The Perfect Ten: How Football Results Shape History and Mould Memories

It was late at night. I was downstairs with my dad and brother. My mum had already gone to bed because she didn’t have much interest in football. I wore my Manchester United Champions League home shirt – a kit created for the sole purpose of being worn in Europe’s senior club competition. At the time, I was fourteen years old, I didn’t really understand the commercial marketing ploy at play here. Thankfully my parents still allowed me to have the shirt.

It was May 26th, 1999. I watched the majority of the game moving between two positions. My chin rested on my palms which in turn were rested on my knees. Or standing and gesticulating at the television until my dad told me to sit. At that age, the emotion and drama of matches consumed me to the point I didn’t really pay attention to how we were playing. Instead, I could only notice, simply, that we were playing – and either winning or not winning.

History will remember the Champions League Final of 1999 at the Nou Camp as the game Manchester United won in injury time. When Teddy Sheringham swept the ball into the bottom left corner I didn’t bother waiting to see the replay of how it unfolded. I was out my seat and up the stairs and shouting for my mum to wake up. She had to know United equalised. I ran into her room, crying my eyes out and screaming, ‘Teddy’s scored, Teddy’s scored!’ To which she showed little interest and replied, ‘That’s good,’ before rolling over and going back to sleep.

My heart thumped in my chest as though I were on the pitch myself. My cheeks were still wet as over and over I said, ‘I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.’ Then United won another corner and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sent Manchester United to what the commentator called ‘the promised land’.

When I think back to that match it’s like listening to an old song where I only know the chorus. When Bayern Munich’s Mario Basler curled a 6th-minute free kick past Peter Schmeichel – it set the tone for how I perceived the rest of the game. I spent the match with a gut-wrenching turn to my stomach just hoping from somewhere or anywhere United could find a goal.

In the present, like most people, I can only remember Basler’s goal, Sheringham and Solskjaer scoring late, and Schmeichel cartwheeling as Lothar Matthäus sat despondently whilst Samuel Kuffour beat the ground in despair. As the saying goes, football is a funny old game. For a ninety minute match, we only recall a handful of events. In this case – three goals, the celebrations, and commiserations. We plaster over the holes in our memory with emotions. Only remembering how we felt and often where we were. Often, memory is influenced by one thing – the final score.

It was years later I watched the game again in its entirety. It was completely different to how I remembered. Bereft of adrenaline and emotions triggered by the soap operatic nature of the drama unfolding before me – I was able to watch with attention. In that final, two injury time goals do not tell the story of the previous ninety minutes. Instead, they are representative as a summary of the entire 98/99 season for Manchester United. In fact, the FA Cup Semi-Final performance against Arsenal has greater summative significance in defining the narrative arc of Manchester United’s 1999 story.

History remembers results. But the result of one game sits contextually amongst the result of others. In the coming weeks, I will provide both context and narrative structure to ten matches in Manchester United’s Premier League-era past. The Perfect Ten.

It will include league, FA Cup and Champions League matches. Their perfection will not be found as examples of United’s greatest performances or victories – but instead focus on matches with significance to Manchester United that helped shape the club’s future by representing the beginning or end of an era. In some cases they represent an assessment of one player or manager’s achievements at a single juncture in time.

The overall significance of the games discussed in the coming weeks will be found, not in their result. But how they add to the plot of the operatic footballing drama of a time since the inception of the Premier League in 1992.