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?
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 defenstration of Mourinho and the appointment in a caretaker capacity of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (Ollie!!!), assisted by another old Red in Mike Phelan has seen me in a happier frame of mind about my favourite club than I’ve been for a long time.
We have Ole, the hero of the third greatest moment of my life, in Barcelona, and Mickey Phelan, who never impressed me as a player but who turned out to be a bloody good coach: two men experienced in working at Old Trafford, steeped in the culture and traditions of the Club and I am now confident that, for the remainder of this shitty season, whether we do better or not in terms of results, we will be a lot more fun to watch.
That’s the thing. I prophecied three years ago that whatever he might achieve as Manager, Mourinho would leave is in tatters, worse than when he started. At work I make a big thing of how I don’t do ‘I told you so’s, I do ‘I wish I wasn’t right.’ Well, I TOLD YOU SO!!
I think the majority of United fans are going to be reasnable and sensible about the rest of this season, not that anyone outside our circle is going to accept that. We’ll still be painted as obnoxious and self-entitled.
There’s plenty of people willing to point out that Mourinho isn’t solely to blame, and they’re not wrong, but I’m amazed to find there’s still a strong contingent that are blaming everybody but Mourinho, as if after all the evidence we’ve seen, he only wants to be left alone to do what he wants and it’ll all come good. I can’t believe that, but maybe I should.
What does amaze me is the ones who are going on that appointing a caretaker manager is wrong, we should have kept Mourinho till the end of the season and sacked him them. I mean, apart from asking ifthey’ve ever heard of the Law of Diminishing Returns, do you seriously want five more months of this tortuous crap? And do you really want to give Mourinho an extra five months to fuck things up even worse than they already are?
From hereon in I don’t want to know from Mourinho. It’s over, it’s done, it was a fuck-up, let’s just concentrate on improving in any way we can from here to May, if we can pull off the FA Cup, wow, brilliant, but for God’s sake, let us play like Manchester United, that’s all I ask. Let’s die trying, let’s die being excited, let’s die going for it. And maybe we won’t die at all.
Of course, this is the ultimate I Was There.
I can’t possibly tell the whole story, because the whole story lasted ten months and incorporated two football seasons, both of which, at their separate levels, involved glory and delight and a reward that still shines in the memory. It was the single most involving, stirring, exciting football season I ever experienced, and every single incident was part of the tide of events that ended up in glory glory glory, culminating in that instinctive swing of Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s right boot that took all of us to the mountain top.
When the 1998/99 season began, I was starting my third and, unexpectedly, my last season as a Manchester United season ticket holder, and my fourth return season as a regular at Droylsden FC. It was also my second season as Programme Editor and the Bloods’ third season in the Unibond (Northern Premier) League First Division after relegation in 1996 (for more details of that season try my book Red Exile.)
Droylsden had finished fourth in 1998, and United had finished second to Arsenal in the Premier League. Promotion to the Premier Division was the Bloods’ aim, the recovery of the Premier League title was United’s. Not to mention another tilt at the European Champions League, which we entered, somewhat shamefacedly, as Runners-Up.
The previous season, when Newcastle United had become the first English non-Champions to compete in the European Cup, I’d called it the ‘European Champions and Also-Rans League’, and honesty compelled me to keep doing so.
The first half of the season was more memorable for Droylsden than United: at Old Trafford, the signing of Dwight Yorke brought fun and flourish up front, and turned Andy Cole into a reliable goal machine for the first time since his arrival in January 1996, but it was otherwise first-half business as usual for the Reds. Field promising youngsters in the League Cup and go out, win games, lose a few frustratingly. Schmeical, who would eventually announce his intention to leave at the end of the season, making some uncharacteristically and seriously sloppy mistakes.
In Europe, the group stage proved no real barrier, even though United drew four of their games, and double-buried Brondby in the other two. 3-3 home and away against Barcelona (those were the days…): twice two-up at home but pegged back by two penalties, that telepathic Cole/York goal of angles in the Nou Camp (who knew…?). Conceding a stupid goal at Bayern in the last seconds to draw, the semi-leisurely return game when 1-1 was enough to see both teams through.
At the Butchers Arms, there was more going on. There was the astonishing FA Cup run: beating Conference Northwich Vics on a mud-patch, with me phoning from Old Trafford at full-time to get the score. The fortnight of rain that prevented any game between them and the Fourth Qualifying Round – the first time we’d got so far in nearly twenty years and only the fifth time ever – that robbed the team of match practice and of its captain and top box-to-box midfielder Carl ‘Sergeant’ Holmes, who had no chance to work off his one match suspension.
It was a magnificent effort but we went down 2-1 to Leigh RMI, with a missed penalty and another, absolutely blatant one, refused only sixty seconds after we pulled a goal back. Leigh went on to score a giant tie – and a draw! – against Second Division (i.e., League One) Fulham (who would be knocked out by United in the Fifth Round). Later in the season we would joke that, but for Holmesie being out, Kevin Keegan would never have got the England managership – because we’d have knocked Fulham out.
But the Bloods were on a roll. They were the last team to still be in all three Unibond League Cups, and they would end up being losing finalists in the First Division Cup but winning the Presidents Cup away to a Premier Division side – ironically, Leigh RMI.
It was making for a very early fixture pile-up, what with postponements as well, so Droylsden Chairman/Manager Dave Pace applied to the Manchester FA to withdraw from the Manchester Premier Cup, only to be refused because the FA insisted that all its senior clubs had to play, ‘to preserve the credibility of the competition’. So Pacey registered himself and coach Pedro Orr to play, in order to relieve pressure on the squad: he even put himself on as substitute in the First Round tie away to Maine Road, where we’d been one down after seven seconds and two down after seven minutes. He even claimed two assists as we ended up winning 4-2 after extra time, and then we were expelled from the Cup for fielding an ineligible player – Pacey. Who had been registered over 15 days before the game, but not over 15 days before the original date for the game, which had been called off because of fog. What a farce.
Throughout the season, I was doing what I had been doing for the past three and a half years, which was watching every United home game (plus the occasional away trip, when I won a ticket) and going to watch every Droylsden game I could. I prepared the programmes, which didn’t mean much effort: they were professionally printed in Congleton, which meant the editorial space was very limited and I just submitted it ‘raw’ for them to format.
United came first, but at Droylsden I was involved. It was a great year. I already had a mate, Dave, who had recognised me from Droylsden when I forgot my ticket and had to pay for a duplicate at the Old Trafford ticket office where he worked. We started sitting in the new main stand, the William Pace Stand, and before long our little band grew to include Mark Rustigini, and Colin Donald, whose younger brother had been in a band. For away games, I used to drive the Pace Stand nob all round northern England.
Opposite the Pace Stand Mob were the High Street Choir, a similar group of fans, who stood together and sang terrace songs, mostly reworded chants compiled by their ‘leader’, Mike Holmes (no relation).
It was fun, and, between my slowly worsening financial position, putting the cost of another year’s season ticket out of reach, and the ever-increasing sense of involvement at Droylsden, where we were all on first name terms with the players, I would end up relinquishing my season ticket to my mate Steve’s niece.
That half-year though… United had lost just before Christmas at Middlesbrough, but there would be no further defeats that season. The Premier League was down to a two-horse race with Arsenal, the holders. It was still early in Wenger’s reign, when the poison still flowed between him and Fergie, when they still won trophies, were a threat.
And the FA Cup offered that Fourth Round tie at home to Liverpool, still the great enemy for all that they hadn’t won the League in nearly a decade: their total was still six better than ours. That little weasel, wunderkind Michael Owen, put them ahead with a header after only two minutes, and we chased our tales over and over until, with maybe a minute to go, a free-kick lifted into the box was deftly nodded down by Coley for Yorkie to run over the line. An equaliser! A replay. Until, in a moment of foreshadowing that so many of us looked back to on that night in May, our perennial dangerman sub, Ollie, twisted in the box and smashed the ball through Grobbelar to steal us the game! Who put the ball in the Scouser’s net? Who put the ball in the Scouser’s net? Who put the ball in the Scouser’s net? Ole Gunnar Solksjaer!
In Europe, it was the knock-out stage. Two first half goals – two crosses from Becksie on the right, two nod-ins from Yorkie – gave us a substantial lead against Inter Milan for the second leg. They battered us in the San Siro, pulled one back midway through the second half, when a freak bounce fooled Keano, but we were holding on to our lead when, in the last minute, a high ball to Coley was nodded down with delicacy into the path of the mist cold-blooded player on the pitch, the Ginger Genius, the man who, in any one-to-one situation, you’d bet your mortgage payment on scoring, and Scholesy sent the keeper one way and slotted the ball in like he was in training at the Cliff. Semi-finals again, like two years ago.
I don’t remember when it was suggested first but it was suggested. The Treble. The League, the Cup, the European Cup. No-one had ever done it (at least, hastily correcting everybody, nobody had ever done it who came from one of the five biggest European Leagues, England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain. Don’t let’s spoil the big story by admitting that it had already been done in 1967, by Glasgow Celtic, who’d gone one better by adding League Cup to the mix, a clean sweep of everything they entered, and all with a team of 11 players born within 30 miles of the ground. United couldn’t match that.)
For Droylsden, the stakes were lower but no less important. Until that defeat, at home to Ashton United in the First Division Cup Final, a second Treble was on. But the cost was unimaginable. Because of that fixture backlog, from the first week of January until the Easter weekend at the beginning of April, the Bloods played three times a week. Every week. Saturday-Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday, over and again. Relentlessly. And they were winning.
I still vividly remember the February Saturday morning when it snowed. Leechy rang up at 10.30am, and half an hour later I was at the ground with him and another handful of volunteers, shovelling snow off the pitch all morning, nattering with the players as they started turning up, Pacey standing us sausage and bacon barms from the local café We were the only game in the Division to be on that day, though when Burscough scored first, we were all for shovelling the snow back out there. But Droylsden recovered to win, and go top of the table for the first time that season.
The President’s Cup was the first tangible reward, but the real goal, the success-or-failure measurement, was promotion. There were four teams in it: us, local rivals Ashton, Lincoln United and Hucknall Town, who were newly promoted from the Northern Counties East League. A ritual began: after each final whistle there was a hasty phone round to the grounds where each of our rivals were playing, to get scores and immediately plot the new top four.
Dave had a mate who played for Ashton, so he always phoned him. I became the Hucknall specialist, whilst Col would chase up on Lincoln. The most memorable occasion was up at Netherfield (now Kendal Town). We’d won 2-0, Lincoln weren’t playing, so Col phoned Rusty who hadn’t been able to make it that day, and was watching Final Score. How have United done? Oh great, they’re winning 6-2, no hang on, it’s 7-2, no, wait a minute, it’s 8-2.
This was the famous game away to Nottingham Forest when Ollie came on as an 80th minute sub and scored four goals!
Back to Europe. United have got Juventus in the semi-finals, first leg at home and they score first. We’re not used to losing at home in Europe, though it’s happened a couple of times by now. We batter away and batter away, and it’s in injury-time when Juve finally concede, Giggsy smashing the ball in from close range, another foreshadowing.
Before that, we’ve another semi-final to negotiate, in the FA Cup. The Treble is still there, to be dreamed of but not yet taken seriously, not to be dared, fate cannot and must not be tempted. We dreamed of the Clean Sweep in 1994/94 and came perilously close to blowing the lot, instead of just one.
The semi-final is against Arsenal, Double-candidates themselves. It’s goalless, thanks to another piece of anti-United ‘misinterpretation’ of the rules by England’s ‘premier’ referee, David Ellary (whose autobiography will reveal his bias against United). Keano’s goal is ruled out by deciding that Giggsy’s push-and-run into the corner, past Dixon, is actually ‘playing the ball forward’.
But it sets up magic, a midweek match of awe and ebb, the last ever F A Cup semi-final replay. Becksie breaks down the Arsenal defence with one of his best ever long range shots, but with twenty minutes left, a deflection off Jaap Stam from a Bergkamp effort puts Arsenal level.
Then Keano got sent off. Whether it merited the card is arguable, but it’s Elleray and Keano’s walking because he knows the fussy little pratt won’t be able to resist it. Ten men, and the disaster gets worse as we suddenly cut back from the replay to see Anelka put the Arses ahead. But he’s offside, indisputably so, and it’s ruled out.
But in the last minutes, Little Nevvy gives away a penalty. Nailed on. Nothing to do but watch Bergkamp slot it home and kill the dream of the Treble. But Scmeiks beats it away! And I am falling to my knees in disbelief and delight, whilst having to contain my desire to scream because I’m watching this at Uncle Jack’s and he had a heart attack earlier this year and can’t be doing with loud noises, so imagine watching this game with your mouth shut.
So it was extra-time, but it’s still all against United as Schmeical pulls off a stunning stage but signals frantically to the bench. He’s not moving. Please, not this, on top of everything. But they repair him, and it goes on to the changeover still level.
Giggsy’s on as a sub, but he’s playing shite. Anonymous, ineffectual. I’m glaring at him like poison, want to speak harshly of his performance but I don’t use that sort of language in front of my Aunt and Uncle who’ve got Sky and let me come and watch when United are on.
And then it happens, like we’ve seen it so often in replays, the goal to end all semi-final replays, but to watch it unfold, not knowing what magic’s about to shine, as the kid who’s playing like a dollop tonight suddenly connects to every atom of his talent, and he somehow bursts between what feels like the whole of the Arsenal defence. And he’s in space and sudden, incredulous chance of a goal is dragging you out of your seat, but before even you can take in that we might be about to score, he hammers it into the roof of the net and goes running with his shirt off, and your heart is bursting out of your chest as you can’t believe you’ve just seen that, but you have to sit there and marvel and just repeat inside, “ffffffuck me!”.
The Double’s on.
A week later, exactly seven days, Steve comes round to watch the second leg against Juventus at my house, where he (and I) can scream and shout as much as we want. Not much to shout about at first, as Inzaghi scores twice in ten minutes, one superb, one horribly flukey. So much for the Final said Steve, who’s been a Red far longer than me and can often be more pessimistic/less naïve than I. And Keano’s booked, a reputation booking, if it had been, say, Dennis Irwin, there’d have been no yellow for that, but if we make it to the Final, he can’t play.
But he doesn’t let it affect him. He smashes on into the game, dictating play, turning up everywhere and, oh wow! We’re back in it, that sweet glancing header from Becksie’s corner. And then Coley chips one in and Yorkie dives to head it in, and suddenly we’re not just level, we’re ahead! Away goals, two to their one.
The second half is never-ending, but we hold them out. The Final – after 31 long years – the Final is coming closer. Our feet are in the door – and Yorkie’s away, luck of the bounce but it’s one on one with the keeper, and he’s hauled down, Penalty! Penalty! Nailed on and red card too but Coley’s behind him with one thing in mind and he slides the ball into the net and WE’RE GOING TO THE EUROPEAN CUP FINAL!!!!!
It’s without Keano or Scholesy, for whom the heart breaks, but we’re going to Barcelona to play Bayern Munich. And I’m going to be there. I have the season ticket. I have all the tokens. And I have a mate working in the Old Trafford ticket office. I’m going to the Final. I’ve ever been out of the country before, never flown before, only had a passport for two years, having got it in hope of a European Cup Final then, before Bayer Leverkusen.
And Leechy’s sorting out not just me but my friend Shirley, a fellow Lancashire member, and her daughter Lynette with FA Cup Finals, so we all three sit together. And he gets me my Nou Camp ticket – just imagine how long I spent looking at that – but there’s a cock-up, because I was supposed to be travelling with United too, but the guy to whom Leechy passes it on to sort out doesn’t get the message, and they’re sold out.
So I go to the Travel Agents two offices along the row and book a ticket for a Chartered Flight. He tells me that Andy across the road, who owns the hairdressers, is on the same flight so I go over and introduce myself and we make plans to travel together.
Meanwhile, it’s the sharp end of the season for Droylsden. After a week off at Easter, by which I mean Saturday-Easter Monday (when Geno Ashton scores a glorious last minute equaliser at Ashton) – Saturday, it’s back to the old routine. Because all Unibond games have to be played by Saturday 1st May, without fail.
Lincoln have dropped away, but if we win at Harrogate and Ashton lose, we’re up. United are at home, only three more home games before I surrender my season ticket. But after all this season, I can’t miss the moment of promotion, so Steve’s niece Natalie goes to Old Trafford and I go on the coach to Harrogate, where we scrape a win, but Ashton draw so it’s not decided.
The team is looking ragged, as who wouldn’t be after almost 40 games in 14 weeks and it’s worse the next Saturday, when they go down 3-2 at Flixton. Ashton lose, so we are promoted, but by heck it feels flat. And this is the worst week of the season, because we’ve got two games in 24 hours, at Radcliffe Borough on Monday night and home to Bradford Park Avenue on Tuesday night.
Monday is a disaster, a 4-2 defeat, the team have got nothing left, no petrol in the tank. Plus there’s a half-time altercation between Pedro and the ref, during which the infamous Liverpudlian threat, ‘know where you live’ is uttered, and for which Pedro will get a four month ban next season, not just from the touchline but the ground.
Miraculously, the team find something from somewhere to beat Bradford 2-0 on Tuesday night. We’re top of the table, until Hucknall win on Thursday night to go two points clear. Bradford promise to do something for us on Saturday, at Hucknall.
That final match of the season deserves its own space, and so I will say nothing more now than that we won, and that Droylsden went up as Champions.
That left the end of the season to Manchester United. There was still some fencing in the League, the controversial 2-2 draw at Liverpool in which David Elleray awarded an erroneous penalty to the hosts after United led 2-2, the sending off of Dennis Irwin, costing him the Cup Final appearance (a second yellow card, valid in Law, but noticeably NOT produced when a Liverpool player committed an identical offence in a much more dangerous position) and a last-minute equaliser from former United favourite Paul Ince.
After being on Arsenals heels for months, United finally pulled ahead. They missed the chance to secure the title at Blackburn, and so this amazing season came down to three games in eleven days.
At home to Spurs, on Sunday, we just had to win and it wouldn’t matter what Arsenal did. So Les Ferdinand put Spurs ahead after only nine minutes. Becksie missed a sitter of a header but, with just over five minutes until half-time and the anticipated ‘hair-dryer’ from Fergie, made up for it by drilling in an equaliser.
Coley came on at half-time, and within three minutes repaid for all those struggling years, all those horrible misses: Big Nevvy chipped the ball from deep, Coley got behind the defence, controlled it in mid-air and then chipped it over Walker into the net to give us the lead that, if maintained, would win the first leg.
It got horribly tense after news got through that Arsenal were one up. We’d won four Premier Leagues by then, one when playing away, the other three sat on the sofa as rivals lost. We wanted this one to be done at home. I wanted it especially, my last home game. As the game went on, everyone was horribly aware that a single mistake, a moment of Spurs ingenuity, could take it all away. On such a slender thread…
But at last the final whistle, our fifth title in seven years. The beginning of what might prove to be history.
Six days later, on a gorgeous sunny May morning, I was off to Wembley. Rusty had also got a ticket through Leechy, so I picked him up first, leaving Manchester at 6.00am, driving and chatting all the way to Wealdstone, where I always parked my car on visits to Wembley, it being uncrowded (unlike Stanmore, the first Tube Station off the M1), at 8.45am.
A couple of hours wandering Central London and my usual target shops, a quiet pint than off to Wembley, Wembley Way and the Twin Towers in their penultimate year, with Rusty wanting his picture of course.
It was a weird team, picked with Wednesday in Barcelona in mind. Keano and Scholesy played, of course, though Keano’s finally was cut short after six minutes by a cynical foul. On came Teddy Sheringham, who opened the scoring three minutes later: a quick one-two with Scholesy, sliding it through the keeper’s legs and in. I was sat at the far end: Shirley, Lynette and I were right behind Teddy’s shot: we saw it slide over the immaculate turf with its ridiculously fussy diamond patter of cutting.
Truth be told, Newcastle were never in it. Scholesy, bless him, scored a second after half-time, and of my three Cup Finals with United – wins all, Doubles all, no goals conceded – this was by far the easiest.
I picked up Rusty for the long drive home, up the A1 as far as Milton Keynes, then transferring to the M6, stopping off for a pint in St Albans, in a pub full of football fans congratulating us on the win (no jokes, please, you haven’t come up with an original one in forty years).
Two down, one to go.
And then the day itself. I drove across to Andy’s place, back of East Didsbury, to leave my car and take his to Ringway. I also met his wife Valerie, who turns out to be the new blonde cashier at RBS that I’d been fancying for the past couple of months. So I made my first acquaintance with the business of getting yourself on a plane: the checking in, the bags through the X-ray machine (what about the film in my camera?), the hanging around. I bought myself a Barcelona map but no books, which is unusual for me.
Then boarding a plane for the first time in my life, at the relatively young age of 43. My ex-girlfriend had told me about how she absolutely panicked the first time she flew, so I was wondering how I’d handle it, but it was a breeze. Roll out onto the runway, start moving, hit that sudden, hell-for-leather surge and then off the ground, so smoothly I didn’t notice it at first. I’m in the air, I’m flying, look down there, that’s the ground.
But the cloud level soon arrived and I spent most of the journey unable to see anything much. It cleared just in time to see us cross the South Coast, see the first bit of France – I’m above a foreign country for the first time ever – but there was no true clear views until we were in the Pyrenees: long, steep valleys, high peaks, a scale beyond any I understood from the Lakes. And blue skies and circling to land. In another country.
All the United planes were going to Gerona, all the Bayern ones to Barcelona. Not to worry, Girona’s only 20k away and there will be coaches. We descended onto the tarmac under my first Spanish sun,the air a haze, distant mountains looking pale. Through customs and into the coach park, a dozen coaches, more, Andy and I hurrying past each of them, looking for our travel company’s sign – and there wasn’t one.
Apparently, their coach wasn’t back from taking the previous plane-load’s passengers into Barcelona.
Every other coach left. Andy and I and the other stranded passengers waited. He’d planned to meet some friends at the Café Geneve in La Place de la Concorde, I wanted to do a bit of sightseeing, abroad the first time, visit Las Ramblas, see La Sagrada Familia. Some people got anxious, ordered taxis, left. We waited.
Eventually, a double decker turned up. Andy and I scrambled upstairs, got good views of the countryside. A strange country, driving on the right, the sun bright and hot. 20K? It was 40 if it was a metre! It was 4.30pm before we reached the outskirts of Barcelona. A glimpse of the Mediterranean – The sea! The sea! I can see the sea! – then turn towards the Nou Camp.
According to our tour packs, the coach would park in the Coach park, and stay there until after the match, but when the driver signalled to turn into the road to it, the Garda refused to let him through, directed him back onto the main road. So he found a space and parked. We were told to make our way back here, get this coach only, not later than 11.00pm, or we’d be left behind, but as Andy and I started to walk away, the Garda turned up, ordering the driver to remove the coach.
No chance of sightseeing, but Andy still wanted to try the Café Geneve, in case his friends were still there, so we headed into the Centre on the Metro. We emerged at the Place de la Concorde station, into the late afternoon air, and the first thing I saw was Marks & Spencer. Seriously.
My mother, rest her soul, would have been over there in a flash, to see what they had that was different from Manchester. Had things been otherwise I’d have gone in in tribute to her, but the whole tourist thing had been seriously fucked by our travel company, so I followed Andy into the Café, but his mates were gone. So we used the loos and headed back north.
The carriage was already standing room only, but as we made our way back, it got more and more crowded, until we were all hemmed in. An anxious bloke, just in front of me, asked his daughter if she was ok: I’m alright, she replied, but I’ve got somebody’s hand on my bum. “It’s not mine, sadly,” I quipped, getting an appreciative roar of laughter from those who could breathe out, her included.
Back at the Nou Camp, with the evening just starting to darken the sky, we made our way towards the ground. The Garda had set up barriers at which you had to show your ticket to get through. Two yards outside the barriers, vendors were selling United flags to wave. Two yards inside the barriers, the Garda were watching this and seizing the flags, snapping the stick off, making them impossible to wave. But ‘harmless’. We located a programme stand, walked straight to it and got there as it sold its last programme.
Then we split for our separate parts of the stadium.
Inside, as I was getting hungry, I paid for two hot sausages on dry baguettes and some coke. Not easy to force down, but I did it. Then I climbed up to my second tier seat.
I was only four rows from the front, almost on a gangway, slightly behind the goal-line at the end where all the goals would be scored. It was a superb view.
The setting alone was magnificent, a huge bowl, climbing high into the sky in three massive tiers, 90,000 people filling it with sound. I’d been in crowds that big at Wembley but they had never been so obvious as here. The light dying out of the sky but the heat remaining as we headed into a soft, Spanish night, the festivities and entertainments spread throughout the pitch, but of no moment.
Thirty-one years before, United’s other European Cup Final had fallen during our week away in the Lake District. Because we were welcomed guests, and from Manchester, the Troughtons invited us into their kitchen to watch the game, but when it ended 1-1, after my bed-time, I was sent upstairs, only to be called down again fifteen minutes later. I saw all the game except the bit where we won it. This time, win or lose, I would at least see everything that mattered.
Both sides had brought their own stadium announcers to do the team read-outs, and Keith Fane read out a hodge-podge of an eleven, hurting from the suspensions of Keano and Scholesy. That line-up had never played together before and, with Schmeics leaving after this game, never would again.
Then Bayern’s announcer read out their team, fascinating me with a brief cultural difference: for each player, he read number and first name, pausing to let their contingent – strong but vastly interior to ours – roar out the player’s surname.
So it began, after all the season, the two seasons, that had gone before it. In heat, in excitement, in amazement at being there, and trepidation of failure.
Which was strengthened after only six minutes when Collini gave a bogus foul against Ronnie Johnsen. The wall lined up, Schmeics hid behind it, Basler hit a scabby shot along the ground, past the near end of the wall and I sat there and watched it run in. A goal down.
A lot’s been said about that game. Ferguson’s maintained that United were the better team in the second half, that Bayern were holding on in fear but not to me. My doubts were underpinned by the misery of having come so far, having left my country for the first time ever, and seeing only disaster, but the makeshift midfield didn’t function, and worst of all, we were not having any shots. Nothing that required Lehmans to make a save.
Then Bayern hit the post, drifted shot over Schmeics head, empty goal, 2-0 and game over, all this way. But it hit the post and bounced back to him. Fresh blood: Teddy Sheringham on for Coley, then Ollie for Jesper Blomqvist. A glancing header from Ollie that was our first, real effort, after 80 minutes. Pounding at Bayern’s defence. Then they hit the bar. The woodwork twice, but we were still only a goal, only an instant from extra-time. Was someone on our side?
The were big digital clocks at either end of the stadium, that started from 00:00 at the kick off of each half, and stopped dead on 45:00. No further counting. No-one in my section saw the fourth official’s board: at 45:00 we went into mystery time, time that could end abruptly at any second. What stoppages had there been?
But we’d won a throw-in on the far side at that moment. Dennis had the ball, but I could see Big Nevvy sprinting across the field, screaming for him to leave it. One final throw, into the box. But it was headed out to Becksie, who tried to shield it, working back towards the touchline, looking for a gap but finally slipping it back to Nevvy, who crossed with his weaker foot. Not good enough, and deflected, but Effenberg put it behind anyway, just for safety’s sake.
And we looked left, expecting and seeing, Schmeics racing forward. It’s last ditch, oh shit this is vital time. Besides, he’d scored in Europe, and I’d been there to see it. Could he do it again, give us the tale to end all tales?
Becksie certainly looked like he was aiming for him, but it was over Schmeics’ head. Yorkie was backing of, taking it on his chest but unable to control it, and it was sliced away to the edge of the area. Giggsy took a swing but it was his right foot, the one he never ever tried to work on and improve, not like Bestie with his left foot, and he didn’t catch it clean, it scuffed through the area and Teddy, side on, helped it on and it ran through, over the line and into the corner of the net.
A tiny moment of hesitation, a look down, like Teddy was looking across, fearing to see the linesman’s flag raised to bar the door against celebration, but he’s already running back to the centre-line and it’s a goal and we’re level and we’ve saved it and give us extra-time and many other thoughts of extreme incoherence as we scream and roar and hug strangers, because we’re not dead, oh we’re not dead and it’s there before us.
So stunned Bayern kick-off, and immediately lump it forward. I’m sure I was far from the only Red who, at the instant, flashed back to 1979, to the Cup Final, to two goals in a minute to drag us undeservedly level, only to concede a winner a minute later. Don’t fuck it up now, just get it up this end, out of danger.
And Dennis does just that, sending Ollie away on the left, tracked by Kuffour, playing it off him for another corner, same side. Over goes Becksie, Schmeics stays back. It couldn’t happen again, could it? It couldn’t happen again, could it? IT’S HAPPENED AGAIN!!!!!!!!!!!! and the roar is instant and visceral, 60,000 hearts and disbelieving minds as one, as the shorter, harder corner is glanced on by Teddy, and Ollie raises a boot and flicks it into the roof of the net, and it becomes clear that this whole night is a gigantic story that Roy of the Rovers’ editors would have rejected, because fiction’s under an obligation to be plausible whilst real life operates under no such constraints and we have won the fucking Champions League in the most incredible fashion anyone ever can or will.
To my amazement, when Bayern kick off again, for the final, ritual seconds, less than half their team are standing. Six players are sitting or lying down on the turf. Of those standing Khuffour is not in it. He’s throwing himself around, crying wildly, taking onto himself all the blame, for giving away the corner. It’s unbelievable. And it only lasts another twelve seconds.
But this is still far from the end of the story. It’s one of those moments that you don’t want to let go of, a potentially endless party that won’t break up as long as you never leave the room. And the players tour the trophy round the stadium except that, when they get down to the corner in front of me, the United end, the games start.
The Cup is placed on the goal-line and the players retreat ten yards, and one by one they walk, sashay, strut and dance forward, in their own styles, teasing the trophy until they seize and raise it and we roar our heads off again, drawn into their public but very personal celebration of a moment no-one will ever feel again.
And then they break away, grab the two gray-suited figures who are standing back, watching with thoughts none of us could possibly imagine. Against their wills, for they have not done anything in their own eyes to win this game, and at least one is hating the feeling that he’s being dragged into something he doesn’t deserve, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes are given a players’ Guard of Honour, two lines standing applauding, as they reluctantly walk forward to us, to pick up the Cup themselves.
And I understand your misgivings, Keano, but this is good, and it is right and proper, because without Captain Fantastic and the Ginger Genius, we would not be here, and we feel your pain at not playing, but this night would not feel right without the chance for us all to take you into our embrace as fans still drinking the gold of glory. You deserve it.
But it cannot last forever. I’ve a coach and a plane beckoning me, an office to open tomorrow, a country to go to where I can speak the language so, though the celebrations are still going on below, I break away into the aftermath, walk away from the stadium, and reach the main road.
The coach isn’t where it should be, well blow me down, but there’s a coach with the sign for our travel company so I grab a seat on that, and three minutes later Andy turns up and joins me. It’s a coach of Reds all simultaneously charged up and drained. I’m so far from fully understanding what I’ve seen that I’m still saying that Ollie’s winner against Liverpool is the most dramatic moment of the season for me! Who put the ball in the German’s net? Who put the ball in the German’s net? Who put the ball in the German’s net? Ole Gunnar Solksjaer!
Eventually, we start off for Girona. It’s a long convoy of coaches, with a Garda escort, and it crawls. At no point do we get above 20mph, and Girona isn’t as close as my Travel Agent claimed. It’s frustrating, especially at the tollbooths, where we’re pulled over to one side for ages. People who have relatively early planes are starting to get anxious. We’re not due to take off until 1.30am, so it’s not too bad for us, yet.
At last the Airport lights appear. We turn onto the approach road but, almost immediately, two Garda wave us into a lay-by on the right. People whose lane is due to take off now are frantic. Two guys who speak Spanish argue with the Garda – not furiously, but politely. Apparently, this coach is ‘linked’ to a flight not taking off until 3.00am, so they plan to keep us here, on the coach, in this lay-by, until then.
Logical argument gets us through. We set off along the approach road, get one hundred yards, and two more Garda wave us into a lay-by on the right. This is insane. They must know that we haven’t crashed any barricades or anything stupid like that, that we’ve been let through.
Another, longer argument, and we’re allowed to proceed. This time we get into the airport itself, swinging round to pull up outside the Terminal building, but, oh for God’s sake, the Garda grimly refuse to allow us even to stop, go away. The driver would happily go back to the approach road where they want him to sit, but he’s persuaded to let us off in the car park, so we shoulder bags and set off for the front door, but no.
Somehow Andy slips inside but I’m not so sneaky. We’re ushered away into the car park, to mill around or stand, in the warm early night, staring at the airport from which we’re supposed to leave this country, bit whilst the car park is fine, the pavement around it is not, and anyone who seems to be trying to get near to that is dramatically warned back, and these Garda have sticks and guns and an air of willingness to use them.
It’s a nice night for it, I mean, it’s gone 1.00am and I’m standing round in shirt sleeves, but it’s so bloody unnecessary. This is NOT the Red Army of the Seventies. It’s people like me: happy, tired, middle-aged, middle-class people and their families who only want to go home. I joke about attacking a Garda: you could probably get deported home faster. I wish it WAS the Red Army 1976, there wouldn’t have been a brick left standing of Girona Airport.
Some groups are being let in, and I manage to get amongst them, which is good because my flight takes off at 1.30am. The woman on the desk where I show my ticket and boarding card doesn’t seem to understand it, but I’m stamped in, so to speak, and scurry up to the vast Departure Lounge, where I find Andy. It’s chaos, utter fucking chaos, no-one knows what the fuck is going on, the truth is that Girona is not a big enough airport to handle this amount of traffic and they’ve lost control.
And we’re English, and Manchester United as well, so I suppose we should have expected to be fucked over.
I don’t sleep a wink. I brought a good, thick, easily readable book for the flight and I sit in a chair and read it through the night, Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope, which is now indelibly wed to that night. The hours pass with the alacrity of frozen treacle dripping. It’s insane. We’re not out for trouble, we just want to go home. You want us out of your country, why are you keeping us here?
The experience takes some of the short term gloss off the day, but at least it doesn’t sour me on Spain as an experience. But it’s daylight and then some before we’re called into a waiting room, to wait for ages, then ferried out to a plane that’s been stood there since 12.30am, which we could have caught at any time and gone home.
I’m a Solicitor, with my own practice. I’m tired, I’m miserable, I’m angry at the start-to-finish shambles our travel company have made. Andy’s pilfered the coach sign as a souvenir, so I borrow it, go to the back of the plane and, row by row, introduce myself as a Solicitor who plans an action against the travel company, get something, maybe £50? back off our tickets.
Rows and rows of people sign up, over 100 names and addresses, as I walk back to Manchester. It’s a strong number, and on a purely commercial level, it’s a chance for my young firm to impress over 100 new clients in one go: repeat business from 10% of them would be a substantial boost, plus word of mouth.
But we’re on the approach path to Ringway, and I’m in my seat. We go out east, turn round. I catch sight of my street, my house below, and then the long descent, the landing, the overdue exit from the airport, the taxi to Andy’s, retrieving my car and home for a shave and shower.
I’ve got to open my office, but first I want to get a set of newspapers. After all that messing around coming home, blurring the experience, it’s not until I step into a newsagents and take in that panorama of front pages that what happened really hits me, really and truly becomes real.
Once I reach my office and collect the post, I lock myself in. Normal service will resume on Friday and it’s going to be a busy weekend catching up, but first I spend two and a half hours typing up names and addresses and writing a comprehensive statement of the day before. These go off to my litigation partner at one of our other offices. He, being a lazy sod and a Bolton Wanderers supporter, lets the matter drift into oblivion after a couple of exchanges of letters, letting me down twice over: as a Partner in need of fresh clients that he’s, in effect, blown off, and as a claimant who got shitty service.
So that was it, from end to end. There were ramifications from that season that run on a long way, not least that, as an odd and unlikely twist, I was to meet the woman who would become my wife, but these things are part of the strain of that glorious year that is represented by Droylsden, not Manchester United.
With the exception of a testimonial game, which I attended in the company of my cousins from Canada and Australia, that was the last game I went to see United: I have watched them on television only, since. It was down to money, to begin with, and to the more intimate involvement at Droylsden, in very large part (with rare exceptions, with United you always felt that they’d really rather you sent the money but didn’t actually clog up the stadium by attending – just think how much outlay they could have saved).
But to end with the Treble, and to have those three minutes as the last I spent. I could not have designed a greater conclusion. How could it be topped? How could it even be equalled? If, one year later, United were 1-0 down in the Final in Paris, going into injury time, how could a repeat of what Teddy and Ollie did be so meaningful again? We’d be expecting it next time, and every time after.
No, I’d had the mountaintop. I’d had Everest, not even Scafell Pike, beyond which there was nothing. It could be my last match and no sense of loss, because mountaintops cast long shadows and in some ways I am still in the shadow of that moment, which I can summon up whenever I choose. Becksie, Teddy, Ollie!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Who put the ball in the German’s net?
I know. I was there.