I don’t consider myself to be a proper Manchester United supporter. Because I don’t go to more than a couple of live fixtures a season, I can’t compare myself to the thousands of match-going fans who are there every week, home and away, in England and on European excursions, baying the Reds to victory. I can count the amount of times I’ve been to a game in person on the fingers and toes of my hands and feet, with some digits to spare.
I often get told that I’m a glory hunter, and to an extent that’s very true, but when referring to the club, I say ‘United’ rather than ‘We’. It somehow doesn’t feel right to use the latter—I don’t play for the club, and at twenty-eight, with an Achilles tendon on the verge of rupturing, and a damaged medial collateral ligament in the other knee, I’m beginning to suspect that I never will. Probably.
I can’t stand it when someone rubs a defeat or draw in my face, or slags off a favourite player or Alex Ferguson. I don’t follow United so I can feel superior to fans of other clubs. I don’t dish out aggravating ‘banter’ on a Monday morning after United have won and a rival has lost (although maybe it’s because I can’t take it that I don’t give it). I love the club because its teams have thrilled me over the past eighteen years and counting. That’s why I watch. The club and its people inspire me, in victory and in defeat, in triumph and in tragedy.
For years, several of my friends have constantly reminded me that Ferguson enjoys a tipple, and to begin with I took it all very thickly, as if they were insulting my dad. I’ve learned to accept it as simple, dim-witted jesting, but in truth perhaps I’m just suppressing anger for a future Michael Douglas à la Falling Down style rampage. Long runs the fox.
The vast majority of football fans in both the north and south of Ireland look across the Irish Sea for their football gratification, because compared to the English counterpart, the standard of the ‘professional’ game over here, for want of a better expression, is absolutely woeful. I’ve seen plenty of young boys who look to be around ten-years-old running around in their replica Manchester City kits in the past few months. Several years ago it was the blue of Chelsea, and, of course, the nineties were dominated by Manchester United. If you see someone in a Liverpool shirt, you can be almost sure they or their fathers were brought up in the late seventies or eighties. We have no geographical ties with any of the clubs at our choosing, and unless an insistent relative or a streak of contrariness forces us to do otherwise, we’ll pick whatever club happens to be having a period of success at the moment when we are at our most impressionable.
The first United match I can remember watching was the 1994 FA Cup final, although that occasion was interrupted by me going to an indoor adventure park so I could suplex, pile-drive and power-bomb my younger cousin on a bouncy castle—the World Wrestling Federation was also a staple of my entertainment diet during that time in my life. I wouldn’t have called myself a fan at that point, because I really only watched the game because everybody else in my class had been talking about it, and I just wanted to fit in. In fact, I recall my friend Adrian attempting to talk me into being an Arsenal fan, when he lent me his yellow 1991–93 away shirt, and yes, I admit to wearing it in my driveway a couple of times, as I weakly hoofed a size five Mitre Mouldmaster at the garage door, much to the chagrin of my parents and neighbours. My second cousin, Scott, gave me his 1992 Football League-winning Leeds United home shirt, although that stayed rolled up in a ball in my wardrobe for years.
On Saturday, the twelfth of November 1994, I decided the time had come to pick a club to support, so I grabbed the TV remote, pressed the ‘Text’ button, typed in the magical numbers 3-0-2, and was greeted with a headline which declared that Manchester United had trounced Manchester City 5–0 two days previously. I instantly decided that this was the team for me. Delving deeper, I discovered that a player called Andrei Kanchelskis had scored three of the goals, so he was obviously the best, and was installed as my favourite. Had I been two weeks later with my actions, I might have seen that Blackburn had crushed QPR 4–0, and I could have been begging my mum for a Rovers shirt with ‘Shearer 9’ printing as a reward for getting an ‘A’ in my 11-plus exams the following February, rather than simply ‘14’ on the back of my new blue-and-white striped third shirt, which was too small to accommodate the Ukrainian quicksilver’s surname. The football gods guided me well.
The following week I spent my undeserved pocket money on that month’s Glory Glory Man United poster magazine, the innards of which were plastered over my bedroom walls, and every four weeks henceforth. It soon got to the point that I was Blu-Tacking A4 photos of Éric Cantona’s face on the ceiling directly above where my head would be in bed, such was the diminishing available space. I’ve woken up to far worse things staring into my eyes.
The night that the Frenchman decided that Matthew Simmons needed to watch his mouth, I was at home with my dad and sister. Mum was out on her nightshift, and when the Ten O’Clock News informed me of Éric’s indiscretions, I rolled around on the carpet in stitches at the thought of this deranged, maniacal foreigner serving up his own brand of rough justice. I wasn’t laughing months later at my friend Chris’s house as I watched United throw away the league thanks to a defeat at Anfield, home draws to Leeds and Chelsea, and of course the draw at Upton Park on the last day of the season. Then there was the loss to Everton the following Saturday at Wembley. To make matters worse, Andrei decided he was off, leaving me without my short-lived boyhood hero.
On Sunday, the first of October 1995, I was perched on the floor of my living room with my cousin Richard. I was ‘watching’ United versus Liverpool on Ceefax, which involved cyan text on a black screen for ninety minutes, which would only change at half-time, full-time, if someone had been sent off, if someone had missed a penalty, or if someone scored.
After two minutes, it transpired that Cantona had received a pass from Andy Cole on United’s left flank, swung a deep cross towards the back post, and Nicky Butt had surged into the box to knock it past a hapless, pre-PlayStation-playing David James. Robbie Fowler then decided to be a party-pooper by making twats out of first Peter Schmeichel and then both Gary Neville and Peter Schmeichel, to put the Merseyside Reds ahead.
The comeback wasn’t going to plan. The atmosphere in the back room of that humble semi-detached abode was dampened. But then, as if intercepting some divine instruction that was meant for the northwest of England rather than the south west of Belfast, I had a premonition. United would equalise. Not only would they equalise, but it would be courtesy of a penalty. A penalty scored by Éric Cantona. So sure was I of this that I turned to my cousin and bet him that it would happen (not that I had any money for such a wager). Less than one minute later, the text on that bulky, 18-inch Panasonic changed. My vision had come to pass. I was in love.
The first time I saw United in the flesh was an exhibition match at Windsor Park in December 1995, against an ‘International Select’ side. The Reds didn’t exactly have a full strength side out, with both Schmeichel and Giggs injured, although both Cantona and my current man-crush Paul Scholes played, with the latter getting on the score-sheet in a 2–1 defeat. It would be almost 11 years before I would see United again, when my dad surprised me in the summer of 2006 with tickets to the second home game of the season against Tottenham. But bridging (and surpassing) that gap, I’ve witnessed all the highs and lows from the comfort of my living room, or the living rooms in the houses of friends and family who I imposed myself on, prior to us getting Sky Sports at home. Only in recent years, upon discovering that I could watch every United game on TV, thanks to foreign channels of questionable legality, did I begin to watch matches in pubs.
When you can’t get to a game in person, it’s easy to forget that football isn’t just another dramatic movie or TV show, designed to get my heart racing and capture my imagination. I also find it hard to justify getting so wrapped up in the action. It would be like my sister bouncing off her chair and hollering with glee when Coronation Street beats EastEnders at The British Soap Awards. But, even so, I can’t help it, as it has all made such an impact on me, and most of the twists and turns are ingrained in my memory.
I remember Andy Gray describing Andy Cole as being ‘right on cue’ when he powered home Lee Sharpe’s cross at Roker Park in January 1996 to win an FA Cup third-round replay, after Cantona had scored an equaliser in the first game at Old Trafford right at the death.
I remember Newcastle giving the United defence a battering in March 1996, a week before my twelfth birthday, before my hero popped up with a priceless volley which left Pavel Srníček beaten all ends up.
I remember sneaking out of Technology class in May 1997 to listen to bits and pieces of the United versus Middlesbrough match, on a rain-soaked Monday in Manchester. I got caught and in trouble, but did I care?
I remember my mum almost crashing her car one Saturday in January 1999 as we were out shopping, due to my high-pitched squeals after Ole Solskjær had made his traditional goal-scoring appearance off the bench to beat Liverpool in the FA Cup.
I remember Ryan Giggs carving his way through the Arsenal defence at Villa Park in April 1999, with my dad snoring obnoxiously beside me on the sofa, after Peter Schmeichel had turned away a last minute Dennis Bergkamp penalty.
I remember my friend Chris leaping onto my back as Solskjær turned Teddy Sheringham’s flick-on into the roof of Oliver Kahn’s goal in Barcelona, after spending much of the second half slumped in my chair, huffing.
I remember Ruud van Nistelrooy picking the ball up at the halfway line at Highbury and charging like a bull towards Stuart Taylor’s goal, and Alex Ferguson running onto the pitch at full-time, fist pumping towards the away support in delight at the 2–2 draw, on United’s way to reclaiming the title from Arsenal in 2003.
I remember blubbering like a schoolgirl hearing that Take That had split up, when Ryan Giggs slotted home at the JJB Stadium in May 2008, and ten days later standing about a foot from the TV bellowing ‘YEEEEEEESSS!’, when Edwin van der Sar denied Nicolas Anelka in Moscow, with a great big cheeser on his face.
I remember fiercely booting my Lucozade bottle with such venom after Rio Ferdinand had cocked up and let Craig Bellamy in to score another City equaliser in the 2009 Manchester derby at Old Trafford that it bounced off several walls in a friend’s house. I also remember leaping up off the sofa and sprinting up the stairs for no particular reason, when Michael Owen won it several minutes later.
I remember jumping up and down on the spot in April 2010, my face frozen in a silent scream, when Paul Scholes popped up deep into stoppage time to caress home a winner in the return match at the City of Manchester Stadium.
I remember earlier this year when United faced Bolton at Old Trafford, as a low cross was making its way towards the back post, where Paul Scholes was loitering with intent. I seemed to know several seconds before everybody else in the pub I was watching the game in what was about to happen, as I bellowed ‘SCHOLES!’ at the top of my voice, before he tucked it neatly away.
I could go on, but I have a word count.
As good as all of those moments were, all were experienced approximately 167 miles away from Old Trafford, and not a single one of them came close to comparing to being at the Theatre of Dreams and witnessing a match first hand.
To be continued…