at the time and had the best seat in the house alongside Ferguson, just five months after being plucked out of relative obscurity as a coach at Derby.

McClaren had the best seat in the house for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's stunning late winner

McClaren had the best seat in the house for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s stunning late winner

‘My memories of the Nou Camp are so strong,’ he says with feeling. ‘Apart from marrying my wife and having three boys, winning the Treble was the greatest 10 days of my life, and still are.

‘The FA Cup Final on the previous Saturday was big in itself. I’d never been to Wembley as a player so I was like a little kid. After the warm-up, I got Albert the kit man to put on some gloves so I could take some shots on the pitch.

‘I was determined not to let the Champions League final go by in a blur. After the final whistle, I stopped during the lap of honour to look at the United fans going crazy, they’d packed out three quarters of the stadium.

‘I soaked it all up for five minutes and I’m so pleased I did. From a football point of view, it was like going to heaven. I still have a picture of it in my mind and will have forever.’

McClaren had joined United at the start of the year and it proved perfect timing. He got a unique chance to observe how Ferguson managed the quest of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League, never done before.

Without the suspended Paul Scholes and Roy Keane for the European final, Fergie galvanised his troops one final time against opponents who boasted world stars like Oliver Khan, Lothar Matthaus and Stefan Effenberg.

McClaren has lifted the lid on preparations, such as playing David Beckham in the middle

McClaren has lifted the lid on preparations, such as playing David Beckham in the middle

‘One of the gaffer’s greatest strengths was planning. That’s why he was able to stay at the top with United for 27 years,’ said McClaren.

‘He looked at fixtures ahead. I remember once he told Wes Brown he was leaving him out of the next game but to make sure he was ready for Arsenal in three weeks time. He believed Wes was the only one who could deal with Thierry Henry’s runs down the left.

‘He would have known the team to play Bayern long before. We knocked on Dwight Yorke’s door the morning of the FA Cup final and told him he wouldn’t be playing at Wembley. Yorkie was devastated but it was because Fergie needed him for the Nou Camp.

‘The biggest dilemma was midfield. Ronnie Johnsen could have played with Nicky Butt but Alex wanted Jesper Blomqvist in the team, so David Beckham shifted to the middle.

‘I did the coaching but the gaffer was the master on match day. His team talk was based on emotion rather than tactical details – why this was the greatest game of their lives.

‘He said it was like flying to moon, not many people get the chance, not many people even want to do it, but tonight they could fly to the moon. Were the players ready after that? Damn right, they were ready. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up as well.

‘At half-time, when we were losing, he spoke about the Champions League trophy and what it’d feel like if we had to leave Barcelona without it.’

McClaren admits he said United should sit back after Teddy Sheringham's equaliser

McClaren admits he said United should sit back after Teddy Sheringham’s equaliser

United’s spirit during that era was legendary. McClaren witnessed the competitive element in training.

‘We practiced penalties at Bisham Abbey before we flew to Barcelona for the final,’ he reveals. ‘We wanted it done properly in case we needed to take them for real. Yorkie walks up with a big smile and chips Peter Schmeichel with a ‘Panenka’.

‘Pete went ballistic and chased him all over. He didn’t like being chipped and he also felt Yorkie wasn’t taking the exercise seriously. We sat Yorkie down and asked if he’d honestly take a penalty the same way in a Champions League final and he responded quite firmly: ‘I would do it’.’

Match day itself was a time for the players to relax but McClaren had work to do at the team hotel: ‘I was busy writing up the set plays, doing my flip charts, working out the marking. When the Bayern team sheet was handed in, we went through it all on the board.

‘Defensive set pieces mainly, they knew what they were doing at the other end! David Beckham had the best delivery in the world and we just told him to put it in the right areas.’

The fairy tale had a horrible start when Mario Basler scored for Bayern after six minutes. Midway through the second half with United still trailing, Ferguson threw on Sheringham for Blomqvist, with Ryan Giggs and Beckham returning to their normal flanks.

It left United with just one orthodox central midfielder – Butt – but it was a risk they felt they needed to take, with Yorke instructed to play a bit deeper than usual.

McLaren was pulled from a coaching role at Derby to be Fergie's No2 months before the final

McLaren was pulled from a coaching role at Derby to be Fergie’s No2 months before the final

‘Whereas most subs would warm up in the corner until they got the shout, Teddy would do his stretches in front of the bench, trying to catch your eye,’ explained McClaren. ‘It’s something I also remember him doing from working with Sven Goran Eriksson with England.

‘Teddy came on and it was a bit of a gamble because we were a bit more open. One Bayern counter had us fearing it was all over but Mehmet Scholl chipped against the post and the rebound fell into Schmeichel’s hands. That’s when you get this feeling: ‘Hmm, interesting!”

The rest is history. Solskjaer replaced Cole with nine minutes to go. As the 90 minutes were up, Sheringham turned in Giggs’ shot for the equaliser. Before Bayern could recover from the shock, United won another corner, Sheringham flicked on Beckham’s cross and Solskjaer stuck a leg out for instant legendary status.

‘All the Bayern players were on the floor – they didn’t even want to kick off again. We knew we’d won it,’ said McClaren. ‘It was chaos with everyone jumping on everyone. I was so proud to have my mum and dad in the stadium and my eldest son. He remembers it clearly to this day.

‘Being a newer arrival on the United staff, there weren’t enough medals for me to get one at the stadium, but at the celebration dinner that night, David Gill (United’s finance director at the time) presented me with one. It was incredible – not bad for someone mistakenly called Steve McClaridge by the chairman (Martin Edwards) when I arrived!

‘We had the parade back in Manchester which was amazing and then I was ready to drive off for a holiday. I was absolutely exhausted, but the gaffer called in staff for nine o’clock the next morning at The Cliff. So there we were, pots of tea, bacon butties, planning the next season!’

Ex-England boss McClaren left United for a career in management, most recently with QPR

Ex-England boss McClaren left United for a career in management, most recently with QPR

McClaren left United two years later to become a manager himself. Though his career is framed by a failure with England to reach Euro 2008, his record is far better than he’s given credit for.

He is the only manager in Middlesbrough’s history to win a major trophy, the League Cup, and took them to the Uefa Cup final in 2006, with Gareth Southgate captain. 

He won the Dutch title with FC Twente, reached a Championship play-off final with Derby and also managed Newcastle, Wolfsburg and, until a fortnight ago, QPR.

He passed the baton to another No 2s as Ferguson did with him. His assistant at Twente was Erik ten Hag, now the manager of Ajax, themselves Champions League quarter-finalists.

It will be a thrill for McClaren to see Solskjaer become the first United manager since Ferguson to lead them out at the Nou Camp.

‘Ole wasn’t one of the players I automatically thought would be a manager but the characteristics have changed. Ruling with a rod of iron isn’t the way and Ole was a nice kid, studious, knew his role, very humble.

‘The club’s values are returning. We were a good attacking transition team in 1999 and they are now. Alex always used to say at the end of the season he wanted clean sheets and I think Ole will feel the same.

‘If there was one player from that Treble team that Ole could use now it’s probably Jaap Stam because he was a damned fine defender. The best one-on-one defender I have ever seen.’

United fans heading to Spain this week will doubtlessly serenade their new manager with ‘Ole’s at the Wheel’. Perhaps Frank Sinatra’s ‘Fly me to the Moon’ might also be appropriate in trying to stop Lionel Messi. It worked for Fergie and Steve McClaren at the Nou Camp in ’99.