Did I really see that?


Did I really see that?
Did I really see that?

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.

What I was doing Fifty Years Ago today


If you have any interest in football at all, you will already know the event to which I am referring. Fifty years ago today, England faced the then-West Germany in the World Cup Final, at Wembley Stadium, and in the most-watched sporting event ever in television history, won the World Cup for the first, and probably only time.

I work in a five storey building alongside several hundred people. Many of these are football fans, covering a profusion of teams, and not just the obvious ones of Manchester United, Manchester City and Stockport County. Of all those people, I doubt if there more than a handful, myself included, who actually watched the most famous match in English Football History.

It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, in an era when summers were sunny, in obedience to the Laws of Nature and the Laws of Childish Expectation. It would not have been Summer for it to have been anything else.

There were seven of us in that living room in Droylsden, 53 Chappell Road, the home since it was built of my paternal grandparents and my Dad’s elder brother. We, that is, my parents and I and, more recently, my younger sister, had gone there for dinner and the afternoon every Saturday of my life so far. So we were gathered there because we always gathered there.

Nobody, not even my ten year old self, was a football fan. My Dad did the Littlewoods Pools, which was about as close as any of us got: I mean, we didn’t even watch the FA Cup Final, which was something given that, up to and including 1966, there were only two television channels and on Cup Final Day, they both broadcast the game.

But this was the World Cup Final, and this was England. There was an atmosphere of inevitability about it, a sense of national community that made watching the game next to compulsory. It would have been like the Coronation, thirteen years previously, something that you could not not watch.

Of the seven of us, I was probably the one most interested in football for itself, at least to the extent of kicking a ball around in the playground, or the street. But I had no real interest in professional football, to the extent that I believe that the first match I ever watched was the World Cup opener, the disappointing goalless draw between England and Uruguay.

I think it was on a Friday evening, because I clearly remember it being on in our house in Openshaw, and it must have been a Friday if I was allowed to watch it all. Not that you could really call my divided attention ‘watching’: it was a dull game, after all.

And I have no recollection whatsoever of England’s other two group games, to the point where I can’t remember how the goals were scored, except that is for Bobby Charlton’s blockbuster against Mexico which has been replayed over and over, and rightly so.

The retrospectives on the tournament that are now appearing paint a picture of the 1966 World Cup that belie 1966’s Golden Legend. In a way, my own limited memories fit in with that revealed picture. I only watched the England games, not any of those featuring the other countries. It was another world, another time, the details of which would seem impossible beyond belief to the fan who only knows football from the last twenty years. It was a smaller competition, sixteen countries, four groups, six games to play for the winners. There was no saturation coverage, no game-every-day, no elephantiasis.

So, twelve days after that opening game (which obviously can’t have been a Friday night after all), the seven of us sat around the TV on Saturday afternoon to watch England in the quarter-final against Argentina. This was the one where the Argentinan captain, Rattin, was sent off, which I can’t remember, and the one in which Geoff Hurst scored his first goal of the tournament.

I don’t remember if I asked for the game to be on. I was older than I was when I watched the first episode of Doctor Who, but I have much less reliable memory to call upon. I must have had some enthusiasm about the World Cup: after all, one of my comics, as far back as something like February, had given away a free World Cup booklet, including a page for you to make your predictions about all manner of things, especially who would win, and I still had it in July.

(In my pure ignorance, and I stress that I could not have told you a single fact about Football, I had predicted a win for England, whereas our class’s acknowledged football expert had, as foresight would have dictated, chosen Brazil. That I, who knew nothing, was right when he was wrong, was a thing of wonder to me that I couldn’t refrain from pointing out).

But I can’t remember displaying any actual, to the point of bothering the adults, interest. It was just on. Maybe I do my Dad a disservice, given that by the 1970 World Cup he was interested in watching all the England games (we saw the Final, we saw Gordon Banks’ save), though my own highly-developed enthusiasm for football might have rubbed off a bit on him by then.

But nevertheless we watched the game. And in midweek, we watched the semi-final against Portugal.

Here is my first, unassailably genuine memory of that tournament. Bobby Charlton scored twice, to win the game, to take us into the Final, but what I remember is that Portugal scored against us, from a penalty. It was the first goal England had conceded in the World Cup: imagine that. It came as a shock to me in my naivete.

And so to the Final. Granny, Grandad, uncle Arthur, Mam, Dad, me and my sister. Of all of us, only she and I are here to remember that day so very long ago, and her interest in the World Cup Final is no whit more developed than on that day so long ago, when she was just turned four.

The problem with the Final, as it is with the World Cup in general, is in discerning what memories of watching that game are real, and which belong to the decades since, to the endless replaying of the goals, to the still-extant arguments over Hurst’s second goal, to Wolstenholme’s imperishable moment: “Some people are on the pitch! They think it’s all over! It is now!” Bobby Moore wiping his sweary habds on the plush of the Royal Box so as not to soil the Queen’s gloves. Nobby Stiles dancing with his socks around his ankles.

Dammit, I watched all this. I watched that game from beginning to end and I have all these images in my head, burned in so deep that I no longer need YouTube to watch them, I don’t even need to close my eyes, but which of them are real memories from 30 July 1966 and which of them are impressions from those hundreds and thousands of replays in all the years since? The only memory that I can truly be sure of is, ironically, none of the above: it is of the German equaliser, of Wolfgang Weber sliding in to sidefoot the ball past the desperate Banks in the final minute, when England had won, had had one hand and four fingers on the Jules Rimet Trophy, and were stopped dead in their tracks.

We went on to win. It was the inevitable outcome. The World Cup is here, and England will win it. That’s what really remains, the ignorance and unquenchable optimism of a small boy yet to see that optimism isn’t always enough, that bad things happen, that the story doesn’t always work out like stories do when you come to it in real time. I never for one moment thought that it wouldn’t happen, and I was cherished by fate so that I did not have to be disappointed so young. And I never understood, on that visceral level that only knowledge of who and what England were, of who and what the World Cup, and the other nations participating, just what an achievement it all was.

Should it happen again, and I don’t expect to see it if ever it does, no-one who watches it now will ever be in the slightest doubt as to what it means.

I have lasted fifty years since that amazing afternoon that I watched but didn’t understand. Amazing, no less than nine of those Boys of ’66 have survived with me. Gordon Banks. George Cohen. Ray Wilson. Nobby Stiles. Jack Charlton. Bobby Moore. Alan Ball. Roger Hunt. Bobby Charlton. Geoff Hurst. Martin Peters. Only Moore, the Captain, the Golden One, and Ball, the youngster, have gone ahead, proving that this world turns upon the application of irony.

Overhead, clouds are gathering in a dark mass. Blue sky, blue as the skies of memory, of fifty year old days, fringes them. Another irony is that when England won the World Cup, the number one single was Chris Farlowe, singing Jagger and Richard’s “Out of Time”. Outside of time, the Boys of ’66 give it their all still, and we watch shadows flickering on a black and white tv screen, each of us sharing our own tiny piece of immortality, their backcloth, their audience, their public, their worshippers.

Fifty years. I was there.

 

The Goal That Never Was


I feel sorry for Gateshead fans. Not so much for the injustice their Club received in 1958, voted out of the Football League after appearing in the re-election places for only the second time in their thirty year run. Nor for their having seen their club dissolve and reform four times since. No, what I feel sorry for them about is playing their home games at the International Athletics Stadium.

The first, and fairly obvious point to make about the Stadium is that it isn’t a purpose built football ground. It has a full-scale pitch at its centre, but this is surrounded on all sides by a full, eight-lane running track. This is never a good thing for a football ground as it instantly distances the crowd from the game. As stadia like the old Wembley, this was surmountable by sheer atmosphere, but as a venue for a non-League team whose gate could be numbered in hundreds, it would never work.

But the worst of it is that that typical no-League crowd has nowhere to go except the Main Stand, on one side of the pitch. The Stand is built to suit the larger athletic crowds, and Gateshead’s fans do little to come near filling it, their cries and shouts resounding like echoes of ghosts in the overexpansive surroundings. And as there is no possibility of sitting or standing behind either goal, or on the further side, the game is carried out in a three-sides empty stadium.

The Club did unveil plans in 2009 to build a proper Football Stadium for themselves in Gateshead City Centre, but these don’t seem to have gone anywhere yet.

Of all the non-League grounds I visited in a near ten year spell following Droylsden, the Athletics Stadium is by far and away the most successful atmosphere-killer.

I went to Gateshead with Droylsden in the 1999/2000 season, our first back in the Unibond Premier Division. In view of the distance, I forewent driving, and travelled on the team coach (on which there were usually 20 places for supporters, to help defray the expense). It was actually a fun experience, if you could ignore the usual beery rowdiness, childishness and vulgarity on the way home: not the players, who just congregated at the back of the bus and drank, but you should have seen the Committee Men! It was during this game that I had one of the weirdest experiences I’ve ever had in life, let alone sport.

This came about an hour into the game. We had taken the lead, and Gateshead levelled before half-time. Now they were attacking along their left flank, directly in front of us, playing right to left.

One of their players picked up the ball and moved infield. Our defence didn’t challenge him for the ball, but let him come on until, in front of goal and about twenty-five yards out, he swivelled and let fly with a ground shot. The shot was all along the ground, beat our keeper on his right hand, and rolled about one to two foot inside the post and into the net.

Then it kept on rolling, without the slightest change of pace, away into the distance behind the goal.

By some piece of sloppiness, the net had not been properly fixed to the ground at that point, and the shot had just gone straight through it. Both teams surrounded the officials, none of whom could say, definitively that they had been the ball go in between the posts. So the game restarted with a goal-kick, to our relief and Gateshead’s frustration. There was no more score, so Gateshead were denied a win and we got away with a point we should never have had.

That this happened at all was strange in itself but the truly wierd thing about it was how I reacted. I had an unobstructed view, I’d seen the ball go inside the post, started the indrawn breath of frustration, even seen the ball hit the net. But the moment that ball continued, uninterrupted, my mind kicked in to override what I had actually seen. The ball has not ended up in the net, therefore it had never been in the net, the shot had missed, it had gone outside the post. I’d seen what I’d seen, but the instant that the expected outcome failed to materialise, my brain started to rewrite history, to fit the facts to the outcome.

It was one of the most utterly strange things to ever happen to me, and I was not alone. The same thing had gone to everyone around me. We had all seen Gateshead score, we had collectively begun to groan, and we each of us now doubted the evidence of our eyes. Terry Pratchett makes much use of this phenomenon in the Discworld books, particularly when Death is about, but this was real life.

I struggled with myself but ended up convincing myself that I had seen what I’d seen, that Gateshead had had a legitimate goal unjustly allowed. But without replays of any kind being possible, I had only what I had fleetingly seen to guide me, and I needed an effort of will to believe myself.

The goal that never was, and the instant conviction that overruled the evidence of my eyes. It was a bizarre experience, but I experienced it, because I was there.

History from the other end


In this very net…

Something’s just jogged my memory about an odd little sporting incident for which I was present, in more senses than one.

In the summer of 1995, Manchester United knocked down the old North Stand at Old Trafford, in order to build the capacity extending triple-decker stand of today. This involved temporarily reducing capacity by 10,000, which was more or less equal to the total number of seats available by ballot to supporters without a Season Ticket or a League Match Ticket Book. Like me.

This was when I started following Droylsden again. I couldn’t conceive of following any other team for even a season, and besides, the contrast between where I was and where I wanted to be seemed perfect for a diary book.

If you want details of that season, which didn’t turn out in any way that could have been anticipated in advance, you can buy my Red Exile. For now, I’d like to take you to the early season, still only September 1995.

For reasons that seem inexplicable, given that the Bloods were playing at the then-level 6 of the Football Pyramid, Droylsden were in the draw for the Preliminary Round of the FA Cup, away to Nantwich Town, in mid-Cheshire. The Dabbers were playing in the North-West Counties League Division 1, a level below.

The idea that season was that I would go to as many Droylsden matches as I could, away as well as home. Nantwich was an easy drive, and I offered to give my on-off (currently off, but still friendly) girlfriend a run down to Nantwich for the afternoon, she to shop, me to go to the game.

I don’t remember much about the game, except that, as was my practice, I stood behind the opposition goal for both halves. I remember talking to a home fan who was talking about an ex-player, a fantastic young talent, who had been murdered the previous year, his body set alight. And there was one loudmouth supporter who kept bellowing out, “Unibond? More like Brooke Bond.” Yes, I know, a crap joke to begin with, but it was his own invention and he was determined to drive it into the ground.

For the second half, I wandered up the distant far end, acting on several occasions as an unpaid ball boy. There wasn’t a lot going on, and what was was one hundred yards away, around the Droylsden goal, but we’d got to the 84th minute without a goal, and i was glumly anticipating a midweek replay and the Spennymoor game having to be postponed, when Nantwich scored.

That was that: the start to the season that the Bloods had made was not conducive to coming from behind, even to get equalisers. But once the gate had been breached once, Nantwich went on to score two more goals quite quickly, running out 3-0 winners. I picked up my girlfriend and ran her home, being philosophical about it all.

It was not until Monday that I discovered I’d been a witness to history.

It appeared that, unbeknownst to me down the far end, all three Nantwich goals had been scored by the same man, Andy Locke. And that the three goals had been scored in the space of two minutes and twentyseconds (I knew they’d come quickly but I hadn’t realised it was that short a time). And that therefore Andy Locke had scored the fastest ever hat-trick in FA Cup history.

(This can be confirmed on-line where, for once, it’s Wikipedia that’s accurate whilst every other source has got it badly wrong.)

Funnily enough, the following Saturday, a mate of mine got me into Old Trafford on his Dad’s season ticket. He was full of this news item he’d seen on Grandstand before coming out, about this guy who’d scored a record FA Cup hat trick. Sadly, I confessed that whilst I hadn’t seen the feature, I had been there to see the goals…

That’s not the end of it, though. Droylsden’s FA Cup trail may have been cut ingloriously short, but Manchester United fared rather better. In May 1996, I was up first thing on Saturday morning, on the road south, the travelling Red Army descending upon Wembley for the FA Cup Final against Liverpool. Park round the back near Wealdstone Tube Station about 9.00am, a morning in Central London, hit the stadium for 1.00ish, Wembley Way and the Twin Towers and my unimpressive seat behind the goal in which Eric Cantona would score the glorious winning goal with only four minutes left.

But whilst I sat there, soaking up the atmosphere, there was a presentation on the pitch at 2.00pm, a presentation and a reminder. To Andy Locke, for scoring the fastest ever hat trick in FA Cup history.

I couldn’t help but smile, After all, with the exception of any of the guy’s family and friends who had accompanied him, I was probably the only person in the entire stadium who could stand up and shout, ‘I saw you score those goals, you bastard! I was there!’

The Worst Decision Ever


The Enemy

Try as we might, short of developing some kind of omni-scanner that can produce an instant, 3D hologram replay on any incident that takes place on a football field, we are never going to eliminate the shit refereeing decision.

I’ve been watching footbal for nearly fifty years, live or on TV. I’ve watched Manchester United in the League, the Cup and in Europe. I’ve watched World cups and European Championships. I’ve watched various levels of non-League football with Droylsden and with FC United. And I have seen right royal clangers galore, and more than a token few – especially at non-League level – where I remain convinced that the wrong decision did not come about due to honest human error.

You may call that last remark a vile calumny on an honourable body of men without whom the game of football could not exist, or dismiss it as the automatic response of every dedicated football fan whose default position is that the referee is biassed against his team, but when you’ve lost 4-0 away and the referee has sent off your makeshift goalkeeper for complaining about having the ball kicked out of his hands for a goal, and the word comes back that said referee was down the pub in Liverpool that Saturday night boasting about how he fucked Droylsden over…

Fans of teams in the Premier League complain about the refereeing at the top level, and a lot of it is chronically awful, even after you make every objective allowance you can make, but you haven’t seen poor refereeing until you’ve dropped down somewhere about level six, seven or eight. That was where I saw the worst refereeing decision I have seen in my life.

This took place in a game between Curzon Ashton and Droylsden, in the Unibond Northern Premier League First Division, in September 1996. I’d started watching Droylsden regularly again the previous season, anticipating (wrongly) that I wouldn’t be able to get into Old Trafford during the redevelopment of the North Stand. The Bloods had been relegated on the last day of the season, on goal difference, but I’d been hooked enough by the non-League experience to extend what had been intended to be only a one season experiment into a longer-term enthusiasm.

During the summer, a new interpretation of the Offside rule had been agreed by the Football Association, which went into operation at the start of the 1996/7 season. The Law itself was not changed: a player in the opposition half was in an offside position if there were fewer than two players between him and the opposition goal-line. But fans and clubs were long past tired of the innumerable interruptions to the game when, with the ball on one side of the pitch, a winger on the opposite side, over fifty yards from the ball, was running back but still flagged offside.

That summer, referees were instructed to focus on the line about ‘interfering with play’. With respect to the speakers of bullshit about ‘if he’s not interfering with play, what’s he doing on the pitch?’ (even Bill Shankley spoke a lot of crap from time to time), henceforth referees were instructed that a player running back from an offside position, who was not attempting to play the ball or interfere with players who were, would not be given offside. It was the beginning of the Offside Law as we know it today.

By the time Droylsden went to Curzon Ashton, that interpretation had been in effect for a month, about six matches. I was interested in the visit to Curzon: it was one of the very few away grounds I’d visited with Droylsden when I’d been a regular in the Seventies. In 1979, it had been little more than a park pitch with railings around it, but in 1996 there were stands, seats and floodlights, a sign that Curzon had climbed the ladder far enough to be expand the traditional ‘Tameside Five’ to Six.

Though Curzon opened the scoring, it was mainly a comfortable night for Droylsden, who took a 3-1 lead just after the hour, though Curzon reduced the deficit to one goal with five minutes left to play. That’s when it all kicked off.

A long back pass was played to the Curzon keeper in his area. Striker Billy O’Callaghan chased it back, not letting the keeper settle on the ball. The keeper kicked it deep into the Droylsden half, at which point O’Callaghan, in the centre of the field, turned and started jogging back towards his own lines.

The ball was met by Droylsden centreback Dave Ashton, who headed it into Curzon’s half, and over to the Droylsden right wing. In the centre, O’Callaghan was about 10 – 15 yards behind the last Curzon defender, still jogging back with his head down. The defence appealed, the linesman (directly in front of me) raised his flag, the referee considered the situation and waved play on.

A year before, he’d have whistled for an infringement. But O’Callaghan’s position was exactly what the new interpretation had been designed to cover. He was in the centre, the ball on the wing. He had neither moved, nor even looked, towards the ball. He was not interfering with play and the referee’s decision not to stop the game was completely correct.

Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there. A Curzon defender dropped back to collect the loose ball, but midfielder Ray Wyse, who’d been in his own half when the ball was headed forward, had gone in pursuit and, before the defender had settled on the ball, tackled him and went away, bearing down on the goal with no-one between him and the keeper.

Instead of dropping back, the Curzon defence kicked off at the referee. In the meantime, Wyse closed in on the keeper, who advanced to the edge of his area to narrow the angle. On the other flank, midfielder Walter Nesbitt had raced forward in support of Wyse, twenty yards or more to his left. Wyse waited for the keeper to commit himself before passing the ball sideways for Nesbitt to plant in an empty net.

4-2, game secured, three points! Not so. The referee disallowed the goal and awarded an indirect free kick to Curzon for offside, against Nesbitt.

The first consideration is whether Nesbitt actually was offside. I’ll be straight with you: I have no idea. It was a Tuesday night, under non-League floodlights, they were roughly level with each other, and I was sat on the sidelines at an angle of roughly forty-five degrees to the play. Wyse and Nesbitt were at least twenty yards apart and it was impossible to tell which of the two was ahead of the other.

But that wasn’t really the issue. I was at forty five degrees to the action: the referee, who was level with me, was directly behind it. Yes: at least twenty yards behind the play, equidistant between two players themselves at least twenty yards apart. It was physically impossible for him to tell if Nesbitt was offside or not. Try it in the Park sometime, with a couple of mates: it’s the equivalent of pronouncing on a Leg Before Wicket appeal from Square Leg: it just can’t be done.

The outcome was inevitable: Curzon scored an equaliser in injury time to secure a 3-3 draw and deprive Droylsden of two points.

What made the decision so appalling was the referee making a deliberately bad call, because he didn’t have the courage to stand behind a correct decision. He was absolutely right not to penalise O’Callaghan for offside, but when Curzon’s own inattention cost them a goal, he lacked the bottle stand behind the right call and made a deliberately wrong one to ‘even things out’.

It didn’t make any long-term difference. Droylsden ended up in mid-table, a long way from anything two points would have affected. Curzon were relegated, and suffered the appalling bad luck of an enforced relegation into the Northern Counties (East) League (all three relegated teams should, geographically, have gone into the North-West Counties League, who would normally have accepted one: they agreed to take two but Curzon, as the most ‘easterly’ of the three teams, had to be shunted into a League where every away game started with crossing the Pennines: unsurprisingly, they fell straight through).

We often see suspicious decisions by referees, particularly with regard to bookings, where a player on one team gets an unjustified yellow or red card because the referee considers that he’s made a mistake in issuing a earlier sanction to the other side. These are still wrong, but are understandable in human terms: a second wrong to balance out the first.

This stands out in my memory for the burning sense of injustice that it created, which is higher than with any other decision I’ve seen, because it did not even have the feeble excuse of redressing some kind of perceived balance: a deliberately wrong decision was taken to ‘rectify’ a 100% correct one. It was disgraceful, and I am well aware of it because I was there.

Running-Out the Bicentenery


Roger Harper was unusual for a West Indies Test Bowler in the Eighties: despite being 6’5″ and athletic with it, he was a spin bowler. And a decent one too, if statistics are your measure. Though he only took 46 wickets in his Test career, his average was greater than the legendary West Indian spinner, Lance Gibbs, and he would surely have taken more if he’d not been playing in the era of four quicks, when his was primarily used to bottle up an end whilst one of the pacemen took a breather.

Harper did not bowl in any classical style, running in from an angle and, as he hit the crease, leaping in the air as he brought his bowling arm over in a massive, wheeling arc, from behind the small of his back, his hand at delivery near enough eight feet off the ground and landing the ball on impossible lengths.

But, like such legendary names as Colin Bland and Jonty Rhodes, Roger Harper was best known for his fielding. For such a tall man, he was incredibly fast and limber, and his reactions were fast beyond belief. In one Test against England, when he was fielding at a widish gulley to a left-handed batsman, the ball was hit, fast and uppish, over his head. I say over his head: it was way over the head of any normal fielder and four all the way from leaving the bat. But Harper, from a standing position, leapt straight up, like an Apollo space mission launching from Florida only faster, and caught the ball one-handed, his arm stretched ramrod straight above his head.

Having only ever been out once through no fault of my own, I know the sickening feeling of hitting the ball clean, sweet and unstoppable, only to see it caught, and have an innings of promise ended abruptly. Roger Harper did that to a lot of people.

The one we all remember took place in the MCC Bi-Centenery match, at Lords in 1987, between the MCC and the Rest of the World. I was not there to see this, so this is not an I Was There in the usual manner. But I’m reminded of it because of today’s Guardian feature in their ‘Joy of Six’ series, which offers up six moments of stunning fielding, and which doesn’t include this.

MCC, batting first, were rolling along nicely at 254-3, the current England captain, Graham Gooch, having already scored a century and looking booked in at 117 not out. Harper bowled: Gooch came a couple of paces down the wicket and drove the ball, flat and hard and very straight. It might have hit the non-striker’s wicket, it might have missed it and shot through for another four, for this was one of those classical straight drives that would have run to the boundary in a matter of seconds.

And Gooch was already relaxing and slowing his forward momentum, reckoning in absolute confidence that he would not need to run. And he would have been right with any other bowler in the World, let alone the Rest of it.

But because of Harper’s unusual action, he did not fall as far away to the left as an off-spinner would normally have done, and because of the speed of his reactions he had assessed the shot Gooch was shaping to play and had stopped himself on the popping crease. And when Gooch played the shot, Harper moved, back and across, bending his 6’5″ body to drop his right hand into the path of the ball, a speeding ball with tremendous impetus, to grasp it in his hand brushing the turf and in one fluid, unchecked movement, straighten up with the hand rising above shoulder height, turning the momentum of the ball into an instant response and hurling the ball back down the wicket, spearing towards Gooch’s stumps.

Gooch was well-set. He had 117 runs already and looked good for another hundred on top. He was in his pomp. He’d hit a four, no two ways about it, until in an instant of shock he saw Harper reaching for the ball, and a shitload of panic dropped into his head out of a cloudless sky, because he was two yards out of his grounds and was suddenly as vulnerable as Smaug the dragon after Bilbo spotted the chink in his armour. The pace of the ball was such that he had no earthly chance of regaining those two yards. All he could do in the time he had to save himself was to turn back towards the wicket, and even then Harper was too fast and Gooch could only go sideways and start to fall.

Maybe it was a primitive urge for safety, perhaps if he fell across the path of the ball and blocked its path he would be safe (except from the inevitable appeal for obstructing the wicket that would have immediately followed). No doubt it came from the safe place as the instinctive move, six years later, at Old Trafford, that made Gooch swing at a delivery falling onto his stumps and swat it away with his hand, incurring dismissal for handling the ball.

Whatever it was, it didn’t work. Harper was just too fast. The ball flew under Gooch’s frame, smashing the wickets, leaving him kneeling in submission.

As I said, I wasn’t there to see it. Instead, I saw it on the News: an on-field moment in an essentially friendly game of Cricket, picked out and given its own spot on the nightly national News. These were the old days, the BBC days, where one fixed camera was used, from one end, and every other over the batsman’s stance saw his facing away and the bowler running towards the viewer, and anything that happened in front of the wicket was invisible: thankfully, we had at least progressed to a second camera point, at the other end, if only for replays from a startlingly different angle.

It was unbelievable to see. If I’d been there at Lords, as I would be six years later, at Old Trafford when Shane Warne bowled the Ball of the Century, I doubt I would have truly understood what it was I would have seen until I saw it on TV. It was fast, too fast for instant comprehension. Sometimes it’s like that.

I’ve seen that run-out many times since, studied each component of it. We don’t get to see that in real life, can’t replay time to let us truly see what we have seen. And it didn’t make the list: inconceivable.

So, for once I wasn’t there. But if I had been…

The day I didn’t meet Roy Keane


A fine haircut, there

I am a creature of habit. Once I find somewhere that satisfies me, I tend not to change, which was why, some dozen years after i had last worked in Altrincham, I was still getting my hair cut at a nice little shop that had originally been very useful in enabling me to get a haircut at lunchtime.
It was a long way to go, but I would always make it into a bit of a trip by browsing around the Altrincham shops once the back of my neck started feeling cooler than before, with particular reference to a very well-stocked Oxfam Bookshop on the main street, and a usually interesting second hand bookshop just round the corner from where I used to work.
This habit continued after I married: my two stepsons would also get their hair cut and the wander round Altrincham and those bookshops would become a bit of a family expedition, every six to eight weeks.
This had been going on for some years when we made the drive over on a sunny Saturday morning in late March. We parked as usual on that side of the Village, where free side-street parking was available, and walked down to the hairdressers.
There were no such things as appointments, you just memorised who was already there when you arrived, and took your turn. Unusually, though both chairs were filled, there was no-one waiting. My family settled down on the benches whilst I hung up my jacket, and when I turned I saw that the further chair had been vacated. I always went first, so I walked over and seated myself.
There was an unusual buzz about the place. People seemed to be looking around, and no-one was in any rush to start on my head, not that I was in any rush to begin with. “Did you see who that was?” the guy said.
I had no idea what he was talking about, and it took my wife coming over to me to get me to understand. The guy whose place I had taken in that chair, who’d now left the shop without me having registered his presence in any way, was Roy Keane.
At first, it seemed unreal. It was the football season, it was Saturday, United were playing (ok, United actually playing on a Saturday in the back half of a season, that was what was unusual), and away from home. But then again Keano was suspended, so it wasn’t so strange that he wasn’t with the United party.
My wife said she had thought of asking for Keane’s autograph (for the boys, principally, not me!), but with her customary tact and sensitivity had decided it would be unfair to do so: this was ‘his’ time, and it felt wrong to her to trespass on it. Besides, he had smiled at them: the boys were sat there in their matching United tops (the reversible one, gold side out).
In fact, Keano was a regular at these hairdressers, since they were no more than a brisk walk from his Hale home (with or without dog), and underneath it all Keano was a straightforward, down-to-earth person, with a down-to-earth haircut that didn’t need fancy styling, so it was easy to imagine him popping into some quiet, unflashy place where he could get a haircut without fuss. Which is what we’d given him, though it was wholly inadvertently on my part!
So that’s my story of not meeting Roy Keane and I have kicked myself endless times over not having looked round with proper attention. I mean, I was the really big United fan out of all of us, and I was the only one who didn’t even get a look at him.
This was one case when I was there – but I might as well not have been!

Rochale, 1978 (coincidences abound)


I’ve just had my annual gas check-up (I passed, thank you for asking).

The guy from the Council has been here to do that before. He’s from Droylsden, and knows of my former interest in the club, though he’s not really into football himself: he supports Manchester City.

We got talking about Droylsden, and FC United, and I was telling him about the coincidence between my two experiences of going to Rochdale, and much to my delight, HE was at Rochdale in 1978 as well! And he remembers more about the game than I do, in particular that the referee had to stop the game twice because of fighting in the ground, once such occasion spilling into the pitch. Not a single bell ringing at that piece of information, not one.

But he has reason to remember that game and for similar but more serious reasons than I, because in a lifetime of going to football, that Rochdale game was the only one at which he got beat up. After the game. He doesn’t remember any hills, so it sounds like a different incident from the one I fled from (and it shows how bloody right I was to flee for my life).

But that just goes to show the power of coincidence, only two days after I’d written at length about the game, i meet a near stranger was also was there.

Rochdale, 2010


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?)

Rochdale, 1978


Spotland Stadium, but not as it was in 1978

My first phase of supporting Droylsden effectively ended when I went to live in Nottingham for two years, to be an Articled Clerk. After eight and a half years as a regular, leaving Granddad’s at 2.45pm and being in place behind the goal at 2.55pm, a three hour coach journey that I could only afford about once every six weeks made long distance support untenable.
I felt it badly in August, on the first day of the season: Forest, the reigning League Champions, entertained Tottenham Hotspur, a game that also revealed Spurs’ shock Argentinian signings, Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa. Coincidentally, it was the one Saturday in the month that I could afford to visit Nottingham’s comics shop, which was just between the Cricket Ground and the City Ground. I made sure of getting in there and out a good couple of hours before kick-off, but the crowds were already milling around Trent Bridge, and there was that atmosphere that is unique to the first day of the season, that air of anticipation and optimism that’s only possible when, up to the final minute before kick-off, everything is possible.
I missed not having a game to go to, missed it terribly.
Without a Droylsden fixture list, I had no idea when they were at home and had no chance of matching my Manchester weekends with home games, for all I still had Saturday dinner at Grandad’s.
Somehow, I became aware that the Bloods were doing well in the FA Cup again, that for the third time in four seasons, they’d reached the Fourth Qualifying Round. When they beat Goole Town 2-0, their reward was a First Round Proper tie, away to Rochdale.
That was perfectly achievable, and the weekend in question even fell perfectly into my six-weekly schedule. For the whole week in advance, I could talk of nothing else, which drew a lot of pointed banter from my three colleagues and friends who shared the little room at the back of the building that I had nick-named ‘The Pit’.
Saturday was clear and bright, and I was up early and off to Manchester for my traditional wander around old haunts. At midday, I caught the bus from the Arndale Centre Bus Station towards Rochdale, armed with a newspaper. I was still some years from progressing to the sophistication of the broadsheets, but I had already demonstrated my political leanings with the Daily Mirror. I took  note of the panel cartoon in the Sports pages, with its hopeful-but-resigned caption: “1-0 up at half-time and only 585 minutes from Wembley”.
I’d never been to Rochdale before: indeed, my closest prior connection had been buying a copy of Mike Harding’s ‘Rochdale Cowboy’. There were no worries about finding the ground: when I got off the bus, Spotland’s floodlights were easily visible, up on the hill, and I found my way there easily as was re-united with my mate Damien, a younger, red-headed Bloods’ fan who’d been my behind-the-goal mate for a couple of years.
We started on the main stand side, waiting to see which way the Bloods were kicking. In the first half, it was right to left, so we quickly made our way round to the terrace at the right hand end of the ground, to find the equivalent place to our usual position by the left hand goalpost.
I’m trying to remember but I can’t be certain whether that end of the ground was open or roofed. Either way, it was an old-fashioned mounded terrace whose biggest surprise was that its lowest level was some four to five feet below the level of the pitch itself. Anyone standing by the rail would find their eyeline in amongst the players’ boots and ankles. Damien and I went up, and back, far enough to put ourselves on a par with the pitch, though we did feel more removed from the game than we usually liked.
There is a point to this description, I’ve not been this specific just to bore you.
I can only remember one thing from the first half. About twenty minutes in, Droylsden won a corner on their right, left of where Damien and I were standing. The referee took up position almost directly in front of us, on the goal line. The ball was hit fairly low and flat, towards the near post. No-one made clean contact, and it bounced across the goalmouth, a sea of cloying mud, pinballing along the six-yard line as blue shirts tried to hack it clear and red shirts tried to hack it home, until it got to David Taylor, youngest guy on the pitch, opposite the far post. He stuck out a boot and sent it goalwards. Damien and I were on our way up, arms and voices, starting a roar that died in our throats when a last ditch boot cleared the ball off the line.
And then we were up again, as the ref blew his whistle and pointed to the centre circle: he’d given it!
I’m a football fan, and as such I have always adhered to one inviolable law: in any difference of opinion between me and a referee, I am right. Only once in forty-odd years have I breached this principle: this was it.
After all, he was in a better position than I, level with the goal-line, whereas my perspective was several yards back, and at an angle of at least 30 degrees. Just because I saw it cleared off the line, just because my instinctive reaction was dismay and deflation because it didn’t cross the line, didn’t mean it wasn’t actually a goal.
The Rochdale fans didn’t like it. One spent the next five minutes arguing, trying to get me to say that the ball HADN’T crossed the line, as if an admission would then force the referee to overrule himself and declare null and void the five minutes since the restart. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. I cheerfully admitted that I didn’t think it had crossed the line but I sanctimoniously insisted on the referee’s better position than me: the very heavens trembled at such blasphemy.
We were still ahead at the break: 1-0 up at half-time and only 585 minutes from Wembley.
Damien and I made our way round to the other end of the ground. It’s what we all do in non-League Football but Spotland, being a league ground, wasn’t built for such manoeuvres. There was no way past the long stand on the far side, and to get through, we had to climb over the fence and gingerly pick our way down the touchline in front of the Main Stand, holding our trouser bottoms up above the heaving slutch.
This end was definitely covered. It was tight and compact and on a level with the pitch and we stood by the left hand post. It was a nervous half, not only on the field, where Rochdale launched all out waves of attack, but behind the goal, where a thin line of Police had segregated the fans into two camps. The further ones were Droylsden fans, or rather they were United fans who, with the first team away, had chosen this game to congregate, roar and intimidate. We spent as much time glancing fearfully to our right, where the line of yellow would have had no chance if anything had kicked off, as we did watching the game.
The minutes drained away. Rochdale pressed and pressed. The atmosphere grew nastier behind the goal and Damien and I agreed that there would be no lingering in celebration after the final whistle. Which came with us still in the lead: see you in the Second Round!
It was a magnificent moment. Not just reaching the Second Round Proper for the first time ever, but actually beating a League team! There’s not a single non-League club in the country that doesn’t want to have the words ‘Giant Killer’ applied to them at some time, and it makes no different how small a Giant Rochdale may be, we had qualified for that title.
I made a swift detour under the rail to plant my feet on the hallowed turf, then it was out by a gate and flying along the road behind the long stand. I was so buzzed by the win I felt like I could have run all the way back to Manchester!
From Droylsden, I was used to being back for the Results on TV. That was out of the question here, but at the bottom of the road was a newsagents and my out-of-practice throat was ragged from the shouting. I went in to get myself a canned drink and found that they had Radio 2 on a transistor: I waited to hear it read out, the magic words: Rochdale 0 Droylsden 1.
Outside the shop, the adrenal rush had subsided somewhat, and anyway I was at the bottom of a long hill, which I started to climb. Unfortunately, the diversion into the shop had been long enough for the aggression hungry bastards from behind the goal to have got in front, and suddenly a wedge of them turned and raced down the hill towards us, screaming and howling.
By sheer luck, I was at the mouth of a side street. I shot off leftwards, zigging and zagging into the back streets at top speed, until I was cowering in a back entry, hoping nobody had followed the fat sod with the glasses who was a really easy target. After 10 – 15 minutes of anxious hiding, I emerged gingerly, returning to the main road, where all was placid again.
I set off up the hill again, stopping at the top to talk to a couple of Rochdale fans, hanging gloomily about a shop doorway. They were resigned to the defeat: being knocked out of the Cup in the First Round was nothing new, and non-League opposition didn’t make any different. They were going to finish in the bottom four for a tenth season in a row, expulsion and the need to apply for re-Election again, and this time they expected to be given the boot.
I’m happy to report that their pessimism was unjustified: Rochdale’s League membership has been undisturbed these thirty-six years past, and their fortunes have improved since.
By the time I got to Manchester, I was still up enough to want to continue the evening, so I went to the cinema. Woody Allen’s classic Annie Hall, which I’d seen in Nottingham almost six months earlier, was doing the rounds again and, on a whim, I went to see it a second time. First time round, I’d enjoyed it but been unmoved: since then, I’d fallen in heavy but unrequited love: this time, I understood the film on a much deeper level, and loved it.
There was also an interesting coda on Monday morning. Heading in to work, I met my friend and fellow Articled Clerk Sharon outside her lodgings. Sharon wasn’t interested in football at all, but I was touched to find that she’d looked up Droylsden’s score, and greeted me with the question, ‘Are you back off cloud 9 yet?’ I allowed that I was maybe down to cloud 7 by now, and chatted about the game as we walked in.
I was last into the Pit, my three colleagues already at their desks. Nothing was said but Good Morning
I twigged it immediately. They’d agreed not to mention the game, to test me and see how long it took me to crack and start on about it myself. But they had got things very wrong if that was what they thought.
Over the weekend, the more the result had sunk in, the more deeply contented I’d grown. What they didn’t realise, what they couldn’t understand from not knowing what it was like to support a team at non-League level, was that the win had been so big a deal, it was its own reward.
I had no need of validation from theirs or anyone else’s reactions. I had seen it for myself: we had done it and I had been there and nothing could make that greater for me. And I’d have sat there the whole day and gone home self-amused if it hadn’t been for Heather – a former denizen of the Pit – sticking her head round the door and asking me if I was going to take them all out for a drink at lunch, to celebrate.
Which, being a generous sort of guy and holding no grudges at their game, I did.
(Postscript: Rather disappointingly, we drew Altrincham at home in the Second Round, a bigger club to be sure, but another non-League outfit. I broke my routine and came home three weeks later for the match. No sooner had I got the programme than I was groaning at the ill-omen: the referee was Trelford Mills, of Barnsley, the same man who’d reffed our only other First Round tie, at home to Grimsby, two years earlier, and who’d disallowed a perfectly good last minute winner. My forebodings were foreborn out: we lost 2-0, though there were no controversies, just Alty being too good for us. They went on to play Spurs, at White Hart Lane, in the Third Round, and got a creditable draw. It was not the last time the Bloods would come close to a prestigious tie).