The pitch side television interviews were completed and Gary Neville joked with Steve McManaman and Jan Age Fjortfoft as the main stand at Parc des Princes filled up with football royalty. Manchester United were about to play Paris Saint-Germain in their second leg last 16 Champions League game last year.
Talking on Scandinavian television, Neville opined so strongly that caretaker managar Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was about to be given the manager’s job permanently that it was reported as fact elsewhere. Neville walked across in front of the stand and spoke to United assistant manager Mike Phelan.
The suited Phelan didn’t say much but the firm impression was that he wasn’t expecting United to go through and that the focus seemed to be Sunday’s league game at Arsenal.
And that’s how most, not unreasonably, felt. The perennial French champions had become the first team to defeat Solskjaer’s United, a 2-0 victory at Old Trafford which they deserved. United had won their first eight games under the Norwegian before drawing at home to Burnley and beating Leicester and Fulham away. PSG were among the favourites to lift the Champions League while United, heavily depleted by injuries, were not.
“They were a level above us, we have to be fair,” said United boss Solskjaer after the first leg. “It was a big step up, they [PSG] have quality from the keeper to the strikers. That’s why they are one of the favourites for the trophy. That’s the level we want to get to.”
Nobody could dispute his verdict. In seven second-half minutes when Presnel Kimpembe and then Kylian Mbappe sprinted so fast to score that Solskjaer said he’d show the footage to his players, the French champions had punctured the soaring confidence of everyone associated with United.
United didn’t have a central defensive partnership of the quality of Thiago Silva and Kimpembe, a midfielder of the quality of Marco Verratti or even Marquinhos, or a player with the speed, skill and strength of Mbappe.
PSG were missing Neymar and Edinson Cavani, but the French champions still had a superior strength in depth.
It was cruelly ironic that Angel di Maria, once of United when he became the most expensive ever player to join an English club, was one of PSG’s most effective players.
It would take a monumental reversal in fortunes if United were to reach the last eight of the Champions League after the second leg at Parc des Princes on March 6, 2019, but Solskjaer remained upbeat: “It’s a difficult mountain to climb but it’s not impossible. We are Man United, we always bounce back.” Nobody believed him and it’s doubtful that he believed it himself.
And onto Paris for the second leg. United sold out their allocation of tickets, a final European hurrah for who knew how long since the team were still sixth in the league.
The driver giving this writer a lift was a PSG fan and worried that I’d wasted a journey since his team were surely through. Indeed he was planning trips to possible quarter-final opponents and ultimately wanted revenge against Barcelona who’d put six past his team two years previous.
The French media reflected that mood. ‘A job to finish’ read the headline on L’Equipe’s front page.
'M'Bappe – why he is so strong?' asked the front page of Le Parisien. There was no need to sabre rattle because the hard work had been done in the first leg in England. That would be enough – or so journalists thought. They could afford to sit back watch the best teenager in world football.
At the Hotel du Collectionneur near the Eiffel Tower in central Paris where United stayed, Patrice Evra greeted Sir Alex Ferguson with a hug. The United party was an upbeat one, with Solskjaer the man. The mood changed when 50 PSG ultras, who’d been so boisterous in Manchester, showed up in the rain and let off flares amid their raucous songs. Former United player Paddy Crerand, 80, was ready in case they got out of hand and the police couldn’t control them.
A United club official told this writer that time-served staff had never seen a manager pay so much attention to detail as Solskjaer. They’d been astounded that a man on a five month caretaker’s contract asked so many questions in any area which he felt could improve the club.
His unquenchable thirst for knowledge saw him seek out players’ opinions on everything from the food to the travel. He asked what could be done better, how he could help them, he asked about promising young players and coaches.
When two fans who’d been drivers at the club 15 years ago requested to see him, he spent an hour with them gauging the mood among fans, but it was what he did with the players which was most important.
United escape defeat at Goodison Park
He even listened as one journalist thanked him for starting a press conference at 9.30 am since it allowed him to drop his daughter at school.
Previously, they’d been an hour earlier because Solskjaer, like Ferguson, likes to start early. They started later and when he spoke he did so in a relaxed manner, the man benefiting from the clean slate.
But that slate would not remain unmarked and Paris would be the high water mark. But what a mark it was.
United sold all 2,400 tickets and many fans made the relatively easy journey to Paris without tickets. Parc des Princes is one of the football’s loudest venues, but the home fans appeared stunned to hear United fans singing the French national anthem before kick-off in honour of a Marsellaian Eric Cantona, who also sat in the stands.
Meanwhile, the callow youths who made up United’s numbers on the bench looked like cast-offs from a boy band audition.
This was United lite with their best player – Paul Pogba – wearing pink. Even when Romelu Lukaku put the stricken visiting team a goal ahead after a minute and 2-1 up after 30, it still seemed like PSG would be going through.
They were so dominant, they toyed with United and you felt they could put United away whenever they chose; yet they only held a one-goal advantage. Another United goal and the English team would be going through.
As the game came to a close, a controversial, VAR-assisted penalty was awarded. As the players argued and argued, a 21-year-old stood tall to take that crucial penalty.
As midfielder Fred, who’d played his best game, forcibly tried to stop opponents from unnerving Marcus Rashford, the Mancunian held his nerve against Gianluigi Buffon to score. That made it 3-1 to United on the night. That meant 3-3 on aggregate and victory on away goals.
Rashford ran towards the away fans and his teammates followed. It was United’s best European away win since Juventus in 1999.
“I just kept a cool head,” said Rashford. “You practice that every day and I wanted to take it. That’s probably the hardest thing, the wait before. These moments are what we live for. Everything was against us but we are used to surviving in these moments and we proved that again.”
As Cantona, Ferguson and Solskjaer were captured together on a phone camera by United staffer Gemma Thompson near the away changing room, United fans sang for 45 minutes after the game as the nets surrounding them caught objects thrown by PSG fans.
Pogba and Evra managed to upset the PSG hierarchy, Neymar was even more upset and the Robocop police guarding the away fans watched on sternly.
Neville was right about his pre-match prediction and caretaker manager Solskjaer was appointed permanently in the days after the win when United were drawn to play Barcelona in the quarter-finals.
But he started his reign as permanent boss with a 2-0 defeat at Arsenal and then a cup defeat at Wolves. United won only two of the 12 games they played after Paris and won none of the last six matches as the season petered out in.
Ed Woodward, the man who gave Solskjaer the job, said: “We had a tough end of the season. I can’t deny that, he can’t deny that and everyone is putting their hands up. But I also spoke to some of the players at the end of the season and they said it was the hardest season they had experienced.
“The season was in three parts. A tough first phase in terms of the environment they were in and a huge amount of media scrutiny. Then there was a fantastic run when Ole came in as caretaker.
"Then there was the ‘when is Ole going to get the job?’ stage with more scrutiny which evolved into a time when it didn’t work in terms of what the players were delivering on the pitch. That mental and physical situation shattered them.
“Ole had switched them almost immediately into playing a more dynamic style of football, of one pass through the middle not multiple passes, ball possession but counter attack at pace. That created an increased level of load that the players were not ready for.”
Fans would have bought that line with more conviction had United been more impressive since, but this current season has been a rocky, inconsistent one where the only consistency has been a lack of league wins.
After an awful January when United were beaten four times, the mood has picked up as United have gone eight unbeaten and defeated Chelsea and Manchester City away.
The arrival of Bruno Fernandes has helped as he’s been man of the match in every game he’s played, but nobody is getting carried away. United are still fifth in the league, their increasing confidence looks a fragile one and they need strengthening, but there’s more conviction in what Solskjaer is doing.
That means getting rid of negative influences in the dressing room, a work in progress, bringing talents through an improving youth system, signing well and being at a stable club which doesn’t fire managers so frequently.
United hope that their scouting and recruitment has improved after several patchy years, but fans remain circumspect – this is a team which has been unable to win three consecutive league games since the week before Paris.
Solskjaer has had a much needed positive month and there’s more faith in his ability to right United’s many wrongs, just not quite as much as there was after that night in Paris.