Manchester United have come a long way since their early forays into elite European competition.
Early losses to the likes of Galatasaray and IFK Gothenburg left United fans with no shadow of doubt about the scale of the task ahead, a 4-0 humiliation at the hands of Spanish champions Barcelona served as the icing on the cake for United’s detractors who felt that they weren’t ready to compete on the Continental stage and the fact is they weren’t.
However, that was about to change and in the 1996/97 season United, with an incredibly young squad of players, finally turned that European corner.
The previous season, 1995/96, Sir Alex Ferguson had set about completing one of the biggest squad revolutions in English football history, bringing through an amazing crop of academy graduates and going on to regain the Premier League title they lost to Blackburn Rovers in 1994/95.
Fergie’s Fledglings (David Beckham, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt etc) were perfectly complimented by the essential experience of players such as Gary Pallister and Dennis Irwin who in turn continued to be inspired by the leadership of the mercurial Old Trafford legend that was Eric Cantona.
However, despite a full season of Premier League football behind them, Ferguson’s squad now not only lacked experience of winning in Europe, but lacked European experience full stop (having exited the Uefa Cup in the first round the previous season). The lack of experience was further affected by a transfer that shocked English football, Andrei Kanchelskis, a player who had played a pivotal role in United’s title wins of 1992 and 1993, moved to Everton for £5million.
The Ukrainian-born Russian international was replaced by Karel Poborsky, the Czech winger signed on the back of a series of excellent performances for his national side in Euro 1996 for just £3.5 million. Whilst Poborsky grabbed the headlines it would be one of United’s other three summer signings that would go on to pen his name in Old Trafford folklore, unknown Norwegian Ole Gunnar Solskjaer joining from Molde for a bargain basement price of £1.5 million, Jordi Cryuff and Ronny Johnsen were the other two signings.
So here was a United side who lacked experience throughout the squad, tasked with finally navigating the Group Stage of the Champions League and making it through to the knockout round and navigate they did, albeit with three losses to their name and relinquishing their unbeaten home record to Elvir Bolic’s Fenerbahce. Perhaps this was it, United were finally coming of age in Europe, but then the draw for the Quarter Finals took place and out of the hat, alongside United, came the tournaments form team, FC Porto, who had not only won five of their six group games, but also humbled the mighty AC Milan at the San Siro.
I was fourteen when this game took place and despite being a complete and utter football nerd I struggled to find all that much information about the Porto side prior to the match. As such, I had to rely on the British press who, unfortunately, had went into self destruct mode. Every newspaper article told you about how good this Porto side was and how many titles they had one, every mention on television came alongside a Jorge Costa sound-bite telling United fans that the end was nigh.
Even at that young age, I knew better than to believe what I read in newspapers or saw on television, but that didn’t stop me worrying. What if Jardel was as brilliant as his goals tally suggested? Zahovic as skilful as people would have you believe? This is the reason this game stands out in my memory, it was the first game I ever watched whilst absolutely terrified by the prospect of imminent disappointment, which in a way made the win all the more enjoyable.
The first thing that strikes me, when looking back at United’s line-up that night, is the formation SAF used. The midfield diamond was very much the 4-3-3 with inverted wingers of the mid to late nineties. One holding midfielder, two wide midfielders and an attacking midfielder or deep lying forward behind two out and out strikers. In United’s case this equated to Ronny Johnsen, filling in for Roy Keane, tidying up ahead of the defence, Beckham and Giggs on either flank and Cantona playing a free role in support of Andy Cole and Ole Solskjaer.
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Cynics might have scoffed at such an outrageously risky attacking line-up, but the final score-line of 4-0 would prove Ferguson right and set his side firmly on the path to the Semi Finals of the European Cup for the first time in twenty-eight years.
Porto’s failing was their inability to deal with the “English” game that United had perfected. The speed with which red shirts got forward and the number involved in almost every attack proved too much for the Porto defence to handle, not to mention the fact that they failed to deal with almost every high ball played into the area. This frantic, hassling approach from United, which would be refined over the coming seasons and lead to eventual glory, gave Porto no time to play the game they wanted to play and but for an Artur shot after just 70 seconds the Portuguese side failed to trouble United’s central defence.
I don’t mean to do United’s other three goals a disservice, but I want to focus on just one. David May’s thumping finish on 22 settled the Old Trafford nerves and when Cantona converted a second on 32 the nerves disappeared completely, but it was the third goal that stands out in my memory and, in my opinion, should be considered one of the best goals ever scored at Old Trafford.
As Porto pushed forward, in an attempt to get back into the game, Rui Barros sent a left wing cross into the area, it was high and long, beating everyone and finding Eric Cantona in the left back position. United fans young and old are well aware of Le King’s ability, but the pass he then produced is imprinted in my memory and I fear the day that I might ever forget something quite so special.
With the outside of his right boot Cantona swept a long pass around an onrushing Porto defender and down the left wing, within inches of going out of play it curled back inside for Andy Cole to run onto. I remember my dad, who rarely swore in front his children, simply saying “Holy f**k, did you see that pass?”.
Old Trafford was on it’s feet, urging Cole on and he granted them their wish, forcing Jorge Costa to back-peddle towards the area. Everybody expected Cole to go it alone and finish off the move, but suddenly, out of nowhere, Ryan Giggs appeared on the edge of the area having made a 60 yard dash to offer Cole an alternative, the striker accepted his offer and played a neat ball back to the Welshman who drilled a tidy near-post finish past the luckless Hilario.
Perhaps the goal means so much to me because it signalled the dawning of a new era, Manchester United had arrived in Europe and with that third goal had showed that they were just as capable of scoring a breathtakingly wonderful team goal as everyone else in Europe. For the first time since returning to the European Cup in 1993 they had delivered and in doing so they had completely dismantled a Porto side that nobody had given them any hope of getting anything against.
There was still enough time for Cole to get in on the goal-scoring action and complete Porto’s humiliation, a delicate chip rubbing salt into Hilario’s wounds. The return leg would prove a dull affair, in comparison, United holding firm to claim a 0-0 draw and book a place in the Semi Finals of the competition and enjoy another two European Nights in the 96/97 season, but neither would match the 5th of March 1997, a day that should be heralded as United’s coming of age and the beginning of a bright European future. That win against Porto will forever be one of my favourite Manchester United European Nights.
About Simon McPolin
Simon is one half of the Debatable Decisions team, a blog which analyses the performance of referees and takes to task the players who would rather cheat than perform. Their Decisions League Table aims to prove which teams really do get the rub of the green more often than not and which teams suffer most at the hands of the man in black. A die hard United fan, he takes all things MUFC far too seriously and hopes that he has found a home to vent and rant with Can They Score. Check out his blog, Debatable Decisions, and follow him on Twitter here.