Until I was about seven, football didn’t really feature in my list of priorities. (Doubtless this state of affairs delighted my United-obsessed Dad.) If that flag you always used to see at Old Trafford used to read ‘United, Kids, Wife – In That Order’, when I was a kid – at the risk of this sounding like a piece of Peter Kay nostalgia-propaganda – my priorities were probably ‘Star Wars, The A-Team, The Dukes of Hazard’. Sure I collected football stickers – obsessively too – but I also collected Return of the Jedi stickers and Back to the Future stickers.
My first appearance at Old Trafford changed all that. It was 18th January 1986. The Pet Shop Boys were number one in the charts with West End Girls and the 24th Space Shuttle, Mission-Columbia 7 was making its return trip to Earth. Wayne Rooney was still in nappies (he was three months old, so he had an excuse then).
It was a fateful weekend in more ways than one: that Saturday tea time I missed my first ever episode of The Dukes of Hazard and on the Sunday the first ever PC virus – it was named Brain – started its inexorable, buttery, spread. There is no indication that these two incidents were connected.
But what is certain is the fact that as of 3pm (oh how I miss bloody 3pm kick offs) on Saturday 18th January 1986, Manchester United infected my brain like a computer virus. From that moment on, MUFC corrupted every other file inside the hard drive of my mind. I began to think in red, white and black. My priority levels changed: suddenly the antics of Bo and Luke and Boss Hogg meant squat diddley. What mattered was Graeme Hogg and whether he’d recovered from a slight thigh strain in time for the next game.
Suddenly Han Solo wasn’t my ultimate hero. No, that place was reserved for a willo’ the wisp Danish Dynamite winger who I witnessed for the first time that cold January day. But more on Jesper Olsen later.
Because it wasn’t just the players and the match which bowled me over, which sent shock waves through my entire nervous system. It was, to put it in Sky (Death Star) TV terms, the whole ‘matchday experience’.
From the very start of that day, I knew it was going to be different to a run of the mill Saturday.
This was made abundantly clear to me when Dad started cooking lunch. Usually Mum wouldn’t let him anywhere near the cooker. Not because she thought cooking was a woman’s job or anything daft like that, but because Dad was absolutely abysmal – I mean, we’re talking William Prunier standards here – at preparing food. Sometimes I wondered whether this was tactical rubbishness so he wouldn’t be asked to do it again, but even Manchester City couldn’t keep being awful week after season after decade simply to prove a point, could they?
But anyway, Dad made lunch. Nothing special, just cheese on toast. Still managed to burn it. On a side note, Dad made the same pre-match lunch – occasionally varying it up by introducing beans into the equation – every week before football for the whole time we travelled to football together. Never seemed to learn how not to turn the bread black and the cheese shit-brown.
Then he presented me with my first ever United shirt. I still think that shirt was a classic (although maybe that’s simply rose-tinted spectacles). It was the Adidas number with the big white V’s on the shoulders. Looked sharp, it did. Said SHARP too, right across the middle. I still think if we absolutely have to have a sponsor, United should use Sharp. That way we are exactly what it says on the tin. Doesn’t work with bloody AON does it?
I was buzzing with the shirt. Over-excited as only a seven year old can be. Thankfully I’d already got some United sweatbands so I used them to wipe away some of the sweat from my running about like a lunatic…
Next, we went next door and knocked-on. Dad used to go to OT with next doors’ oldest lad at the time. He was called Robert, and had to have been about nineteen or twenty. I thought he was about the coolest lad around back then. Kind of a mix between Han Solo and Howlin’ Mad Murdock. He wore an ace leather jacket and a permanent sneer and that day, I thought I’d really impress him with my new United top. True to form though, he simply sneered at it. (Though I did catch him looking jealously at my sweatbands.)
The three of us clambered in to Dad’s red Fiesta, the one which had a rainbow-coloured parcel shelf from when I’d left a set of crayons on it on the sunniest day of the 1985 summer. (I still remember the bloody Numberplate – RVU99X). Set out for the four mile trek from Didsbury to Old Trafford. Dad made most of the conversation along the way, asking Robert how he thought United were playing at the moment and whether he thought we were still in with a chance of the title (United had blazed a trail to the top of the table in 1985-86, winning their opening ten games on the trot, however injuries and loss of form, allied with Mark Hughes being unsettled by talk of a move to Barcelona, meant our lead at the top was being slowly whittled down.)
Robert’s replies were mostly grunts and tuts. But sometimes he’d expand, let rip with the full range of his vocabulary. ‘United are rubbish,’ he said. ‘Utter rubbish.’ Later, Dad told me that this was Robert’s standard response to any question about the club. His every match report was a phoned-in ‘we were rubbish’, even when we weren’t.
So anyway, we got close to the ground. Parked up on a side-street near Old Trafford cricket ground; somehow wedging the Fiesta into a space between two other cars so skinny that even Jesper Olsen would have struggled to get through. A few lads a little older than me asked my Dad whether he wanted his car watching. Robert grunted something at them which might have been fuck off, and they scarpered.
We joined a steady stream of people cutting through the streets up to the footy ground. And, when we rounded a corner, that stream became a river, swelling from the influx of people flooding into it from all the minor tributaries. There were people singing, people clutching transistor radios to their ears. People swigging from cans of lager. People munching rank-smelling burgers. People telling blue jokes. People yelling get your new United fanzine, out today, others hissing who wants seats. There was horse crap and chipwrappers and flyers for something or other all over the road. There were chip vans. Policemen. Cars beeped and tried to pick a path through the throng of people. People banged on the car roof. Bang bang, bang bang bang, bang bang bang bang…
I was overwhelmed. Tramped right through a huge pile of horse shit. Didn’t care it had gotten all over my trainers. Robert was completely underwhelmed. Said right, he was off to the pub. Said he’d meet us back at the car. Wandered off.
Dad asked me whether I was enjoying myself and I said it was brilliant. I think I was the complete anti-Robert that day. Everything was brilliant.
We reached the top of Warwick Road, by the Ford garage. Lou Macari’s chippy on one corner. Me asking Dad, does Lou Macari really work there?
And then not even listening to the answer because I could see the ground. I’d seen it before. Driven past it, had an impromptu kick-about on the forecourt while Dad queued up for tickets for some match or other. But on match day it was different. When we’d been before it had been a load of old concrete. Now the ground had come alive. I could feel it pulsing with energy, with noise, with emotion. With the very virus which was already insinuating itself into my brain.
We did a half-circuit. Walked right round to the Stretty End to where you could pay-in at the turnstile still. We were sitting above the Paddock and as we made our way in, I was getting elbowed and kicked and shoved about, but loving every minute of it.
The moment which sealed my fate as a die-hard United fan, however, was the moment I climbed to the top of the stairs from the bowels of the stadium and was afforded my first view of the pitch. And sure, it wasn’t like the pitch is now. So spruced and green. But there was something wondrous about it. It seemed very much like what it was: the stage in the Theatre of Dreams.
I can’t remember much about the game that followed. I was probably still a little bit too young to concentrate for 90 minutes. And besides there were so many other things to see, and hear, and smell. I’ve had to look up the main facts. There were 46,717 in attendance that day. We were playing Cloughie’s Nottingham Forest. United’s line-up was: Gary Bailey, John Gidman, Arthur Albiston, Norman Whiteside, Kevin Moran, Billy Garton, Jesper Olsen, Gordon Strachan, Mark Hughes, Frank Stapleton, Colin Gibson.
United ended up on the wrong end of a 3-2 defeat. The result meant we lost our grip on top spot in a First Division championship which had once looked so promising. We were never to claw it back; ended up finishing in fourth, after an appalling second half of the season.
But though the result hurt, I was hooked. And I loved Jesper Olsen, who’d scored both of United’s goals on the day. Anyone who could inspire such joy amongst so many people, anyone who could make my heart lurch like his goals had, deserved to be my hero. I went to see three more United matches that season. Didn’t see a single other Red goal in open play, which only made me love Jesper all the more. Valued his goals the more: just as I value each and every goal we score now.
After the game, we moved in the same river of Red folk as we had earlier, only now it flowed in a hushed silence. Occasionally someone would shout out the results from the day’s other games. Occasionally, someone would start up a half-hearted chant of United, United, United.
Dad told me I should get used to being disappointment if I was going to be a United fan, and, for the next four years, he couldn’t have been more right. But for the next twenty-seven? It has been magic. I have been spoilt.
Robert, who was waiting for us at the car, having left early (which I couldn’t comprehend back then, even less now, when we have the lovely habit of scoring late goals) simply shrugged, and said ‘we were rubbish.’
On Saturday 18th January 1986 I went to the game with my Dad. In 2013, I still sit with my Dad. And my sister. And my Mum sometimes too. And though we don’t live together, or even travel to the games together, we still sit in the Stretford End – in the corner of Stretty and the Sir Alex Ferguson stand in fact – as a family. And though I often cut it fine getting to my seat in time for kick off as I like to finish my pint with my mates before I get into the ground, I still say my goodbyes to them, and make my way to our entrance, N49, which will lead me out into the bowl of Old Trafford just underneath the scoreboard, where Dad’ll be waiting.
I’ve followed United all over the country, and into Europe with mates, but when it comes to Old Trafford I sit with family. It’s something about the collective weight of memories and shared experience. I can’t imagine being at Old Trafford with anyone else.
Star Wars, The A-Team, The Dukes of Hazard, they all fell by the wayside, but for me, for my Dad, United have been an ever present priority.
Just don’t ever ask him to make you any cheese on toast before the match.
I don’t know what happened to Robert. We moved eventually, and Dad must have got sick of his relentless negativity in the end. But I imagine he still thinks United are rubbish… Though I’d have loved to have heard his thoughts on the conclusion to the 1999 season.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew J Kirby is the author of ‘Fergie’s Finest’, which was released last month, and by no means cashes in on Fergie’s retirement…
Take a look on Amazon now. Here’s the link for the paperback version: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fergies-Finest-Alex-Fergusons-First/dp/1484960122/ref=tmm_pap_title_0
And here’s the link for the ebook (which is only £1.99): http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fergies-Finest-Fergusons-First-ebook/dp/B00CPPNTJ2
ABOUT THE BOOK:
Sir Alex Ferguson was one of the greatest football managers of all time.
In over 26 years in charge of Manchester United, his passion for winning and tactical flair made them the most successful club in the Premier League. Under his guidance, United won an eye-watering 38 trophies, including 13 league championships.
But who were the greatest players of the Ferguson era?
Over 185 players debuted for United under Ferguson and more than 200 players wore the red jersey for Fergie. They included legends of the modern game from David Beckham to Ryan Giggs, from Roy Keane to Bryan Robson, and from Eric Cantona to Cristiano Ronaldo.
But which were the Greatest Eleven?
Is Robin Van Persie the greatest striker? Or Ruud Van Nistelrooy? Was Paul Scholes the best player in the heart of the midfield? Or Bryan Robson?
In this fascinating study, Andrew Kirby selects the ultimate ‘Team Fergie’. With interviews from football writers and former players, this book considers the leading contenders for each position in Sir Alex Ferguson’s First Eleven. It is the one book every Manchester United fan – and indeed every football supporter – will want to read.
Andrew J Kirby’s sports writing has featured in BBC Sport magazine, and on the Radio Five Live website. He has written for Republik of Mancunia, Stretty News and Old Trafford Faithful blog sites. He has held a Manchester United season ticket for the entirety of the Sir Alex Ferguson reign at Old Trafford, and regularly follows the Reds across Europe and beyond.
He also writes award-winning crime fiction as AJ Kirby, and has published five novels including Sharkways and Paint This Town Red, which was shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2012.