Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 28 April 2022.
Manchester United was going to be our last regular season away game in 2021/22. However, our appearance in the FA Cup Final brought it forward just over two weeks.
Chelsea : “What are you doing Thursday 28 April?”
United : “Nothing. Absolutely nothing, why?”
Chelsea : “Well, we have a problem with Saturday 14 May.”
United : “Go on.”
Chelsea : “Well, we reached the Cup Final.”
United : “Shut it.”
Our last three domestic away games, then, were to be Manchester United, Everton and Leeds United. Three trips up north to three football giants. Three trips to the former warring counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire.
Three colours : red.
Three colours : blue.
Three colours : white.
These days, the cities and teams reside in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and West Yorkshire. And hopefully, fingers crossed, I would be attending all three. I have not fared too well with home games this season, but by the end of 2021/22, I will have hopefully chalked up a full set of away games in the league, mirroring that of 2008/9 and 2015/16.
I booked a half-day holiday at work for the day of the game and also a half-day holiday on the Friday. I collected Sir Les in a pub car park opposite work at midday, then Parky, then eventually PD at just before 1pm. My route to Manchester then needed to take me home. The reason for this needs explaining. Two tickets for two friends up north had been sent to me on Monday but had not yet materialised. I was hoping that they would be waiting for me in my front porch. Alas it was not to be. I had already warned them that the tickets were unlikely to arrive in time for my departure up north at 1pm as our post usually arrives mid-afternoon. My text to them was still a horrible thing to have to do.
The Royal Mail 1.
The Ticket Man 0.
Undeterred, I set off.
There was a different route to get up onto the motorway network; Writhlington, Bath, Saltford, Keynsham, Bristol. I was soon onto the M32, then the M4, the M5…
By the way, It has occurred to me that during my match report for the recent West Ham United game, I missed an open goal. Surely, somehow, I could have referred to myself as the ticket man on Fulham Broadway Station?
What a waste.
The trip north was filled with football talk.
On the Tuesday, I had attended the Frome Town vs. Bristol Manor Farm game at Badgers Hill. This was the Southern League Southern Division play-off semi-final over just one leg. I aimed to drag as many people along as possible in order to boost the gate. In the end, just one was able to make it. I watched in the seats of the main stand as Joe O’Loughlin, the raiding left-back, unleashed a right-footed bullet to put us 1-0 up. How we all celebrated that one. I was just messaging some friends with the words “WHAT A FUCKING GOAL” when Manor Farm equalised within a minute of our goal. Sadly, the away team scored two further second-half goals to win it 3-1. Well done to them. They now travel to Winchester City in the final. I was predictably saddened with this loss. “Gutted” to use the football equivalent. Frome had been flying high in the two COVID seasons which were then sadly abandoned, and had led from the front this season until March. I rue two tame derby draws against Larkhall. The gate on Tuesday was a quite remarkable 1,158. It showed how the club has grown over the last three years.
I will be there again, when I can, next season. I attended eighteen Frome Town games this season – seven away – and each one has been so enjoyable. The club has been revitalised and – yes – I am still hurting that we didn’t reach the play-off final. Ironically, the final will be between the teams that finished fourth and fifth this season. Our second place finish – with a league best four defeats all season – meant nothing.
I hated the play-offs in 1988 with Chelsea and I hate them now in 2022 with Frome Town.
My good mate Kev, Chelsea, bumped into me before the game as he is a board member of Manor Farm. He enjoyed chatting to the one person I had brought along, a certain Mr. Harris, and he gave me a mix-tape – with a slight football flavour – to take to Manchester.
So that got an airing.
I loved it.
I did, though, wonder if I was upsetting the Chelsea Gods by playing it. There were songs from Manchester-based The Stone Roses and The Fall within the twenty-odd tunes involved.
At least Mr. Harris got a mention in Laurel Aitkens’ “The Zigger Zagger Song.”
We stopped at “The Windmill” pub, just off the M6, for about the fourth time. It’s our base before getting to Manchester. The boys enjoyed a couple of pints.
It was soon time to leave the pub for the final approach to Old Trafford.
The “sat nav” changed its mind four times in about five minutes as I looked at the best way to reach our usual parking spot near Gorse Hill Park, which is around a fifteen-minute walk from Old Trafford. In the end, it dragged me in a wide arc to the west, through some ridiculously quiet country lanes, sending me close to United’s training ground at Carrington, before pushing me through Urmston. Before I knew it, I was joining the slow-moving match-going traffic heading north along the Chester Road. I crept past the abandoned sky blue art deco cinema – it annoys me every time I see it, I would love to see it saved – past those red brick houses, signs for parking – the match day buzz growing now – and then the light grey of the Old Trafford stands in the distance. I parked up and paid £10 to the usual people. There was a nip in the air. Jackets were fastened.
This was my twenty-sixth visit to Old Trafford to see us play United. There were two FA Cup semi-finals too.
The last was in August 2019; the 0-4 shellacking with Frank at the helm.
Since my first time of walking along the Chester Road to Old Trafford around twenty years ago, a few things have changed. Nearer the ground, there are a couple of new car dealerships and a large modern supermarket. But past The Bishop Blaize pub, I was glad to see the small knot of fast food outlets still going strong. Old Trafford itself has undergone monstrous redevelopment itself in the past twenty-five years – it isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing of stadia – and so it always gives me a warm glow to see these six or seven cafes still eking out a living. A link to the past. A link to our youth. It’s silly, but I hope they continue to thrive. The match day experience at Old Trafford would suffer if they were to disappear.
The Lou Macari chip shop is still there. After the work that Macari has done for the homeless in his adopted city of Stoke-on-Trent, I have a lot of respect for that man. Talking of Macari, if you call yourself a football fan and haven’t seen “Marvellous” you need to have a word with yourself.
We reached the forecourt, the famous forecourt – another link to the past, the Munich clock et al – at around 7.15pm. The ticket man handed over tickets to Deano.
There was just time for a photo to share on Facebook, with me outside the away turnstiles. There are certain games that require a little attention in the sartorial stakes and this was one of them.
United away : Vivienne Westwood shirt, Hugo Boss jeans, Hugo Boss top, Paul & Shark jacket and Adidas gazelles.
“Tonight is my seventy-eighth Chelsea vs. Manchester United game across all competitions and venues. It takes them top just past Liverpool in my all-time list.
It is the only competition they will win this season.”
Without much fuss, I made my way in. The away segment of East Stand, formerly K Stand, is one of the oldest remaining parts of the stadium now. It reeks of ‘sixties concrete and pillars.
I simply could not have asked for a better viewing position. The much-enlarged disabled section at Old Trafford – very laudable – is at the front of the away corner, and so it means that our seats in “row two” were a third of the way back. Not only that, to my left was a clear view of the rest of the stadium; there was an abyss immediately next to me and then a gap before the home areas of the main stand, the South Stand. I had an even better than usual view of one of Old Trafford’s nicest features; the pitch is raised, as if indeed a stage, and the drop-off to the pitch surrounds always looks dangerously steep.
Old Trafford was quiet and not particularly full. Certainly in those areas to my left there were easily visible red seats. But our section had gaps too. Clearly this Thursday night fixture had proved to be problematic. We had heard rumours of “Glazers Out” protests but I had witnessed nothing before the game. The ground tried its best to fill up.
Just before the entrance of the teams, billowing sulphurous smoke emerged from the bowels of the South Stand. We presumed that a flare had been let off in protest.
The teams appeared from the tunnel in the south-east corner, below a “Glazers Out” sign held aloft by supporters.
Right. The game. The teams.
Chelsea lined up as below :
Rudiger – Silva – Azpilicueta
James – Kante – Jorginho – Alonso
Mount – Havertz – Werner
The “fluid” system rather than the one with Lukaku in it. Right, kids?
Long gone are the days when I could reel off a United team.
This United team weren’t :
Parker – Pallister – Bruce – Irwin
Kanchelskis – Ince – Robson – Giggs
Cantona – Hughes
Some bloke called Telles and some bloke called Elanga were playing for United, whoever they were. Cristiano Ronaldo, however, started.
The game – roll on drums – began.
What a start from us. We absolutely penned United into their own half and the home crowd, quiet before the game, were soon making negative noise.
The Chelsea faithful were first out of the traps too :
“Chelsea boys are on a bender. Cristiano’s got a coffee blender.”
…or something, I’m not sure.
I spoke to Parky :
“There’s some grass over there, left-hand side of the box, that marks the point where Ron Harris took out Eddie Gray in 1970.”
Unlike the first-half against West Ham on Sunday, we managed two efforts on target in the first seven minutes. A shot from Reece James and another from Timo Werner were saved well by De Gea.
It was all us. The action on the pitch and the noise off it.
Then, some scares came in quick succession. Bruno Fernandes, buzzing around from deep, looked to be their main threat and they had a little of the ball. A free-header from Fernandes was easily saved by Edouard Mendy, then an attempted bicycle kick from that man Ronaldo thankfully ballooned over.
But after this little blip, it was business as usual.
N’Golo Kante quickly shot at De Gea. We were playing so well. United were nowhere, nowhere at all. With Kante eating up space with two majestic and energetic runs from deep, he twice set up Kai Havertz with fine balls into space. The first resulted in a shot that was slashed against the side netting and the second was hit at an angle. The second move was undoubtedly the best of the game thus far.
There was a chant in honour of our Russian owner…the last days of the Roman Empire…but the United fans were so lethargic and apathetic that there was none of the usual boos that would normally accompany this.
We were especially dominant down our right with James making an absolutely marvellous return to the team. His cross was headed towards goal by Havertz, but this was again right at De Gea.
On thirty-eight minutes, an absolutely thunderous “Chelsea” – to the tune of “Amazing Grace” – galvanised the entire away support.
Thinking to myself : “they must have heard that on the TV in London, Paris, New York, Munich.”
It was almost total domination from Chelsea. The half-time talks and chats were all positive.
The second-half began and I was aware that both police and stewards had positioned themselves in front of the main stand and in the far corner where the “Glazers Out” sign had made a reappearance. The club were presumably expecting further rumblings of discontent.
The dominance continued on. A fine cross from Mason Mount just evaded Timo.
Ten minutes in, I honestly heard the first “Yahnited” chant of the night.
On the hour, a cross into the box from that man James was flicked on by Havertz. I saw two blue shirts unmarked at the far post. I gulped some Mancunian air. The slight wait. The trusted left boot of Marcos Alonso sent the ball low past De Gea and into the net.
GET IN YOU FUCKING BEAUTY.
The away end boomed.
You probably heard that in London, Paris, New York and Munich too.
Sadly, just like with Frome Town on Tuesday night, a goal was conceded just after we scored. We conceded possession and United pounced. A fine scoop up by Matic – one of their better players, I thought – found Ronaldo inside the box and grotesquely unmarked.
It had goal written all over it and other clichés. He brought the ball under control superbly and smashed it past Mendy.
Old Trafford woke up.
“Viva Ronaldo. Running down the wing. Hear United sing. Viva Ronaldo.”
What a disappointment.
“They’ve only had three attempts on goal, Gal.”
With twenty minutes to go, changes from the sideline.
Romelu Lukaku for Havertz.
Christian Pulisic for Werner.
Lukaku, to his credit, again repeated Sunday’s entrance by trying to sprint into spaces but was cruelly ignored by all.
I noted that Matic was booed off by us whereas Juan Mata – lovely player, lovely man, I sound like Alan Partridge – was warmly applauded.
We seemed to have corner after corner in that second-half.
“COME ON CHELSEA.”
We conjured one last real chance. With ten minutes to go, Kante broke in the inside left position and played a fine ball into Mount. With a lovely understanding of his positioning and of others, he back-heeled to James.
There was a wait for the ball to reach him and for him to reach the ball.
We inhaled again.
The ball was crashed goal wards and it clipped the left-hand post.
In the back of my mind, now, was the Football Gods completely fucking us over and allowing United an absolutely unmerited winner. There was indeed a late chance for Garnacho – who? – but Mendy saved well.
The draw felt like a loss.
Throughout thhis excellent game, Kante, Alonso and Silva had been magnificent but the real star was Reece James. Some of his close control was mesmerising, and his positional play superb. He really will be one of our very greats.
On Sir Matt Busby Way, Sir Les and PD indulged in a polystyrene tray of chips and curry sauce while I had a burger with onions. The food of the footballing Gods.
We made our way back to the car. Out on the Chester Road, the everything was moving quicker than usual. It was a tough old drive home but I eventually reached my house at 2.45am on Friday morning. The two tickets had still not arrived.
On Sunday, we’ll be heading up the same roads all over again.
I love a trip to Goodison. Who knows, it could – sadly – be my last.
I hope to see some of you there.