Tales From Mancunia

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 11 January 2009.

Groan.

I haven’t read any posts about the game yet – and I am currently in the middle of an email discussion with several mates – but I shall try to remain as positive as I can.

This will be a tough one.

As so often happens prior to an away game, I often dip into a few books the night before ( Simon Inglis’ “The Football Grounds Of Britain” is a good starting point ) just to refresh my memories of what each particular stadium has to offer. I wanted to make the most of my day in Manchester.

To be honest, I do enjoy visiting the city and I think this has developed since I found out that my Axon surname originates in the Manchester area ( in particular, the south and west portions…yes, you’ve guessed it, United territory.) Over the past few years, I have visited the Salford Lads Club ( there – that’s the obligatory Smiths reference out of the way ) and the Lowry Art Gallery prior to games at Old Trafford. Unlike the dark days of the eighties, it’s a pretty vibrant city to be honest…more so than Liverpool. I know a fair bit about most major grounds in the UK – possibly to the point of being called an “enthusiast.” I have, what Simon Inglis calls, “stadiumitis.” So – yes – the planned developments of Old Trafford are well known to me…more so than any other stadium, United have had the requisite space required for this. Old Trafford stands on the eastern boundary of the massive Trafford Park trading estate, one of the biggest warehousing estates in Europe. My company has an office there. And it’s just to the south of Salford Quays, formerly the home to the busy docks served by the Manchester Ship Canal. I have a vivid image in my mind of the immediate area around Old Trafford, in the grimy post war years teaming with factories, warehouses, workers…clocking off on a Saturday lunchtime and walking the short distance to Old Trafford.

United’s former home was in Clayton out in the eastern part of the city, now housing Manchester Ciy’s new place, who themselves were always a south Manchester side. Confused?

This would be my twelfth trip up to Old Trafford to see a Manchester United vs. Chelsea game. I have also visited OT for the two FA Cup semis in 2006 and 2007…plus I saw Morrissey ( reference number two ) at the Old Trafford cricket ground in 2004. So – unlike a lot of United fans who I know – this is an area I know very well. Old Trafford is second only to my thirteen visits I have made to Anfield on my travels. All those games – vivid memories from them all. Two games stick out.

April 1986 was my first ever visit to Old Trafford. I got a lift up on the Yeovil coach which called in to Stoke especially. We parked up at the cricket ground, got in just before kick-off and saw Chelsea win 2-1…the winner coming from a late Kerry Dixon strike right in front of us in the Scoreboard End. The 3,000 of us were wedged in like sardines that night. I was euphoric. A brilliant night. My mate Daryl – who I didn’t know at the time – was chased back to his car and managed to escape by the seat of his pants. Meanwhile, the Somerset coach was given a police escort all of the way back to the M56. Sweet.

May 2005 and I traveled up with Glenn from Frome. We had just won the league and United were in a somber mood. We put out a second team and still won 3-1. As perfect a night out supporting my team as I can ever remember. Driving back home that night was as good as it gets.

Sadly – another date. Saturday 17th. April 1993.

My father, bless him, passed away in the small hours and United beat us 3-0 later that day.

Enough of the history.

I set off for The North at 8am. It was a dry day, but typically overcast. I had bought an “Eighties” compilation CD on Saturday and this would be my companion for the entire day. As I pulled out of my drive, Men At Work were singing about life ‘Down Under.’ I didn’t race on my trip up the M5 and M6. As I zipped past Tewkesbury, Haircut 100 were on about a ‘Perfect Day.’ I wasn’t so sure.

As always Alan was texting me with his progress.

Alan – “Dionne” ( Warwick )

Chris – “Sauce” ( Worcester )

Chris – “Cripps” ( Stafford )

I decided to head over to the Trafford Centre, opposite both United and City’s training centres at Carrington. I parked up at midday and spent an hour at this huge shopping centre. It was a first-time visit for me. I couldn’t resist a Lacoste button-down shirt. Old habits die hard. Spotted a few United fans in full replikit garb. Even spotted a Liverpool fan – either brave or stupid.

Shopping done, I retraced my steps a few exits down the M60 and was parked up near the cricket ground at 1.15pm. Lead grey skies ( reference number three ). There aren’t too many pubs near the stadium. There was a massive line to get into ‘The Bishop Blaize’ – I always hear singing coming from this boozer. Pretty sure it is where United songsmith Pete Boyle hangs out and airs his newest creations. United have had the best songs for ages. A lot of United stand outside the row of takeaways by Sir Matt Busby Way – funny, as I walk across the road towards them, I always sense that they know I am Chelsea.

Rather than a programme ( full of commercials for ‘Brand Man You’ ), I bought the United fanzine ‘United We Stand.’ I’ll read it and then pass it on to Judy’s boy James.

Five minutes later I was on the forecourt, scene of much ‘naughtyness’ in days of yore. The new ‘United Trinity’ statue of Best / Law / Charlton was the new focal point. It’s a splendid statue actually, facing the one of Matt Busby, beneath the Manchester United sign on the East Stand. As I took a couple of photos, I noted one middle-aged bloke say ‘who is the bald one?’ I had great pleasure in answering him. We laugh, but how many JCLs at Chelsea would recognize Ron Harris?

Lots of Irish, lots of Americans amongst the United support. Lots of foreign accents to be honest. A few Chelsea fans dotted around.

Chelsea always get the corner section at OT, but since the latest ground enlargements, away fans usually get offered a little section of around 500 seats in the main stand too. This is where we were located this time. Now, a bit more history. This stand was bombed by the Luftwaffe in 1941 – remember Manchester City’s German striker Uwe Rossler and the ‘Uwe’s Dad Bombed Old Trafford’ T Shirts of a few years back? We had our own little bar area, segregated from the United section. A couple of beers. Chat with a few faces – Gill from Kent, Big John. Good people. The vibes weren’t good. We were praying for a draw.

Into the stadium and we found our seats. Legend Ron Harris was with a few friends a few rows from the top. We were almost in line with the goal-line…by the corner flag. We had heard that Spurs had lost to a last-minute Wigan goal. We were clutching at good signs for the game ahead.

Of course, the World and his dog had heard that Mourinho was attending the game and a phalanx of cameras were pointed towards him before the game…a very similar scenario, infact, to the ones pointed at Roman, post-Mourinho, at Old Trafford last season. I joked with Gill that it would be comically wonderful if Jose ran out from his seat and ran down the touchline should we score. Yeah – that’ll happen, right? I was pleasantly surprised there were no ‘Jose Mourinho’ chants from us…time to move on. I saw Cathy and Dog arrive – I’m surprised the cameramen didn’t get the message ‘Cathy’s in – cameras!’

‘United Road’ was blasted out on the PA. The pitch was still getting watered. The teams entered the field.

I noted that 90% of the United support in the Stretford End – Upper were stood. Haven’t seen that in a top tier before. Didn’t think they made a great deal of noise, though. They did give JT some stick though.

I think it is a mark of how bad we thought that we would be that the ‘reasonable’ amount of possession we enjoyed in the first-half was met with great pleasure by Alan, Gary and me. In hindsight, despite all of the triangles, the touches and the possession, how much did we create? Not a lot. United weren’t great, but their attacks always had end results. We were praying for the half-time whistle. We weren’t really sure why the corner kick was taken again, but Giggs whipped in a great cross. When Vidic forced it home, the look on Giggs’ face, his arms pumped in celebration, will live with me for a long time. Hell – what an unfortunate time to concede a goal. It felt like a kick in the balls.

The Chelsea vicar, Martin, was sat ( well, I say sat, but all 3,000 Chelsea stood the entire game ) next to Alan. On returning to his place after the break, he said…’don’t worry – I’ve had a word, 3-1.’

‘Hallelujah’ I replied.

Alas not. We lost interest after the Rooney goal went in. Only Mikel performed OK to be honest. We need to nurture him. Get him to play deep, behind Frank and Essien. Ballack and Deco are not up to the task. But – Drogba…what a lazy performance. With Jose in the stands, I would’ve expected much more of a robust performance. He just didn’t look interested. What Mourinho made of it all, I just can’t imagine. JT looked out of sorts too. We seem to be losing confidence game by game.

I leaned forward and whispered to Gill – and this is a message for anyone who is getting stick today from the vast legion of United fans – ‘just ask them this…’

With a puzzled, curious expression, ask them –

‘So – how come you support the World’s biggest club, then?’

For the first time since the Old Trafford game last season, I left early – and for the first time since maybe Swindon in 1988, I missed a goal. I trudged back to the car. I had overestimated how cold it would be and I was boiling, my thick jumper beneath my new coat. I departed at just after 6pm and my early departure had worked dividends. I was on the M6 at 6.30pm.

I couldn’t face ‘606’ so I was left alone with my thoughts on the three hour drive home…alone with my thoughts, along with The Blow Monkeys, The Cars, Aztec Camera and The Lotus Eaters.

I try to be as pragmatic and philosophical in such circumstances. It had been a bad day at the office.

It was, in fact, our worst defeat at the home of Manchester United since Saturday 17th. April 1993. And just a few seconds spent reflecting on that most bleak of days, helped me put things into some sort of perspective.

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