Manchester United 2 AC Milan 3

“European Challenge Match”

17 May 1988 

Bobby Charlton….. your boys took one hell of a beating

The context

Following the Heysel tragedy in 1985, English clubs were banned from European competition until 1990. Friendlies against overseas teams were still permitted, in principle at least: however, with hooliganism still very much alive, there was little appetite for them.

By 1988, serious concerns existed that due to this ban the English game was falling behind its competitors. It’s also worth remembering that the ban was indefinite – at the time, we had no way of knowing how long it would last. This was the backdrop to a very high-profile late season encounter hosted by a United team, in Alex Ferguson’s first full season, about to finish runners-up in the First Division (albeit 9 points behind a rampant Liverpool). Their opponents, newly-crowned Serie A champions, had a star-studded squad that included Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit, pivots of a Netherlands team shortly to be crowned champions of  Europe.

The history

I had been United-watching for the previous three years, a period that saw the departure of Ron Atkinson, the arrival of Ferguson, the 30th anniversary of Munich and the ongoing irritation of Liverpool and Everton’s dominance. At home at least they were generally good value. And the pies were tasty.

The journey

I was in the habit of catching the football special from Oxford Road station. I could walk there from my house in Rusholme and the train unloaded at the ground’s own halt, literally outside the turnstiles. Unfortunately, this being a friendly and all, no-one had thought  to arrange any trains. So my friends Graham and Paul and I ended up cramming, Japanese-style, onto an epically overcrowded commuter service along with about 5000 other people equally desperate not to miss the rapidly approaching kick off.

The ground

“Stay on the pavement!”

Now this isn’t us. We weren’t exactly fashion icons but by 1988 we’d discarded flares. However, it does show what queuing to get into the Stretford End used to be like (thanks to GM Police for the picture). The line snaked down the pavement then doubled up and ran back up the opposite side, with horses keeping you off the road. Not nice horses and nice policewomen like this, either. Dirty big horses and dirty big coppers, with dirty big sticks.

This was where we found ourselves on that balmy evening. The desperate pack of delayed fans had cantered down Warwick Road, past Macari’s chippy, across the forecourt, under the tunnel and was now trying to get in. None of your delayed kick offs here. Graham and I had lost Paul (it later transpired he narrowly escaped arrest for complaining when a police horse broke wind in his face). How much of the match did we miss? I can’t remember. But I think we saw all the goals.

The game

I’m sure there’s a match report somewhere, but I can’t find one. This rather decent youtube clip backs up my memory of events, which is basically that Milan ran up an embarrassingly easy 3-0 lead, partly abetted by a comedy Van Basten dive, before losing interest and letting United scuff a couple. Those who bewailed the decline of the English game looked smug, and we went to the pub and considered growing dreadlocks.

1988 (May 17) Manchester United (England) 2-AC Milan (Italy) 3 (Friendly)

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Teams and goals

This game was unusual in that only squads were announced; United played in white, to allow us to see the Rossoneri in their full glory.

Ansafone – the taperecording machine of runners-up

The crowd for the game was 37,392 against a seasonal average of 38,605. A week earlier just 28,040 had watched the final home game against Wimbledon. I was at that one too. No queuing was involved.