Last night, I watched Manchester United on a live stream for the first time this season. We won again, beating Aston Villa 2-1, the winning goal the Bruno Fernandez penalty pictured above. That win put us level with Liverpool at the top of the Premier League on points, separated only by goal difference. I don’t remember us being top of the table since Fergie retired.
Obviously, there’s title talk in the air. The sensible attitude is to play it cool, tone it down, the traditional one-game-at-a-time approach beloved of football. I’m reminded of another season, exactly a quarter century ago.
I have lots of memories of the 1995/96 season, not least because I wrote a book about it (Red Exile, buy it at Lulu.com), but what I remember is standing out amongst all my fellow United supporters because I wouldn’t give up on the title.
This was the season of the swashbuckling Newcastle United, under Kevin Keegan, starting off at a rush, top of the League from the start and building a massive lead whilst United struggled to cope with missing the suspended Eric Cantona and with relying on a bunch of juniors, the You-Can’t-Win-Anything-With Kids. You know: David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes.
By mid-October or not that long after, Newcastle were sixteen points clear. It was mopped up. The pundits, especially the BBC’s Match of the Day ex-Liverpool player team, had the season over and the trophy sitting in St James’s Park, and you could not find an interview with Fergie, for love nor money, that did not include a question asking him to admit that it was over.
It was the same among all my friends and contacts who were Red. Everyone had given up hope. It wasn’t going to be, this season. The gap was too wide. Concentrate on next year.
I was one lone voice. I, and I alone, refused to give in. The truth was, and I freely admitted it at the same time, that I didn’t expect United to overtake Newcastle. I just had one abiding principle that I stuck to, unmovably, and it was expressed in six words: You Do Not Concede In January. It was like a mantra.
Part of it was that, whilst Newcastle did have this sixteen point advantage, it was tempered by United having three games in hand. and whilst the pundits kept on about their preference for having the points in the bag (a stance I share when United have the points in the bag, just to remind you that I am the same hypocrite as every other football fan), those games meant that United could more than halve the deficit. And when we beat Newcastle 2-0 at Old Trafford on a bitterly cold Boxing Day night match, on a frozen pitch the likes of which were rarely seen in the era of undersoil heating, it was on.
Besides, we had Eric back.
We kept winning. We kept cutting into their lead. Pundits and pals still scoffed or doubted and I kept repeating my mantra. You Do Not Concede In January.
Then we beat Newcastle away, 1-0, one of five games we won by that score with Eric as the scorer, plus another game where his last minute header scored us a draw. Eleven points, solely from his goals. But the real turning point was the legendary game at Liverpool: not us, we won that comfortably, but Newcastle, the 4-3. I remember that vividly, because I went to my Aunt’s to watch the game live and, otherwise an unimaginable heresy, cheer Liverpool on. Amateurs assumed I wanted a draw, both teams lose ground, but if you’d studied the implications like I had, it was obvious: Newcastle to be beaten, allowing us to get closer to them, whilst a Liverpool win only preserved the status quo ante with them, using their game in hand.
What tends to be overlooked is Newcastle’s game at Blackburn a week later, when they took the lead 15 minutes from time only for Blackburn to bounce back and score twice in three minutes to beat them again, the Geordies crying on the telly two weeks in a row.
The momentum was now ours, and it had become a brilliant, delicately balanced two-hander at the top. Against Leeds at home, their goalkeeper was sent off after ten minutes, but it was still a tight, tense, frustrating game until Roy Keane finally scored the winning goal. Afterwards Fergie interviewed about the Leeds players, accusing them of letting their beleaguered manager Howard Wilkinson – a friend – down by not playing with that intensity and passion every game. It’s gone down in history as one of Fergie’s best mind games, given that Leeds were shortly to play Newcastle, especially when it caused Keegan to become unglued on TV with that brilliant ‘I would love it! Love it!!’ speech that I so wish I could have seen live, but it was equally a gesture of support to Wilkinson.
United’s last match at home filled everyone with belief when we tonked Nottingham Forest 5-0. Newcastle still had three to play, Monday, Thursday, Sunday and United one, at Middlesbrough. They beat Leeds, but that was overshadowed by Keegan’s meltdown, they were held at Nottingham Forest (it’s a funny old game…) and finally it was advantage United. A win at Middlesbrough and we were untouchable: even if we only drew, Newcastle would have to beat Spurs at home by about six clear goals to wriggle past us. Everyone was going on about how Middlesbrough was a hard place to go to and win but I never had a second’s doubt about it: we were going to win. We hadn’t conceded in January and look what had happened.
And, of course, we won, 3-0, and we were Champions for the thitd time in four years, and one le down to the Double Double, and my Aunt had let Steve join me to watch the game and when it was 3-0 and certain I turned to him and said, ‘Can I say it now?’ and he said yes and I said, in sentences of one word, “You. Do, Not. Concede. In. January”.
By now you’re probably wondering exactly what in all of that flood of memory resembles the situation today, and whether I really did need to go into so much detail. Perhaps I didn’t, but it was a great season and worth the remembering in every respect. But I did want to make the point about faith and belief. United overcame fearsome odds in the face of all probability and won. I never expected it. All I did was refuse to concede. The winder point is not necessarily that you don’t concede in January but that you don’t concede at all until they have more points than you can possily get.
Which brings me back to Saturday January 2nd, 2021. There’s title talk in the air again, and that’s good after eight barren years when we’ve never really been at the races. The difference is in belief. Some of it is that eight years, and the many mistakes made by the likes of Moyes, van Gaal and Mourinho. Ollie may not be the best manager in the world but he’s the best United Manager we’ve had since Fergie, and in the face of a concerted campaign by Guardian journalists to have him replaced by Mauricio Pochettino, he needs and he deserves time. Hes closer to the right track than anyone before him, and in Miguel Bruno Fernandes, he has our first talisman since King Eric.
Things are different. We’re on the same number of points as Liverpool, not trailing them massively. Then again, past history favours them, not us. Just as twenty-five years ago, do I believe United will win the title? No more so than then, but this time it’s because we don’t, yet, have the qualities, to my mind. It’s an artificial season, on top of that. No, unlike then I don’t believe we’ll win, but then I believed we could. I don’t take title dreams seriously at all, not this year. Mind you, ask me again if we beat Liverpool at Anfield in a couple of weeks time, and maybe…
But in one way I’m no different than then. I still refuse to concede in January. And I never will.