Retrospective #20: Peter Schmeichel scores in vain in United’s last UEFA Cup game
Manchester United 2-2 Rotor Volgograd (Agg: 2-2 – RV win on away goals)
It probably made sense that goalkeeper-turned-goalscorer Peter Schmeichel found the net in this one; simply put, everything about this game felt out of place. Back then, in 1995, there was no shame in being in the UEFA Cup — you’d qualify by finishing runners-up in the League. However, nothing about the two-legged tie (and, in particular, the second leg which we’ll focus on) against Russian outfit Rotor Volgograd screamed ‘Manchester United’ — obdurate one minute, careless the next and just utterly random throughout.
The first leg would take place in the city, where, during the Second World War, one of the most brutal, bloodiest and bitterest of conflicts of the 20th century was fought. Of course, this was just a football game and there was no longer a such place as Stalingrad — now, Volgograd — but the frequent and hyperbolic use of military imagery in the game by observers and commentators over time at least justifies some of the ignorance that will follow.
For a 0-0, this was quite a savoury battle. United played rather well, too; a largely-impressive first half and a mixed second saw good opportunities for Lee Sharpe, David Beckham and, in particular, Ryan Giggs. The Welshman was still fairly young and it showed; four separate chances came – and went. Giggs’ best fell in the 46th minute where he was unable to convert a well-flighted Beckham cross, only able to head it above Rotor ‘keeper Andrei Samorukov and the crossbar. The hosts had their share, too. Guy Hodgson in The Independent the following day hailed the immediate ‘Russian riposte’ which saw the prolific Oleg Veretennikov squander a brace of openings in the space of five minutes before the hour mark. But Rotor could not force a goal either against a resilient Manchester United. A worrying Roy Keane injury aside, this was, as Ferguson put it after the game, “a good result for us.” The Indy note “a performance built on discipline and concentration.”
“We played well, particularly in the first half,” Ferguson added post-match. The obdurate United. “It was only when we started to give the ball away in the second half that we started to have problems.” And the careless United. We didn’t see too much of it in Russia, but the utterly random one would flourish 14 days later, at Old Trafford.
It would have been foolish to underestimate United’s opposition ahead of the return leg; indeed, the 90s were a successful period for Rotor despite never winning the new Russian Top Division. Eric Cantona was unavailable, too, and Fergie’s Fledglings were still, well, fledglings. “They have grown up fast,” said Richard Keys in the Sky Sports studio, before the game. “But fast enough to take on a night like this at Old Trafford, in Europe?” Mark Hughes, sitting alongside fellow ex-Manchester United pundit Kevin Moran, allowed himself a brief pause before replying: “Yeah, I think so .. I’m sure they’ll enjoy it tonight.” But, at the highest level, enjoying a football game means you have to win, quite simply. And did they?
“We lost the game in the first 20 minutes,” conceded Alex Ferguson afterwards. “You go 2-0 down and you have a mountain to climb in Europe. They were bad goals to lose because the last thing we said before the match was that a clean sheet would win it for us. We knew we would make enough chances.” Even with midfielder Alex Shmarko off the pitch, Rotor (in an unorthodox 3-2-3-2) stunned the 29,724* present at Old Trafford with the all-important early goal — made all the more significant as they were the away side. United’s defence looked completely bewildered as Vladimir Nidergaus and Alex Zernov traded a brief one-two before the former eased the ball into the empty net. Just before releasing Zernov with an exquisitely-timed through pass, Nidergaus completely dumbfounded Andrei Kanchelskis with a clever shimmy.
These players were no pushovers but, as soon as United realised that, it was all over. Steve Bruce, who should have done better with the first, was at fault again. He lost possession to Veretennikov, who beat Peter Schmeichel with a low shot that flicked off the post. It was 2-0. United needed three goals — and duly brought on Paul Scholes for young right back John O’Kane just 25 minutes in. And from then, United went berserk. Nicky Butt saw an effort cleared off the line and Andy Cole hit the post. Better was to come after the half time interval. Without doubt, it was the Scholes substitution which invigorated the home side. And who else would score the goal that would breathe life into their fightback?
Indeed, it was Scholes. He was there to knock in the rebound after a Cole effort was parried in his path. United were desperate to retrieve the ball after it had gone in and rushed to get the game restarted. What followed was an assault on Samorukov’s goal. There were 18 shots on target in all; most of which came after the goal. A diving Bruce header hit the bar and a penalty appeal was turned away. “The referee ruled the offence was on the edge of the area; the TV replay showed it was a yard inside,” wrote Hodgson. Nothing was going United’s way — it so usually does, doesn’t it? And when they did finally get a second, it was too late and not enough. So who scored the consolation? Scholes? Cole? Keane? No, of course not, rhetorical question man. It was Peter Schmeichel, of all people. The Dane, starved of second half action, leapt heroically from a Giggs corner and powerfully nodded in. It was all in vain, however.
And that rounded off what was a pretty astonishing, but largely unhappy, 90 minutes. This first round exit was United’s last UEFA Cup game to date. In all honesty, who even cares in retrospect? The success that followed renders this insignificant.
*Old Trafford was a 44,000 seater, but the attendance that night was only 29,724 due to the reconstruction of the North Stand.