I’ve been a Manchester United fan for forty years now, for most of that time an Armchair Red, but for a not-quite decade – 1990 to 1999 – an active fan, a regular at Old Trafford and a handful of away games, not to mention six Cup Finals at the old Wembley, the Empire Stadium: three League Cups, one won, three FA Cups, all Doubles. And I was there in Barcelona, on that night.
Along the way, there have been some astonishing moments, astonishing games, none more so than the Champions League Final in 1999, my last game, about which I’ve written separately. But before that was the semi-final, second leg, against Juventus in Turin, Juventus, with an away goal from the first leg at Old Trafford and seconds away from a win there and two up inside eleven minutes.
We came back from that, we beat them, we took it to the last minute, we won.
It’s not been much fun since Fergie retired. Many of us expected it. You can’t let go of one of the most decorated managers of all time, who stamped his personality on the club for over a quarter of a century and expect it to just go on as if nothing had happened. But it was worse than we feared, not just the defeats but the victories as well, because a succession of crabbed, fearful, negative managers not only cost us success, but made United into a dull, tedious, hopeless side. They made watching United a chore and, what’s worse, a bore.
I never wanted Mourinho. I said so before he was appointed, and I don’t go around saying ‘I told you so’ (usually, it’s ‘I wish I wasn’t right’), but I fucking well told you so. Of all the replacement managers, short or long term, I never expected them to call on Ollie, Ollie who put the ball in the German’s net, ‘And Solksjaer has won it!’
But I have been back inside that old dream again, the Theatre of Dreams, the belief that somehow, some way, but most of all by playing fluid, flowing, attacking football, Manchester United will come out on top. At the moment, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer has managed United for seventeen games. We have won fourteen, drawn two and lost only one. We have won every single away game under Ollie, that’s nine in a row, a run that according to one source United have never, that’s never done before, and according to another, have only done once before, under Sir Matt Busby.
We’re fourth in the League, with a good chance of staying there and a reasonable chance of going third. We’re in the FA Cup Sixth Round, after putting out both Arsenal and Chelsea on their own grounds. We’re one of the two strongest teams left in the competition, beside our Bitter neighbours. We should both go through to the Semi-Finals where, on all previous occasions we’ve both got there, history and perversity requires us to be drawn together, but I’ve got a funny feeling that this time, if we’re in the draw, we’ll be kept apart. I’m anticipating the possibility of a Manchester Derby Final.
Wouldn’t that be something? Just wouldn’t that be something?
But amongst all this there is one single thing that matters to me. Not winning anything, which would be great, but even more important than that, against which all else pales. It’s fun again. I want to watch United again. I am excited to watch them again, and how much I have missed that these past five and a half years. One simple point: I was so sunk in the misery of our sterile, hapless, negative football that I have forgotten how to scream at goals. Not every time, there were certain ones that demanded I burn my throat, Tony Valencia’s screamer against Everton being a case in point. I had lost the raw enthusiasm, the urge to celebrate. Thank you, Ole Gunner Solksjaer, for giving that back to me.
Let’s go back to that one lost game. It was at Old Trafford, the Champions League first knock-out round, Paris Saint Germain, the big French team, the buyers of stars. We lost 2-0. We were going out. In the history of the European Cup and the Champions League, 106 teams had lost first home legs 2-0 and 106 teams had failed to overcome the deficit and gone out. PSG don’t lose at home much, and had only done so to an English team once. We were going out. With a full team, we were going out, but with ten first team players out, injured, ill, suspended, this was the line in the sand we didn’t get to cross.
Ole was positive, like he has been from the start. Never say die. You don’t concede in January. Nobody I spoke to thought we could do it. I didn’t think we could do it. But I said, yesterday, that if we did do it, it wouldn’t surprise me.
And it turned out to be one of THOSE nights, another Turin, another Barcelona, another of those nights when reality can tread where fiction doesn’t dare go. Ahead in under two minutes, a predatory Lukaku. Hammered unmercifully, carved open for an equaliser, a failed right-sided defence. Less than twenty per cent possession.
But it isn’t, and never has been possession that wins games. Only goals count, and we got a second, Rashford’s swervy shot, Buffon’s failure to grasp, Lukaku the predator again. Only one goal needed.
It’s PSG that get it, the killer, but no, Angel di Maria was offside. Exquisite execution, and execution it would have been, United’s vulnerability exposed, but if di Maria had stayed onside, not stolen that extra yard, maybe two, that fraction of extra space gained on Smalling and de Gea, would he still have scored? We don’t know. Anyone can ‘expose’ a defence from an offside position.
2-1 was good enough for pride, for a good showing, but that other goal wouldn’t come, it wouldn’t line up. It’s injury-time, a wild shot by Dalot deflected out, maybe a chance for the corner, a flick on buried by 17 year old substitute Mason Greenwood, who puts them away for fun in the U21s.
And then the referee calls for VAR. It’s hit the defender’s arm, it’s inside the box, OMG, could this be a penalty? And on the tide of a rising controversy, with footballers lining up to say no way, and referees lining up to say that under the laws of the game, and me for only the second time ever in my life taking the referee’s opinion as superior to mine, IT IS A PENALTY! Oh my.
Obviously Lukaku will take it, complete his first ever hat trick for United. Except Marcus Rashford, the kid who’s never taken a penalty for United before and he’s going to start with this one, he’s got the ball, he’s so calm through all the efforts to distract him, divide his concentration.
And a 66 year, 106 game history falls over at a push because he absolutely buries it and this is Barcelona and Turin again, only with absolute fucking ages before the final whistle in which PSG could prop history up and push it over onto us, but the whistle goes and every United player races to the away end to celebrate with the fans.
And if it all goes pear-shaped from here, from this moment, so what? I have had last night, I have had that all over again, the euphoria and hasn’t it been so long since I last felt that? And isn’t it so so good?
It won’t go pear-shaped, that’s the best bit of it. Ollie must have tthe job full-time now, what mote evidence do we need? We won. We went through. We did what nobody else has ever done. ABUs accuse us of arrogance, well, after last night in Paris, bring it on pal. We are entitled to be arrogant. We deserve arrogant. We are Manchester United. Again.