When I signed for Manchester United, one of the things I was looking forward to the most was playing in the Champions League.
It was a huge deal for me. I was the most expensive player in the country joining the biggest club in the world, so it was massive to be playing in the biggest competition. The reason I left Aston Villa to go to United was to win trophies. The move gave me the opportunity to play alongside great players and compete for the biggest trophies like the Champions League.
A lot was expected of me on that stage, but I enjoyed the challenge. There was no way I was going to let that faze me.
My first night in the Champions League was against Barcelona at Old Trafford. I mean… you couldn’t ask for a better first taste of what it’s all about.
Old Trafford is a fortress anyway, but I could tell straight away that there’s something special about Champions League nights. That was clear to see. The crowd is right up for it, everybody is really pumped, the fanfare as you’re coming into the arena definitely brings an extra buzz too. Foreign teams, huge stars showcasing their skills… it’s just different to what everybody is used to. The music when you’re walking out, it raises your pulse and you’re so up for it. Everybody’s up for it. You know the other team is too because they’re facing Manchester United at Old Trafford.
But, like I said, I wasn’t fazed. I was excited. Bring it on. As I was stood there before kick-off, I knew that those were the moments I was living for.
Early on, Giggsy scored the opener and then, before half an hour had gone, Becks crossed the ball in towards me. I took on the overhead kick and I honestly couldn’t have struck it any better. You look back now and you think: ‘Bloody hell, I didn’t know I had all that in my locker!’ I’d tried it in training, sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but to have tried that in such a huge game, such a great spectacle with those kind of players on show, and to pull it off… yeah, I was happy with that one. It’s just a shame the keeper saved it!
Obviously it would have been nice if that had gone straight in, but Scholesy scored from the rebound so that’s nearly a 100 per cent perfect moment. That’s the kind of goal you want to score, but I’ll take the 90 percent for it!
It was an unbelievable game and unfortunately we ended up drawing 3-3 despite that great start, but afterwards I knew that’s what football is made of: playing in that type of game.
Those games kept on coming that season.
Drawing 3-3 with Barcelona on that first night, then drawing in Germany against Bayern Munich, two big wins over Brondby, another 3-3 against Barcelona in Spain and then another draw with Bayern at Old Trafford. It was an unbelievable group campaign in the group of death, but we didn’t lose once. Then we beat a very strong Inter Milan side over two legs in the quarter-final; winning at Old Trafford and drawing in the San Siro.
As we went through the competition, the opposition was just brilliant all the way. We faced Juventus in the semi-final first leg at Old Trafford, they played very well and we just about managed to get a 1-1 draw ahead of the second leg in Turin.
This is back in the days when Italian clubs were known for their defensive play but also the brilliant, flamboyant individuals they had in their league; players like Zinedine Zidane, Edgar Davids, David Trezeguet and those types of players.
We were going over to Turin, at one apiece, for a place in the Champions League final. Juventus were looking to reach the final for the fourth year in a row. We needed to be at our best. All the way through, that’s how it had been. The group of death, followed by the two best teams in Italian football. We were up against it, even before kick-off.
Especially at home, in the Stadio Delle Alpi, they were imposing.
But, if you’re going to go and win the Champions League, you’ve got to go away from home and get massive results. Simple as that.
Personally, I knew I’d be up against world-class defenders like Ciro Ferrara. All those Juventus defenders were tough as nails. It’s not like today when defenders are brushing you aside and you’re getting a foul for it; they would kick the lumps out of you. You had to be tough to pick yourself up and come back at them for more. They were world-class players. That was the joy of games like this; you’ve got to show mental toughness as well as elegance and skill.
We went over there excited, looking to win the game, looking to turn it around. Big players turn up on the big occasions and turn things around. The likes of Juventus were never going to lie down and let us walk all over them, were they? That’s the beauty of it, that’s the satisfaction: knowing that the odds are against you and that you’ve got to turn it around. That’s when you need your big players. That’s when the best players turn up.
Then we conceded two goals inside the first few minutes and I’m sure a betting man watching would have put all his money on Juventus to reach the final at that time!
But we had a great belief in that dressing room. If you follow what happened throughout that season, going 1-0 down just spurred us on. Two-nil wasn’t impossible. Two-nil gave us a bit more spurring on.
That second goal… when you’re in the moment and Juventus players are celebrating, their fans are going wild… you can’t feel anything. You’re in your zone and all you’re thinking is: ‘We’re 2-0 down, we’re against Juventus here, we just have to stay in the game. We know we have the attacking flair and the team to turn things around very quickly’. We didn’t panic, didn’t show any anxiety, didn’t change our mentality or our approach, we needed to keep calm and we knew that once we got one goal, there was a chance that the Italians might panic. It was a situation for cool heads and luckily we had enough experience on the pitch and in the dugout to keep everybody calm.
We just knew that there was no need to panic.
Nothing was impossible with that team.
Keano scored a brilliant header just before the half-hour.
Then the game changed.
Then the momentum swung our way.
I scored our equaliser a few minutes later.
I got a lot of goals from Coley that year and so did he from me. The partnership developed really well through the season, and in Turin he sent a great cross into the area for me. It was such a great ball. I could have probably volleyed it because it was at that kind of height, but given the risk of taking that on in such a big game, I went for something with a little bit more accuracy – a bit of a diving header – and it worked out. I felt that was the best option and I got a decent header on it. It didn’t matter how it went in, as long as it went in. I was thrilled to see it in the net.
We hadn’t panicked and now we were ahead on away goals. Deservedly, because we were playing brilliant football. That was just a phenomenal team to be a part of.
Roy was class. A great leader, great footballer and when you’re going into the trenches, as we were against a Juventus team like that, you want somebody with the qualities like Keano. He didn’t just show his quality in terms of his performance, but in the way he kept us going like he’d always done. I wouldn’t swap him for anybody. He was a tremendous leader in every department of the game as well as a fantastic player. I was very lucky to play alongside not just Keano, but Giggsy, Becks, Schmeichel, Irwin, Cole… the names – household names – just roll off your tongue when you look back at that team. Even in the game today you look back 20 years and those names still pop up. To share a pitch and be successful with those guys is what football was made of. It was a privilege and a joy at the time to play with these players, especially in games like this one.
We were fantastic. I hit the post, Denis hit the post and we made chances to put the tie to bed before the ball arrived at my feet outside the area, with maybe five minutes to go before the final whistle. I had Ferrara and Montero right in front of me, and they were like a pair of stone walls. There was only one way I could have gotten through the pair of them: I had to do the old shuffle to get between them! Luckily it turned out well and ricocheted nicely, putting me one-on-one with Peruzzi and really… I kind of played for the foul. I could have gone round the goalkeeper and stuck it in myself, but I nudged it round him and knew then it was going to be a penalty when he brushed me. I don’t know why I did it because it probably would have been easier to take it round him and put it in the net and that would have been game over.
Lucky enough, Coley was there to finish it off. Sharp as he’s always been, a proper number nine. He’s thinking: ‘Let me just run in here, follow it up, just in case.’ The ref was very good and let play go ahead. He could have given the penalty and he was very aware of keeping the play going because Coley had the opportunity to score, so I think the ref got it spot on.
Denis was our selected penalty taker at the time, but I’m not sure how tense that would have been! Of course I would have wanted to step up and take a penalty in that situation but it was such a relief for everybody because, although Denis or myself would have fancied the situation, and I would have backed Denis all the way, it was better to just put it to bed there and then. Trust me, I was happy with the way things turned out with Coley scoring the winner! It didn’t matter who scored, and when the final whistle went, having clearly contributed in that game when we needed to step up, I felt fantastic.
You might have seen our celebrations in the dressing room afterwards, dancing around the place. We got to the final of the biggest competition, hadn’t done it since 1968, so we knew what that meant. How many teams can say they came from a two-goal deficit on Italian soil against a team like Juventus, with Zidane, Davids, Conte and the others, to reach a final? It was never going to be easy, but we’d come out of a difficult group, beat two Italian teams and we certainly did it all the hard way. Most of all, we knew we were good enough to go on and win the final.
There was no time, I’ll tell you, in that game, that we panicked. We always felt that we were in with a chance in any situation, and when somebody gave us a chance we tended to take it very, very quickly. That night we took our chances and got probably the best away result in our club’s history in Europe. It was just amazing to be a part of. One of the great games.
I’d like to think that when people look back at that season, they see that I played my part during a phenomenal time in United’s history. I was top scorer, our player of the year and I contributed to a team with such a great winning formula. Looking back, of course it’s fulfilling and humbling at the same time. These were some of the most historic moments in the club’s history. To be part of those things is what all the hard work and training over the years and dedication was leading towards.
Nights like Turin are what dreams are made of.