On Wednesday night, Manchester United will take to the field against Olympiacos knowing that they need to win by three clear goals. They will do so without the benefit of Alex Ferguson on the bench, the man whose almost-lunatic will to win underpinned the comebacks that became synonymous with his United sides. Here, then, in the service of the twin delusions of nostalgia and optimism, are three other non-Ferguson occasions which ended with United pulling off the improbable.
1963/64 Cup Winners' Cup, 2nd round vs. Tottenham Hotspur
First leg 0-2, second leg 4-1, aggregate 4-3
United had gone to White Hart Lane intent on defending their way through the first leg, and for three-quarters of the game they frustrated a Tottenham attack that was missing the inspiration of Danny Blanchflower. Jimmy Greaves missed one chance and had another ruled out for offside, and the Times records that "in the vast crowd, swaying and surging like a sea, there was a concentration of anguish". But in the 67th minutes, Dave Mackay smashed the ball past Dave Gaskell in the United net, a deficit that was doubled in the last minute, when an underhit backpass set Terry Dyson free to score a second.
A comeback looked unlikely, particularly as Denis Law would be missing for the return leg. Yet United, by both their own contrivance and by cruel fortune, were immediately given hope. After seven minutes, Law's replacement David Sadler beat Tottenham's keeper to a loose ball, and crossed for David Herd to score the opening goal. Then, a minute later, Mackay went in for a 50-50 ball on the edge of United's penalty area and for once in his magnificent career came out second best. He was removed to hospital with a broken right leg, and Spurs, in those pre-substitution days, were left to defend a one-goal lead for eighty-two minutes with ten men.
Herd and United's second goal — the aggregate equaliser — came eight minutes after half-time. But just a minute later Spurs, in defiance of the odds and logic, took the lead again through Greaves. 1-2 on the night, 2-3 overall, and it could have been worse: Maurice Setters left the field for ten minutes with blood spouting from his head, and while he was gone and the sides were even, Tottenham passed up a presentable chance to extend their lead further.
Time ticked away. Desperate United attacks foundered on stout Spurs defence until, with just thirteen minutes to go, Bobby Charlton finally made his mark on the tie. A floated Crerand pass evaded the defenders and the future Trinitarian arrived in the box to smash a left-foot volley into the net. Ten minutes later came the winner: again Crerand was the provider, collecting a back-heel from Herd and laying it off to Charlton, who placed the ball inside the left-hand post. United, 4-3 winners, were hailed as "Youthful Alexanders with new worlds to conquer" by the Times, who also noted with a flourish that "the Tottenham coin was not debased on a night of deep human values." Sadly United, unlike Alexander, did not go on to subjugate the known world, losing 6-4 in the quarter finals to eventual winners Sporting Lisbon.
1976/77 Uefa Cup, 1st round vs. Ajax
First leg 0-1, second leg 2-0, aggregate 2-1
United's return to European competition after seven years was a mild affair. Ajax were a pale imitation of the Total Footballers of the early 70s, and though they won the first leg 1-0 thanks to a fine individual goal by Ruud Krol, one of the few of that side who had remained in Amsterdam, United had their fair share of chances, the best of which saw Stewart Houston's shot cleared from the Ajax goal line.
Before the second leg, Ajax had confessed that they were concerned not just with the United team but also the atmosphere at Old Trafford. 59,000 European football-starved Mancunians were there that night, and United, looking for immediate parity, started the game in high gear. Houston headed wide after two minutes; shortly afterwards Lou Macari, running through the Dutch defence, hit the post. But Ajax held out, even troubling Alex Stepney a couple of times, and it wasn't until the 42nd minute that United were able to bring the tie level. Gordon Hill returned a half-cleared free-kick to the Dutch penalty area, and Macari took advantage of a goalkeeping fumble to scramble the ball home.
"United power and tactics decisive" proclaimed the Times. The tactic in question was Tommy Docherty's decision to remove Gerry Daly and switch Jimmy Greenhoff into central midfield, from where "he took complete control". He also set up the winning goal: set free on the edge of the box by a cute Steve Coppell pass, and with the Ajax defence appealing helplessly for offside, he was free to roll the ball across the box to a totally isolated Sammy McIlroy. Ajax were done, and United were into the second round, where more European aristocracy awaited in the shape of Juventus. Though United won the first leg 1-0 at home, they were themselves on the wrong end of a comeback in Turin, going out 3-1 on aggregate.
1983/84 Cup Winners' Cup, quarter-final vs. Barcelona
First leg 0-2, second leg 3-0, aggregate 3-2
The second leg of this tie stands proud in United history: one of the great Old Trafford nights; perhaps Bryan Robson's greatest performance; the night that Diego Maradona came to visit and left humbled and defeated. Yet such magnificence might never have been required had fortune run United's way in the first leg: Barcelona's lead consisted of an unfortunate Graeme Hogg own goal and a last-minute Juan Carlos Pérez Rojo wonder strike, separated by Bryan Robson missing a presentable opportunity for an equaliser and an away goal.
Still, this was Barcelona. Not the current superpower, not quite, but still redolent with privilege, power and glamour. Maradona puffing his chest out in the No. 10 shirt, Bernd Schuster flopping his blond locks around midfield, Cesar Luis Menotti chain-smoking on the bench. Up they turned, and out they came, and off they kicked. And, from that moment on, from the moment Remi Moses charged towards the man in possession, from the moment Old Trafford roared for the first time, a roar that only ended in the small hours of the following morning, they were second-best.
Revisiting the game in their most recent issue, United fanzine Red Issue recalls that "At times the fans were almost feral." So were the players: years before pressing was fetishised to modern standards, United's player were all over their counterparts. At its very best, the atmosphere of a football match becomes a recursive, parasitic thing: the players rouse the crowd who rouse the players who rouse the crowd, and on and on, back and forth. The two aspects of the club feeding off one another, pushing one another to greater heights of exhilaration and exertion. Sometimes this emerges from the onfield events; this time, Old Trafford and United were in that virtuous state from the outset. So when Arnold Muhren robbed Schuster after 22 minutes, and Ray Wilkins nodded down the resulting corner for Robson to open the scoring, the place went into meltdown.
The Barcelona players were totally discombobulated. Red Issue describes them wearing "the fearful look of men who had taken the wrong turn in the wrong town on the wrong evening", particularly the goalkeeper, Javier Urruti, who was "almost hit by a shoe thrown from the Stretford End at the beginning of the second half." And it was a pair of Urruti errors — "a chapter of disasters", per the English commentary — that led to United's second, equalising goal. First he pulled out of collecting a backpass under pressure from Norman Whiteside, instead clearing weakly; then, as United returned the ball to the box, he knelt to collect Ray Wilkins' shot and fumbled it to Robson's feet. In it went. And a minute-and-a-half later, Robson, Arthur Albiston, and Whiteside combined to tee up Frank Stapleton, who advanced through the scattering Barcelona defenders and poked the ball home from short range.
The following forty minutes weren't exactly comfortable for United, as the home side became the leaders, not the chasers, and Barcelona remembered that they were, well, Barcelona. But they made it, via a couple of Gary Bailey saves, a rejected penalty appeal, and the odd spurned chance to score a fourth. One of the most enduring images of a remarkably enduring evening came right at the very end. Kevin Moran comes into possession in United's half, sees space, downs head, and charges away with such intensity that he completely fails to notice that the game has ended. Only when he realises that the pitch is being enveloped by giddy, delirious fans does he allow himself to slow down and begin to smile. It was that kind of evening. It was that kind of performance.