Summary Of the 1997/98
from Our RED "Salford Lass"
January '98 - February '98
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After the misery of the last couple of weeks, who could have foreseen the joys that lie ahead at Stamford Bridge in the New Year? Certainly, as I drag myself out of bed at 4am, on a dark, cold morning, I am wondering (again) about my sanity. Even the dog pretends to be asleep, just in case I drag her out for a walk! The journey passes quickly enough between sleeping on the coach and sausage, egg and beans on the motorway, as we journey south through snow, wind and hailstorm. 10.15am finds us being ushered into the building site that is the new stand at "the Village". Exposed wires, piles of bricks, mobile catering, no loo paper in the lavs and just a link fence between our seats and the elements.
Whilst waiting for the game to start, we read the programme and watch the players warm up - "Hughesie, Hughesie". The Chelsea fans show their lack of class as soon as the game starts, chanting "Ian Wright, Wright, Wright" - sad bastards! We respond with "Who the fuck do you support?" and "Chelsea rent boy" as Dan Petrescu falls over. The game is a typical United/Chelsea game with battles going on all over the pitch and the fans are edgy, dreading another poor game but both Johnsen and Sheringham have good chances before we reach the 5 minute mark, there is constant pressure on the Chelsea goal and we allow ourselves a little optimism. The rain also holds off and we even get a little sunshine at one point, which seems a good omen (clutching at straws is of course a keen preoccupation of the football fan). About 15 minutes into the game the first real chance comes when Scholes goes clear and looks certain to score but his shot goes wide. Then Cole almost gets through on the left wing and our optimism levels rise even further.
Sparky has been putting himself about a bit, causing some bad-tempered muttering amongst United fans, but now he takes out Beckham and gets himself booked. "You used to play for a big club". Surely he never used to be so dirty?? Becks, as usual, is getting loads of abuse from the Chelsea fans, which he rams down their throats just after the 20 minute mark, standing in front of them with his hands behind his ears - "There's only one David Beckham." >From this point on its like waking up in football heaven, as the lads run riot with an awesome, team performance rivalling their defeat of Juventus, despite being kicked, fouled and impeded by an increasingly peevish Chelsea side. We sing "The pride of all Europe" and enjoy the spectacle. Giggs in particular, is everywhere and Chelsea have no answers. Then Beckham scores again from a free kick - a wonderful curving shot, aimed with perfection to go around the Chelsea wall and into the net. "Que sera, sera", "Oh Manchester, is wonderful" and "2 nil, in your Cup Final". Andy soon gets what he deserves with a wonderful solo goal. "Oh Andy Cole" is followed by "Outclassed, by the champions."
Half-time gives us a chance to sit down and calm down. Most of us are surprised and delighted at the way things are going and can even be said to be cautiously optimistic! As the teams come out for the second half, we greet the lads with "Championes". At first it looks like Chelsea might get back into it, and their players are certainly up for it as Sparky assaults Gary Neville and all the outfield players square up to each other. "Stand up if you hate Man U". We reply with "Stand up for the champions", "Stand up if you're 3 nil up" and "Sit down, if you're 3 nil down." Our lads prove they can mix it as well, with Scholes getting booked for a challenge on Clarke. Three sides of the stadium are now singing "Does she take it up the arse?" Then Giggs plays a lovely ball to Cole, who goes through two defenders and scores another fine goal through De Goey's legs! We can't believe what we are seeing. We jump up and down and hug each other and sing "Oh Andy Cole". An abiding memory of that moment will always be a lad standing near me who just stands there, with a look of pure pleasure on his face, saying over and over again "Four fucking nil!"
At this point, the Chelsea fans start leaving in their thousands (captured on TV for the nation to see) - "Lets all laugh at Chelsea", "You're going out with the scousers", "Are you City in disguise?", "It's like watching City" and "Can we play you every week?" We're singing away, having a good time, when the ball is crossed into the box, straight onto Teddy's head, and he heads it into the net for the fifth! Absolute mayhem all around us, as no-one, even in their wildest dreams, could have imagined it would be this easy. As we sing "This is so fucking easy", "You're going to win fuck all" and "Who the fuck are Man United?" the home fans pour out of the ground - apart from a small number singing "You're not going home" which leads to much amusement at our end.
Then, self-destruction time again and we can't believe what we are seeing. In a sloppy, complacent last 15-minutes, the United lads manage to give away three goals. We can't believe it! We had been 5 nil up and here we are in danger of, at best, getting a draw! After their first goal, the remaining Chelsea fans are chanting "We want 2" and we are chanting "We want 6", when Vialli is allowed to get through and bloody score another! To add insult to injury, a few minutes later, Pally falls asleep and doesn't notice Vialli in the penalty box when he passes the ball back to Peter. Vialli scores and the Chelsea fans are chanting at us "You're not singing anymore" as we nervously pray and check our watches - who would ever believe you could be nervously praying for the end of a game after being 5 nil up?!
After the excitement of Chelsea away, the home game against Spurs a few days later is an anti-climax to say the least! Playing at a stroll, with only one player on the pitch remembering why he's there, with an atmosphere deader than Gigg Lane on a cold Monday in January, we still manage to win easily. Deadly stuff, but I suppose it's better than getting beaten! The son-and-heir is probably the luckiest person in the ground - he lost his glasses last night and has to sit in East Lower watching 22 unidentifiable blobs running around on the pitch and depending on his old mum to explain what is happening!
Surrounded by green netting covering up the seats where loyal fans used to sit, we read Fergie's piece in the programme asking for fans to sit down and cooperate with the security men. And sure enough, within seconds of the start of the game there is the unusual sight of the whole of East Lower sitting down! And down we stay, except in moments of excitement of course, for the whole of the game. For the first 15 minutes or so, it's a huge relief. At last we can concentrate on the game and fans are still singing and chanting. The Tottenham fans are noisy, singing "Tottenham, Super Tottenham", "Walking in a Klinsman wonderland" and the old favourites "Do you come from Manchester?" and "Where in Cornwall are you from?" (how I wish Salford was in bloody Cornwall!!). We sing for Andy Cole, Ryan Giggs and Ole and there are a couple of good choruses of the United Calypso. There is also some mickey-taking aimed at Domingues, who is even smaller than Scholes. "You can get off your knees now son" and "Hey ho, hey ho, its off to work we go". Despite starting off brightly enough, however, the game starts to wind down and with it, goes the atmosphere. We try our best, but those who normally stand are finding it difficult to get it together whilst sitting on their arses and the nice, middle class families sitting around us only stir themselves to clap politely when Giggs scores a great goal right in front of them! They then lapse back into their coma, only to emerge again briefly when Giggs gets a second in the second half. So we go in at half-time 1-nil up and we spend the break discussing how being without his glass es makes the son-and-heir feel taller!
If we thought the atmosphere was bad in the first half, then it dies completely in the second. What has been a poor, slow game stops altogether as the two teams play out their parts on the pitch with little enthusiasm. In East Stand, the lower section do an excellent impression of K Stand and sit in eerie silence. It gets so bad at one point, that the son-and-heir comments on the lovely sunset and we actually spend a couple of minutes looking up at the sky and discussing how the pollution from Trafford Park makes for some beautiful pink sunsets! When we look back at the pitch, it's like watching Coronation St after being on holiday, nothing has changed, they are all still running around aimlessly. Even Peter doesn't bother to turn round and try to get us going. For most of the second half, we are out-sung by a couple of thousand Tottenham fans who only have one song. It's humiliating and embarrassing.
This is the time of the year when thoughts of United fans all over the world begin to turn towards the anniversary of Munich. It is on my mind all the time. As I leave the stadium, already in a sombre mood, I pass the statue of Sir Matt and there are so many sad memories. I spend the evening writing about Eddie and about my childhood.
Ten days later I am one of the lucky ones. Unable to attend the game against Southampton in person, I watch it on TV. It is not pleasant viewing and the result does not lighten my mood. As I prepare my supper after the game I think of all the intrepid Reds who are setting off back on the long journey home and give thanks for my lucky escape!
In the pub before the Wallsall game, the atmosphere is lively, with a group of Wallsall fans having "taken" the Throstle's Nest. They stand in the middle of the pub, with their tatty old banner, singing sad Munich songs and thinking they are "hard". Considering that the Throstle's clientele consists predominantly of old farts whose fighting days are either long gone or never started, young kids and self-confessed cowards hiding behind their bratwoerst sausages, this is not the act of bravery it at first might appear! We do consider suggesting they move on to the Dog and Partridge, but Alan is frightened of approaching them in case they nick his sausage! The conversation revolves around sad, small-time fans of smaller clubs (surprise, surprise), the nasty habit of referees to (allegedly) favour the smaller clubs and the rumour that Jordi Cruyff might make a rare appearance on the bench. Fortunately, all our prayers are answered as the teams are announced in the stadium - no sign of Jordi anywhere in OT, let alone on the bench.
Along with most other residents of East Stand, we applied for tickets as close to the East end of the stadium as possible. In another spot of social engineering, the ticket office have obviously decided to avoid trouble by placing us as far away from the away fans as possible, and we are exiled to the North West corner. We have only been in this area of the stadium once before, and it wasn't a pleasant experience. I have to say it hasn't improved! The view's great but the atmosphere makes the Tottenham game seem lively. No-one is chanting or singing but, unfortunately, they aren't sitting quietly either. We are surrounded by moaners! They moan about Choccy from beginning to end, they moan about Beckham, about Scholes, about Peter - they even moan about Andy. The guy directly behind me is even moaning about a missed chance in the last couple of minutes, when we are winning 5-1!! I might be the female equivalent of an old fart, but I'm not ready for this yet.
The game itself is not a classic, but considering that we are playing with a virtual second team, many of whom have not played together in a real game before, it is a good performance. Wallsall start well but it only takes 10 minutes for Andy to score the first goal, and from then on, it never really looks like we are going to lose. Wallsall continue to play attacking football but we contain virtually every move they make and their attacking style leaves plenty of space for United to take advantage of on the break. We go in 2-0 up at half-time, after a goal from Ole.
As the players come out onto the pitch for the second half, we play a game of "jumping up and down" as the fans further down the row arrive back from their half-time cup of cocoa. No wonder this is not my favourite part of the ground - everyone sits down like good little boys and girl except, of course, for the half-a-dozen times someone decides to leave their seat to go to the loo, get a drink/some food, arrive late, leave early etc etc. Unfortunately, the guy behind us doesn't go anywhere and continues to moan on through the second half, which continues much as the first, except that gradually it begins to look like a reserve game, as Erik Nevland and then Philip Mulryne arrive on the pitch. Nevland making his home debut. As the United players continue to put the ball into the back of the net and the Wallsall fans have gone very quiet, we amuse ourselves watching two fans in West Stand trying to outdo each other chanting "Red Army", almost missing Wallsall's consolation goal. What we don't miss, however, is the whole Wallsall team - including the keeper - falling to the ground and lying there, spreadeagled! For a second there is silence as we looked on dumbstruck. Then United fans all over the ground rise to their feet and the Wallsall players are given a standing ovation. They then rise to their feet and applaud the United fans! It's surreal. At the end of the game, the Wallsall players are clapped off the pitch by the whole stadium. Their fans are not so impressive, singing "You'll never walk alone" and doing Munich impressions like little boys trying to emulate their big brothers.
This season is nothing if not a roller coaster ride. From the heights of Juventus and Chelsea, to the lows of Coventry, Southampton and Leicester at home - on the last day in January. The only reaction to days like this is to shrug and say "Oh well, it was one of those days, now who's next?" The United players are lazy, sloppy and uninterested. The fans are not much better as we find the motivation hard to come by. The front three rows of East Lower are filled with 'nice' families, all eating their popcorn, drinking their Coke and arguing about who is going to sit next to who, as I wonder if I have entered the Palace Theatre by mistake! During the first half, when United hardly have a shot at goal, the atmosphere is funereal at best, with only the Leicester fans making themselves heard. In the second half, with the United players camped in the Leicester penalty area, the atmosphere improves but all the screaming and chanting is to no avail as our strike force (all three of them) miss chance after chance. It is no surprise when the final whistle goes (after about 10 minutes of 'injury' time) and we have lost.
Many people are angry and upset. Personally, I can't get worked up about it because the whole bloody business seems so trivial, so unimportant. Every football-related thought I have at the moment revolves around Munich. Every paper I pick up is full of it, every local TV programme mentions it, the anniversary is in 5 days and the Bolton game is in 6 and all we have been talking about in recent days is the Testimonial game. Compared to the deaths of so many wonderful young men, the loss of a game is nothing.
The 6th February, 1998. Another year, another anniversary. There have been so many of them now, but it gets no easier. Indeed this year, the pain has a clarity, a sharpness which I haven't felt since I was very young. In our young team, our "babes" of the nineties, I can see so much of the young men who died in the snow at Munich that sometimes it's almost too much to bear.
I arrive at Old Trafford at about 2pm and place the roses I have brought with me under the Munich memorial, along with many others. All around me, people are quiet, thinking their own thoughts. Every person there looks up at Sir Matt before they walk away. I then spend half-an-hour looking around the Munich exhibition in the museum. It's a painful experience and I'm glad I'm alone, glad I don't have to speak , because I don't think I can. Eddie's cigarette lighter, his boots, Duncan's telegram to his landlady. The photographs of the team laughing and joking and full of life. I sit in the dark and watch a video of those final days and of the days after the crash and the tears flow down my cheeks - I'm not alone, all around me people of all ages are crying quietly as Abide With Me plays in the background and the video ends with the photographs of those who died. By the time we leave the museum and make our way to the memorial, across the forecourt, there is a bitter cold wind blowing and rain has begun to fall. I glance up at the Munich clock and see the flag flying at half-mast on top of the stadium. As we wait, fans and Old Trafford employees are arriving from all directions. As the clock moves towards 3.04pm we fall silent. We stand silently in the rain, each lost in their own thoughts. Some look up at the memorial, some at the statue of Sir Matt. Others stare at the flowers and other tributes on the ground. The rain lashes against our backs and that seems to be wholly appropriate. Just after 3.05pm the crowd begin to stir. One man cries out and the rest of us walk slowly and quietly away.
The day after, a few of us meet in the Throstle's Nest before the Bolton game. Personally, it's just what I need after a couple of very sad days - a quiet drink with a small group of friends to whom I don't have to explain anything. On arriving at the ground, we find Sir Matt Busby Way full of people but there's solemn atmosphere. Unusually, the son-and-heir has already arrived and is standing pitch-side looking around the stadium. Up in the corner, most of the Bolton fans are in their places. They are quiet, with little chanting (except for welcoming the Bolton players as they arrive on the pitch for a warm-up) and there is no sign of their usual aeroplane impressions and Munich chants. At 2.55pm, an announcement is made to ask people to take their seats, although it really isn't necessary. The tribute begins at 3.00pm with the ball boys forming into a circle in the centre of the pitch, and both teams walk out of the tunnel (led by Sir Bobby Charlton and Nat Lofthouse) and take up their places facing South Stand. The members of the United and Bolton 1958 FA Cup Final teams then come onto the pitch, to loud but dignified applause from everyone in the stadium. It's very moving to see these ex-players walk into the centre circle, some now needing help. My thoughts turn to Dennis Viollett, he is deeply missed. The ex-players are then followed onto the pitch by the families, led by Roger Byrne's son (also called Roger) and Mrs Edwards, Duncan's mum. Behind the families, come various representatives of UEFA, supporters, the Professional Footballers Association and two ex-players from Red Star Belgrade, who had played in that final game.
This is the signal for wreaths to be laid by the various representatives. My heart misses a beat - "Mr Roger Byrne will lay a wreath on behalf of the players' families". The whole of Old Trafford draws in its breath. Then it's time for the minute's silence. The crowd needs no signal, when the whistle blows it is already quiet. For a minute there is absolute and complete silence within Old Trafford, except for the ringing of a mobile phone somewhere in West Stand. During the silence, the lads in the present squad are standing with arms around each other, their heads bowed.
The game itself is not a fitting tribute. The atmosphere is poor, with the Bolton fans behaving impeccably and with East Lower full of fans who either don't know how to, or don't want to chant or sing. I seethe inwardly as I think of all the fans who want desperately to be there but who haven't got tickets. The football doesn't help. We have no-one in midfield who can tackle, normally reliable players like Gary Neville are making elementary errors, Becks' crossing is abysmal and the Little Ginger Prince continues his poor run of form. Our strikers are kicking balls over the bar, wide of the post, straight at the keeper - it's frustrating, irritating stuff. Perhaps the players, like me, are thinking about things of more importance than winning a football game. Personally, I have found the constant presence of the tragedy over the last couple of weeks to be very difficult to handle. I needed it, as I think a lot of the survivors needed it, because I had come to a point in my life when I needed to face it, think about it and grieve. But I'm glad that it's over now, at least for another year, and that I can go back to grieving in private.
A week later, we are in the Throstle's Nest as usual, sorting out all Fergie's selection and tactical problems before the Barnsley FA Cup game. On the way to the ground, the Barnsley fans we encounter are noisy and good-natured. It's good to be back in J Stand for a cup tie - along with all the retrobates (including a couple of list members). Our seats are surrounded by the most miserable bunch of d*******s in the whole stadium, but after a couple of "turns" passing round the whiskey bottle, the world doesn't look quite so bad after all. Unfortunately, my alcohol-induced good humour doesn't last long. Whatever I said about the Barnsley fans when they last came to OT (I think I was pretty complimentary and expressed the view that I hoped they stay in the Premiership) may now be totally revised. They are a bunch of scouse-loving bastards who obviously know nothing about their own history, or if they do, they have no respect for their ex-players. After getting behind their team for the first fifteen minutes or so, a few Barnsley fans in East Lower decide to do aeroplane impressions. Of course this brings an angry response from the United fans which just encourages more of their number to show what sad bastards they are. Hundreds of Barnsley fans are now not only doing aeroplane impressions, but also singing the Dambusters - making a mockery of a plane crash in which one of their most famous ex-players was killed - it doesn't get much sadder than that. To its credit, most of J Stand rises to its feet and does aeroplane impressions back, along with chants of "You sad bastards". The Barnsley fans respond with a chorus of "You'll Never Walk Alone".
This episode sets the mood for the whole game in J Stand. Anger seethes under the surface as the Barnsley fans, whilst not repeating the aeroplanes, enjoy themselves pretending to be scousers one minute and singing "Yorkshire, Yorkshire" the next. We get more and more frustrated as the game gradually slips out of our control. Arguments are breaking out all over J Stand as the United fans get frustrated with the players on the pitch. Of course, Peter has to go and make his once-a-season cock-up, which doesn't improve the mood. That goal puts us on the defensive and gives the Barnsley players the confidence and the safety-net to have a real go at us. Luckily we get one back straight away, which shuts the Barnsley fans up beautifully, and we finally begin to look like we can go on to win. Unfortunately, the team comes out for the second half without Johnsen (who has been magnificent in the first half), Fergie takes off Nevland (who has been doing well) and brings on Cruyff. We are then treated to the unusual sight of Pally playing up front and United playing long-ball football. And it almost works a couple of times but it looks more like desperation than well thought-out tactics. With Giggs missing at least 2 sitters it's never going to happen and a replay becomes a reality as we survive a valid penalty appeal. So we now have an extra away trip and the postponment of the Munich game - leading one guy to comment that perhaps it would have been better if the penalty had been given and scored.
"United are back. United are back." Villa Park on a cold, clear night in February. As the teams run out, the lads in front of us unfurl a huge banner and it passes over our heads. It's good to be away from the rariefied atmosphere of OT for an evening. "Walking down the Warwick Rd" and "Who the fuck are Man United?" The Villa fans are not exactly overwhelmed with excitement (making the North Stand at OT look positively lively) and we find it amusing that the loudest noise they make when the teams appear on the pitch, is to boo Malosovic (sp?). For the first 10 minutes of the game he's booed every time he touches the ball, by both sets of fans! For the first 20 minutes or so the atmosphere is good, with the United end staying on its feet and getting behind the team. Gradually, though, it begins to look like the blip is not just a blip. Despite starting off well, we get nothing in the net and Villa start to come back into the game. Collymore in particular has one of those rare events, a good game, but luckily whilst getting in the runs and getting into the box on several occasions, his finishing is appalling and we are let off the hook.
So we stand there, trying to get behind the team, but getting more and more frustrated. Behind us, the lads are blaming the players' sex lives. Giggsy is told in no uncertain terms to leave Davina alone and I won't repeat what they are shouting to Becks! Choccy is told he's a fat old git and Teddy that he's a lazy **** who should get off his arse and put some effort into it! But we grit our teeth and keep singing - even if the singing does have that staccato edge to it that says "come on lads, you can do better than this." So we go in at half-time lucky to be at 0-0. We cheer up immeasurably, of course, when the announcer reads out the half-time scores - "Middlesborough 2 Liverpool 0"! The second half brings a change to the line-up. Choccy doesn't appear and the younger Neville is in his place. This doesn't make much difference however, for the first 20 minutes, as we are still shit! We try to amuse ourselves by singing "Spit on the Villa, Spit on the Villa tonight", "Stand up for the Champions" and "If you all hate scousers", but it's difficult. Gradually, however, the lads start to get back into it. They are attacking towards us and we begin to see them put moves together and the United fans respond. At last thing are as they should be - the players and fans working together, them doing their best on the pitch and us urging them on. About 10 minutes from time we can sense the lads know it's coming right. At one point Becks puts in a delightful cross which Andy just misses by a hair's breath. Becks comes over to take the corner and every United fan stands and applauds him. He gives us a massive grin - my moment of the match.
Then the goal - Becks slams the ball into the net with his left foot, there's a second's pause as we take in what has happened and then the whole of the United end goes barmy. I haven't seen such celebrations since Juventus. Everyone is screaming and jumping up and down and hugging and kissing each other. Lads are rolling forward down the steps with massive grins on their faces. Becks looks like he must have looked the first time Posh Spice told him she fancied him! The relief is palpable - normal service is resumed. For the last 7 minutes we celebrate. "We shall not be moved", "Shit on the Villa", the United Calpyso and "We are the pride of all Europe". Within a couple of minutes, the guy behind me has to eat his words as the "lazy Welsh git" scores our second. From the celebrations taking place on the pitch it's obvious that the players are as relieved as us. No-one in the United end leaves early. When the whistle blows we stay to clap the lads off the pitch and tell the world that it has been a false dawn for the rest of the chasing pack - "United are back, United are back".
The 21st is a day of mixed fortunes and mixed emotions. Another win but Giggs injured and yet another crap atmosphere in the Library of Dreams. It begins in front of a hot plate in the Throstle's Nest with Alan and a very curly sausage. We enjoy a couple of drinks and then Pete arrives with four eskimos in tow - all complaining about the heat whilst we locals huddle in our coats and scarves and complain about the cold! An enjoyable hour passes with food, drink and conversation as two of our party plan their trip to Monaco and Alan keeps us all enthralled with exciting tales of ironing boards.
Before the game Alex is presented with an award (from UEFA I think) for being the second best manager in the universe in 1997. Second best? Cheeky sods! As we wait for kick-off I look around at my fellow "East-enders". Sitting on the end of the row behind us, is the bloody Queen Mother! Fur coat, purple hair, enough jewellery to sink the Titanic! So, after all the enjoyment of the last few hours we have to sit down and watch the game. Oh well, I suppose you can't enjoy yourself all the time! The story is a familiar one. Crap atmosphere (outsung by the Derby fans for the whole 90 minutes), a boring game that never really takes off and the son-and-heir speaking for most of the regulars in East Lower when he mutters just before half-time "I can't seem to get worked up about home games any more." There are pockets of fans (including us) singing "Walking down the Warwick Rd", the United Calypso, "You've only come to see United", but most of the inhabitants of East Lower are either sat in silence or (even worse) keep turning and looking at us, smiling as if we are some sort of exhibit in a zoo. The singing begins to fade out. The guy behind us sums it all up when he shouts in frustration and disgust "Well sod you all then" and shuts up for the rest of the game.
On the pitch, after a lively start, the team also settle down to boring us all silly. Derby are even worse, and Pally has obviously decided that Wanchope is not going to make a fool of him again. Giggs hasn't read the script and is doing the work of ten. Eventually, him and Cole put together a lovely move which leads to the first goal. For a few minutes the atmosphere improves as the United fans wake up from their slumber - "We only sing when we're winning" would seem to be an appropriate chant. Then it's back to sleep until half-time, with only the Derby fans disturbing our peace. They find it amusing that we are "supposed to be at home" and keep making schh...ing noises to help us sleep better. The second half carries on much the same as the first, except that United are attacking our goal, so it's a little more exciting! When Giggs falls over and we are awarded a rather dubious penalty, we hold our breath to see who will take it. Irwin is having no arguments, however, and grabs hold of the ball, keeping it under his arm possessively whilst the referee books the Derby player. There is no doubt about the result as Denis calmly puts the ball on the spot, walks back to the edge of the penalty area, and sends the 'keeper completely the wrong way. So it's all over all bar the shouting. Thousands around the ground decide it's time to go home and head for the exits to the chants of the Derby fans singing "Cheerio, cheerio, cheerio." The last few minutes are a little surreal as Cruyff nearly scores! When the full time whistle goes we discover that results have again gone our way and we are now 9 points clear. Not bad considering the crap football we are playing at present!
I'm actually feeling quite chirpy as we make our way over the Pennines for the replay against Barnsley. I get a bit grumpy when we pass the point at which I can still get the Manchester radio stations on my tranny, but cheer up as I look out at the pretty countryside, with nice little stone cottages, hills and of course, lots of sheep. As we arrive in the centre of Barnsley, we can see the lights of the stadium a few hundred yards away to our right. Unfortunately, we aren't going that way, and it's 30 minutes later that we arrive, having had a circular tour of Barnsley town centre. It's just not fair! Scully and Dobson get Nice, I get boring old Barnsley and the Gala Bingo Hall (we've got one of those in Salford!). We descend from the bus in the middle of a field and make our way towards what the Yorkshire folk charmingly call a stadium. I think it rather charming, in a traditional, old fashioned sort of way. This is before the game of course, my opinion of the place after the game could have changed!
So we stand and wait for the game to start and play a game of "spot the celebrity". As the team warm up it's spot the first-team player. I'm feeling quite confident though. As I say to the son-and-heir, the kids usually play better when they all play together and I have a good feeling about this game. At first, it looks like I'm right. When Nevland almost chips their keeper we chant and sing and wait for the goals to come. Then, dismay as Barnsley pour forward and our lot stop dead, waiting for the off-side flag. From then on, despite most of the players putting everything into trying to win the game, we are always chasing it and Barnsley are just too good on the night. The poor refereeing doesn't help (although I don't think the fact he comes from Leeds has anything to do with it - Barnsley fans hate Leeds as much as we do) and neither does the diving of the Barnsley players, but the statistics at the end of the game tell the whole story - Barnsley have something like 10 attempts on goal and we have about 27/28! We have some brief moments of hope, but for most of the first half we fans are suffering. We do give it a go, however, singing and chanting.
If the first half is painful, the second half brings forth every emotion I've ever felt at a game! One minute we are in despair, the next full of optimism and hope, as the game ebbs and flows from one end to the other. Frustration has us screaming at the United players one second and the next we are wildly applauding a wonderful piece of skill. For the last 10 minutes I watch from behind my fingers as the ball bounces around in the Barnsley penalty area. Fergie is dancing with frustration and anger on the touchline. For the last 5 minutes the noise is incredible as we roar our lads on and the Barnsley fans whistle for the final whistle. It seems to go on and on, like torture, then .......... it's over. The whistle blows and we are out of the Cup for the second year running. I don't know whether to laugh or cry - I just want to get out of there as soon as possible. The torture isn't over yet, though. As we drive back through the streets of Barnsley, it seems that everyone is out on their doorstep to wave us goodbye! Every house, pub and club has people outside - all with Barnsley scarves and shirts and all waving and gesticulating at us as we pass. This goes on until we approached the M1 and thankfully head off into the dark night for the short journey over the Pennines and back to Manchester.
Our second visit to Chelsea inside a month, whilst not hitting the giddy heights of the first is nevertheless a very satisfying experience. Yet another early morning - this time I have to get up at 3.45am - finds me on the way to OT whilst all sensible people are still snoring peacefully in their beds. Again, I spend most of the journey down the motorway snoozing on the coach, waking up only to eat breakfast and to have a brief read of the papers. We are in the ground very early and a bag of chips and a cup of coffee soon brings some life back to my ageing body. As we are sitting on the second row, we get a close-up view of the Stamford Bridge stormtroopers, who arrive during the warm-up. If you think SPS are tough, you should have a look at this lot! They make SPS look like pussy cats! Dressed in all black uniforms, stopping just short of jackboots, they parade up and down in front of us. They are effective though, this being the only away trip so far this season where the local security force has managed to get the Red Army to sit down. If the male of the species looks tough, they have nothing on the apparition which appears in front of us just before kick-off! A cross between "Vinegar Tits" (on Prisoner Cell Block H) and Adolf Hitler, she's a male masochist's dream (I'm not inferring anything of course, but a certain Mr Martin still talks about her to this day!) All she needs is a whip to complete the picture! She spends the whole game squatting down about three feet away from us, staring at us every time we move an inch off our seat. I've never seen the son-and-heir so well behaved.
The game, as always, is not one for softies. The refereeing is unbelievable, with Dennis Wise, in particular, getting away with murder. It isn't just Wise, though, they're all at it, with Sparky behaving in the way we used to love when he played for us! I throw a kiss to Sparky for Ethel, but he's too busy trying to twist off Ronny's bollocks to notice! In the first half, our lot allow themselves to be wound up by this behaviour - Butt, Scholes and Beckham in particular are letting it get to them and getting booked for their trouble. It was funny, though, watching Becks having a temper tantrum like a two-year-old! Despite the efforts of Sparky and Dennis, however, our defence is superb and Chelsea never look like they are going to score. With us, it's just a matter of time before the ball is in the net, although when it comes, it's from a surprise source! Phil Neville gets the ball just inside the box, with only Kharine between him and the goal. Time seems to stand still and the whole stadium holds its breath. I remember all the previous failed attempts and the joke that Phil tells about himself ("they call me jigsaw, because I go to pieces in the box") and watch from behind my fingers as it seems to take forever for him to draw back his foot and strike the ball. In slow motion, Kharine throws himself to the ground as the ball comes towards him. And then time seems to speed up again - the ball is in the back of the net, we are on our feet screaming, as Phil wheels away with the biggest grin on his face you ever saw!
In the second half we are much more disciplined and don't let them get to us as they had in the first (although Scholesy does have something to say about having a bloody great big footballer sitting on his head!) We contain Chelsea easily although the referee does do his best to ensure that Chelsea come back into it by giving them countless free kicks they don't deserve. We have some fun with dear little Dennis Wise when he comes over to retrieve the ball. "Chelsea rent boy" and "Dennis Wise is a Munchkin". Wise slaps his head at the guy throwing the ball back to him (who has a slight problem with a receding hairline). The crowd then start to sing "Chelsea rent boy" again and Wise turns his back to us and starts stroking his bottom with a big grin on his face. We all start laughing, you just can't help it!
When the final whistle blows, the importance of the game is obvious. All the players are congratulating each other in a way reminiscent of Anfield last season. Becks, the Nevilles, Scholes and Butt all salute the crowd with fists clenched. We leave the ground very happy and make our way back to the coach eventually, after being sent the wrong way by a policeman and having to fight (metaphorically) our way back through thousands of Chelsea fans. We meet Slim on the way who is as excited as a little boy, having caught Schmeichel's glove after the warm-up! Another lad on our coach has nicked the match ball, so it's a happy crew that sings its way through the streets of London on our way back to the motorway - Slim doing moonies out of the back window! (Although he goes very quiet when we pass a pub with a hundred hard-looking Chelsea lads outside).
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