Sunday 26 May 2019

26th May 1999 - The Treble

I can recall May 1999 like it was yesterday, even though it was 20-years ago. I think of it regularly; the football, friendships, music, girls, the adventure, a more innocent time. I was 23 and having the time of my life.

But I'll start by going back a little further. To the beginning of my love affair with Manchester United Football Club. Growing up in the West of Scotland, my parents shielded me a little from the Old Firm. Motherwell was my local team and my Dad took me to some games, but we were also fortunate that my Aunt and Uncle had moved to Ellon, just outside Aberdeen. This coincided with a time when Aberdeen Football Club were sweeping all before them, led by Alex Ferguson, with the spine of Leighton, McLeish and Miller and starlets like Strachan, Black and Weir.

We ventured north regularly to visit my Uncle Murray, Aunt Mary, cousins Tom and Katy and also our Great Aunt Ina who was also up there and to the great delight of me and my brother we went to see Aberdeen play and train. I distinctly remember Aberdeen playing Dundee United and my favourite player Gordon Strachan was on the bench and the Dons support chanted bring on the wee man, bring on the wee man.

Aberdeen won the Cup Winners Cup in 1983, beating the famous Real Madrid in the final. Amazingly, this incredible team still trained in a public park in Aberdeen - Seaton Park.

It was here that as a youngster I experienced Fergie's hairdryer close at hand as he barked and swore at Willie Miller as the team set off on runs round the park with Miller lagging behind. My dad smiled. It was amazing to see these players up close and personal and we got our picture with my hero Gordon Strachan.

As we drove out of Seaton Park one time my Dad asked my brother and I to look behind us. It was the Aberdeen team bus and Fergie was sitting in the front to the side of the driver. He recognised us and smiled, waving back every time we waved at him.

I don't know why, but most kids had a favourite English team. Most supported Liverpool through their strong Scottish contingent of players like Dalglish, but I had fallen for Manchester United and in particular their swashbuckling captain Bryan Robson.

Old school Adidas

So I was delighted when my favourite player Gordon Strachan signed for them in 1984. United became my team. I fell for the club, the history, the Babes, Busby, Best, Charlton, Law and the 1984/85 team with young Norman Whiteside, Jesper Olsen, Robson - the leader and Mark Hughes.

I became United daft and had the home, away and third tops that year. The 3rd top, the blue one with the hoops was my favourite. Scottish football was virtually abandoned, if asked, I was a Manchester United supporter and that's the way it has been ever since.

Possibly my fave United top

But anyway, if you're reading this, you're probably reading it because it is about 1999. So let's fast forward to 1998 and I was down in Manchester with my girlfriend at the time, trying to buy a ticket for United v Leeds but not having any luck. However luck did come my way during a stadium tour when the guide told me that there was a Glasgow Manchester United Supporters Club that ran a bus to every single home game. I was stunned!

It was true, I joined the branch. My first trip on the bus was to see United wallop Wimbledon 5-1 with goals from Beckham, Giggs, Yorke and Cole (2). It was brilliant to meet fellow United supporters who shared my passion and I was amazed to learn about Jim Haw the Branch Chair following United home, away and in Europe. And branch secretary (and exiled Mancunian) Dave Sharkey encouraged me to bring a mixtape after learning of my love of music. Driving towards Old Trafford in the sunshine with Regret by New Order blasting out felt like a dream.

I put my name down for every game and by Christmas I was a regular. I was living my dreams, travelling to Manchester every other week to watch incredible football, I was making new friends, listening to great music, drinking beer and generally having the time of my life.

What a team! A midfield of Beckham, Keane, Scholes and Giggs, Jaap Stam in defence, Yorke, Cole, Ole, Teddy, Schmeichel, and then the less heralded Neville Brothers, May, Berg, Johnson, the ever dependable Irwin, Butt, Blomqvist, the emerging Wesley Brown ... there were goals galore... a both ends.

The 2-0 home win against Inter in the quarter final was one of the best atmospheres I have experienced at Old Trafford. I was up in Tier 3 of the North Stand and people were falling over seats when the second goal went in, I was worried someone might go over the edge. It's pretty steep up there!

The semi final came quickly, too quickly for tickets to be posted to Dave Sharkey, so the bus left a little early and we literally drove up to the ticket office at the front of Old Trafford. Changed days! We pulled up next to what we thought was another supporters bus, but it was the Juventus bus! What a laugh as we flicked fingers, banged on windows and one lad popped a moon, the Juve players gave as good and we laughed with them. It wouldn't happen these days and if it had it would have been all over social media.

Juve were sensational. I was low down in k-stand and marvelled at Zidane bossing the game even with a bandaged knee. He always seemed to have space and time. United clung on and we were somehow still in it.

Planning for Barcelona began immediately after United had displayed incredible determination and spirit, led by Roy Keane, to come from behind and win 3-2 in Turin.

Some lucky members of the branch got tickets, I remember some crying with relief when they picked them up before the Spurs game to win the league. The rest of us that planned on going either booked independent travel or decided to book via a company called Millwest who promised flights, 2-nights accommodation and a ticket for something like £200 (from memory). I went with that option along with many others including a guy called Phil who also started travelling on the supporters bus that year. We'd become great friends, bonding over music, football and fashion.

Full steam ahead Barcelona
Although the flight didn't leave on time!

On Monday 24th May 1999 it is safe to say that I was extremely excited. I'd planned to stay with my friends Phil and Mary at their flat in Victoria Road in the southside of Glasgow that night. Phil would then be driving me, Gary and Richard down to Manchester Airport first thing on Tuesday morning for our flight to Barcelona.

Phil is originally from Cheshire and has an enthusiastic lust for life that brings a smile to the faces of anyone he comes into contact with. His passion for United, for music, for his family, his profession (dentist) and life in general is loud (sometimes very) and proud. We met going down to see United on the Glasgow Manchester United Supporters Club bus and bonded over football, music and fashion and remain great friends to this day.

Anyway, back in 1999 I didn't have a mobile phone. I don't recall many people having them at that stage. I was back home from work and the phone went. It was Phil.

Phil - Guess what?

Me - What?

Phil - I've got us 2 tickets for the final!!!!

Me - WTF?

After the glorious semi-final victory over Juventus in Turin, Phil and I (along with many others) had signed up for flights, hotel and tickets with a company from Manchester called Millwest. As time progressed they wanted an extra £50, another extra £50 and then another extra £50 on top of the initial cost to secure tickets. We were all rather suspicious. Although we paid!

Phil explained that a lady had come into his practice that very afternoon (Phil in 1999 had not long moved to Glasgow after graduating in dentistry and was working in Hamilton, where he is now a partner) and they had got talking and Phil in his usual enthusiastic manner, probably even more enthusiastic than normal given that he was heading to Barcelona, told the lady everything about the final and the ticket fiasco.

To Phil's utter astonishment the lady told him that her son had two tickets for the final but could no longer go. I think he was going through a divorce. He lived in Kilmarnock and was involved with Kilmarnock FC, would Phil like them?!

My jaw hit the floor as Phil told me all this. He was leaving Hamilton to drive to Kilmarnock and told me to get the train to Glasgow and wait with Mary for his return.

Me - Drive carefully!

I headed to Glasgow and jumped a cab out to Phil's flat and waited with Mary. We heard a key turn in the lock and Phil entered with a wild gleam in his eyes.

In what seemed like slow motion Phil pulled two beautiful tickets from his pocket and I ran to him and we jumped about like schoolkids. It was a magical moment. I slept with my ticket under my pillow.

26th May 1999 - my ticket by fate, signed by Sir Alex

Do you believe in fate?

I do.

The next morning a convoy of cars departed branch secretary Dave Sharkey's house in East Kilbride to head to Manchester. Dave, an exiled Mancunian was bristling with pride. My mate Tel literally came in from the hospital where his wife had given birth to their son. He was allowed to go! What a wife! I don't think Tel slept until he got back home!

Exiled Manc and lover of northern soul Gary took one look at Phil's beat up Fiesta and uttered a line from Star Wars 'you came in that thing, your braver than I thought.'

There were a few hairy moments on the drive to Manchester but we got there. I don't think Phil would have cared if he left the Fiesta there, we were on the way.

Well, we should have been.

There was no-one at Millwest at the airport to meet us with the promised tickets for the game. We were told there would be someone to meet us in Barcelona. Phil and I had decided to keep quiet that we had secured two as we really felt for our friends.

The flight was delayed, at one stage there was a rumour that Millwest hadn't even booked a flight.

I'm not sure what happened as I did what I did regularly as a 23 year old. I went to the bar and got drunk and had a laugh, hoping that things would sort themselves out.

Glasgow Reds hoping for a flight

Miraculously, they did. We were put on flights to Barcelona and then bussed out to Salou, arriving at some ungodly hour but still finding a bar open. There had been no-one from Millwest at Barcelona airport or at the hotel.

I remember sitting outside the bar with some hardcore United fans talking about Millwest and one of them told the others not to worry as Millwest offices were getting firebombed. Sure enough, they were!

It was a very, very long day and I didn't get much sleep after having a Mrs Robinson moment with a 36-year old blonde from Manchester. Quite a day and night!

The next day we all met up in a bar for breakfast and briefly hung around the pool to discuss tactics as, not that we were surprised by this stage, there was no Millwest bus to take us there.

Despite challenges, we were within reach of Barcelona and the Champions League final. How were we going to get there though? Would everyone get a ticket?

The morning of the final

We walked to the train station in stifling heat. The trains were mobbed and we weren't allowed on at the station. My instincts kicked in and I dived into a hotel and got them to book 3 taxi's from Salou to Barcelona. They were £100 each but no-one cared, we had come this far.

The taxis all got split up. We decided to get dropped off at the ground, we'd had enough stress of getting there. We found a lovely tapas bar and bunkered in with some locals before walking to the ground.

Phil and I were pretty wrecked by the time we wandered round the ground in the blazing sunshine. Things were not as organised back then as they are now.

We wandered through the Bayern fans singing 'Jankers got a little prick, little prick, little prick' a song we made up on the spot. These days we would probably have been lifted, but we were young, drunk and harmless. The Bayern fans just laughed.

We couldn't believe we were there ... in Barcelona ... about to watch our team play in a Champions League final. I think we may have been a little hysterical.

We got into the ground early and the Bayern end was already pretty full. United pretty much took over the rest of the stadium over the next couple of hours. Before then we were treated to impressive choreographed chants from Bayern, we met others from the branch who had bought tickets on the black market and watched the full build up with beers. It felt like a beautiful dream.

Meeting fellow members from the Glasgow branch who managed to get tickets
To this day some say the beer was alcohol free ...

United end prior to kick off
Freddie Mercury's Barcelona blasted out

The sun went down and the teams came out. It was on.

For some reason Phil's ticket was a section along from mine. There was a section for odd numbers and a section for even. Either that or we were drunk. But we didn't sit or stand next to each other for the game - weird.

Bayern scored, United didn't click. Keane and Scholes were missing and the midfield of Beckham, Butt, Giggs and Blomvquist seemed a little disjointed. Bayern should have been out of sight, hitting the post, the bar, pulling saves from Schmeichel.

They thought they had won it. You could tell from the cheers after their substitutions. They took off Lothar Matthaus, their captain.

Sheringham came on and I can remember him fluffing something on the wing. But United were getting more of the ball, their energy levels seemed higher. But we were not breaking through and I looked across at the clock opposite me and 90-minutes were up.

It was hot, but I had my United bar scarf on, I clung to it and prayed. All around me people were starting to get a little anxious and the mood was changing as some chanted about winning two world wars.

Then United got a corner.

Everyone seemed to go quiet for a minute and then explode into action. We had a chance, Schmeichel was coming up.

Sheringham scored. The place went mental.

Before I knew it we had another corner and everyone seemed to know we were going to win at this point.

Ole scored....

And Solskjaer has won it - Getty Images

There was overwhelming emotion - relief, joy, happiness, elation. Strangers hugged, sang and danced. Bayern were out on their feet, some couldn't get up.

The whistle blew.

I ran into the aisle looking for Phil and he was running towards me. We hugged, eyes ablaze with tears of joy, we climbed over a wall and got down to the very front of the section we were in.

The celebrations seemed to go on for ages. Time was no issue, we could have stayed there all night singing and dancing, celebrating with the players who must have done 3 or 4 laps of the United support. Keane and Scholes came out to huge cheers. All the players got their own turn with the trophy in front of the main United support behind the goals. Sit Down by James was played 2 or 3 times.

If I hadn't seen such riches I could live with being poor

Armed with a disposeable camera, my mate Phil caught the elation at the end
And I caught him

It was magical. I wish I could go back in time and watch the younger me for a few hours from the final whistle.

Ferguson was hoisted on the shoulders of young Wes Brown and reserve keeper Raymond van der Gouw right in front of us and I thought back to seeing Fergie back when I was a youngster. What a journey I had been on with this great man, what a journey he had taken everyone on, what a journey he had taken the club on. He had a vision. Football eh? Bloody hell.

The treble was concluded on the birthday of the late Sir Matt Busby the man who built the traditions of Manchester United, believing in youth and attacking football to give the workers around Old Trafford something to be proud of. Ferguson shared those beliefs.

I vaguely remember walking out the ground in a daze, United fans in absolute harmony.

My next memory is of somehow bumping into other Glasgow branch members in a bar, god knows how, again fate must have played a hand.

There were some Bayern fans there and a couple of them handed out cigars to United fans which I thought was a very touching and classy gesture. Cigars they must have been close to lighting.

Richard Ashcroft from The Verve was outside the bar looking super cool. Someone handed him a scarf and he tied it round his tiny waist. I wondered when he was going to stop pulling the knot!

We jumped a bus to La Rambla and after a couple of cans from somewhere we settled down to sleep along with other United supporters who had no chance of getting back to their hotel that night. But then my Mrs Robinson ran over to say she had found a taxi to take us to Salou and we jumped in and sped off into the night.

We got back to the hotel and our friend Tel was waiting up for us. Thankfully he had got a ticket and we hoarsely talked until we passed out from exhaustion.

United had done it, football, bloody hell.

We had another long day on 27th May at Barcelona airport, drinking and singing. We got up the road and my friends came up at night to watch the game all over again as my Mum had recorded it for me.

It was so special. 20-years ago.

Thank you to Sir Alex, all the players and staff and to all the wonderful supporters who made it such an incredible experience.

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