That astonishing season of 1998/99, the background of which I have described at some length in “The Mountaintop”, came to its own incredible climax with Droylsden on 1 May 1999.
To reset the scene, after a very long season and getting on for sixty games played, and four months of almost non-stop playing Saturday – Tuesday – Thursday – Saturday, Droylsden had secured promotion to the Unibond (Northern Premier) League Premier Division, three years after their previous relegation.
All that remained was to sort out which of us and Nottinghamshire’s Hucknall Town would be Champions. The ball was in Hucknall’s court: they had 85 points to our 83, and a two-goal advantage in goal difference. However, we had the edge in goals scored, which would be used if points and goal difference were levelled, having scored (and conceded) about twenty more goals than they.
So the options were limited. A Hucknall win would make them Champions irrespective of what we did, whilst our dropping points made them Champions irrespective of what they did. Only if we won and they didn’t could we top the table. Win-lose, and we were Champions by a point, win-draw and another factor crept in, for we would have to win by a minimum two goal margin, So, of the nine possible combinations of two results, only one-and-a-half options would serve us. So the odds were slim.
Hucknall were entertaining Bradford PA, who we’d beaten the previous Tuesday night, whilst we were also at home, to Stocksbridge Park Steels, a team from a satellite town north of Sheffield.
It was a bright, sunny May Saturday, and I decided to walk to the Butchers Arms. I’d done it before and, though there was no direct route, because of the Audenshaw Reservoirs, I could do it in an hour (that was then). It was ideal weather for walking and, whether we were Champions or Runners-Up, I intended to have a drink or three in the Phoenix, the Social Club, to celebrate our Promotion, so the car wasn’t being taken anywhere.
I arrived at the ground for 1.00pm. There was already a bit of a celebration atmosphere, and after the match was over, we were forming a new Supporters Club, which Chairman/Manager Dave Pace had asked a number of us, me included, to help form.
The only thing I had brought with me – apart from my wallet – was my notebook and a pen. Obviously, I didn’t have a programme to prepare until August, but I had a match report to do for the Tameside Advertiser, off whom I got a press card that got me into games free. Alan Slater, our Club Secretary, usually gave me the official team-sheet to fill in, meaning that I recorded goalscorers, substitute and times, which he then faxed to the FA within half an hour of the final whistle. And Nigel Randall, a really nice guy on the Committee, and a very hard and often unthanked worker for the Club, asked me to contact Radio Nottingham who, with the Hucknall connection in mind, wanted a phone number for someone to give them progress updates every fifteen minutes. I would be a busy boy,
Leechy, who lived nearest, was probably already there, or if he wasn’t, he was soon on the spot. Colin and Mark were also in before long, plus the High Street Choir: we were to be the basis of the Supporters Club Committee. I would end up as Vice-Chairman and Co-Treasurer with Mark, and responsible for signing up future members and collecting subs.
Basically, it was do or die, win or bust, win and hope for a bit of luck from Bradford.
The game is mostly a blur. The Radio Station, off whom I was supposed to be getting updates from Hucknall, barely called. At the other end of the Pace Stand were a group of representatives of the Unibond League, including the Secretary, who was known for not getting on with Pacey. They were in touch with Hucknall, where the actual trophy had been taken (this was the Northern Premier League, definitely no helicopters). We would get most of our updates from that quarter.
Needless to say, Stocksbridge scored first, but two goals from Wes Kinney put us 2-1 up at half-time, with Hucknall goalless. A goal from Lee Cooper made it 3-1 and put us in the frame. If it stayed that way at Hucknall…
But no, word filtered across, and around, that Hucknall had taken the lead, but ten minutes later, Bradford equalised, to swing the fragile balance back in our direction. All it needed was a goal, in either game.
And suddenly, Stocksbridge broke through on the right, down below us. Dave Williams came charging out of his area to try to hold the guy on the ball up, but he checked and went back inside, unleashed a curling twenty-five yarder towards an empty net… and there was Andy ‘Tate’ Taylor, appearing out of nowhere, to head the ball off the line. Where he’d come from, no-one knew, no-one in the ground had seen him run, that goal was completely unguarded when the shot was launched. I always said he’d travelled by TARDIS, moving to the exact instant of time and space to save us.
So that vital two goal lead was preserved. And minutes were passing and Hucknall were still being held.
I was always the one who rang to get the Hucknall result. With five minutes to go, I couldn’t stand it any longer and called their offices: still 1-1.
I couldn’t sit on my hands. I rang again about a minute later. And the minute after that. And the minute after that. Still 1-1, every time.
When I phoned the next time, Barney Quinn yelled up from the bench: “tell him to stay on the phone, Pacey’ll pay his phone bill.” So this time, when I got through, I gabbled out that I was from Droyslden, that we were winning 3-1, no, scratch that, we’ve won 3-1, the ref’s just blown the final whistle, and if you stay 1-1 we’re Champions, and I’m not coming off the phone until you give me the final score.
Having provided the guy with all the relevant information they needed, I’m faintly suprised that he didn’t hang up at such a rude outburst. I presume that he simply understood with where I was coming from, realised that if the roles were reversed he would have spoken in similar vein, so we settled to wait out the end of their game.
I was concentrating hard on the phone in my hand, pressed tightly against one ear, finger jammed hard into my other ear to cut out all extraneous noise. I had my head down throughout all this, but then I raised it to look around.
They were watching me.
Not just the rest of the Pace Stand Mob. And our Committee on my right. Or the Premier League committee over to the left and all the rest of the Pace Stand. But everybody. Everybody in the ground. Pacey and Pedro and the rest of the bench. The players, stretched out on the turf, lying, sitting, standing bent over, hands on knees. And the rest of the crowd, who’d come over the fences and walked towards the centre of the pitch, 250, maybe nearer 300 people waiting for my word. My word to tell them whether our season would turn, in an uncontrollable instant, into triumph or tragedy.
There was a commotion, crowd noise from the far end of the phone. Leechy said I went white in an instant. Later, I heard that Pedro had said that if I’d announced that Hucknall had scored, he’d have killed me. in the Non-League Paper, on Sunday, I discovered that Hucknall had hit the bar, in injury time.
It felt like ages but, overall, it was about three minutes, a flat, emotionless voice at the end of the phone said, “It’s over”, and I screamed “It’s over!” at the top of my voice and the ground went off like a firecracker. People cheering, hugging, shouting, jumping up and down and running round in circles, and everybody trying to get down the stairs onto the pitch ourselves. We’d won the League. It was the biggest thing the club had ever won in over 100 years, as big on its own terms, and maybe bigger relatively than the Treble United were approaching. I raced over to tate, shouting at him that he’d done it, he’d won the League for us with that header off the line and he yelled back that he had no idea, no-one had told him we had to win by a margin.
It was one of the strangest moments in my life, to be catapulted by chance into a moment when something that had gone on for ten months, to which I had contributed nothing but the skin of my throat, should put me at the very centre of of this story, completely undeservedly.
It wasn’t the end of the day. The players crowded into their temporary cabin changing rooms and started throwing their shirts out to the crowd (which pissed Pacey off because they were the club’s, not the players, and he’d have to buy a new set). I scored Willo’s jersey and got him to autograph it, and the players, Pacey and Pedro all to autograph the programme, my programme, the one I’d written almost exclusively. And we signed up over 50 people to the Supporters Club. And the High Street Choir nicked a ball and went out onto the pitch, kicking in at the Greenside Lane End, and I went out to join them in crossing and shooting and taking penalties, until I wanted another drink. And it was getting dark when I set off to walk home, but I didn’t get much over a quarter mile before Pacey overtook me and gave me a lift to Reddish.
I was there. And I was there for four more seasons, in the Premier Division, until the incidents that spoiled everything and I walked away for as long as Pacey’s still there, which means forever, basically.
I was modest about things: when I wrote the game up for the Advertiser, who’d given me 100 extra words in view of the importance of the game, I didn’t put my name in as the man with the mobile phone, referring anonymously to ‘a Club official’ (which, technically, I wasn’t, though I did get credited in the Unibond League Club Directory as Programme Editor). Anything else would have been too much: I was nothing but a messenger. But for those three minutes, the entire world revolved around me. I was there. And I’m never going to forget it.
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.
I’ve been to three Cup Finals with United at the Empire Stadium, Wembley, winning the Double on each occasion and, whilst I was never blind to the manifest flaws of the decrepit old pile, I am thankful for the experience of taking part in such an historic occasion.
But some of my most memorable FA Cup experiences have been at the other end of the competition, with the non-Leaguer’s Cup Final, the Fourth Qualifying Round and, occasionally, their prize of a place in the early rounds of the Cup proper.
There have been two spells in my life when I’ve been an active, avid fan of Droylsden FC, a long-standing semi-professional club lying to the east of Manchester. From 1969 to 1980, and again from 1995 to 2003, I was a regular at The Butchers Arms ground on Market Street, and for the last five years of that second spell I was the editor and main contributor for the match-day programme. But I’d given up that role, and stopped going regularly (after a bust-up with owner/chairman/manager Dave Pace) by 2008, when the club finally emulated its late seventies success and got through to the FA Cup proper.
It was only the eighth time ever that the Bloods had even reached the Fourth Qualifying Round, four of those occasions coming in a five year spell in the late Seventies, two more in 1998 and 1999, and the most recent the previous season, when Droylsden had been humiliatingly knocked out by a non-League team two levels below them. I’d seen three of those ties, defeats all: on the three previous occasions we’d gotten through to the First Round, I’d been missing (the first time because the game clashed with my 21st birthday, and I wasn’t allowed to miss the party).
I’d been to the five games we’d played in the Cup Proper, and it was saddening that, with the Bloods drawn to play away at Darlington, I was forced to break my record because of the cost of petrol for the trip. But Droylsden achieved a creditable 0-0 draw, and my wife and I were at the replay, which we won 1-0 (though I missed the goal, the Bloods having the bad grace to score it whilst I was at the tea bar, getting refreshments for us). The reward, as we already knew, was an away trip to Chesterfield in the Second Round, the barrier before the opportunity of the highest in the land, the tie to be played on Saturday 29 November.
We set off from Manchester on a cold, misty afternoon, but found cool, clear skies once we had gotten onto the moors between Manchester and Derbyshire. But as soon as we began to descend towards Chesterfield, it was clear that the ground fog was thick in the valley, and we grew increasingly concerned that the fog would be to thick, and the game postponed. By the time we reached the centre of Chesterfield, and were struggling through Saturday afternoon traffic to find Saltergate, it seemed impossible for the match to go on. But once we’d found parking, and walked back, then walked round three-quarters of the ground to find the Away end entrances, the game had started. We found our old mates behind the goal.
The Bloods were defending the Away end. The scene was amazing: we could only see to the half-way line, and if the action was in the Chesterfield half, we could neither see nor hear anything of what was going on. Presumably the referee could see the goalposts at either end from the halfway line, which is, as I understand it, the criterion for starting a game, but it was absurd and surreal that the match should have been played in those conditions at all. Only those supporters sat or stood on the halfway line could have seen any kind of play developing: supporters at either end could only see what went on in their half of the field.
I’ve never seen anything like it when at the football. The only comparable situation, to which my mind flashed back instantly, was an early Seventies midweek European game featuring Leeds, which had been played in conditions of thick fog, during which play had been suspended for 25 minutes in the (realised) hope that the fog would lighten. Before this, the fog was so bad that the TV cameras could not pick up anything beyond a line about ten yards in from the further touchline, leading in turn to the surreal moment when the commentator had to announce, “And the ball’s gone out to Eddie Gray on the Leeds left, at least we assume it’s Gray, we cannot see the player but that’s where he should be…”
The proof of the abnormality of the situation came after 35 minutes, when Droylsden took the lead, and the first we (and our goalkeeper) knew of it was when celebrating players crossed the halfway line on their way back for the kick-off (the goal itself was barely visible on the BBC cameras for that tiny flash on MOTD that night).
At half-time we were still ahead, the Bloods’ goal having been in no real danger yet. The interval was, understandably, quiet, marooned in our little segment of visibility, but initial enthusiasm started to turn to concern when the interval carried on longer than it should have, and talk started to turn to the fear that the match was being abandoned. Then players and coaches appeared out of the mist to tell us that that was indeed the case. Just about visible, in front of the Main Stand in our half, a raging argument was going on between Pacey, the referee and their Chairman, but to no avail. Pacey accused the referee of giving in to pressure to abandon because Droylsden were ahead, that the game would have gone on if Chesterfield were leading. I’ve no doubt but that he was right. The honest truth was that that game should never have been started, that it was being played in conditions that were impossible, especially for the spectators who had paid £10 a head to ‘watch’ the match, but that as the situation had not deteriorated one bit during half-time, if the game was fit to play in the first half, it should have continued.
But there was no arguing: the game was abandoned, and was re-scheduled for Tuesday week, December 9, at 7.30pm. Chesterfield, to their credit, announced that entry to the second game would only be £1.
So, on a cold Tuesday night, we left Manchester as soon as I got home from work, drove through a cold, frosty night, parked in the same car park, walked the same long walk and were inside and joining our mates a couple of minutes after kick-off.
There was no fog tonight, everything was cold, crisp and clear. Unfortunately, as we had suspected would be the case, it was Chesterfield who got on top, and were 1-0 up at half-time. However, a short cross from the left and a superb glancing header put us level early in the second half. Then, with twenty minutes to go, the tie descended into the bizarre again.
Chesterfield player was down inside our half, and our defence, obligingly, put the ball out for a throw-in about thirty yards from goal. Treatment over, play resumed. The ball was thrown to Chesterfield’s no. 9, who I shall not name (but he knows who he is), who took one step with the ball, shaped to knock it to our keeper, then dug his foot under the ball and lofted it over his head into the net.
There was instant fury. We were howling with anger and rage, but our fury was mild and restrained compared to the Droylsden bench, who instantly charged Chesterfield’s bench. It was a mini-riot, and how the entire bench – especially Pacey – escaped being red-carded, I don’t know. I can only assume that the referee took account of the unusual provocation and made allowances.
The problem was, the goal was perfectly legal. It stood. Chesterfield have always maintained it was an accident on their striker’s part but, I’m sorry, there were no visibility problems that night, and I’ve watched enough football to know when someone means something, and that guy meant it.
It was a full five minutes before the game resumed, during which there was much discussion as to what should and would happen. But, credit again to Chesterfield, when the game kicked-off once more in an atmosphere of not-very muted tension and resentment, the ball was rolled forward, Droylsden’s skipper, Steve Halford, collected it and, with the Chesterfield team standing around casually, he jogged down the pitch with it, walked it past the keeper and knocked it into the net. It was only justice, but to actually watch that happen only heightened the surreality of the whole event. No matter how justified it might be, seeing an entire side step back like that felt curiously wrong, as if the very spirit of the game was being overturned.
It ended 2-2, and a replay was duly arranged at the Butcher’s Arms the following Tuesday night, December 16. Sean Newton, the Droylsden left back, received a yellow card during the game. This may seem irrelevant, but bear that in mind.
Surely the game would be completed at the third attempt, and one or other of the two sides would go through to meet Ipswich Town away in the Third Round. The Third Round: that’s what everyone was playing for.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to be the Bloods. This time the gulf in quality between Blue Square North and League Two counted. Chesterfield were 2-0 with eighteen minutes to play, and looking far more likely to extend their lead than Droylsden were to cut into it. Then the floodlights failed.
This was the fourth time this had happened to me, although the previous examples included one set of floodlights failing to come on at half-time, and one side of Old Trafford losing all its electricity literally seconds after the final whistle. It’s weird. Your first instinct, strangely enough, is to laugh. one moment, the game is in progress under lights, the next, in utter silence, the world changes abruptly and you can’t see a thing. It had happened once, a few years earlier, away to Ashton United, when we were 2-0 up with thirteen minutes left to play (the game was abandoned and we lost when it was played again).
A fuse had blown, affecting not just the floodlights, but the whole ground: the Social Club were stuffed, the electric beerpumps wouldn’t work! And the game had to be abandoned, with the Chesterfield fans furious, and throwing around accusations that we’d switched the power off to avoid being beaten. Exactly as we’d said about Ashton when the lights went out at Hurst Fold, though it was clear that the entire area had been hit with a power cut.
So a fourth game was now required, to be played at the Butchers Arms, the following Tuesday night, 23 December. It could have been arranged for Monday night. If it had, maybe the strangeness of this whole tie might have ended there.
Until the Police first insisted, in 1992, on having ten days notice before providing the statutory cover for football matches, FA Cup ties had to be replayed to a result. At least every other year, there would be one tie in which three, sometimes four replays were required before one of two exhausted teams, now playing every other night, caved in and lost. In the Seventies and before, all replays after the First had to be on neutral grounds. This tie had assumed the proportions of one of those fabulous dinosaurs, and I don’t know what it was like for fans in that era, who knew this was on the cards, but in the Noughties this was unreal. We seemed to be doing nothing except play Chesterfield, and it was now only days before Christmas, with the Third Round on the first Saturday in January. It had to be settled tonight, extra-time and penalties of needed, but given the history of the tie so far, what else might happen?
The Chesterfield fans turned up super-disgruntled, their complaints abut the probable fraud over the floodlights exacerbated by the fact we were charging £5 for entry at the gate after they’d charged only £1 when it was their turn. You can’t blame them, really, although our economics were different to theirs.
However, they were jubilant about half an hour in when our keeper dallied over a back-pass, allowed that **** of a number 9 to charge the kick down, the ball rebounding into the net. Our despair was short-lived because, within ten minutes, Sean Newton, advancing into their half, drilled home a brilliant thirty-yard daisy cutter into the bottom corner.
I’d taken my wife’s mobile phone along to update her as to developments, so this called for a loud, jubilant call to roar about the equaliser, but it was nothing to the incident in the second half, abut an hour into the game, when there was a foul in the area and we were awarded a penalty. I was on the phone immediately, to give live commentary, with an exultant roar as Sean Newton blasted the ball into the net to give us the lead. And for all Chesterfield’s efforts, we refused to give way, and the final whistle, the very very very long overdue final whistle, we were through to the third Round Proper, for the first time ever in the club’s 100 plus years history. “Are you ready for a trip to Ipswich?” I husked down the phone to my wife, who came from East Anglia in the first place.
At last it was over, after four games or almost-games over 24 days. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.
We went to bed not that long after I got home. If we’d sat up, and had been on the Droylsden Message Board at about 12.30am, we’d have had the first inklings that this tie was continuing to wreak havoc with everyone’s lives.
Sean Newton’s yellow card, collected a fortnight earlier at Saltergate, in a game that was only being played because of the fog abandonment, was his fifth of the season. Once this was reported, the FA notified Droylsden that Newton was suspended for one match taking place after Monday 22 December, in accordance with standard rules. The Club received this fax on Monday 15 December, checked the first list, acknowledged the suspension and confirmed that this would be applied to the Club’s match on 26 December, away to Vauxhall Motors. The following night, the floodlights had failed and the Club suddenly had an extra match pitchforked into its schedule. Like I said, it could have been played on Monday 22nd or Tuesday 23rd, and, presumably in the interests of extra recovery time from the weekend’s league game, the Club went for Tuesday. The day Newton’s suspension came into effect. In the fuss and bother of arranging yet another meeting, no-one noticed. Until after the match on Tuesday night.
Droylsden had played an ineligible player. What’s worse, he’d only gone and scored both the bloody goals we’d won by.
It was an accident, a calamitous accident, an all-too-easy oversight, but intentions are irrelevant in that kind of situation. The moment I learned of this blunder, I knew that we would be expelled from the Cup, and that Chesterfield would be reinstated and would play Ipswich in the Third Round. Any other outcome was impossible.
A lot of people refused to accept that. It was an accident, we could have played Monday night and he’d have been eligible, we’d already agreed with the FA which match he was going to be suspended for, Chesterfield were trying to cheat us after we’d beaten them fair and square. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair.They were all deluding themselves, unable to accept that, through our own fault, we had disqualified ourselves from this magical, once-in-a-lifetime achievement. One of those was Dave Pace, appealing against the FA’s decision and, of course, losing.
Chesterfield played Ipswich Town at Portman Road on Saturday 3 January 2009, and lost 3-0.
It was the final touch of shoot-yourself-in-the-foot insanity that, given everything that had happend in that tie, we should have seen coming. Winning the tie, in the end, was never going to be the end. It would have been a complete anti-climax if it had been.
I’ve drifted completely away from Droylsden since then. In 2010, they made it to the Second Round Proper again, forcing a replay away to Leyton Orient, and leading 2-0 only to be overrun and lose 8-2, the last six goals coming in extra-time. Currently, they’re second bottom of Blue Square North, have lost their last two home games by an aggregate of 0-12, are nine points from safety having played more games, and being kept off the bottom only by a club under financial restrictions, unable to play anyone other than Juniors. A return to the Evo-Stik (Northern Premier) League is all but guaranteed. It’s a far cry from the year the Bloods technically made it into the Third Round, but when they did, I was there.