For Sir Alex Ferguson the Champions League was the pinnacle; a competition he treated with the utmost seriousness. At times he would even prioritise it above domestic endeavours.
Back in March 2003, however, Ferguson sent out his most inexperienced European side when Manchester United travelled to Deportivo La Coruna in the short-lived second Champions League group phase.
United were already through to the knockout stages, but it still caused a stir when Ferguson picked an youthful squad to travel out to Spain. For those involved, it was an exciting time to be at the club, with Ferguson assembling one of his most formidable squads – including star names such as David Beckham, Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy.
For Manchester-born striker Danny Webber it was a privilege to be part of the first-team set-up as he tried to break into a forward line of superstars. “They were amazing times. The day-to-day standards in training were incredible,” Webber tells The Set Pieces.
“Roy Keane would set the bar so high that if you misplaced a pass and you were on his team, he would look at you in a way, not of disappointment, but in a way to say ‘go on, fulfil your potential’. He demanded so much from everyone.
“We had Van Nistelrooy, which made me very, very fortunate to grow up in that era. Whether I played a million games or not, I was fortunate to have those players as mentors. Being in and around that first team you realised how hard it was to get into the side – it’s not like the last couple of years where lads are getting chances.”
Domestically United were on a procession to the title. They won 15 of their final 18 league games, drawing the other three, to finish a comfortable five points above Arsenal. But what Ferguson really wanted was another Champions League crown.
Among those to feature in Estadio Riazor – against the likes of Carlos Valeron and Diego Tristan – were Webber, defenders Lee Roche, Mark Lynch and Danny Pugh, and midfielder Michael Stewart. Only Pugh would ever play for the club again.
“It was only the night before that I realised I’d be playing,” Roche tells The Set Pieces. “We trained at the stadium and that’s when it hit home a bit that I’d be playing in the Champions League the next night – the best club competition there is.
“Ferguson always liked to do it that way. He didn’t want to let you know too far in advance, so you didn’t have too much time to think about it and get nervous. With a lot of my mates playing, the younger lads, I just wanted us all to do well together.”
Ferguson brought an extra dimension to his youthful side by opting to play with wing-backs in a 3-5-2 formation, something he rarely he did. Webber would begin the game on the bench, but Roche started in an unfamiliar role on the right-hand side of three centre-backs.
Deportivo: Mallo, Manuel Pablo, Andrade (Djorovic 64), Cesar, Capdevila, Victor (Hector 77), Duscher, Acuna, Fran (Scaloni 52), Valeron, Luque.
Subs Not Used: Juanmi, Romero, Tristan, Sergio.
Man Utd: Ricardo, Lynch, Roche (Stewart 46), Blanc, O’Shea, Pugh, Fletcher, Phil Neville, Butt, Forlan (Richardson 72), Giggs (Webber 72).
Subs Not Used: Carroll, May, Davis, Nardiello.
“I’d played centre-back quite a lot for the reserves, but I knew if I was to play for the first-team it would be as a full-back,” says Roche. “I wasn’t big enough to be a centre-back and I’d never played in a back three before for United, so it did come as a bit of a surprise.
“But Ferguson was probably looking at the players he had in the squad and thought that was the safest option rather than playing me in a two in the centre. We had Laurent Blanc to guide me and John O’Shea, who was also young at the time, with Mark Lynch and Danny Pugh as the wing-backs – so it was a young back five.”
United struggled to adjust to their new shape in the fierce surroundings of La Riazor, as Deportivo got on top of their inexperienced opponents and took the lead through Spanish international Victor. With the visitors trailing 1-0 at half time, Ferguson decided his tactics weren’t working and swapped Roche for Stewart.
“I thought I was doing OK. When you’re brought off at half-time, you [normally] think you’ve deserved that but I didn’t really see it coming. But who am I to argue with Sir Alex?” Roche explains.
“I remember Ryan Giggs told me not to worry about it and to keep my chin up, but you do look into it when you get dragged off at half-time. Giggs gave me some reassurance to say it wasn’t about my performance, which is great coming from him as it could damage you in the long run.”
Shortly after the interval, Roche’s defensive colleague Lynch was the scorer of a cruel own goal that sealed a 2-0 win for the hosts. In the circumstances, with Deportivo then flying high in La Liga, there was little shame in defeat for Ferguson’s young side.
The culmination of Webber’s dream came in the closing stages. “I just remember sitting there for every second hoping I’d get on and that I’d not travelled all that way for no reason,” he says.
“I warmed up extensively to make sure I was ready for when the boss or one of the coaches calls you to get on, and then it’s a case of ‘let’s have it, let’s go and play football’. It’s what you’ve always been dreaming of.
“I remember getting on, and I’m not one to hit one from 30 yards and score, but I beat someone and thought I’d get a shot away. I hit the target, but the keeper just patted it down. It proved I could beat one or two of their players, so I tried to make as much as impact as I could in a Roy of the Rovers style.”
The final whistle brought an end to a memorable game for United’s youngsters – but also the Old Trafford careers of Webber, Roche, Lynch and Stewart, who would never feature for the first team again.
Webber, who would go on to play for Watford and Sheffield United, went home with Tristan’s shirt. He turned down a long-term contract with his boyhood club in order to get regular football.
Asked about why that generation struggled to break through under Ferguson, Webber, who is now a football agent, explains: “I think at the time there was a transition in the academy and they needed to clear out a number of young players. The boss always said if you had a Man United upbringing and applied yourself, then you would always have a career.
“Let’s be honest, we never going to come through as a batch of players and go straight into the first team as there were always top players in those positions. I didn’t want to play one Champions League game and some League Cup games every year. I loved playing for Manchester United, it was my dream from being a kid, but I wanted to play, so I wasn’t going to sell myself short just to stay at United.”
Roche played for Burnley and Wrexham before dropping into non-league football, and now works for Opta and as a coach at Bury. The former defender reflects on the difficult task to make the grade at United due to the competition for places at the time.
“I think the way the first team was at the time, they were winning everything in front of them. I think it was probably the best United team they’ve had for a long, long time. To have broken into that team and get a run of games ahead of somebody else was always going to be difficult.
“I think they could have bought some very expensive players who would have struggled to break into that team, so it was no disgrace that we didn’t make it or get much of an opportunity.”
All Manchester-born, the quartet of Roche, Webber, Pugh and Lynch lived the dream, even if it was to prove short-lived. There are no complaints, just fond memories of that night in La Riazor and pride in playing for United in the Champions League.