Sharing the Sorrow


For practically all of my adult life I’ve been a Manchester United fan, with all that that implies. And the only time I’ve lived outside of Manchester was in Nottingham, a city whose rivalries are with Derby and Leicester. These are where my allegiances are supposed to lie, and where they do lie.

But two football seasons ago, that amazing year of 2015/2016, I appointed myself an honorary Fox, a temporary Leicester City fan, for that year when all the improbable things that never happen any more happened, and Leicester City won the League. Leicester City. The first first-time League winners since, ironically, Nottingham Forest, thirty-eight years before.

It was and still is a brilliant thing, no doubt a complete one-off, but who cares? The point was that it happened, and whilst I could never feel what a lifelong Leicester fan would feel, I could understand it, and be thrilled for them to have that indescribable feeling. It’s created a glow that lasts until now, and will remain. a lifelong soft spot for the team that did the impossible.

I never knew or understood how much of that success was made possible by the Club’s owner, Thai businessman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. Another foreign owner of one of our clubs, yet someone who stood out from the rest by being in it for the football. For the club, and for the City. We should all of us be so blessed.

That I know this now, and know more about the generousness, the philanthropy that Srivaddhanaprabha brought to Leicester City and Leicester, is only because of what happened on Saturday night, when the helicopter carrying him, two assistants and two pilots, crashed shortly after taking off, and killed all five people aboard. It seems that the pilots too were heroes, those kind of heroes who represent what we all could be, managing to keep the helicopter from crashing until they could get to the car park, where no-one else could be injured. In the face of death…

The Guardian has a football cartoonist, David Squires, who produces a cartoon account of the week in football every Tuesday. Though he lives in Australia, Squires is one of the funniest, sharpest and wittiest commentators on this bloated, overblown but still compelling game of ours, and every week, every panel skewers someone, often many people in one panel.

This week’s cartoon is about Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, and what he did for and what he meant to Leicester. It isn’t funny, it isn’t cruel, it doesn’t stick anything into anyone. It’s a tribute, and in panel four, he produces a moment of such piercing insight that you wonder at how everyone else who talks about the game and what it can mean so consistently fails to understand what it really all is about. A look on a face, and three words. And he’s right, in the caption too: Looking back now, you find yourself wondering if it ever really happened.

I wanted to pay my own tribute to Mr Srivaddhanaprabha, and the best way I can do that is to link to what David Squires has said and done, and in particular that fourth panel, which says it all, really. Mr Srivaddhanaprabha, you gave them that, and you gave a share in that to people like me, who stood behind the cheering fans, adding our silent and not-so-silent will to your doing the incredible. Thank you, thank you, thank you a thousand times. You deserved a better fate than this, this cruelty. As Dave Allen used to say, may your God go with you.

https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/ng-interactive/2018/oct/30/david-squires-on-vichai-srivaddhanaprabha-and-leicester-city

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A.F.D. – I Wish I Wasn’t Right


The new Premier League season starts on Friday night, with Manchester United, last season’s runners-up, at home to Leicester City, the 2016 Champions. And after much thought, I’ve worked out that you’d have to go back to the early Eighties, the period when my gorge rose over Football’s insouciant bandying around of large monies when their primary audience was getting deeply embroiled in the first Thatcher Recession, before you could find a time when I felt less interested in the new season.

The explanation for this is very simple: Jose Mourinho.

I don’t do ‘I Told You So’s, I do ‘I Wish I Wasn’t Right’s. Two years ago, from the first moment Mourinho was mooted as a replacement for Louis van Gaal, I was against it. To me, Mourinho was the wrong man, the incorrect fit for Manchester4 United, our history, our style, our way of doing things.

I wasn’t the only one, but we who doubted were outweighed by the greater number who looked only at Mourinho’s record: a winner at every club he’d managed. And that’s what they wanted: United winning things again. Now, two years on, all of the United fans where I work have the same opinion about United’s forthcoming season: it’s going to be an Absolute Fucking Disaster.

Much of the preconception about this is coming from none other than our sainted Manager who, from the start of a spectacularly unsuccessful USA Tour, has been talking down our prospects in a manner you would usually expect to hear coming from the mouths of Bitters and Scousers. To listen to Mourinho, you might get the impression that this summer’s World Cup, instead of being an international tournament played at four year intervals for the last 68 years was instead something specifically and maliciously designed to make Jose Mourinho’s job difficult.

Much has been made of how well Paul Pogba played at the World Cup, with especial reference to how much better than he plays for United. Now he wants a move to Barcelona, which every commentator has interpreted as a yearning to play for a manager who isn’t Mourinho, and I can’t blame him. Mourinho is also on the point of driving out Anthony Martial, and much as I think he’s a brilliant player, an exciting player, and I don’t want to see him go, I think he’d better for the sake of his career.

Mourinho’s having the same effect in every corner. He’s doing his best to destroy Marcus Rashford’s progress, and the crop of youngsters that van Gaal began bringing through, all of whom looked so promising, have stalled to say the least. United are famous for having had a homegrown player in every single matchday team/squad since before the Second World War: I dismally expect Mourinho to fuck that record over before season’s end.

But it’s the style of football we now play that is the most depressing, to the point where the word ‘style’ is seriously misleading. Famously, United are and since the appointment of Matt Busby in 1946 always have been a vibrant, attractive, attacking team. It’s not enough for United to win: that win’s got to be exciting. We can bore teams to death in a drab 1-0 game if we have to, but we don’t set out to do it that way. Not in our tradition.

That’s no longer the case. I have spent a lot of painful time with YouTube videos of United games under Fergie and what stands out is that the first instinct of every player, once they get the ball, is to move forward. The other half, the other penalty-box, that is the target. In contrast, Mourinho’s United team have a very different first instinct: don’t make a mistake. They play completely scared. Don’t fuck up or he’ll get on our backs.

It’s even more seriously depressing that the old rivalries can’t be sustained at the moment. Of course, the old bedrock animosities towards the Scousers and the Bitters never dissipate, but by common consensus, these two teams are playing the best football going at the moment, and what’s worse they are playing the football we would normally associate with United. We should be these teams: we are not and we are light years away from being able to match them over anything longer than possible 90 minutes of a Derby.

When the rivalry with hated rivals runs out of steam, maintaining the energy of support becomes proportionately more difficult.

By the time Friday comes round, the Transfer Window will have closed. Pogba may have gone. There’s talk today of shipping Juan Mata out. There does not seem to be talk of United bringing in any serious targets. The pursuit of Jerome Boateng, whose record as a centre back is no better than any of the coterie we already have, comes over as more of an urge to buy for the sake of buying. That’s not how United should be behaving.

It’s now been five years since the last title. The last time we went that long, it was twenty six years before the duck was broken. It’s beginning to look like we may have to go a lot longer. Already, the feel is that the big players are not keen to come to United, because they have a realistic appraisal of our chances to win the big trophies, and they don’t want to play football the way we play it.

That’s a death spiral. And we may be in one already, if Mourinho stays the whole season.

It begins again on Friday night. Emotionally, it hasn’t got me with it yet. Not since the early Eighties.

Hurt and Anger


I’m hurt and I’m angry about England’s World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia last night, and it’s colouring my feelings about everything today, and will likely do so for some time yet.

I know that I shouldn’t be. That reaching the semi-final was a triumph over expectation in itself. That this squad of contented players, bonded as a team, under a manager who has shown a high level of tactical awareness has gone further than any cold analysis of England’s chances beforehand would have suggested. Rah-rah England, it didn’t come home after all, but it had got as far as the runway.

But I’m one of that diminishing number who saw that one back in 1966, and despite my careful dispassion, my refusal to get excited or dream too highly, I’d started to think that I might get to see another. For the first time since, well, probably 1970, it felt like it could be on.

And I don’t do excitement much these days, because to get excited about something you’ve got to admit to yourself that it matters and that you have the emotional energy to care, and I don’t get edgy about things because that is that one line from John Cleese’s Clockwise that anyone ever remembers, which has been on my mind a lot lately: I don’t mind the despair, I can live with the despair, it’s the hope I can’t stand.

England scored early. The hope started. I began to think about where I would watch the Final, if we got there, because we were leading, we’d done the hard part, we’d gone ahead and if needed, all we had to do was not let them score. Then the second half began, and hope dissolved early, and I began to shrivel, and shout at the screen, and swear and moan.

Because I’ve seen it all before, so many times, with United, since Fergie stood down and especially since fucking Jose Dickhead Mourinho took over. It was there from the start of the second half. It wasn’t just Croatia getting their act together, it was England abdicating the very idea of scoring a second.

We just stopped trying to go forward seriously. It wasn’t that we weren’t able to, but that we didn’t want to. Attacks didn’t break down because of strong Croatian defending but because we didn’t want to try. Promising advanced positions kept turning into retreats into our own half. Don’t move forward, don’t keep the ball in the Croatian third, bring it back, back, back all the fucking time, into our own half, play it across our back line. Going forward wasn’t going forward. Play it to the wide man on the flank, who immediately passes it straight back. Pointless passing. Louis van Gaal’s United were particularly good at that. Don’t look for ways through. Was Harry bleeding Kane, Golden Boot candidate, even on the field that second half? He sure as shit wasn’t keen on getting near the penalty area.

I know it’s being professional, I know it’s being street-wise. Why take a risk by playing forward when you might lose the ball to the opposition? How much better is it though to play backwards and sideways and backwards again, then another sideways pass, and then lose the ball anyway? Yes, it uses up time, but it gives the opposition strength. They know you’re not going to come at them so they can come at you. Was Dele Ali playing at all?

So, having spent all this time pissing around on a lead that can be wiped out by just one goal, instead of merely being reduced if you’ve, bloody radical idea I know but some teams used to try it, gone and scored again, when that lead is wiped out, you’re fucked. You’ve conditioned yourselves into being crap, into being backwards and sideways and you’ve no fucking idea how to go forward, how to attack, how to get past a defence that suddenly is charged up, because they’re no longer losing, they’re no longer staring at a cliff-edge getting nearer at every second.

Why were we so stupid? Why are United so stupid, time and time and time and time and time again? United used to score last-minute equalisers, now they concede them with monotonous regularity, all because Dickhead doesn’t like us attacking after 75 minutes if we’re ahead. As for England, well, it’s not like the same thing happened only two bloody games earlier, is it?

That’s why I’m angry. That’s why I’m hurt. Maybe we were never good enough, maybe Croatia would always have beaten us. I wanted to face Russia for that very reason. But maybe, if we hadn’t been so fucking passive in that second half, and only tried to score when we had to, we might have been in the World Cup Final again. I might have had a second bite at the cherry. Who knows if we’ll ever come this close again in my lifetime?

And for many reasons and many years I haven’t had anything that makes me happy. Real, serious, unalloyed happiness. A World Cup Final. And against France when I feared Belgium more. Who knows? I wouldn’t have watched it alone. I’d have gone into bloody work on a day when I’m not working and watched it there, in the midst.

But we had to go and kick ourselves in our own heads out of sheer stupidity again, and I am so sick of seeing that, and I cannot celebrate what we have achieved, and I can’t be philosophical about it because I am angry and I am hurt, and because I forgot to despair. And despair is good, despair is comfortable, despair is your friend.

In blogs, nobody can hear you scream. Which is a good job for you lot at the moment because I’d blow your eardrums out.

Wem-ber-ley!


Remember this?

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.

And then there were eight…


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.