Sunday Watch: The Class of ’92


United

I think it’s safe to say that this is more one for me than most of you. The Class of ’92 is a 2013 documentary focussing on the remarkable – oh, soddit, let’s not go all profesional and neutral here, let’s say incredible – sextet of youth team players who almost simultaneously became first team players for Manchester United in the years 1995/6 and who were the heart of the team that won the unique Treble of League, Cup and Champions League in the same season in 1999. This is another of those DVDs that I bought quite some time ago but which I’ve never found the right time to watch. It’s the extended edition too, running nearly two hours instead of the original ninety minutes, with no inkling whatsoever where the additional material has been interpolated.

It’s about, in alphabetical order, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and, my favoiurite player of all time, the Giger Genius, Paul Scholes. It’s about what made them stand out amongst a generation of young footballers that included players as good as and better than them, but who lacked the drive, the determination, the internal discipline to be footballers, to play for the club they all grew up supporting, and for their country. It’s about the common, utterly working class backgrounds of each boy, the East Londoner Beckham a product of Leytonstone and Chingford but no different in his formation from the five Mancunians, who came from working class districts in Manchester: Salford, Bury, Middleton and Gorton.

It’s about their experiences in breaking through and the wonderful, natural, cohesive respect, affection and admiration each of the six has for the others, both their abilities and their personalities. Gary and Phil Neville are brothers, but all six are ‘brothers’ to one another. It’s about male bonding, in a shared, mutually desired enterprise, an easy, non-toxic appreciation for one another.

And it’s about the years they shared together in the red and white of Manchester United, their parts in the Double Double on 1996 and the film is structured around the Treble year of 1999 – Ryan Giggs’ incredible goal in the semi-final replay against Arsenal that took ten seconds to make him immortal, Gary Neville’s ‘left-foot-hoick’ that set up the goal that won the League, Paul Scholes’ pass and goal that won the FA Cup, and finally David Beckham’s two corners that won the Champions League in Barcelona, my first visit to a foreign country and my last as an active United fan going to games (how could it get any better?).

It’s about United’s part in the changing times, the culture of the Nineties, the shift of emphasis from Liverpool to our city, not just in football but in our musical culture – Madchester, the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, Oasis – the overthrow of the dead hand of Tory Government, the Manchester Bomb and the beginnings of a wholesale regeneration of Manchester, all by our own hand, without the aid of Tory Government, indeed, one suspects, against its wishes.

And it’s about me, though I appear nowhere in the story, except in those big three games at the end of the 1999 season, one in the mass of United fans at, successively, Old Trafford, Wembley and the Nou Camp, but it’s about the time when I was an Old Trafford faithful, a True Red. It’s about seeing all of these six players making their home debuts and watching them turn into a phenomenon, a phenomenon that Gary Neville, sadly, can never happen again. Six working class kids, products of tough areas, brought up by tough but fair parents to understand hardship, coming together at the club all support and dream of playing for, and coming through together. I think he’s right, and if he is we’ve lost something we could do with.

The story is a mass of memory. Choosing it to watch today was, largely subconsciously, a badly-needed corrective to the events of the last seven days. A week ago, the news broke of the proposed and utterly despicable European Super League, with Manchester United one of the leading lights. It collapsed with almost comic speed, though punishment has yet to be visited on the participants, and that should be strong punishment, a righteous kicking. My relationship with the club I’ve supported for 42 years is now fractured, though my instant reaction to the news was that it was broken, completely. Where it goes from here, nobody yet knows, because you can bet your bottom dollar the bastards haven’t given up for one second.

But I needed to be reminded, and on a visceral level, of just what United in the Nineties were and meant, and not just to me only. The Champions League Final is one of the three most intense events of my life (the top two are more personal). The Class of ’92 contains all those memories but, in its intimate and honest discussions among the players brought it back to me at the same level of my near-simultaneous enthusiasm with Droylsden, where the football wasn’t in the same elevated plane, but you could sit and talk with the players in the bar afterwards, and travel to away matches on the team coach, and everyone was much closer for it.

As Steely Dan once put it, those days are gone forever, over a long time ago. Woe, yeah.

You Do Not Concede In January


A winning penalty

Last night, I watched Manchester United on a live stream for the first time this season. We won again, beating Aston Villa 2-1, the winning goal the Bruno Fernandez penalty pictured above. That win put us level with Liverpool at the top of the Premier League on points, separated only by goal difference. I don’t remember us being top of the table since Fergie retired.

Obviously, there’s title talk in the air. The sensible attitude is to play it cool, tone it down, the traditional one-game-at-a-time approach beloved of football. I’m reminded of another season, exactly a quarter century ago.

I have lots of memories of the 1995/96 season, not least because I wrote a book about it (Red Exile, buy it at Lulu.com), but what I remember is standing out amongst all my fellow United supporters because I wouldn’t give up on the title.

This was the season of the swashbuckling Newcastle United, under Kevin Keegan, starting off at a rush, top of the League from the start and building a massive lead whilst United struggled to cope with missing the suspended Eric Cantona and with relying on a bunch of juniors, the You-Can’t-Win-Anything-With Kids. You know: David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes.

By mid-October or not that long after, Newcastle were sixteen points clear. It was mopped up. The pundits, especially the BBC’s Match of the Day ex-Liverpool player team, had the season over and the trophy sitting in St James’s Park, and you could not find an interview with Fergie, for love nor money, that did not include a question asking him to admit that it was over.

It was the same among all my friends and contacts who were Red. Everyone had given up hope. It wasn’t going to be, this season. The gap was too wide. Concentrate on next year.

I was one lone voice. I, and I alone, refused to give in. The truth was, and I freely admitted it at the same time, that I didn’t expect United to overtake Newcastle. I just had one abiding principle that I stuck to, unmovably, and it was expressed in six words: You Do Not Concede In January. It was like a mantra.

Part of it was that, whilst Newcastle did have this sixteen point advantage, it was tempered by United having three games in hand. and whilst the pundits kept on about their preference for having the points in the bag (a stance I share when United have the points in the bag, just to remind you that I am the same hypocrite as every other football fan), those games meant that United could more than halve the deficit. And when we beat Newcastle 2-0 at Old Trafford on a bitterly cold Boxing Day night match, on a frozen pitch the likes of which were rarely seen in the era of undersoil heating, it was on.

Besides, we had Eric back.

We kept winning. We kept cutting into their lead. Pundits and pals still scoffed or doubted and I kept repeating my mantra. You Do Not Concede In January.

Then we beat Newcastle away, 1-0, one of five games we won by that score with Eric as the scorer, plus another game where his last minute header scored us a draw. Eleven points, solely from his goals. But the real turning point was the legendary game at Liverpool: not us, we won that comfortably, but Newcastle, the 4-3. I remember that vividly, because I went to my Aunt’s to watch the game live and, otherwise an unimaginable heresy, cheer Liverpool on. Amateurs assumed I wanted a draw, both teams lose ground, but if you’d studied the implications like I had, it was obvious: Newcastle to be beaten, allowing us to get closer to them, whilst a Liverpool win only preserved the status quo ante with them, using their game in hand.

What tends to be overlooked is Newcastle’s game at Blackburn a week later, when they took the lead 15 minutes from time only for Blackburn to bounce back and score twice in three minutes to beat them again, the Geordies crying on the telly two weeks in a row.

The momentum was now ours, and it had become a brilliant, delicately balanced two-hander at the top. Against Leeds at home, their goalkeeper was sent off after ten minutes, but it was still a tight, tense, frustrating game until Roy Keane finally scored the winning goal. Afterwards Fergie interviewed about the Leeds players, accusing them of letting their beleaguered manager Howard Wilkinson – a friend – down by not playing with that intensity and passion every game. It’s gone down in history as one of Fergie’s best mind games, given that Leeds were shortly to play Newcastle, especially when it caused Keegan to become unglued on TV with that brilliant ‘I would love it! Love it!!’ speech that I so wish I could have seen live, but it was equally a gesture of support to Wilkinson.

United’s last match at home filled everyone with belief when we tonked Nottingham Forest 5-0. Newcastle still had three to play, Monday, Thursday, Sunday and United one, at Middlesbrough. They beat Leeds, but that was overshadowed by Keegan’s meltdown, they were held at Nottingham Forest (it’s a funny old game…) and finally it was advantage United. A win at Middlesbrough and we were untouchable: even if we only drew, Newcastle would have to beat Spurs at home by about six clear goals to wriggle past us. Everyone was going on about how Middlesbrough was a hard place to go to and win but I never had a second’s doubt about it: we were going to win. We hadn’t conceded in January and look what had happened.

And, of course, we won, 3-0, and we were Champions for the thitd time in four years, and one le down to the Double Double, and my Aunt had let Steve join me to watch the game and when it was 3-0 and certain I turned to him and said, ‘Can I say it now?’ and he said yes and I said, in sentences of one word, “You. Do, Not. Concede. In. January”.

By now you’re probably wondering exactly what in all of that flood of memory resembles the situation today, and whether I really did need to go into so much detail. Perhaps I didn’t, but it was a great season and worth the remembering in every respect. But I did want to make the point about faith and belief. United overcame fearsome odds in the face of all probability and won. I never expected it. All I did was refuse to concede. The winder point is not necessarily that you don’t concede in January but that you don’t concede at all until they have more points than you can possily get.

Which brings me back to Saturday January 2nd, 2021. There’s title talk in the air again, and that’s good after eight barren years when we’ve never really been at the races. The difference is in belief. Some of it is that eight years, and the many mistakes made by the likes of Moyes, van Gaal and Mourinho. Ollie may not be the best manager in the world but he’s the best United Manager we’ve had since Fergie, and in the face of a concerted campaign by Guardian journalists to have him replaced by Mauricio Pochettino, he needs and he deserves time. Hes closer to the right track than anyone before him, and in Miguel Bruno Fernandes, he has our first talisman since King Eric.

Things are different. We’re on the same number of points as Liverpool, not trailing them massively. Then again, past history favours them, not us. Just as twenty-five years ago, do I believe United will win the title? No more so than then, but this time it’s because we don’t, yet, have the qualities, to my mind. It’s an artificial season, on top of that. No, unlike then I don’t believe we’ll win, but then I believed we could. I don’t take title dreams seriously at all, not this year. Mind you, ask me again if we beat Liverpool at Anfield in a couple of weeks time, and maybe…

But in one way I’m no different than then. I still refuse to concede in January. And I never will.

Did I really see that?


Did I really see that?
Did I really see that?

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.