ROMARIO V MANCHESTER UNITED CHAMPIONS LEAGUE 1994
Let’s go back to November 2, 1994, when Romario led Barcelona to a 4-0 rout of Manchester United
“The night before Mick Hucknall had joined in with us for shooting practice and he’d actually scored past me. His shot went right through me. I don’t think Alex Ferguson saw it. He might have played Schmeichel if he had.”
It’s hard to second-guess football managers.
As fans, we’re often told that our opinions are irrelevant. We don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes. We don’t set foot in the hallowed ground of the dressing room.
However, it’s safe to assume that if your keeper lets a shot from an ageing rocker squirm through his fingers, it might affect your team selection.
Joe Hart’s had a tough time of late. But imagine if Guardiola had seen him let in a pea-roller from Noel Gallagher. The headlines could have been so much worse.
Nonetheless, on 1st November 1994, Alex Ferguson’s gaze was elsewhere. So the following night young Gary Walsh started in goal as the English champions travelled to the Camp Nou for a Champions League group game.
Walsh was only playing because of a ruling that limited teams to a certain number of foreign players. The classification of “foreign” would have today’s managers – and perhaps even hardcore Brexiteers – recoiling in horror. It meant that the majority of United’s Welsh, Scottish and contingent, alongside the imported panache of the likes of Cantona, Kanchelskis and Schmeichel, were persona non-grata on European duty.
Faced with impossible choices, Ferguson opted to drop Schmeichel so he could squeeze in experience elsewhere on the pitch. With Mark Hughes playing as alone striker (Cantona was suspended), defensive solidity was a priority. The onus was on Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce, behind only Robson and Jerome for the most successful duo of the mid-Nineties, to protect the young goalkeeper.
English football’s most dominant defensive pair had anchored United’s march to two successive domestic titles. However, they were facing arguably the finest forward line the continent had to offer: Bulgarian Hristo Stoichkov and the impish Brazilian Romario. Both were mavericks at heart. Both key components of Johan Cruyff’s so-called “Dream Team”.
Romario had been unstoppable in his debut season, in Spain after signing from PSV Eindhoven. His tally of 30 goals in 33 league games helped Barca pip Deportivo La Coruna to the title. After winning the World Cup with Brazil in the USA, where Bebeto’s goal celebration inspired a generation of expectant fathers, he had continued his form into the 1994-5 season.
United had been warned of his abilities in the first leg at Old Trafford, an entertaining 2-2 draw where Lee Sharpe, on a rare night off from the Hacienda, scored a late equaliser for the home side. Romario had scored that night, skipping onto a Jose-Maria Bakero through ball to slot the ball through the legs of the onrushing Schmeichel.
However, whatever lessons United’s defence learned were instantly forgotten in the cauldron of the Camp Nou. There were over 100,000 Catalans packed into the stadium. Ferguson had hoped that the ignorance of youth might inspire his young goalkeeper. No such luck. His bum wasn’t squeaking, so much as erupting like Mount Vesuvius.
In fairness, he wasn’t given much support by those in front of him. Romario and Stoichkov ran riot from the first whistle. England’s most dominant central defenders looked like a pair of dinner ladies. Stoichkov swept in the first after nine minutes.
The second was a shambles. A hopeful clip forward from Albert Ferrer caused chaos in the United back line as Paul Parker and Steve Bruce passed responsibility for marking Romario like a steaming hot spud. In the end, they called it an honourable draw and let the Brazilian trap the ball on his chest and rifle it through Walsh’s legs.
Ferguson was grateful to get his team in at half-time only two behind. This was where the United boss earned his money, relying on a blast of his famed hairdryer to fire his troops into action.
Unfortunately, Brian Kidd must have forgotten to bring the adaptor plug.
United were even worse in the second half. And Romario was even better. A sublime backheel set up Stoichkov for his second and the home side’s third. It was little Albert Ferrer, his pencil-thin moustache bristling in the Catalan air, who sealed the rout by thumping in the fourth. United had been humiliated.
“We got our backsides kicked big-style,” Bruce later said. “Stoichkov and Romario are still etched in my memory, especially Romario, who was arguably the best player I ever faced.”
For many English fans, this was a rare sight of Romario in a Barcelona shirt. These were the days before blanket coverage of European football. Foreign leagues were a mystery – even Ceefax couldn’t be involved with them – so the closest we came to them was playing Sensible Soccer.
Yet it was a glimpse that we’d never forget. It was also one of the last occasions the Barca fans would see him. By January, he’d been booted off to Flamengo after his relationship with Cruyff disintegrated.
It was the pattern of the rest of his career: buckets of goals, moments of magic and going through managers like Massimo Cellini. He played for another 12 years and celebrated his 1000th professional goal in May 2007. It was later downgraded by the authorities to 929 amid accusations of … miscalculation. Apparently, the maverick marksman had included in that tally goals he’d scored playing Headers and Volleys in the favelas, but it mattered little. They built a statue of him. And in 2014 they elected him to the Brazilian senate courtesy of a record-breaking mandate.
Just don’t ask him to count the votes.
Bio: Sid Lambert is a 90s football writer, who has recently released his new book Cashing In: the story Ray Cash, a 19-year-old footballer making his way through the murky world of the Premier League back in 1992, when football changed forever. You can buy it here.