They thought it was all over: The year of the photo-finish: Why I ignored Fergie

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The Independent Online
HIS TEAM had reached that stage when they were just being wheeled into intensive care, the breathing shallow and vital organs failing. Even that professional optimist, Father Alex, was mentally preparing the wording of his last rites. The manager was determined that defeat, on this of all occasions, should be accepted with dignity, however hard failure to secure the Treble was to bear.

All but the most rabidly myopic observers knew the Nou Camp belonged to Bayern Munich that Barcelona night of 26 May. The Germans had held a 1-0 advantage for virtually all the Champions' League final and had also struck the woodwork. Morally, it was their trophy. Wasn't it? Even the introduction of Teddy Sheringham for Jesper Blomqvist and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for Andy Cole hadn't invoked the miracle required... seemingly.

Those of us high up in the gods were already searching for saving graces, comforting words for the ultimate failure of Ferguson's team, speculating on the manager's demeanour as the final became a game too far.

Yet, the heart of his team still beat strongly, and none personified that quality more than Peter Schmeichel, captain for the night in Roy Keane's absence through suspension. All season, there had been nothing, nothing quite like the Dane, and for him there was no alternative, when David Beckham placed the ball for that 89th-minute corner, than to make his presence felt.

Ferguson was not, the goalkeeper was to discover afterwards, greatly pleased. "He confessed that he just hadn't been able to see any way in which we would get back into the game," recalled Schmeichel. In other words, he had all but conceded defeat when he saw his goalkeeper rushing up the pitch like a madman. He was not able to see that there was a real point in putting the German defence under pressure.

Schmeichel added: "It was clear that something extraordinary had to happen. That's why I raced up the pitch right into Bayern's area. I ignored Alex Ferguson's body language which signalled unmistakably that I should get back to my goal immediately. I had three men around me and, in the kind of chaos defenders dread, Sheringham, as he has done so often before, managed to get his foot to the ball and it rocketed into the net. I have no doubt that my sudden rush up the pitch was a contributory factor."

His intervention not only resuscitated United, but was the catalyst for Solskjaer's winner a minute later. In his last game for the club, Schmeichel was to lift the trophy which had eluded Manchester United for 31 years. It was, he said, comparable to "being handed your newborn child in the delivery room. And then you have to multiply that by roughly a factor of two".

Bayern Munich were struck motionless; yet, for all our sympathy, who could argue that it was not a just conclusion to United's season. Certainly not the remarkable Schmeichel.