Sir Alex warned us of Barcelona’s “passing carousel” which could make us dizzy, and I soon saw what he meant in the Champions League final in Rome in 2009. Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta and Messi circulated the ball between them, keeping it, hurting us and punishing mistakes. I was loose with a header and Iniesta was on it in a flash, passing to Messi. Barcelona are ruthless in transition. I was close to Messi but couldn’t prevent him passing back to Iniesta who got ahead of me and Anderson. Iniesta slipped the ball to Eto’o, who got away from Vidic. I slid in but only got close enough to Eto’o to see him score.
In quiet moments in the weeks after our 2-0 defeat, that passage of play kept returning to haunt me. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It sounds melodramatic, but I’ve never recovered from it. The memory of conceding such a soft goal is always there in my mind. Giving the ball away to any team was dangerous, but to Barcelona it was suicidal.
That was the worst I’ve felt on a football pitch after a game by a mile. I was mentally devastated, angry and frustrated by my performance and by United’s. We let ourselves down in Rome. Waiting to collect our losers’ medals was painful. I just wanted to get the hell out of the Stadio Olimpico. We gathered in a broken line, Sir Alex at the front, followed by Giggsy, Scholesy and Wazza while I stood with Rio. He said a few words to me, but I wasn’t taking anything in.
We’d been so good for two years, so amazingly consistent, a record 25 games in the Champions League unbeaten — a hell of a run — yet we’d ended up giving our worst display in Rome. The pain in my broken toe was nothing compared to the agony of defeat and underperforming. I was numb, just standing there, staring into space, asking why? Everything I did in the game felt like it was going through my mind on repeat. I was beating myself up, sinking lower and lower, slipping into a depressed state.
After receiving the medal I didn’t want, I trudged back to the changing room. I didn’t want to speak to anyone. I slumped in my seat and cradled my head in my hands.
The Boss was understandably angry and had a go at everyone. “You need to have a look at yourselves and see if you can play at this level,” he said. Moscow was irrelevant. We were Manchester United and the expectation was relentless. “You’ve let a good chance slip away here,” he said. The Boss summed up exactly how I was feeling. After he finished, I just questioned myself again and again. Am I good enough?
When I woke in the morning, the heartache was still there. It was like I’d been hit by a bus. I’d never been this low before.
I left Rome but I don’t think Rome has ever really left me. When I got home, I sat out in the garden and didn’t speak to anyone. I couldn’t. I was totally numb. A couple of mates called in the day after the final, but I didn’t want to talk about the game, I didn’t want to talk about anything really. I went into the garden with Louise and just sat on the grass as she played around me. I hardly moved. I just wanted to be left alone to play with Louise, probably because she was one of the only people who didn’t see the game and was far too young to understand. I watched her crawling around at my feet, but my mind was still a thousand miles away, just thinking, “Why?”
I thought about my passing in Rome, when I’d tried three or four long passes. One was good, a diagonal to Rooney in the first half, another was a decent pass but it bounced over Ronaldo, and I also over-hit a couple to Ronaldo and Rooney. The one to Ronnie was only a fraction off but, in those games, a fraction looks a mile.
I sat there thinking, “Was it my broken toe? Nah, that’s a shit excuse. Take it like a man.” My mind was besieged by so many questions and I just couldn’t find any answers. It was a lonely place to be. I had so much support and love from my family but nobody could help me. I had to fight through the depths of depression and that took a long, long time.
Depression over a game of football sounds extreme, doesn’t it? But I genuinely felt in a very dark place. It might sound a crazy exaggeration comparing football to a death but after Rome I felt like I was grieving. Six months earlier we’d been crowned the best in the world and now I tortured myself with questions about why we’d come second in Europe. Everything we did to reach Rome meant nothing to me now.