This is a diary of Manchester United’s 2015-2016 season.
Why am I writing it?
I’m a lifelong United fan, born and raised in Manchester, growing up in the 50’s and 60’s in Collyhurst, Moston and Middleton. My dad was United daft but who knows if I’d have followed his lead if I’d been born 10 years later and Frank O’Farrell’s early 70’s team were the benchmark? This blog could have been about City!
In footballing terms I arrived in the right space at the right time. What kid could resist walking in line with supporters 50 abreast over the Warwick Road bridge towards Old Trafford, all focused and urgent, getting ready to cheer for some of the best players on the planet? My dad, the crowd, Busby and his Babes? City had no chance. Hooked forever.
Manchester in the 50’s was industrial, foggy, grimy and often smelly. In my North Manchester world football and United seemed to connect everyone and everything. Nobby Stiles’ dad was our family undertaker. Brian Kidd lived two streets away from my grandad’s pub. Carlo Sartori’s dad was the local knife grinder and rode the streets on the most amazing bike equipped with a pulley and stone. We played football all the time. Lamp posts, cans, bricks, or thrown down coats were goals, and when the pubs emptied on a Sunday the dads and lads games could reach more than 20 a side and end after three or four hours with a 65-64 scoreline.
As a 7 year old I’d head for Old Trafford straight from playing for school on Saturday mornings, often still in my muddy kit. A red and white United strip of course, that’s me below second from the right at the front.
The De La Salle Brothers were enthusiastic fellow supporters and very well connected. Our class knew Albert Quixall had signed for United before the Manchester Evening News did when he was given a tour of the school. I’d arrive at Old Trafford as early as possible and camp by the players’ tunnel waiting for the whiff of liniment and clattering of studs on concrete announcing the players were on their way. Think about it. Seven years old. The equivalent of today’s price of a Coke to stand in the Paddock, and safe enough for a child to be deliriously, obliviously happy. I even had enough for a meat pie and bovril.
Now those early essentials are replaced by the champagne and prawn sandwiches of the modern corporate game. A half century has rolled by. Munich and its aftermath. The first European Cup. The humiliation of relegation and eventually two decades of unprecedented success. Myth and magical moments produced by two amazing Scotsmen, and brilliant, brilliant, brilliant players.
Along the way United delivered some life lessons.
A hardman’s introduction to a hard game came when Maurice Setters marched up the car park outside the ground and responded to an autograph request with “fuck off son”.
My dad collapsed and died on his way home from the 1966 European Cup second leg semi-final 1-0 victory over Partizan Belgrade. One nil wasn’t enough. Partizan led 2-0 after the first leg. That night the 19 year old Willie Anderson missed a sitter.
In later years Willie became a friend. We were best man at each other’s weddings and after three or four red wines I’ve been known to accuse him of murdering my dad.
And then there are the ultimate “get real sunshine” moments.
When I was in my early teens I’d been looked at by United and a few other clubs, but by the time I was 14 I knew I was never going to be good enough. I’d decided if you can’t play it, write about it. My first real job was with the Sunday Mirror as a sports reporter, and their lead Manchester writer Vince Wilson was kind enough to take me with him when he went for a regular weekly meeting with Sir Matt.
Busby was in his cramped office smoking his pipe. Introductions were made and the great man looked at me for a few quiet seconds. From nowhere Vince suddenly asked: “Why didn’t he make it as a player.” “Didn’t have the temperament.” was the slow, stark reply. Both the damning phrase and the pipe smoke seemed to take an hour and a half to come out. Crushed in four words. Try that for an up and down moment in fandom. In the inner sanctum, and within minutes hating every minute of it.
When the Sunday Mirror eventually allowed me out on my own I would find any excuse possible to head for The Cliff, United’s then training ground. In those days you drove right in, sometimes had a cup of tea with the groundsmen and waited for the players to emerge. In my experience Bobby Charlton is a very serious man with a very unforgiving memory. He says I asked him the most stupid question he’s ever been asked in football. He says it every time I’ve met him. Don’t ask me what it was. I blanked it out years ago. Ask him. On the flip side if you’ve ever had the chance to listen when he describes what football means to him it’s both riveting and poetic. Charlton, of course, first described Old Trafford as The Theatre of Dreams.
Now I live in Portland, Oregon – 4728 miles from the place. Thanks to the internet and live TV, United are always a click, tap or swipe away. I read, watch and consume everything about the team, the kids, “the philosophy”, the transfers, the politics and the business. I’m a shareholder and member of MUST. I wish the Red Knights had charged in and hope one day United will be run like Barcelona or Bayern.
After leaving Manchester to pursue my career I’ve remained lucky enough to be in and around football all my life. I reported for BBC TV from two World Cups and in an ultimate irony during the 1976-77 season I was the reporter for a weekly series following Manchester City for the BBC’s Nationwide programme. As then City captain Mike Doyle bellowed during a particularly tense dressing room moment: “You’re not one of us. You’re a fucking Red!”.
Very observant Mike.
I made lifelong friends with players from that City squad and players and managers from other teams in the wider football community, but in the end I’m just another, flat-out bonkers United fan.
This blog is dedicated to us all.