County Day


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.

Advertisements

County Night


Though next weekend involves a working Sunday, putting a premium on Saturday relaxation (and shopping) time, I have discovered a need to tie up half the day by visiting my local football team, Stockport County, to watch an FA Cup Third Qualifying Round tie.

I haven’t been to Edgeley Park for over a decade, and having thought about it carefully, I think this is going to be only my fifth ever visit, which is not a particularly impressive record for someone who has lived in or about Stockport for over fifty years (the Nottingham years excluded).

And it’s not as if I’m going to support the Home Team, either.

Though I didn’t actually start to live in Stockport until 1987, my family had been on the border – literally: the pavement was in Manchester, the road in Stockport – since December 1966. United and City were both in the First Division and doing well, and I first became aware of County through the regular posters promoting “Friday Night is County Night”, the Club making Friday night their home slot to avoid clashes with whichever local giant was at home each week.

At the time, I was too young to be interested in football except for kicking the ball most unsuccessfully in the schoolyard or during games, and when professional football started to penetrate into my consciousness, a couple of years later, my thoughts did not turn to County, who were probably languishing in the Fourth Division in those days.

My first visit to Edgeley Park was at the instigation of my old schoolmate Steve Callaghan (pronounced Calligan). Cally was interested in non-League Football before I started to take up with Droylsden, his allegiance, for some reason, being to the long-deceased Sandbach Ramblers, Cheshire League members.

County weren’t involved. We were going to some form of local Cup Final, possibly to do with the infant Northern Premier League, founded 1968. This game was taking place in, I am certain, 1970, and featured Macclesfield Town and Northwich Victoria. Steve back Macc, as the ‘local’ team, but I as attracted to Vics’ green shirts, which were a bit of a rarety then, as now. Anyway, the game ended 1-1, and I never discovered the result of the replay.

Sometime within the next twelve months or so, he dragged me back to see County this time, or at least their reserves. The game bored me: my only recollection is wandering around during the second half, ending up at the top of the cinder bank that served as standing terraces at the ton end of the ground, an running to play ballboy at on point, to return a misdirected shot that had ballooned up to my ‘lofty eyrie’.

Time went on. We left school. I went to University, Cally into employment. Sometimes he’d go along to Droylsden games, and we’d meet on the bus, or else he’d appear, smiling around a cigarette, under the uncertain floodlighting. After he stopped coming, we lost contact.

It was thirty years before I entered Edgeley Park again, and once more it was for to games, albeit in separate seasons. County were at the peak of their success, fully-fledged members of the First Division (i.e., the old Second Division of my unconfused youth), bogeymen to the Bitters, doing the Double over them each season they shared that level.

Both occasions were courtesy of the Club, or rather free family tickets distributed to my younger stepson’s school. My stepdaughter was far from impressed, but everybody else enjoyed our visits, especially as County won both. The first was against then-Division leaders Norwich, who were beaten 2-1 thanks to a debut goal for ex-England international and new player-manager, Carlton Palmer. On the night, if a stranger had been asked to decide which side were leading the Division and which were hovering above the relegation zone, he’d have made the wrong selections.

But with two wins under our belt, and County struggling, we used to joke that the Club should send us free Season Tickets, since we invariably brought success with us.

I enjoyed the visits just for the change of scene, because I was no longer going to see Manchester United, and because they enabled me to put vital ticks on a mild obsession. Between various Clubs, I have to date seen football matches at every level in the Pyramid, or the English League System (which is a bloody stupid and non-descriptive name when the Pyramid was so spot on), except for Level 5, i.e., the Conference/Alliance Premier.

County gave me the second tier in that list, though I can’t remember where or when I saw a Level 3 game, unless my memory of both County games being in level 2 is incorrect, and the latter of them followed relegation.

But back to next Saturday. County’s fortunes have fallen far since that Level 2 spell. They were relegated from the Football League in 2011 and went through the Conference stage. For the last three seasons, they have been marooned in the Alliance North, level 6, which status they share with FC United of Manchester.

Since County have wound up in the same division as FC, I have wanted to see such a derby. Unfortunately, home games at Broadhurst Park have always been all-ticket, and the return matches at Stockport have all clashed with me being on shift. Not so Saturday week. I am going to catch a Derby, I am going to cheer on FC United. My only previous experience of an FC Derby was against Droylsden, both games going 4-1 to FC, but on the other hand, I have never seen County lose.

Incidentally, if we’re playing the completist game again, as to the FA Cup, I have the complete set: I have seen games in every round from the Preliminary Round through to the Final, so a Third Qualifying Round is familiar territory for me.

Though I have always had a fondness for County, and a wish to see them do well (especially when playing Manchester City), and though there will be a certain oddity about supporting the visitors in a stadium that is far closer to my home than my team are based, I will be up for’t’ Cup with FC United.

Roll on next Saturday!

Hillsborough: No Comment


After reading this afternoon about the decision to charge six people  in connection with the Hillsborough Disaster, twenty-eight years ago, I wrote a short piece, intending to post it on this blog when I returned home. Naturally, it was somewhat vituperative.

Since then, I have read warnings against such indulgences. Once charges have been raised, commentary becomes fraught with dangers as to contempt of court.

More importantly, it could prejudice the trial. It could be used to argue that a prejudicial atmosphere has been created, making it impossible for the Defendants to get a trial. It would be an unforgivable crime, almost as great as those that have been charged, to prevent a trial taking place that the Hillsborough victims and families have fought so long to see.

So I’m holding it back. If charges result in convictions, I will publish it then, no matter long it has to wait. Justice for the 96, for all of us, must be served.

A Win for Manchester


I watched the Europe League Cup Final last night in a rather different frame of mind than I’d expected. The greyness of the season disappeared in the circumstances of what happened on Monday night, which still fills me with pain. I have learned this morning that the missing 14 year old girl from the Hebrides has now been confirmed to be among the dead, I learned yesterday that the bomber, may he be resurrected to die and be resurrected to die again again until he has suffered as many deaths as he caused, this bastard went to my old school.

So last night couldn’t be normal if it tried from here until eternity, and winning was both irrelevant and essential, and it wasn’t about United winning for me and my all the other Reds and our club, it was about our own and how we will never give in and we will not be stopped, no matter what you do, and instead of elation and excitement, I greeted the final whistle with sobbing, the release of tension.

It keeps welling up. I contain it at work, which consists of listening to people tell me that their broadband or their telephone isn’t working and it’s not good enough, and yesterday afternoon I came closer than I have done in over twenty years to losing my rag with a customer/client over the phone. I was shaking, physically, by the end.

Because I can’t let go at work. I’m not like that in real life either. I may rant and rave here but I don’t do it in person, I sit, I absorb, I am cool, laid-back, professional, so all the rawness has to happen once I’m back here and alone. And there’s stuff going on all over Manchester at the moment, in places and streets I know.

I have banned myself for a short time from a group of friends, a private political forum, that is discussing the implications of all this on the Election that takes place two weeks from today, who see conspiracy theories in how the Tories are reacting to this. In other circumstances, I would see exactly the same things as them, if this had happened/was happening in Leeds, or Newcastle, or Bristol or Nottingham, but it isn’t. I’m the only one from Manchester and I’m too near it.

Yesterday began early, with another Counselling session: good and helpful in many ways but it started with both of us, the Counsellor and I, in tears again about what had been done.

So winning last night was unimportant and important both. It was about standing up and not being phased by it. Had the finalists been our hated rivals Manchester City, I would have supported them to win, would have applauded their victory, would have still sobbed with relief.

I’m sorry. Allow me this self-indulgence. These are hard days to get through. I’ll try not to let this happen again.

A Severe Test of Patience: Manchester United 2016/2017


I know there’s still another game to go – and, boy oh boy, have I never felt so uninvolved about United being in a Final before – but today’s final League game felt like the long-awaited and much-wanted end of the season for me. We might have won a trophy and we may win another, to give us a complete set of all the trophies it’s possible for an English club to win, but the 2016/2017 season has severely tested my patience with Manchester United.

What is it now? Nearly forty years since I came out for the Red Devils. I endured Dave Sexton, I was up and down with Ron Atkinson, I was impatient with Alex Ferguson until the Resurrection Title, and after that came those impossibly long years of dominance, of being the best, of being *MANCHESTER UNITED*, including that night in Barcelona. I was faithful to Moyes until almost the bitter end, and I screamed and yelled and was utterly frustrated by van Gaal, yet was disgusted at the timing of his sacking and replacing with Jose Mourinho, before we’d even collected the FA Cup.

Jose Mourinho, eh? The one man I never wanted to see managing at Old Trafford and the man who sits in the Manager’s Chair, and guess what? He’s been exactly the dick I expected him to be, and more, publicly attacking players in the exact opposite of the Ferguson way, all but destroying Luke Shaw, mismanaging Anthony Martial and buggering up Marcus Rashford for such a long time.

Mourinho puts up a barrier between me and my team, loosens the ties. I’ve missed more matches this season than since the end of the Eighties, several because I work shifts that keep me in work until 9.00pm, four nights a week, but far too many due to indifference at the way Mourinho has United playing.

We are still too slow, of thought as well as of pace, and we spend too much time passing backwards and sideways, and we still play as if we have no idea how to get past a defence, and even less confidence at trying to go forward. Wednesday night’s game against Southampton was the perfect example: we were abject and dull. With the youngsters in the side this afternoon, we looked tons better, and Josh Harrop’s opening goal is one of not much more than a dozen that I’ve greeted with an open yell of delight. And even then we faded in the second half, albeit whilst staying in command.

It’s not like we can’t do it. The win over Chelsea was the only time this season we’ve looked like United, Manchester United, the team we all in our souls want us to be. But most of the time it’s been tedious and unenjoyable. I feel like asking those fans who welcomed Mourinho if this is what they really wanted? Do they really want this unending miserable negativity that Mourinho spreads relentlessly? Complaining about having to play Premier League games after qualifying for the Europa League Final? What the fuck do you think the Premier League is? Can clubs just decide not to bother playing games if the fancy tales them? You might as well complain that it rains too often: this is Manchester, what do you EXPECT?!

I am so glad this season is over, and I can stop thinking about United, and I don’t have to groan despairingly as we give away another lead to end up with another draw, because we started backpedalling with fifteen minutes to go, ‘holding on to our lead’, like how many times has that blown up in our faces? We used to be the Club that played until the 96th minute, now we’re lucky to get to the 80th with a semblance of effort.

Ground down, that’s what I am. Football is supposed to excite you, to involve you, to awe you and thrill you. You’re supposed to watch the clock because you’re eking out a one-goal lead in a tight match, not because you’re bored to death and just want it to end, please.

And I think that the last few games, when Wayne Rooney has had a run of matches because that enables the resting of players who we do want to see play has proved my point. Have you ever seen so many instances of a player buggering up moves, losing the ball consistently, taking it backwards, slowing things down and constantly slinging forty yard passes out to the wing, because that’s the only thing he can still do correctly?

I shouldn’t be thinking that, because he has done some truly dazzling things for us, and he is our highest ever scorer, though I will go to my grave still insisting that Sir Bobby Charlton is a far more worthy holder of that honour. But if that was his last game at Old Trafford today, I won’t weep any tears. I won’t be nostalgic for him, like Eric, or Keano, or the little Scholesy Man, and I will be glad to see a different name occupy the number 10 shirt next season.

Which can bloody well take its time in arriving, thank you very much. I won’t be storing this one in my memories.

Crap Journalism: Why we must all hate Barcelona FC, or else


Crap Journalism is an occasional feature on this blog, when I take exception to a piece of shite written for the Guardian. Having deleted my profile there several years ago, I cannot leave comments BTL (in those rare cases where they permit comments), so I counterblast on here.

 

Like a great many football enthusiasts, I followed the Barcelona vs Paris St Germain second leg on Wednesday night with mounting astonishment, leading to incredulity when they scored the final goal, after 95 minutes, that completed one of the most amazing football comebacks of all time.

For non-Football fans, let me explain that this was a two-legged cup tie, in which the team with the hgher total of goals over the two games, would go on to the next round. Barcelona, playing at home, started 4-0 down, meaning they had to win by five clear goals to qualify.

This was not probable.

Nevertheless, after 50 minutes, Barcelona were 3-0 up and looking capable of doing the job. Then PSG scored, meaning Barca had to score another three goals, in thirty minutes. In most normal circumstances, it would have been game over. With three minutes left, and still needing all those three goals, it was functionally impossible.

Barca did it. They scored three times,the last of them in the fifth minute of time added on for stoppages. This was pure mainline Roy of the Rovers fantasy time.

Of course, the online comments were full of hate towards Barca, especially from Real Madrid fans. But that was BTL, where you expect such things.

Enter this ‘comment‘ piece, one of the most vicious poison pen pieces I have seen outside of the rabid redtops. There is no pretence at any semblance of neutrality. this guy has a bug up his butt (as our American cousins put it) about Barca, and he’s going to squeal like a stuck pig about it.

In a way, it’s funny, but that ignores the context. this is a supposedly major newspaper, not some sub-When Saturday Comes fanzine where bias is not merely allowed but encouraged to run rampant.

Firstly, there’s the tone of hysteria, the traditional Football fan’s acscription of every evil under the sun to the object of hate, as if they’re the only club in the known Universe who do things like that. As a Manchester United fan, I’m very used to that response.

But the specific bone of contention are the two penalties awarded to, and converted by Barcelona during the course of the game, one of which came in that astounding last eight minutes that won the game. According to our ‘journalist’, it seems that these were the two least credible non-penalties ever incorrectly awarded in the history of Football in this and any thirteen other dimensions, because they were Dives! Dives, I tell you! DIVES!!!!!

Now I’m going to admit at this point to having a soft spot for Barcelona, made in equal parts of my visit there for the 1999 Champions League Final and their extraordinarily beautiful football in recent years. Yes, they utterly embarrassed United in the 2011 Champions League Final, but hey, the way they played, it was no shame to be second best to THAT club.

Nevertheless, I still possess a critical eye, so let’s pass it over these two penalties. The first of these was a foul on Neymar, converted by Messi. Neymar had pushed the ball past Meunier into the area, run round him to chase it, Meunier turned, stumbled, fell, across Neymar’s path, and he went head over heels over Meunier.

Was it a dive? No, there was clear and substantial contact. Did Neymar run into Meunier? In the sense that, did he alter his course, change his body shape, do anything to bring the contact on (as Aslhey Young has, notoriously, done more than once for United), no: Meunier fell right across him, from right to left, and was rolling across him.

Could Neymar have avoided the contact? This is a little more subjective, but I don’t think so. he’s running full-tilt after a loose ball, close to the goal-lie, when his course is obstructed by a falling body, right under his feet. Did he have enough room to swerve, to his left, maintaining his momentum, and curve back around Meunier’s body, to return to the ball? Maybe, maybe not. It’s a judgement call, and I didn’t think the margins were that blatant that Neymar could, without disadvantaging his attempts to get to the ball, where Meunier was unable to play it, avoid the contact.

The second penalty is a bit more clear cut. Our journalist accuses Suarez of diving: he does. Hell’s bells, everybody knows that Suarez dives, it’s not exactly the Fifth Revelation. PSG can argue a certain degree of being hard done to here, especially as the referee had already seen through one example of Suarez diving and yellow carded him for it.

So, if it’s as blatant as that, with a referee who’s already seen through a diver, why did he give it?

More importantly, and completely ignored by the ‘journalist’, the defender Marquinhos does make contact. Soft contact, marginal contact, absolutely, contact insufficient to bring Suarez down as he did, agreed. But he put his arm out, across Suarez’s clavicles, almost as high as his face. This is a player going past him, attempting to play a ball close to goal, a ball the defender is not going to reach. Why did he throw his arm out across Suarez if it were not to stop him from getting to the ball, in the penalty area?

Could it possibly be that Marquinhos intended to stop Suarez in an illegal manner that would have justified a penalty? The moral is, don’t throw your arms across opposition forwards in the penalty area if you don’t want to give away penalties.

A rather more balanced piece, shorn of the one-handed Barcelona-are-the-devil aspect, may well have been broad-minded enough to have considered this. But then it wouldn’t have been crap journalism if it had.

Ave, Lisbon Lion: hail Tommy Gemmell


Long before Manchester United stirred up so much fervour about winning the Treble, an unlikely team secured not only that signal success, but one better. In 1967, Glasgow Celtic won not just the  Scottish League, the Scottish FA Cup and the European Cup in the same season, but they also won the Scottish League Cup. In fact, that season Celtic won every trophy they entered. Top that!

What’s more, when it came to that splendid European Cup Final against AC Milan in Portugal, and I’ve no doubt for the majority of the season, this being in days of yore where rotation was a concept that applied only to crops and a winning team only changed when someone was injured, Celtic did it all with eleven players who were born within a thirty mile radius of their ground. Ten of them were born within ten miles.

Celtic had to come from behind, to an Italian team well-practiced in the art of defence: score a goal, shut up shop. But Celtic did it. First, left back Tommy Gemmell drove a twenty yard equaliser past the Milan keeper, then another of his raids forward created the chance that Stevie Chalmers turned in for the winner.

They called them the Lisbon Lions, and what they did will never be achieved again in football as we experience it today.

Now the Lisbon Lions have been reduced in number by one, for Tommy Gemmell has died, after a long illness, aged 73. Age cannot wither him, nor custom stale his infinite variety. Tommy Gemmell plays forever under a hot Lisbon sun, driving on his team-mates to glory.

Ave.