Originally published in ‘Team Talk’ issue 93, August/September 1999, an official Football Association magazine aimed at fans of non-League football.
(Unrevised, despite my desperate desire to make it much more readable.)
Even before the disgraceful decision by Manchester United to withdraw from next season’s FA Cup, I had decided that the European Champions League Final would be my last game. Instead of the polished magnificence of Old Trafford – and the football that comes with it – I would be heading into the Millenium in the much humbler surroundings of the Butchers Arms, watching Unibond League football with Droylsden.
Football fans who change their loyalties don’t usually get a good press. Your team is your team, good bad or indifferent, right? Those who trade up for something better, like our dear friend David Mellor or the amorphous mass of United’s ever-increasing non-Travelling Army, are only fit to be looked on with scorn anyway.
But at least their impulse is understandable, if regrettable. How do you account for those who trade down, who go the other way? What makes an otherwise normal-seeming fan, who has been an Old Trafford regular for nine years, give up the biggest team in the land, the winners of the Treble and a season ticket that used to be even more prized than a declaration of affection from Michelle Pfeiffer, give it all up for non-League football.
In my case, it started four years ago, before the season ticket came my way, when I decided to spend a year following Droylsden again. With Old Trafford’s capacity being cut to accommodate the construction of the massive North Stand, I figured that I wasn’t going to be getting tickets for the 1995/96 season and I shouldn’t torture myself with vain effort.
Which left me with the problem of what to do for a season.
The Bloods (as they are known) had been my team as a kid, before I discovered United when living in Nottingham during the Brain Clough One-League-Championship-and-two-European-Cups era (long story, don’t ask). I couldn’t imagine shouting for any other team, not even my ‘local’ side, Stockport County. Droylsden it was.
As it happened, I was obviously too pessimistic: I didn’t miss a game at Old Trafford and even took in the Double Double Cup Final against Liverpool. None of which prevented me from getting to more than two dozen matches with the Bloods, nor from the decision that I would carry on following Droylsden the next year, as well as the Reds.
I’m not entirely sure what prompted that decision. It wasn’t the football, not with a last day relegation on goal difference (with exactly 100 League goals conceded, that came as no surprise). Nor was it all due to the fact that I was now fulfilling the fantasy of being a sports journalist, doing match reports for not just the programme but also a local free paper – complete with ‘Press Card’.
There was just something about Droylsden which brought out a different level of commitment in me, and which provided a different kind of experience. I may be dipping into the territory of WSC cliché here, but where else could I watch a team that might dominate a game for 40 minutes, concede three penalties, save two of them and still get stuffed 4-0? (My very first away game).
Since then, I’ve been doubling up on football: a Season Ticket at United and an ever-increasing number of games with Droylsden. I became known at the Butchers Arms, so much so that when the programme editor left, I was invited to replace him: for the past two season, the Bloods Review has been my responsibility (and half the time my sole work).
But everybody knew, and everybody accepted that United came first, and that if the Reds were at home, you wouldn’t see me at Droylsden. That applied until the closing weeks of this last season.
United may have gone on to win the Treble, but they weren’t the only team chasing multiple honours. There was an FA Cup run that only ended in the Fourth Qualifying Round – and we still say that if Carl Holmes had been able to play off his suspension beforehand, Leigh RMI wouldn’t have been the ones facing Kevin Keegan and Fulham. There were two dozen Cup wins in different competitions over higher level opposition, including the winning of the Presidents Cup against Leigh, at Leigh. There was the promotion race. And there was the First Division Championship.
I was still putting United first, until it became a choice between an Old Trafford match and the game in which the Bloods could secure promotion. Contrary to every prior instinct, I found the second choice was more important so, whilst United were over-running a Sheffield Wednesday side that, apparently, would have had to have been twice as good to be a pushover, I was at Harrogate Town where only results elsewhere spoilt the party.
That might have been once, but Droylsden’s last match of the season also clashed with United, and with promotion guaranteed, this now meant the Championship. For a second time, I gave up my season Ticket, and for a second time I found I didn’t miss it.
And that was before the longest three minutes of my life, the ones where, with the Bloods having scored the necessary two goal win, I stood there on the mobile phone to our rivals Hucknall Town, sweating on whether they would score the injury time goal that would snatch the title out of our grasp. The whole ground – players, coach, manager, Committee and crowd – waited on my signal that we’d done it!
United’s season still had three games left, against Spurs at Old Trafford, against Newcastle at Wembley and against Bayern at the Nou Camp, and I was going to all of them. Three games, with three trophies riding on them, and with a decision to take over whether I would have any more afterwards.
When you follow two teams, eventually you have to choose which one claims the bigger part of your loyalty. Which one would you rather watch? Or, more importantly, which one would you rather not miss?
When one of those teams is Manchester United, the most attractive, exciting and talented team in the country, the answer should be obvious. Which is not to denigrate Droylsden, who are no run-of-the-mill kick and rush non-League outfit but a talented and football-playing team in their own right. But you can’t compare the football, can you?
You can compare what goes with the football however. The fact remains that at Old Trafford, I am a face in a crowd of 55,000, no more nor less important than anyone else. Worse however, to United, I am less than that. To United I mean the money I spend, and frankly they’d rather I sent that and didn’t turn up.
To the players as well, I’m an often irrelevant concern. When they want my support, such as big European nights when the opposition is fearsome, it’s a different story, but there are too many games when the players show no thought for me, games where they could and should be winning by six and seven goals, but in which they decide to play only as well as they need to, and if two goals are all that’s needed to win, two goals is all they’ll bother scoring. When people complain of the lack of atmosphere at Old Trafford, they rarely question the part the team plays in dampening tension.
And even before this disgusting decision to forfeit the FA Cup, there is the ongoing mess being made of the structure of football, in which United are playing a leading, television and money-drive part. How can you respect a game in which next season’s European Champions League could include a team that weren’t even good enough to be Premiership also-rans.
At Droylsden, there is none of that. Not only do the players try all the time, not only is every supporter important, but just as there’s a greater level of commitment, there’s a greater level of access. At United, I can’t travel to away games on the team coach, or hear Alex Ferguson discussing players he’s trying to sign. I don’t get to speak in the bar with Roy Keane or find out which midfield player Gary Neville hates playing behind. I can’t pick up the Premiership Trophy and kiss it. David Beckham doesn’t look up when he’s doing his pre-match exercises and notice I’m there. Nicky Butt doesn’t pretend to have a go at me because he thinks he ought to get more than a six in his match reports.
I decided that that was more important to me. It left me three games, three trophies and, the pinnacle of any fan’s career, the European Champions League Final at the very end of it. And who could have foreseen such an ending to that game? Nothing United can do next will ever equal that moment. How can it ever be better?
I don’t want to get onto the FA Cup decision, which of itself could have altered my feelings permanently. I decided to step out at the top, and I had my wish come true with a high higher than any there possibly could be, and I don’t want to cloud that memory with lows. I just want to look forward to the new highs coming at the level of the game I’ve chosen to stand.
Maybe gaining Football League status will feel like that night in the Nou Camp. Or maybe not. Now I’m more interested in finding out if Droylsden can do that than in whether United can retain the European Cup. And I’m not the only one either.