SA Reds on Tour
by Ethel Sleith
DEPARTURE AND DAY ONE
- TUESDAY / WEDNESDAY
I've been planning this trip for so long, I couldn't believe it was finally time to go. Lies to the boss about having to attend a special anniversary meant many whispered conversations on the phone in recent months, especially as I was making all the travel arrangements for 33 people! One or two people at the office might suspect, but what's wrong with going to a match in the afternoon and then a party in the evening? Anyway, it's none of their bloody business. It was a bugger having to go to work on Tuesday, but as I work for a cretin, there was nothing else for it. I persuaded him to let me leave at 3.30 pm and rushed home to get ready to make the airport for 5 pm. Anyone who knows me, knows I am rarely on time, despite all the good intentions in the world. We arrived at the airport around 5.15 pm, and found many of the group already there. We checked in without any problems and having dispensed a few specially commissioned tee-shirts and cabin bags, made our way to the Capricorn lounge in International Departures. This is a brilliant idea, and well worth the extra cost. There's an open bar where you can drink what you like (my husband Jimmy was fed up that we hadn't gone earlier and there wasn't time for him to get legless!), and snacks in the form of cheese and biscuits, sandwiches, cakes, etc., are provided free of charge. Well, they're not really free as one pays for the privilege of going in there in the first place, but no one is asking for money at the counter. We caused a bit of a stir when everyone lined up for a team picture with the South African flag pronouncing us to be 'SOUTH AFRICAN REDS'.
There were 21 of us on this flight (KLM weren't able to accommodate the whole group on one flight), and we'd been seated more or less together. Thank God I wasn't having to sit by the window. I get into a dreadful state on take-off and am fast reaching the stage where I'm not going to be able to fly at all. If anyone has any suggestions I'd be grateful. A friend who is also a doctor had prescribed sleeping tablets, but I didn't take them because I didn't want to miss anything. Anyway, it's only the take off that scares me witless. As the plane rumbled down the runway fright got the better of me and I flung the little pillow up over my face. Why is the runway so damned long? I was forced to come out from behind the pillow eventually because I couldn't breath, and STILL we were on the runway. The two youngsters, Henry and Houston, were in the seats in front of me and at least I afforded them a bit of pleasure as they watched me through the crack between the seats. I know my hysteria is the source of amusement to other passengers, but it's not funny to me. Losing control of oneself never is.
There was a a particularly noisy group among us, who entertained some of the passengers during the flight. That was, until one of the stewardesses came round and said they'd closed the bar as people were trying to sleep. I'm sure that's why they also put all the lights out. How can anyone sleep on an aeroplane? The only ones who slept at all were the two 12 year olds, Henry and Houston. A young Dutch student had the misfortune to be seated right in the midst of the rowdies, and he disappeared regularly during the flight, no doubt hoping to find a bit of peace and quiet.
We came into Amsterdam at 6.10 am and walked what seemed like 20 miles around Schipol to reach the gate where we were to catch the connecting flight to Manchester. No one bought any duty free at this stage because I think everyone was afraid they would miss the connection and be left behind. But we all had a look and knew we'd fill a few of those bright yellow bags on the return journey - if anyone had any money left, that is.
As the plane descended through the clouds over Manchester Airport there were gasps from our little band of travellers. Everywhere was white. (A few others - including Jimmy - groaned, probably knowing what a bastard it is to drive on!) When the plane landed, everyone leapt to their feet and prepared to disembark. After a lengthy wait, jambed in the aisle, the intercom was switched on and the pilot informed us that the delay was due to the steps being covered in snow and this was being cleared. Finally we were allowed out of the plane, and as my feet touched the ground, I crouched down and gently patted the tarmac. It was all wet, so I didn't fancy kissing it. Besides, there was a group of workers watching us in what was obvious amusement. Someone told me later that one of them said, 'they think they've come to watch United win the championship'. How sad they are. It would have been nice to see United win the championship, but no one cancelled their trip when we started to drop points and the championship became not quite so clear cut. All this merry band of travellers wanted was to make their pilgrimage to the Theatre of Dreams, and to sit amongst the locals. Apart from the 12 year olds, most of these people have been United for many years, and few among the group had ever been to Old Trafford. This was the trip of a lifetime, so who gives a shit about the result? Well, we do, but on the day, being there was more important. At least United finished higher up the Premier League than City did in the Nationwide.
At any rate, Customs weren't interested in any of us, and we collected baggage (all there, thankfully) and most of the group climbed aboard the bus I'd arranged to transport them to the hotel in Salford. When I booked this hotel some months ago, a friend warned me of the dangers of stopping in Salford. He felt it might be a little dangerous. I know he meant well, but I doubt there's much anyone can tell South Africans about the dangers of going about at night alone. We're probably better prepared than most, and anyway, I thought: Linda lives in Salford, so it can't be all bad!
If anyone on this list is looking for an inexpensive, warm and friendly hotel, a taxi-ride away from Old Trafford, you couldn't do better than the Beaucliffe. It's family run, and believe me, Robin, Jill, Chris and Jonathan did everything to make a very rowdy group of football fans very welcome. Robin even took Brian out to buy a bigger suitcase - and loaned him the money to buy it! They're all United fans, and the bar is evidence of that, but there's also plenty of memorabilia of other clubs - though I seem to recall mostly foreign. I don't think there was much, if any, representation of other English clubs. Chris told me that they don't usually take large groups - a bad experience once was a lesson well learned - but ours was one they couldn't turn down. When Gary (Bailey) first went to Manchester as a young lad, Robin and Jill ran the digs he stayed in. They were so looking forward to seeing him again, and had even cancelled a planned holiday. So, when he didn't turn up they were understandably disappointed. I've given him the dressing down he deserved. Incidentally, in conversation it transpired that the Throstle's Nest is Chris' local.
Once I was sure everyone was settled into the hotel, Jimmy and I set off for Stoke, (about 30 miles away?) which is where we were staying, with my in-laws. We had to be back at Manchester Airport by 7.45 the following morning to greet the second group of 12 arriving from Joh'burg International.
DAY TWO : THURSDAY
I've always gone on about how good the roads are in England, and how it's so easy to find one's way about. What a load of crap. They've changed road numbers for one thing, but the most frustrating thing was that, in too many instances, we'd find the road signs are AFTER the turnoff. Is it my imagination, or does every person in England have a car, and are they all on the M6 heading for Manchester, all the time? And what do they do with all those little red cones when they're not on the motorways? Needless to say, we did not get to the airport by 7.45 am, but as they'd all forgotten which hotel they were supposed to be going to, they all had to wait for us anyway. Taxis were summoned, and once again we headed for the Beaucliffe Hotel in Salford. And yes, once again Jimmy and I got lost in our hire car.
Now, I have a confession to make. Jimmy had some business to attend to in the Wirrell, so I suggested that we get it over with. Despite the fact that they'd just spent a sleepless night aboard an aircraft, after settling them into their room at the hotel, we piled Dudley and Richard into our hire car and headed for Liverpool. The Mersey Tunnel was easy to find, and once through, the first order of the day was to find a pub where we could get some dinner. I was wearing my United scarf under my coat, and Jimmy bore no indication of his affiliation. Dudley and Richard, however, had arrived in full regalia. Jackets, tee-shirts, scarves. The only thing missing was a rattle! Fair enough in Manchester, but Jimmy was informed in the pub that we were lucky none of the hard cases were in. Those two thought it was hilarious, and I couldn't convince them of the seriousness. Of course the Scousers got their own back, because the bastards sent us on a wild goosechase all over the Wirrell, looking for the address we needed. It became obvious that we'd been given the wrong information, but we found it eventually, after asking someone else.
You all know of my failure as a parent, and that I have produced a son who supports Liverpool. Being in the vicinity, we decided to sneak into Anfield and get him something small from their clubshop. Mistake! Dudley and Richard tried winding the staff up, and I was grateful that it was almost 5 pm and everything was about to shut. As it was, Dudley made some remarks about Bill Shankley which were not appreciated by the few locals hanging about. We escaped with our lives, and headed back to Manchester, and civilisation.
Now that everyone had arrived, the plan was to visit the Stalybridge branch of the supporters club. They have their own pub, the Reds Bar, and their chairman, Addy, had offered to send a couple of minicabs to Salford to pick up our group and take us there to spend an evening with their members. He rang the hotel eventually to say that he couldn't locate his drivers, so could we get a couple of local cabs. Robin called the company he usually deals with, and a little while, and 108 pounds sterling later, we were in Stalybridge. I was more than a little pissed off with the cost, but I don't think we could have taken the bus. We'd forgotten about the Cup Winners' Cup match being on, so there were no Stalybridge members at the Reds Bar when we arrived. But we were made to feel very much at home, and some of the group went to use the pool tables, some watched the match on the televisions, but most sampled the local beer. They must have liked it, because I had the devil's own job getting them to leave! But that was a long way off. Chelsea were 1-0 up, but 1-1 on aggregate and when I found that Sparky wasn't playing I gave my support to Vicenza. What right has any team got to play a European match without Mark Hughes? Well, they discovered they couldn't do without him, and he showed 'em, didn't he? What a player! God, I miss him.
The Branch Chairman, Addy, had made a huge pot of mince and potatoes and that disappeared like magic. By now his members had started arriving, and acquaintances were being struck up everywhere. Cameras were flashing , and then Addy presented me with a superb model of Old Trafford. We hope that one day we'll have our own Reds Bar so that we can display it. Meanwhile it will live in my house. :))) The hospitality shown to us was exceptional. A couple of the blokes had bought framed pictures of Old Trafford and when I asked if I could buy one, Bob-the-barman told me that they were sold out. Then he took pity on me and, would you believe it, fetched his screwdriver and took the one down off the wall and gave me that. He even gave me the screws. They have a couple of interesting,.....errrm, artifacts in the Reds Bar.
A woolly sheep, lifted from a hotel in France somewhere, I think. A rather large chess piece, lifted from another hotel somewhere else in Europe, and a dumb waiter which also lived somewhere else at some time. Everything memories of trips abroad to watch United.
Some members of the group, mostly those who'd arrived that morning, wanted to get back to the hotel earlier, so we arranged for a couple of cabs and off they went. The rest of us stayed awhile - a long while - longer. In the wee hours of the morning, two more minicabs were summoned and we made the journey back to Salford. The cabbies wanted to charge me 25 pounds each but I argued that Addy had told me it would cost 15. This was when they started taking the mickey out of my accent and said they didn't know who 'Eddie' was. We compromised at 20 pounds each which I paid quickly because some of the guys had come back out of the hotel, and I didn't want it getting nasty. As I'd already paid 28 pounds to the black cabs earlier, it put the total bill for the round trip at 186 pounds. I suspect the cab companies saw us coming.
We left the Beaucliffe in the wee hours of the morning and drove back through the town centre trying to find Bryan's hotel, as he wasn't staying with the group. I was driving the hire car for the first time and couldn't find the right gears. Bryan was finding reverse for me from the passenger seat. Jimmy was almost unconcious in the back. We'd been down the same route earlier in the day, looking for a company offering small statuettes of Sir Matt, so I thought I knew the way, but as soon as I made the left turn I knew it was wrong, and I attempted to make a three point turn. I've explained that the gears were difficult and I made a complete pig's ear of the three point turn. Another car had to wait whilst I completed the manoeuvre, and no sooner had I done so than the uniform in the police car switched on his blue lights and indicated for me to pull over. Cue nervous hysteria.
At this point it is necessary to explain that I do not drink at all. Straight Coke is my tipple and I don't even take ice in it. So, to have a policeman lean on the side of my car and say in a deep Bobby's voice "have you been drinking, Love?" was embarrassment at it's best. Jimmy didn't help matters (I thought) by yelling from the back seat, "no, but I have!" Bless him - the policeman, not Jimmy - he believed my stuttered explanation about an unfamiliar car and being lost, and he gave me the right directions. I'm grateful that he turned right at the top of the road and didn't follow me as I went left. It was 4 am before I got into bed. We had to be up at 8 am to make the trip back to Manchester. This was madness.
SA Reds on Tour - Part II
DAY THREE : FRIDAY
If you're still with me, at this point I'd like to tell you a bit about one or two of my friends. The South African branch of the supporters club has been in existence for eight years, and this is the first time we've undertaken anything like this. Every United supporter dreams of watching United play at Old Trafford, but few would make the effort on their own. I knew that if I organised a trip, we'd get people to go for whom it would be the trip of a lifetime. Dudley has never been outside this country, and he's supported United for over 40 years. He and Richard spent the week behaving like two small children. At times it was irritating, but they were living their dream. For Alan and his son Houston it was also their first visit, but it was spoiled for Alan when a lad on a bike nicked the 40 pounds he'd just taken out of his wallet out of his hand as he walked down the road in Salford. The following day he saw the same lad as he sat in a bus, and the cheeky little bastard came right up to the window and laughed in Alan's face before riding off. Yes, he would have recognised Alan who is an Indian, the colour of albany chocolate, with a mouthful of gold edgings on his teeth. He also wears an earring, and keeps his hair very short, but with a long bit at the back which is dyed almost orange. He is quite distinctive. A lovely man, who probably wouldn't kill a spider, but who, because of this incident, stayed in the hotel for the rest of the week, leaving only on organised visits to Old Trafford with the rest of the group. What did I say about being more aware than most of the dangers of street crime? One doesn't expect it of young lads though.
The life and soul of the group was George Kaminski, a South African of Italian Polish descent. Now there's a combination for you. Those of you who think you saw Nelson Mandela toyi toying on the forecourt at Old Trafford last Saturday were mistaken. He wasn't sitting in the 3rd tier of the North stand either. It was George in a Mandela mask, which now adorns the bar at the Beaucliffe. Himmesh was our resident drunk. I hope he remembers what he experienced this past week, and it hasn't disappeared in a haze. Always smiling, he was thrilled to win the signed football given to us by Barry Moorhouse.
Friday was the day set aside for the stadium and museum tour, and lunch in the Red Café. We'd arrived at Old Trafford early enough to give everyone time to look around before going to the Red Café, where Barry had made a reservation for 33 for 12 pm. I met up with my friend Pat. I have to tell you about Pat's involvement because she played a very important part in the day. In the Megastore I made a few purchases and then found that I hadn't enough cash to pay for them. No problem, I had several hundred pounds in travellers cheques, needed to pay for lunch in the Red Café, and also to the museum for the tour. Did you know that they're not terribly keen on travellers cheques in the Megastore? And more especially when you don't have your passport with you. In fact, without the passport, they don't accept travellers cheques at all. Jimmy had a little money on him, so he paid for the shopping, but I now needed over five hundred pounds to pay for the group expenses.
The manager in the Red Café was very nice, but said that, without the passport, he couldn't accept the cheques. Shit! Now what? 33 people wanting, and expecting lunch, and the group leader hasn't any money. Cue Pat, who offered to loan us her credit card. It was just as well she was there, because by this time everyone had sat down and was scanning the menu. At a push I suppose I could have asked everyone to settle his own bill and then make refunds later, but Pat's offer made life much easier.
Considering the size of the group, the young man who attended to all of us coped remarkably well. To my knowledge, no orders were mixed up, and the food was delivered with amazing speed. Everyone was asked to fetch his/her own drinks from the bar and pay for them, so as not to confuse the issue.
Because there was plenty of time before we were due to go on the museum tour, everyone went back into the Megastore to empty the shelves a little further while I went to stand in the queue at the Tour Centre for a very long while to pay for the tickets. Jimmy had looked into the far reaches of his pockets and between us we found enough to pay the two hundred and something pounds. Golly gosh, we even got a discount for a group booking. Instead of 7.50 each it 'only' cost 7 pounds. Later our guide, Pete, must have felt he deserved a bonus for the trouble some of the guys caused him by not sticking together, wandering off into the Director's box, and eventually causing the tour behind us to wait for us to proceed. We'd started out late because Linda had gone to get numbers put on a shirt and because they'd messed it up, had to wait whilst they redid another shirt. We were fortunate that Pete didn't insist on going without her, as the tours are usually punctual.
I would have liked longer to look around the new museum, about which I have one complaint. Legend though he is, just why was Pele invited to open it, and why does he have a room all to himself in the Manchester United Museum? I could understand them inviting any one of a dozen United legends to officiate and unveil the plaque, but Pele? What is his connection? Thinking about it though, I guess they thought it best not to ask George Best. The worry would always be uppermost: would he turn up, and if he did, would he be sober? Of course he would, on both counts.
At any rate, long before I'd seen half of what I wanted to see, an announcement was made over the p.a. system that "the bus for the South African Supporters' Club will leave in five minutes. Come on guys, catch a wake up!"
DAY FOUR: SATURDAY
Saturday morning Jimmy and I were up bright and early to make yet another trip to Manchester. The travelling was beginning to wear me out, but as this was the Day Of The Match I felt I could deal with it a little better.
John was going to pick up the people from the hotel at 9.30 am, so as to get them to Old Trafford in plenty of time. At that rate, they couldn't have been far behind the cleaning staff! I'm afraid jostling with hundreds of people for autographs is not my scene, so we took a sedate drive down the M6 to junction 19, from where we took the scenic route. I love driving through the towns and villages - and besides I know the way from there. Today of all days I didn't want to get lost and waste time. We arrived in the vicinity of Old Trafford around 11.30 am and parked up near White City. There's what appears to be an office building alongside the Trafford and if you're early enough, it's close enough to save a long walk. The cost has gone up slightly since my last visit, but I was happy to let Jimmy pay it. :)))
We walked down to the stadium, and that familiar feeling came over me. Match days are completely different to when one goes there to shop or visit the museum, for instance. Old Trafford is never deserted - well, maybe at 3 in the morning - but on match days there's a wonderful vibe in the surrounding streets. If only they could bottle it, profits would soar! Some of the stall holders were still unpacking their wares, but most were doing brisk trade. I knew I'd come back to them later. We arrived on the forecourt and saw a couple of people from the group. They said that everyone else was among the throng outside the reception offices, getting autographs, so Jimmy and I went to the membership office to let Barry know everyone was present.
Leaning on the counter outside the membership office, waiting for Barry, (well, rested my elbow, it's too high for me to lean on) I spotted a familiar face behind Jimmy. As he walked toward the membership office door I realised it was Choccy. He grinned and said, 'hello'. I answered, "Hello Brian", as if to say, 'fancy seeing you here'. Oh God, that I should make such a fool of myself, but Choccy would understand, wouldn't he?. Right behind him was Henning Berg, who looked neither left nor right, but following them both was Pally, who also grinned and said hello. Well, that does it for me. Henning can clear off tomorrow for all I care. Did he think we wouldn't recognise him?
We caused a bit of a riot on the forecourt as everyone got together for a team picture. There are people in those photographs I have never seen before. Barry had told me that the film crew were busy at the back of the stadium, but that Peter had agreed to meet us briefly before the match. Pete would be dressed and ready to play, so we couldn't bugger about with personal photos or autographs. We had to be ready for 1 pm. Once I'd managed to get everyone together they were read the riot act about not upsetting Pete before he went out to face Newcastle and Sh**rer. To cut a long story short, the film crew obviously found something far more interesting to photograph, but when Barry called we were happy to forgo the chance of stardom via Manchester United Video, and followed him through the membership office and into the bowels of the stadium. Believe me, this time no one lagged behind. We stopped eventually and I guessed we must be quite close to the dressing rooms. Barry disappeared and the designated photographers got into position. Suddenly the biggest man I have ever seen in my life appeared. You know the saying about how people we're used to seeing on film don't look as big in real life. Not in this case! Now I know how David felt when confronted by Goliath. Ok, so at 4'll" most people are bigger than me anyway, but this was ridiculous. Barry introduced me as secretary of the South African branch of the supporters club, and out came this huge hand. His handshake is firm, but without being bonecrunching. His hands are warm, but dry. (I noticed all this.) Craning my neck to look up at him, I said: "Peter, Gary would have liked to make this presentation himself..." At this point I realised that his smile was polite, but he didn't know who I was talking about, so I went on, "that's Gary Bailey, he's our chairman." Well, the response was instantaneous. He literally jumped to attention and said, "Oh really? Oh you must say hello!" I said I would, and went on. "We took a unanimous vote at our last meeting in Johannesburg and agreed that it was time to recognise that we have you, more than any other player, to thank for four - and hopefully five - championships."
I swear he blushed. He made a funny movement with his shoulders, ducked his head, and said, "Oh, thank you very much". I handed him the trophy, we shook hands again, and then I asked if he would mind us taking a couple of photos. Without hesitation, he squatted down in front of the group - who immediately tried to get as close as possible - and cameras flashed. He was gone as suddenly as he came. Everyone was chattering with excitement and Barry reappeared with the award in his hands. He told me that, instead of taking it home and "just putting it on the mantlepiece", Pete had asked if we would mind if it went into his cabinet in the museum "as he'd like everyone to see it". I felt really proud then, because I'd taken a lot of trouble to choose something I thought he might like. In recent years we've tried to keep to an African theme in choosing awards for our Players of the Year, but how does one choose an animal to represent Peter Schmeichel without insulting him? Browsing at a rooftop market I found a 10" brass Viking in full battledress, and the Africa theme idea went right out of the window. Once mounted on a wooden base, together with the engraving, he became even more impressive. You might like to go and take a look at him in the museum. The engraving reads: Manchester United Supporters' Club (South Africa) For Exceptional Services Rendered - 1991-1998 And Beyond : Peter Schmeichel
We all trooped back outside and by now it was far too late to go to the Throstle's Nest. I'd already called them to say we'd be down after the match. Pete Hargreaves had told the landlord we'd be coming, and he'd laid on extra food, so I do hope it didn't go to waste. I really hate breaking appointments and it happened far too often on this trip. At any rate, I told everyone to go and amuse themselves and to get themselves into the stadium in good enough time. Jimmy wanted to go off with Mick and Anika for 'a pie and a pint', but I was still buggering about talking to people, and being talked to. I had to say goodbye for a while to Pat who wanted to go and visit with the police horses, but we arranged to meet after the match again. Pat is a very dear friend whom I met some years ago after placing an ad for a penfriend in Manchester United Monthly. She's been following United since the early 50's and came home from the Everton match last season to find that her husband of 32 years had locked the door on her. Said he was fed up of getting his own tea while his wife watched football. Now she lives in a small flat on her own with her cat, and is as happy as Larry.
But I digress. Jimmy disappeared with Mick and Anika and I followed after just a few minutes. He wasn't at the car and I took a peek inside the Trafford, but all I saw was bodies. Not my scene, so I went back down Sir Matt Busby Way, stopping at Red Star Sports on the way.
In recent years I have been fortunate to have made friends with some really wonderful people, and in each and every case, it's been through my involvement with Manchester United. Lisa Taffel is another of those. We'd never met, but spend hours on the phone while she's in Cape Town, and since she went to London to do the Sports Show for Granada we communicate by email. Where better for two friends to meet than under Sir Matt's feet at Old Trafford. I was so glad I hadn't gone 'for a pie and a pint'. Lisa and I had a good natter while we cruised the stalls, I bought a few more shirts, and then we made our way to the North stand to begin the climb to the third tier.
SA Reds on Tour - Part 111 (Final)
When I made the official application for the tickets, I'd said there were a couple of people in the group who wouldn't manage the steps and so we didn't want tickets in the 3rd tier. (I was talking about myself). We'd been given two seats in J stand and the rest up in the gods. Richard has genuinely got dodgy knees so I let him and Dudley have the seats in J stand, but besides, I wanted to sit with the rest of the group. As Lisa and I walked into the entrance a steward asked if we wanted to use the escalator, which admittedly only goes up three flights, but it did help. I'd read somewhere that there are 170 steps to the third tier. If there had been 171 there is no way in hell I'd have made it, but I kept reminding myself that I've climbed to the second level of the Eiffel Tower.
The view from the third tier is simply magnificent, but I remembered someone posting a directive a few months ago about 'the red dots are United, and the blue/yellow/white dots are the opposition'. PeteH is always going on about how good they are, and as I hadn't had any dinner yet, before we took our seats I bought a meat and potato pie. There was no time to eat it though, because almost as soon as we sat down the music started up and the teams appeared. In this case, the red dots were United and Newcastle were just a collection of barcodes. (I didn't realise Gary Speed was playing until I read his name in the newspaper the following day. The idiot journalist thought the best shot of the day came from Speed with the shot that hit the upright. Was the bastards eyes closed when Pally brought the best out of the Newcastle 'keeper?)
Questions have been raised as to whether or not Newcastle's goal was offside. Admittedly, looking at it on Match of the Day, there was a chance that it could have been legit. However, having a bird's eye view from the 3rd tier of the North stand, trust me, it was WELL offside. Perhaps it could be suggested that the referee in future sits up there because we saw a hell of a lot more than he did of the whole match! None of us could believe our eyes when it was clear that the game was restarting after a barcode had popped the ball into the net. In fact, I thought the bastard deserved a booking for taking a shot after the whistle had gone for offside. (Not that one can actually hear the whistle up there, you understand, but I honestly thought it had gone. It MUST have gone. Mustn't it?)
Gary (that's Gary Bailey, he's our chairman :)) ) mentioned to me the other day that he felt if we'd beaten Newcastle we'd have won the League. He said this before the weekend matches where the new champions were beaten yet again, and of course in retrospect, he's right. People have since said to me, in a pitying voice, "shame about the result" when hearing that we were at that match. Well, on the day it didn't matter. We had a ball. At last I could sit among the crowd at Old Trafford and shout insults at Sh**rer - even though I couldn't actually SEE him, we knew when he had the ball by the crowd's response. Paul Windridge has written about Ole Gunnar's tackle on Robert Lee, and what it meant to him. I couldn't agree more. For me it was the highlight of the match. In one second Ole Gunnar earned cult status by showing just how Red he is. (I might add that for one second I hoped it was Teddy because it meant we could get him off the pitch, but I've been reminded that Teds couldn't run that fast.) When I'm a very old lady (alright, older) it will give me great pleasure to tell my grandchildren that I was privileged to see Eric Cantona play, and I was there the day Ole Gunnar 'did' Robert Lee and saved the game for United. To hell with what the newspapers had to say. The crowd's response to My Hero will be something I'll take to my grave.
All too soon the final whistle blew and as the players trooped off, I willed them to say just a little longer. My eyes just couldn't get enough of them, dots though they were. I'm a little more fortunate than most long-distance fans because in recent years I've managed to get to Old Trafford at least once a year, but I don't know how long the last match I see each time has to last me. During the match a guy sitting two rows in front of me had given himself over to shouting insults at every red shirt that touched the ball. "You're fucking useless", he yelled, and I wished he was right in front of me so that I could inform him, "they might be fucking useless, but they're my fucking team". Why do these people bother? Why not leave the seats to people who really want to be there? (Incidentally, I'd eaten my meat and potato pie at half time and it was still fairly warm. How do you manage to eat one right away as it comes out of the warmer without burning your tongue right out of your mouth? The fizzy drink was awful and is probably still under my seat.)
It was time to rally the troups and I told everyone to make their way down and meet on the forecourt so that we could go to the Throstle's Nest together. This is where my biggest disappointment of the day came in. I waited, and waited, and waited. Some people were given directions and they made their own way. And still I waited. Eventually I said, sod 'em, and left. By the time I got to the Throstle's Nest everyone, with the exception of Linda, Dr Mark and Geoff, had gone home. From day one I'd looked forward to a visit to the Throstle's Nest, and as much as I'll always remember that match for Ole Gunnar's contribution, I'll also remember it as the time I missed the opportunity to meet DA in particular. I know that some time next season I'll be there again and will meet up with Alan, Paul, PeteH, Hal, and a few others. But the chance to chat to DA has gone, thanks to the selfishness of just a few.
But it was lovely to see Linda again, and to meet Geoff for the first time. He and I have been corresponding privately and it was marvellous to hear that he'd been able to get a ticket for this match. We didn't get to chat for long enough, but we arranged that Jimmy and I would go for tea on Monday night (yet another appointment I had to break). Linda was chatting to Bryan who was on his first visit to OT and who was the only other member of the mailing list in the tour party. Too soon John arrived with the bus to take those who were there back to the hotel and Jimmy and I made our way into Manchester where we'd arranged to meet Lisa and her friend Kath at the Romans in John Doulton Street. We caused the waiter a flutter because there wasn't room at the table and we made him give us a bigger table that he'd reserved for another party. Jimmy asked him why Gnochi (sp?) wasn't on the menu and he said because there wasn't enough demand for it. We fell about laughing when it turned out he'd thought Jimmy had said 'Nookie'. It's the accent you know, but what else could one expect of a Morocan waiter, working in an Italian restaurant, in Manchester?
The invitation to go back to Kath's parents home for a drink was tempting, but I was remembering getting home at 4 am a few night earlier, so we declined. On the pavement outside the Romans we grouped to pose for a couple of pictures and accosted a group of young people walking by, asking one of them to take the snaps for us. We ended up having a whole bunch of strangers in the pictures as they felt we needed more bodies.
DAY FIVE: SUNDAY
Jimmy decided to spend Sunday with his parents, but I took the opportunity to go back to Old Trafford and visit the museum again. This time I was able to take my time and enjoy the exhibits. No one said my name even once, and no one told me to 'catch a wake up'. I dined alone in the Red Cafe - and the manager remembered me - and then I wandered up to the Megastore. There were a few people in and I gathered several items into a basket, including the three videos not yet in my collection. When we'd been in the Liverpool store a few days earlier - I had to go to get some stuff for my son! - they kept warning shoppers via the p.a. system that the store was about to close. What they do in the Megastore is simply turn the lights off. Like most people I took the hint and made my way to the till where I mentioned that I had items in the basket which would be subject to the members discount. The girl asked to see my card as she said she'd have to ring those items up separately. Then she took one look at the basket and, probably thinking she'd only a few minutes to catch her bus, said, "Oh, I'll give you the discount on everything." The moral of the story is obviously to go to the tills seconds before closing and that way get 60% off instead of a measly 50%.
There was a gentle rain falling as I walked back to the car and I decided to drive to the Beaucliffe and watch the Coventry v Liverpool match with the guys there. Ha! I found the owner's son Chris on his own in the tv lounge, the remains of his dinner in front of him. Alan and Houston were in their room upstairs, and everyone else was out. Most had gone via British Rail to Coventry, hoping to get tickets for the match. Now I'm used to the constant refusal for away tickets especially, but then, that's always for matches involving United. It seems tickets are always available when Liverpool are playing anyone, so when the guys started arriving back, they were full of tales about their day out. For most of them the highlight had been meeting Dion Dublin after the match. The verdict on the scouse fans was unanimous: they're animals! One of the guys had bought a Coventry City shirt for ten pounds and on close inspection it confirmed my long held opinion that this is the best home shirt in the League.
By the time I got back to Stoke the flat was in darkness and everyone was asleep. So much for being concerned about me!
DAY SIX: MONDAY
This was the day set aside for a visit to the Cliff, but Barry had tipped me off a few days earlier that, because of the international friendlies, the majority of the players would be away. Alex planned to take those left behind to train at Old Trafford and we were welcome to come and watch training there. Jimmy and I went straight to the stadium and John was due to collect the rest of the party from the hotel. Cue HUGE disappointment on arrival at OT. A very miserable Barry Moorhouse appeared with the news that he'd just minutes earlier been informed that Alex had cancelled training that day. Perhaps he was pissed off with the result on Saturday and felt that, as most of his first team were missing, what was the point in training with the reserves. A phone call to Alex's secretary revealed that training onTuesday had been cancelled as well, so the organised trip ended on a very disappointing note.
Barry tried to make it up by taking us into Old Trafford for some pictures, and he donated a signed ball for which we later drew lots. He said that "they do this to me all the time. I'm the bringer of bad news." I felt really sorry for him, because he felt he'd let us down, but it wasn't his fault. Hell, it was disappointing, but what was to be done? Alex to recall players from international duty because we were there? I don't think so. Ok, it would have been nice to see the reserves - including Choccy - in training, but sometimes these things happen. John took some people back to the Beaucliffe to collect money and travellers cheques, and the rest of us split up and some went to town and some went to London for the rest of their stay.
So, as I said, the trip in effect ended on the forecourt at Old Trafford, on a disappointing note. But we'd had a great week, and seemed to do so much more than I'd done on previous visits in a month. Some of the guys on the tour felt that the club should have run out the red carpet for them. Why? Because we'd travelled 6,000 miles and spent a lot of money doing so? One visit by a group of 30+ once a year doesn't compare with the Irish who charter aircraft to take hundreds of fans to every match. Barry Moorhouse took his life in his hands by calling Peter Schmeichel and asking him to meet with us. He'd said that Pete is 'very difficult to deal with'. Some of the people on that trip don't know how lucky they were to be able to take a seat in the Theatre of Dreams, stand on the forecourt under the statue of Sir Matt, and feel the gentle Manchester rain on their faces. There are people reading this who will never have the opportunity, and who will always see Old Trafford through other's eyes. I never take it for granted, and I never expect more than to hold a ticket in my hand and to stand in front of my seat and experience the thrill of seeing my fucking team emerge from the tunnel under the family stand. If there's anything better in life, I've yet to see it.
"Ethel Sleith" <firstname.lastname@example.org> 1998 Copyright All Rights Reserved
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