I was there for Manchester United’s ‘Welcome to Hell’ in 1993 - it was mayhem

Man Utd's trip to Galatasaray in 1993 remains an infamous one
Manchester United's trip to Galatasaray in 1993 remains an infamous one

When Manchester United touch down in Istanbul this week ahead of their crucial Champions League tie with Galatasaray, one thing is for sure: the greeting will not be the same as the one they faced 30 years ago.

Back then, members of the media would share a charter plane with the United players. I was there, witness to one of the most extraordinary episodes in sporting history. And if the push-me-pull-you scrum of officials and police that filled the baggage reclaim area as we filed off the plane that November day in 1993 seemed a little over-excited, that was nothing compared to what lay ahead in the airport’s main concourse.

There several hundred locals had gathered, many pressing signs against the glass barrier scribbled on to pieces of cardboard. All of them were in English. None of them were friendly.

“Welcome Mr Cantona. Afterwards you say goodbye Mrs Cantona,” was an oddly cryptic threat. Another – “You call us barbarians, but we remember Heysel, Hillsborough” – was more to the point. But it was the one held up by a bloke that came to define the occasion.

“Welcome to Hell,” it read.

Turkish fans display their infamous banner to welcome Manchester United to Istanbul's Atatürk Airport - ‘Welcome to Hell’ 30 years on: When Man Utd took on Galatasaray – and Turkish police
Turkish fans display an infamous message to welcome Manchester United to Istanbul's Atatürk Airport - Alamy

Looking back almost exactly three decades, it still resonates. In a lifetime of watching football I have never experienced anything close to what happened in Istanbul that time. This was a football match in which the local fans, boiling with nationalistic intensity, determined to play their part in ensuring the nose of European football royalty was properly bloodied. It is a claim often made, but back then the crowd really was the 12th man.

United had arrived in Turkey for the second leg of their Champions League second-round tie having paid for their complacency in the first. In the manner of their current successors in Copenhagen recently, they had raced into a 2-0 lead at Old Trafford then quickly let it slip. Galatasaray had levelled things by half-time, before taking the lead soon after. Only an 81st-minute equaliser by Eric Cantona had saved United’s then unbeaten home record in European competition.

So they knew as they touched down in Turkey for the second leg, having conceded so many away goals, only a win would do. Walking behind the players as they made their way nervously through the boisterous welcoming committee, it was obvious this was going to be some challenge.

That evening, Alex Ferguson gave an upbeat press conference at the Ali Sami Yen Stadium, certain his side had the wherewithal to progress. The first question, though, wondered if he had ever experienced a riot like the one at the airport.

“That was a riot was it, lads?” came the jovial reply. “Youse lot have obviously never been to a Glasgow wedding.”

After he had finished, I took a walk on to the pitch, surveying the bowl-like sweep of empty open terraces that we had been informed would be heaving the next night. In the centre circle was Denis Law, then co-commentator for ITV. Had he played here, I asked.

“Yes, for Scotland,” he replied.

And what was the atmosphere like? His answer was succinct.

“S--- myself.”

Bryan Robson leads Manchester United out, followed by Peter Schmeichel, at Ali Sami Yen Stadium - 'Welcome to Hell' 30 years on: The night Man United took on Galatasaray — and Turkish riot police
Bryan Robson leads Manchester United out, followed by Peter Schmeichel, amid a raucous atmosphere at Ali Sami Yen Stadium - PA

The evening of the game, the media bus got to the ground two hours before kick-off. As we were dropped off, outside there was no one in sight. Not a soul. It was as if we had arrived on the wrong day. I asked the bus driver where everyone was. “Inside,” came the reply. “They have been here since 9am.”

They were there all right. Once inside the stadium, a thumping roar enveloped the place, like a plane taking off. The front of the top tier was lined with men pounding big bass drums. Behind them was a constant swirl of firecrackers and flares. A pall of gunpowder smoke smothered the playing surface. The chanting was incessant: one stand would belt out a cry, another would answer in perfect coordination. And this was more than 90 minutes before kick-off.

The only space in the ground I could see was in the away section. About 300 United fans stood surrounded by police. The rest of the 1,200 who had travelled seemingly had yet to arrive.

With half an hour to go to kick-off, down by the entrance to the underground tunnel that led to dressing rooms, a phalanx of police formed a tortoise of riot shields to protect the United players as they came on to the pitch to warm up. Rockets fired from the stands thwacked off the shields. A huge chant of “f--- you f--- you, f--- you Manchester” erupted by way of welcome.

Just before things got under way, I spotted from the press box Turkey’s prime minister Tansu Ciller arrive, waving to the crowd. Unpopular in the polls, she was seizing the opportunity to associate herself with Turkish sporting success.

And what a success it turned out to be. With the noise unceasing, as if chanting alone would take their side to victory, everything was played out in an ear-bleeding cacophony. As the sound boomed around them, United looked disjointed; distracted.

Corralled by Uefa’s then limit on foreign players – which counted Irish, Welsh and Scottish internationals as foreigners in English teams – Ferguson had been obliged to tinker with his favoured line-up, dropping Mark Hughes. Without the bull-like forward, United seemed toothless. Indeed, only a superb double save by Peter Schmeichel from Hakan Sukur (whose popularity at the club propelled him into a later career as a member of the Turkish grand assembly) kept them in it.

With three minutes to go and the game still goalless, the ball was kicked off the pitch, into a melee of substitutes, photographers and policemen. Who, between them, refused to return it to a United player. Seeing the hold-up, in a manner that would soon become familiar at Selhurst Park, Cantona ran 20 yards and drop-kicked the ball out of the arms of the policeman who was holding it.

When the whistle blew bang on 90 minutes (no modern extended time for a referee who appeared anxious to get to the dressing room in one piece) chaos ensued. Galatasaray had upset all the odds, upended the one-time champions on away goals and progressed to the next round.

Sukur ran to the crowd waving his shirt above his head. He never made it, sunk beneath a human pyramid. The pitch was invaded by thousands, skipping and dancing in delight. It turned out most of the invaders were policemen. Their dogs – several wearing red and yellow Galatasaray collars – snapped at the red-shirted United players as they made their disconsolate way to the tunnel. En route, Cantona said something to the referee and was shown a red card. As he left the pitch, accompanied by the captain Bryan Robson, he was punched in the back of the head by a policeman, apparently still angered by his drop-kick. As Robson turned to remonstrate, he was clouted with a riot shield.

I ventured outside to see what was happening. Word had spread of the famous aggregate victory. From all over the city, thousands had come to the ground to join the celebrations. A lorry drove over the flyover that skirted the stadium with half a dozen youths on its bonnet, dancing. Everywhere car horns were blaring, pyrotechnics filled the sky. It was mayhem. After I asked a question of a local in English, he advised me to return inside, pronto. “You are not safe out here,” he said.

Back inside, I went down the tunnel, where I was told Ferguson would speak to the press. It was filled with cops, jostling and shoving. I made my way to the United dressing room, from where I expected to hear the sound of breaking crockery. But the manager was more subtle. He had allowed silence to do his talking. For the first time that evening, everything was quiet, stilled in defeat. Eventually Ferguson appeared for a brief press huddle.

Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson (left) and his assistant Brian Kidd arrive on to the pitch at Ali Sami Yen Stadium - 'Welcome to Hell' 30 years on: The night Man United took on Galatasaray — and Turkish riot police
Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson (left) and his assistant Brian Kidd arrive on to the pitch at Ali Sami Yen Stadium - Alamy

“We just didn’t play well enough. It was desperation in the end. Shambles,” he said. “I don’t intend to look for any excuses whatsoever. The biggest loss tonight was our European experience.”

Although as European experiences go, this was one to remember. As I made my way back on to the pitch, the forlorn 300 United supporters were the only ones left in the ground. They were surrounded by cops as if they were a threat to national security. I shouted up at one: “Where are all the others?”

“Arrested,” came the reply.

Some had indeed been picked up. Apart from the many refused entry to the ground despite having tickets, or the several hundred who were deported before kick-off, six were held in an Istanbul prison for the next 28 days, until they were unceremoniously returned back to Blighty. Their crimes? Largely being in the sights of a police force apparently keen to do their bit to enhance their team’s chances.

As for the locals, the hangover was significant. After an evening of prolonged celebration, the casualty list included two people killed by falling bullets from guns being fired into the air, another man who had tumbled drunk under a train and dozens taken to hospital having been injured by a cascade of fireworks.

As it happened, the result gave no hint of what lay ahead: in the next stage of the competition, Galatasaray finished bottom of their group. United, embarrassed by their eviction, went on to console themselves by winning the domestic double. It is safe to say such solace is unlikely to be available should Erik ten Hag and his team face similar discomfort on Wednesday.