Watching Manchester United play Sunderland yesterday, on a somewhat dodgy livestream, I whooped with delight in a way I have not done so for quite some time at Henrikh Mhkitaryan’s brilliant goal. But I hadn’t seen it properly. I thought he’d swept it across himself, with his right foot, and that would have been brilliantly taken if it had been, but then I saw the replays, and saw that Ibrahimovic’s cross from the right had actually curled behind Micky who, instead of checking his run and doubling back, had actually launched himself forward and flicked the ball off the heel of his right boot, over his own body and in, for a truly amazing goal.
It put me in mind of another Old Trafford day, a long time ago, when I was in the crowd. We were playing Everton on a Saturday in February 1994.
United fans will need no further clues than that to identify the game, which was a day that will remain in all the memories of those who were there, forever. It was no mere Premier League match, because on the Thursday night before the game, it was announced that Sir Matt Busby had left us.
It was only the previous May that our long wait for the League title had been fulfilled, winning the inaugural Premier League. It brought great satisfaction and joy to all of us, but a substantial part of that was Sir Matt could see it. Could see that we were back where he had put us, were once again what he had made us. The look on his face, that night, the pride restored. Now he was gone.
I had a League Match Ticket Book (LMTB) then, or, should I say, it then had me. It had belonged for years to my mate Steve, but in the early Nineties recession, money was tight and he could no longer afford it, and offered it to me. It had to stay in his name, because such things were not transferable (no matter how many thousands were being used by other people), and the deal was that if he could afford it again any time in the next five years, he’d take it back: after five years, it would be treated as ‘lost’ and I would keep it unconditionally. After all those years of painful waiting, I got it in time for the Resurrection Title: life is incredibly unfair.
On the day, I followed the usual routine: lunch at the Canadian Charcoal Pit at Burton Road, double burger, fried and diet coke, park on the other side of King’s Road, in Stretford, and walk up. It was a long walk, fifteen to twenty minutes either way, but it meant that I was on the right side for heading home, and by the time I got back to the car, the worst of the early rush had dispersed.
I set off, down the road to the underpass under the railway at the famous Warwick Road Station (now Old Trafford on the Metrolink), and out into Warwick Road South alongside my other beloved Old Trafford, the cricket ground. Up the road, across Chester Road and onto what is now Sir Matt Busby Way but which was then still Warwick Road North, the crowds gathering the further I went.
I had been doing this for years now, but today was different. Down the Warwick Road, the ground screened by the terraced houses to our left, until we cross the railway and come onto the forecourt. People milling about, but whereas there was usually a buzz, a constant sound, I had never before nor since heard Old Trafford so quiet.
And that with far more people than usual. I’ve heard it estimated that at least 10,000 people attended Old Trafford that day, without tickets, many without even the hope of getting tickets from touts who had a field day, who just felt compelled to be there. But whilst I was certainly not silent, the wash of conversation was a low hum. Those who spoke spoke quietly, respecting what had brought us all here.
In the middle of all this was something incredible. From the first announcement of Busby’s death on Thursday evening, fans had been arriving at Old Trafford and leaving scarves on the forecourt, behind the Scoreboard End. Mostly United scarves, but scarves of other clubs. By Saturday lunch, it had become a Shrine, a Shrine of Scarves, coming together spontaneously, an unbelievable sight.
The Shrine had now been fenced around by barriers. It was the heart of the silence. People were queuing, six, seven deep all around it, patient queues formed up behind the man or woman at the barrier, paying their personal respect. There was no pushing, no hustling, no fretting about time. Whoever was at the barrier was allowed their own time to commune, before they turned and shuffled out, letting the next person in line into their place.
There weren’t just United scarves and tributes. I remember seeing honest, heartfelt tributes from our worst enemies, Liverpool and City, but then Matt had played for both clubs pre-War. But these weren’t the only ‘foreigners’, and I prefer to believe that it was just human decency, overcoming our tribes.
It was a moving scene, the only sound the whispering of scarves, from people too far back, throwing them over our heads, onto the Shrine.
Once my time was up, I moved round the stadium to climb up to my seat in J Stand. This was a corner stand, an arc between the South Stand and the old Scoreboard End: the far right corner from the television point. I sat next to Steve’s Uncle Fred, who had been following United so long, he’d been at Wembley to see us win the Cup in 1948. We got on ok, but on this occasion, we greeted each other with handshakes, understanding the formality of the day.
We were playing Everton. Every credit to them, their fans were immaculate, beautiful. Though I believe that any club, bar one, could have been at Old Trafford that day and their fans been as perfectly-behaved. The exception are our hated rivals at Leeds United, who demonstrated their class the next day, to the visible shame and disturbance of their own team. Had they been our opponents that day, the game would have had to have been cancelled: they would have started and we would have moved as one and done them, and I include myself for once.
With kick-off looming, the PA requested silence from the crowd, and not the usual cheer when the players entered the field. Dutifully, we fell quiet. The players would be out in one minute. But they weren’t. All told, it was six minutes before they emerged and in that six minutes the whole crowd kept the silence, complete (except for one voice in the Scoreboard End who, about halfway, said in an ordinary voice, “Well, come on then,” and the whole stadium heard him).
Then, at last, we heard a solitary piper, and the strains of ‘A Scottish Soldier’. He emerged from the tunnel in the diagonally opposite corner, alone, followed by two lines of men in black coats, Wor Bobby among them. After them, the referee and linesmen, in green shirts, and the players in two silent lines, all the way to the centre. Everyone formed up around the centre circle, and the referee blew his whistle to signal the beginning of the official minute’s silence and, unbelievable as it seems, physically impossible as it surely was, Old Trafford grew even more silent. Nothing, not a sound, until the whistle relieved us and everybody roared, and at last the game could begin.
We were top of the League, by a distance, but that lead was being cut into by Blackburn Rovers. I can’t remember where Everton were in the table. Everybody wondered what instructions Fergie would give the team. Would he tell them to forget the League for the moment, just go out and play, play your hearts out for him? We hoped he’d say that, but the canny among us told ourselves that busby would have said to concentrate on the three points.
He told them to play. And Everton responded in the same spirit. We won it 1-0 but how it wasn’t in double figures, I still can’t understand. Ryan Giggs got the goal, early on, with his head: there could have been no-one more appropriate, as the Priest at Busby’s funeral included in his address, the mythical figure of ‘the young boy running down the wing with the wind in his hair.’
But Everton, without being any more defensive than necessity and our play demanded of them, held us off. For twenty minutes in the second half, there was a spell of attacking football such as I have never seen on any other occasion. United simply flew forward, in waves, over and over. At one point I turned to Fred and asked, “Did the Busby Babes ever play like this?”.
His answer was, “Not often.”
United were turning it on. I thought that I must be watching the kind of football Matt Busby saw in his dreams.
And in the midst of it, the moment of which Micky’s goal reminded me, and which is the belated point of this memory.
Giggsy had the ball below us, on the left, and played in a cross towards Eric Cantona, running diagonally towards the edge of the penalty area. It was meant for his head, but it was just not quite the right height. Eric leapt into the air to take the ball on his chest. As he did, he spun his body, in the air, deflecting the ball behind him, evading the two defenders trying to cover him.
As the ball dropped, and he came out of his spin, he took one step and put his laces through the ball. He didn’t look, he just knew where it had to be. By rights, it should have been the Goal of the Season, but instead it thumped against the base of the near post, and out, with Neville Southall gaping.
I turned to Fred and asked, “Did I really see that?”
Had I been at Old Trafford yesterday, and been witness to Micky’s moment of glory, for this first time since that long ago game, I would again have turned to my neighbour and asked him to confirm that I really had seen what I thought I saw.