Chelsea v Manchester United: Where giants once tried to excite

SUMMING UP a football match as a satisfactory clean sheet or a well-earned point is like declaring the highlight of the traditional Sunday lunch was the boiled cabbage. Whatever happened to that quaint, old-fashioned notion of entertainment? Chelsea versus Manchester United used to be a calendar highlight, especially for Chelsea fans. But if there were spectators in the Stamford Bridge arena, they would have been dozing away, looking at their watches and contemplating leaving early to avoid the crush at Fulham Broadway underground station. The tedium of this 0-0 draw made you long for a mid-period Best, an Osgood of 1970, a prime-time Wilkins or injury-free Robson to light-up the afternoon.

There was a time when the first fixture you looked for when the lists were published was Manchester United at home. That still existed right up until the Ferguson years. United remain a big draw, but the glamour of old isn’t there, the panache and the flair, has long gone. What’s more, the mystique of United is missing, they are now just like any major club that has designs on commercial dominance. And without the fans, visitors from the north with Gallagher accents, mixed with cockney reds and home counties season ticket holders, it could have been a game between two, highly-skilled lower league sides in an empty ground.

Globalisation, polarisation and commercialisation have made United, like Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City and Arsenal, victims of over-familiarisation. There’s nothing unique about any of these clubs anymore. Northern accents on the field of play area rare, we may just as well reach for a Collins Spanish, German or French dictionary. This cosmopolitanisation has made Premier League football more interesting as a product, but England’s regional identities are, by and large, no longer represented by their football clubs. 

This is not a veiled attempt at “it was better in my day”, because it has to be said, for all the excess marketing and sporting spin, football today is better in so many ways: fitness, professionalism, crowd safety, media coverage and stadium comfort. Clubs are actually better at communicating than they ever were in the 1970s and 1980s. The fanzine culture of the latter sprung up because fans were unhappy at the way they were treated. The biggest consumer complaint today has to be ticket prices, but with a stadium utilisation rate of well over 90%, football has its eager and willing audience, although it may not be the same one that stood in the rain munching dreadful food and peeing in pre-war toilets at half-time. Football is now a middle-class activity rather than a cloth-cap and whippet kind of pastime.

When Manchester United or Liverpool came to London, it was like greeting a peculiar, other-worldy species. This added to the air of expectation, it wasn’t just Best, Law and Charlton or Cantona that were being welcomed, it was the fans, singing themselves hoarse and adding their own regional dialect to the occasion. The concept of North v South was an essential part of English football, creative tension that seems to have disappeared. It may as well be Visa versus Mastercard, Coca Cola versus Pepsi, Chevrolet v Yokohama Tires, MacDonalds versus Burger King. Not many clubs reflect their home town anymore, their region, or their country. The game has become a global set of hired hands, teams built by fantasy football. That’s evolution and it is those clubs and leagues with the money that will attract the best.

Chelsea versus Manchester United today certainly lacks something. Way back in time, when you could pick-up a late paper with the football results, Manchester United in town created a buzz, not to mention a few nervous shop keepers, pub owners and residents close to grounds. In London, you always knew that United were on the prowl because pubs by mainline stations would be full and there was a sense of anticipation outside the stadium. Strategically-placed hooligans would be spotted outside tube stations, picking out faces, and inside the stadium, there would be an attempt to move bodies close to the visitors. United and most large northern teams would bring big crowds and this would enhance the atmosphere as well as raise the police bill. 

Most importantly, the game would invariably be exciting, thanks to the opposition, the vocal backing and the quality of the players. Most supporters had a grudging respect for United, more so than Liverpool or Everton or London rivals. In 1985, Mark Hughes scored a tremendous goal as United won 2-1 at Stamford Bridge. I cautiously applauded as it was such a good strike, and I was hit around the back of the head by a blue and white-scarved Chelsea fan. Clearly, not all Chelsea fans totally appreciated absolute quality when they saw it. 

The sterile game on the last day of February 2021 had little in common with past encounters still talked about today. Chelsea’s 5-0 win in 1999, a 4-0 away win in 1968, Bill Garner’s 1977 winner at Old Trafford, United’s 6-5 victory in 1954-55 – the nascent Busby Babes, and of course, John Terry’s slip-up penalty that effectively cost Chelsea the Champions League in 2008. And then there was Bobby Charlton’s farewell game in 1973, Alan Gowling’s long distance run in 1971 and a couple of Kerry Dixon specials. This is a fixture with so many good memories.

For two clubs that were once the epitome of footballing chic, a stale 0-0 draw with managers congratulating themselves on keeping the bed linen clean hardly seems fitting. I wonder how the final whistle would have been greeted if that essential ingredient, human emotion, was present in the stands? Romance aside, the mark of real sporting quality is not how you prevent things, it is how you create excellence and excitement. We know only too well that both clubs can do far, far, better. And if ever there was a game that could have done with some inspiration from an audience, it was this one. 

@GameofthePeople

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