Tales From Sir Matt Busby Way

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 3 April 2010.

For some reason, I awoke at about 3.45am and, for about two hours, I couldn’t get back to sleep…the game at Old Trafford was on my mind, along with memories of other past trips to that particular part of Lancashire. I was buzzing as England slept. At 6.15am, the alarm sounded. At last I was ready. This had the feel of a massive day. I was both nervous and superbly excited.

At 7.15am, I opened my car door, clutching a coffee, just as my neighbour Liz appeared, just about to take her two dogs out for their morning walk. She gave me an old-fashioned look as if to say –

“There’s that idiot off following Chelsea again.”

My village is festooned with daffodils at this time of the year and the hedgerows were full of yellow and green. I would be seeing a lot of those two colours during the day. I texted Alan the first of many…

7.20am – “Jack Kerouac.”

This was swifly followed by

7.22am – “Jenson Button.”

The F1 World Champion grew up a mere mile from my house in Upper Vobster. I was on my way north and I exchanged texts with Alan over the next few hours –

Chris – 7.46am – “Acker Bilk.”

Alan – 7.48am – “Cobblers.”

Chris – 7.59am – “Fred Wedlock.”

Alan – 8.12am – “Webb Ellis.”

Chris – 8.44am – “The Gold Cup.”

As I passed Worcester, I sent a text to my oldest friend ( 1977 and counting ) Pete, a United fan…

“Good luck today. The best team will win.”

At 9.45am, with the sun attempting to break through the grey clouds, I spotted the first United cars, with yellow and gold bar scarves draped by the rear windows. I had been listening to New Order, but soon changed to Everything But The Girl. It felt wrong for the sons of Manchester to be in my car on such a pivotal day. I had been thinking about Manchester – the city – in the build up to the game. I wondered about the demographics of that city’s two clubs. The city is ringed by several league clubs from outlying towns, and I guess their support is locally-based. The cliched-view is that no United fan comes from Manchester and of course this is ridiculous. I remember talking to a City fan – from south Manchester – and he commented that it was 50/50 where he grew up. I think that the historic United heartland of Salford, Urmston, Kersal and Stretford still holds true, whereas the City support is rooted in that south-central area of Hulme and Moss Side. However, due to the working class fan being priced out of the game these days, football has become a suburbanites plaything. How many hardcore Chelsea fans still live in Balham, Battersea, Wandsworth and Lambeth? Not many. In days of yore, the grimy street urchins of working-class Manchester would support their very local clubs, but these days United’s support now comes from every town in the British Isles. Still, I did wonder about that “map” of red and blue support within the Manchester connurbation and how it would look in 2010. Who “owns” Crumpsall and Harpurhey in the north, who “owns” Gorton and Hyde in the east? For me, these excursions into other cities on away days are like urban history trips…my mind races with past stories of club histories, past players, past battles, local personalities, local flavour. I love these trips with all my heart and always try to get under the skin of each host city. As I have mentioned before, my ancestors come from SW Manchester – an Axon stronghold – and this has played on my mind for some time. It’s just a good job Ossie and Webbie scored in that 1970 game at Old Trafford – yes, I realise the irony – or who knows who I would be supporting today.

Back in my youth, United were always seen as a bit of a sad old club, followed by neanderthal glory-hunters…the fact that they had not won the league for ages was richly celebrated. Their one season in the old second division was seen as perfect poetry for their legions of fans. Their lone star, George Best, was a laughing stock, missing matches, getting suspended. He was lampooned by us at school in those years from 1972-1974.

“Georgie Best, Superstar – He Wears Frilly Knickers And He Wears A Bra.”

And here’s the thing…back in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, I always got the impression that kids who weren’t really into football, but went along with it to fit in, always supported Manchester United and Liverpool. More irony – that those two bitter rivals should have such a shared gene pool amongst their support.

Infact, I remember finding my class photo from 1978 a while back and it acted as a fine snapshot in time for me. My class contained maybe 15 boys and 15 girls. We would have been 13. I clearly remembered who supported who…no clubs were supported by any of the girls ( how times change! ) but the list of boys’ support was as follows –

Liverpool – Peter, Richard.
Tottenham Hotspur – Andy, David.
Manchester United – Jerry.
Chelsea – yours truly.
Leeds United – Tim.
Bristol Rovers – Dave.

The fanatics were Rover’s Dave and myself. But only a quarter of that class were footy fans…I bet the figure is higher these days.

Anyway, I put all of these myriad thoughts to one side as I turned off the M6 and began the oh-so familiar approach into Manchester. I was soon on the orbital and always find it odd that “The World’s Biggest Football Club” is never signposted. Methinks that there are some City fans in high places in the city council offices!

“Let the idiots from Surrey and Devon get lost.”

There were lots of youths in high-visiblity jackets shepharding cars into industrial estate parking lots – £5! £6! £7! – but I parked up on Gorse Avenue outside a house, no charge. Easy. This was at 11am. I walked out onto the Chester Road, the main approch, and the white steel roof supports of Old Trafford were clearly visible. The street vendors – or grafters – were out in force, selling the yellow and gold scarves.

“Get your protest scaaaaarves – only a five’uh” in that Mancunian vernacular.

A £3.50 “cheeseburg’uh” and I was on my way. The cross-roads by Sir Matt Busby Way is always a hive of red and white activity on match days…a massive queue to get into The Bishop’s Blaize pub, full of song, chippy after chippy, souvenir stalls, a riot of colour. I had to get in line to withdraw some cash and as I waited for what seemed like ages, I took it all in. Three young lads from Northern Ireland, their accents even more impenetrable than the locals, were stood behind me in the queue and I could sense they were worried, running through United’s attacking options, minus Rooney. Our team appeared stronger in comparison. Lots of United fans appeared tense. Fans were decked in protest scarves. Some had Megastore bags. An uneasy alliance.

On the final approach, I bought two fanzines…”CFCUK” from Dave Johnstone, but “United We Stand” too…for my mate Pete. But I do occasionally like to read other fans’ perspectives on this great game of ours. To be fair, “UWS” is a great read, albeit red-tinted, and it even allowed a Chelsea fan’s perspective on the current state of play. There were the predictable noises about the Glazer conundrum, the green and gold protest ( now getting passe, according to some ), the return of Beckham, but also some views from the hardcore about “Day Trippers”, corporate hospitality goons, the over-pricing of tickets and the loathing of Liverpool. Sound familiar?

I took a few shots of the stadium – the United Trinity, the statue of Sir Matt, the understated Munich memorial. I chatted briefly with a few mates on the forecourt, then lined-up to get in. However, an over eager steward stopped me from taking my camera in…he was just being vindictive I am sure…but thankfully, I sweet-talked my way into leaving the whole bag behind the desk at the main reception. The gentleman was very kind and I thanked him ( it meant I didn’t have to traipse back to the car and miss the kick-off ), but I daren’t tell him I was Chelsea! I would go for Plan B and would take a few photos with my phone. Sorted.

I was in the side stand again, but unlike the pre-match vibes at our game at OT last season, the mood was up-beat. It made a refreshing change I must say. In that crowded bar, so many familiar faces. I had a bottle of Bud – United most love America.

Alan, Gary and myself had great seats, four rows from the rear, level with the six yard box. The sun was shining, the nerves were tingling. I spotted Steve Azar, face aglow, in the corner section, right in the middle. There were 2,500 Chelsea in the corner, 500 along the side. We stood the entire game.

We had agreed that a strong, determined start was paramount and the boys didn’t let us down. From the kick-off, we worked the ball into Deco who shot from distance. And it didn’t stop there. We dominated that gorgeous first-half in a way that few of us could imagine. United couldn’t get near us. We were moving the ball so well, keeping United at bay. The defense was hardly troubled, but we kept asking questions of United. Mikel was at his best ; a defensive rock infront of Alex and JT. Frank and Deco moved the ball intelligently, Malouda was always happy to drive into the heart of the red back line. Anelka held up the ball well. We were loving it. The United support was reeling.

After a quarter of the game gone, Malouda, our French prince, skipped deep into the heart of the United defence…he whipped in a cross and we saw a blur of players at the near post. The ball ended-up in the goal, we knew not how, we did not care.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSS.”

The Chelsea support roared like never before this season. Up and down we bounced. We could not believe our eyes. A text from a mate…Joe’s goal…must’ve been the deftest of touches. For the next five minutes, our support roared and roared and I noted many sticks of celery being tossed into the air.

Our very own take on the yellow and green on show at Old Trafford.

For the rest of the half, we probed away, but with only a few shots from distance. However, United were as poor as I have seen in thirteen visits to their stadium. Neville, that loathed, ridiculously-moustachioed individual, was having a howler and Scholes’ cross-field passes often went out of play. Ji-Sung Park was coming in for some stick from Alan, Gary and myself.

“I hear that Park has bought a new labrador.”

“Oh yeah – what flavour?”

“He’s kicking chunks out of us.”

“Not a pal of mine.”

“They’ll never winalot with him in the team.”

Such lovely moments of humour really make watching football with Al and Gal so wonderful. We were hooting.

Of course, at half-time, we fully expected Ferguson to be giving his underperforming players the famous “Hair Dryer Treatment” and we knew that United couldn’t possibly perform as poorly in the second.

And so it proved. United had a lot more of the ball and I became trapped in a world of nervous doubt, hating every United attack, begging for us to close them down, but screaming support nonetheless. Paolo broke through soon into the second period, but was stage-struck and tamely shot wide. Damn. The time appeared to stand still. I looked at my watch constantly. Scholes, deployed so deep, was having so much of the ball and was having better joy with his “quarterback-style” long balls to the wings. United were getting back into it and eventually the home support was rocking. We stood firm – encouraging the boys, urging them on. Two stalwarts next to me, old school veterans, were annoying the hell out of me. They were so negative.

“Of course, United are stronger you fools, we couldn’t keep that dominance going forever, stop moaning!” – I thought. One of the “moaning two” couldn’t watch. He stood next to me, head bowed, muttering about wanting to be “in a darkened room.”

Drogba came on for Anelka and we approved. Nico had led the line superbly, but was tiring. Drogba had a couple of breaks, a couple of duels with Vidic. Dean was annoying us with his decisions. Send Scholes off, you muppet!

And then it happened.

A through ball from Kalou, the other sub, and Drogba was offside…but no flag…”go on my son.”

Drogba slammed the ball towards Van der Sar and the net rippled. Is there a more beautiful sight in football?

That was it. We exploded. I screamed, then jumped up onto my seat and ended up in the row infront. Gary ended up two rows infront. I screamed and shouted “it was offside, it was offside – you beauty!” The concensus was that, yes, Didi was offside, but we couldn’t care. A text confirmed it…it came from Del, a Liverpool fan, eager to see us halt United’s progress to Number 19 and four in a row.

Then, almost immediately, a United break and a close-range goal from Macheda.

And so it started all over again…the clock-watching, the nerves…a few sporadic United attacks. Thankfully, they were misfiring. But – oh – what a tense time. I was hating it, but loving it too.

“Back to the darkened room” I whispered to the fan next to me.

Everyone was talking about “Fergie time” and some expected five minutes or more – even seven – to be played. Thankfully, my call of “four” turned out to be right. With the Chelsea support roaring, we repelled every ball into the box…a Cech grasp, a JT head, a block, a penalty claim – EFF OFF! – but we stayed the distance.

At around 2.38pm, the final whistle.

I momentarilly slumped – YES! – payback for Moscow.

I then clambered high on my seat, hugged a few strangers, kissed a few strangers, then joined in –

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

Right in line was our mate Simon, 1984 vintage, and he spotted the three of us.

His smile said it all.

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

Down below, the players celebrated and we continued singing. It had been a momentous match in deepest Manchester. I felt shattered. I bounced down the stairs, to be met with ashen-faced United fans staring at us…I gathered my wits, then gathered my bag from the reception.

Out on Sir Matt Busby Way, the natives were silent, save for a couple of United lads gobbing off, then squaring up to a couple of Chelsea “scarfers.” I didn’t want to be the one Chelsea fan looking on if it kicked-off, so I quickly side-stepped a few United lads and walked amidst the Chelsea. I kept looking around to make sure the trouble had subsided, keeping my wits about me. I doubt if I would ever get involved – more of a peacemaker, me – but we had to stick together. Anyway, a lesson there. I never wear colours and that is why.

I hot-footed it back to the car with texts flying in from Glenn, Parky, a euphoric Del and then from further afield…Bob in ST, Andy in LA, Beth in TX. The locals were moaning about the referee too. Love it!

I was hot and flustered. I wanted to get away. I threw my Lacoste rain jacket into the back seat, gulped down a Red Bull and set off. On the CD player, Tracey Thorn –

“Wherever you go I will follow you.”

At just before 3pm, I entered the Chester Road and Old Trafford was – like Manchester United – in my rear view mirror. It was a beautiful drive home…blissed out…music on the CD…who cares about the rest of the football results…

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

Nearing the M6, I was overtaken by a fat replica-kit wearing United fan, in a Mercedes, guzzling a Coke…he was a big old target…a United stereotype, no doubt loathed by the United hardcore…I put on “Blue Is The Colour” and wound down the windows, as I sidled up alongside.

The texts continued, the Chelsea CD continued.

“Son Of My Father.”

“Allouette.”

“Blue Is The Colour.”

…as if to top a wonderful day out, I then learnt that both Spurs and Leeds had lost. The rain couldn’t dampen my spirits. I was loving every damn minute of it.

Nearing home, passing through Midsomer Norton, a text from Pete –

“Fair play mate. Sounded like you deserved to win. Hope you enjoyed it.”

Did I ever!

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