Tales From A Sunday In Manchester : Part One – Red

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 25 February 2018

It had been a near perfect journey north; light traffic on the motorways, cloudless winter skies, bright sun, and only a couple of stops for breakfast and fuel. Four and a half hours after picking up PD in Frome, and then Parky and Young Jake, we were now located at our usual parking space a mile or so from Old Trafford, outside a small unit which would normally be used to sell tyres. The locals – City fans – took my £10 and guided me back alongside other cars. The car would be safe there. We have used it three or four times now. Fearing the worst – near Baltic conditions were forecast – we fastened buttons on jackets and set off towards Old Trafford. This was Young Jake’s first-ever visit to Manchester United. It would be my twenty-third. In my loose circle of friends who grew up locally to where I live, there are only a few United fans. Yet I am sure that my total of twenty-three visits was considerably more than the three or four United fans could muster between them.

It’s a strange one alright.

For a stadium that holds 75,000 – and is nigh on full to capacity every week, please take note Arsenal – you would think that more of their supporters would actually attend games. I just think that it shows how huge a club Manchester United are. Growing up, working, meeting football fans, meeting people who say they are football fans yet clearly aren’t, it seems that you are never far away from a United supporter. There must be several million United fans in the UK alone. I suppose they can’t all get tickets.

Of course, many never intend doing so, which is another topic completely and which, quite frankly – showing the apathy that would make many United fans proud – I simply can’t be bothered to address.

The twenty-minute walk towards Old Trafford was fine, apart from when we crossed the Chester Road and the wind howled.

Chattering teeth yelled out obscenities.

We were apparently in for a wintry week, which would finish with us playing another game in Manchester, at City’s stadium a few miles further east on the following Sunday. Two supremely tough games indeed. It could turn out to be a very cruel month. Beyond “The Bishop Blaize” pub, and hovering over the red brick terraced houses of Stretford were the glistening silver-grey roof supports of Old Trafford, and it took my breath away. Yes, I have seen it all before, but the sunlight made the cold steel so much sharper and it just looked other-worldly.

We turned left at the gaggle of chip shops and onto Sir Matt Busby Way. It is such an inconspicuous approach to one of the world’s foremost football stadia.

“United We Stand. New issue. Out today.”

“Yer matchday scarf. Ten pound yer matchday scarf.”

Burgers with onions, burgers without, the noise of a match day, grafters, those old red, white and black bar scarves, selfies in front of the stadium, the Munich Clock, hot dogs, programme sellers, winter jackets, red and white United ski-hats, the Holy Trinity statue, scarves, the megastore, three policemen keeping an eye on things from their raised platform by the executive car park, accents from Ireland, fanzines, the well-heeled making their way to the corporate lounges, the guttural shout of “Red Army”, foreign accents, northern faces, northern scowls, North Face jackets, the occasional dash of blue.

While the other three went ahead for a pre-match pint inside the away section, I decided to spend thirty minutes or so outside, in front of an old abandoned club shop, and observe.

The famous forecourt sloped down from right to left from Sir Matt Busby Way. I watched the match-going traffic head off to their seats inside. In truth, it was a generally quiet scene. But there was still that great sense of occasion that you get ahead of any important football match. That sense of unquantifiable anticipation – and apprehension for some – with the knowledge that something big, huge, will soon be taking place but a few hundred yards away.

The forecourt. It is the definitive Old Trafford “space.”

In the days of my childhood, and then my youth, before I ever visited Old Trafford, the TV camera crews would always assemble underneath the Munich Clock if there was anything worth reporting at Old Trafford. A Tommy Docherty scandal, or a new signing, the reporter would stand underneath the façade at the eastern end of the stadium, and the image would become locked in my memory bank. On my first visit to Old Trafford – a night game in 1986 – I suspect I only glanced at the Munich Clock as we had arrived late and I am sure I was in a rush to get in. In those days, the forecourt stretched all of the way down towards the corner of the United Road Stand. Since then, the stands have grown exponentially at Old Trafford and the huge megastore now sits on a large portion of the former wide open space.

It was the site of many a battle in the hooligan era. We all remember the scenes from that “ICF” documentary in 1985 when West Ham got rather lippy with some United lads on the forecourt and along the terraced streets nearby. I can remember myself some punches being thrown at a few United versus Chelsea games over the years on this concrete slope. There is an understated commemorative plaque overlooking the remaining forecourt quadrant now, and of course the Munich Clock remains. It is a myth that the clock shows the actual time of the crash; although once a day it does.

I remembered back to our game on a sunny afternoon in late August of 2013 when I spotted Sir Bobby Charlton unobtrusively walking through the forecourt and being thrilled that I was able to shake his hand. That was a great memory for me. One of the better “non-Chelsea” spine-chilling moments of my life. I remember a United supporter waxing lyrical about the importance of the forecourt in the club’s history and how it’s relatively gradual slope tended to resemble the north face of the Eiger after a particularly painful defeat.

There have been additions on three sides at Old Trafford since 1994. And although there are still discussions rumbling on about increasing the capacity of the oldest stand, now named the Bobby Charlton Stand, by building over the railway line behind, I can’t see the capacity increasing in the near future. As I stood for a few final minutes, I realised that the curved quadrant above the away turnstiles at Old Trafford is one of the oldest remaining parts of the stadium still intact. Those red bricks could tell a few stories I am sure. Underneath, there is a permanently shuttered serving hatch, which may well have sold scarves, hats and favours in the past. How quaint. The megastore now takes care of all that.

One sallow youth wearing a lopsided beanie hat managed to get a few Manchester United fans, and then Chelsea fans, to squeak and yelp into his handheld camera. I inwardly tut-tutted. But he had something special for me. A few minutes later, a United fan in a black away shirt and a Chelsea fan in a blue home shirt – probably friends, possibly even brothers – and each with a half-and-half scarf, both posed and yelled at the camera.

“Go United. Go Chelsea.”

I rolled my eyes to the clear blue heavens.

Oh well, there have always been dickheads who go to football.

I began chatting to a bloke from Madrid, who was taking some crowd shots – some mood shots as I call them – with a couple of cameras. I wanted to warn him that bags, and cameras, would need to be checked before entering the game. But he had no match ticket, he was simply drawn to the game, to the stadium, to capture the pre-match buzz. He was a Real Madrid fan, and we joked about the upcoming Barcelona versus Chelsea game. As my normal camera was abandoned at home, I made sure that I took a few basic shots of the stadium using my mobile phone, focussing on large blocks of colour rather than the up-close and personal details of match action that I usually capture.

Old Trafford is a very photogenic stadium, if you know where to point.

Inside and up the steps and I immediately bumped into the lads; Young Jake, Lord Parky, PD were chatting to John, Alan and Gary. Alan had left his house at 4am that morning and would not be home again until the small hours. We had passed two of the three Chelsea coaches on the M6 at around Stafford earlier. It is the knowledge that loyal supporters like Alan, Gary and John – and hundreds more – make these horrendous journeys for our away games up North each season that fires a lot of my rude responses to many knob head Chelsea fans around the world who mope and moan at the slightest dip in form.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinions blah blah blah” – yes, and many of them strike me as being fucking worthless.

There was quiet optimism among our little group. Personally, I predicted a 0-0 draw.

I ascended the final few steps of the day, and gulped in a breath of expectation.

This stadium had provided me with some fantastical memories over the years. Let’s hope for one more.

James and “Sit Down” was on the tannoy. How apt.

We had great seats, row eight, right on the curve behind the corner flag. The stadium took a while to fill. With fifteen minutes remaining, I went down to the concourse to turn my bike around before kick-off, and fortunately just missed “ten men went to mow” and beer being thrown over everyone.

See my previous comment about dickheads at football.

The manager had chosen to go back to a 3-4-3 with Alvaro Morata given the nod. I had wondered if Fabregas would be dropped in favour of Danny Drinkwater; he was.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Drinkwater – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Hazard

With a quarter of an hour remaining, in a vain attempt to engender any sort of atmosphere, the United DJ played “Dirty Old Town” and then a newer version – with a female vocalist – of “Take Me Home.”

“Take me Home, United Road.

To the place, I belong.

To Old Trafford, to see United.

Take me Home, United Road.”

Chelsea soon responded with a few loud salvos of our own.

It was the first pre-match sing-song of the day and it was almost kick-off.

Bloody hell. In days gone by – “here he goes again” – the singing before the game was an expected appetiser ahead of the match. It set the mood. It got us all ready.

I remembered back to the days when we used to be given that slim little paddock behind the goal. It is where I stood, crammed in with thousands of others like bloody sardines, for my first three games at Old Trafford in 1985/1986, 1986/1987 and 1987/1988. In those days, Old Trafford was a cauldron of noise. The lads in the seats behind us used to stand and bellow out “United, United, United, United” as if their lives depended on it. It was a spine-chilling sound, even more so when there used to be tales of pool balls being launched from the seats behind us into that small away paddock.

These two grainy photos are from the September 1987 fixture when we sadly lost our first league game at OT in ages; we always had a fantastic record up there. We had gone unbeaten in thirteen league visits to Old Trafford since 1965/1966. My very first two visits to United’s home resulted in two back-to-back wins within five months in 1986. What a fantastic couple of matches; King Kerry with all three goals and Tony Godden with two penalty saves.

Of course the view was crap; but as an away fan we knew no different.

The teams came onto the pitch from the corner. I was waiting for the noise to snap, crackle and pop.

It never really did.

The self-generated atmosphere at Old Trafford back in those early visits sizzled like a Sex Pistols gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976.

In 2018, it was eerily similar to the ambiance of a mid-‘seventies Berni Inn; softened muzak, embarrassed silences and prawn cocktails.

Despite the cold gusts of arctic air outside, the temperature inside was fine. Not a cloud could be seen above. There were good vibes in the away end. I still fancied a draw. Tottenham were still drawing at Crystal Palace.

The game began.

And how.

We began on the front foot with an early corner.

Soon after, with only two minutes played, Toni Rudiger ran and ran from the Chelsea half – “keep goin’ Rudi”- to deep inside the United half. It was a barnstorming run, which summed up our early dominance, and free-flowing football. The away fans certainly sensed that we were on top.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

Right after, a sublime move allowed the ball to be played out wide to Marcos Alonso, who volleyed a cross at waist height towards Alvaro Morata. The ball crashed onto the cross bar. It was a stunning start to the game from us and set the tone for the first-half.

Without wishing to over-exaggerate, it felt like it was all Chelsea.

Time after time we played a long diagonal over to Victor Moses, who seemed to be United’s forgotten man, he was in so much space. Once or twice, he played the ball in, but far too often there was the trademark extra touch, or – even more frustrating – the desire to beat the same man twice. Throughout that first-half, Danny Drinkwater and N’Golo Kante stifled many a United attack. Eden Hazard and Willian hopped, skipped and jumped away from tackles; they were the stars alright.

The atmosphere from the home areas inside Old Trafford was virtually non-existent. Even I was shocked.

A new song from the away fans made me chuckle.

“Your city is blue. Your city is Blue. Just like London your city is blue.”

(I wonder if we will be quite so magnanimous next Sunday…)

There wasn’t much of a reaction from the United lot, whose only song was aimed at Merseyside.

We continued to find space between the lines. United were clearly second best.

However, a half chance fell to Alexis Sanchez, usually so prolific inside the box, so we were all relieved when his shot was easily gathered by Thibaut. It had been United’s first real effort on goal. Not long after, just after the half-hour mark, the twin threats of Willian and Hazard combined magnificently. Willian, his toes twinkling, ran with the ball from inside our box and the space opened up in front of him. He pushed the ball on to Hazard, who continued the move, and spotted the Brazilian’s “underlap” and returned a perfect pass into space. The whole away end lent forward. This smelled like a goal. After one touch, Willian smashed it past De Gea.

Manchester United 0 The Champions 1.

GET IN.

I saw Calvin race down to the front of the aisle and – in a scene which reminded me of a late winner against Tottenham – I joined him. The away end was on fire. I overlooked the balcony wall at the bottom of our section and punched the air.

FUCKING YES.

It was certainly deserved. The Chelsea support had been providing constant noise during the entire match, but the noise levels increased again. My college pal Rick – a season ticket holder in the back row of J Stand, at the other corner of our end –  always rates our away support at Old Trafford. He has told me that we are consistently in the top three or four. I wondered how he was rating the noise in this game. I was certainly proud of our racket. Of course it helps that the team was playing well – “helping each other” – but I always think we should be making tons of noise regardless of how well the team are performing on the pitch.

I grew nervous when some supporters started singing “Jose, what’s the score?”

…mmm, not at just 1-0, lads.

See my previous comment about dickheads at football.

Inexplicably, and against the run of play, United countered and the large and looming presence of Romelu Lukaku held up the ball in a central position. The ball was pushed back to a waiting United player. Despite a great deal of congestion in our box, Martial found Lukaku, who did well to steer the ball past Courtois.

United 1 Chelsea 1.

BOLLOCKS.

Lukaka, the big Belgian lump, took great pleasure in crossing his arms in front of his chest and sneering at the three thousand away fans.

“Noted.”

We broke again, but the entire end was left fuming as Eden raced into the box but bizarrely opted not to shoot. The moment was gone. The ball broke to Alonso, but his rushed shot cleared the bar. It is one aspect of his play that is lacking.

As one or two Americans are prone to exclaim : “He needs to shoot the ball.”

Shoot. Shoot will do. We all know there is a ball involved.

So, all square at half-time. I reviewed our players’ performances in that first forty-five minutes. All came out positively apart from that man Moses, who so infuriates, and Morata, who was largely quiet, and relatively uninvolved. I had kept looking over at Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho, both dressed in black, as the first-half developed. For some reason, maybe an air of inevitability, I have been a Chelsea fan for too bloody long, I sensed that although United had been lucky to escape with just one goal conceded, Mourinho just might have the last laugh.

The second-half began. As always, United attacked the Stretford End.

Mourinho’s men were certainly more involved, but we kept pressing and probing. Another fine run from Willian set up Morata in the inside-left channel, but rather than hit a first-time effort, decided to turn back on himself and shoot meekly at De Gea. A few Chelsea attacks tended to peter out rather lamely, and United were now the dominant force. They are such a big and physical team. Pogba, Matic and Lukaku suddenly seemed to grow an extra few inches. On the hour, De Gea fumbled a long shot from Drinkwater and Alonso, busting a gut, could not reach the loose ball. Our chances were becoming rarer and rarer.

Lukaku dramatically attempted a spectacular overhead kick but Courtois did well to finger-tip it over.

The home crowd were uttering the occasional song of support, but the atmosphere was still surprisingly quiet.

A Willian free-kick, way out wide, caught us all unawares as he chose to target De Gea’s near post. Although De Gea was well positioned to gather it, the low trajectory surprised him and the ball bobbled on the line before he finally grabbed hold.

These were crumbs of comfort as United, I sensed, were gathering momentum.

To our surprise, Conte decided to take off Eden. He was replaced by Pedro. I watched for a handshake. There was one, though only just.

A popular view was this :

“Fackinell Conte, are you fackin’ sure? Eden is our best player, our match winner. Why take him off? Why not take that useless facker Morata off?”

My view was similar, but without the swearing.

Morata had disappeared, really, as the second half continued. I lost count of the amount of times that he went down too easily, holding some sacred body part, eyes glaring at the referee.

With fifteen minutes remaining, Lukaku controlled the ball and sent over a perfect cross for the substitute Lingard to head home. There seemed to be no challenge, nobody close.

BOLLOCKS.

United 2 Chelsea 1.

Conte replaced Moses with Olivier Giroud. I presumed that Pedro would revert to right wing-back, but here was an odd line-up for sure. We were playing with two lanky centre-forwards…on the pitch…at the same time…bloody hell. Just after, Cesc Fabregas replaced Danny Drinkwater.

The personnel change and the shape change can be discussed from here to eternity, or at least until next Sunday, but there is no doubt that the new mix of players looked ill at ease with each other. On more than one occasion, with the ball out wide, we chose to play to feet in front of the box, rather than hit high balls in for Morata and Giroud. But we kept attacking, we kept trying. A linesman on our side of the pitch was quick to flag when Alvaro Morata drifted into a slightly offside position. His effort on goal was hardly applauded since we all saw the flag early.

In the last moments, at a corner, deep in to five minutes of extra-time, Thibaut Courtois raced up field to try to put pressure on the United goal. It amounted to nothing. The ball was cleared.

The final whistle went seconds after.

A text from Glenn in Frome :

“Not offside.”

I had to think. What offside? Oh, the Morata one? Blimey. That was a surprise. Looked it to me.

Outside, we walked up the north face of the Eigur and the United faithful were goading us with songs about “that big Russian Crook.” On the walk back to the car, we dissected the game. In my mind – call me biased –  I thought we had deserved a point, no doubt.

Once inside the car, I turned the radio on. Like a voice from the grave, someone spoke about Tottenham getting a late winner at Crystal Palace.

“Bollocks. Fifth place now. Bollocks!”

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Tales From The Stalemate

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 26 August 2013.

Chelsea Football Club’s first domestic away game of the fledgling season was a jaw-dropping excursion to Manchester United. However, the programme planners at Sky TV, no doubt in league with their lackeys at the FA, had ordained that the match should take place at 8pm on the bank holiday Monday. The friction of distance may have made life uncomfortable for the 75,000 attendees, but larger obstacles were likely to be overcome during the 2013-2014 season.

We’ll be there.

I was hoping that the drive from my village in rural Somerset to the red brick and white steel of Old Trafford might take around three-and-a-half hours; surely there wouldn’t be too much bank holiday traffic on the M5 during the early afternoon? I pulled out of my drive bang on 1.30pm and began the long drive north. The weather was stunning; blue skies, warming sun, just perfect. For others, the bank holiday was in full swing, with trips to the seaside, country pub lunches, village fairs, pony rides, cycling trips, triathlons and picnics. As I headed towards the next village, the roadside hedges were ripe with blackberries amidst the brambles; I wondered what pickings lie ahead for Chelsea later that evening.

My soundtrack for the early afternoon – yes, the traffic was fine, remarkably light – consisted of The Kings Of Leon and The Ramones. I usually head off to Raintown with New Order and The Smiths blaring at me, but I fancied a change. This was a new era, in more ways than one. Sir Alex Ferguson had finally relinquished his vice-like grip on the day to day operations at United, while our very own handsome devil Jose Mourinho was limbering up to have a tilt at Fergie’s able successor David Moyes. It seemed only a few months ago that Moyes was being touted as Chelsea’s next incumbent. In reality, the thought of Moyes at Chelsea now just seems too implausible for words.

No. Jose was back and this was a match made in heaven.

Moyes versus Mourinho.

Boom.

I raced past The Hawthorns and then the Bescot Stadium. I didn’t see my first “football car” until I had passed Stoke; a white mini-bus packed full of replica-shirted United fans from Devon, Dudley, Droitwich or Devizes. Approaching my usual turn-off into Manchester – the A556 – I saw signs that there was heavy traffic expected. My diversion north over the Thelwall Viaduct, the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal worked in my favour. I was parked-up dead on 5pm; as planned, three-and-a-half hours since leaving leafy Somerset. I only hoped that Mourinho’s planning was just as good.

Outside, it was warm. Balmy even. Too hot for Manchester. I parked up in my usual place but a local lass warned me that new parking restrictions were in place – “there’s a game on love, just warning you” – and so I dutifully paid £10 for a parking place in front of an old industrial unit. Then, the short and familiar walk to Old Trafford. It seemed only five minutes since my last visit. This would be my nineteenth Manchester United vs. Chelsea game at Old Trafford; more times, I mused, than most United fans had even thought about visiting.

Songs emanated from The Bishop Blaize once more. I picked out the new song of the moment, to the tune of “Cum On Feel The Noize.”

“Come on David Moyes. Play like Fergie’s Boys. We’ll go wild, wild, wild.”

I was soon drifting in past the United fans, crowding around the chippies, before heading down Sir Matt Busby Way, past the grafters and fanzine-sellers. Dave Johnstone thrust a copy of “CFCUK” in my hand, but a bigger thrill was coming up. None other than Sir Bobby Charlton, looking dapper in a light grey suit and United tie, walked straight across my path. This was too good an opportunity to miss.

“Let me shake your hand.”

What a thrill. A football legend. A survivor of Munich. A World Cup winner. I briefly chatted to two United fans – and a childhood memory soon returned. Bobby Charlton’s last ever game for Manchester United took place at Stamford Bridge in May 1973 (Chelsea won, Ossie scored) and I can well remember the buzz at school on the Monday when school chums spoke about the “We all love you Bobby Charlton” chants which echoed around the three-sided Bridge that afternoon. I ended my little history lesson for the two United fans – who were oblivious to the Stamford Bridge game – with the words;

“Enjoy the game. I don’t think you’ll enjoy the season, but you might enjoy this game.”

The game…yes, it finally came into my mind. It would be a tough one. United would have guns blazing. Deep down, I easily envisaged a United victory. Pessimist? Realist? I don’t know. I was just aware of the danger of over-confidence. This may be Mourinho, but these were still early early days.

While I waited on the famous United forecourt – under the Munich clock, with the the Sir Matt Busby statue and the Trinity statue nearby – I bumped into a few familiar faces. I noted, with disdain, that the hawkers were peddling hundreds of “half-and-half” scarves to the day-trippers. I then noted that on the reverse of the “Chelsea” half – out of view to the buying public – were the words “You can’t buy class.” I’ve never seen that before; a friendship scarf with a hidden piss-take. I grumbled to myself and moved on.

I was inside at 6.45pm; or rather, huddled in the sauna-like atmosphere of “Bar 68” alongside Alan and Gary, guzzling a Singha from a plastic bottle. There was talk of the new season and specifically the trip to Prague. I’m not going due to work commitments, but we have allegedly sold our full allocation of 4,900, a number which I find staggering. Maybe it’s the Mourinho factor. We sold around 2,000 for Monaco last summer. In 1998, it was nearer 750.

There was much debate amongst the little gaggle of friends about the team that Mourinho had chosen.

No recognised striker. OK. I don’t think anyone could have expected that.

Cech – Brana, JT, Cahill, Ash – Ramires, Lamps – Schurrle, Oscar, De Bruyne, Hazard.

I was amazed that Frank Lampard was chosen again for his third start out of three. Jose obviously likes that Ramires and Lampard combo. But no striker? Not Torres. Not Ba. Not Lukaku. I joked that we were in no position to complain about Jose’s predelictions.

“I don’t even have a road safety badge, let alone an FA coaching badge.”

Was this the Spanish “False Number Nine” formation or the Scottish national team’s “All Oor Strikers Are Shite” formation? I guess we’d soon find out. It certainly seemed that Jose had come for the draw. His formation seemed to suggest defensive pragmatism rather than a swarming offensive formation, with the four advanced midfielders breaking at will. In my head, I thought about containment. United, in comparison had Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck.

Gulp.

Inside, the first song on the PA was Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

The stadium seemed to take forever to fill. Time to look around and check any new additions to the formidable array of United banners. Now that the “City clock” is no more, there is a new “clock” – currently depicting the words “20 times.” Never slow in taking a dig at their bitter rivals along the East Lancs Road, there is a sign alongside this lampooning Liverpool –

“Not Nineteen Forever.”

The Chelsea section grew to its full three-thousand strong number. We were in good song. Pre-match, United were quiet. The minutes ticked by. As the teams entered the arena, I noted Jose walking towards the dugouts with his arms around Ryan Giggs, sharing a joke and a laugh.

Soon into the game, Dave Johnstone – stood a few rows in front – was incandescent (Daniel Levy incandescent) with rage at sections of our support whose pronunciation of the simple word “Jose” was incorrect.

FFS Chelsea, at least get his name correct.

“Jo-se” not “Ho-se.”

It’s not rocket science.

With that, Alan alongside me took the Mick out of DJ.

“Honly a pound. Hurry up.”

Maybe he should call himself Dave Hohnstone.

Oh boy.

It didn’t take long for me to find my gaze centering on the twin figures of Jose Mourinho and David Moyes. Not long into the game, we sung Jose’s name and he flapped a quick wave of acknowledgement. A torrent of abuse from the Stretford End – “Fuck Off Mourinho” – was met by a wave too. Mourinho, hands in pockets, relaxed, was clearly reveling in the moment. He was on centre-stage at Old Trafford, enjoying the limelight, loving the drama. Moyes, in comparison, looked stiff and awkward. It can’t be easy for Moyes to have to face the mammoth north stand, with fifteen feet high letters denoting Sir Alex Ferguson, at every home game. I noted that Mourinho chose to wear a neat grey pullover with his Hackett suit; a style much favoured by Roberto di Matteo last season. The urbane Mourinho, like so many Europeans, can carry off the pullover and suit combination, but I often think that Englishmen wearing the same seem to resemble sweaty librarians or train spotters with personal hygiene deficiencies. Just think Sam Allardyce.

The Chelsea support was roaring, with Van Persie and Rio Ferdinand bearing the brunt of the away fans’ distain. I even blushed at some of the stuff being sung about Rio’s brother. On the pitch, the game struggled to life. Of the four midfielders, we expected new signing Schurrle to take up the central position, but he in fact appeared all of the way along the front line. At times, I confused Schurrle with De Bruyne, such was their propensity to pop up at irregular locations as we pushed forward. The game lacked the expected intensity from the start and the 75,000 crowd soon hushed with very little goal-scoring action on the pitch. A long range poke from Oscar in a central position was virtually our only shot of note in the first thirty minutes. Wayne Rooney, the subject of Jose Mourinho’s apparent desires, buzzed around and looked at ease on the ball, splaying the ball out to the wings and encouraging others with his intelligent prompting.

Chelsea fans joined in with ironic cheering of his name and it wasn’t long before we replicated the Victor Moses chant of last season –

“Wayne Rooney – We’ll See You Next Week.”

United created slightly more than Chelsea in that first period, but Petr Cech was rarely tested. A van Persie shot rippled the side netting, Rooney shot meekly. We could only respond with another lame effort from Oscar and a blooter from Brana which troubled the occupants of the Stretford End rather than de Gea in the United goal. In truth, we had struggled to find any fluidity to our play and I found it frustrating to see Hazard unable to pick out any meaningful runs by his team mates. Compared to previous United Chelsea games, this was a tame affair. Just before half-time, a lone black-shirted United fan in the front row of the upper tier of the East Stand drew the ire of the Chelsea supporters, but it was telling that the away fans chose to mock him rather than pay much attention to the game.

At the break, the away end was subdued. The pre-match optimism had wilted slightly. It had been an uneventful game. As the second-half began, I said to Alan –

“Let’s cut and run.”

I would have taken a draw. No doubt.

United, attacking the Stretford End, began livelier. Welbeck shot wide. Although van Persie was quiet, Rooney was involved in everything. Chelsea, with no real focus to our attack, seemed reluctant to take risks, reluctant to break in any numbers. A Gary Cahill effort from way out was well struck, but at a safe height for de Gea to easily save. At the other end, gallant defending – especially from a magnificent John Terry – kept United at bay. A penalty appeal for handball was dismissed by Martin Atkinson.

On the hour, Mourinho replaced the ineffectual De Bruyne with Fernando Torres. At least we had a focus now, but Torres’ runs were often up blind allies and although he kept possession well, there just wasn’t the cut and thrust that we have grown accustomed to. Our play was laboured. Ashley Cole was unable to dig out any crosses; there was often a paucity of blue shirts in the box anyway.

A wonderful header away by John Terry – easily our man of the match – was then eclipsed by a dive at full stretch from Petr Cech from that man Rooney. As the minutes ticked by…Young for Valencia, Giggs for Welbeck, Mikel for Schurrle, Azpilicueta for Hazard…I was still convinced that United would claim victory with a late goal. The home fans, though, were unconvinced and began leaving with five, maybe ten, minutes to go.

“We’ll race you back to London.”

The last chance of the game came to Patrice Evra whose shot thankfully zipped wide. At the final whistle, there was gentle applause from both sections of the support. There was nothing euphoric from us; it was simply a case of “Classic Jose. Job done. Top of the league.” I am sure that Mourinho approaches these tough away games like European games; keep it tight, win it at home. For the return game later in the season, things will have settled down and we can hopefully anticipate a more positive performance. This was never going to be easy though; in the cold light of day, a draw at Old Trafford is excellent.

As I made my way slowly out, I sensed a definite air of disappointment from the United fans. As I walked up the slight incline of the forecourt, the shouts and jostling was at a minimum. There were odd shouts of “We’re keeping Rooney” but nothing more. As I filtered right onto the Chester Road, I passed United fans shovelling mushy peas and overly-salted chips into their mouths using plastic forks from polystyrene trays. The night was still. The cars began their engines and the lights flickered on. The long journey south was about to begin.

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