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football was better when i was young

Throwback Thursday: United's European Nightmare

20 years ago, Manchester United crashed out of the UEFA Cup to the little-known Russian side Rotor Volgograd.

by Jim Weeks
24 September 2015, 2:55pm

Photos by PA Images

On September 26th 1995, the mighty Manchester United were knocked out of the UEFA Cup by a club most British fans had never heard of — and whose name Alex Ferguson probably couldn't pronounce — Rotor Volgograd.

Of course, football fandom was a different beast 20 years ago. Before the explosion of the internet, ordinary supporters weren't expected to know who finished 7th in the Bulgarian second division last season (Vereya Stara Zagora, obvz) or how many goals Mfon Udoh scored in the Nigerian Premier League (he got 23 last term, the little beauty).

This was also a time when qualifying for the Champions League required a team to win their domestic title — in other words, actually be champions — which now seems like a romantic notion better suited to the Stanley Matthews era of impossibly baggy shorts and a round of cigarettes at half-time.

The 1994-95 season saw Blackburn Rovers take the English title (which also feels like a hugely antiquated notion) with United pipped to the post on the final day of the campaign. Thus, Fergie's boys would play in the UEFA Cup the following year. (At the risk of continually sounding like an old man, the UEFA Cup was the name for the Europa League before someone got the branding department involved.)

Of course, at a time when only Europe's champions qualified for the Champions League, the UEFA Cup was a far stronger competition, something all the branding in the Western world cannot deliver. As such the 1995-96 tournament's first round featured a who's-who of Europe's finest, including Barcelona, Bayern Munich and both Milan clubs.

Also in the draw was the Russian side Rotor Volgograd. They had qualified for the tournament by finishing fourth in the Russian Top League, losing just four of their 30 games but drawing a whopping 16. That would prove significant.

Founded in 1929 as Traktorostroitel Stalingrad, the city — which became known as Volgograd in 1961 as part of the USSR's de-Stalinization policy — was once a major producer of tractors, though it is more famous for the battle that took place there during World War II. Rotor were certainly no amateurs, but the quality of the Russian league circa 1995 was not what it is today; the second-best team in England were expected to dispatch them comfortably.

The first leg was played at Rotor's Central Stadium and saw a United side that included Peter Schmeichel, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Paul Scholes held to a 0-0 draw. That meant they headed into the return leg at Old Trafford needing to beat the Russians, a result most still felt to be very likely.

But on the night of September 26th Rotor sprang a huge surprise. Looking more energetic from the start, their first goal came on 18 minutes when Nidergaus outfoxed Steve Bruce and played the ball Alex Zernov. Zernov strolled into the box, while United's defence looked barely interested in making a challenge, and squared the ball across goal to Nidergaus. Schmeichel was on the floor, leaving the Rotor man with an easy task. United were behind.

And just eight minutes later the English side were staring a disaster in the face. This time Bruce mis-controlled a pass from Beckham, gifting the ball to Veretennikov. The Russian fired home from 20 yards, leaving the Old Trafford crowd stunned. 2-0 down at home. With the away goals rule in place, United now needed three without reply to advance to the second round.

Ferguson made a change, withdrawing John O'Kane — who had asked to be switched from left to right-back just 15 minutes before kick-off — and replaced him with the far more attack-minded Paul Scholes. However, despite piling on some much-needed pressure, United could not make a breakthrough before half time.

They finally found a route back into the game on the hour when Scholes fired home a rebound after the 'keeper spilled an Andy Cole strike. The floodgates didn't open, however, and Rotor continued to frustrate. Not only were they heading for elimination, United were contemplating a first ever home defeat in Europe as the game drew to a close.

Then, in the 89th minute, United won a corner. Up went Schmeichel, all 6ft 3 of him, jogging lightly in his lurid green kit. The corner was floated in; the Great Dane rose and met the ball with his head. It had to be. 2-2.

But despite Schmeichel's heroics there would be no great comeback, just the preservation of that undefeated home record. Rotor held on to claim a famous European victory — one that demonstrated the value of the knockout format used by the competition at the time — and naturally they had done so with a couple of draws.

Perhaps United didn't fancy the distraction of a European campaign that year; perhaps they felt that winning a second-rate tournament against sides like Barca and Bayern was more trouble than it was worth. The lack of European commitments may well have aided United's league form: they went on to win back the title, ensuring them Champions League football in 1996-97.

It did not take the sting out of that first round elimination, however. Their exit was splashed across the back pages the following day, with the reaction from pundits making it seem that United had lost to a pub team from a remote Russian village, rather than a city with twice the population of Manchester.

O'Kane, who had been a star for United at youth level, never played for Ferguson again, and slid down the divisions to end his career at Hyde. Rotor's fortunes declined too: they went bust earlier this year, with a new club formed from the ashes. They now play in the Russian amateur league.

They didn't fare too well in their next encounter either, losing home and away to Bordeaux. The French side made it all the way to the final — which was played over two legs — but lost 5-1 on aggregate to Bayern.

United suffered their first home European defeat a year later, in October '96, with Fenerbache ending a 56-game run that went back 40 years. That season, the Champions League was opened up to the second-placed side in the Premier League, beginning the process that led to today's obsession with a top-four finish. Things would never be the same again.