Manchester United are no stranger to cup finals. No stranger to late goals, and no stranger to drama, either. But as dramatic, late, cup final goals go, there’s only one goal to talk about.
It’s fitting that Manchester United’s latest cup final appearance, this afternoon against Southampton in the EFL Cup final at Wembley, should take place on the birthday of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the scorer of that goal in the 1999 Champions League final. The Winner.
In football, platitudes and formalities are the scourge of the post-match interview. Rarely is an insightful quote given. Yet sometimes the moment is summed up perfectly, and the aftermath of Solskjaer’s goal, just after the euphoria, the final whistle and the wild celebrations we saw one of those moments.
“Football: bloody hell!”
The emotion of the moment is easy to understand from afar, but the story isn’t so simple. The fact that Manchester United won the treble places them quite comfortably as the best side in Europe. Trebles are rare feats, reserved for only the very best of sides, and winning everything – except the League Cup, that season – shows a domination few teams manage.
With hindsight, then, it’s easy to paint the 1999 treble winning team as an all-conquering force dominating Europe. Having won every trophy, that’s the logical outcome, but the reality is a little bit different.
United weren’t shoo-ins for any competition that season. The Premier League was won on the final day of the season as United were crowned after coming back from behind to beat Tottenham at Old Trafford. They won the league by a single point: one extra goal turned defeat into a draw somewhere along the way, winning the league in the process.
The FA Cup was just as uncomfortable. An extra time Ryan Giggs goal saw off Arsenal in the semi-final after Peter Schmeichel saved a 90th minute Dennis Bergkamp penalty. A goal could have seen everything fall apart. In the end, Giggs was given the time to score his iconic winner, and United went on to beat Newcastle United to complete the second part of three-legged glory.
But the third part was the narrowest of the lot, perfectly summing up the knife-edge upon which the feat was achieved.
That’s probably the nature of winning a treble for any team. Professional football is hard. It ought to be hard. Winning a treble should be the most difficult thing. But after such a gruelling few weeks, the fact United came through on the other side as champions of all three competitions was miraculous.
After the drama of the FA Cup semi-final came a Champions League semi where a 1-1 draw in Manchester saw Juventus nose ahead. If they were favourites before kick-off in the second leg in Turin, they looked to be as good as through by the 11th minute, after two quickfire Filippo Inzaghi goals. This was a hard-nosed Juve side, too. One with experience and nous. They’d been to the previous three finals, winning one of them, a fourth final in a row was firmly in their hands.
But a Roy Keane-inspired Manchester United came back from the dead once again – Keane was suspended for the final itself, but that just amplified the selflessness of his impact on the semi. The team was more important than the individual, and when you have that spirit, you always have a chance.
Arsenal and Juventus were just the warm-up preludes to what was to come next, though. It was as if United had practised their Houdini escape in the build-up to the Champions League final just as any other team might practice new set-plays or formations in the lead up to the big day. This time it wasn’t just a come-from-behind victory, nor was it just a last minute winner: it was the two rolled into one and concentrated into just three minutes of football. A triple-distilled luxury spirit in a team with plenty of it. United were no bottlers, either.
It only takes a second to score a goal, and the violence with which Solskjaer connected with the ball and sent it into the roof of the net proved it. Oliver Kahn in the Bayern Munich goal could do nothing, his reaction was just to look at the ground in disbelief. It could only have been more fitting if he’d shrugged and walked off the pitch instead: some things are just meant to be.
Reliving the winning goal, or even the last three minutes of that night in Barcelona is probably something of a hobby for many United fans, a fairly frequent pastime carried out when no one’s looking, just as City fans might find themselves on YouTube replaying Sergio Aguero’s goal in 2012, or Chelsea fans reliving Didier Drogba’s header against Bayern Munich (there’s a theme developing) – two goals that happened less than a week apart.
But, as with all of those emotional last-gasp moments, they somehow manage to miss the main point of the achievement. For United, the important part shouldn’t really be the winner at the Camp Nou, it should be the semi-finals they had to endure to get there. Without them, the togetherness and the spirit couldn’t have been fostered. Keane’s performance wouldn’t have been possible, neither would Solskjaer’s goal.
And on the day of another cup final, that’s the most important part for Jose Mourinho’s United. When they look for inspiration ahead of the EFL Cup final, they can look back on Barcelona or Moscow if they like, but those games don’t tell the whole story.
This current Manchester United team aren’t yet a team of winners strengthened by the brotherhood only adversity and triumph against the odds can create. But winning their first trophy together would be the very first step on a long road if they want to kindle the sort of spirit that made Solskjaer’s goal possible.
As great as late, dramatic, cup final goals are, they’re not sheer dumb luck when they win you a treble: they’re only part of the story.