Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Rio Ferdinand and David de Gea all weren't at the airport, but it didn't matter. Manchester United were back in Istanbul, specifically to play Galatasaray, and irrespective of the personnel their presence was enough for some of Gala's fanatical fans to greet them fervently with flares ablaze on Monday night. They had waited 18 years and didn't care if it was Vermijil or Van Persie.
Twice United have played Turkey's most famous football club in Istanbul and twice the scoreline has ended 0-0. But the mark left from the former match is an indelible one. Ryan Giggs, another absentee from the playing party, has missed out on the return to Hell. United may be the Red Devils but it is Galatasaray's following who have the devil in them.
Manchester United In Istanbul
United's first foray into the European Cup under Ferguson was the start of four frustrating campaigns on the continent. Considering the Reds were hamstrung by the foreigner rule and had to adapt not just to new environments but then a new template, their travails would be used as valuable lessons learnt. The fiercest came in Istanbul and against Galatasaray 19 years ago this month.
Having swatted aside Honved in the competition's first round, United were drawn with the Turkish champions for the right to progress to the group stage. The storm gathered in a 3-3 first leg humdinger at Old Trafford most memorable for Peter Schmeichel manhandling a Gala fan before throwing him towards Old Trafford's Main Stand hoardings. It wouldn't be forgotten.
A fortnight later United made the 4,000 mile roundtrip to northern Turkey. For a club who had recently won their first league title in 26 years and were accustomed to chants of "Who the f**k are Man United" during the drought, they were greeted with vitriol which reaffirmed their mighty status and what was usually reserved for Fenerbahçe.
Not only was this Ferguson's first great United side, it was also his hardest. A formidable spine was comprised of Schmeichel, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Paul Ince, Roy Keane, Eric Cantona and Mark Hughes with Bryan Robson brimming with pugnacity in his last season in M16. Ince and Cantona smiled as they were escorted through the airport to chants, in English, of "No way out" from the inhospitable Turks. There were homemade placards aplenty and almost all of them said, some in imperfect English, "Welcome to Hell".
When United arrived at their elegant and tranquil hotel they still didn't feel safe. Pallister smiled politely at a bellboy. The bellboy drew his finger across his throat. Schmeichel's phone in his hotel room kept on ringing. Despite the beauty of the Bosphorus Istanbul, as James Bond quipped in From Russia with Love, was a "rough town".
If Ferguson's team adopted one skill from their Turkish counterparts it was how to beat an opponent before the game began. The infamous Ali Sami Yen stadium was full of Gala fans four hours before kick-off and their "wall of noise" astonished United's players as they emerged to inspect their surroundings before the warm up. The choreography on the terraces was immaculate. Pallister said it made Anfield, where United had been tear-gassed under Ron Atkinson's stewardship, look like a "tea party". Roy Keane's mischievous grin suggested a rare flicker of resignation.
Cantona, the bête noire of the Istanbul contingent, cracked as United toiled in the tribal arena. Galatasaray were triumphant by virtue of the away goals rule and an infuriated Cantona was red-carded. He thought his evening had ended until he witnessed Robson, who was about to thank a policeman for escorting the pair back down into the tunnel, was batoned. Roy Keane takes up proceedings.
"In the dressing room Eric went crazy. While the rest of us just wanted to get out of there, he was determined to go back outside to sort out the rogue cop who'd been wielding his truncheon. Eric was a big, strong lad. He was serious. He insisted he was going to kill 'that f**ker'. It took the combined efforts of Brian Kidd, and a few of the players to restrain him. Normally I wouldn't have backed off a fight, but even I wasn't up for this one. There were a lot of Turks out there!"
Gary Neville, 18 at the time, had come on as a late substitute. "I probably learned more in 10 minutes that night than I had in two years playing for the reserves," he acknowledged. Paul Parker, whacked on the head by another policeman as he retreated, vowed "never" to return to Turkey. So too did Ferguson, only United did return a year later.
Not one United fan was inside the Ali Sami Yen. All 164 innocent supporters were locked up in prisons around Istanbul for 24 hours before they were deported as the stigma of the 'English disease' still lurked. Andy Mitten, editor of fanzine United We Stand, was sleeping in his hotel room when he was ordered "Out" by policemen.
Since their return to Istanbul in 1994 United have played in Turkey four times. Twice against Fenerbahçe (1996 and 2004) and once apiece versus Besiktas (2009) and Bursaspor (2010). Not once did their arrival generate a fraction of the hostility they received in the early 90s.
For Galatasaray, United conjure up fond memories of their intimidation game winning a tie before the second leg had even started. The affinity arguably extends to other English clubs, only of a more sinister nature. Two Leeds United fans were stabbed to death in the 2000 Uefa Cup semi-final while the final in Copenhagen lead to violent clashes with Arsenal fans and hooligans who travelled over eager to mete out some retribution over the deaths of Christopher Loftus and Kevin Speight.
Gheorghe Hagi once said Gala's fans would "raise the dead". Ferguson will be relieved when he walks out at the Türk Telekom Arena, Galatasaray's new stadium, that United won't be left dead and buried like they were in '93.