Everybody says that once you pick a football club, it’s yours for life, and you can never stray. Any other kind of inconstancy, infidelity and betrayal can always be defended to someone or other, but the leaving of ‘your team’ is the one fatal flaw that condemns your soul to the hell of shallowness and insincerity, to be spat upon forever.
If that is so, you may now spurn me and walk away without a backwards look, because I’ve not only shared my loyalties between Droylsden and Manchester United over many years, but I have allowed another club to enter my heart, to the eventual displacement of my former favourites, the Bloods.
I speak of FC United of Manchester, the (in)famous Manchester United breakaway club, formed in 2005 in the wake of the Glazer family purchase of United, lock, stock and horrendous mortgages. FC wasn’t solely formed as a response to the Glazer purchase: there’d been growing fan concern over the steadily increasing corporatisation of United and the football experience, including discussions about forming a fan-based club that would be run and owned by the fans and which would adhere to the principles and values that they held dear in a community-based club: the advent of the Glazers was the catalyst that spurred those feelings into concrete action.
I was whole-heartedly in support of the FC ideals, having given up my Old Trafford season ticket in 1999 in large part because of the increasing sterility of the Old Trafford experience, especially when contrasted with the warmth and involvement of non-League. And I’ve cheered FC on ever since, not that I’ve been able to get to more than a handful of games down the years. But when I have, the experience has been fantastic.
For some reason, whether it is a general rule, or something specific to the time or circumstances of FC’s creation, the Club was not permitted to enter the FA Cup for the first three seasons of its existence. The very first FA Cup tie was away to Trafford, and was played at Altrincham’s Moss Lane ground for capacity reasons: FC United got off with a 5-2 bang.
Thanks to its greater than usual support, the club’s early years boomed, and they went from level 10 of the Pyramid to level 7 in three seasons, though their attempts to move up have stalled (three successive play-off final defeats). But in the 2010/11 season, FC won through to the Fourth Qualifying Round of the FA Cup, in only their third season in the competition.
FC groundshare with Bury at Gigg Lane and, with the League club having a home game on the Saturday, FC’s tie against Conference side and ex-League Club Barrow was held over to Sunday afternoon. Naturally, I went.
It wasn’t until I got off the bus on Manchester Road, in sight of the floodlights, that I realised what I was doing: I was going to a Fourth Qualifying Round game. Me, with my previous record of attended 3, lost 3, who had sworn never to go to another Fourth Qualifying Round tie unless we were 5-0 with four minutes left and I’d sneak in at the end.
On the other hand, that was Droylsden, this was FC. And if the status of the game was an ill-omen, when I sat down with my programme, I discovered a personal omen to sweep my superstitious fears away.
The First Round Proper draw had taken place on TV the previous evening and the draw was printed in the programme. Of all the potential ties that could have been drawn, with 79 other balls to come out of the velvet bag, an FC win would see them playing away – at Rochdale.
With that prospect in mind, it had to be on, and with a 75th minute goal, FC beat the biggest club they’d yet met competitively, and it was on.
Going to Rochdale in 2010 was a vastly different experience from thirty-two years earlier. For one thing, the game was to be televised live, picked out by ESPN because of the interest generated by FC United of Manchester, and moved forward to Friday evening with a 7.45pm kick-off. No leisurely Saturday mornings in Manchester and an easy bus ride for me: I had to leave my Stockport flat at 5.00pm, for a bus into Piccadilly Gardens, a Metrolink tram to Bury and another long bus-ride to Rochdale. I was concerned about where that might drop me in relation to the ground, but the driver reassured me (I was his only passenger for three-quarters of the journey, we got talking) that he went past the ground and would drop me off.
A second major difference was that, with FC’s support being as strong as it was, the ground was segregated, the FC fans assigned the long stand opposite the Main Stand, the tickets limited and on sale through FC only. As a purely casual fan, I had no chance of qualifying for a ticket, but it was clear to me that the ground would not be full, and I would go in with the Rochdale fans on the night: I’d just have to keep my mouth shut.
It was only what I’d done in 1978, but that had been an unsegregated ground. I could stand where I chose, and shout my head off for Droylsden but the intervening years, and FC’s associations, made that an unwise approach. Crowds were more volatile about opponents in their midst, and I had no wish to be thrown out when I was travelling so far just to be there.
The bus stop was outside the end of the ground where Damien and I had stood and sweated throughout that second half so long ago. I hurried down the street outside the FC supporter’s stand, looking for a programme, but missed the last one by a moment: exactly the same as the European Champions League Final in Barcelona.
The best bet was that former terrace where David Taylor had scored for the Bloods. It was long gone, converted into a covered stand, with blue plastic bucket seats and entrances either side of the goal. I joined the queue for the nearer of these, conscious that kick-off was approaching, but I had hardly arrived when a turnstile failure stopped all movement, so I ran across to the other entrance, paid my cash and found myself a seat: to the left of the goalpost, in a row or two of isolation. Gone was the terraces, gone the open air, gone the steep descent to below pitch level. It was unrecognisable from 1978.
Let me say immediately that I cannot recommend going in among the enemy like that at a football match: it’s a curiously flat experience to be unable to react emotionally, honestly, and it;s my one real regret about an evening that turned out to be momentous.
The first thing I noticed was that, to a man, the Rochdale team were all taller and more solidly built than FC’s team, a distinction I don’t remember making when i’d been here before with Droylsden. It was only natural: these were professionals who spent their working life training for strength, speed and stamina, and FC’s players were part-timers, squeezing in training between full-time work (if they were lucky), who had fallen short of the level required for professional footballers by not having that height and muscle to begin with.
They started off at a rush, and within ten minutes were screaming at the referee over a penalty not given: the honest man in me would have had to concur. But FC’s team was playing out of their skins, were holding their own and, in the 36th minute doing very much more than that. The red shirts swept forward through midfield, a gap opened up down the middle of the Rochdale defence, Matthew Wright slid the ball through and Nicky Platt ran on to it, beat the keeper to the ball and lifted it over him into the net.
The whole FC side kicked off, and I couldn’t kick off with them as the Rochdale fans around me were reacting with disgust. It was not fun.
And there it stood at the break: 1-0 up at half-time and only 585 minutes from Wembley.
Within three minutes of the re-start, the situation exploded. FC attacked down the left, Ged Deegan executed a perfect Stanley Matthews feint, dropped his shoulder and sent the defender in the opposite direction. He squared the ball to Mike Norton, twelve yards out with his bank to goal. Norton controlled it and slipped it back into the path of Jake Cotterill, running to the edge of the area, who hit a first time screamer of a left foot shot into the roof of the net. 2-0! And what a Goal! (it was voted Goal of the Round through the FA Website, which it was always going to be, given FC’s support base).
Suddenly, it was like having a foot already in the Second Round: the Second Round? Bloody hell, this was only our third year of trying!
It was just like 1978 all over, with Rochdale pouring forward in waves and FC defending stoutly and repelling everything thrown at them. But their greater height and strength was always likely to tell, and despite all our efforts, it did at set-pieces. First from a free kick, twenty minutes from time, then a corner ten minutes from time, headers were converted to bring the score level at 2-2. It was the same rearguard as long ago, although this time the prize was a replay and a second shot.
Eventually, we got into injury time, four minutes of it, and three used up when FC found room to get away along their left, into the Rochdale half. Matthew Wright, again, carried the ball a long way, then slid it behind the defence into the penalty area for Mike Norton to chase. A defender was moving to block him off, to shield the ball back to a keeper sliding out to collect it. They were beyond the far post, and suddenly, unbelievably, Norton had broken away. He’d rounded the keeper, he had the ball at his feet, he was running into an empty net, he was going to score in the 94th minute and we were going to win, and the noise was building up unbearably as it seemed to take ages to cross that little bit of ground and roll it home and ‘KINELL!!!
There was pandemonium all round the ground, and on the pitch too, where the Rochdale players were furious with the referee (quite rightly too: when I saw the tv coverage the next day, Norton had kicked the ball out of their keeper’s hands). I was stood there doing a pretty fair impersonation of a gargoyle, but then a look of extreme shock served equally well as an FC fan’s delighted approach as it did for a shocked home fan. History had repeated itself, doubly so. The last game I’d attended where the last programme was sold under my nose was the Champions League Final in 1999, and that went to an injury time winner too.
There was barely time to restart, and no time to stop and celebrate, not with something like three hours of travelling ahead of me. I walked round to the bus stop, where I had to wait about twenty minutes for the bus to appear. It was a still night, a November mist gathering in the sodium light. Cars crawled, people headed in all directions, celebrating and arguing. It kicked off a couple of times, one fight crossing the road and barging through the bus queue and almost into the garden behind. But finally the bus arrived: bus to Bury, one of the last Metro trams to Piccadilly, and waiting for the night service 203: only fifteen minutes and not the three quarter hour it could have been. Just before 1.00am, I walked into my flat.
By my reckoning, I’m due to go back to Rochdale in 2042, when I’ll be just about 87. I wonder who I’ll be following then?
(postscript: In the Second Round, FC United got the plum tie, away to League One leaders Brighton & Hove Albion. I watched it on a Local BBC site feed with the most atrociously biased commentary I have ever heard in my life. And FC scored just before the break to take a not undeserved lead: 1-0 up at half-time and only 495 minutes from Wembley. Eventually, with less than ten minutes left, the League leaders equalised, and the bubble burst in the replay at Gigg Lane with Brighton winning 4-0. Just can’t get to that Third Round, either way, can I?)