During a recent get-together with friends, the question of what each of us considered to be our worst moment as football fans was raised.
One friend lamented how, midway through the second half of a UEFA Euro 1992 qualifier pitting Northern Ireland against Faroe Islands—the latter of which was playing only its third competitive international—after the Ulstermen had secured a 1–0 half-time lead, a Faroe Islands player crossed the ball into the box and ‘some fisherman headed it in’. No further goals were scored, and ultimately it was just a ‘terrible, terrible match to be at’.
Another was the FA Cup semi-final at Elland Road in 1995 between eventual winners Everton and Tottenham Hotspur. My then-14-year-old cohort was so distraught at seeing his beloved Spurs two goals down that he took himself upstairs to bed in a huff, hoping that when he returned to the TV ten minutes later, the duo of Klinsmann and Sheringham would have turned the tie around. Instead, Joe Royle had sent substitute Daniel Amokachi onto the pitch—as legend has it by accident—and the Nigerian striker had scored a brace to take the Toffees to Wembley. Cue a lot more huffing.
The third worst moment was a story by a long-suffering Nottingham Forest fan, who had made the expensive trip to the City Ground in September 2011 to see The Tricky Trees take on local rivals Derby County in the East Midlands derby. Rams goalkeeper Frank Fielding contrived to get himself sent off two minutes into the encounter, and the rotund Andy Reid tucked away the resulting penalty to give Forest an unexpected early lead. Surely the Reds would go on to claim all three points, giving the much-maligned Steve McClaren his first home win after taking over the managerial reins in the summer? Not quite. Derby’s ten men fought back to win 1–2.
As each friend was speaking, I racked my brain to come up with an equally disappointing tale of woe for myself. Nothing really came to mind.
I briefly flirted with the notion of mentioning how, on a Monday in May 1997, my dad had gone out to walk the dog and buy the morning newspaper, but had returned home with more than I had bargained for. When he meekly strolled in through the door, just as I was about to start munching my Kellogg’s Corn flakes prior to heading off to school, I snatched the red top out of his hand as usual and flipped it over to see if anything interesting was happening in football. United had wrapped up the league for the second consecutive season the previous Sunday, so everything was right in my life. What greeted me on the back of The Sun was simply the most shocking news I had ever received in my existence up to that point: Éric Cantona had retired.
Despite being instantly grief-stricken, despite collapsing to the living room floor and bawling my eyes out into my cereal bowl, and despite being reduced to such a hysterical mess that I was unable to make it to school for two days, I realised that even this moment wasn’t worth mentioning; it significantly paled in comparison to one that has not yet come to pass.
I had made my debut in life during a season in which Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United finished fourth in the First Division of the Football League, were semi-finalists of the Cup Winners’ Cup, and did nothing worth mentioning in the domestic cups. I was barely walking by the May of the following campaign when Norman Whiteside curled one past Neville Southall in the Everton goal to win the FA Cup, and by the time Big Ron had collected his P45 in November 1986 I had just about started eating solid food and stopped wetting the bed at night. That means that for all but about two-and-a-half years of my existence, Alexander Chapman Ferguson has sat in the dugout of what is now the most successful club in domestic English football.
I first became aware of the club sometime in the 1993–94 season, when the other boys in my class suddenly started sporting replica United shirts during PE. In the formative years of my support, my love for United was an extension of my worshipping of Eric Cantona. After he had quit the game and I had shed my bodyweight in tears, I found, in Peter Schmeichel, someone else to admire for a couple of years, but he of course soon moved on too.
As a young, impressionable boy, football is about imitating the antics of your heroes on the playground or in your back garden, and for a couple of seasons I was left directionless, bereft of someone to capture my imagination, as I tried to beat my all-time keepie-uppie record of 47. The man in the dugout didn’t really matter. Therefore, when Alex Ferguson announced that the 2001–02 season would be his last at the club, I of course was saddened, but it wasn’t that big a deal to me. United had just won the Premier League for the third straight season—the sixth time in the eight years I had been a fan—and I’d watched them win three FA Cups, as well as the coveted European Cup in 1999. Nothing was going to stop that juggernaut rolling on. Or so I misguidedly thought.
But then something started happening. Whether it was the fire sale of Jaap Stam, Roy Keane taking a swing at Alan Shearer at St. James’ Park, or the players taking their foot off the pedal because they knew the manager was on his way out, United started losing a lot of games. Criticism began to be heaped on the team and Ferguson. The empire was allegedly crumbling. United were obliterated 0–3 at home to Chelsea in December 2001 and the wheels had supposedly well and truly flown off. I can still see Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s smug face as he celebrated a goal in said encounter. Ferguson and his overpaid, over-hyped, and over-the-hill superstars were widely derided.
As if things couldn’t get any worse, in January 2002 United had just gone a couple of goals down in an FA Cup third round clash at Villa Park, thanks to an Ian Taylor strike and Phil Neville putting one through his own goal, and they were staring down the barrel of yet another shameful defeat. Then Ruud van Nistelrooy removed his tracksuit top, entered the fray in the place Luke Chadwick, and helped turn the game/the season/the future on its head. First Ole Gunnar Solskjær pulled one back, and then the Dutchman blasted two past a waning Schmeichel. The players went berserk. The bench went bonkers. I leapt up off my armchair and danced a merry jig of delight around the living room, something I hadn’t done in quite some time. My interest—my love—was suddenly and violently reinvigorated. If that wasn’t enough already, the following month Ferguson placed a phone call to Maurice Watkins and asked if the two could meet urgently, the reason being that he had decided that he wasn’t ready to put himself out to pasture just yet. There was nothing else in his life that he wanted to do except look after this great club.
From that moment, Manchester United Football Club to me became Alex Ferguson Football Club. Supporting the club meant supporting the man, and his relentless thirst for victory and silverware. Before Tiger Woods was outed as a serial adulterer—his womanising ways irretrievably destroyed my respect for him—I loved plonking myself down in front of the TV and cheering him on in his quest to supplant Jack Nicklaus as the winner of the most Majors. There is something captivating about someone with an insatiable desire to win.
As I watched Geoff Shreeves wallop a fly off Ferguson’s blazer in their post-European Cup final interview on the Stadio Olimpico pitch in May 2009, I wasn’t sad for the players, or even for myself. I was heartbroken for Sir Alex, as my Nokia 6230i could testify, after it hurtled at a bedroom wall a short time later. Now it was my turn to go to bed in a huff. When the match was replayed with the same outcome two years later, the camera panned in close to a shot of Ferguson’s hands shaking on the United bench. I don’t know if it was nerves, fear, or simply old age, but regardless, the penny dropped for me at that moment that we are exceptionally close to the end of a beautiful journey; a journey that one foul-mouthed Glaswegian from Govan has taken me and millions of other Manchester United fans on for the past 25-and-a-half years.
At the end of last year, Kim Jong-il played his last round of golf. If you thought the scenes of hordes of North Koreans sobbing uncontrollably, beating their fists on the ground and wailing at the tops of their lungs were uncomfortably hilarious to watch, just wait until Alex Ferguson decides to call time on his managerial career. Okay, perhaps the comparison is a little bit excessive, what with one being a sadistic, genius dictator who is known for ruling his evil fiefdom with an iron fist, and the other being Kim Jong-il; however, for the purpose of dramatic effect, I think it’s a valid point.
People often say that no single person is bigger than any football club but in this case it doesn’t apply. Ferguson is the only manager I have ever known and he has spoiled me rotten. When I think of football, I think of Manchester United. I think of Ferguson. We need to savour every second we have left with him because it will never be this good ever again.
In the final act of the film The Truman Show—if you’ve never seen the movie then you may want to stop reading at this point (if you haven’t already)—after Truman Burbank has disembarked from his sail boat and disappeared into the walls of the fake world in which he has been living for his entire life, there is a montage showing humans around the planet who did nothing else but watch him on their televisions. However, with Truman departed and the ‘show’ finished, they didn’t know what to do with themselves. One is depicted as turning off his TV and looking around his living room for something to do. I expect to have that same empty feeling in eight, 20, or however many months it might be before Ferguson decides his health is no longer good enough to continue as manager, or, to quote Eric Cantona, he ‘die[s] on the bench of Manchester United’, at a stadium somewhere in Europe. Manchester United will not be the same without him. Football will not be the same. Life will not be the same. I await it with dread—it will be my worst moment as a football fan.