Tonight Manchester United will take on Ajax in the Europa League final in Stockholm. It will no doubt be an emotional occasion in light of the horrific events which took place in Manchester on Monday night. 22 innocent people, many of them children, were killed in a terrorist attack whilst leaving a concert in the city. Reports have claimed that Jose Mourinho has told his team to ‘do it for the city’. UEFA have said there will be a minutes silence before the game and have agreed to let the Man United players wear black armbands as a mark of respect to the victims.
The Europa League is the only major trophy the club has left to win. United are England’s most successful team with 20 league titles, 12 F.A. Cups, and 5 League Cups.
In Europe United have won 3 European Cups (1968, 1999, 2008), and a European Cup Winner’s Cup in 1991. Not a poor record by and means. However, compared to their European rivals, and when you consider the clubs stature, you have to wonder have the club fallen short in Europe?
United are consistently ranked as one of the world’s richest and most followed football clubs, along with Barcelona and Real Madrid. Barcelona have won 12 European competitions while Real Madrid have won 13. Even arch rivals Liverpool have outperformed United on the European stage with 8 European honours.
A mixture of tragedy and missed opportunities culminated in United’s European shortcomings.
Matt Busby had the most exciting young team in Europe, nicknamed the Busby Babes. Known for their exciting style of play they stormed to the title in 1956 and another title followed in 1957. Busby’s next goal was European domination. United first competed in Europe in the 1956/57 season. Sadly Busby’s aspirations were put on hold when 8 United players were killed in the Munich air crash. A team in their prime bursting with talent cheated of their opportunity to succeed in Europe in the cruellest way imaginable. United would have to rebuild.
United re-built and Busby finally tasted European success in 1968.
Following Busby’s retirement in 1969, United were in shock and went through a massive period of transition where they made little impact on the European stage.
The 70’s and 80’s were dominated by arch rivals Liverpool, who to their credit capitalised on their dominance by winning 4 European Cups in a 7 year period. English teams were banned from all European competitions in 1985 following the Heysel Stadium Disaster. They would not return until the 1990-91 season.
Upon the ban being lifted, United won the European Cup Winners Cup in 1991. The 90’s would see United return to prominence. They dominated the newly introduced Premier League in the early 90’s under Alex Ferguson’s management. However, unlike Liverpool United failed to capitalise on their domestic dominance and didn’t make it past the quarter final stage until 1997.
In 1999 they beat Bayern Munich in the final to win their second European Cup (now known as the Champions League), a season that is imbedded in all Manchester United fans memories.
2 quarter final appearances followed which United lost to eventual winners on both occasions (Real Madrid & Bayern Mucich).
In 2002, United had won 3 consecutive titles and were chasing a 4th. They reached the Champions League semi-final where they had a favourable draw against German side Bayer Leverkusen. United lost this semi-final tie on goal difference. This defeat epitomises United’s under-achievement in Europe.
Alex Ferguson’s team went through a period of transition from 2003 – 2007. He built a superb team spearheaded by a world class Cristiano Ronaldo. Manchester United won the Champions League in 2008 in a close a final against Chelsea in Moscow.
They would lose finals in 2009 and 2011 to a world class Barcelona team that no one could deny were the better team on both occasions.
United exited the Champions League in the group stage in 2012 and 2016, and subsequently got knocked out of the Europa League in the round of 16 on both occasions.
Manchester United have a European record that most clubs would be proud of, but with the clubs high standards there is often a feeling that opportunities have been missed in the past.
Jose Mourinho has never lost a European final, and United have only lost 2 out of 6 European finals, both at the hands of a phenomenal Barcelona team.
Even their bitterest of rivals should be cheering United on tonight. A Manchester United win tonight would symbolise the strength and perseverance of the city during its darkest hour.