16th May 1999: Andy Cole’s clinical finish early in the second half on the last day of the Premier League season sees United deservedly reclaim the title from rivals Arsenal. 22nd May 1999: Teddy Sheringham steps off the bench to inspire a comfortable outing at Wembley against Newcastle United adding the FA Cup to the league title won eight days previously. 26th May 1999: United now begin to dream, eleven players prepare to step out in front of a 91,000-strong Nou Camp crowd hoping they can deliver what would truly be an unprecedented moment in the history of Manchester United football club.
We can remember the Clive Tyldesley hysterics as he described events in the dying moments of the match, a visibly distraught Sammy Kuffor, the reliazation on veteran Lothar Matthaus’ face that his last opportunity to make up for that European Cup final loss in Vienna twelve years before was being cruelly snatched away. The impact that substitutes Sheringham and Solskjaer played in the iconic Champions League final are obvious, but what of the eleven footballers tasked with the mission to make history without Scholes and Keane in the heart of that midfield? These are the men who good fortune aside, fought all the way to the end to earn Fergie his first ever Champions League trophy.
1. Peter Schmeichel (Goalkeeper)
Schmeichel would step off the hallowed Nou Camp turf either a winner or loser for the last time in his illustrious Manchester United career spanning almost a decade. The Great Dane, named as captain in the absence of Roy Keane endured a last season which served as dramatic as any of the United players. After a series of errors in particular against finalist opponents Bayern Munich in the group stage meeting, manager Ferguson decided to give his valuable goalkeeper a ‘winter break’ to help the keeper stay fresh for the latter part of the season.
2. Gary Neville (Right back) and 3. Denis Irwin (Left back)
Gary Neville the ‘young pup’ in the United back four had cemented himself into the right back position for both club and country earning him the reputation as one of the most consistent full backs in the game. His excellent understanding with Beckham on the right hand side illustrated his ability to support attacks and effectively deliver from wide positions. With Beckham moving inside, Ryan Giggs played ahead of Neville, and in no way impacted on the value of Neville’s work-rate on the right side of the pitch. Occupying the left back position was the man who long before attained the tag of Mr Consistency’. Denis Irwin, the model professional gave comfort to those ahead of him with his ability to remain assured and a threat also with his excellent delivery.
6. Jaap Stam (Centre back) and 5. Ronny Johnsen (Centre back)
Jaap Stam, a 10.75m signing from PSV brought his pace, brawn, and dominant-style displays ensuring that he became a mainstay in a centre back partnership alongside Ronny Johnsen. Plagued with injuries during his time at the club, the Norwegian when fit, forged a flourishing partnership with Stam. Despite mounting speculation as to whether Johnsen would be called up for midfield duty after a scintillating display in the away leg of the semi-final against Juventus, Ferguson recognised the stability he would bring in such a crucial area of the game.
11. Ryan Giggs (Right midfield) and 15. Jesper Blomqvist (Left midfield)
In his unfamiliar position on the right wing, Ryan Giggs’ threat would be no less potent had he been accommodating the more familiar surroundings of the left side of midfield. The Swede Jesper Blomqvist instead would occupy that role. Signed from Italian club Parma in the close season, the enthusiastic Swede who despite being familiar with Scandinavian weather conditions did not take to the British weather with his trademark sleeves to the knuckles, hugged the by-line and would be entrusted with instigating play from the left.
8. Nicky Butt (Centre midfield) and 7. David Beckham (Centre midfield)
It was the area that posed the greatest dilemma for Alex Ferguson with the untimely suspensions of first choice central midfielders Paul Scholes and Roy Keane. Both had been crucial in the European campaign and the task to soften the loss of such two important players was given to Nicky Butt and David Beckham. Butt so much in the shadow of the enigmatic Keane would accommodate the more defensive role, with his primary function to stifle the abundance of creativity in the Bayern Munich midfield.
Accompanying Butt in an unfamiliar central midfield role was David Beckham. Overcoming a summer of torment and season of abuse from away fans for his controversial sending off in the 1998 World Cup, he favorably manoeuvred the focus back on his unquestionable ability and showed fantastic resiliency to become an integral figure of United’s Champions League campaign. Withdrawn from his usual right midfield position, he was moved infield notably for his range of passing firm in the belief that Beckham had the ability to comfortably accommodate the central midfield role.
19. Dwight Yorke (Centre forward) and 9. Andy Cole (Centre forward)
And so to those entrusted with scoring the goals that would steer the side towards a winner’s walk to collect that Champions League trophy. Dwight Yorke, the Trinidad and Tobago international and 12.5m purchase at the beginning of the season from Aston Villa more than adequately justified his hefty price tag. The striker had crucially drawn an almost telepathic understanding with strike partner Andy Cole echoed by their last outing at the Nou Camp in the Champions League that season. Yorke’s partnership with Cole would be crucial while Yorke himself would have been keen to add to an already impressive goal tally in the competition notching up eight goals en route to the final. Strike partner Cole’s pace and ability to get behind the defence was an effective equilibrium to Yorke’s strength holding up the ball and searching for his strike partner. The ability to read Yorke’s passing and movement so well meant they were perhaps the most effective strike partnership in the Champions League that year.