The death reported today of Roger Hunt, the former Liverpool striker and World Cup Winner in 1966 reduces to three the number of survivors from that long ago day. And Bobby Charlton, George Cohen and Geoff Hurst are all in their eighties. The time will come, ere long, when all that remains are memories. There is little else now.
It’s not yet 24 hours since the unexpected news broke that Manchester United had re-signed Cristiano Ronaldo after twelve years away, and this is already the Guardian‘s third article decrying the move, declaring it a disaster and depicting it as a shattering mistake that will further destroy United’s prospects of returning to glory. But this is the newspaper that pens a couple of articles every week, slagging off Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, and trying to get him sacked in the grounds that he isn’t good enough. And this is the paper that essentially first demanded United hire Jose Mourinho as Manager and then spent all its time trying to get him sacked.
So what am I surprised about? No, I’m not. Go fuck yourselves, all of you. At least under Ollie, we look like Manchester United again when we play, and that, after Moyes, van Gaal and Mourinho, is good enough for me.
Only one of them was actually called ‘The King’ in his time, but their three names are bracketed together and always will be. Georgie went, a long time ago, in his own manner and we may squabble over whther his demons were demons or just the way he chose to live his life. And last November, his wife announced that Sir Bobby had succumbed to dementia.
Now the man they actually called the King has announced that he too has dementia, mixed dementia: not for Denis just the one thing. He’s asked us not to mourn him as he goes into the greyness that swallows up all the things he did, the people he loves, the team-mates and the friends of his life, even the adulation he had and still has from us, because he has had these things from us for a very long time.
He was the only one of the three I ever met, preparing for a book signing in W.H. Smith’s in Stockport forty years ago, and I bought the book so I could get it signed and say thank you for all the pleasure he’d given us, and he grinned this brilliant grin, stuck out his hand and said ‘Put it there!’ and my mate Steve was disgusted with me that I ever washed the hand he shook.
Denis Law, the King of Old Trafford, never gone, never forgotten. We remember him this way.
All the evidence seems to be that I’m the only football fan in England not over the moon or given to any other cliches about England reaching the Euro 2020 Final last night, which is odd when you consider how much I ranted at our blowing the last semi-final we reached three years ago. But I watched the game last night in slowly growing disinterest, some of it in reaction to the fact that ITV’s coverage is absolute crap, and in the years since I last had a television the standard of adverts has crashed through every floor you could possible imagine, some of it because pointless passing, where X passes the ball to Y who instantly passes it back to X, and so on ad nauseam, still annoys me intensely, and some of it because the commentary never made even the slightest pretense of neutrality and, by extra time, wouldn’t even have recognised it with an electron microscope. Just imagine: I’ve waited 55 years for something like this to come around again, and I can hardly be bothered.
The main factor is that I’d already had the nearly best day possible and by that token football was an intrusion, not to mention a reminder of why I haven’t had a television this past dozen years. But today’s the day for going back. I slept only fitfully, being too exhausted to sleep properly, and it’s grey skies above and for some way down too, so I definitely had the luck for it yesterday.
I’m still achey and intent on taking it slowly. My train out of Windermere isn’t due until 13.07 and I hadn’t planned on getting the bus until 10.30, which leaves a lot of morning to kill, carrying a heavy bag around, before I finally relinquish the Lakes on this visit. So I walk slow and stop frequently, just like yesterday. It’s Market Day in the Square but I was more concerned about finding somewhere to buy drinks, which I end up doing at Booths.
All my instincts are to buy a book for the train home but all the books in Keswick offer me nothing: it used to be so easy. Once upon a time I never visited the New Bookshop in Cockermouth without buying three, some of which I still have.
But shortness of energy has its concomitant in shortness of temper. From the bus station onwards I am halfway back into the real world, and in the real world people are irritating. The bus driver who wanders off into Booths and doesn’t return until after the bus should have departed. The people who stand at the top of the stairs and peer hopefully into the distance, as if a free seat will suddenly, magically, slide towards them.
It’s grey all round now, with cloud on everything, not just Skiddaw. Nothing to look at. Yesterday was such a briliant day, the only thing that could have improved it was someomne to share it with and the bus would be a hundredfold better with someone to talk to and break social distancing with. I wonder what it would be like to kiss through two facemasks?
At Windermere, I take a break in the cafe, a bakewell slice and a flat white. There’s still an hour till my train and I can’t catch an earlier one (if there is one) because I’m on a specfic single for economy. And that’s when the day runs into a brick wall, as my train is abruptly cancelled. The next one’s not until 1.58 and that’s only to Oxenholme. I’m all right, or so I think at that point, but people with connections to make are milling around, panicking. But the delay is enormous and I’m sore and bored long before we even get away on a packed train on which the very idea of social distancing is ditched. Not by yours truly, mind. I make sure with my bags that no-one sits next to me.
It’s the start of a journey from hell. At Oxenholme I transfer to the Euston train, but that’s going through Wigan and Warrington, not Manchester, so I hop off at Preston. By now it’s a beautiful afternoon, much like yesterday, but I’m free-associating Bilbo Baggins, except it’s ‘The day Goes Ever On and On’. There are ten stops to Piccadilly and I count them all, and when I finally get off the train I think it’s nearly over, but it’s not. The bus journey is torture. I’m broiling, and panting, not breathing, and my stress levels are would up so high that when I finally get in, ready to brain someone, anyone, with a tire-iron, I am literally shaking and it takes nearly an hour to return to normal.
So, ok, it wasn’t the usual tedious return journey, the one with nothing to write about, but in the other hand, I could have done without it. It was as bad as yesterday was good, but it doesn’t balance out like that. Wednesday was still the best day I’ve had in a god’s age whilst shitty ones turn up pretty much every week. I look forward to sleeping.
Yes, I know, I’m a Manchester United fan, but ever since that wonderful League victory in 2016, I have had a soft spot for Leicester City a mile wide. The story of that season was the most thrilling and exciting I experienced since our Treble season.
Then there was that unwanted record: Leicester City, the only Club to apear in four FA Cup Finals and lose them all. Nobody else had done that more than twice, and only four of them. So, all ways round (and also because I want a fired-up Chelsea really going for it in the Champions League Final) I was roaring on a Leicester win.
Cup Finals aren’t what they used to be. The Football Association have beaten, battered and abused their crown jewels, the oldest ever football trophy in the World, stuffing it away in a cormer at 5.15pm, not even the last match of the season. I’ve thrilled to the Cup Final all the way back to 1968 (West Bromwich Albion 1 Everton 0), but in the last ten years even I have staled on it. I hadn’t even watched the Final since 2018.
But I watched this one, every second, nerves jangling. Every year when United weren’t in the Final I used to pick a team to back and I would urge them on as if they were my Club. Well, almost.
I haven’t had a Final like that since Wigan Athletic beat the Bitters in 2013, the last first time winners, the 43rd Cup winners. Today, I had a dog in this show with a vengeance. And when Yuri Tielemans hit a screamer of a twenty-five yards shot into the top corner, I screamed like I hadn’t since, well, Jesse Lingard hit the winner for us five years ago.
Suddenly I thought. I’d seen Leicester’s last Cup Final, fifty-two years ago. I knew they’d lost that 1-0. They’d lost 3-1 to United, after we’d gone two up. They hadn’t scored at all in 1961. I husrtled to Wikipedia and no, they’d been two down before scoring their solitary goal in 1949. Not only had they just scored one of the best FA Cup Final goals ever – even now I’m struggling to think of a better that I’m not prejudiced about – but this was the first time they’d ever been ahead in the Cup Final!
Was that an omen? Please, let that be an omen!
Of course, Chrelsea battered them, or they tried to batter them. Mount flashes in a shot, it’s a cracker, it’s going bottom right corner. Kaspar Schmeical, Leicester goalkeeper and team captain, I saw your Dad play in three FA Cup Finals and not concede one goal and your save was as good as any he ever pulled off, with the exception of the one at Rapid Vienna.
Leicester bring Wes Morgan, the Club captain, 37 years old, not played since December. There’s a tangle in the box, a rebound off him, the ball in the back of the net, the 89th minute, oh FFS, no! Extra-time. Watch the replay: No! He’s offisde, he’s offside I’m screaming, before anyone even mentions VAR… and it’s disallowed.
And it’s all over, it’s all over, and I haven’t been as excited at a Cup Final that doesn’t feature United since, oh well, obviously 2013. Because it meant so much. Because it meant tipping over that shitty record. Because of how much it means to their fans, and to owners who are a perfect example of what owners should be, the Chairman whose father bought Leicester in the first place, who oversaw the League win but was killed in that horrific helicopter crash in which, in the last few seconds, the pilot made sure it would crash where it harmed no other person.
And I am deeply emotional about this win that doesn’t even belong to me, because it is one almighty FUCK YOU! to the so-called Big Six, including my own Club or rather our obscene owners, the bastard Glazers, who will never understand that a thousand European Super League fixtures cannot possibly add up to ten seconds of this game, because this win was eaerned by something both teams had to work for, not simply pitch a few million pounds into the pot (and pulling multiple million pounds out, which is all you’re interested in getting, because you neither understand nor care what a game like this means. I watched Gary Lineker jumping and dancing, but more importantly I saw him tell how he was at that last Final, 52 years ago, and the look on his face when he said he wished his Dad could have seen this is something no man can buy.
So Come on you Foxes. I am so pleased for you. I hope I can cheer with you again. But thank you for givoing me back Cup Final Day the way it used to be. It didn’t think that was possible any more.
I think it’s safe to say that this is more one for me than most of you. The Class of ’92 is a 2013 documentary focussing on the remarkable – oh, soddit, let’s not go all profesional and neutral here, let’s say incredible – sextet of youth team players who almost simultaneously became first team players for Manchester United in the years 1995/6 and who were the heart of the team that won the unique Treble of League, Cup and Champions League in the same season in 1999. This is another of those DVDs that I bought quite some time ago but which I’ve never found the right time to watch. It’s the extended edition too, running nearly two hours instead of the original ninety minutes, with no inkling whatsoever where the additional material has been interpolated.
It’s about, in alphabetical order, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and, my favoiurite player of all time, the Giger Genius, Paul Scholes. It’s about what made them stand out amongst a generation of young footballers that included players as good as and better than them, but who lacked the drive, the determination, the internal discipline to be footballers, to play for the club they all grew up supporting, and for their country. It’s about the common, utterly working class backgrounds of each boy, the East Londoner Beckham a product of Leytonstone and Chingford but no different in his formation from the five Mancunians, who came from working class districts in Manchester: Salford, Bury, Middleton and Gorton.
It’s about their experiences in breaking through and the wonderful, natural, cohesive respect, affection and admiration each of the six has for the others, both their abilities and their personalities. Gary and Phil Neville are brothers, but all six are ‘brothers’ to one another. It’s about male bonding, in a shared, mutually desired enterprise, an easy, non-toxic appreciation for one another.
And it’s about the years they shared together in the red and white of Manchester United, their parts in the Double Double on 1996 and the film is structured around the Treble year of 1999 – Ryan Giggs’ incredible goal in the semi-final replay against Arsenal that took ten seconds to make him immortal, Gary Neville’s ‘left-foot-hoick’ that set up the goal that won the League, Paul Scholes’ pass and goal that won the FA Cup, and finally David Beckham’s two corners that won the Champions League in Barcelona, my first visit to a foreign country and my last as an active United fan going to games (how could it get any better?).
It’s about United’s part in the changing times, the culture of the Nineties, the shift of emphasis from Liverpool to our city, not just in football but in our musical culture – Madchester, the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, Oasis – the overthrow of the dead hand of Tory Government, the Manchester Bomb and the beginnings of a wholesale regeneration of Manchester, all by our own hand, without the aid of Tory Government, indeed, one suspects, against its wishes.
And it’s about me, though I appear nowhere in the story, except in those big three games at the end of the 1999 season, one in the mass of United fans at, successively, Old Trafford, Wembley and the Nou Camp, but it’s about the time when I was an Old Trafford faithful, a True Red. It’s about seeing all of these six players making their home debuts and watching them turn into a phenomenon, a phenomenon that Gary Neville, sadly, can never happen again. Six working class kids, products of tough areas, brought up by tough but fair parents to understand hardship, coming together at the club all support and dream of playing for, and coming through together. I think he’s right, and if he is we’ve lost something we could do with.
The story is a mass of memory. Choosing it to watch today was, largely subconsciously, a badly-needed corrective to the events of the last seven days. A week ago, the news broke of the proposed and utterly despicable European Super League, with Manchester United one of the leading lights. It collapsed with almost comic speed, though punishment has yet to be visited on the participants, and that should be strong punishment, a righteous kicking. My relationship with the club I’ve supported for 42 years is now fractured, though my instant reaction to the news was that it was broken, completely. Where it goes from here, nobody yet knows, because you can bet your bottom dollar the bastards haven’t given up for one second.
But I needed to be reminded, and on a visceral level, of just what United in the Nineties were and meant, and not just to me only. The Champions League Final is one of the three most intense events of my life (the top two are more personal). The Class of ’92 contains all those memories but, in its intimate and honest discussions among the players brought it back to me at the same level of my near-simultaneous enthusiasm with Droylsden, where the football wasn’t in the same elevated plane, but you could sit and talk with the players in the bar afterwards, and travel to away matches on the team coach, and everyone was much closer for it.
As Steely Dan once put it, those days are gone forever, over a long time ago. Woe, yeah.
I’ve just spent the last thirty or so minutes on YouTube, reliving something I’d all but forgotten that happened thirty years ago.
It was, I think, a Sunday afternoon, bright, sunny, Old Trafford packed to its then much smaller rafters. It could have been a League match for which this was a prelude, but the more I think on it, the more I’nm convinced that there was to be a full Testimonial Match for our beloved Sir Matt Busby.
It was prefaced by a seven-a-side game, United versus City, but a veterans game, played on a section of the ground, from eighteen yard line to eighteen yard line, about half the width of the pitch. United turned out Alex Stepney, Paddy Crerand, Billy Foulkes, Nobby Stiles, David Saddler, Brian Kidd… and the legend, George Best. Seven of the immortal eleven from that night at Wembley in 1968.
Of course it was slow, leisurely, without any of the intensity of a Derby game of that era, except perhaps for Mike Summerbee, on City’s side (thank God they didn’t select Mike Doyle). The skills were there, but not the energy levels, nor the accuracy of daily practice. But we in the crowd took it seriously, enough to boo every touch from a City player. And of course, whilst there were only two fouls in the game, they were jokes in their way, and both were from Nobby. Who else?
It was all done according to what was proper. City went 2-0 up, United stormed back to take a 3-2 lead, City equalised with the last kick. Honours even.
I remembered none of it, only that it had happened, and that I was there, and that it was the only time I saw George Best play, in the flesh. He was full-bearded and getting stout around the waist, and he had none of that pace you can see in those other clips, the young Irishman, El Beatle. But by God he was still George Best! I never got to see any other of the European Cup-winning team play in the flesh, not even Bobby Charlton, nor yet Denis Law. But even if he was only a flicker of himself, I saw George Best play and counted myself lucky.
As I am today, for finding that clip of a forgotten afternoon in Old Trafford.
Last night, I watched Manchester United on a live stream for the first time this season. We won again, beating Aston Villa 2-1, the winning goal the Bruno Fernandez penalty pictured above. That win put us level with Liverpool at the top of the Premier League on points, separated only by goal difference. I don’t remember us being top of the table since Fergie retired.
Obviously, there’s title talk in the air. The sensible attitude is to play it cool, tone it down, the traditional one-game-at-a-time approach beloved of football. I’m reminded of another season, exactly a quarter century ago.
I have lots of memories of the 1995/96 season, not least because I wrote a book about it (Red Exile, buy it at Lulu.com), but what I remember is standing out amongst all my fellow United supporters because I wouldn’t give up on the title.
This was the season of the swashbuckling Newcastle United, under Kevin Keegan, starting off at a rush, top of the League from the start and building a massive lead whilst United struggled to cope with missing the suspended Eric Cantona and with relying on a bunch of juniors, the You-Can’t-Win-Anything-With Kids. You know: David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes.
By mid-October or not that long after, Newcastle were sixteen points clear. It was mopped up. The pundits, especially the BBC’s Match of the Day ex-Liverpool player team, had the season over and the trophy sitting in St James’s Park, and you could not find an interview with Fergie, for love nor money, that did not include a question asking him to admit that it was over.
It was the same among all my friends and contacts who were Red. Everyone had given up hope. It wasn’t going to be, this season. The gap was too wide. Concentrate on next year.
I was one lone voice. I, and I alone, refused to give in. The truth was, and I freely admitted it at the same time, that I didn’t expect United to overtake Newcastle. I just had one abiding principle that I stuck to, unmovably, and it was expressed in six words: You Do Not Concede In January. It was like a mantra.
Part of it was that, whilst Newcastle did have this sixteen point advantage, it was tempered by United having three games in hand. and whilst the pundits kept on about their preference for having the points in the bag (a stance I share when United have the points in the bag, just to remind you that I am the same hypocrite as every other football fan), those games meant that United could more than halve the deficit. And when we beat Newcastle 2-0 at Old Trafford on a bitterly cold Boxing Day night match, on a frozen pitch the likes of which were rarely seen in the era of undersoil heating, it was on.
Besides, we had Eric back.
We kept winning. We kept cutting into their lead. Pundits and pals still scoffed or doubted and I kept repeating my mantra. You Do Not Concede In January.
Then we beat Newcastle away, 1-0, one of five games we won by that score with Eric as the scorer, plus another game where his last minute header scored us a draw. Eleven points, solely from his goals. But the real turning point was the legendary game at Liverpool: not us, we won that comfortably, but Newcastle, the 4-3. I remember that vividly, because I went to my Aunt’s to watch the game live and, otherwise an unimaginable heresy, cheer Liverpool on. Amateurs assumed I wanted a draw, both teams lose ground, but if you’d studied the implications like I had, it was obvious: Newcastle to be beaten, allowing us to get closer to them, whilst a Liverpool win only preserved the status quo ante with them, using their game in hand.
What tends to be overlooked is Newcastle’s game at Blackburn a week later, when they took the lead 15 minutes from time only for Blackburn to bounce back and score twice in three minutes to beat them again, the Geordies crying on the telly two weeks in a row.
The momentum was now ours, and it had become a brilliant, delicately balanced two-hander at the top. Against Leeds at home, their goalkeeper was sent off after ten minutes, but it was still a tight, tense, frustrating game until Roy Keane finally scored the winning goal. Afterwards Fergie interviewed about the Leeds players, accusing them of letting their beleaguered manager Howard Wilkinson – a friend – down by not playing with that intensity and passion every game. It’s gone down in history as one of Fergie’s best mind games, given that Leeds were shortly to play Newcastle, especially when it caused Keegan to become unglued on TV with that brilliant ‘I would love it! Love it!!’ speech that I so wish I could have seen live, but it was equally a gesture of support to Wilkinson.
United’s last match at home filled everyone with belief when we tonked Nottingham Forest 5-0. Newcastle still had three to play, Monday, Thursday, Sunday and United one, at Middlesbrough. They beat Leeds, but that was overshadowed by Keegan’s meltdown, they were held at Nottingham Forest (it’s a funny old game…) and finally it was advantage United. A win at Middlesbrough and we were untouchable: even if we only drew, Newcastle would have to beat Spurs at home by about six clear goals to wriggle past us. Everyone was going on about how Middlesbrough was a hard place to go to and win but I never had a second’s doubt about it: we were going to win. We hadn’t conceded in January and look what had happened.
And, of course, we won, 3-0, and we were Champions for the thitd time in four years, and one le down to the Double Double, and my Aunt had let Steve join me to watch the game and when it was 3-0 and certain I turned to him and said, ‘Can I say it now?’ and he said yes and I said, in sentences of one word, “You. Do, Not. Concede. In. January”.
By now you’re probably wondering exactly what in all of that flood of memory resembles the situation today, and whether I really did need to go into so much detail. Perhaps I didn’t, but it was a great season and worth the remembering in every respect. But I did want to make the point about faith and belief. United overcame fearsome odds in the face of all probability and won. I never expected it. All I did was refuse to concede. The winder point is not necessarily that you don’t concede in January but that you don’t concede at all until they have more points than you can possily get.
Which brings me back to Saturday January 2nd, 2021. There’s title talk in the air again, and that’s good after eight barren years when we’ve never really been at the races. The difference is in belief. Some of it is that eight years, and the many mistakes made by the likes of Moyes, van Gaal and Mourinho. Ollie may not be the best manager in the world but he’s the best United Manager we’ve had since Fergie, and in the face of a concerted campaign by Guardian journalists to have him replaced by Mauricio Pochettino, he needs and he deserves time. Hes closer to the right track than anyone before him, and in Miguel Bruno Fernandes, he has our first talisman since King Eric.
Things are different. We’re on the same number of points as Liverpool, not trailing them massively. Then again, past history favours them, not us. Just as twenty-five years ago, do I believe United will win the title? No more so than then, but this time it’s because we don’t, yet, have the qualities, to my mind. It’s an artificial season, on top of that. No, unlike then I don’t believe we’ll win, but then I believed we could. I don’t take title dreams seriously at all, not this year. Mind you, ask me again if we beat Liverpool at Anfield in a couple of weeks time, and maybe…
But in one way I’m no different than then. I still refuse to concede in January. And I never will.
It seems like there was a rush to gather in as many known figures as possible before 2020 ended, with the most sorrwful of all being the bright and cheerful Dawn Wells, aka Mary-Ann from the long ago but immortal Gilligan’s Island.
Last to be reported was Tommy Docherty, once and former Manchester United manager.
Now we say that Once a Red, Always a Red, and it’s true that our old boys are always welcomed back to Old Trafford, even as opponents, with love and affection or their time with us, and there are very few rexceptions to that rule. As players, I can only remember Paul Ince and Carlos Tevez being excluded that, for reasons that included but weren’t limited to the clubs they later joined.
Tommy Docherty, to me at least, sits on the same bench as them. Even though he won us the FA Cup in 1977, beating Liverpool, preventing them achieving the Treble we won in 1999, I can’t celebrate his genuine achievements. I have written about this previously, here.
Now read this piece from the Guardian. The man’s just passed away at the age of 92, do not speak ill of the dead, but the same lies are there. Tommy Docherty fell in love with Mary Brown 43 years ago, and they lived happily ever after until his death. Things like this happen. Married people meet someone and divorces happen. Let it alone, leave it like that.
But Ewan Murray’s piece perpetuates the myth that Tommy Docherty worked so assiduously to weave around the less savoury elements of the man’s career. Look also at the congratulatory reference to Docherty as being brave enough to ship out legends like Bobby Charlton, Paddy Crerand and Denis Law, and in particular the snidey reference to Law being ‘sore’ about it. Indeed he was. Law was well aware his career was almost over. He talked to Docherty about it, came to an agreement that he would be allowed to retire, with dignity, as a Manchester United player. Then learned from a television announcement that he’d been placed on the transfer list, behind his back, on a free.
That was Tommy Docherty, as much as the innovative manager who championed attacking, flair-filled football. The Doc was always behind someone’s back.
But the lie lasted to the end, and it will outlive Tommy Docherty. It wasn’t so much what he did, despicable though it was, that leaves me unmoved by his passing, but the excuses and deflection he spent nearly half a life maintaining, with the help of a lazy Press, too bone-idle to do more than regurgitate crap (boy, that’s a horrible thought. Just imagine if that attitude spread to, say, the Political reports. It would be a nightmare). And the knowledge that in the end he won.
This year alone we have lost Jack Chharlton and Nobby Styles, passing on after long battles with dementia. Now, with her husband’s consent, Lady Norma Charlton has confirmed that Sir Bobby Charlton has become one more member of that greatest team of all to suffer dementia. Not death, yet, but living death. There aren’t the words to speak the sorrow. We will remember him always as he was, in red and white, drawing back one foot to fire another thunderbolt into the net past another despairing goalkeeper.
Fortunate was I to live in his time.