It was one of Old Trafford’s greatest nights – and by repute its loudest – and but for a tractor tyre I would never have been there. There to witness Manchester United overturn a two-goal first-leg deficit to beat Diego Maradona’s Barcelona 3-0 in the European Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-finals.
Travelling up from Hampshire that day in March 1984, I picked up a new Peugeot we were road-testing for my local paper and I went to collect my companions – both New Zealanders – at the farm where they were staying. I arrived and went inside, forgetting to apply the handbrake. Luckily the car rolled gently into that tractor’s wheel when it could have ended up being wrecked.
With that narrow escape, we were off to the match. As we made our way to the ground you could feel the excitement and tension building. By kick-off the atmosphere inside Old Trafford was raucously passionate. The largely standing crowd ebbed and flowed and I felt like a piece of flotsam carried back and forth on the human tide.
That energy transmitted itself to United’s players who started with a dynamism that was to blow away a Barcelona side managed by César Luis Menotti, who had led Argentina to victory in the 1978 World Cup final.
Ron Atkinson had told United to treat it as a one-off game and they attacked fiercely from the start. Leading the charge was Bryan Robson and, with the Barcelona defence and their goalkeeper Urruti teetering, the United captain scored in the 23rd minute from close range following a corner.
Maradona was largely ineffectual, his season having been disrupted by a broken ankle six months earlier and he was nearing the end of his sorry sojourn in Catalonia. So, much rested on Bernd Schuster but the German’s efforts in midfield were not enough with Robson rampant, ably abetted by Ray Wilkins and Remi Moses.
Robson struck again five minutes into the second half, when Barcelona were caught trying to play their way out of trouble and he forced home after the ball had rebounded off Javier Urriti, who had failed to hold Wilkins’s effort.
The noise level was deafening and three minutes later United led the tie after Barcelona’s defence was once again found wanting when the ball was in the air. Robson, with a swerving, offside-trap beating pass, picked out Arthur Albiston racing down the left and his high cross to the far post was met by Norman Whiteside. He headed the ball back across goal for Frank Stapleton to score from a yard out.
With more than 30 minutes left a Barcelona goal would have changed the complexion of the game but they rarely threatened. If their players looked somewhat bewildered it was not surprising given they had never before lost a European tie taking a 2-0 lead into a second leg.
At the end United’s players were engulfed by their fans, with Robson being carried shoulder high. It had been a night to savour but for United it did not get any better. In the semi-finals against a Juventus side containing Michel Platini and Zbigniew Boniek they were knocked out 3-2 on aggregate by Paolo Rossi’s last-minute goal in the second leg in Turin.
As we headed back to the car we took with us the sound and the glory, and we had plenty of time to relive the experience. Thick fog around Spaghetti Junction slowed us to crawl and we missed our turn for the M5, finding ourselves on the M1 instead. But it hardly mattered and getting home at 4am was a small price to pay for a magical night at the Theatre of Dreams.