“The magical transformation. ”So goes the description in Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography of the most remarkable, least probable conclusion to any European Cup final. It was the 101-second slice of added time in which his Manchester United side snatched club football’s greatest prize.
The date was 26 May 1999, the place was Camp Nou and the hero a Norwegian substitute known as the baby-faced assassin: the elfin-featured Ole Gunnar Solskjær. On an epic Barcelona evening, he was the man who applied the killer touch that broke Bayern München hearts and secured United’s unprecedented treble of Premier League, FA Cup and European Cup.
Less than three minutes beforehand, the clock had ticked past 90 minutes with United trailing 1-0. As Lennart Johansson, UEFA president at the time, left his seat to head to the trophy presentation, there were Bayern ribbons being attached to the prize. A despondent George Best, a hero of United’s previous European Cup triumph in 1968 under Sir Matt Busby, had already left the ground. Hopes of a repeat success on what would have been Busby’s 90th birthday were drifting into the Catalan night.
Then came that transformation. In the first minute of extra time, David Beckham swung over a corner. With goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel in the Bayern box causing mayhem, a scuffed clearance fell to Ryan Giggs. His miscued right-footed shot from the edge of the box was heading wide– but there was substitute Teddy Sheringham. swivelling to sweep the ball into the net. 1-1.
Solskjær’s only thought was to dash back to the halfway line; having replaced Andrew Cole in the 81st minute, he was eager to make an impact. “I felt great and I was just looking forward to doing something in extra time,” he said on his return to Barcelona as United manager last spring. “But I went and ruined it,” he added, wryly.
Lothar Matthäus had told defender (and, as it turned out, man of the match) Samuel Kuffour that if the Bavarians could contain United’s in-form attacking pair of Cole and Dwight Yorke, they would beat the Manchester side. At half-time Solskjær had heard his manager tell Sheringham to prepare himself to play a part; he received no such assurance himself yet retained his preternatural calm.
In Solskjær’s head there was simply a quiet confidence. Earlier that day, unable to nap because of room-mate Jaap Stam’s snoring, he had called his best friend back in Trondheim, a nurse who worked nights, and ordered him to find someone to cover the start of his shift because of a feeling “something big” was going to happen.
There were good reasons for Solskjær’s faith in his sense of timing. He had scored his first United goal within six minutes of his debut as a substitute against Blackburn Rovers in August 1996. Then, in the space of a fortnight in 1999, he cemented his supersub status: he hit a stoppage-time winner against Liverpool in an FA Cup tie before, two weekends later, coming on to contribute four goals in the last ten minutes of an 8-1 victory at Nottingham Forest.
When he joined the action at Camp Nou, United still trailed to Mario Basler’s sixth-minute free-kick. Yet Solskjær found the room to head an attempt at Oliver Kahn with his very first touch. “Oh, what a story that would have been,” said Clive Tyldesley, ITV’s match commentator. An even greater story lay around the corner.
Within 25 seconds of the game’s resumption following Sheringham’s equaliser, Solksjær’s persistence won his team another corner. Beckham delivered again, this time to the near post. Sheringham rose to head it on towards the far, where Solksjær stabbed out his right foot and sent the ball flashing high between Kahn and Michael Tarnat. 2-1.
UEFA president Johansson, still making his way through the stadium corridors, missed it. Thanks to Solksjær, those ribbons were going to be United red and white now.