Solskjaer's injury time winner

Not only a game

This is how it ends: the whimper, or the bang


This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Sport can amplify and accentuate emotions like little else. Hope and despair, agony and ecstasy, triumph and disaster, the best and worst of times: how the pendulum can swing — and how it can take us with it when it does. But the switch from one to the other has rarely been as dramatic as it was on a warm Barcelona night 25 years ago this May.

Eighty-nine minutes gone in the Champions League final: Manchester United 1–0 down to Bayern Munich. The last leg of an unprecedented treble, and all match it’s looked a step too far. Missing their two best players, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, the team has been off the pace, outfought and outplayed.

All those pivotal moments of the season — winning the Premiership on the final day, Ryan Giggs’ FA Cup semi-final solo slalom, Keane’s one-man swarm against Juventus to get them here — are about to be lost like replicant tears in Blade Runner rain. This is how Alex Ferguson’s magnificent obsession with winning the grandest club trophy of all ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Ferguson: never stop fighting

In the VIP boxes high in the stands, UEFA president Lennart Johansson starts to make his way down to the pitch for the victory presentation. The fourth official holds up a board as the clock ticks over to 90. Three minutes of added time. United run, scurry, harry, Ferguson’s mindset hammered into every last fibre of their beings: never give up, never stop fighting till the fight is done. “This is the reason why we’re in football,” he told them earlier. “You have the chance to fly to the moon, to land on the moon tonight.”

United have a corner. David Beckham runs over to take it. “Can Manchester United score?” says Clive Tyldesley on commentary. “They always score.”

Peter Schmeichel sprints into the Bayern area like some demented pagan Norse god crying havoc. Beckham whips the ball towards the far post. Thorsten Fink, hurried and worried, slices the clearance. It falls to Giggs, who scuffs it to Teddy Sheringham. Sheringham swings, shins it. Shins it all the way into the goal.

Sheringham screaming as he sprints for the corner, a comet’s head with a tail of red shirts streaming out behind him. The noise of the fans like a chemical blast. High in the stands, flares trail smoke as they burn demonic scarlet.

Play the last few seconds out and take the half hour of extra time? No way. Bayern’s players, in control all night, are suddenly nervous. United’s men are rampant, savannah lions hunting down gazelles. Go for the jugular. Tear them to shreds. In the gantry for Talk Radio, Lou Macari, one of United’s favourite sons who played more than 400 games for the club, shouts to make himself heard. “They’re going to win it now. They are going to win this cup final, I’m certain of that.”

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer goes up the left for United. Samuel Kuffour tracks him. Solskjaer shuffles the ball from foot to foot, makes space, tries to cross. Kuffour is with him all the way. Corner. Again, Beckham. Hard and fast and to the near post. Sheringham rises, flicks the header on. Solskjaer sticks out a leg, more reflex than anything else, angling his foot at the last moment so the ball flies into the top corner.

Magic moment: Lou Macari

Madness. Sheer, total, unadulterated madness. Macari yells a guttural, primal “YESSSSS!!” Kuffour lies on the grass, punching the ground over and again as though trying to dig a hole in which to hide. Referee Pierluigi Collina pulls him up, not without sympathy: come on, come on, there are still a few seconds left. But Kuffour’s gone. All the Bayern players are gone: slumped against posts, cradling their knees, blanking out the world with thousand-yard stares. Johansson steps out of the tunnel and stares in disbelief. The winners are crying, the losers are dancing. It makes no sense. This is how it ends: not with a whimper, but with a bang.

In the bedlam afterwards, Ferguson smiles, shakes his head, offers up three words of love, wonder, disbelief, kismet. “Football. Bloody hell.”

Jim Ratcliffe, now Britain’s second-richest man and part-owner of the club he’s supported all his life, is in the stands, hugging everyone in sight. “Three minutes you never forget: taken from this miserable place to this high that you can’t describe.” But to really know what sport means to people, does to people, look no further than Macari. A month before the match, his youngest son Jonathan killed himself, aged 19: the kind of tragedy that scours a parent’s soul. “Only when you go through something like that do you understand the hell of it,” Macari says.

He didn’t want to go to Barcelona, but his other sons Michael and Paul persuaded him otherwise: he had to keep living, keep working, keep backing his team. And then the comeback — the proof that the sun still rises, the mass delirium of yearning answered, the light in the darkness — and a moment so euphoric it takes him out of himself. “For 30 seconds,” Macari says, “I forgot about my son.”

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