EVERYONE AND THEIR GRANDMA knows how the Champions League concluded in May 1999. That balmy night in Barcelona, when Ole Gunnar Solskjær won it for Manchester United. What some fans — not United fans, mind you — may forget is that United’s road to that final was perhaps even more dramatic than their late comeback to win the tournament. Their resurrection from 2-0 down in the semi-final second-leg against Juventus in Turin was perhaps their greatest moment of all.
This was the Juventus. The Juventus that we remember so fondly from the heydey of Italian football. The champions of Italy. The winners of three of the previous four Serie A titles. Led by Antonio Conte, this was the Juventus of Didier Deschamps and Edgar Davids, of Alessandro Del Piero and Filippo Inzaghi. The Juventus of, you know, Zinedine Zidane. The clubs had been drawn in the same groups for the previous two tournaments, but this was the first time they met in the knockout rounds, and Juventus were quite the formidable opponent.
Fortunately for United, though sadly for the man himself, Del Piero was unavailable for either of the semi-final legs due to a thigh injury that kept him out for nearly the whole season. Football’s loss was most certainly United’s gain. Still, Juventus took a decent away goal back to Turin and United had been lucky to see Ryan Giggs equalise late on at Old Trafford.
The tie was set at 1-1 after the first match. Though the Italians firmly held the upper hand, there was still all to play for as the second leg commenced in the cavernous Stadio delle Alpi.
It didn’t seem that way when Inzaghi, a man who Sir Alex Ferguson correctly described as having been “born offside”, scored twice in the opening 15 minutes. United were 2–0 down; 3–1 on aggregate. A team brimming with some of the best players in the world standing in front of you. Was this it for United? Of course it wasn’t – largely because of one man’s will to win.
So much has been said about Roy Keane and this famous European night. About how he harassed the ball off the Italians, about how at 2-0 he still never doubted that United would progress, about how he got the yellow card that ruled him out of the final, about playing as if he had one foot in Barcelona, about how he constantly drove the ball forward towards Dwight Yorke and Andrew Cole, urging them on and on. So much has been said that, in reality, his performance has become something of a myth.
So let’s keep it simple. It was his goal that changed everything. His brilliant, mesmeric, symbolic header. That goal that made United believe again was a truly beautiful thing.
Read | Behind the red mist of Roy Keane
“United! United! United!” The away fans chant as a corner is awarded in their favour. David Beckham places the ball down, ready to attack it from the left-hand side of the pitch. He curls the ball in, one of Beckham’s unique, trademark strikes that defined his season. The corner, naturally, is impeccable. It cuts through the air but doesn’t sacrifice a centimetre of precision for the pace with which it travels.
Here he is. Keane sprints through the box like a bullet. His run is timed to sheer perfection. Gianluca Pessotto is lost in his wake as Keane rises up, up and up. He beats Zinedine Zidane in the air – the man who scored two headers in the World Cup final less than a year ago, no less – and directs the most gentle of glances. It’s flying past a helpless Angelo Peruzzi. It’s in before anyone knows it. It’s shaking the Italians’ net. It’s 2-1. It’s game on.
You can see Keane’s eyes in the slow-mo. His eyes have it all. He never takes them off the ball for one moment as he arches his run to attack it. Pessotto was lost; a good yard behind him when Keane took off in the air. His leap, perhaps unexpectedly for a player of his reputation, was as graceful and balletic as you could ever hope to see. Zidane jumped to meet the ball, but no. Roy got there first. As the away fans erupt, Zidane collapses to the floor and rolls onto his back in despair.
And then the celebration, man. If you can even call it that. It’s the most Keane celebration of all time. There’s a fleeting fist pump. There’s a minuscule point to the man who gave him the assist. But he doesn’t break stride as he clasps hands with Beckham and begins to run back to his own half. And that’s it. There’s a game to be won. United players join to congratulate and celebrate with him, but he basically shrugs them off. ‘Let’s get on with it, fellas,’ you can almost hear him say. ‘We’ve got a fucking job to do.’
What next? Well, he was booked fewer than 10 minutes later, a yellow card that ruled him out of the Champions League final. But still, he pushed the team on. United’s winning goals were provided by Yorke and Cole – who else?. They were on their way to meet Bayern Munich in the Camp Nou, 31 years after their last European Cup final.
But if there is one thing that sums up that night, or even one thing that sums up the Manchester United of 1999, it’s that goal from the Irishman. Raising his teammates alongside him as he flew in the air, showing them how it’s done, whilst simultaneously crushing the spirit of his opponents. That’s Keano.
Fergie said after: “I don’t think I could have a higher opinion of any footballer than I already had of the Irishman, but he rose even further in my estimation at the Stadio delle Alpi. The minute he was booked and out of the final he seemed to redouble his efforts to get the team there. It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player.”
If that’s coming from Fergie, just imagine how it made us mere mortals feel. Here’s to you, Roy.
By Malachy O’Keeffe @malachyok