Bonfire of The Vanities: Manchester United's 1994 Humbling at The Hands of Barcelona
In November 1994, Manchester United were thumped 4-0 by a team that I had neither heard of nor seen play. Their name was FC Barcelona, and they were truly magnificent.
I remember only two things about November 1994 with any clarity. The first is that a tree in my local park caught ablaze when a gust of wind blew the Guy Fawkes Night bonfire towards it. The unfortunate tree went up like a giant sparkler and swayed menacingly in the wind, lighting up the sky and tossing out burning leaves like confetti. The fire was soon extinguished, though one side of the tree never recovered. More than two decades on, its leaves have not grown back, and it remains charred and burned, a lasting symbol both of mankind's frailty in the face of nature, and the spectacular lack of planning that led to someone putting a fucking bonfire next to a huge piece of kindling.
My other clear memory of November '94 also saw mortal men humbled by a force of nature. The mighty Manchester United – reigning two-time Premier League champions and FA Cup holders – travelled to Spain to face Barcelona. Before a roaring crowd of 114,273 at the Camp Nou, the English side were on the end of a 4-0 hammering by the imperious Catalans. Not long turned eight years old, this was the first time I had watched Barcelona play, and it was like nothing I'd ever seen before.
In 1994, it felt almost impossible that Alex Ferguson's side would be on the end of such a drubbing. During the 1992/93 season – the first I had followed with proper interest – United won the title at a canter, 10 points ahead of Aston Villa. In the following campaign, they retained it comfortably, this time beating Blackburn Rovers to top spot by eight points. Added to this, they had recently won the FA Cup in emphatic fashion, thumping Chelsea 4-0 at Wembley with a brace from Eric Cantona and one apiece from Mark Hughes and Brian McClair.
And so, for an eight-year-old with little comprehension of the broader football world, United seemed to be the greatest team on the planet. During the summer of '94, there had been the World Cup to introduce some colour (not least Jorge Campos and Carlos Valderrama) and unfamiliar names like Hristo Stoichkov and Romario (how could a person have just one name?). But the final of that tournament had been a frustrating affair, with the Italians resolutely refusing to let a football match break out and Brazil winning by a penalty shootout that I had fallen asleep well in advance of.
And so domestic football felt like the zenith of the game, and United had it all: a world-class goalie in Peter Schmeichel; a solid defence led by skipper Steve Bruce; a midfield enforced by Paul Ince and Roy Keane; genius creative players like Andrei Kanchelskis and Ryan Giggs; and one of the greatest talents to grace the English game, the wild and mercurial Frenchman Eric Cantona. This is to say nothing of Hughes, Irwin, and Pallister, nor the emerging talents of Scholes, Beckham, and Neville. Pound-for-pound, this side ranks among the finest in English football history.
They were far from infallible, of course. I can only assume that I missed the fact that United exited the 1993/94 Championship League in the second qualifying round, drawing 3-3 with Galatasaray and crashing out on away goals (this, remember, was an unenlightened age when it was not seen as essential to protect powerhouse teams from the ignominy of an early exit).
In 1994/95 United did make it into the group stage, with the tournament doubled in size from eight teams to 16, allowing the biggest clubs automatic progress to the groups.
But they still faced a stern test to make the last eight. United would once again meet Galatasaray, as well as Swedish side IFK Göteborg and of course Barcelona, who were coming off the back of their fourth successive La Liga title.
While similar in format – a group stage of 16 teams fought for a spot in the quarter finals – the Champions League of 1994/95 was markedly different from today's for one crucial reason: the qualifiers. Every team involved was champion of their country, meaning United were England's sole representatives. As well as the pairing of United and Barca in Group A, Paris Saint-Germain were drawn with Bayern Munich in Group B, while Ajax and AC Milan squared up in Group D. For a while, the Champions League really lived up to its name.
United opened the group with a 4-2 win over Göteborg, while Barca beat Galatasaray 2-1. The second round of games made things a little more interesting: Barca lost 2-1 in Sweden, while United were held to a 0-0 in Turkey.
As is the case today, the group fixtures were mirrored, so games three and four were played against the same team. For whatever reason, I did not see United and Barca draw 2-2 at Old Trafford. Or perhaps I did see it and simply don't remember – this was 1994 and there was a lot of exciting stuff happening, like Challenge Aneka and the inexorable rise of Andi Peters on Live & Kicking. Also my mum may have been playing ToeJam & Earl on the Sega all evening, for which I forgive her.
But I was certainly in front of the TV for the return fixture. Watching it back now, the 22 years that have passed seem like an eternity. United captain Bruce is fleshy and pale, the quintessential Englishman abroad and nothing like a modern footballer. There are prototypes for the 21st century player out there – Giggs in particular looks lithe and athletic – but they are few and far between. It was true of Barca, too: though only 28 at the time, Bulgarian star Stoichkov looks considerably older.
United were not at full strength for the match. Schmeichel was absent due to a restriction on foreign players, with Ferguson electing to send Gary Walsh out to face Stoichkov, Romario and co. Years later, Walsh recalled an incident that, had Fergie witnessed it, may have changed the Scot's mind:
"The night before [the match] Mick Hucknall had joined in with us during shooting practice and he'd actually scored past me," Walsh told the Guardian. "His shot went right through me. It was really embarrassing."
Just as big a blow was the loss of Cantona, who was suspended. United still had plenty of quality, but these two were huge losses and, in retrospect, Ferguson might have been better plumping for defence over attack.
Still, eight-year-old me assumed United would at the very least fight for the win. After all, I'd never heard of most of this Barca side – who were Ronald Koeman, Pep Guardiola and the guy wearing the captain's armband, José Mari Bakero? I'd heard of Stoichkov and Romario, but the latter's failure to score against Italy had coincided with me drifting off to sleep. Presumably, he wasn't up to much.
And then there was the man on the bench, wearing a yellow polo neck and chewing gum incessantly. His name was Johan Cruyff, which did ring a bell. I knew what a Cruyff Turn was, but hadn't connected it with an individual, let alone this guy, who resembled a frustrated office worker who'd just been told his train had been cancelled.
It must be noted that Barca were not the same team who had won the past four La Liga titles. Cruyff had swept away some of the players who'd brought the club their success, including Michael Laudrup, who contentiously joined Real Madrid, and goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta, who was deemed not good enough with his feet to play for the Dutch master.
But, on the night, they were imperious. Nine minutes in, the boss' son, Jordi, sent the ball through for Romario. Out came Walsh, so Romario knocked it to Guillermo Amor. A spot of ping-pong ensued before Stoichkov arrived to bring some order to the penalty box. He fired hard into the turf, and the ball bounced back up and into the net. 1-0 to Barca.
I was struck here by the noise of the crowd in Spain. Today we're used to the different sounds that emanate from football stadia around the world: the pantomime of England, Spain's whistling roar, the wild abandon in Italian. But back then it was new, a fierce and unfamiliar cry from the terrifying number that had packed into the Camp Nou.
Barca were 2-0 up just before half-time. Stoichkov now turned provider, sending the ball forward from the halfway line for Romario. The Brazilian controlled it with his chest and, despite the attentions of three United defenders, fired a low shot past Walsh, who had scampered to the edge of his six-yard box. As Romario rushed off in celebration, the TV cameras cut to Cantona, sat in the stands looking fed up in his Air Jordan baseball cap, and Schmeichel with his curtain haircut. If there's a more nineties image than this I have yet to see it.
Not long after the break, any remaining illusions about United's brilliance were shattered. Stoichkov burst forward and sent the ball through to Romario. The Brazilian cleverly pulled it back, and Stoichkov fairly walloped the ball past Walsh and into the bottom-right corner. It was a brilliant, incisive move, Brazilian flair meeting Bulgarian tenacity. United had been torn apart by a superior team.
The fourth came in the 88th minute, courtesy of defender Albert Ferrer. The ball was fired on to the right wing where an on-rushing Ferrer picked it up. He went to cross, but the ball deflected back to his feet. Not needing a second invitation, Ferrer rifled home a shot to complete a famous night for Barca. United had been well beaten.
Looking back on that game, I have a vivid sense of the awe that this Barca team inspired. They were unlike anything I had seen before. This was partly down to the fact that what I'd seen before was Oldham Athletic and Ipswich Town, a bunch of old-looking English dudes (and the odd European) running around muddy pitches in stadiums desperate for a lick of paint.
With Barca, everything seemed different: the strangely-named Camp Nou stadium sounded like some military barracks for Catalan warriors; their kits were colourful and baggy; and their players were of an exotic blend that, back then, we didn't know very well in England. In fact, the Premier League was still yet to see its first Brazilian player.
It was an incredible treat to watch Barca; it was new and unique, and it only happened very rarely. Today we can see them every week. Watching Messi, Neymar and Suarez carve open the Getafe defence for the third time in 20 minutes is nice, but it's similar to how eating your third Mars bar in a row can be classed as nice. Diminishing returns, or something like that.
The rest of the group would play out in dramatic fashion. Barca were beaten 2-1 by Galatasaray in the next game, while United were dispatched 3-1 by Göteborg. The Swedes drew with Barca in the final group match and won the group, but, despite a 4-0 hammering of Gala, United went out on goal difference to their Spanish rivals.
There were green shoots, however. Seven of the squad beaten at the Camp Nou played a part when United won the Champions League in 1999. Alas, Gary Walsh was not among them.
More than two decades on, this game remains fixed in my memory as the first realisation that football existed on a grand scale beyond our tiny island, that there was a vast world of players and stadiums and matches going on out there. It stands now as a beacon in the mind, like a burning tree lighting up the darkness of a cold November sky.