I had a new experience watching the potential title-deciding match this afternoon between Manchester United and Leicester City, and I didn’t like it.
I’ve been a United fan for closing in on forty years now, through glorious triumph and hideous failure as we’ll agree to call the football the team has played since the Boss stepped down.
On the other hand, sometime around November last year, I declared myself a Leicester City supporter for the season, cheerfully backing them in their improbable campaign for a first ever League title that would restore faith in football, the game of glorious uncertainty.
Nobody believed it possible then, when Leicester first hit the top. Everybody knew it wouldn’t last. Even I didn’t, really, believe it would. But I did remember hearing each and every single thing said about the Foxes not sustaining their challenge as being said, word for word, about Nottingham Forest in the 1977/78 season.
For an exact parallel, you’d have had to find me working in Leicester the past month, but otherwise it’s been close enough so far.
When it began, I half-joked that after thirty-odd years of being called a glory-hunter, I felt deserved to do some hunting, but it’s not been like that. I’m not a Leicester fan at heart, and never can be. A League title cannot possibly mean to me what it means to a true fan. The dream I’m living is not my own: I’m living the dreams of people that I understand, hoping and praying for glory that will make their hearts swell, their memories endure. I’m just one of the millions of us who, once we step outside the narrow tribalism of our day-to-day loyalties, know that we’re looking at something we would dearly love to have for ourselves. The support we offer, the urging towards the sheer romance of everything, the excitement we’ll feel when they do it still doesn’t bring us within the magic circle. We are only ever outside the light of the fires burning, but we will point to the Foxes and their faithful and say that you stand for all of us.
Today was the day, the first day, when it could happen. All Leicester City have to do now is win one game. They have three chances at it.
It reminds me of a long ago Sunday League season, 1990, where Lancashire were left needing a single win to take the League, and three matches left, all at home. It was as good as done, but it took until the last over of the last of those games before the winning six soared over the Warwick Road End fences.
Today, a win at Old Trafford would bring home the glory, turn the potential into actual, the romance into the gloriously implausible reality. I wanted to see that happen.
But Old Trafford is the home of my team, Manchester United. Though I wouldn’t, for once, take amiss at a defeat, I still couldn’t want it. Not really. Besides, United still have designs upon a top 4 place, the Champions League next year, plus the pleasure of pushing out either the Arses or the Bitters. Something in the game for us?
Can’t really compare the two ambitions, though, can you? Especially as the Arses’ fluky and undeserved win yesterday makes the top 4 at their expense highly unlikely. Even if we, suddenly, have started to play something like properly again. You know, like Manchester United.
I’ve spoken elsewhere of avoiding games where I want both teams to lose. Never before, and I hope never again, have I watched a game that I wanted both teams to win.
It was a strange feeling and a miserable one. United scored a superbly made and executed early goal, and I couldn’t celebrate it because I wanted Leicester to win. The Foxes equalised, ten minutes later, and I couldn’t celebrate it because I wanted United to win. It was the same throughout an excellent first half: I could take no excitement in anything, was paralysed in response, because anything that was good football, was exciting, might lead to a goal, was a strike against a team I wanted to see win.
The second half was less draining, in large part because I found myself watching a Sky broadcast in which vision and sound were wildly out of sync: the soundtrack, the crowd noise, the commentator’s lines were at least ten seconds behind the action I was watching. Shots, fouls and crowd surges took place without verbal excitement, which would then arrive long after the action had moved on.
A draw was also unsatisfactory. It served no-one, it settled nothing. If Leicester are to do it, they deserved to do it off their own bat, on their feet, striving to complete their own destiny. Instead, like United’s Resurrection Title, in 1993, it might come whilst they’re sat down: Tottenham Hotspur have to win at a ground where they haven’t won a League match since before Alex Ferguson won his first United trophy.
That’s tomorrow night, when they kick-off at 8.00pm and I finish work at 9.00pm, with a half hour journey home. Far less dramatic, far less satisfactory a triumph, if triumph it be (though I doubt any Leicester fan will care, any more than we Reds cared, that long Sunday afternoon waiting to see if Oldham Athletic could keep their unlikely one goal lead).
As a Red, I still have the Cup Final to live for. Though I could do without the name of Jose Mourinho rearing its ugly head yet again: if United don’t finish in the Top 4, I expect to be contacted. Well, if that’s what it takes, come on Louis van Gaal: I can wait another season of him if it means I don’t have to suffer two seasons and a disaster of Mourinho.