Monday, 12 March 2012

Unsung Heroes #3 - Henning Berg

Introducing a new series to Written Offside called "Unsung Heroes" where the great and the good of Twitter reveal the Manchester United players who largely crept under the radar of publicity yet arguably had as much impact on the success of the club as the more exciting names.

In our third instalment, the subject is Henning Berg as selected by Samuel Luckhurst who is a Huffington Post sports editor/reporter.

After the delirium of the final three minutes at Camp Nou came the celebration. United’s Treble hegemony had begun and the players – some whose hunger had been sated – savoured the history they had made.

Each squad member requested silence from the Red Army and would then loft the European Cup skywards. Andrew ‘Andy’ Cole’s request was interrupted by his ‘He gets the ball and scores a goal’ ditty, Peter Schmeichel, poseur extraordinaire, feigned lifting it whilst David May sought to appear in every image.

The squad then formed a guard of honour for two players not forgotten amidst the carnival. The suspended Paul Scholes and Roy Keane, each clutching one of the cup’s handles, arguably drew the loudest applause. Lurking behind them however, was a forgotten man. Henning Berg was passed the trophy and merrily hoisted it, yet predictably the cheers subsided.

Many forget that Berg missed out on a squad berth in Barcelona. Scholes and Keane, silk and steel, drew so much attention for their yellow cards in Turin and afflicted Ferguson’s selection process for the final that the Norwegian’s absence through injury wasn’t considered pivotal.

Yet it was. Had Berg been fit then he may have slotted into defence alongside Jaap Stam, enabling Ronny Johnsen, immaculate in defence or midfield, to partner Nicky Butt with David Beckham and Ryan Giggs providing width. Instead Ferguson was posed with a midfield quandary (rare back then, unlike now) which he never solved even during the final.
Picture courtesy of
Signed the previous season from Blackburn, Berg’s steadiness and organisational skills were a welcome antidote to a defence that was as leaky as the present United sans Nemanja Vidic. His compatriot Johnsen had already made waves in his first campaign, but with the Bruce-Pallister axis ended and with the latter’s United career coming to an end, Ferguson sought continental savvy.

A bargain £400,000 signing from Lillestrøm, Berg won the 1995 Premiership with Rovers and featured in the club’s forgettable foray into the Champions League, best remembered for David Batty and Graeme Le Saux’s spat. The foreigner rule had since been abolished by Uefa, so British citizenship no longer presented an issue for Ferguson after the smarting experience in 1994/95.

Had it not existed then it is safe to assume that May, another acquisition from Ewood Park, would never have pulled on a red shirt. Vital goals against Middlesbrough and Porto aside, the boyhood City fan rarely resembled the prerequisites of a United player in his nine years (yes, that long). Berg, on the other hand, was cultured, deceptively quick, a recognised international and adept at right-back as well as at the heart of defence.

Peculiarly though, he only started three matches alongside Johnsen in his debut season when it appeared to be the natural partnership. Ferguson, displaying sentimentalism even back then, showed blinding loyalty towards Pallister, whose back problems were taking a detrimental toll on the team in his final season.

As Pallister returned to Teesside in 1998, Ferguson splashed out £10.75m on Jaap Stam; a then-world record fee for a defender. The Scandinavian centre-back pairing, never given a genuine chance to showcase its credentials, was now disrupted by a Dutchman.

Decent season though Berg had in 1997/98, was just the second campaign in the Ferguson era that United hadn’t won a trophy since the 1990 FA Cup win. Injuries, most adversely to Johnsen, Peter Schmeichel and Ryan Giggs, as well as the void of the retired Eric Cantona, saw the arrivals of Stam, Jesper Blomqvist and Dwight Yorke in 1998.

Berg would make just 10 league starts that season – less than half of the previous campaign – but like most members of the 1998/99 squad, he holds a signature moment that he is instantly synonymous with.

The Champions League contained just 24 sides back in the late 90’s. The last eight consisted of the group winners and the two best runners-up, and United prevailed from the grim reaper of deathly clusters to face Internazionale in the last eight.

There was the hysteric build-up focusing on Beckham and Diego Simeone meeting again for the first time since the 1998 World Cup, the pinpoint crosses from the Brylcreem Boy and the Yorke headers in a fabulous first half at Old Trafford. But for the remaining three-quarters of the tie Inter were mostly camped in United’s half.

The 20-year-old Nicola Ventola, on at half-time for the not-so-divine ponytail Roberto Baggio at Old Trafford, started causing problems with his movement on the shoulder of the defensive line. Schmeichel had already provided one of his greatest saves to deny Ivan Zamorano, but the Nerazurri, now accustomed to the frenetic pace, were dictating play.

Simeone had a goal dubiously disallowed from a corner and Schmeichel then denied Ventola one-on-one. United were on the cusp of not conceding – a rare feat that term – but then Ventola escaped the offside trap and Stam to draw another save from Schmeichel, only for the ball to fall to Francesco Colonese.
Adroitly, the Italian sold the onrushing Dane a dummy to round him before firing at goal. Berg, however, had identified the danger and raced back on to the line, slid out his left leg and blocked the goal-bound shot to deny the Milanese side a valuable away goal. The roar from the Scoreboard End was louder than most goals scored that season, whilst that black and white digital on-screen graphic which signals a programme is coming to an end was on display. It was that crucial.

He was rewarded with a start at San Siro three weeks later as Ferguson dropped Scholes to promote Johnsen to anchorman duties alongside Keane, with Berg beside Stam. However Inter were relentless from the first whistle and dominated.

A half-baked Ronaldo, preferred ahead of Youri Djorkaeff, Baggio and Zamorano provided the mercurial forward line, but time and again were thwarted by Berg and Stam. Zamorano had a penalty appeal overlooked, whilst Javier Zanetti’s stroked effort hit the woodwork. The most outstanding renunciation was to come though.

Drifting into the right channel, Zamorano delivered a cross addressed for Simeone’s head, with the lead on the night seemingly a fait accompli. Only neither South American reckoned on the brilliance of Berg, who scuppered chances of halving the aggregate deficit with an extraordinary scissor-kick, leaving the Argentine in a heap in the goal’s netting.

Eventually Inter breached United after 153 minutes over the two legs, courtesy of Ventola via an uncharacteristic Keane error, but Berg’s colossal display those two legs saved face. Yes, Ze Elias missed a gilt-edged chance to level the tie with eight minutes remaining, but Scholes’ match point goal six minutes later was endemic of United that glorious campaign. And Berg, the forgotten man that night in Catalonia, deserves to be remembered for the part he played.

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