Watching Manchester United play Sunderland yesterday, on a somewhat dodgy livestream, I whooped with delight in a way I have not done so for quite some time at Henrikh Mhkitaryan’s brilliant goal. But I hadn’t seen it properly. I thought he’d swept it across himself, with his right foot, and that would have been brilliantly taken if it had been, but then I saw the replays, and saw that Ibrahimovic’s cross from the right had actually curled behind Micky who, instead of checking his run and doubling back, had actually launched himself forward and flicked the ball off the heel of his right boot, over his own body and in, for a truly amazing goal.
It put me in mind of another Old Trafford day, a long time ago, when I was in the crowd. We were playing Everton on a Saturday in February 1994.
United fans will need no further clues than that to identify the game, which was a day that will remain in all the memories of those who were there, forever. It was no mere Premier League match, because on the Thursday night before the game, it was announced that Sir Matt Busby had left us.
It was only the previous May that our long wait for the League title had been fulfilled, winning the inaugural Premier League. It brought great satisfaction and joy to all of us, but a substantial part of that was Sir Matt could see it. Could see that we were back where he had put us, were once again what he had made us. The look on his face, that night, the pride restored. Now he was gone.
I had a League Match Ticket Book (LMTB) then, or, should I say, it then had me. It had belonged for years to my mate Steve, but in the early Nineties recession, money was tight and he could no longer afford it, and offered it to me. It had to stay in his name, because such things were not transferable (no matter how many thousands were being used by other people), and the deal was that if he could afford it again any time in the next five years, he’d take it back: after five years, it would be treated as ‘lost’ and I would keep it unconditionally. After all those years of painful waiting, I got it in time for the Resurrection Title: life is incredibly unfair.
On the day, I followed the usual routine: lunch at the Canadian Charcoal Pit at Burton Road, double burger, fried and diet coke, park on the other side of King’s Road, in Stretford, and walk up. It was a long walk, fifteen to twenty minutes either way, but it meant that I was on the right side for heading home, and by the time I got back to the car, the worst of the early rush had dispersed.
I set off, down the road to the underpass under the railway at the famous Warwick Road Station (now Old Trafford on the Metrolink), and out into Warwick Road South alongside my other beloved Old Trafford, the cricket ground. Up the road, across Chester Road and onto what is now Sir Matt Busby Way but which was then still Warwick Road North, the crowds gathering the further I went.
I had been doing this for years now, but today was different. Down the Warwick Road, the ground screened by the terraced houses to our left, until we cross the railway and come onto the forecourt. People milling about, but whereas there was usually a buzz, a constant sound, I had never before nor since heard Old Trafford so quiet.
And that with far more people than usual. I’ve heard it estimated that at least 10,000 people attended Old Trafford that day, without tickets, many without even the hope of getting tickets from touts who had a field day, who just felt compelled to be there. But whilst I was certainly not silent, the wash of conversation was a low hum. Those who spoke spoke quietly, respecting what had brought us all here.
In the middle of all this was something incredible. From the first announcement of Busby’s death on Thursday evening, fans had been arriving at Old Trafford and leaving scarves on the forecourt, behind the Scoreboard End. Mostly United scarves, but scarves of other clubs. By Saturday lunch, it had become a Shrine, a Shrine of Scarves, coming together spontaneously, an unbelievable sight.
The Shrine had now been fenced around by barriers. It was the heart of the silence. People were queuing, six, seven deep all around it, patient queues formed up behind the man or woman at the barrier, paying their personal respect. There was no pushing, no hustling, no fretting about time. Whoever was at the barrier was allowed their own time to commune, before they turned and shuffled out, letting the next person in line into their place.
There weren’t just United scarves and tributes. I remember seeing honest, heartfelt tributes from our worst enemies, Liverpool and City, but then Matt had played for both clubs pre-War. But these weren’t the only ‘foreigners’, and I prefer to believe that it was just human decency, overcoming our tribes.
It was a moving scene, the only sound the whispering of scarves, from people too far back, throwing them over our heads, onto the Shrine.
Once my time was up, I moved round the stadium to climb up to my seat in J Stand. This was a corner stand, an arc between the South Stand and the old Scoreboard End: the far right corner from the television point. I sat next to Steve’s Uncle Fred, who had been following United so long, he’d been at Wembley to see us win the Cup in 1948. We got on ok, but on this occasion, we greeted each other with handshakes, understanding the formality of the day.
We were playing Everton. Every credit to them, their fans were immaculate, beautiful. Though I believe that any club, bar one, could have been at Old Trafford that day and their fans been as perfectly-behaved. The exception are our hated rivals at Leeds United, who demonstrated their class the next day, to the visible shame and disturbance of their own team. Had they been our opponents that day, the game would have had to have been cancelled: they would have started and we would have moved as one and done them, and I include myself for once.
With kick-off looming, the PA requested silence from the crowd, and not the usual cheer when the players entered the field. Dutifully, we fell quiet. The players would be out in one minute. But they weren’t. All told, it was six minutes before they emerged and in that six minutes the whole crowd kept the silence, complete (except for one voice in the Scoreboard End who, about halfway, said in an ordinary voice, “Well, come on then,” and the whole stadium heard him).
Then, at last, we heard a solitary piper, and the strains of ‘A Scottish Soldier’. He emerged from the tunnel in the diagonally opposite corner, alone, followed by two lines of men in black coats, Wor Bobby among them. After them, the referee and linesmen, in green shirts, and the players in two silent lines, all the way to the centre. Everyone formed up around the centre circle, and the referee blew his whistle to signal the beginning of the official minute’s silence and, unbelievable as it seems, physically impossible as it surely was, Old Trafford grew even more silent. Nothing, not a sound, until the whistle relieved us and everybody roared, and at last the game could begin.
We were top of the League, by a distance, but that lead was being cut into by Blackburn Rovers. I can’t remember where Everton were in the table. Everybody wondered what instructions Fergie would give the team. Would he tell them to forget the League for the moment, just go out and play, play your hearts out for him? We hoped he’d say that, but the canny among us told ourselves that busby would have said to concentrate on the three points.
He told them to play. And Everton responded in the same spirit. We won it 1-0 but how it wasn’t in double figures, I still can’t understand. Ryan Giggs got the goal, early on, with his head: there could have been no-one more appropriate, as the Priest at Busby’s funeral included in his address, the mythical figure of ‘the young boy running down the wing with the wind in his hair.’
But Everton, without being any more defensive than necessity and our play demanded of them, held us off. For twenty minutes in the second half, there was a spell of attacking football such as I have never seen on any other occasion. United simply flew forward, in waves, over and over. At one point I turned to Fred and asked, “Did the Busby Babes ever play like this?”.
His answer was, “Not often.”
United were turning it on. I thought that I must be watching the kind of football Matt Busby saw in his dreams.
And in the midst of it, the moment of which Micky’s goal reminded me, and which is the belated point of this memory.
Giggsy had the ball below us, on the left, and played in a cross towards Eric Cantona, running diagonally towards the edge of the penalty area. It was meant for his head, but it was just not quite the right height. Eric leapt into the air to take the ball on his chest. As he did, he spun his body, in the air, deflecting the ball behind him, evading the two defenders trying to cover him.
As the ball dropped, and he came out of his spin, he took one step and put his laces through the ball. He didn’t look, he just knew where it had to be. By rights, it should have been the Goal of the Season, but instead it thumped against the base of the near post, and out, with Neville Southall gaping.
I turned to Fred and asked, “Did I really see that?”
Had I been at Old Trafford yesterday, and been witness to Micky’s moment of glory, for this first time since that long ago game, I would again have turned to my neighbour and asked him to confirm that I really had seen what I thought I saw.
I had a new experience watching the potential title-deciding match this afternoon between Manchester United and Leicester City, and I didn’t like it.
I’ve been a United fan for closing in on forty years now, through glorious triumph and hideous failure as we’ll agree to call the football the team has played since the Boss stepped down.
On the other hand, sometime around November last year, I declared myself a Leicester City supporter for the season, cheerfully backing them in their improbable campaign for a first ever League title that would restore faith in football, the game of glorious uncertainty.
Nobody believed it possible then, when Leicester first hit the top. Everybody knew it wouldn’t last. Even I didn’t, really, believe it would. But I did remember hearing each and every single thing said about the Foxes not sustaining their challenge as being said, word for word, about Nottingham Forest in the 1977/78 season.
For an exact parallel, you’d have had to find me working in Leicester the past month, but otherwise it’s been close enough so far.
When it began, I half-joked that after thirty-odd years of being called a glory-hunter, I felt deserved to do some hunting, but it’s not been like that. I’m not a Leicester fan at heart, and never can be. A League title cannot possibly mean to me what it means to a true fan. The dream I’m living is not my own: I’m living the dreams of people that I understand, hoping and praying for glory that will make their hearts swell, their memories endure. I’m just one of the millions of us who, once we step outside the narrow tribalism of our day-to-day loyalties, know that we’re looking at something we would dearly love to have for ourselves. The support we offer, the urging towards the sheer romance of everything, the excitement we’ll feel when they do it still doesn’t bring us within the magic circle. We are only ever outside the light of the fires burning, but we will point to the Foxes and their faithful and say that you stand for all of us.
Today was the day, the first day, when it could happen. All Leicester City have to do now is win one game. They have three chances at it.
It reminds me of a long ago Sunday League season, 1990, where Lancashire were left needing a single win to take the League, and three matches left, all at home. It was as good as done, but it took until the last over of the last of those games before the winning six soared over the Warwick Road End fences.
Today, a win at Old Trafford would bring home the glory, turn the potential into actual, the romance into the gloriously implausible reality. I wanted to see that happen.
But Old Trafford is the home of my team, Manchester United. Though I wouldn’t, for once, take amiss at a defeat, I still couldn’t want it. Not really. Besides, United still have designs upon a top 4 place, the Champions League next year, plus the pleasure of pushing out either the Arses or the Bitters. Something in the game for us?
Can’t really compare the two ambitions, though, can you? Especially as the Arses’ fluky and undeserved win yesterday makes the top 4 at their expense highly unlikely. Even if we, suddenly, have started to play something like properly again. You know, like Manchester United.
I’ve spoken elsewhere of avoiding games where I want both teams to lose. Never before, and I hope never again, have I watched a game that I wanted both teams to win.
It was a strange feeling and a miserable one. United scored a superbly made and executed early goal, and I couldn’t celebrate it because I wanted Leicester to win. The Foxes equalised, ten minutes later, and I couldn’t celebrate it because I wanted United to win. It was the same throughout an excellent first half: I could take no excitement in anything, was paralysed in response, because anything that was good football, was exciting, might lead to a goal, was a strike against a team I wanted to see win.
The second half was less draining, in large part because I found myself watching a Sky broadcast in which vision and sound were wildly out of sync: the soundtrack, the crowd noise, the commentator’s lines were at least ten seconds behind the action I was watching. Shots, fouls and crowd surges took place without verbal excitement, which would then arrive long after the action had moved on.
A draw was also unsatisfactory. It served no-one, it settled nothing. If Leicester are to do it, they deserved to do it off their own bat, on their feet, striving to complete their own destiny. Instead, like United’s Resurrection Title, in 1993, it might come whilst they’re sat down: Tottenham Hotspur have to win at a ground where they haven’t won a League match since before Alex Ferguson won his first United trophy.
That’s tomorrow night, when they kick-off at 8.00pm and I finish work at 9.00pm, with a half hour journey home. Far less dramatic, far less satisfactory a triumph, if triumph it be (though I doubt any Leicester fan will care, any more than we Reds cared, that long Sunday afternoon waiting to see if Oldham Athletic could keep their unlikely one goal lead).
As a Red, I still have the Cup Final to live for. Though I could do without the name of Jose Mourinho rearing its ugly head yet again: if United don’t finish in the Top 4, I expect to be contacted. Well, if that’s what it takes, come on Louis van Gaal: I can wait another season of him if it means I don’t have to suffer two seasons and a disaster of Mourinho.
This time last year, as David Moyes’ term as Manchester United manager was tumbling towards its inevitable end, I was still keeping the faith. In a working environment where nearly every other United fan had long since started demanding he go, and the Liverpool fans were enjoying themselves and urging him to stay, I was still giving him the benefit of the doubt, still committed to the idea that he had to be given time. But that ended with the game away to Everton.
It was too late to announce my conversion: by the time my shift started on Monday, Moyes had been sacked.
This year, it’s been Louis van Gaal, a massively successful manager with a proven track record, exactly the kind of manager United need to rebuild a team that, in Sir Alex Ferguson’s later years, had declined in quality, no matter that we were a whisper of time away from three successive League titles for the third time! And a pre-season American tour of uninterrupted success and some great, truly United attacking football, gave cause for optimism.
But it’s not been like that. Yes, United are in a better position than last season, still fourth, still with the points in the bag to make the Champions League. Yes, we have brought in big, exciting names, like Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao and Daley Blind, strengthening the team. And we’ve even managed to get rid of Anderson which, with all due respect, can only serve to improve the average level of quality throughout the squad.
And we’re in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, backed with a commitment to take the competition seriously for a change. It looks so much better than it did this time twelve months ago.
So why have I already lost faith in Louis van Gaal as the man to restore Manchester United to a decent semblance of the club that has enthralled me for the last twenty plus years?
On paper, he’s everything that David Moyes wasn’t. But football isn’t played on paper, and points and statistics are not the only thing that counts, especially not when it comes to following Manchester United.
We may be more successful than we were this time a year ago under David Moyes, though the difference isn’t so great. We may have been in and around 3rd and 4th places for several months by now. But it has been an unsatisfying rise to such heights, and a very unconvincing one.
Some weeks ago, Paul Scholes – as accurate with a comment as he was with a pass – described United’s football as ‘miserable’. Indeed it is. The game at Newcastle is a perfect example. United enjoyed overwhelming possession without ever once seriously looking likely to score. Ashley Young’s winner was in the great United tradition of late goals, but it was the product of an egregious mistake, and when he put the ball away, the only thing I could think was ‘You lucky bastards’, and it’s never good when you think that about your own team scoring an 89th minute winner.
Some of the problem is the same as it’s been for over half a decade: United lack speed. That alone is a heresy. United has always been about speed, about pace, about fast, counter-attacking football. That is far from so under van Gaal, where the emphasis is now upon a slow, patient, passing game, forever building up from the back.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself: the old United played with patience, continually probing for gaps. But the eye for possibility has gone. Speed was a thing of advantage in itself, not merely speed of movement, but speed of thought. United sprang forward against a suddenly-thin defence, intent on exploiting gaps. That’s gone: players who dash forward with the ball – Luis Antonio Valencia is the primest of prime examples – now go only so far and no further, before pulling up, pulling back. There are spaces ahead, space to exploit: let it fill: let defenders get back, resume formations, set up to frustrate as the ball is played sideways and back.
We’re having a lot of possession these days, but it’s harmless possession, neutral possession. Hold and pass, and always play back. The days of pin-point passing, threading the ball through spaces too narrow for a needle to lead, are gone. Now, the pass between two players fifteen yards apart is too risky: to reach the space behind them the ball must go back, then round.
And all the time time passes. A second here, a half dozen there. The opposition settle into their lines denying space that United are no longer able to create, to carve out. There is no longer any invention, no pace, to willingness to shoot when a half-chance presents itself: only when it is a full chance, a chance and a half, is there licence to shoot, and such chances no longer present themselves when defences have built their ramparts.
And those big names, the Falcaos, the di Marias, are not performing, not giving of their plentiful abilities. It’s not just Falcao’s injuries that look to have robbed him of his strength for good: he’s not playing the game he knows how to play, not getting in there, not going for chances. He’s turning back, always back, denying himself space and chance. And di Maria, what have we done to someone of his outrageous skill? Will he ever kick a ball straight again?
A couple of weeks ago, Louis van Gaal announced, proudly, that the team now understood him, understood his philosophy, shared his beliefs. My first, indeed only thought in response to that was, you mean we’re playing this shite deliberately? Because it’s shite. It may be winning shite, and there are those for whom that is enough: after all, there’s more of it than under Moyesy last year.
But not for me. I want to be proud of my team. I want to stand up after a win and say we played well, we deserved it, we looked awesome. I don’t want to admit, over and again, that yes, we were crap, we got lucky. We beat Newcastle 1-0, but if we play like that against Arsenal tomorrow night, we’ll get kaylied.
Because I don’t have any faith in Louis van Gaal. Mine drained away, like it did with poor David Moyes, in a game, whether I wanted it to or not. The FA Cup Fourth Round replay, at home to Cambridge United. Who, let’s face it, are a Fourth Division team, and one who were Conference last year. And Manchester United, in that first twenty-five minutes, had no idea how to beat them. No idea what to do to get behind, or between a Fourth Division defence. Hadn’t a clue.
My fear this year is that we’ll win the FA Cup. My oldest, favourite trophy. The big live day out at Wembley. Re-establish ourselves as the out-in-front most wins ever team. Our dozenth Cup, more than anyone else, no share with Arsenal. And we’ll have played miserable and I can’t take any joy out of it. Unless it’s Liverpool we’ve beaten, because that rivalry overrides everything.
I don’t know what the answer is. Clone Alex Ferguson, produce another forty-year old version and stick him back in charge? Clone Scholesy whilst you’re at it, maybe Eric too. Or just get someone who’s prepared to establish an attacking philosophy based on a composed defence and not dropping someone the moment they’ve had a good game?
Because all the big words I came out with, about accepting a period in the doldrums, about having had the Ferguson era and being content with it, well, they are proving to be so much bullshit on my part. Give me a choice between a team that succeeds and one of which I can be proud, and it’s clear which one I’ll go for, and it’s the one I haven’t got right now, and the one Louis van Gaal shows precious little sign of giving me.
Blimey. No sooner do I publicly drop my season-long support for Beleagured David Moyes than the news breaks that the poor sod is going to get the push. If I’d known I had power like that…
Actually, it’s not happened yet, though the world and his little dog Toto is convinced that it’s only a matter of formalities. Everybody’s got the same story, suggesting either an ‘official’ Club leak, or one very busy source, but nobody, least of all Mr Moyes, is going around denying it.
But, unless it’s all some elaborate – and extremely satisfying – scam, set up to expose the footbll press for the scumbag vultures they’ve been all season (which would only work if Moyes were suddenly to do a phoenix-from-the-flames impersonation of Alex Ferguson circa 1999) it’s a done deal.
The word is Giggs as caretaker manager, so we know who’ll be first name on the teamsheet for the last threegames, or however many it takes to get him his record-preserving goal that cements him as the only player in the whole of human history to score in 22 consecutive Premiership seasons (actually, 21 is way more than anyone else is ever going to do, but it is a kind of bummer if you drop the ball at the last hurdle, as a comprehensively mixed metaphor would have it).
Sorry, Davey lad. It was a mistake, on everybody’s part. At least you’ve got a colossal pay-off coming your way. And if it was because of anything I said…
What’s it like to be a Red?
It’s not particularly enjoyable this season, when Ferguson has stepped down, the team has imploded and the whole world is relishing Manchester United’s seemingly precipitous fall from grace. It’s not just the ABUs either: collectively, the Press has decided upon the narrative and anything which deviates from their simplistic analysis of how David Moyes has brought the once-mighty United down to permanent extinction is to be ignored or denigrated.
I mean, let’s say that on this Wednesday coming, 2-0 down from the Champions League first leg against Olympiakos, United rally to win 3-0 and go through to the Quarter Finals. United will not be given any credit for engineering a reversal that they haven’t achieved in 30 years: that the opposition is Olympiakos will be used to relegate the feat and the focus will still be on United’s first leg defeat.
The story is set in stone: United/Ferguson = world beating, United/Moyes = League Two material. And in a single summer too.
Of course, you know that there’s a lot more to it than that.
Though I’ve only been a fully-fledged United fan since 1979 (exiled in Nottingham, at the time Forest were League Champions and en route to their first European Cup, I needed something to bolster a Mancunian identity), I’m old enough to remember the 1968 European Cup Final, and the beginning of the wilderness years that followed the stepping down of Sir Matt Busby. That immediately gives me a head start over the generation of football fans – and journalists – who have not only known only Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford but have known only the glory years that began with the 1990 FA Cup win – achieved against a background of a near-season long relegation struggle.
These people lack the perspective to imagine United as anything other than perpetual challengers for honours. They can summon it up as an intellectual exercise, but they can’t understand it, not when United have only ever finished as low as third twice in the entire Premiership era.
I, on the other hand, have not only been prepared for a post-Ferguson slump, I know what it feels like. It doesn’t make it any more pleasant, but familiarity not only softens the blow, it allows for the ability to recognise that things can improve at a slower speed than overnight.
To be honest, the Ferguson era has been a statistical improbability: thirteen Premierships in twenty years? Three in a row twice? That’s nearly twice as many Championships that everybody else put together, and two sets of three in eleven years when only three clubs have ever won one set before us, in seventy years? It’s been absolutely brilliant to watch, and when, long ago, we won the Resurrection Title (1993), I could never have fantasised that it could be like this and go on for so long.
But every year that this has gone on has exaggerated the scale of United’s success, and guaranteed that the comedown would be proportionately worse when it inevitably came.
Back in 1993, when we broke 26 years of drought to win the first Premier League, I was working with an avid Blue, who was decent enough to offer me the congratulations I could never have offered him. He also warned me, with utter solemnity, not to go overboard celebrating. His point wa sthat, if I revelled in our title the way I wanted to, the way I believed I was entitled to do, it would do me some kind of harm: people would think higher of me if i was gentle, restrained, modest: ie, if I didn’t talk about it at all.
I thought about his words for a while, and then rejected them completely. At that moment, we were on top. It would never be 26 years again. I wasn’t saying we’d win it again the next season (a prophesy that cemented my record and sunk it to the bottom of a pond forever) but we would be Champions again within four years at most (ha ha ha ha ha!). So my philosophy was: if you’ve got it, baby, flaunt it, because it won’t last forever. In victory, gloating, in defeat resentment. Because when United fell away from being at the top, my having been a perfect gentleman about celebrating our success won’t spare me one tiny second of the spite that will follow.
That’s how it’s been ever since, for longer, as I’ve said, than I dreamed it might be. But if you’re going to gloat about victory, if you’re going to rub people’s noses in it, there is one cast-iron rule: you have to take it from others when it’s their turn to be in the ascendency.
And I’ve stuck to that maxim, no matter how painful its been this season: besides, there is nothing more disconcerting for the gloating ABU than to find you agreeing with him in a matter-of-fact manner.
Because that’s the other side of the coin. The press keep making much of the gulf between United 2013, Champions by eleven points, and the United of 2014 who, with practically the same squad, are shedding points all over the place.
There is an explanation for this, but it’s not one that fits the prevailing press narrative, because it doesn’t rest solely on the notion that David Moyes has destroyed United. Nobody’s prepared to even contemplate the possibility that United 2013’s success was heavily flattering to a team playing far above its genuine skill level.
Now that’s heresy, but that’s my belief.
Let’s take a slightly more detailed look at the Ferguson era. It breaks into two parts: first, the breakthrough back into titles, which saw seven titles in nine years, including a set of three. Much of this era, though not the beginning of it, was defined by the You-Can’t-Win-Anything-With-Kids sextet. That first great era concluded in 2003, when United came back at Arsenal, dogging them until the end of the season to make it eight in eleven.
That era was then followed by three fallow years, during which United finished third for the first time. Ferguson couldn’t find a formula to make things work, though United did win the FA Cup (against Millwall) and the League Cup (against Wigan), as well as losing a one-sided final on penalties to an Arsenal team they’d dominated for 120 minutes.
Then phase 2 started. Let’s call it the Rooney/Ronaldo era, or better the Ronaldo era, for though he’d been establishing himself during the fallow years, this is when Cristiano Ronaldo was becoming the best player in the world.
And although he was only part of United for the first three years of this phase, his absence defined this era as much as his presence.
In this second phase, United collected another five titles in seven seasons, including a second set of three. Of the two they missed out on, one was infamously by goal difference only, by virtually the last kick of the season. They also reached three Champions League Finals in four seasons, though they only won the one that wasn’t against Barcelona.
It’s another phase of seemingly unparalleled dominance, supported by the statistics, but it’s by no means as simple as the statistics and the press make it seem.
I’ve seen more of United’s games in this period than I have ever before, even when I was a season ticket holder at Old Trafford. Thanks to live-streaming, the only time I miss a United game is when I’m at work. I’ve watched the team intensely for several years, week in, week out. I’ve seen the difference between what the press states as part of its established narratives, such as the fact that Wayne Rooney cannot take a decent corner to save his life, and that for every free kick he puts beyond the goalkeeper, thirty or more are either fired miles over the bar or hit straight into a non-encroaching wall.
What has been most obvious was that when Ronaldo left United for Real Madrid he left a hole that has not even begun to be replaced.
I don’t mean in his person: you cannot ‘replace’ a Cristiano Ronaldo: by his very nature, he is irreplaceable.
But when Ronnie left Old Trafford, he took with him more than his considerable ability, he took United’s speed. And not only speed of motion, the fast, attacking style that’s a key characteristic of United’s DNA but, more importantly, Unityed’s speed of thought.
Watch a United performance between 2007 and 2009. Even in defeat, United are aggressive, decisive, moving forward inexorably, trying to beat defenders, to get behind and between them at pace. Compare this then with even the best of the post-Ronaldo performances, and United’s approach is completely different. There is no decisiveness, replaced by a willingness to indulge in long spells of what I call pointless passing, interpassing – usually in their own half – without making any attempt to get forward. Especially when in the lead.
The ball is no longer played forward, between opposition players. Should a defender be anywhere remotely between the player on the ball and his team-mate, the forward pass no longer appears: it is back, or sideways, until the player in an advanced position is either covered by an assembled defence, or else has to come back, further from goal, to receive the ball in a position of no opportunity.
Breakaways break down not through over-ambition or courageous defending, but due to the player on the ball immediately halting when a defender gets within fifteen yards of him. Play is held up until he has support but, more importantly, until the whole defence has marshalled itself into position.
I don’t want to start castigating individual players, but in this context it’s impossible not to refer to Luis Antonio Valencia. Valencia was a superb acquisition, a fast, courageous winger who exactly fitted United’s style. Sadly, he suffered a severe leg break, costing him most of a season and, since his return, his whole style of play has changed. It is characteristic of the modern United – and I speak of the Ferguson period, not of Moyes – to see Tony Valencia race up the right wing, with the ball, only to stop as soon as a defender tracks him, and stand over the ball, not moving, because he no longer has the confidence to take the defender on, and he has no idea what to do with the ball any more.
The point is that this isn’t just something that’s started since David Moyes took charge. United may have won the title last season by an astonishing 11 points, but has everyone forgotten how badlty the team struggled before Christmas, falling behind in so many games, depending so often on a late goal from Chicarito, off the bench. What of Ferguson’s final match in chargem, at West Brom? 3-0 up, and then 5-2 up with less than ten minutes to play, United allowed West Brom to score three goals, to secure an improbable 5-5 draw.
It’s not just Moyes. There was a rot there before he ever came to Old Trafford, a collective lack of quality in the squad, in respect of which the sheer force of Ferguson, and the intimidating aura he brought to United was not so much a papering over the cracks as a comprehensive polyfilla-ing of the very foundations.
So, what’s to be done? Is it David Moyes? I’ve kept the faith for him throughout the season, but after the defeat to Liverpool – and especially after his open concession to Liverpool being the better team, a thing that United fans are able to do in the spirit of honesty but no United manager should ever say – I’m starting to lose belief in his ability to build the kind of team we need to see. As far as I can judge, radical surgery upon maybe two-thirds of the current squad is necessary, but is he the right man to set a new direction?
If not Moyesy, who else? Not, for certain, and under any circumstances, Jose Mourinho. He’d win things, but he’d destroy United: if not whilst he was there, then for years after he’s gone. he’s probably the only manager in the game who could cause me to distance myself from my team.
I’m actually coming around to the belief that United would be very well served by selling Wayne Rooney.
I don’t say that lightly. He’s been fantastic for United, done some incredible and vital things, and he’s always being painted as England’s only world class player.
But I watch him, week in, week out. I see him waste free-kicks and corners by the dozen. I see him regularly bang forty yard balls out to the player on the right wing with an accuracy worthy of Paul Scholes, but he can’t pass the ball ten yards without giving it to the opposition. He keeps lumbering forwward with the ball, even though he loses it nineteen times out of twenty. He will not pass the ball to Robin van Persie except under extreme duress, which I put down to having his arrogant nose put out of joint by the idea that someone else may possibly be more valuable to United than he is.
And he is the most completely indisciplined player I have seen at United in a very long time. Everybody goes crazy about it, Rooney turning up everywhere on the field, dropping deep to pick it up all the time, eager to be involved at every possible moment of the game.
Or, as a recent and very perceptive analysis pointed out, a player constantly trying to fill in by doing the job of specialised midfielders/defenders/wingers etc., usurping their roles on the pitch and, even more damagingly, depriving them of the outlet for their talents by being too bloody close to them when they are in a position to unleash a damaging ball to where Rooney ought properly to be.
To use one of Terry Pratchett’s favourite analogies, Rooney is like a metal ball on a rubber sheet, distorting the shape of everything around it. The team, the club, is forced to accommodate what he wants to do at any given moment, restricting their ability to give their talents to the game. And, frankly, having watched him perform so often, I am now unable to believe that he will ever match the enthusiasm and ability he showed a decade before, that he cannot achieve a fitness level necessary to perform, and he has retrogressed in his abilities to the point that he frequently no longer merits his place in the team.
And let’s not get started on the loyalty issue.
All of these things feed into being a Red in this season of disgrace, 2013/14. United haven’t suddenly stopped being a good team: they were a disaster waiting to happen, held together only by the force of will of Alex Ferguson, and now that has been removed, United are exposed, and the hounds are circling, determined not to allow anyone to escape.
But it’s like I said before: in victory, gloating, in defeat, resentment. When you’ve got it, baby, flaunt it, because it won’t last forever. I made every minute of it count, for far longer than I imagined it possible.
No-one can take that away from me. Three Cup Finals and Three Doubles. Thirteen titles. Knocking Liverpool of their fucking perch. The Nou Camp on 25 May 1999. The entire career of the Ginger Genius. Eric.
And the good times will come back. These bad days will make them all the sweeter.
There were rumours last night, late, furious speculation, the sound of tectonic plates shifting, the possibility that the world would change around us, and this morning, the announcement, quick and simple: Sir Alex Ferguson is to step down as Manager of Manchester United. There are only two games left.
His place is to be taken, barring one spectacular hoax, by David Moyes, a man who appears to be cut from the same cloth as the Boss and, before him, Matt Busby, but who’s going to have to go some to prove that he is fit to stand somewhere other than in the shadow of those two men.
It’s a monumental change. For some people I work with, it’s almost an inconceivable change. They have never known a day when Fergie wasn’t the Boss at Old Trafford. I mean, hell’s bells, Ryan Giggs is 39 and has been in the first team for 22 years and Moyes will be only the second manager he’s played under.
I go back further than a lot of these people, far enough to remember Manchester United in those antediluvian, palaeolithic days, Before Ferguson. I remember Ron Atkinson, Dave Sexton, Tommy Docherty, Frank O’Farrell, Wilf McGuiness: I remember Matt being in charge.
But let’s confine ourselves for now to Atkinson. Not without success: winning the Cup in 1983 against Brighton, and again in 1985 against Everton, in extra-time with ten men, and Norman Whiteside’s extraordinary goal curled in from the corner of the penalty box when it looked like nothing would ever get past Neville Southall.
And the following season, United won the first ten games straight, playing football of a hallucinatory brilliance that only those at the games witnessed, because there was no football on television for months and no record of that time. Then it fell apart after that, and a Championship that the media had awarded United in October, ending the long, miserable drought after 19 years, became a desperate scramble to stay in touch and a fourth place finish.
I remember predicting that if United weren’t top six by Christmas, Atkinson would be out.
In the end, he got the expected push at the end of November, although there was no chance of United getting into the top six over the next month.
And in came this unknown quantity, this guy from Aberdeen, Alex Ferguson.
I remember what it used to be like. And for several years, under Ferguson, it was more or less the same. All the dawns were false . Even when the trophies started to come – a record-equalling FA Cup in 1990, Europe once more with the Cup-Winners Cup the next season, even a first League Cup in 1992, what remains uppermost of those years is that long, sad, miserable half-season when we faced off with Leeds United for the last proper League Championship, both teams fumbling and bumbling to the end, neither of them deserving to top the League and at the end we were still not good enough. Not good enough for that one fixated desire: to be top.
They bottled it, couldn’t score, could bring it home for the Silver Anniversary of that long-remembered win. The Premier League arrived, and its first goal was against United. After seventy-eight minutes of the first home game, 3-0 down to Everton, I became one of the first people that season to stand up and shout “Ferguson out!”.
I’ve eaten my words with relish ever since, for that was the year it changed, the year we proved that we had moved on from the bottlers of the previous season, from all the teams of the past twenty-six seasons, the deserving and the inadequate, those who were wronged for not winning that medal, those who would have been flattered out of all their talent to have that medal.
Eric came to Old Trafford, in clouds of suspicion about what was wrong that Leeds would sell someone like him, to be followed by the growing realisation that we had indeed found our King again, the first King since the Lawman. Twenty-six years of loss, twenty-six years of being the butt of jokes, chants of “You’ll never win the League”, vanished in the space of a Sunday afternoon walking in little circles around my living room, listening to Oldham Athletic protecting a one goal lead at Villa that would put the Premiership into our pockets.
It would never be the same again. At work, I prophesied that it wouldn’t be 26 years again, that United would win the League again within the next four seasons, maximum. Instead, we did the Double, I got to the Cup Final, we lost Sir Matt, our universal grandfather, but we experienced the Shrine of Scarves and that unforgettable day, against Everton.
Now it would be the easiest thing on Earth to turn the rest of this into remembrances of the brilliant moments, of twenty years of almost unlimited success, of highs and highs and even higher highs, and a sustained superiority that no-one ever expected, even in that famous moment when Steve Bruce headed in that winner against Sheffield Wednesday. But these memories are public things, created before the eyes of millions. Could there ever be another moment to equal that when Ollie put the ball in the German’s net?
The point is that my memories of these things is not radically different from yours. And I don’t need to list these great times to to demonstrate by how much United, and football and I will miss Alex Ferguson when he walks away from the management of my club after a period of time longer even than the barren years without titles from the Seventies to the Nineties.
Now its going to be up to David Moyes. He’s an unknown quality. He’s done well on limited resources to keep Everton where they are for over a decade, and he knows how to involve himself in all levels of a club, top to bottom, but he’s got a reputation for conservative tactics that doesn’t fit Old Trafford. How much of that is a response to restricted resources is impossible to tell, but even if he’s now in a position to break out and play expansive football of the kind United fans demand as of right, to what extent has he been conditioned by a decade’s necessity.
But then, for me, the last few years at United have been poor ones, even though they’ve included two Premierships – putting ourselves clear of Liverpool and, this time round, taking our trophy back from the Bitters, but it’s been increasingly joyless stuff. Since Christiano Ronaldo left, United have lost the majority of their pace: they have also lost almost all their pace of thought. The team itself has started to play very conservatively anyway: the emphasis is on retaining possession, which is no bad thing in itself, but it is shackled to an overwhelming urge not to take anything resembling a risk. With rare exceptions, United seem to be unable to race forward with the ball, turning a defence to run with it. Instead, they will go thus far, before turning back, waiting for support, but allowing their opponents to build their defence, close down options and avenues. Then United will play the ball back into their own half, where it is safe.
Some individual performances have declined: Tony Valencia is a classic case in this season. The abiding symbol of our year is the sight of Valencia running thirty yards with the ball and then stopping dead, the ball at his feet, a defender standing opposite him – and having no idea what to do next.
Wayne Rooney is no longer as essential as he seemed to be, as he was. If you want a superb forty yard ball sweeping out to Valencia or Rafael on the wing, he’s your man, every day. If you want him to find a red shirt from ten yards, be ready to funnel back and halt the counter-attack, for he gives it away over and again. His first touch is abysmal, he cannot take the ball past players, he is far from full fitness.
What summed it up for me was the second half of the game against Aston Villa, a couple of weeks ago, when United actually won the title. The first half was brilliant: fast, decisive, effective: the game sewn up. The second half was dreadful. Villa were there for the taking: another three goals could have been added with little effort, a show put on for the fans, a triumphal procession to the final whistle and the celebrations.
Instead, United did what United always do now. They played around, passed the ball, keeping possession between their penalty area and the half-way line, and avoided the risk of going into Villa’s half no matter how good, how clear the opportunity to move forward may have been. They would not attack, would not go forward. They sucked all the fun out of the game, left it miserable and drab. When the whistle went, I simply got my coat and went home.
So if Moyes wants to play conservatively, there’s a precedent for it in how United have played this past couple of seasons.
Was it time for Fergie to retire? We’d all have wanted it to have come after another European Champions League Final, but that doesn’t look particularly likely. Mourinho’s probably going to be back at Chelsea, setting a new challenge, and Fergie’s facing a hip operation that would take him out until, probably, October. Plus he’s starting to get a little obsessive about keeping our older players in the team. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Ginger Genius and when he first retired I regretted the fact I’d never see him again worse than any other footballer I’ve known, and whilst I don’t go far enough back for Besty, I do for Eric and I include him as well.
Giggsy, I saw his first goal, and now he’s got more honours than anyone else ever in the game, including as many League titles as the third most successful Club. But Rio Ferdinand as well? These people are not immortal (ok, maybe Giggsy) and we need to move forward.
I think it’s right. A new face, a new motivator, new ideas. and please, more emphasis on putting in the goals against the teams when we can score them, instead of knocking in a couple and switching off for eighty minutes.
Whoever it is, he’s attempting the impossible. Of course he’ll fail, in comparison to Fergie. In our hearts, we know it. But in our hearts, I hope we’re sane enough to expect this, and give the new guy time, like Fergie had time. We’ve had trophy-less seasons before (the Charity/Community Shield does not count) and we came back.
Some of you who read this will look back on my issues with the way the team’s played and conclude I’m just a typical, arrogant United fan, with a superiority complex. Maybe I am. I’m lucky to follow a club for whom it’s not enough to win. We are brought up to expect that win to be thrilling, to excite and astonish us as well as give us silverware. If we’re arrogant, I can only say that so would you be if you had our history and our heritage.
Twenty years ago, I had no idea, no anticipation of what would follow. We’ll win the League again within the next four years, I promised.
So, I’m ready for the future. In the last twenty years I have had unbelievable fun. I have memories that I can turn to in a flash, as if I were still standing there. Alex Ferguson’s given me more to celebrate than I ever dreamed possible, and he gave me injury time in Barcelona and the most unbelievable thing that ever happened on a football field. It’s not the end, but if it were I have nothing but gratitude to him and nothing to complain about if it all stops here.
Thank you for so many things, Alex Ferguson. Thank you for twenty years I could never have expected. May your final selection do you proud. We have twenty Championships, but only three managers who’ve brought them to Old Trafford. Here’s to Moyesy making it into the exclusive club with you, Matt, and the long-forgotten Ernest Mangnall a century ago.
And make sure that we don’t have to repeat that long, amazing day against Everton any time soon.
Of course, this is the ultimate I Was There.
I can’t possibly tell the whole story, because the whole story lasted ten months and incorporated two football seasons, both of which, at their separate levels, involved glory and delight and a reward that still shines in the memory. It was the single most involving, stirring, exciting football season I ever experienced, and every single incident was part of the tide of events that ended up in glory glory glory, culminating in that instinctive swing of Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s right boot that took all of us to the mountain top.
When the 1998/99 season began, I was starting my third and, unexpectedly, my last season as a Manchester United season ticket holder, and my fourth return season as a regular at Droylsden FC. It was also my second season as Programme Editor and the Bloods’ third season in the Unibond (Northern Premier) League First Division after relegation in 1996 (for more details of that season try my book Red Exile.)
Droylsden had finished fourth in 1998, and United had finished second to Arsenal in the Premier League. Promotion to the Premier Division was the Bloods’ aim, the recovery of the Premier League title was United’s. Not to mention another tilt at the European Champions League, which we entered, somewhat shamefacedly, as Runners-Up.
The previous season, when Newcastle United had become the first English non-Champions to compete in the European Cup, I’d called it the ‘European Champions and Also-Rans League’, and honesty compelled me to keep doing so.
The first half of the season was more memorable for Droylsden than United: at Old Trafford, the signing of Dwight Yorke brought fun and flourish up front, and turned Andy Cole into a reliable goal machine for the first time since his arrival in January 1996, but it was otherwise first-half business as usual for the Reds. Field promising youngsters in the League Cup and go out, win games, lose a few frustratingly. Schmeical, who would eventually announce his intention to leave at the end of the season, making some uncharacteristically and seriously sloppy mistakes.
In Europe, the group stage proved no real barrier, even though United drew four of their games, and double-buried Brondby in the other two. 3-3 home and away against Barcelona (those were the days…): twice two-up at home but pegged back by two penalties, that telepathic Cole/York goal of angles in the Nou Camp (who knew…?). Conceding a stupid goal at Bayern in the last seconds to draw, the semi-leisurely return game when 1-1 was enough to see both teams through.
At the Butchers Arms, there was more going on. There was the astonishing FA Cup run: beating Conference Northwich Vics on a mud-patch, with me phoning from Old Trafford at full-time to get the score. The fortnight of rain that prevented any game between them and the Fourth Qualifying Round – the first time we’d got so far in nearly twenty years and only the fifth time ever – that robbed the team of match practice and of its captain and top box-to-box midfielder Carl ‘Sergeant’ Holmes, who had no chance to work off his one match suspension.
It was a magnificent effort but we went down 2-1 to Leigh RMI, with a missed penalty and another, absolutely blatant one, refused only sixty seconds after we pulled a goal back. Leigh went on to score a giant tie – and a draw! – against Second Division (i.e., League One) Fulham (who would be knocked out by United in the Fifth Round). Later in the season we would joke that, but for Holmesie being out, Kevin Keegan would never have got the England managership – because we’d have knocked Fulham out.
But the Bloods were on a roll. They were the last team to still be in all three Unibond League Cups, and they would end up being losing finalists in the First Division Cup but winning the Presidents Cup away to a Premier Division side – ironically, Leigh RMI.
It was making for a very early fixture pile-up, what with postponements as well, so Droylsden Chairman/Manager Dave Pace applied to the Manchester FA to withdraw from the Manchester Premier Cup, only to be refused because the FA insisted that all its senior clubs had to play, ‘to preserve the credibility of the competition’. So Pacey registered himself and coach Pedro Orr to play, in order to relieve pressure on the squad: he even put himself on as substitute in the First Round tie away to Maine Road, where we’d been one down after seven seconds and two down after seven minutes. He even claimed two assists as we ended up winning 4-2 after extra time, and then we were expelled from the Cup for fielding an ineligible player – Pacey. Who had been registered over 15 days before the game, but not over 15 days before the original date for the game, which had been called off because of fog. What a farce.
Throughout the season, I was doing what I had been doing for the past three and a half years, which was watching every United home game (plus the occasional away trip, when I won a ticket) and going to watch every Droylsden game I could. I prepared the programmes, which didn’t mean much effort: they were professionally printed in Congleton, which meant the editorial space was very limited and I just submitted it ‘raw’ for them to format.
United came first, but at Droylsden I was involved. It was a great year. I already had a mate, Dave, who had recognised me from Droylsden when I forgot my ticket and had to pay for a duplicate at the Old Trafford ticket office where he worked. We started sitting in the new main stand, the William Pace Stand, and before long our little band grew to include Mark Rustigini, and Colin Donald, whose younger brother had been in a band. For away games, I used to drive the Pace Stand nob all round northern England.
Opposite the Pace Stand Mob were the High Street Choir, a similar group of fans, who stood together and sang terrace songs, mostly reworded chants compiled by their ‘leader’, Mike Holmes (no relation).
It was fun, and, between my slowly worsening financial position, putting the cost of another year’s season ticket out of reach, and the ever-increasing sense of involvement at Droylsden, where we were all on first name terms with the players, I would end up relinquishing my season ticket to my mate Steve’s niece.
That half-year though… United had lost just before Christmas at Middlesbrough, but there would be no further defeats that season. The Premier League was down to a two-horse race with Arsenal, the holders. It was still early in Wenger’s reign, when the poison still flowed between him and Fergie, when they still won trophies, were a threat.
And the FA Cup offered that Fourth Round tie at home to Liverpool, still the great enemy for all that they hadn’t won the League in nearly a decade: their total was still six better than ours. That little weasel, wunderkind Michael Owen, put them ahead with a header after only two minutes, and we chased our tales over and over until, with maybe a minute to go, a free-kick lifted into the box was deftly nodded down by Coley for Yorkie to run over the line. An equaliser! A replay. Until, in a moment of foreshadowing that so many of us looked back to on that night in May, our perennial dangerman sub, Ollie, twisted in the box and smashed the ball through Grobbelar to steal us the game! Who put the ball in the Scouser’s net? Who put the ball in the Scouser’s net? Who put the ball in the Scouser’s net? Ole Gunnar Solksjaer!
In Europe, it was the knock-out stage. Two first half goals – two crosses from Becksie on the right, two nod-ins from Yorkie – gave us a substantial lead against Inter Milan for the second leg. They battered us in the San Siro, pulled one back midway through the second half, when a freak bounce fooled Keano, but we were holding on to our lead when, in the last minute, a high ball to Coley was nodded down with delicacy into the path of the mist cold-blooded player on the pitch, the Ginger Genius, the man who, in any one-to-one situation, you’d bet your mortgage payment on scoring, and Scholesy sent the keeper one way and slotted the ball in like he was in training at the Cliff. Semi-finals again, like two years ago.
I don’t remember when it was suggested first but it was suggested. The Treble. The League, the Cup, the European Cup. No-one had ever done it (at least, hastily correcting everybody, nobody had ever done it who came from one of the five biggest European Leagues, England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain. Don’t let’s spoil the big story by admitting that it had already been done in 1967, by Glasgow Celtic, who’d gone one better by adding League Cup to the mix, a clean sweep of everything they entered, and all with a team of 11 players born within 30 miles of the ground. United couldn’t match that.)
For Droylsden, the stakes were lower but no less important. Until that defeat, at home to Ashton United in the First Division Cup Final, a second Treble was on. But the cost was unimaginable. Because of that fixture backlog, from the first week of January until the Easter weekend at the beginning of April, the Bloods played three times a week. Every week. Saturday-Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday, over and again. Relentlessly. And they were winning.
I still vividly remember the February Saturday morning when it snowed. Leechy rang up at 10.30am, and half an hour later I was at the ground with him and another handful of volunteers, shovelling snow off the pitch all morning, nattering with the players as they started turning up, Pacey standing us sausage and bacon barms from the local café We were the only game in the Division to be on that day, though when Burscough scored first, we were all for shovelling the snow back out there. But Droylsden recovered to win, and go top of the table for the first time that season.
The President’s Cup was the first tangible reward, but the real goal, the success-or-failure measurement, was promotion. There were four teams in it: us, local rivals Ashton, Lincoln United and Hucknall Town, who were newly promoted from the Northern Counties East League. A ritual began: after each final whistle there was a hasty phone round to the grounds where each of our rivals were playing, to get scores and immediately plot the new top four.
Dave had a mate who played for Ashton, so he always phoned him. I became the Hucknall specialist, whilst Col would chase up on Lincoln. The most memorable occasion was up at Netherfield (now Kendal Town). We’d won 2-0, Lincoln weren’t playing, so Col phoned Rusty who hadn’t been able to make it that day, and was watching Final Score. How have United done? Oh great, they’re winning 6-2, no hang on, it’s 7-2, no, wait a minute, it’s 8-2.
This was the famous game away to Nottingham Forest when Ollie came on as an 80th minute sub and scored four goals!
Back to Europe. United have got Juventus in the semi-finals, first leg at home and they score first. We’re not used to losing at home in Europe, though it’s happened a couple of times by now. We batter away and batter away, and it’s in injury-time when Juve finally concede, Giggsy smashing the ball in from close range, another foreshadowing.
Before that, we’ve another semi-final to negotiate, in the FA Cup. The Treble is still there, to be dreamed of but not yet taken seriously, not to be dared, fate cannot and must not be tempted. We dreamed of the Clean Sweep in 1994/94 and came perilously close to blowing the lot, instead of just one.
The semi-final is against Arsenal, Double-candidates themselves. It’s goalless, thanks to another piece of anti-United ‘misinterpretation’ of the rules by England’s ‘premier’ referee, David Ellary (whose autobiography will reveal his bias against United). Keano’s goal is ruled out by deciding that Giggsy’s push-and-run into the corner, past Dixon, is actually ‘playing the ball forward’.
But it sets up magic, a midweek match of awe and ebb, the last ever F A Cup semi-final replay. Becksie breaks down the Arsenal defence with one of his best ever long range shots, but with twenty minutes left, a deflection off Jaap Stam from a Bergkamp effort puts Arsenal level.
Then Keano got sent off. Whether it merited the card is arguable, but it’s Elleray and Keano’s walking because he knows the fussy little pratt won’t be able to resist it. Ten men, and the disaster gets worse as we suddenly cut back from the replay to see Anelka put the Arses ahead. But he’s offside, indisputably so, and it’s ruled out.
But in the last minutes, Little Nevvy gives away a penalty. Nailed on. Nothing to do but watch Bergkamp slot it home and kill the dream of the Treble. But Scmeiks beats it away! And I am falling to my knees in disbelief and delight, whilst having to contain my desire to scream because I’m watching this at Uncle Jack’s and he had a heart attack earlier this year and can’t be doing with loud noises, so imagine watching this game with your mouth shut.
So it was extra-time, but it’s still all against United as Schmeical pulls off a stunning stage but signals frantically to the bench. He’s not moving. Please, not this, on top of everything. But they repair him, and it goes on to the changeover still level.
Giggsy’s on as a sub, but he’s playing shite. Anonymous, ineffectual. I’m glaring at him like poison, want to speak harshly of his performance but I don’t use that sort of language in front of my Aunt and Uncle who’ve got Sky and let me come and watch when United are on.
And then it happens, like we’ve seen it so often in replays, the goal to end all semi-final replays, but to watch it unfold, not knowing what magic’s about to shine, as the kid who’s playing like a dollop tonight suddenly connects to every atom of his talent, and he somehow bursts between what feels like the whole of the Arsenal defence. And he’s in space and sudden, incredulous chance of a goal is dragging you out of your seat, but before even you can take in that we might be about to score, he hammers it into the roof of the net and goes running with his shirt off, and your heart is bursting out of your chest as you can’t believe you’ve just seen that, but you have to sit there and marvel and just repeat inside, “ffffffuck me!”.
The Double’s on.
A week later, exactly seven days, Steve comes round to watch the second leg against Juventus at my house, where he (and I) can scream and shout as much as we want. Not much to shout about at first, as Inzaghi scores twice in ten minutes, one superb, one horribly flukey. So much for the Final said Steve, who’s been a Red far longer than me and can often be more pessimistic/less naïve than I. And Keano’s booked, a reputation booking, if it had been, say, Dennis Irwin, there’d have been no yellow for that, but if we make it to the Final, he can’t play.
But he doesn’t let it affect him. He smashes on into the game, dictating play, turning up everywhere and, oh wow! We’re back in it, that sweet glancing header from Becksie’s corner. And then Coley chips one in and Yorkie dives to head it in, and suddenly we’re not just level, we’re ahead! Away goals, two to their one.
The second half is never-ending, but we hold them out. The Final – after 31 long years – the Final is coming closer. Our feet are in the door – and Yorkie’s away, luck of the bounce but it’s one on one with the keeper, and he’s hauled down, Penalty! Penalty! Nailed on and red card too but Coley’s behind him with one thing in mind and he slides the ball into the net and WE’RE GOING TO THE EUROPEAN CUP FINAL!!!!!
It’s without Keano or Scholesy, for whom the heart breaks, but we’re going to Barcelona to play Bayern Munich. And I’m going to be there. I have the season ticket. I have all the tokens. And I have a mate working in the Old Trafford ticket office. I’m going to the Final. I’ve ever been out of the country before, never flown before, only had a passport for two years, having got it in hope of a European Cup Final then, before Bayer Leverkusen.
And Leechy’s sorting out not just me but my friend Shirley, a fellow Lancashire member, and her daughter Lynette with FA Cup Finals, so we all three sit together. And he gets me my Nou Camp ticket – just imagine how long I spent looking at that – but there’s a cock-up, because I was supposed to be travelling with United too, but the guy to whom Leechy passes it on to sort out doesn’t get the message, and they’re sold out.
So I go to the Travel Agents two offices along the row and book a ticket for a Chartered Flight. He tells me that Andy across the road, who owns the hairdressers, is on the same flight so I go over and introduce myself and we make plans to travel together.
Meanwhile, it’s the sharp end of the season for Droylsden. After a week off at Easter, by which I mean Saturday-Easter Monday (when Geno Ashton scores a glorious last minute equaliser at Ashton) – Saturday, it’s back to the old routine. Because all Unibond games have to be played by Saturday 1st May, without fail.
Lincoln have dropped away, but if we win at Harrogate and Ashton lose, we’re up. United are at home, only three more home games before I surrender my season ticket. But after all this season, I can’t miss the moment of promotion, so Steve’s niece Natalie goes to Old Trafford and I go on the coach to Harrogate, where we scrape a win, but Ashton draw so it’s not decided.
The team is looking ragged, as who wouldn’t be after almost 40 games in 14 weeks and it’s worse the next Saturday, when they go down 3-2 at Flixton. Ashton lose, so we are promoted, but by heck it feels flat. And this is the worst week of the season, because we’ve got two games in 24 hours, at Radcliffe Borough on Monday night and home to Bradford Park Avenue on Tuesday night.
Monday is a disaster, a 4-2 defeat, the team have got nothing left, no petrol in the tank. Plus there’s a half-time altercation between Pedro and the ref, during which the infamous Liverpudlian threat, ‘know where you live’ is uttered, and for which Pedro will get a four month ban next season, not just from the touchline but the ground.
Miraculously, the team find something from somewhere to beat Bradford 2-0 on Tuesday night. We’re top of the table, until Hucknall win on Thursday night to go two points clear. Bradford promise to do something for us on Saturday, at Hucknall.
That final match of the season deserves its own space, and so I will say nothing more now than that we won, and that Droylsden went up as Champions.
That left the end of the season to Manchester United. There was still some fencing in the League, the controversial 2-2 draw at Liverpool in which David Elleray awarded an erroneous penalty to the hosts after United led 2-2, the sending off of Dennis Irwin, costing him the Cup Final appearance (a second yellow card, valid in Law, but noticeably NOT produced when a Liverpool player committed an identical offence in a much more dangerous position) and a last-minute equaliser from former United favourite Paul Ince.
After being on Arsenals heels for months, United finally pulled ahead. They missed the chance to secure the title at Blackburn, and so this amazing season came down to three games in eleven days.
At home to Spurs, on Sunday, we just had to win and it wouldn’t matter what Arsenal did. So Les Ferdinand put Spurs ahead after only nine minutes. Becksie missed a sitter of a header but, with just over five minutes until half-time and the anticipated ‘hair-dryer’ from Fergie, made up for it by drilling in an equaliser.
Coley came on at half-time, and within three minutes repaid for all those struggling years, all those horrible misses: Big Nevvy chipped the ball from deep, Coley got behind the defence, controlled it in mid-air and then chipped it over Walker into the net to give us the lead that, if maintained, would win the first leg.
It got horribly tense after news got through that Arsenal were one up. We’d won four Premier Leagues by then, one when playing away, the other three sat on the sofa as rivals lost. We wanted this one to be done at home. I wanted it especially, my last home game. As the game went on, everyone was horribly aware that a single mistake, a moment of Spurs ingenuity, could take it all away. On such a slender thread…
But at last the final whistle, our fifth title in seven years. The beginning of what might prove to be history.
Six days later, on a gorgeous sunny May morning, I was off to Wembley. Rusty had also got a ticket through Leechy, so I picked him up first, leaving Manchester at 6.00am, driving and chatting all the way to Wealdstone, where I always parked my car on visits to Wembley, it being uncrowded (unlike Stanmore, the first Tube Station off the M1), at 8.45am.
A couple of hours wandering Central London and my usual target shops, a quiet pint than off to Wembley, Wembley Way and the Twin Towers in their penultimate year, with Rusty wanting his picture of course.
It was a weird team, picked with Wednesday in Barcelona in mind. Keano and Scholesy played, of course, though Keano’s finally was cut short after six minutes by a cynical foul. On came Teddy Sheringham, who opened the scoring three minutes later: a quick one-two with Scholesy, sliding it through the keeper’s legs and in. I was sat at the far end: Shirley, Lynette and I were right behind Teddy’s shot: we saw it slide over the immaculate turf with its ridiculously fussy diamond patter of cutting.
Truth be told, Newcastle were never in it. Scholesy, bless him, scored a second after half-time, and of my three Cup Finals with United – wins all, Doubles all, no goals conceded – this was by far the easiest.
I picked up Rusty for the long drive home, up the A1 as far as Milton Keynes, then transferring to the M6, stopping off for a pint in St Albans, in a pub full of football fans congratulating us on the win (no jokes, please, you haven’t come up with an original one in forty years).
Two down, one to go.
And then the day itself. I drove across to Andy’s place, back of East Didsbury, to leave my car and take his to Ringway. I also met his wife Valerie, who turns out to be the new blonde cashier at RBS that I’d been fancying for the past couple of months. So I made my first acquaintance with the business of getting yourself on a plane: the checking in, the bags through the X-ray machine (what about the film in my camera?), the hanging around. I bought myself a Barcelona map but no books, which is unusual for me.
Then boarding a plane for the first time in my life, at the relatively young age of 43. My ex-girlfriend had told me about how she absolutely panicked the first time she flew, so I was wondering how I’d handle it, but it was a breeze. Roll out onto the runway, start moving, hit that sudden, hell-for-leather surge and then off the ground, so smoothly I didn’t notice it at first. I’m in the air, I’m flying, look down there, that’s the ground.
But the cloud level soon arrived and I spent most of the journey unable to see anything much. It cleared just in time to see us cross the South Coast, see the first bit of France – I’m above a foreign country for the first time ever – but there was no true clear views until we were in the Pyrenees: long, steep valleys, high peaks, a scale beyond any I understood from the Lakes. And blue skies and circling to land. In another country.
All the United planes were going to Gerona, all the Bayern ones to Barcelona. Not to worry, Girona’s only 20k away and there will be coaches. We descended onto the tarmac under my first Spanish sun,the air a haze, distant mountains looking pale. Through customs and into the coach park, a dozen coaches, more, Andy and I hurrying past each of them, looking for our travel company’s sign – and there wasn’t one.
Apparently, their coach wasn’t back from taking the previous plane-load’s passengers into Barcelona.
Every other coach left. Andy and I and the other stranded passengers waited. He’d planned to meet some friends at the Café Geneve in La Place de la Concorde, I wanted to do a bit of sightseeing, abroad the first time, visit Las Ramblas, see La Sagrada Familia. Some people got anxious, ordered taxis, left. We waited.
Eventually, a double decker turned up. Andy and I scrambled upstairs, got good views of the countryside. A strange country, driving on the right, the sun bright and hot. 20K? It was 40 if it was a metre! It was 4.30pm before we reached the outskirts of Barcelona. A glimpse of the Mediterranean – The sea! The sea! I can see the sea! – then turn towards the Nou Camp.
According to our tour packs, the coach would park in the Coach park, and stay there until after the match, but when the driver signalled to turn into the road to it, the Garda refused to let him through, directed him back onto the main road. So he found a space and parked. We were told to make our way back here, get this coach only, not later than 11.00pm, or we’d be left behind, but as Andy and I started to walk away, the Garda turned up, ordering the driver to remove the coach.
No chance of sightseeing, but Andy still wanted to try the Café Geneve, in case his friends were still there, so we headed into the Centre on the Metro. We emerged at the Place de la Concorde station, into the late afternoon air, and the first thing I saw was Marks & Spencer. Seriously.
My mother, rest her soul, would have been over there in a flash, to see what they had that was different from Manchester. Had things been otherwise I’d have gone in in tribute to her, but the whole tourist thing had been seriously fucked by our travel company, so I followed Andy into the Café, but his mates were gone. So we used the loos and headed back north.
The carriage was already standing room only, but as we made our way back, it got more and more crowded, until we were all hemmed in. An anxious bloke, just in front of me, asked his daughter if she was ok: I’m alright, she replied, but I’ve got somebody’s hand on my bum. “It’s not mine, sadly,” I quipped, getting an appreciative roar of laughter from those who could breathe out, her included.
Back at the Nou Camp, with the evening just starting to darken the sky, we made our way towards the ground. The Garda had set up barriers at which you had to show your ticket to get through. Two yards outside the barriers, vendors were selling United flags to wave. Two yards inside the barriers, the Garda were watching this and seizing the flags, snapping the stick off, making them impossible to wave. But ‘harmless’. We located a programme stand, walked straight to it and got there as it sold its last programme.
Then we split for our separate parts of the stadium.
Inside, as I was getting hungry, I paid for two hot sausages on dry baguettes and some coke. Not easy to force down, but I did it. Then I climbed up to my second tier seat.
I was only four rows from the front, almost on a gangway, slightly behind the goal-line at the end where all the goals would be scored. It was a superb view.
The setting alone was magnificent, a huge bowl, climbing high into the sky in three massive tiers, 90,000 people filling it with sound. I’d been in crowds that big at Wembley but they had never been so obvious as here. The light dying out of the sky but the heat remaining as we headed into a soft, Spanish night, the festivities and entertainments spread throughout the pitch, but of no moment.
Thirty-one years before, United’s other European Cup Final had fallen during our week away in the Lake District. Because we were welcomed guests, and from Manchester, the Troughtons invited us into their kitchen to watch the game, but when it ended 1-1, after my bed-time, I was sent upstairs, only to be called down again fifteen minutes later. I saw all the game except the bit where we won it. This time, win or lose, I would at least see everything that mattered.
Both sides had brought their own stadium announcers to do the team read-outs, and Keith Fane read out a hodge-podge of an eleven, hurting from the suspensions of Keano and Scholesy. That line-up had never played together before and, with Schmeics leaving after this game, never would again.
Then Bayern’s announcer read out their team, fascinating me with a brief cultural difference: for each player, he read number and first name, pausing to let their contingent – strong but vastly interior to ours – roar out the player’s surname.
So it began, after all the season, the two seasons, that had gone before it. In heat, in excitement, in amazement at being there, and trepidation of failure.
Which was strengthened after only six minutes when Collini gave a bogus foul against Ronnie Johnsen. The wall lined up, Schmeics hid behind it, Basler hit a scabby shot along the ground, past the near end of the wall and I sat there and watched it run in. A goal down.
A lot’s been said about that game. Ferguson’s maintained that United were the better team in the second half, that Bayern were holding on in fear but not to me. My doubts were underpinned by the misery of having come so far, having left my country for the first time ever, and seeing only disaster, but the makeshift midfield didn’t function, and worst of all, we were not having any shots. Nothing that required Lehmans to make a save.
Then Bayern hit the post, drifted shot over Schmeics head, empty goal, 2-0 and game over, all this way. But it hit the post and bounced back to him. Fresh blood: Teddy Sheringham on for Coley, then Ollie for Jesper Blomqvist. A glancing header from Ollie that was our first, real effort, after 80 minutes. Pounding at Bayern’s defence. Then they hit the bar. The woodwork twice, but we were still only a goal, only an instant from extra-time. Was someone on our side?
The were big digital clocks at either end of the stadium, that started from 00:00 at the kick off of each half, and stopped dead on 45:00. No further counting. No-one in my section saw the fourth official’s board: at 45:00 we went into mystery time, time that could end abruptly at any second. What stoppages had there been?
But we’d won a throw-in on the far side at that moment. Dennis had the ball, but I could see Big Nevvy sprinting across the field, screaming for him to leave it. One final throw, into the box. But it was headed out to Becksie, who tried to shield it, working back towards the touchline, looking for a gap but finally slipping it back to Nevvy, who crossed with his weaker foot. Not good enough, and deflected, but Effenberg put it behind anyway, just for safety’s sake.
And we looked left, expecting and seeing, Schmeics racing forward. It’s last ditch, oh shit this is vital time. Besides, he’d scored in Europe, and I’d been there to see it. Could he do it again, give us the tale to end all tales?
Becksie certainly looked like he was aiming for him, but it was over Schmeics’ head. Yorkie was backing of, taking it on his chest but unable to control it, and it was sliced away to the edge of the area. Giggsy took a swing but it was his right foot, the one he never ever tried to work on and improve, not like Bestie with his left foot, and he didn’t catch it clean, it scuffed through the area and Teddy, side on, helped it on and it ran through, over the line and into the corner of the net.
A tiny moment of hesitation, a look down, like Teddy was looking across, fearing to see the linesman’s flag raised to bar the door against celebration, but he’s already running back to the centre-line and it’s a goal and we’re level and we’ve saved it and give us extra-time and many other thoughts of extreme incoherence as we scream and roar and hug strangers, because we’re not dead, oh we’re not dead and it’s there before us.
So stunned Bayern kick-off, and immediately lump it forward. I’m sure I was far from the only Red who, at the instant, flashed back to 1979, to the Cup Final, to two goals in a minute to drag us undeservedly level, only to concede a winner a minute later. Don’t fuck it up now, just get it up this end, out of danger.
And Dennis does just that, sending Ollie away on the left, tracked by Kuffour, playing it off him for another corner, same side. Over goes Becksie, Schmeics stays back. It couldn’t happen again, could it? It couldn’t happen again, could it? IT’S HAPPENED AGAIN!!!!!!!!!!!! and the roar is instant and visceral, 60,000 hearts and disbelieving minds as one, as the shorter, harder corner is glanced on by Teddy, and Ollie raises a boot and flicks it into the roof of the net, and it becomes clear that this whole night is a gigantic story that Roy of the Rovers’ editors would have rejected, because fiction’s under an obligation to be plausible whilst real life operates under no such constraints and we have won the fucking Champions League in the most incredible fashion anyone ever can or will.
To my amazement, when Bayern kick off again, for the final, ritual seconds, less than half their team are standing. Six players are sitting or lying down on the turf. Of those standing Khuffour is not in it. He’s throwing himself around, crying wildly, taking onto himself all the blame, for giving away the corner. It’s unbelievable. And it only lasts another twelve seconds.
But this is still far from the end of the story. It’s one of those moments that you don’t want to let go of, a potentially endless party that won’t break up as long as you never leave the room. And the players tour the trophy round the stadium except that, when they get down to the corner in front of me, the United end, the games start.
The Cup is placed on the goal-line and the players retreat ten yards, and one by one they walk, sashay, strut and dance forward, in their own styles, teasing the trophy until they seize and raise it and we roar our heads off again, drawn into their public but very personal celebration of a moment no-one will ever feel again.
And then they break away, grab the two gray-suited figures who are standing back, watching with thoughts none of us could possibly imagine. Against their wills, for they have not done anything in their own eyes to win this game, and at least one is hating the feeling that he’s being dragged into something he doesn’t deserve, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes are given a players’ Guard of Honour, two lines standing applauding, as they reluctantly walk forward to us, to pick up the Cup themselves.
And I understand your misgivings, Keano, but this is good, and it is right and proper, because without Captain Fantastic and the Ginger Genius, we would not be here, and we feel your pain at not playing, but this night would not feel right without the chance for us all to take you into our embrace as fans still drinking the gold of glory. You deserve it.
But it cannot last forever. I’ve a coach and a plane beckoning me, an office to open tomorrow, a country to go to where I can speak the language so, though the celebrations are still going on below, I break away into the aftermath, walk away from the stadium, and reach the main road.
The coach isn’t where it should be, well blow me down, but there’s a coach with the sign for our travel company so I grab a seat on that, and three minutes later Andy turns up and joins me. It’s a coach of Reds all simultaneously charged up and drained. I’m so far from fully understanding what I’ve seen that I’m still saying that Ollie’s winner against Liverpool is the most dramatic moment of the season for me! Who put the ball in the German’s net? Who put the ball in the German’s net? Who put the ball in the German’s net? Ole Gunnar Solksjaer!
Eventually, we start off for Girona. It’s a long convoy of coaches, with a Garda escort, and it crawls. At no point do we get above 20mph, and Girona isn’t as close as my Travel Agent claimed. It’s frustrating, especially at the tollbooths, where we’re pulled over to one side for ages. People who have relatively early planes are starting to get anxious. We’re not due to take off until 1.30am, so it’s not too bad for us, yet.
At last the Airport lights appear. We turn onto the approach road but, almost immediately, two Garda wave us into a lay-by on the right. People whose lane is due to take off now are frantic. Two guys who speak Spanish argue with the Garda – not furiously, but politely. Apparently, this coach is ‘linked’ to a flight not taking off until 3.00am, so they plan to keep us here, on the coach, in this lay-by, until then.
Logical argument gets us through. We set off along the approach road, get one hundred yards, and two more Garda wave us into a lay-by on the right. This is insane. They must know that we haven’t crashed any barricades or anything stupid like that, that we’ve been let through.
Another, longer argument, and we’re allowed to proceed. This time we get into the airport itself, swinging round to pull up outside the Terminal building, but, oh for God’s sake, the Garda grimly refuse to allow us even to stop, go away. The driver would happily go back to the approach road where they want him to sit, but he’s persuaded to let us off in the car park, so we shoulder bags and set off for the front door, but no.
Somehow Andy slips inside but I’m not so sneaky. We’re ushered away into the car park, to mill around or stand, in the warm early night, staring at the airport from which we’re supposed to leave this country, bit whilst the car park is fine, the pavement around it is not, and anyone who seems to be trying to get near to that is dramatically warned back, and these Garda have sticks and guns and an air of willingness to use them.
It’s a nice night for it, I mean, it’s gone 1.00am and I’m standing round in shirt sleeves, but it’s so bloody unnecessary. This is NOT the Red Army of the Seventies. It’s people like me: happy, tired, middle-aged, middle-class people and their families who only want to go home. I joke about attacking a Garda: you could probably get deported home faster. I wish it WAS the Red Army 1976, there wouldn’t have been a brick left standing of Girona Airport.
Some groups are being let in, and I manage to get amongst them, which is good because my flight takes off at 1.30am. The woman on the desk where I show my ticket and boarding card doesn’t seem to understand it, but I’m stamped in, so to speak, and scurry up to the vast Departure Lounge, where I find Andy. It’s chaos, utter fucking chaos, no-one knows what the fuck is going on, the truth is that Girona is not a big enough airport to handle this amount of traffic and they’ve lost control.
And we’re English, and Manchester United as well, so I suppose we should have expected to be fucked over.
I don’t sleep a wink. I brought a good, thick, easily readable book for the flight and I sit in a chair and read it through the night, Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope, which is now indelibly wed to that night. The hours pass with the alacrity of frozen treacle dripping. It’s insane. We’re not out for trouble, we just want to go home. You want us out of your country, why are you keeping us here?
The experience takes some of the short term gloss off the day, but at least it doesn’t sour me on Spain as an experience. But it’s daylight and then some before we’re called into a waiting room, to wait for ages, then ferried out to a plane that’s been stood there since 12.30am, which we could have caught at any time and gone home.
I’m a Solicitor, with my own practice. I’m tired, I’m miserable, I’m angry at the start-to-finish shambles our travel company have made. Andy’s pilfered the coach sign as a souvenir, so I borrow it, go to the back of the plane and, row by row, introduce myself as a Solicitor who plans an action against the travel company, get something, maybe £50? back off our tickets.
Rows and rows of people sign up, over 100 names and addresses, as I walk back to Manchester. It’s a strong number, and on a purely commercial level, it’s a chance for my young firm to impress over 100 new clients in one go: repeat business from 10% of them would be a substantial boost, plus word of mouth.
But we’re on the approach path to Ringway, and I’m in my seat. We go out east, turn round. I catch sight of my street, my house below, and then the long descent, the landing, the overdue exit from the airport, the taxi to Andy’s, retrieving my car and home for a shave and shower.
I’ve got to open my office, but first I want to get a set of newspapers. After all that messing around coming home, blurring the experience, it’s not until I step into a newsagents and take in that panorama of front pages that what happened really hits me, really and truly becomes real.
Once I reach my office and collect the post, I lock myself in. Normal service will resume on Friday and it’s going to be a busy weekend catching up, but first I spend two and a half hours typing up names and addresses and writing a comprehensive statement of the day before. These go off to my litigation partner at one of our other offices. He, being a lazy sod and a Bolton Wanderers supporter, lets the matter drift into oblivion after a couple of exchanges of letters, letting me down twice over: as a Partner in need of fresh clients that he’s, in effect, blown off, and as a claimant who got shitty service.
So that was it, from end to end. There were ramifications from that season that run on a long way, not least that, as an odd and unlikely twist, I was to meet the woman who would become my wife, but these things are part of the strain of that glorious year that is represented by Droylsden, not Manchester United.
With the exception of a testimonial game, which I attended in the company of my cousins from Canada and Australia, that was the last game I went to see United: I have watched them on television only, since. It was down to money, to begin with, and to the more intimate involvement at Droylsden, in very large part (with rare exceptions, with United you always felt that they’d really rather you sent the money but didn’t actually clog up the stadium by attending – just think how much outlay they could have saved).
But to end with the Treble, and to have those three minutes as the last I spent. I could not have designed a greater conclusion. How could it be topped? How could it even be equalled? If, one year later, United were 1-0 down in the Final in Paris, going into injury time, how could a repeat of what Teddy and Ollie did be so meaningful again? We’d be expecting it next time, and every time after.
No, I’d had the mountaintop. I’d had Everest, not even Scafell Pike, beyond which there was nothing. It could be my last match and no sense of loss, because mountaintops cast long shadows and in some ways I am still in the shadow of that moment, which I can summon up whenever I choose. Becksie, Teddy, Ollie!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Who put the ball in the German’s net?
I know. I was there.