As Killian Mbappé hit PSG’s second goal to seal victory over Manchester United, flares illuminated 3,500 French fans cavorting in the away section at Old Trafford, many of them topless.
I could contain myself no longer and cheered wildly, which is a major mistake if you are a Frenchman forced to sit in the Stretford End for a big Champions League game.
Several Mancunians looked on sternly, and the guy next to me asked ‘Who do think you are?’ I casually pretended to have had a £50 bet on Mbappé scoring the second.
‘Why am I not with them?’ I thought, gazing at the massed ranks of PSG supporters raucously enjoying one of the best nights of their lives.
After all, I had paid £150 for my seat, so having to keep quiet as my team ran out 2-0 first-leg winners – over Man Utd! Away from home! – was a frustrating experience.
Still, what a night…
Arriving at Old Trafford, smoke bombs and firecrackers were going off everywhere and an enormous cloud of red smoke rose into the air.
Determined to attend the game, I knew my expensive seat wasn’t in with the away fans, but my heart still skipped a beat when I realised it was in the midst of United’s most hardcore followers.
I was a little nervous, but the excitement levels on my first visit to the Theatre of Dreams trumped all else.
‘How you doing?’ asked the guy next to me. I smiled and tried not to sound too French, and although I pretended to be on their side, the fans sitting around me quickly saw through this flimsy deception.
As the players emerged from the tunnel and the Champions League anthem blasted through the stands, I hadshivers up and down my spine.
I opened my eyes and ears wide and tried to record all the images and senses as a souvenir of the occasion.
The fans, their chants and songs, the roars, the cheers and boos — there is no better place to watch a game than Old Trafford.
Over in the away section, the Parisian commitment was huge, and the drumbeats of war could be heard. It was tribal, electrifying, a non-stop assault on the senses.
A few minutes before kick-off, the knot in my stomach served as a reminder of the game’s importance, and I joined in with the Mancunian applause as the announcer hyped up the home crowd.
‘The feeling of remaining discrete, whilst observing your team dominate at Old Trafford, surrounded by thousands of Manchester United fans, was very satisfying’
As the match got underway and both teams dared to play, the United fans never stoppedcheering their team on. Although I was with the ‘enemy’, I could not help being swept away with the camaraderie.
After a well-balanced first half, where both side played really good football, PSG central defender Presnel Kimpembe scored to give the French giants the lead.
It was the first time I had gone to see PSG play and not be able to cheer them freely but, in a strange way, it was unexpectedly enjoyable.
The feeling of remaining discrete, whilst observing your team dominate at Old Trafford, surrounded by thousands of Manchester United fans, was very satisfying.
As the optimism of the home fans – buoyed by their team’s great run under interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – began to evaporate, insults greeted every period of PSG possession.
The Stretford End also had an old score to settle with former United player Angel Di Maria, and the PSG midfielder was booed to the rafters as the mood soured.
On the other side of Old Trafford, scarfs were being swung as PSG songs rang around the famous old stadium.
The excitement among the Parisian hordes was palpable, with everybody hugging each other and sweeping away the gloomy atmosphere created by the English fans.
As the final whistle sounded, a huge smile crossed my face. I clenched my fists – discretely, of course – and felt relieved. Whilst every PSG player honoured the support of their fans, I sat down and admired their excitement, feeling left out and envious.
To remedy that feeling, I joined some of my fellow PSG supporters outside Old Trafford. While the youngest yawned and rubbed their eyes, the older Parisians’ enthusiasm and elation resonated through the grey suburbs of Manchester.
A significant number of them returned to the city centre to continue their celebrations, and the remainder of the evening promised to be an exciting one…
Manchester United’s Sean Goss remains content to bide his time and wait for the opportunity to impress Jose Mourinho.
The central midfielder, 20, has been at United since signing from Exeter City as a 16 year-old and despite being named in previous match day squads for the first team, is still yet to make his competitive debut.
But having recovered from a serious back injury that sidelined him for almost 12 months, Goss is focused first and foremost on regaining his fitness, before pushing for a place in Mourinho’s thinking.
“I’ve only just got back fit, I’ve been out for a year and I’m still on the road to recovery,” Goss told Elephant Sport.
“I had two fractures in my back and I’ve been out since last December. I played my first match [a few weeks ago], so I’m just concentrating on getting a few games under my belt and see where it takes me from there.”
A footballer’s lifestyle might not often be described as ‘back-breaking’, however an accumulation of stresses and strains will soon mount up for a top-level athlete.
As is often the case, the road to recovery can be a long and arduous one.
“Van Gaal really helped my game and pushed me forward”
Describing his frustration at the injury Goss explained: “[The fractures] happened over time.
“I woke up and could hardly move, so I had tests, and then three months where I wasn’t allowed to do anything, I just had to recover. No gym, no swimming, no training or anything, which is hard, as you don’t know what to do with yourself.
“You’re watching games and you just want to be playing, so that was another big test. I had the time off and then when I got back I had to slowly build up with injections and that kind of thing.
“Hopefully now that’s the end of it.”
Prior to his ill-timed injury, the Devon-born youngster had made big strides towards staking a claim for a spot within United’s first team.
Having signed whilst Sir Alex Ferguson was in his final years at the helm, Goss had seen David Moyes come and swiftly leave before Louis Van Gaal arrived.
Fresh from leading the Netherlands to a World Cup semi-final, Van Gaal set about building a competitive, yet youthful Manchester United team.
The Dutchman’s move from orange to red proved fruitful for Goss who feels that the former Barcelona manager helped to raise the levels of his game nearer to that of a Manchester United first team player.
“Obviously I was younger when Sir Alex Ferguson was here. You’d see him around, as you would all the managers.
“But the main one when I started to push on was Van Gaal, he really helped my game and pushed me forward.
“He was always communicating with me in some way, whether I was playing for the under 23’s or if I was in and around the [first team] squad. If I was training with them they were always letting me know how I was getting on, what I could do better.”
“I was just at that age as well where, with the other ones before I was maybe a bit young in my body, but I think that was the time [under Van Gaal] where I was turning into a man.”
In fact, Van Gaal rated Goss so highly that he took the left-footed midfielder on the club’s pre-season tour of the USA in 2015.
Despite drawing comparisons to Michael Carrick in terms of playing style, it might have been easy to presume that Goss was there to make up the numbers; taken along to gain experience.
However there was to be a fairy-tale ending, as Van Gaal introduced Goss as a second-half substitute during the friendly with Paris Saint-Germain, handing him his first team debut.
To add a further poetic element to the moment, it was Carrick who made way for the debutant.
Recalling the mixture of nerves and excitement, Goss explains; “You dream of making your debut but it’s hard to explain how it was.
“You’re there training and you hope you get your chance but when it finally happens you’re just concentrating on the game. It was a big crowd in a big stadium as well so it was a dream come true.
“He [Van Gaal] said I would get my chance. I just remember being sat there on the bench and getting told to warm up.
“It’s almost as if your stomach drops and your heart skips a beat for a second, but it was quality.”
Upon returning from the USA, Goss continued to be involved in Van Gaal’s first team environment, making the match day squad for the trip to Watford in the league and travelling with the squad for the Champions League tie away at Wolfsburg.
“When you’re younger you think ‘I’ll play for Man Utd one day’”
United scored in the last minute to defeat the Hornets 2-1 at Vicarage Road and whilst being an unused sub, the experience was of vital importance to Goss.
Sitting alongside him on the bench that day was Marcus Rashford, who would later go on to make his breakthrough for club and country, whilst Jesse Lingard and Paddy McNair made sizeable contributions on the pitch.
All three had been peers of Goss before being given their breaks by Van Gaal and at the time, the left footed Devon man hoped he might follow suit.
Whilst many Utd fans believed the time was right for Van Gaal to leave at the end of last season, for Goss there was a feeling of what might have been.
“I felt like you never know what could happen. There were a few injuries in the squad at the time, but it’s hard to say, as I never got to as I was injured.
“But you saw that other players came through and made appearances, so you’d be hoping that I would have been one of them.
“I was on the bench at Watford and then travelled to Wolfsburg with the squad. Again, when you get told you’re involved it’s an unbelievable feeling. It’s another amazing experience I can look back on and hopefully I can get more of them.”
Goss has been working towards his first team breakthrough ever since making the move from Exeter City in 2012.
A boyhood United fan, he had previously been the mascot for the Grecians’ memorable FA Cup third round draw at Old Trafford, whilst dreaming of stepping out at the ‘theatre of dreams’ as a player.
“When you’re younger you think ‘I’ll play for Man Utd one day,’” he said.
“But it’s only when you’re older you look back and realise it’s near enough impossible [to sign for Manchester United]. To get the chance is quality and looking back I never expected it.
“There were tough times… but I think they’re the most important times where you’ve got to keep your head and keep working hard”
“I started at Exeter when I was about seven or eight and played a year up for most of my time, until under 16s. I had a few chances with the youth team and then I was lucky enough to get a trial with United.
“I went up [to Manchester] and played a couple of games. I went to Amsterdam and played against some big teams like Ajax, Barcelona and AC Milan.
“After that I was lucky enough to get signed and joined when I was 16.
“It was tough, the first year especially. You’re only young, 16, moving away from home and it’s not like it’s just around the corner either. There were tough times where I felt a bit homesick but I think they’re the most important times where you’ve got to keep your head and keep working hard.
“The coaches are a big help; you get the welfare officer and coaches. When you’re a first-year scholar you’re not really near the first team, usually just the youth team and reserves, but the coaches were a big help if you ever needed some time off.”
Class of ’92
Amongst the coaches who helped Goss to settle were members of the famed ‘Class of ’92’.
Along with the likes of Warren Joyce, who recently left the club to become manager of Wigan Athletic, and senior members of the first team playing squad, the young players at Carrington could depend on a strong support network.
“They were all really good with us, every single one of them.” Said Goss.
“We had Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes for the Champions League [UEFA Youth League], which was always helpful, especially with the experience they’ve had at the club. I think you always need someone like that who’s had history with the club.
“You can go up and talk to any of them, there’s no big egos. Everyone’s human at the end of the day, if you wanted to chat to anyone they’re more than happy to help you out.”
Mourinho has historically favoured experience over youth throughout his career and not many people would be able to argue against the Portuguese’s policy given his medal haul.
But at a club such as Manchester United, whose homegrown players have been a major part of the club’s sustained success, there is an expectancy amongst the supporters that they see their ‘own’ players on the pitch.
Whether or not Mourinho sticks around long enough to give youth a chance remains to be seen. For players like Goss the key will be hard work and patience.
Ten years ago this summer, Alou Diarra was a whisker away from becoming a legend – because that’s what a World Cup triumph transforms you into.
Even a fairly ordinary career can be turned into a memorable one if you are part of a team that sews a new star on the country’s football jersey.
“We dominated but Italy resisted and won which was tough to stomach for us because even at 11 v 10 we played better”
But it wasn’t to be for the French squad that Diarra was part of in 2006 final in Germany, with the finger of blame pointed firmly at Italy’s star defender Marco Materazzi.
His insults goaded France talisman Zinedine Zidane into getting himself sent off, damaging his team’s hopes of being crowned World Cup champions for a second time.
Sure enough, the legendary number 10’s dismissal saw the Italians grow in confidence as extra time ticked by, and they went on to win the deciding penalty shoot-out.
“Before Zidane’s expulsion, we were in control of the game and the better side,” said Diarra, now 34 and plying his trade at Championship outfit Charlton Athletic. “His sending off complicated things.
“Looking back, the despair of losing the World Cup is of course bigger than the joy of winning it, obviously because if you reach the final you want to win it also.
“We rose as the tournament progressed as we started off badly with two draws [against Switzerland and South Korea]. But our win against Togo in the last group game set the tone for the knock-out stages as we got a confidence-boost and managed to reach the final.
“In the final in Berlin, Italy were more efficient and their way of playing [defensive-minded catenaccio] did the trick.
“Italy were tough to beat anyway, but I’d have preferred if we hadn’t been a man down, 11 against 11 it would have been another story.
“I think hatred is a strong word… if Materazzi walks by I’d shake his hand because football is just a sport”
“We dominated the encounter… but Italy resisted and won which was tough to stomach for us because even at 11 v 10 we played better. We would have won it with Zidane on the pitch.”
Whatever Materazzi said to Zidane that day, it made the Frenchman plant a headbutt squarely into his chest.
“Still today we don’t know what he told him word for word,” Diarra said. “But it was enough at the time to make him lose his mind.”
Given his antics, the French nation still holds a grudge against Materazzi, but midfielder Diarra, who came on for Patrick Vieira on 56 minutes that night and saw the incident at close hand, dismisses talk of hatred.
“I think hatred is a strong word… if he walks by I’d shake his hand because football is just a sport and you can’t mix the two things.”
Diarra concedes that he had a sleepless night on the eve of the big game, such as Filippo Inzaghi and Gennaro Gattuso had for the Azzurri.
“They didn’t sleep? I didn’t sleep either,” he told me. “I had a difficult night and I struggled to close an eye… it was a unique game awaited and watched by the whole world.
“When I was a kid I always dreamed of playing in a World Cup final. Thanks to a lot of work, dedication and ambition, I managed to fulfill this dream, so the tension before it was double.”
Vintage years in Bordeaux
After putting his World Cup disappointment behind him, Diarra went on play a leading role in Bordeaux winning the French title in 2008-09.
“Blanc created a great unit and a team spirit. Together we were afraid of nothing”
With him as their captain, Yoann Gourcuff as their midfield architect and Fernando Cavenaghi tormenting defences, Laurent Blanc guided them to their first league crown in a decade.
“That season was the peak of my career,” Diarra recalls. “I have so many great memories as we won the league and did well in the Champions League.
“At that time, Bordeaux were a well-respected side in Europe. On paper, we were probably not impressive, but with Laurent Blanc everyone progressed as he managed to get the best out of every single player.
“He created a great unit and a team spirit. Together we were afraid of nothing.”
Diarra believes that his old boss Blanc – who earned 97 caps for France and helped them win the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 – has what it takes to steer Paris Saint-Germain to unpredecented European glory.
“Blanc? As a player, a legend. And since he took over, PSG have never played as good as now. I faced PSG numerous times when they had other managers but thanks to Blanc there’s a great unit in the team now.
“What strikes me is how he can handle big egos and personalities like Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Edinson Cavani. He was not the first choice when he arrived but we have to concede that he is a great technician who has made the whole team progress considerably.
“In my opinion he has the skills to guide PSG very far in the Champions League… even if I see Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona in the driving seat to clinch it. But PSG can win it too.”
The one thing holding PSG back, Diarra believes, is the quality of Ligue 1 – seen by many as second-tier and way behind the Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga and Serie A, despite PSG’s money and star-studded injection of talent in recent years.
“If I have to give my career a vote from one to 10, I’d say that before West Ham it was seven or eight and after my time at Upton Park four or five”
“PSG’s problem is that Ligue 1 games don’t prepare them enough for the big Champions League clashes,” he said.
“PSG is too strong for the French league, they are heads and shoulders above the rest and the excitement in France is gone, unlike at my time in Bordeaux when teams such as Lille, Marseille or us won it in the years building-up to the Qatari era at PSG.
“Now I don’t think it’s possible [other teams winning Ligue 1].”
Life at the Valley
Diarra is currently preoccupied with life at the foot of the league, with Charlton rock bottom and their fans protesting against Belgian owner Roland Duchatelet.
Despite the club’s struggles, Diarra doesn’t regret opting for a move to the Valley a year ago, especially after failing to make the grade in England, first at Liverpool in 2000 and then at West Ham 12 years later.
“After my negative experience at West Ham from 2012 to 2014, I lost two years of career,” he said.
“Here at Charlton I have the chance to live in London and play for a good squad. Let’s say it, it’s a life choice that I made.
“When I played for Liverpool at the age of 19 I was very young, my position at the club was uncertain. I wanted to play and not just in cup games.
“After being marginalised for some time I took the decision to return to France to play regularly because as a young player you only progress when you play and not when you sit on the bench.
Now in the final years of his career, Diarra says he remains hungry and motivated to play despite his “seasoned passport”.
” I think I could have established myself at a top European club… this is my regret”
“I want to keep on playing for a few more years and then I’d like to become a manager. I think I have a lot of things which I learned in my career to pass on to young players, and also many things to learn.
He offers a frank assessment of his career, saying: “If I have to give it a vote from one to 10, I’d say that before West Ham it was seven or eight and after my time at Upton Park four or five.
“Going to West Ham and not having had the opportunity to feature for a top European side in Spain, Italy or England are the biggest regrets of my career.
“I had the potential to do so because if you are a regular starter for France for many years and if you see the list of players for Les Bleus… then I think I could have established myself also at a top European club as well. Yes, this is my regret.”
As, of course, is the 110th minute of the World Cup final in 2006. Without that ill-fated episode, we’d probably be speaking about a legend now.