Nothing’s ever like it used to be, and I’m at the age where mostly it was better back then, especially if ‘back then’ is being measured in decades and I was considerably younger and fitter. Especially fitter.
Sadly, FA Cup Final Day is one such thing. I mean, it used to be sacrosanct. Seriously. Cup Final Day was Cup Final Day and nothing stood in its way. No-one would have dreamed of organising a major event for the same day (I’m looking at you, Windsors, or rather I’m not looking at you because I am not interested). It was the showpiece day, the only Football game to be televised all year, and on both channels too – I go back to the days when BBC1 was BBC, full stop – and the entire day’s coverage was devoted to Cup Final preparations. From about 9.30am. On each channel.
Nowadays, we’re lucky it gets televised at all, and the days of that immovable 3.00pm kick-off are as dead as the Twin Towers Wembley. 5.30pm on a Saturday afternoon is complete crap. But that’s an argument that has been lost: I work with a guy in his twenties, football fan, rugby player, cricket lover,total enthusiast, and he has said, openly, that he doesn’t care about the FA Cup, that it doesn’t mean a thing to him.
He’s the future, I’m the past.
Several things are depressing my eagerness for the game today: the excessive wait for the bloody thing to even get started, hanging around to avoid that wedding, Jose Mourinho, the prospect of the actual game being as shitty to watch as the one in 2007 even if we win, Jose Mourinho.
Then again, if we win this, we go level with Arsenal again, 13 wins. Only one other team that has once held the record for FA Cup wins has come back to draw level after losing that record, and that was Blackburn Rovers, who never held that record exclusively but only shared it (albeit for decades). No team has done that twice. No team that has once held the record for FA Cup wins has come back to regain that record. Let’s see if United can do it first.
There’s already something special about this game, as this is only the second time the same two teams have contested the Final three times: Arsenal and Newcastle United are the only others.
This in Manchester United’s twentieth Cup Final. All bar two of these have taken place in my life-time, and it will be the fifteenth I have watched, either on TV or at the old Wembley. Wem-ber-ley, Wem-ber-ley, We’re the famous Man United and we’re going to Wem-ber-ley. Recollections in brief:
1976: disappointment as a semi-neutral, more concerned with Droylsden than any other team.
1977: elation. You can’t not get excited about beating Liverpool, especially when you’re busting up their Treble.
1979: my first as a fully-fledged, albeit Armchair Red. The ignorant call it a classic but it was a dull, one-sided affair for 85 minutes and only that last five, from United’s consolation goal, through Sammy Mac’s equaliser to the kicker of Sunderland’s winning goal, was memorable. I nearly broke the TV switch turning it off.
1983: watching the Final at poor dear Rose’s, a terrible ordeal, watching the Replay at home and bursting with glee. Stevie Foster, what a difference you have made!
1985: sitting on the floor, my back against the armchair, and nearly hitting the roof when Norman Whiteside scored that incredible goal!
1990: watching the Final at my girlfriend’s, seeing her daughter – who I’d taken to her first United game only four months earlier – silently crying when we were 3-2 down, and squeezing her shoulder in sympathy, just before Sparky scored the equaliser, watching the Replay at home and wanting to kick Jimmy Hill’s head in for the way he tried to make United share the blame for Palace’s fouling tactics.
1994: watching in Wembley itself, not having to hear John Motson’s commentary, forgetting we’d won the Double until we were 3-0 up because this – THIS! – was the Cup Final and I WAS THERE!
1995: feeling bloody miserable, but at least I wasn’t there.
1996: in Wembley again, the Double Double, the guy who scored that hat-trick against Droylsden and Eric’s goal, the net bulging suddenly when I hadn’t seen the ball move!
1999: perfect sunshine, the diamond mowing, sitting with Shirley and Lynette, right behind the line of Teddie’s goal, the Third Double, and the middle leg of the Treble, the middle of that incredible eleven days.
2004: at home, en famille, Ronnie and Rudy, not the same from Cardiff.
2005: the horror of being the first Cup Final to be settled on a penalty shoot-out, and no, it wouldn’t have been any better if we’d won it, but after battering them for 120 minutes, argh!
2007: the first Final at New Wembley, shite game, the Fourth Double denied: I have witnesses to the fact that after eighty minutes I said that if the FA had any guts, they’d walk onto the pitch, confiscate the ball and abandon the Cup, unawarded, on the grounds that neither team deserved to win it.
2016: a 5.30pm kick-off is shite, Pardew’s stupid dance, extra-time again, that unexpected winner and the whole thing marred by the announcement, before we even went up for the Cup, that Mourinho was taking over: I wanted van Gaal gone, but he deserved to at least have this moment of glory before they shat on him.
2018: memories yet to be made.
I hope that, by 5.30pm, I can summon at least some of the proper enthusiasm, but the way Mourinho has got the team playing leaves me bored and depressed. I know that my usual statement on occasions like this is, “Sod enjoying the game, I wanna enjoy the result!”, but for a very long time under Fergie, you were pretty much guaranteed both. Today, the chances are… debatable, at best.
Let’s see what follow-up I post tonight.
Eleven men on a golden afternoon in the memories of anyone who was there to see. The Golden Boy who captained the team, the youngest man, and now the graceful left-back who didn’t allow a mistake anyone could have made to faze him.
It’s astonishing, indeed magical, that over fifty years later, eight of England’s only World Cup winning team remain with us. Ray Wilson made it nine until yesterday.
The glory will surround him forever.
Have they tried playing exciting football?
It’s the middle of the afternoon whilst I write this, I’m supposed to be having a one-to-one session with my manager, except that he’s not come in today. It’s snowing, thin, weedy stuff, which is not sticking anywhere near the main road on which our office building stands, though I wonder what I will find on my side-street in another six hours time.
Snow is fitting, snow to mark the anniversary, now sixty years, of the Munich Air Disaster, to mark the end of the possibilities represented by the Manchester United team of the late Fifties, the famous Busby Babes.
There’s been some wonderfully sensitive writing about this matter over the last couple of days, none more so than Paul Wilson, in the Guardian . For all the wonderful career he has had, everybody knows that Sir Bobby Charlton would hand all of it back to have had his mates live on with him, to not have to be the survivor flooded with the guilt and the bemusement of why they have been selected to live.
Some of the comments below the line are as you might fear, and they can go to hell. Some of them rightly point to how United has neglected its responsibilities, not only to the survivors but to Jimmy Murphy, without whom the club might easily have collapsed. Most of them are from human beings, who refuse to be tribal on a day when tribes are irrelevant, who recognise that fans have more in common with each other than with the outsiders who don’t get enthused about our game.
To all of you and all of us, this is the saddest day of the football year. To those two remaining survivors of the crash, I can only begin to guess at how unbearable a day this must be, and how they will never know peace about this until the team is back together, those heavy boots, those heavy laced-up footballs, and the numbers one to eleven on fresh, bright red shirts.
What time is kick-off on Saturday?
I have never liked him. A lot of it is that he played for and managed Liverpool, but at least half of it is that I just don’t like him. It happens like that sometimes.
There was an interview with him in the Guardian yesterday, on the eve of the premiere of a film about him, a film I won’t be going to see. In many ways, responding to the questions, he was the Dalglish I simply don’t like. But the subject came to Hillsborough. I learned, for the first time, that his then-15 year old son Paul was on the Leppings Lane End, though thankfully he was unhurt. Then they asked him about ‘closure’, in the light of the long-overdue exoneration of the fans from the decades of lies by the Scum newspaper. And he said this:
“I don’t know what closure would be for us,(…) As long as we’re living we will support the families. So … we wouldn’t have a closure. I wouldn’t have a closure. At least the families have been totally exonerated. The families have been punished doubly by losing their loved ones and by spending the rest of their lives trying to get justice and solace.”
I am still not going to like him. But the responsibility he took when that happened was unflinchingly to be admired, and this admission that there can never be a point at which he can put this behind him… I am relieved to admit that I cannot imagine what that must be like. But it changes and enhances my respect for Kenny Dalglish, and I can only hope that one day he can discover a kind of piece that comes without leaving this life behind.
And my implacable hatred for all the bastards responsible, and those who still wriggle to avoid the consequences of that responsibility, grows even hotter.
This was the day of my trip to Edgeley Park to see FC United of Manchester visit Stockport County in the FA Cup. And a right old day it was.
I was awake, and unexpectedly refreshed at an unusually early hour for me, though I’m paying for it just now. There were things to do, as there always are when the resting weekend is cut back to only one day, and I had had to plan my movements to take everything in.
After finishing the Library book I had to renew today, I went from reading to writing. I have been putting together scenes for something I’m not sure should emerge as a publishable book, but which is enabling me to keep my creative juices flowing. I’d taken time to come up with a partial synopsis which showed that several scenes were radically inconsistent with the timeline. But with some judicious cutting-and-pasting, some re-writing here and there, a bit of linking material, it all hung together perfectly well.
Then there were the eBay sales to wrap so I could be at Stockport Central Post Office to despatch them before 12.30pm. Some lunch, eaten under a sometimes dripping tree in Mersey Square: this is a grey day, dull and miserable but I’ve lasted all through September without having needed to put the Central Heating on, which is better than last ‘summer’.
Then up the steps, past the office, and return that book to the Library. Then it’s off to Edgeley Park. Though this is a two-bus journey, it’s hardly long-distance. I am outside Gates 3 and 4 (Visiting fans) for ten to two,and only one FC fan before me. Like me, it’s his first game of the season, although he has better reasons for it than I since he’s come from Solihull.
Indeed, as a small crowd of about a dozen accumulates over the next hour until the gates are actually opened, I’m starting to feel I’m the only one from Manchester. I’m certainly the only one from Stockport.
By the time we’re let in, my knees are making it known that they’re going to get me for all this time spent standing and my easing-but-still-sore right heel is also making noises. I’m actually first through the turnstiles, at the end that was once that cinder bank of long ago, and which is now a fenced-off, cut down, closed stretch of terracing. We FC fans have two blocks of the stand on the far side.
The turnstiles have been timely as it’s just setting in to rain, a quiet, spotty drizzle that dampens the Futoshiki in my paper. I’ve chosen an aisle seat about half way up: decent views without complication. The far end, the Cheadle End if I remember correctly, is the main and most towering stand. It winds up about half full, if that, and somebody’s got a bloody drum, arghhh, but I remember that practically heaving, when we were here all that time ago, against Norwich in what’s now the Championship.
All’s well until the main mass of FC fans start trickling in faster from about 2.30pm. It fills in to my left, towards the halfway line. The singing starts at ten to three and it never stops: we drown out the numerically superior home support, we always do.
The problem is, most people are standing. As long as they’re left of me that’s fine, but there are people standing directly in front of me, in this sparser-crowded fringe. The game’s started, County’s players are universally bigger, stronger, faster and quicker-thinking than hours, I’m constantly demanding people sit down, but if they sit down there are people standing in front of them that I can see over but they can’t. It’s wet, we’re getting out-played, my frustration is growing exponentially.
We’re fifteen to twenty minutes in when County take advantage of a bloody awful slip to score. I’m hating every minute of this. I can’t just stand myself, not for ninety minutes, not with all the knackered bits of me that will give me agony. I’ve never walked out of a football match before the final whistle in my life, but I’ve already thought about it.
This is awful. I used to love my football so much. all those miles chasing around northern England, following Droylsden to some right little shitholes. I can’t cope with this. I’m looking at my last football match.
After about twenty minutes, I storm away, hoping maybe for a spare front row seat. I’d rather sit there and get rained on than endure this, and it’s now coming down strong and steady, like an English monsoon, polite and unemotional. There are actual lots of second row seats, from which I can see alright, if at practically ground level. My screaming pitch slowly unwinds.
FC’s pitch isn’t getting any better. A free-kick’s conceded on the edge of our penalty area. From my perspective, the wall’s leaving about two-thirds of the goal uncovered, and it becomes the most predictable free-kick goal I’ve ever seen, at least since Mario Basler in the Nou Camp, when it’s blasted in for 2-0.
Well, that’s it, and it becomes even itter when County make it three just before half-time. I read my book in peace and quiet. My mind goes back to a rainy day in March1996, Gainsborough Trinity away, nice place, have an internet friend lives there. They stuffed us 7-1, still the biggest defeat I’ve ever seen. It could be beaten second half, day like this.
And it’s more of the same. We’re too small, too slow, especially in our thinking. Then, about fifteen minutes in, we start stringing the passes abut a bit. We’re getting behind them on the left. The ball comes over, low, our no. 9 turns with it, fires, it’s in the corner, we’ve scored.
My spotty attendance record means that this is actually the first time I’ve seen FC score since the last home match of the 2014/15 season, so it’s worth a cheer, a feeling of relief. It’s a consolation.
about a minute later, we’re screaming again because it looks like we got another, but no, side-netting. But FC are transformed. They’re pressing, probing, keeping County on the back foot. It’s all positive. If we could get another, it would frighten them to death, and we cut hem open with some swift passing and there’s Tom Greaves, a veteran who’s only playing today because of other lads being cup-tied, and he’s banging it into a half-empty net and it is 3-2 and it;’s a different game now and I’m a transformed as FC.
I’m remembering another day, another game. We’re not there yet, the final condition hasn’t come up, but maybe it will because it’s a penalty, a bloody penalty! I have not been so tense about seeing a penalty scored since Eric’s first in 1994, and that was Wembley and the bloody Final, and we’ve scored! It’s 3-3. Bloody hell, football.
And that day can now be remembered. 11th November, 1973. My eighteenth birthday. My girlfriend home from University in London for the weekend, invited to tea, have to miss Droylsden at home. Only to find that was the day they went in 3-0 at half-time and came back to win 4-3 in the 88th minute. I have never seen that happen. I’ve seen Droylsden come back from 3-0 to draw but they got the first before half-time. It’s not like this. Is my long penance going to be over? Am I finally to see the proper comeback?
But I’m still waiting. 3-3, replay Tuesday. Off in the rain for the bus, queues of cars, queues of passengers. Never a penalty, he got the ball, liner saw it. I say nothing. Change buses in thestation, a 7 that goes via Tescos but I’m breaking my journey home for the Asda at the top of Lancashire Hill, and there’s a Pepperoni Feast pizza going in the oven once I’ve finished this.
So that was my fifth visit to Edgeley Park. If life goes to pattern, there’ll be another one next year then nothing for three decades, by which time I reckon that my knee, my hip and my heel will have seen me off, unless I’ve the genetic durability of a Harry Dean Stanton.
But maybe that won’t be my last football match after all.