Manchester United, the religious argument

ACADEMICS somewhere in the world are probably debating right now whether football has replaced religion as a defining element of society. To some people, football is the prominent feature of their life, the opium that drags them away from the mundane. The importance of the game, to those who have little else to lift their lives, was highlighted in the press a year or so ago, when it was revealed that Liverpool fans, for example, spend around 80% of their disposable income on football.

Manchester United fans have long considered that following their club is not merely about football, but a much more holy affair.

Back in 1990, I witnessed the Manchester United experience first-hand on one of those occasions that may now be a thing of the past. This was pre-Premier, pre-SKY, pre-big bucks and long before the likes of Russian oligarchs and oil shieks arrived to force feed England’s leading clubs with inflated investments. United were the biggest club in the country, but not the most successful. Three years later, it all started to change and the pendulum swung across Lancashire.

In 1989-90, United were still struggling to live with their past. Alex Ferguson had arrived in 1986 and despite huge transfers – Mike Phelan (£750,000), Neil Webb (£ 1.5m), Gary Pallister (£ 2.3m), Paul Ince (£ 2.4m) and Danny Wallace (£ 1.2m) – United were still punching below their weight. By Christmas, United fans were calling for Ferguson to be sacked – today, he would certainly be shown the door.

The 1989-90 season was something of a pivotal campaign for United. By the end of it, they had won silverware and laid the foundations for future success. But it was far from easy going.

United’s best hope of winning something was in the FA Cup. They won through four rounds by a single goal, all away from home – against Nottingham Forest (1-0), Hereford United (1-0), Newcastle United (3-2) and Sheffield United (1-0). The semi-final paired them with Oldham Athletic at Manchester City’s Maine Road.

Travelling among die-hard United fans is a challenging experience in whatever era you happen to be brought up in. United, it seems, gives them everything they need from football, the affairs of other clubs (apart from Liverpool and City) don’t concern them.

On April 8, 1990, I travelled up to Manchester with a car full of United veterans, fans who remembered Best, Law, Charlton, Buchan, Holton, Morgan, Stepney, McIlroy and Pearson. The talk was of games past, of punch-ups, “running” at Tottenham and hatred of Chelsea and Liverpool. I didn’t like to tell them I was a Chelsea fan and that I had always been more City than United – thanks to Colin Bell and Frannie Lee.

It also reminded me of when United were ever in London on a Saturday matchday and the “edge” that seemed to exist at mainline train stations and pubs around grounds. If United were at West Ham, you could bet your bottom dollar that if Chelsea were also at home, there would be some stray Blues fans who would make sure they were in the vicinity of United’s journey back to Euston. United had a dire reputation in the 1970s and they really were the forerunners of hooligan troupes. Thankfully, we [generally] live in gentler times when it comes to safety at football matches.

We arrived in Manchester and headed for the Piccadilly hotel, which was heaving with United fans, most of whom had southern accents. Everyone seemed to be on nodding terms, the odd handshake indicating old comradeships from the trenches. A short, stocky individual, known as “Pubby” was walking among his people, handing out tickets, negotiating, grabbing fistfuls of notes. He was chief ticket provider.

Both semi-finals were being played on the same Sunday. At Villa Park, Liverpool were up against Crystal Palace, who had lost 0-9 at Anfield in September. United, up against second division Oldham, and Liverpool were favourites to meet at Wembley in the final.

The United fans were watching the game avidly before heading off for opening time at the pubs. Our contingent was heading for the Grey Parrot in Hulme, and ugly estate pub in an area characterised by burned-out cars, similarly desolate telephone boxes and boarded-up windows. It felt a little uneasy and looked like the type of area that would make a decent “World in Action” documentary.

The pub completed the tableaux – barbed wire on the roof, behind which an over-enthusiastic and hungry-looking rottweiler barked at the gathering United fans. Pretty soon, the lager-swilling spilled out of the pub and the fans, who had taken up every available vantage point to see the TV, were pressing against the windows. All eyes were on the Liverpool-Palace game, which by now had gone to extra time. Then mayhem – Alan Pardew headed Palace’s fourth goal to win the game 4-3. The United fans went berserk, forcing the large front window of the pub to bow with the pressure. It looked like a nasty accident could happen at any moment.

The Grey Parrot emptied, sending the United hordes to Maine Road. When we reached the environs of the ground, its white plastic roof could be easily picked out among the red-brick “Coronation Street” houses. Maine Road was certainly no Old Trafford and I was surprised how ramshackle it appeared (to be fair to City, many grounds in the late 1980s and early 1990s looked shabby). United’s fans were in good voice – “Que Sera Sera” and all that – convinced that now Liverpool were out of the way, they could easily win the FA Cup. After all, Oldham were a second division team.

But Oldham had other ideas, taking the lead in the fifth minute and eventually drawing 3-3 after extra time. It had been a cracking tie, but a replay was needed to separate the sides. The two semi-finals had given football a day to remember.

And so, the journey home. This time, we had a new passenger, a “Cockney Red” with a taste for pushing boundaries. He explained that in the close season, he had travelled to Liverpool, equipped with United scarf, and sat in a pub frequented by Liverpool fans, “to see how long I would last”. He called it his own “market research”. A bizarre character who ended the trip smoking a joint – in the car.

It was a day like I had never experienced before, or since. While my curiosity never got the better of me to ask if my fellow passengers were actually football hooligans, they clearly had campaign medals of their own. It wasn’t quite “Football Factory”, you could tip your hat in that direction. Those that are still around remain United fans, but many of them, exiled by rising prices and rheumatic limbs, are no longer on the front line. When they do watch a game, you won’t see any of them taking photos with their smartphones when United earn a penalty…if United is a religion, they are strictly Old Testament…

United went on to beat Oldham 2-1 in replay and won the FA Cup, beating Crystal Palace 1-0 after a 3-3 draw. The following season, they won the European Cup Winners-Cup and in 1992-93, secured their first League title since 1967.

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