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Special Away Days Part 1: Ross County 1973

Ross County 11 August 1973

By way of introduction, this was my most ‘fanatical’ time following United, certainly in terms of attending matches. From August 1971 to November 1980 I didn’t miss a single United first team game in England including friendlies. In fact I only missed one on mainland Britain, a friendly at Aberdeen on a Monday night in October ‘72

The challenge in those days was to find out which friendly matches were being played and when. Nowadays the games would be advertised well in advance and shown live on Sky or MUTV. In the early ‘70s the communication industry around United, whilst still bigger than any other club, was very limited for friendly games. You had to seek out any bit of information from papers or football magazines and keep a note of dates and times. Sometimes I’d write a letter to Les Olive, United’s long-serving secretary, to ask if any games were planned or to confirm rumours of arranged games. He was really good, I always got a reply and these proved invaluable. I’ve still got the letters he sent me.

Under Tommy Docherty, United played a number of Scottish teams, probably due to his connections with fellow countrymen in the game and the fact two-thirds of our team were Scots- MacUnited as the tabloids coined us. One fixture was a pre-season friendly against Ross County who were still a Highland League side then, and that’s all I knew, other than I had to be there. But where? I couldn’t find a town called Ross on the map? How did we survive without Google!? A quick check with an old Jacobite at work confirmed that Ross County played at Victoria Park Dingwall, a few miles north of Inverness.

Obviously this is nothing compared to the United’s long-haul pre-season tours nowadays but in 1973 Inverness might as well have been Thailand or Malaysia. As with many of these friendlies our usual vanload of travelling Reds melted away and I was the only one of our crowd interested in making such a trek. For me, at 18, it was always a great adventure. Still, getting there was going to be tricky. None of the local coach firms would organise a trip, the same applied to British Rail and their ‘football specials’. I didn’t have a car and my dad would have laughed me out of the house if I’d asked if I could borrow his for an 800 mile round trip. Hitch-hiking that distance was a non-starter. With a week to go I didn’t even have a plan A, but l like a fore-runner of Daft Punk I stayed up all night and got lucky.

On a Saturday night out I was introduced to a guy called Rick who was over from Australia, he was visiting some paper mills in Radcliffe near Manchester that his dad owned. Our chat turned to football (what chats don’t?) and he said he’d longed to see a Manchester United game because he was too young to go to the matches on United’s tour of Oz in 1967. He was flying home in a fortnight so I told him the Reds were playing in Scotland the following week. He was keen to see Scotland (what Aussie isn’t?) and he promised to take us both up in his dad’s Volvo, all petrol paid for. Some result eh?

We set-off midday the following Friday, I’d never been in such a smart car, leather seats, stereo radio the lot and we cruised the 400 miles arriving in Inverness just before midnight. I remember vividly the last leg of the journey alongside Loch Ness, pitch black on both sides, hardly any other vehicles on the road and a driver intent on testing the speedometer to the limit!. It took my mind off worrying about the monster. We slept in the car and awoke to bright sunshine. We had a quick wash in some disgusting public toilets in the town centre. Not sure what had gone on there the previous night but it seemed several users had turned ‘missing the bowl’ into an Olympic event. Breakfast was postponed for a short while.

The locals advised us nothing would be happening in Dingwall until later – the match was a 6.45pm evening kickoff – but Nairn had some great beaches and even palm trees. Apparently, it’s on the path of the Gulf Stream that comes up from Mexico and is known as the Scottish Riviera! At Nairn we came across the Golf View Hotel and popped in for a pint. Grouped around the bar area was Tommy Doc, Tommy Cavanagh, George Graham and Big Jim Holton. We’d stumbled across the players’ hotel. The group made us really welcome, we had a great chat and the manager and players thanked us for our loyal support. Rick was on cloud nine, he wasn’t the only one. We couldn’t believe our luck. Eventually, The Doc told us he’d arranged a round of team-building golf for the players and that was our cue to leave.

We drove into Dingwall around 5.30pm and came across the first Reds we’d seen since we left Manchester. Most had found a local bar near the ground and were well on the way to boosting its profits. United fans had one end, probably about 300 travelled. The atmosphere on a balmy Saturday evening was superb, the full range of Stretford End songs – well this was the Doc’s Red Army era – and a 2-0 win in a canter. The locals thought it was great and joined in with the banter and merrymaking. I recall that Ian Storey-Moore played half a game in an attempt to get fit following a bad Achilles injury he picked the previous January. Moore was a key part of what O’Farrell had planned as United’s great future when signed in March 1972 for a huge £200,000 fee. He played only two more league games after this outing at Ross, the injury finished him as a top player, a sad loss to United and football.

Before the long Sunday drive home Rick and I had good cause to celebrate that Saturday night. He’d achieved his dream of seeing his beloved Manchester United, and so had I.

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