Aston Villa 1-0 Internazionale (aggregate 1-1; 4-3 on pens), Uefa Cup first round second leg, Villa Park, 29 September 1994

Ron Atkinson was one of the great cup managers. To describe him as such can be misleading, in that it suggests he failed as a league manager. Yet even though he never won a league title, he significantly improved the league position of almost every club he managed. Even so, it was the instant glory of cup football that stimulated Atkinson the most. He dealt in famous days and particularly in glory glory nights, and not just at Manchester United.  His underrated three-year spell at Aston Villa included victory in the League Cup, which ultimately denied Manchester United a domestic treble, and a Uefa Cup victory over Internazionale which Atkinson placed above United’s legendary comeback against Diego Maradona’s Barcelona in 1984. 

In truth, this was not the greatest Inter side. They had finished 13th the previous season, only one point and two places off relegation, but they were the Uefa Cup holders and their team included Dennis Bergkamp, Gianluca Pagliuca, Nicola Berti, Darko Pančev, Ruben Sosa and Giuseppe Bergomi. It’s also worth remembering that, back then, all European football and particularly Serie A had an enormous aura and mystique.

British teams had, with the exception of Manchester United and Arsenal in the relatively weak Cup-Winners’ Cup, been callow and beatable since readmission in 1990. Because of that there was a sense, the obvious rivalries excepted, of everyone being it in together and of wanting other English teams to do well. And Villa, particularly because of Atkinson’s likeability, invited more goodwill than most. When Phil King scored the penalty that knocked out the holders Internazionale, the ITV commentators Alan Parry and Kevin Keegan shouted “YES!” in unison, followed by a heartfelt “You beauty!” from Parry.

The first leg had also been shown on ITV – but only the second half, with those in charge deciding it was not an option to reschedule The Bill and The Big Story, in which Dermot Murnaghan went in search of the authentic British yob. Talk of an authentic British yob has absolutely nothing to do with the football style of John Fashanu, whose short spell at Villa has been largely forgotten. He was identified by both Villa and Inter as a key man before the tie. “From my conversations with several of the Inter players, I know they are worried for two reasons – and the main one is called John Fashanu,” said David Platt, who was at Sampdoria. (The other reason was that they had lost 2-0 at Villa Park in 1990-91 before winning the second leg 3-0.) Not everyone was afraid of Big Fash, however. When his name was mentioned, Bergkamp sniffed imperiously, “Where does he play?”

Fashanu had moved from Wimbledon in the summer and was looking forward to his European debut at the age of 31. “I personally know what to expect from the Italians, the petulant kicking of ankles, spitting and all the rest,” said the paragon of fair play. There was little of that, though sadly Fashanu’s performance on his European debut was sufficiently anonymous for some Villa fans to joke he still hadn’t played in Europe. Inter won 1-0, thanks to a penalty from Bergkamp that was earned dubiously by Sosa. “There was no physical contact between myself and the gentleman who fell over me,” said the keeper Nigel Spink, temporarily speaking like the Harry Enfield character Mr Cholmondley Warner. “I made my feelings known to him after the game.”

Often defeats are described as costly but this was the opposite. ITV said they would only show the second leg – and thus give Villa big wads of cash – if the tie was still alive. The concept of Thursday-night football was sufficiently new that adjustments to the fixture list were beyond the wit of man and Villa had to play at the leaders Newcastle just 36 hours later. Thursday night, channel three – but nobody was looking down their nose at the Uefa Cup. Back then it was a huge tournament, and the 1994-95 version included Blackburn, Juventus, Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Nantes – the teams who would win Europe’s big five leagues that season.

ITV certainly got their money’s worth. Those who went to the game got even more bang for their buck – this was one of the great Villa Park nights, with a wonderful, heightened atmosphere that makes you tingle even when you watch it on YouTube 20 years later. This despite the fact part of the Holte End was closed. It was not a great match, but every minute crackled with tension and it was unquestionably a great occasion. 

Although Berti smacked the angle of post and bar early on, with Pančev launching the rebound into orbit, Villa created the clearer chances. Houghton, who had famously scored past Pagliuca at the World Cup three months earlier, rammed in the only goal from a few yards just before half-time. Pagliuca was a Villa fan, having fallen in love with their title-winning side – and particularly their kit – of 1980-81. His favourite player was Tony Morley and he described himself as “a true Villan” earlier this year.

“The second leg in that beautiful stadium was emotional,” he said of his first visit in 1994. Villa should really have won the tie in 90 or at least 120 minutes. Guy Whittingham’s marvellous chip hit the bar, with a weary Houghton fluffing the rebound. Instead it went to penalties. The first six were scored, the next three missed by Davide Fontolan, Whittingham and Sosa. King sauntered forward from the centre circle with the happy demeanour of a postman nearing the end of his round. He had mild cramp, so decided to take three steps and blast it down the middle. Pagliuca dived out the way, and King’s hands were raised in celebration almost before the ball hit the net. You beauty indeed. As fans invaded the pitch Atkinson punched the air, with a young fan called Lee Hendrie unwittingly photobombing Atkinson’s moment of triumph.

The Inter game was not part of a grand cup run. Villa were beaten by Trabzonspor in the next round, Atkinson was sacked six weeks later and King, not fancied by the new manager Brian Little, only played 20 games in three years at Villa Park. Frankly, who cares? Both Atkinson and King are indelibly associated with Villa’s greatest European night of the last 32 years. With some cup victories you feel like you have to win the trophy to make it all mean something. That wasn’t the case with Villa and Internazionale. A night this like lasts forever.

Spain 1-5 Netherlands, World Cup Group B, Salvador, 13 June 2014

As the dust settles, it becomes clear that Brazil 2014 was a decent World Cup but no more, the persuasive mood of innocence and positivity not remotely matched by the football once things got series in the knockout stage. To call it the greatest of all time, as some did after about two games, was infantile and desperate. Yet there was one aspect in which it was surely the greatest of all time: the seismic shocks, with two so severe that they almost broke football’s Richter scale.

In football, shocks generally refer to acts of giant-killing. Yet what’s even more shocking than seeing David kill Goliath is seeing Goliath beat another Goliath to a gruesome pulp. Brazil 2014 was topped and tailed by two of the very best: Brazil 1-7 Germany, which a few months later still feels like the most amazing sporting result ever, and Spain 1-5 Netherlands.

It takes years to build an aura and just over half an hour to shatter it. When Daley Blind launched a ball towards Robin van Persie just before half-time in Salvador, Spain, with their unique brand of tiki-takanaccio, had conceded three goals in the previous 1622 minutes at the World Cup and European Championship. Van Persie’s astonishing flying header was the first of five they conceded in the following 36 minutes.

There was a slight sense that Spain were relatively fragile coming into the tournament, yet it was no stronger than that. They still had the best squad in the competition, especially as Diego Costa had filled the one gap in their team. For much of the first half against the Netherlands, in which Spain were excellent, it looked like Costa might be turning them into Spain 2.0. With Spain winning 1-0 and looking comfortable, David Silva missed an excellent chance when his chip was clawed away by Jasper Cillessen. Eighty-one seconds later Van Persie scored and Friday 13 began to unfold like a horror film.

Spain lost the match, lost their next game against Chile and were out of the tournament within the first week. Yet sport’s capacity to perpetuate itself is such that, had Silva scored, Spain might well have gone to win the tournament. The aura would have been refreshed by victory over the Netherlands, Chile would have been a completely different game, and if Spain had won the group – as they surely would if they had beaten the Dutch – their path to the final would have been Mexico, Costa Rica and an Argentina side without Ángel di Maria. Not much to worry about there, at least not when you’re playing well. Nor would a fine but not great German side in the final have concerned them unduly, even after the 7-1.

Spain were obviously over the hill, as much because of Xavi’s decline as anything, but in they could easily have postponed their decline for just one more month. It’s not as if grinding out results while not playing well – albeit in their unique way – was alien to them after the events of 2010 and 2012. In a parallel universe, Spain are still world and European champions. The line between extreme success and extreme failure is mind-blowingly fine.

Marseille 1-0 Milan (aggregate: 2-1), European Cup quarter-final second leg, Stade Vélodrome, 20 March 1991

Retaining the Champions League has become football’s holiest grail. AC Milan were the last side to do so, back when it was still called the European Cup. Yet were it not for Marseille, they might conceivably have won the competition six times in a row. They were champions in 1989, 1990 and 1994, lost to Marseille in the 1991 quarter-final and 1993 final, and were banned in 1992 – when they were arguably at their peak and went the entire Serie A season unbeaten.

They were banned for their risible antics in that 1991 defeat to Marseille. There is a proud tradition of champions surrendering their trophy about as willingly as Tony Montana surrendered his life in Scarface. Think of Argentina picking a fight with the entire world at Italia 90 or Diego Maradona high-kicking all-comers when his Barcelona side had their Copa del Rey taken from them by Athletic in 1984. Milan did things a little differently, walking off the field and refusing to restart the match after an insignificant floodlight failure towards the end of a game they were obviously going to lose anyway.

Marseille were a thrilling side built around a front three of Abedi Pelé, Jean-Pierre Papin and Chris Waddle – good enough that the coach Raymond Goethals temporarily ostracised Eric Cantona purely for football reasons. Goethals was Marseille’s third coach of the season, after Gérard Gili and Franz Beckenbauer – whose short, sour spell at the club is often forgotten – and they were bang in form by the time of their meeting with Milan in the quarter-finals. Milan, by contrast, were without Marco van Basten for both legs; he was sent off in the previous round against Club Brugge for elbowing the defender Pascal Plovie, breaking his cheekbone and knocking out two of his teeth. 

Marseille deservedly drew the first leg 1-1 in the San Siro, with Pelé’s storming run and Waddle’s clever pass creating Papin’s equaliser. The second leg was largely cagey, with Marseille knowing a 0-0 draw would take them through and Milan prepared to play the long game and nick the tie near the end. Waddle’s preparation for the biggest club match of his life had not exactly been a spa retreat – he had a recuperating Paul Gascoigne staying with him, along with Gazza’s father and Jimmy Five Bellies. Gascoigne had his first meeting with an army of Lazio representatives at Waddle’s villa. He also spent his time teaching Waddle’s young daughter Brooke to tell her parents what she wanted to be when she grew up: Gazza’s wife.

Waddle had far less to worry about on the field. After all, he was only facing Paolo Maldini. He had given Maldini a fearful chasing at Wembley in November 1989, a game he regards as his best for England, and a couple of extremely vigorous challenges confirmed that Maldini remembered the game too. There were also suggestions that Maldini rabbit-punched Waddle off the ball. (Waddle’s published recollection – “he done us again in the second half” – is pretty ambiguous.) Either way, Waddle was dizzy throughout that second half and only really recalls one incident: his beautifully precise right-footed volley, which shimmered across the turf like a bowling ball before fading inside the far post. That gave Marseille the lead in the 72nd minute. As things stood they would have gone through on away goals anyway, but it was confirmation of their slight but vital superiority in the tie.

Waddle was a great advert for concussion: in the second half he was comfortably the best player on the pitch, a constant spark of creativity in an otherwise scruffy game. In the last minute, with Marseille hanging on relatively comfortably, Waddle almost scored the goal of his life. As he broke from deep inside his own half, one of the floodlights went out, though the light was still good enough for him to run 70 yards, snake insidiously between two defenders on the edge of the area and go round the keeper Sebastiano Rossi only inadvertently to run the ball out of play rather than into the net. 

That was when the fun really started. The referee stopped the game to allow for floodlight repairs, though in truth it was playable anyway. Some players and fans thought the match was over, which led to a small pitch invasion. Milan, spotting the only chance they’d had all night, ran with a burgeoning mood of faux outrage. They said it was too dark to resume, even though the floodlights had been partially repaired – and even though they were working sufficiently to highlight the bald dome of the chief rabble-rouser, Milan director Adriano Galliani.

The Milan players declined to return to the field, summoning righteousness as only the guilty can. They looked for any excuse they could find, stopping just short of complaining that the pre-match Evian in the their dressing-room was not at the requested temperature. After the match, Galliani released a preposterous statement: “I didn’t think there was enough light, and the players told me they didn’t feel in the right spirit to continue playing again.” He had scandalously besmirched the proud reputation of a country that produced Macchiavelli.

“It was a disgraceful exhibition by a Milan side from whom football has come to expect something better” wrote David Lacey in the Guardian. “For more than two seasons they had restored European football to something approaching its former excellence. Last night they were just another Italian team trying it on.” Uefa didn’t fall for it: they awarded Marseille a 3-0 win and banned Milan from European football for a year.  Milan’s behaviour was disgraceful but, far worse, it was utterly pathetic. “The sad part,” said Glenn Hoddle, “is that this Milan side will now be remembered for the way they lost the European Cup rather than the way they won it.”

Hoddle, along with Gascoigne, was among the party who went for dinner with Waddle after the game. After a while Waddle stepped outside because he felt unwell. Dr Gascoigne, thinking Waddle was flagging in the unmanly style, innocently prescribed a couple of pints as the cure to all his ills. In fact Waddle’s lights were in danger of going out; he started to vomit on the kerb and an ambulance was called. Waddle, fearing another questionable prognosis, uttered one solemn plea to anyone who would listen: “Don’t let Gazza in the ambulance.”

It turned out he had concussion because of his clash with Maldini, an injury that kiboshed a likely recall to the England’s squad to play Ireland a week later. It was a huge blow at a time when he was playing as well as anyone in Europe. Before the European Cup final two months later. Waddle was told by a number of French journalists that, if Marseille won, he would win the Ballon d’Or. That may not have been the case – it went to Papin, even though Marseille lost the final to Crvena Zvezda – but the fact it was discussed is a reflection of Waddle’s status at the time.

He might conceivably have had three or four more years with England; instead he only earned one more cap, against Turkey in October 1991. It’s not entirely Graham Taylor’s fault – the timing of Waddle’s injuries before both Ireland games in qualification for Euro 92 was particularly unfortunate – but it will always be a peculiar paradox: Waddle was not good enough for one of the worst England teams in recent memory, yet he was good enough to end the last European Cup dynasty.

Kickers Offenbach 6-0 Bayern Munich, Bundesliga, Waldstadion, Frankfurt, 24 August 1974

The great Bayern Munich side of the mid-1970s celebrated their third consecutive Bundesliga, and their first European Cup, by losing their next two league games 5-0 and 6-0. Heroically rock and roll, you might think, from a team who obviously couldn’t wait until October for their own Munich Beer Festival. Except that the two matches were three months apart.

The first, a 5-0 thrashing away to their great rivals Borussia Mönchengladbach, didn’t matter. Bayern had won their first European Cup in Brussels only 17 hours earlier, with nine of that starting XI also playing against Mönchengladbach. Many of them were still drunk; none of them cared about the defeat. That was not the case with the second, which came when they were spectacularly ransacked by Otto Rehhagel’s Kickers Offenbach on the opening day of the 1974-75 season.

Rehhagel, in Britain at least, will always be associated with the 1-0 victory. That was the preferred weapon of his Greece side that inexplicably yet emphatically won Euro 2004, including their defeat of the champions France in the quarter-finals. Yet Rehhagel was also in charge for two of the most startling thrashings of a champion in the history of the game. In 1989-90, Werder Bremen slaughtered the Uefa Cup holders, Diego Maradona’s Napoli, 8-3 on aggregate. Fifteen years earlier, Rehhagel’s side hammered both the world champions and the European champions in the same game.

To explain. Bayern were the European champions and the side that took on Rehhagel’s Kickers Offenbach contained five players who, six weeks earlier, had won the World Cup for West Germany against Holland: Sepp Maier, Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck, Franz Beckenbauer, Uli Hoeneß and Gerd Müller. There would have been six but Paul Breitner, who originally planned to quit football at the age of 22 to devote his life to teaching handicapped children, moved unexpectedly to Real Madrid.

Bayern were part of some astonishing Bundesliga games in the 1970s. There was an 11-1 win over Dortmund and a 7-0 defeat at home to Schalke. They won and lost games 7-4, 6-5 and 7-1. They drew 5-5. There was also the comically spiteful 8-0 win over Ajax in Johan Cruyff’s testimonial. Yet their 6-0 defeat to Offenbach surely tops the lot. It’s one of those scorelines – like Wiener Sports Club 7-0 Juventus in the European Cup in 1958-59 – which will always look bizarre to modern eyes, especially now that Offenbach play in the fourth tier of German football.

Offenbach had returned to the Bundesliga after the match-fixing scandal of 1971 and had some fine players, most notably Siggi Held, who was part of the West Germany team at the 1966 and 1970 World Cups, and Erwin Kostedde, who later became Germany’s first black international. Even so, they had no place beating Bayern 6-0. Nobody did; this was Bayern’s biggest Bundesliga defeat. The teenage substitute Egon Bihn, who scored the sixth goal, summed up Kickers’ mood before the game, “We had no hope.”

In fact it was Bayern who were hopeless. Once Offenbach took the lead, they simply destroyed Bayern with fast, direct running on the counter-attack. Bayern’s defenders looked like they were running with weighted backpacks – and with good reason. Before the season, the club were so keen to maximise the commercial potential of their European and world champions that they played 19 friendlies in 26 days. 19 games in 26 days. In a World Cup year! In effect, Bayern’s stars played the 1973-75 season without a break. 

The second goal was a classic piece of unscripted human comedy. Norbert Janzon ran straight at Franz Beckenbauer, who had to get his knees dirty for the first time in years. His sliding tackle just about stopped the danger, even if he did do a thoroughly unbecoming cartwheel in his follow through. As Beckenbauer got his bearings he didn’t know Maier was running up behind him, about to pick up the loose ball. Instead, with the instinctive reaction of a man who had just woken up and seen something right in front of his nose, Beckenbauer stabbed the ball out of harm’s way, just outside the area. Except it went straight to Dieter Schwemmle, and with Maier well out of his goal, he waved an insouciant lofted shot into the net. 

Offenbach added four more in the second half to complete a perfect day. What’s better than beating Bayern 6-0? Beating Bayern 6-0 at the home of your great rivals Eintracht Frankfurt. The match was played in the Waldstadion because of construction work at Offenbach’s ground. 

It was an appropriate start to a thoroughly weird season for Bayern. They won the second of three consecutive European Cups, yet the best team in Europe were only the 10th best in Germany. All sense of domestic invincibility was gone by September, when they lost their 74-match, four-year unbeaten run at home. World Soccer called them “the most erratic team in the Bundesliga”, which, given the unpredictable nature of the league at the time, was quite a feat. It was also the first of five consecutive seasons without a title, which is worth about 60 seasons in normal club years, and easily Bayern’s longest fallow period since they went big time in the late 1960s.

The World Cup win had gone to everyone’s head, particularly the players and those in the commercial department. Bayern’s stars became celebrities who played a bit of football on the side. When Hoeneß was injured, he decided to swan off on a personal publicity tour. That was to the irritation of his manager UdoLattek and Hoeneß’s penance was to donate his December and January bonuses to an old people’s home.

Maier was the only one to steer clear of the sort of mud-slinging that makes Kevin Pietersen’s fallout with the England seem like a fleeting disagreement over who nicked the last bottle of Gatorade. Nor was this done in autobiographies a year after the event; these were real-time fallouts, although at least the Bayern players stabbed each other and their manager in the front. 

Lattek eventually went to the chairman insisting that changes needed to be made. The chairman concurred and sacked him. Bayern couldn’t even take revenge on Offenbach. In the return fixture they roared into a 2-0 lead, yet Offenbach came back to win 3-2, aided by an own goal from Beckenbauer. He also scored an own goal the following week and a month later endured a miserable time at Wembley – West Germany were beaten 2-0 in a friendly and Beckenbauer was reduced to crawling around on all fours like a confused dog, making a diving save with his left hand to stop Malcolm Macdonald running clear on goal. 

The great Bayern and West Germany sides looked finished during the 1974-75 season. In truth they were, yet West Germany – who were already a little past their best during their World Cup win in 1974, having peaked so imperiously at Euro 72 – came within a penalty competition of winning Euro 76 and Bayern went on two win two more European Cups. They were staggering feats of mental strength, not least because of the tonkings they took along the way.

Cardiff 0-0 Sporting (aggregate 2-1), Cup-Winners’ Cup second round second leg, Ninian Park, 22 December 1964

These days, the recent example of Swansea excepted, Welsh clubs play all their European games in June, July and – if they really go on a cup run – in August. In the past they used to play them from September onwards; sometimes even in March and April. Until 1995, clubs who took part in the English leagues were allowed to play in the Welsh Cup and potentially earn a place in the Cup-Winners’ Cup. That led to a number of stories that dripped with romantic charm. Wrexham reached the quarter-finals in 1975-76 and put out Porto in 1984-85. Newport reached the quarter-finals in 1981. Cardiff reached the semis in 1967-68, where they lost 4-3 on aggregate to Hamburg, and beat Real Madrid 1-0 at home in the quarter-final of 1970-71 before losing the second leg 2-0. They also reached the quarters in their first European campaign, 1964-65, when they eliminated the holders Sporting.

On the way to winning the cup, Sporting overcame a 4-1 first-leg deficit to batter Manchester United 5-0. The United team included all the greats of Matt Busby’s signature side, including Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law. In an earlier round, Sporting demolished Apoel 16-1 at home. They also had five players who would be part of the brilliant Portugal squad at the 1966 World Cup. Cardiff, by contrast, had only qualified by beating Bangor City of the Cheshire League in a Welsh Cup final replay, and then struggled to beat the Danish side Esbjerg 1-0 on aggregate. When they drew Sporting, the prevailing mood was,“That’ll be that then! Seeya!” Few people even bothered to patronise Cardiff by saying they had an outside chance. Kenneth Wolstenholme didn’t think it was all over, he knew it was: he previewed the game on BBC Wales by saying he could not see how Cardiff could avoid defeat.

Their new Scottish manager Jimmy Scoular – “his language could honestly be described as industrial,” said the forward Derek Tapscott in his autobiography – had other ideas, even if he had no idea who his opposite number was. Sporting, who were having a dismal domestic season, suspended their coach Jean Luciano on the eve of the game. Scoular also had no notion that all of his players were wearing women’s knickers during the biggest game of their lives. The kitman Harry Parsons had forgotten the players’ jockstraps and had to improvise on the afternoon of the game. Jockstrap culture wasn’t exactly thriving in Lisbon at the time, so Parsons had to make do with 18 pairs of women’s briefs, which he told the players to put on before Scoular came in the dressing-room. Parsons knew that Scoular’s language would be more than industrial if he found out about his players’ replacement kit. 

Whether it was the effect of the soft lacy fibres against their skin or just because they happened to play better football on the night, Cardiff pulled off a staggering victory in Lisbon. They led at half-time through Greg Farrell’s excellent first-time shot and went further ahead when Tapscott, on the right touchline, mishit a cross towards the near post that the keeper Joaquim Carvalho could only help into the net. “A goal I could not repeat if I tried it a hundred times,” said Tapscott.

At the other end, Cardiff’s stout defending was led by the great John Charles, playing sweeper for the first time in his career at the age of 32. He needed stitches after being headbutted early on but, in the clichéd style of the old don whose legs are going but whose brain is sharper than ever, he was majestic. “I went into every challenge as though my very life depended on it.” Three of those challenges saved certain goals. Despite an impatient late volley from Figueiredo, Cardiff pulled off the most improbable 2-1 victory, with Charles in tears of joy as he left the field. “We half hoped for a draw,” said the chairman Fred Dewey, “but we never dreamed we could win.”

The players celebrated in a Lisbon bar, where the staff tried to rip them off with the bill. Charles was called over, with the players hoping his fluent Italian might somehow help them communicate. Instead he settled matters in a universal language, by pinning a waiter to the wall by the neck until the bill became more agreeable.

Charles was again immense in the return leg, played two days before Christmas, with Cardiff holding for a 0-0 draw. The 20-year-old goalkeeper Dilwyn John made two excellent first-half saves, yet as the match went on he had increasingly little to do because of the performance of another 20 year old, Gareth Williams, and Charles in defence.

Sporting were a slick side, far more skilful than Cardiff. The Times said Cardiff “went to the last inch in speed and fibre”. A goal for Sporting would have meant a replay in Madrid – there was no away-goals rule in those days – but if anything Cardiff looked the likelier scorers. Peter King had a shot cleared off the line and Carvalho made a couple of vital saves.

As the match wore on, Sporting became increasingly irritated by their inability to break down their apparent inferiors. When a Sporting player found something on the pitch, he launched it back into the crowd like a discus, with sinew-busting ferocity and a comically extravagant follow-through. Then the keeper Carvalho collided with the flying Tapscott as they went for a near-post cross. Tapscott had barely hit the floor when Carvalho, springing straight to his feet as all good keepers are trained to do, picked Tapscott up and threw him over the touchline, like an impatient motorist tossing a dead animal to the side of the road. It almost sparked a brawl, with players from both sides shoving each other and putting their dukes up.  “He looks like he’s had a row with Cassius Clay,” said Wolstenholme as Tapscott staggered back onto the field.

There were people charging onto the field in disbelief when the final whistle went, with the most joyous of pitch invasions taking place. There were umpteen gentlemen wearing long, light-coloured coats that flapped in the night air as they made a beeline for their heroes, and the black-and-white TV pictures made it look like an invasion of the butchers. “This in a way was Dylan Thomas against Vasco da Gama,” said the man from the Times. “One discovered a word. The other discovered a bit of the world.” Fifty years later we still haven’t clue what it means, but it’s a suitably grandiose description for an endearing and enduring triumph of the human spirit. 

Napoli 2-3 AC Milan, Serie A, Stadio San Paolo, 1 May 1988

It does not have to be a cup competition for the holders to be symbolically dethroned. If anything it can be even more powerful in a league match – victory over a whole season has greater gravitas and sometimes symbolises a changing of the guard or at the very least the emergence of a serious rival. That was the case in one of Serie A’s most famous matches, an undeniable epic between the champions Napoli and the challengers Milan in May 1988.

Diego Maradona’s Napoli had started their title defence in awesome style, winning 16 of their first 20 games as the Ma-Gi-Ca attacking trio of Maradona, Bruno Giordano and Careca rammed in goals all over the place. Milan plugged them 4-1 at the San Siro but that was Napoli’s only defeat and they were cruising to the title. “Physically I was in tip-top form,” said Maradona, “like I had never been before, like a bullet.” With a third of the 30-game season remaining, Napoli’s lead – in an era of two points for a win – was a huge five points. Then the goals and points dried up. Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan, who had just about stayed within range, began to hunt them down and Napoli lost the plot. World Soccer said, “they collapsed in an orgy of internal back-stabbing.” 

By that stage Maradona was used to being stabbed. He was no longer in tip-top form physically and needed injections to get through games. “There was nowhere left around my lower back or my knee for the needle to go in,” he said in his autobiography. Napoli went into their third-last game, at home to Milan, with their lead reduced to just one point. With everybody else a mile back this was an undeniable four-pointer.

“I really had no idea what a game between AC Milan and Napoli actually entailed,” said Ruud Gullit. “I was intrigued when the club hired two planes instead of one to take us to Naples. It turned out one was for our food and drink.” Milan were so paranoid that their food would be spiked that they brought Silvio Berlusconi’s personal chef, with hotel staff and waiters allowed nowhere near their meals. The food even had its own bodyguards when it was brought to the players. Milan were staying at the inaptly named Jolly Hotel and thought a combination of a newly erected fence and being as high as the 25th floor would keep them away from the noise of Napoli supporters. Some chance. A few Napoli fans somehow got onto the 26th floor and made a racket the night before the game. The build-up, said Gullit, “was worthy of a film script.”

The ride to the hotel would have made for a particularly compelling scene. Milan’s team bus – and a police escort – were waiting for them on the runway when they arrived in Naples, and they took a different route to avoid the home fans. It was blissfully quiet – until they hit the welcoming committee near the hotel. Gullit, on the bus, was distracted by the sight of a sweet little old lady among the crowd, a little oasis of humanity amid the hostility. “As I watched her,” said Gullit, “she turned to face us and made the most obscene gesture possible. Only the way Italians can do it.” The coach was bombarded with spit, stones, tomatoes, oranges and plenty else besides. “You should,” said Gullit, “have seen the state of it.”

The match also had to be seen to be believed. The silver-haired sniffer Pietro Virdis, one of Italy’s great uncapped players, gave Milan the lead before Maradona equalised with a glorious free-kick just before half-time. He later said it was the best of his career. At the time, with Marco van Basten just coming back from injury and yet to have his life-changing Euro 88, Maradona’s main rival for the title of best player in the world was Gullit, holder of the Ballon d’Or and Milan’s inspiration. He lived up to his status with a masterful second-half performance. 

Having sledged his marker – “I can’t remember his name” – into a needless booking, Gullit goaded him further. “I now have you in my pocket.” A run and cross led to a smartly taken second from Virdis, then Gullit charged more than half the length of the field to set up the substitute Van Basten. Careca pulled one back but Milan held on in a last 10 minutes of such tension as to make the partisan want to renounce football. Sacchi was on the pitch at one stage, screaming instructions. At the end of the game, that partisanship was put on hold in extraordinary circumstances. For all the hostility before and during the match, the Napoli fans applauded the Milan team from the field, a remarkable gesture which, Gullit says, “will live with me forever.” 

Napoli’s collapse, seven points from the last 10 games, was one for the ages. They completed it by losing their last two games, allowing Milan to ease to the title with two draws. As Napoli’s season unravelled, the players and the coach Ottavio Bianchi started flinging mud at each other. “Once I had a great team and a great Maradona,” said Bianchi. “Now all I have is a great Maradona.” The Napoli players released a statement saying nobody had got on with Bianchi and that he hadn’t done his job properly. On the day they did so, Maradona sent his personal masseur to the club to tell them he wouldn’t be attending training and then buggered off in his boat for a few days. His opinion of Bianchi was later expressed without ambiguity in his autobiography. “Bianchi, the wanker, had started experimenting and had left Giordano out,” said Maradona. “Everything turned to shit.”

For Milan, it was the opposite. Their victory in Naples was a classic story of a great team on the way up meeting a champion on the way down. Milan just knew, instinctively, that this was their day, their game, their time. “We were hurtling downhill through the championship, and at the bottom of the hill the Scudetto awaited us,” said Carlo Ancelotti. “Napoli 2-3 AC Milan; we’re the ones, we’re the ones, we’re the champions of Italy.”

In the previous 19 years they had won a single Scudetto and no European Cups. In the next eight years there were five Scudetti, three European Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and two more European Cup finals. The Napoli match was Milan’s shortcut to greatness.

Hamburg 3-2 Dinamo Bucharest (aggregate: 3-5), European Cup first round, second leg, Volksparkstadion, 2 November 1983

Arsenal reflect the good and bad of the Champions League. They have reached the last 16 for the last 14 seasons – it’ll probably be 15 seasons by the time you read this – yet they have never won it and have only one final and one semi-final to show for their work. Theirs is a world of largely pointless equilibrium. Contrast that with the European Cup’s all-or-nothing period, when teams either had a medal placed around their neck in spring or their throats slit in autumn. In the 15 seasons between 1969-70 and 1983-84, the champions either retained the cup or went out in the first round on 11 occasions. (Or, in the case of Ajax in 1973 and Hamburg in 1983, in their first tie after receiving a bye to the second round.) Of the five teams to fall at their first hurdle in that time – Feyenoord, Ajax, Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Hamburg – Hamburg’s defeat to Dinamo Bucharest was the most dramatic. 

Steaua Bucharest won the European Cup in 1985-86, but two years before that Romanian club football had little pedigree. UTA Arad had put the holders Feyenoord out in 1970-71; that was about it for Romanian sides in the European Cup. The chance to change that was sufficient incentive for the players of Dinamo, whose win bonus of 14,000 lei was just about enough to buy a colour TV. They spent two weeks in the mountains preparing for the game, trying to get their physical level somewhere near that of Hamburg. They took other measures, too. Before the first leg in Bucharest, the president asked the Dinamo legend Cornel Dinu to give the referee Jan Keizer a gift. After informing the referee that Dinamo were playing the offside trap, he handed him a briefcase. At half-time in the match the referee even told Dinu to calm down Ionel Augustin, who had been flying into challenges. 

Dinamo won the first leg 3-0 in front of more than 70,000 spectators. Ernst Happel, the Hamburg coach, was furious with the referee and with the number of bottles being thrown onto the pitch – so much so that he stopped the game for three minutes. Even with a 3-0 deficit, Hamburg fancied their chances going into the second leg. “Miracles happen in football,” said Happel. Hamburg battered Dinamo and were 3-0 up just after the hour. The centre-back Ditmar Jakobs scored either side of half-time, with the substitute Thomas von Heesen levelling the aggregate score. “When we pulled back to 3-0 I couldn’t see anything going wrong,” said Happel. But his players could. For the first 62 minutes they just attacked. Then at 3-0 they started to think and were caught between pushing for a fourth and waiting for their superior fitness to tell in extra-time.

The classic European sting came five minutes from time, when Dinamo substitute Cornel Talnar knifed Hamburg on the counter-attack. They then needed to score twice and threw so many men forward in desperation and confusion that Gheorghe Multescu’s wound-salting 90th-minute breakaway became inevitable. It was a remarkable double twist: Hamburg completed Mission Impossible only to have a coronary at the moment of triumph. “Miracles,” said the Dinamo coach Dimitru Nicolae, “can happen in football.”

“We have defeated ourselves,” thundered the Hamburg captain Felix Magath afterwards, knowing full well these were not the kind of wounds that could be healed by cheese. In a sense they still haven’t healed. Few people expected Hamburg to establish a European dynasty, but they were supposed to do a lot better than this – especially as they were unquestionably the best team in West Germany at the time, having won the title in three of the previous five seasons. But Horst Hrubesch, sold in the summer of 1983, was never adequately replaced and Hamburg have not won the Bundesliga or a European trophy in the 31 years since.

Manchester United 2-0 Arsenal, Premier League, Old Trafford, 24 October 2004

Society loves a moan, but it can’t stand a moaner. Given our propensity for self-pity, we can be remarkably unsympathetic towards the complaints of others. Just let it go, mate. Yet some wrongs are bigger than others and sometimes the injustice is so profound that it’s almost impossible to sit still. It’s over a decade since Arsenal’s 49-match unbeaten run ended at Old Trafford, yet the resentment lingers. In Amy Lawrence’s superb new book Invincible, Kolo Touré was asked about that game. “I still have that here,” he replied, banging a fist against his chest. 

Arsenal’s 2-0 defeat was one of the biggest injustices imaginable. Ruud van Nistelrooy should have been sent off in the first half for a studs-up challenge on Ashley Cole that brought a three-match ban after the game; Rio Ferdinand should also probably have gone before half-time for a last-man foul on Freddie Ljungberg. United’s opening goal came from a penalty awarded for a dive by Wayne Rooney. To compound Arsenal’s misery, it was scored by the man they detested, Van Nistelrooy, whose cathartic groans – he had missed a penalty in the same fixture a year earlier, after which he was manhandled by a number of players – were described by Rooney as “the most genuine emotion I’ve ever seen in a footballer after scoring.”

United should have had a penalty after that, for a foul by Cole on Cristiano Ronaldo, but Arsenal will argue that this – and Rooney’s injury-time goal – would not have happened had the referee Mike Riley done his job earlier in the game. 

It’s worth recalling the context of the game. Arsenal went unbeaten in the League throughout the previous season – and then they got even better. They were like the Invincibles Plus, with their first nine games of the 2004-05 season bringing 25 points and 29 goals. United’s first nine games yielded 14 points and nine goals.

Arsenal’s aura wasn’t gone with one lost game – but it was a month later. Few sides have ever had such an extreme reaction to a defeat. There were only two over-30s in that starting XI at Old Trafford, yet the team died instantly. They dropped 12 points in just over a month and never fully recovered. “The game did us more damage than we realised at the time,” said Patrick Vieira. “We were cheated out of our record. It sticks in the throat. The game was a joke.”  

Apart from his early struggles, the years between 2003 and 2006 were by far the hardest of Ferguson’s reign at Old Trafford: no league titles, constant failure in Europe, consecutive third-placed finishes. But he achieved something far more remarkable than many of his trophies at Old Trafford. He got so far under Arsenal’s skin that he ruined them, setting in motion a sequence of events in which Arsenal went from being unbeatable in October 2004 to struggling to finish fourth in May 2006.

They will forever wonder what might have been had they made it 50 games unbeaten that afternoon. They might have gone 60 or 70 games unbeaten, they might have been involved in one of the great title races with José Mourinho’s Chelsea, they might have won the Champions League. 

Arsenal should have been tougher, of course, and their reaction reinforced the perception of many of that United side – articulated in Gary Neville’s autobiography – that the Invincibles had a “soft centre” and the team of 1997-99 was Arsenal’s best. Even so, it’s so rare to find a sporting injustice so great in both scope and significance – and against your hated rivals – that you can understand why they lost the plot as well as their unbeaten run. Let it go? No chance. Most of those involved will take their frustration to the grave.