You can see the moon… Jack Bond R.I.P.

On a day when England ave finally won the Cricket World Cup in the most implausible finish possible, short of an alien landing producing a run-scoring no. 11 batsman, it’s particularly poigant to record the passing of Jack Bond, Lancashire batsman and Captain.

He may well be a forgotten figure outside the Red Rose County, and despite some excllent seasons with the bat, he could never lay claim to a settled position under the team. He had dropped into the Seconds by 1968, where his experience saw him given the captaincy.

To most people’s surprise, when the late, great Brian Statham retired as Captain in 1968, Jack Bond was restored from the Seconds to captain his county. Under him, Lancashire became the finest One-Day team in England, winners of the first two John Player Sunday Leagues, winners of three successive Gillette Cups, and twice third place in the County Championship: not the win that we and Bond wanted and he regarded as failure but a massive improvememt upon Lancy’s form of that era.

Bond, like Mike Brearley a decade later with England, might not have strictly been worth his place on run, but like Brearley, he made his men a team, a formidable team, a team led by a short man who was nevertheless a giant of a leader.

Two memories stand out: his incredible catch to dismiss Asif Iqbal, on his way to a match-winning score in the 1971 Gillette Cup Final. And, in the seemi-final that year, with Lancashire still bating in pursuit of victory at 8.45pm, with more light coming onto the pitch from Warwick Road station than the August sky, Jack Bond enquired about the light. Umpire Arthur Jepson said, “You can see the moon, how much further do you want to see?”

So Jack Bond stood at the non-strikers end as David Hughes, left arm spinner, future Lancashire captain, smashed 24 runs off one pitch-black over, leaving his Captain two overs in which to score the one run needed for vistory.

There’s a Red Rose in the good place tonight, for Jack Bond.

An Old Trafford Expedition

It was in the middle of Friday afternoon that our Operations Manager called me across to her desk for a moment. My natural paranoia and insecurity made this a trepidatious walk, especially when she asked me if I was working Saturday. My shifts do not include Saturday working. Did I have any plans for Saturday. Nothing specific, I answered cautiously. Would I like to go see West Indies vs New Zealand, at Old Trafford, in the World Cup?

And so I went back to Old Trafford, for the first time in seventeen years (for a cricket match) in ample time for the 1.30pm start of only my second Day-Night match ever.

Just thinking of being there was wonderful, before a single ball was bowled, even if a single ball were not to be bowled because of rain all-day. I have always loved the atmosphere of being in a cricket ground, and Old Trafford in particular. I haven’t been here for cricket since the Saturday of the Sri Lanka Test in 2002, when I took my then elder-stepson for his first day of Test Cricket ever, and I haven’t been inside the gates since a late summer Sunday in 2008, when my then-wife and I won tickets via The Big Issue to see R.E.M. in concert (my seventh time, her first).

Old Trafford, long before my time

The nostalgia of the journey was enough to thrill me Friday night, thinking of the ever-unreliable 203 to Piccadilly Gardens, the Metrolink to the Warwick Road Station (I’m well aware that they pretend to call this stop Old Trafford now, but to me it’s Warwick Road and it always will be: I’ve passed through here far too many times, to see Lancashire, or England, or United for it to ever be anything else). It used to be possible to roll up at the station and, even as the train was slowing, see the Ladies Stand Scoreboard and get an instant update, but that was nearly forty years ago. Ah, but getting out here and walking down the length of the ground to the turnstiles…

On the other hand, when it came to working out practicalities, such as equipping myself with food and drink for the day, I ended up choosing a route I’d never taken before, which was the ever-unreliable 203 the other way, into Stockport, a bus to East Didsbury and the Metro from there to Trafford Bar (which used to be called Old Trafford and which confused me and left me with a long, hot walk the first time I went to the ground on the train) to change for Warwick Road.

The first thing I was looking forward to was seeing just how much the ground and the feel of the match has been changed by the re-orientation of the pitch. All my Old Trafford memories revolve around such things as the Warwick Road End, and the Stretford End, and sitting square-on in the Pavilion, which is how I saw Shane Warne bowl that ball, Graham Gooch handle the ball and Dominic Cork take that hat trick, the only professional hat trick I’ve seen live, in the flesh or on TV.

So this is a return to old glories with a vengeance, or old memories at any event. Oh, I have missed being there!

As for the teams, short of watching England, I couldn’t ask for better than the West Indies, even in their decades of decline. I am a veteran of the Blackwash season, of Viv Richards outscoring England by himself in 1984, and of the lump in the throat moment, a few years later, when I got into another International on the day, he scored 75, and when he was out I suddenly realised this was the last time I would ever see him walk off a cricket field. My favourite batsman ever.

And I’ve history with New Zealand as well, a One-Day International here where Richard Hadlee cut loose with the bat in the closing overs, culminating in 24 runs off the final over, and before that being at Headingly on the last day for their first ever Test win in England. This could be good, weather-permitting.

The usual travel paranoia set in, even though I went out early enough to get to the ground and back and set off again and still be on time. Not that that mattered, strictly: this was not catching a train at  fixed time, I could arrive late and still enjoy myself to the full.

There was an unscheduled stop en route, a stop off at the Collection Centre for an undelivered package. The queue was incredibly modest for a Saturday, especially in comparison to some I’ve endured. On the other hand, there must be something fated about buses with the numbers 2 and 3 in their route, because the 23 I was waiting for was incredibly late…

There was a tram waiting at East Disbury and a return ticket was only £3. The attendant recommended I get off at Firswood and walk from there, avoid those travelling from the City Centre. I debated the wisdom of this – it was a warm day for walking – but took his advice. Left out the station, turn right, and suddenly I was on the road Steve and I used to park, going to see United.

They’ve taken away the tunnel under the Warwick Road Station, the first of many unwelcome changes I experienced. There are new entrance gates, just outside the station, making entry easier. My seats, plural – I’d have sold the spare if anyone had been asking but there were plenty of spaces inside, including a dozen or more directly in front of me, so I hope the touts took a bath – turned out to be in Stand C Lower, four rows up from pitchside. My first ever visit to Old Trafford, for a John Player Sunday League match against Somerset (whose ranks included a young, misprinted, ‘J.T. Botham’) was to the old Wilson Stand, which this has replaced. In fact, I was sitting practically where the big screen was placed in 1993, the one that showed me (and Mike Gatting) just what Shane Warne did with that ball.

I couldn’t believe the ground. It wasn’t just the re-oriented pitch, nor the mega-high temporary stand on my immediate left, occupying the old Stretford End. But I barely recognised anything. The Pavillion was still the same, though its classic lines are now horribly overshadowed by two floors of overbuilding that make it look almost invisible. But the rest of it: practically everything I knew had been torn down, ripped out and changed out of all recognition.

You could have seen some shots of how it all looked from my perspective, but as I soon as I switched on my digital camera, the battery died on me. With the lens out. Bugger. Stock shots only.

Old Trafford Pavilion as I remember it

I don’t like it. I want them to put it back the way it was. But I’ll have to learn to live with it. It’s still Old Trafford, and I belong to Old Trafford, and I will have to learn to get comfortable with it. There are no Scoreboards! God almighty, what have they done?!

West Indies won the toss and elected to bowl. What a start! There was an LBW appeal off the first ball, turned down, reviewed and given! The second ball was puhed firmly into the gap between mid-off and extra cover, for a quick-run three that became an all-run four thanks to a misfield. The third was a dot ball, Williamson ran three off the fourth and Munro was bowled off the fifth! Add another three and New Zealand were 10 for 2 off one over.

I was already pissed off at the incessant urge to fill every non-playing moment with noise, masquerading as music, the inter-over urges to get the crowd involved (we’re not supposed to be involved, the players are the ones who are involved, we’re here to watch them play) and most of all the rock guitarist soloing on a bat-shaped electric guitar.

It wasn’t even the kind of World Cup fireworks we were getting in earlier games, just a steady, slow accumulation of runs, with no sixes and only occasional fours, thanks to some tight fast bowling, and skilful field placing. But Williamon and Taylor stuck together. It took them to the 24th over to bring up the hundred, with Williamson reaching his 50 a ball later, and Taylor doing the same one ball after that. There were overs and batsmen to spare but without some acceleration, they were going to struggle to get past 225 – 230 runs.

They were gradually doing that when Taylor’s attempted lofted drive off Gayle only went to Jason Holder, score 137, 35th over, 130 run partnership, cue more fucking guitar to spoilt it all. The crowd were getting stupid now: Williamson was three short of his hundred so, in order to help him concentrate, they started a bloody Mexican Wave: how 1986. He finally got there in the 38th over after being kept on 99 for several balls, with his first four since he’d reached his 50.

The serious low point was a burst of Robbie Williams between overs. Williamson immediately started forcing the pace, in the hope of getting away from that but the 250 still didn’t come up until the 41st over.

There had still been no sixes and the first attempt at one, by Latham, just went straight up for a mile or two and into Cottrell’s hands without him even having to complete his follow-through. Kill the guitarist! One finally arrives, the first of only four, in the 44th over. It was Williamson, and he added another but fell two short of his 150, skying one off Cottrell, who now had four wickets. It’s still among the top half dozen highest individual scores I’ve ever seen. Cottrell couldn’ quite pull off a Michelle (Pfieffer, five-for, get it?) but he did slip in a run out off his last over. 300 was just about possible but two catches in the deep by Cottrell, off the last two balls, left New Zealand short at 291 for 7.

Lunch was barms from the Sandwich Pound in Stockport plus a lengthier than usual swig from my litre and a half bottle of Diet Coke. I’d conserved it well, aided by the sun being mostly behind me, and the stand, until mid-innings, when it started to pour down a bit on the back of my neck. I was actually re-hydrating less than I do at work. Then again, I wasn’t spending all my time talking.

Old Trafford Pavilion as it is now

The West Indies inning started at 6.00pm, all the floodlights fully aglare, though they wouldn’t actually be needed for at least the next two hours, an ecological lesson we could all learn from. The West Indies started slow, so much so that they were one down for only 3 in the third over. Mind you, their first six came rather quicker, Gayle lifting the ball in the sixth over. It was the cue for him to start swinging at them, but when Pooran followed suit it was up and down and out: 20 for 2.

The arrival of Hetmyer saw their big partnership underway. Gayle smashed a four and two sixes in three balls but went quiet again, though he still reached his fifty in the 15th over, with the WIndies well ahead of the New Zealand rate and comparative score. I was hoping for a Caribbean victory, both for the memory of Richards, Lloyd, Greenidge, Walsh, Marshall, Holding, Lara et al., but also for the tactical purpose of easing England’s position.

Hetmyer was also out to score runs, two blows for four bring up the hundred in the 16th over. He went to his 50 with a six off Ferguson, whose silly moustache had the Seventies calling, asking for it back (on the other hand, Neesham had an even sillier one).

But Hetmyer’s dismissal by Ferguson not only broke the century partnership but exposed faultlines in the WIndies middle order. From 142 for 2, they went to 163 for 7, five wickets in 22 balls. Somewhere in that, Brathwaite took their score to exactly halfway, 14 balls short of halfway through the overs. The biggest blow was Gayle, hitting one with height but not length and caught by Boult on the boundary. Runs in the bag and overs in hand are all very well, but not without batsmen in hand.

With that clatter of wickets, it felt like the game had gone out of the game and I started to think about leaving. If all the overs were bowled, this would finish about 10.00pm, then everyone would be trying to go at once. Leaving Old Trafford at that hour is one thing if you’ve got a car, but a kettle of fish of a different colour if you’re on public transport, and three legs of it.

Though Brathwaite and Roach seemed to be more concerned about defending their wickets, the 200 still came up the the 35th over and the asking rate was still just under a run a ball. But my mind was made up when Roach fell, at 211, and 8.48pm. Convinced I already knew the winner of this game, and that it could only peter out, I left my seat at 9.00pm, a couple of loud roars ringing out behind me as I made for Warwick Road.

The journey wasn’t too difficult: Metro within minutes at Firswood, a 42 within minutes at East Didsbury, a 203 within minutes (blimey!) at Stockport Bus Station. But I was tired, and aching all over when I walked in, which is what seven and a half hours in a hard plastic cricket seat, your bum alternating at sore and numb, does to you.

I went on-line to check the result. New Zealand had won, but I’d almost missed a stunning ending, with Brathwaite going to a hundred and the WIndies to one six hit off victory, only for the ball to fall two feet short and be caught. I would have kicked myself over leaving that, if I hadn’t been so bloody achey…

So, what was it like? It was a game of two halves, though not in the football sense. Despite the lack of fireworks for the most part, the cricket was excellent. Not having a dog in this show, it was a bit less intense for me, but there was some great shots, some athletic fielding and very good bowling displays (hasn’t Mitchell Santner, the New Zealand spinner, got a bloody funny action?).

But if the cricket was well worth it, the commercial bullshit that surrounded it wasn’t. Yes, call me a fuddy-duddy or an elitist, but the frantic need to fill every down-second with noise, with Making in Large, with urges to get involved, was fucking infuriating, and I know I don’t have a smart phone but every attempt was being made to get the crowd to ignore the cricket and text and tweet and send selfies, and it was a nightmare! Send them all off to re-education classes, this is not cricket in any form that I recognise it, and I shall stick to the TV for the rest of the tournament, especially as they have the sound off where I work

A.F.D. – I Wish I Wasn’t Right

The new Premier League season starts on Friday night, with Manchester United, last season’s runners-up, at home to Leicester City, the 2016 Champions. And after much thought, I’ve worked out that you’d have to go back to the early Eighties, the period when my gorge rose over Football’s insouciant bandying around of large monies when their primary audience was getting deeply embroiled in the first Thatcher Recession, before you could find a time when I felt less interested in the new season.

The explanation for this is very simple: Jose Mourinho.

I don’t do ‘I Told You So’s, I do ‘I Wish I Wasn’t Right’s. Two years ago, from the first moment Mourinho was mooted as a replacement for Louis van Gaal, I was against it. To me, Mourinho was the wrong man, the incorrect fit for Manchester4 United, our history, our style, our way of doing things.

I wasn’t the only one, but we who doubted were outweighed by the greater number who looked only at Mourinho’s record: a winner at every club he’d managed. And that’s what they wanted: United winning things again. Now, two years on, all of the United fans where I work have the same opinion about United’s forthcoming season: it’s going to be an Absolute Fucking Disaster.

Much of the preconception about this is coming from none other than our sainted Manager who, from the start of a spectacularly unsuccessful USA Tour, has been talking down our prospects in a manner you would usually expect to hear coming from the mouths of Bitters and Scousers. To listen to Mourinho, you might get the impression that this summer’s World Cup, instead of being an international tournament played at four year intervals for the last 68 years was instead something specifically and maliciously designed to make Jose Mourinho’s job difficult.

Much has been made of how well Paul Pogba played at the World Cup, with especial reference to how much better than he plays for United. Now he wants a move to Barcelona, which every commentator has interpreted as a yearning to play for a manager who isn’t Mourinho, and I can’t blame him. Mourinho is also on the point of driving out Anthony Martial, and much as I think he’s a brilliant player, an exciting player, and I don’t want to see him go, I think he’d better for the sake of his career.

Mourinho’s having the same effect in every corner. He’s doing his best to destroy Marcus Rashford’s progress, and the crop of youngsters that van Gaal began bringing through, all of whom looked so promising, have stalled to say the least. United are famous for having had a homegrown player in every single matchday team/squad since before the Second World War: I dismally expect Mourinho to fuck that record over before season’s end.

But it’s the style of football we now play that is the most depressing, to the point where the word ‘style’ is seriously misleading. Famously, United are and since the appointment of Matt Busby in 1946 always have been a vibrant, attractive, attacking team. It’s not enough for United to win: that win’s got to be exciting. We can bore teams to death in a drab 1-0 game if we have to, but we don’t set out to do it that way. Not in our tradition.

That’s no longer the case. I have spent a lot of painful time with YouTube videos of United games under Fergie and what stands out is that the first instinct of every player, once they get the ball, is to move forward. The other half, the other penalty-box, that is the target. In contrast, Mourinho’s United team have a very different first instinct: don’t make a mistake. They play completely scared. Don’t fuck up or he’ll get on our backs.

It’s even more seriously depressing that the old rivalries can’t be sustained at the moment. Of course, the old bedrock animosities towards the Scousers and the Bitters never dissipate, but by common consensus, these two teams are playing the best football going at the moment, and what’s worse they are playing the football we would normally associate with United. We should be these teams: we are not and we are light years away from being able to match them over anything longer than possible 90 minutes of a Derby.

When the rivalry with hated rivals runs out of steam, maintaining the energy of support becomes proportionately more difficult.

By the time Friday comes round, the Transfer Window will have closed. Pogba may have gone. There’s talk today of shipping Juan Mata out. There does not seem to be talk of United bringing in any serious targets. The pursuit of Jerome Boateng, whose record as a centre back is no better than any of the coterie we already have, comes over as more of an urge to buy for the sake of buying. That’s not how United should be behaving.

It’s now been five years since the last title. The last time we went that long, it was twenty six years before the duck was broken. It’s beginning to look like we may have to go a lot longer. Already, the feel is that the big players are not keen to come to United, because they have a realistic appraisal of our chances to win the big trophies, and they don’t want to play football the way we play it.

That’s a death spiral. And we may be in one already, if Mourinho stays the whole season.

It begins again on Friday night. Emotionally, it hasn’t got me with it yet. Not since the early Eighties.

A Record Unbroken

Thirty three years ago, I straddled a metal rail at Old Trafford all day to watch Viv Richards put in the performance of my life, beating England all on his own in a 55 over a side international. Richards scored 189 not out to England’s 175 all out, setting a record that stands to this day of the highest score against England by a West Indian batsman in a One Day International. Today, it should have been beaten. That it wasn’t was an awful, terrible shame.

In between calls, I’ve been sneaking a look at the screen today, for the Fourth One-Day International between England and West Indies. These games are now 50 overs a side, not 55. Left-handed batsman Evin Lewis came in with West Indies 33 for 3, a similar situation to Richards all that time ago.

Lewis played sensibly and solidly, but he was also hitting a range of impressive shots, and finding the boundary quite regularly. I was lucky to catch a beautifully delicate late cut off Moeen Ali, the kind of shot more played in memory of cricket gone by than in modern times, let alone a One-Day game.

But once he reached 100, Lewis started unleashing sixes, all around the Oval. West Indies’ score accelerated at an incredible rate. Lewis passed his previous personal best. He went to 150 runs with a glorious, down-on-one-knee pull shot for six.

One the commentary, they started talking about Viv Richards’ record. Lewis was 165 not out and I was desperately wishing I was there to see this, and not just for the usual reason about not having to be in work. I may have seen Richards’ record, it may be one of my most cherished memories of cricket, but Lewis was going to be a more than worthy record breaker, and I wanted him to achieve this.

He has reached 176, only fourteen runs short of the record, with Jake Ball bowling round the wicket. Ball drilled in a yorker, right on the crease, heading into Lewis’s legs. It was swinging down the leg-side, no fears of an appeal, but Lewis, trying to get into position to play a shot, caught the ball on the toe of the bat and played it low, hard and fast, into his right ankle.

Pads don’t protect ankles. They protect the front of the lower leg, down to the instep. Lewin had played a fast delivery into unprotected bone. He went down, fast, rolling over with the pain.

It looked bad and it was bad. Lewis could not stand on his right foot. A stretcher was brought on and he left the pitch to a standing ovation, Not Out, Retired Hurt. It’s the highest score a batsman has ever Retired Hurt upon, and Viv Richards’ record stands.

That is so awful. To be out, short of a record, is one thing. It’s still an honourable attempt. But to be so close, and to be denied the chance to succeed or fail by an accident like this, is horrible. My heart goes out to Evin Lewis. It doesn’t matter that he was scoring against England, that he was trying to set a record against England, he was batting beautifully, with power and grace, and he bloody well DESERVED that record, and he should have had the chance to stand or fall.

That’s the tragedy, in sporting terms. That’s what makes this match such an awful, awful shame. Who cares about the result? It’s been spoiled.

A Severe Test of Patience: Manchester United 2016/2017

I know there’s still another game to go – and, boy oh boy, have I never felt so uninvolved about United being in a Final before – but today’s final League game felt like the long-awaited and much-wanted end of the season for me. We might have won a trophy and we may win another, to give us a complete set of all the trophies it’s possible for an English club to win, but the 2016/2017 season has severely tested my patience with Manchester United.

What is it now? Nearly forty years since I came out for the Red Devils. I endured Dave Sexton, I was up and down with Ron Atkinson, I was impatient with Alex Ferguson until the Resurrection Title, and after that came those impossibly long years of dominance, of being the best, of being *MANCHESTER UNITED*, including that night in Barcelona. I was faithful to Moyes until almost the bitter end, and I screamed and yelled and was utterly frustrated by van Gaal, yet was disgusted at the timing of his sacking and replacing with Jose Mourinho, before we’d even collected the FA Cup.

Jose Mourinho, eh? The one man I never wanted to see managing at Old Trafford and the man who sits in the Manager’s Chair, and guess what? He’s been exactly the dick I expected him to be, and more, publicly attacking players in the exact opposite of the Ferguson way, all but destroying Luke Shaw, mismanaging Anthony Martial and buggering up Marcus Rashford for such a long time.

Mourinho puts up a barrier between me and my team, loosens the ties. I’ve missed more matches this season than since the end of the Eighties, several because I work shifts that keep me in work until 9.00pm, four nights a week, but far too many due to indifference at the way Mourinho has United playing.

We are still too slow, of thought as well as of pace, and we spend too much time passing backwards and sideways, and we still play as if we have no idea how to get past a defence, and even less confidence at trying to go forward. Wednesday night’s game against Southampton was the perfect example: we were abject and dull. With the youngsters in the side this afternoon, we looked tons better, and Josh Harrop’s opening goal is one of not much more than a dozen that I’ve greeted with an open yell of delight. And even then we faded in the second half, albeit whilst staying in command.

It’s not like we can’t do it. The win over Chelsea was the only time this season we’ve looked like United, Manchester United, the team we all in our souls want us to be. But most of the time it’s been tedious and unenjoyable. I feel like asking those fans who welcomed Mourinho if this is what they really wanted? Do they really want this unending miserable negativity that Mourinho spreads relentlessly? Complaining about having to play Premier League games after qualifying for the Europa League Final? What the fuck do you think the Premier League is? Can clubs just decide not to bother playing games if the fancy tales them? You might as well complain that it rains too often: this is Manchester, what do you EXPECT?!

I am so glad this season is over, and I can stop thinking about United, and I don’t have to groan despairingly as we give away another lead to end up with another draw, because we started backpedalling with fifteen minutes to go, ‘holding on to our lead’, like how many times has that blown up in our faces? We used to be the Club that played until the 96th minute, now we’re lucky to get to the 80th with a semblance of effort.

Ground down, that’s what I am. Football is supposed to excite you, to involve you, to awe you and thrill you. You’re supposed to watch the clock because you’re eking out a one-goal lead in a tight match, not because you’re bored to death and just want it to end, please.

And I think that the last few games, when Wayne Rooney has had a run of matches because that enables the resting of players who we do want to see play has proved my point. Have you ever seen so many instances of a player buggering up moves, losing the ball consistently, taking it backwards, slowing things down and constantly slinging forty yard passes out to the wing, because that’s the only thing he can still do correctly?

I shouldn’t be thinking that, because he has done some truly dazzling things for us, and he is our highest ever scorer, though I will go to my grave still insisting that Sir Bobby Charlton is a far more worthy holder of that honour. But if that was his last game at Old Trafford today, I won’t weep any tears. I won’t be nostalgic for him, like Eric, or Keano, or the little Scholesy Man, and I will be glad to see a different name occupy the number 10 shirt next season.

Which can bloody well take its time in arriving, thank you very much. I won’t be storing this one in my memories.

Paying the Penalty

The penalty conceded by Paul Pogba that gave Liverpool the lead at Old Trafford yesterday, for almost an hour, was the most stupid, wasteful, needless and ridiculous I have seen in many a year. In fact, the last time I saw so a penalty so idiotic, I was still at school in the Sixth Form.

I should know. I conceded it.

We were on the bottom pitch, the three-quarter size one immediately in front of the school, defending the left hand end as observed from the Headmaster’s study (not that he was observing, at least, I hope not). The ball was crossed in from the right, and it was coming towards me.

What I was doing in my own penalty area was a mystery. You were far more likely to find me in or near the opposition’s penalty area, sniffing for a chance, alert for an opportunity or, as we called it then, goalhanging.

The other reason it was unusual for me to be where I was was that I was useless. I couldn’t head the ball, I couldn’t trap it, tackle anyone who had it, or muscle anyone out of making contact. I was stood there, in the middle of the box, in space, with the ball coming just above my head and to my left.

So I jumped up and slapped it down with my left hand.

Why did I do that? Sheer devilment. I had never given away a penalty before, I had never given away a deliberate handball, I was incapable of doing anything constructive, so in order to find out what it was like, I did it.

I paid for it almost immediately. My side were disgusted with me, which was nothing new on the pitch. My mate Zak was in goal and, picking up the ball, drop-kicked it upfield. It nearly hit me in the face, but I jerked my head aside, my mouth falling open as the ball whistled past.

Unfortunately, Zak’s violent hoof was violent enough to detach a lump of pitch from the sole of his football boot, at a slightly different trajectory to the ball, one that took it straight into my face. No, not my face: my mouth. The lump of mud and dirt flew into my open mouth without touching the sides, and burst against the roof of my mouth. It tasted exactly like you’re imagining it to taste.

Coughing, spluttering, digging in my fingers to hook out what was hook-outable and being very unsuccessful, I stumbled from the field and raced off to the nearest toilets where I could stick my gob under the tap and wash myself out.

Then back to the field, where the penalty had been duly converted as I stumbled bog-wards, and where I was the subject of much adverse comment, not for giving away the penalty but because I’d abandoned the field of play to wash my face, just because I had gotten mud on it.

In vain, I pointed out that it wasn’t on my face but in my mouth, but such niceties were unimportant at an all boys school. I was called all sorts of names, most of which would, not all that long afterwards, be subsumed in the general title of ‘wimp’, once we’d learned it.

So my stupid, wasteful, idiotic and needless penalty carried with it an instant karma. Only the goal accompanied Pogba’s penalty, but then his karma already has a severe load to bear. I mean, did you look at his hair? At least I’ve never committed an atrocity like that, which makes me infinitely superior.

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.

Friday Night Football: Same Old Story

Big Dion at the Dell: Manchester United’s first ever Premier League win, 1992

Much is being made of the fact that Friday Night Football is coming to our television screens (if we have Sky TV), in the form of Manchester United vs Southampton, and the fans are protesting.

Basically, I’m on their side. The new contract, allowing for ten Friday night Premiership matches in 2016/17, means that live televised football now takes place on every single day of the week. Fans who go to games are, once again, getting screwed in the process: there are hundreds of regular Southampton fans who turn up for the away trips to Old Trafford who are being forced to miss the game, because the last train back home leaves 35 minutes before the final whistle.

And it takes me back, back to 1992, when the newly-formed Premier League, signed up to Sky for the first time, went to its first Monday night game. Which was the reverse fixture, Southampton vs Manchester United, at the old Dell.

There wasn’t half the screaming then, even though the traveling United fans were in the same boat as the Southamptonians will be tonight. Not all of that was down to the classic lack of sympathy the vast majority of fans have towards United, nor the jokes that it made no difference, they all live on the South Coast anyway. It was more that those who could afford Sky, or were prepared to put up with going down the pub of an evening to watch, were happy to have more live football available.

Those of us who remember the antediluvian days, pre-the Premier League, pre-Sky, will remember that it had taken until the back half of the Eighties to get live League football on TV. The two networks had different times: ITV’s like matches went out at 2.00pm on Sunday, the BBC’s at 7.30pm on Friday night. The incredible finale in 1989, the post-Hillsborough Liverpool v Arsenal game that decided the League on the last kick, was on BBC1, on Friday night.

And it’s not like we’ve not had Friday night Football since then: Sky have been running Championship matches in that slot for ages, without the same kind of fuss.

So whilst I support the aggrieved fans, I can’t share the outrage which, though entirely valid, is being expressed not in a losing cause but in a cause lost twenty-four years ago. In a way, I’ve almost admired Sky for nailing its colours to the mast in such a forthright manner, by selecting as its debut Monday Night Match a game that so inconvenienced the away supporters. It stated, plainly, that it’s attitude was FTF – Fuck The Fans. And it’s been that way ever since.

Tonight’s selection is probably not a deliberate reminder of that initial game – it’s probably far more to do with Jose Mourinho’s first competitive match as United manager at home, and the first start of the world’s most expensive player, Paul Pogba – but by its nature it’s a doubly-symbolic gesture. Who gives a toss about the Southampton fans? Certainly not Sky’s TV audience, who see themselves as the fans whose interests have to be put first: there are many more of them, after all, and those primitives who still, bizarrely, want to go to live games, should get over themselves and their sense of entitlement.

Either way, I shalln’t be watching. I’ve made my position plain in respect of Mourinho and there’s going to be precious little live United TV for me this season, not until semi-finals at least. Anyway, I’m going out for a meal with my mates tonight.

Friday Night Football is here to stay. It’s not like it’s a breakthrough, the way Thursday night football was. It’s been around before, when the balance was more finely set. When there was a balance. If it makes Sky money, it’ll stay.

And FTF. Especially the ones getting out of Old Trafford at about 10.00pm tonight and making tracks for Southampton. You – and we – are on the wrong side of history. We are the army of the defeated, who don’t know when to stop fighting, eve when stopping fighting, forcing football to be played in empty grounds, without sound or atmosphere, is the only weapon we have left in our hands.

The ultimate weapon, the Deterrent, the Nuclear Option.

The one thing we could never do.

Safe traveling.


Giggs will tear us apart again

So it’s confirmed then, and the surprise is minimal. Ryan Giggs is to leave Manchester United after twenty-nine years, presumably for the crime of being more loyal to Manchester United than he ever could have been to Jose Mourinho.

Others will say, have already begun to say all the things I would say if I were to wax lyrical about Ryan Giggs, the man who played for United more often than anyone else did or ever will. Like all of us who watched those years, we have our indelible store of all the things he did for us, and though each of us would produce a different top 10 of Great Giggsy Moments, we would none of us contradict anyone who said that something not on our personal list was Great.

Two things stand out in my personal lexicon, one obscure, one legendary: legendary from the moment it happened. The first I saw in the flesh, only once, the second on TV, where I have seen it replayed what feels like a million times and yet it thrills me a million and one times as soon as that clip starts with the ball at someone else’s feet.

The first took place on Boxing Day, 1997, in Nottingham, away to Forest. It was a cold, crisp day and I drove down early, had food and drink in the City Centre, walked down to Trent Bridge and took my seat, in which, like the rest of the United fans, I proceeded to stand for ninety minutes.

The pitch was frosty and hard, the bounce high. United scored twice in each half for a comfortable 4-0 win and I drove home content. But in the second half, as United defended the far end, Peter Schmeical launched a clearance so high that,when it came down, it was coming down vertically.

Giggsy was under it. On a pitch that hard, the bounce would have been a good twenty feet in the air. He trapped it under his left foot. Trapped it stone dead, under his control, all kinetic energy drained in an instant. Incredible. I’m sure it happened, sure that I saw it, but if it did happen, it wasn’t deemed worthy of inclusion in the Match of the Day highlights, nor any footage to have escaped onto YouTube.

And the other one was THAT one. You know which one I mean, that one against Arsenal. The last goal ever scored in a semi-final replay, the polled greatest FA Cup goal Ever. Extra-time, United down to ten men, Patrick Viera slides that weak, tired ball across the pitch and Giggsy – on as a substitute and, what everybody forgets, having played utter shite from the moment he stepped onto the turf – runs himself into immortality over the next ten seconds.

I watched the game at my Uncle’s house: he had Sky, I didn’t. A couple of months before, he’d had a heart attack. Loud noises were bad for him. So I’m on my knees in awe and disbelief and shock and roaring triumph and doing all of this in total silence, which is not an easy thing to achieve.

In between those two moments, and before them, and after, there were more moments than I can count. Twenty-nine years is a long time to spend at one employer’s in this era, let alone in football, where ephemerality is the name of the game. What he does, where he goes, the path behind him can never be erased. He walked that for us, indeed he flew along it on feet of genius. I never saw George, but I saw Ryan, and I do not even need to close my eyes to see him again, ‘a young boy running down the wing, with the wind in his hair.’