The greatest of them all


This year alone we have lost Jack Chharlton and Nobby Styles, passing on after long battles with dementia. Now, with her husband’s consent, Lady Norma Charlton has confirmed that Sir Bobby Charlton has become one more member of that greatest team of all to suffer dementia. Not death, yet, but living death. There aren’t the words to speak the sorrow. We will remember him always as he was, in red and white, drawing back one foot to fire another thunderbolt into the net past another despairing goalkeeper.

Fortunate was I to live in his time.

Farewell Nobby


It’s no time since we lost Jack Charlton and now Nobby Stiles, the little man in Red, has followed his team-mate into the sunset. The balance has finally tipped: there are fewer now who remain than have gone before and now I fear that the decline will be rapid.

Nobby was ours, not just England’s but Manchester’s and Manchester United’s. Two of our men were among the Boys of Summer in 1966, the Forever Immortals, whose names will stand as long as there is life.

And now there is one. He will once again be feeling the pain of loss, of friend, of team-mate, of colleague. And everyone who holds our club in esteem will feel the same pain.

Get in there, Nobby. They shall not pass, you always nmade sure of that.

The Law of Averages doesn’t get enforced round our way


At the moment, the last Fifth Round tie in this season’s FA Cup is going Manchester United’s way. In the Sixth Round, they would face bottom-placed Norwich City, away. United ought to win. As for the Bitters, they’re away at Newcastle United: a bit of a harder tie, but they too ought to win.

At which point we can dispense with a semi-final draw and just put us against them. Every single time the two Manchester clubs have both reached a semi-final, they have been drawn together and this will continue until eternity.

Equally, should the Magpies actually knock ut the Bitters, they are the one team in the semi-final draw that United will not be paired with.

Accept the word of one who knows.

One of the Boys: Harry Gregg R.I.P.


There are not many of them left, the ones who walked away from the Munich Air Disaster that threatened to kill Manchester United, that happened 62 years and 11 days ago, and now there is one fewer. Harry Gregg, the Northern Ireland goalkeeper for whom United paid the then-worled record fee for a keeper, has passed away aged 87. That only leaves Wor Bobby, Sir Bobby Charlton, who walked away from that plane.

But Harry Gregg didn’t just walk away. He went back inside to do what he could to help. He got a woman and her baby, trapped in their seat, out of the plane.

Harry Gregg was unlucky in his years with United not to win a single trophy, but he had something more, something that no-one ever wants but which is beyond praise. We bow our heads at his passing.

What it’s like to be a Red – 30 January 2020


A week is a long time in Politics, as Harold Wilson is always quoted as saying, with a frequency that if you weren’t my age would make you think he never said anything else. Have we already forgotten the white-hot heat of technology?

But a week can be a long time in practically anything if conditions changed rapidly in a short space of time. This week, it’s a long time in football.

Wednesday last week, I got home from work in time to see most of the Premier League game at Old Trafford between Manchester United and Burnley. Three points would have put United right on the tail of Chelsea in fourth place. Instead, we played with abysmal cluelessness and lost 2-0. To Burnley. At home. For the first time in 58 years.

Let me put off reliving that experience for a few moments longer. Since then, United have played away at Tranmere Rovers in the FA Cup Fourth Round and won 6-0, the biggest FA Cup win since the same round in 1972 when George Best scored six on returning from suspension to lead United to an 8-2 win at Northampton Town (who, incidentally, we may play in the Fifth Round). And this Wednesday, despite being knocked out of the League Cup Semi-Final on aggregate, we beat the Bitters on their own ground for the second time this season.

Two good, encouraging wins in the space of four days. None of which serves to change in any respect the feelings I underwent last Wednesday, watching United bow down to Burnley.

It’s not just that we lost. They scored two good goals, the second one an absolute cracker. Things like that can happen. I’ve seen united beaten by teams they’ve outplayed before now, and I’ve seen us beat teams who have played us off the par before now. The relative strength and form of the two teams playing is only usually a guide to the result.

What hurt last week was the way United played. Since Fergie retired, I’ve seen some horrendous performances, whether it be under Moyes, van Gaal or Mourinho. I’ve watched a team that used o be supercharged in its speed of thought and movement lose all of that ability, I’ve seen regimented passing, sideways and back, I have seen games dominated by pointless passing, which comes when a pass is made to a teamm-mate who immediately delivers the ball back to exactly where the first player was standing.

I have seen United stumble against organised defences, where van Gaal’s strict instructions have relieved them from the ability to improvise, or Mourinho’s crabbed style placing them in a state of fear where they simply cannot risk shifting their shackles.

And I have seen them, more than once, play as if they are completely clueless, as if they have no idea what to do in a match, and that is how they were against Burnley. But this was one match too many. As individuals, as a collective, they simply did not have one idea of how to get themselves back in the match. Against Burnley. Burnley, at Old Trafford.

I wanted to switch off. I didn’t want to watch this any more. And I began to think what is the biggest heresy any fan can ever think about his team. I started to wonder if there is a point, really a point, at which you are allowed to stop caring about your team. A point at which you are permitted to turn your back and say, ‘I don’t care’. Can you stop supporting your team?

It’s supposed to be for life. It’s supposed to be an even bigger betrayal than cheating on your wife, walking out on your team. But last Wednesday, against Burnley, I started questioning whether you can do that.

That was a week ago There have been two wins since then, two good wins. The question no longer applies. But will that moment come again?

Depressing Reading


https://www.theguardian.com/football/2019/oct/17/glazers-legacy-manchester-united-liverpool

The above story appeared in the Guardian on Thursday. David Conn is actually a City fan, but he is also a very thorough and very impartial writer, especially about football economics. What he’s written is very depressing to a United fan, if our current form this season were not enough on its own, but it also has the ring of truth throughout.

United play Liverpool on Sunday afternoon. Recent United games have been the low point of the weekend, offering nothing of entertainment, of inspiration and especially excitement. On paper, Liverpool, with a 100% record over eight games and a very high standard of play, ought to absolutely hammer us. The only shred of hope I have to rely upon is that United-Liverpool games have never observed the form book.

Conn’s article however presents a horribly dismal prospect. Focussing on the Glazers’ ownership, it present a vision of United never recovering from the past years of malaise, post-Alex Ferguson. The club is subject to owners who are only interested in taking money out, and not in putting money in, something many of us said back in 2005. The ground is falling into disrepair, recruitment of players is in the hands of Ed Woodward, who has failed to appoint a Director of Football who might be able to set a viable direction/detract from his power.

And the Glazers are irremovable and will be as long as their cash cow sustains them.

I confronted this very position six and a half years ago, when Fergie stepped down, and I was defiant about accepting a period of no longer being a dominant force. I was naive however, in imagining a maybe four year lull, before we started being a challenge again, but then I lacked the imagination to understand that those who run Manchester United would be so prepared for decline and mismanagement to bring my club as low as it has. Talk of relegation seems monstrously improbable, but if Liverpool do defeat us on Sunday, we may find ourselves in 17th, one place – just one place – above the drop zone.

And if we find ourselves in that place, then it will be for one reason and one reason only: we deserve to be there. I remember relegation in 1974 and the resurgence United went through after that, though it still wasn’t enough to regain the League title for nearly another twenty years. Maybe we need that to make the people in control see what is really going on.

I don’t know what will happen, and when or if we will turn the corner. I keep thinking that it just needs a little bit of luck, a spark, a moment, something that goes right, and lifts the team’s spirit, the player’s spirit, and suddenly their confidence will start to return.

But until and if, I have to remember my defiance of six and a half years ago. I was with United for all that 23 years, from the FA Cup in 1990 to the Premier League in 2013, and what a glorious thing it was. And it all happened, and no matter what happens now or next week or next year, IT HAPPENED, and nothing can uncreate it. I WAS at Wembley for three Doubles, I WAS in Barcelona, all those matches I saw, live or on TV, I had every minute of that, and if I’m fated not to experience anything like that again, I experienced those twenty-three years. Twenty-three years of the taste of Gold (apologies Steve Engelhart), and I refuse to forget a second of that. What United are now cannot and will not destroy that.

So blow winds and crack your cheeks. Rage on, blow. And I’ll just close my eyes and be in the Nou Camp again. You cannot take that away.

Last Night in Paris…


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.

The Man Who… R.I.P. Eric Harrison


Youth team coaches are rarely famous outside the specislist interest of football club fans. Eric Harrison, who has died aged 81, was the glorious exception. He was the youth team coach at Manchester United from 1981 to 1999, and that makes him the man who brought through the Famous Five, the Class of ’92, the Can’t-Win-Anything-With Kids. Gary Neville, Phil Neville, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes. And, let’s not forget, their slightly senior team-mate Ryan Wilson, who then took his Mum’s surname, of Giggs.

Any one of these would be worth an entire career, but all of them? And at once?

Oh yes, United, and we, and Eric were all blessed that this quintet/sextet came along at the same time, that they had both the talent and the application to makewhere others of their generation, equally and in some cases reportedly better talented, never broke through for one reason or another. But Eric Harrison was the one who coached them, developed them, directed and enabled those talents to the extent we all saw and we all rejoiced in.

We owe you, Eric Harrison, and I owe you all those times I marvelled and shouted and jumped up and roared, and for the magic that was the ginger genius, the small, asthmatic who might not have made it, I owe you the memory of Paul Scholes, and I thank you and I promise you that yours is one of the names that will always be legends in our club’s story. Thanl you, and may whatever gods you believed in grant you peace and happiness.

The Best Bit Was…


…Not just scoring five in a Premier League game for the first time since Fergie’s last match. Not just winning comprehensively and comfortably. not just Athony Martial’s brilliant goal.

But we were in white shorts.

Not the fucking black shorts we’ve been wearing under The Departed One all season, even in home games. Red and white. That’s Manchester United’s colours, not red and black.

Red and white. Forever.