The Munich air crash in 1958 en route home from a European Cup quarter final success in Belgrade became a defining feature of United’s identity. The Champions League finale 41 years later against Bayern Munich in Barcelona embellished the legend the late, two goal flourish consistent with the thrill demand lay down by Sir Matt Busby’s Babes.
Sir Alex Ferguson has nurtured this tradition better than any thought possible during his 24 year administration. The team he takes to the Allianz Arena on Tuesday are beginning to acquire the momentum associated with Ferguson in the spring. You would have got generous odds in August for the idea of United emulating the boys of ’99 with a treble in May. Arm restraints awaited anybody advancing the claim that this United would be better than the one led by Cristiano Ronaldo.
At least there is a debate to be had. If the team are not a superior proposition, one could argue that Ronaldo is not missed as he was in autumn. This is Ferguson’s genius, he loses neither faith in his vision nor patience and nerve in delivering it.
The 1999 team contested the final shorn of their midfield axis of Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. David Beckham assumed the centre ground which further upset Manchester United’s rhythm by diminishing the threat down the right. In abstract, United were the competition’s best side that year, peaking with the 3-2 semi-final victory against Juventus in Turin. Bayern were not a great side but they were the better one at the Nou Camp. Perhaps the luck United enjoyed was an act of karma that recognised the team’s wider qualities.
This was the maturing of the Beckham generation, the team Ferguson harvested from United’s celebrated youth division. It was his second great creation after the Bruce, Pallister, Cantona, Ince, Hughes, Kanchelskis masterpiece, which was arguably the finest of the lot. The post Ronaldo species evolves around Wayne Rooney, who is developing into a kind of nuclear powered Eric Cantona. The design flaw is the team’s dependence on him.
United are essentially contenders in any game in which Rooney features. He plays like the buzz saw from hell, tearing at defences no longer with a jagged edge but a refined, lacerating hostility. Ranged against him on Tuesday are the reconstituted Arjen Robben and the Real Madrid wannabe Franck Ribery. Their presence offers a dynamic counterpoint to the Rooney show, one Ferguson will need to address if United are to take advantage of the softer routing to the Bernabeu offered by a Champions League draw that threw up Lyon or Bordeaux in the semi-final.
Ribery’s poorly disguised love in with Madrid mirrors the Ronaldo experience of a year ago. Ribery’s insistence that nothing has been decided regarding his future is an abuse of the supporters’ trust. You will recall how Ronaldo informed United fans that his Madrid dream was dead. If Ronaldo’s courtship with Madrid president Florentino Perez did not undermine United’s Champions League effort it certainly did not help it.
Ribery sends an unsubtle message to his team mates that Bayern are not good enough for him, and by extension are deficient in elite company. Fergie might lay that idea on with a trowel in his team-talk. Ferguson has grown in confidence as a coach in this arena as a result of United’s longevity in Europe during the Champions League years. He is less likely now to reshape his team to suit the opposition as he did with depressing frequency in the early days.
His tactical ‘innovations’ tended to emasculate rather than enhance. He has been helped by the technical improvements of the domestic game, which means he is more likely to trust the Premier League model rather than invest in some pale copy of a supposed continental template. In wearing a European suit, Ferguson was effectively surrendering supremacy to opponents by tacitly admitting United could not prosper if they played their natural game.
A fourth European Cup, argues Ferguson, would be commensurate with United’s standing in the game. The colour of European success might have been red not white had the world turned differently in 1958. The team that perished on the Munich runway had reached the European Cup semi-finals in 1957, smashing Anderlecht 10-0 and putting five past Athletico in Bilbao before losing to Madrid.
The following season Duncan Edwards, Eddie Colman, Tommy Taylor et al, gave the performance of the age in beating Arsenal 5-4 at Highbury en route to Belgrade, where they ran up an early 3-0 advantage before departing with the draw that earned a semi final shot at AC Milan.
Here was a vibrant, youthful, English collective closing in on Madrid’s ageing galacticos. Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo di Stefano were 31 when tragedy cut down the flowers of Manchester. Madrid went on that year to claim the third of five successive European Cups at the competition’s inception. It is fair to argue that Edwards and company might have had something to say about that had they lived.
Ferguson is, in a sense, leading the mission to reclaim United’s lost history. His back has been bent to this cause for na quarter of a century. Next stop is the city where the legend of Manchester United acquired global status. Munich and the European Cup are indelible threads woven deep into the fabric of this club. Where better to set out United’s European credentials, a poignant stopover along the road to the Bernabeu?
Are 3 successive European Champions League Finals achievable?