Once more, from the beginning, I have to advise that every single word of what you are about to read is absolutely true…even though at times it may seem bizarre!
Who Influenced You The Most?
You would never realise it to be the case so much until you ask a group of middle-aged football fans this question: “Who was the biggest influence on you when it came to deciding which team you grew up to support?”
For some people, there really never was a ‘choice’. Some grew up within a ‘stones-throw’ distance of their club’s ground. Some were taken to the club’s next game after their birth, a mere babe-in-arms, unaware that their fate had already been decided for them (that’s the case with our eldest son, who was born on a Monday morning in August 2006 – the following Saturday he was at Windsor Park, Belfast for the “glory” of Linfield versus Lisburn Distillery, at five days of age).
However, you will find a common recurring answer to the question above is one person: “my dad”. That was certainly the case for me.
Avoiding The Dark Side- to Become A Devil!
Dad has been a Manchester United fan since the days when a certain Belfast Boy was strutting his stuff at Old Trafford alongside such greats as Denis Law, Bobby Charlton and Paddy Crerand during the Swinging Sixties. Indeed, George Best was personally responsible for a large number of young Northern Irish lads and ladies of that generation becoming United fans. The lad from the Cregagh in East Belfast ‘lived the dream’ for so many people, donning the famous red shirt and doing himself and Bob Bishop (the United scout who first brought him to Sir Matt Busby’s attention) more than mere justice…
So, by the time I first became aware of this sport called football, as a 6-year-old around 1977, there was a more than ‘fair’ chance that my allegiance would end up with the Mancunian Reds. I have to admit that for a few brief weeks during those formative days in the late 1970s I almost succumbed to the lure of glory-hunting. That would have seen me dividing our house forever by rooting for Liverpool, who were on the cusp of greatness, having just plundered their first European Cup in Rome. There were more than a few of my school friends who did indeed end up supporting the Merseyside club, and for most of my childhood days in school during the early-to-mid 1980s, it was they who had the most to “crow about”…and they did so, relentlessly and usually obnoxiously too.
The crucial 2-1 F.A. Cup Final victory over Liverpool in 1977, which prevented the Anfield side from claiming an unprecedented ‘Treble’, was the clincher for me. Thereafter, United were my team, though for a few years that meant nothing much in any tangible fashion beyond pestering my parents for a replica shirt for Christmas (I believe my first kit was the shirt from 1983 that had Sharp Electronics on the front) and crying openly (the only time I have ever done so) when that swine Alan Sunderland stole the F.A. Cup away from us, for Arsenal, with the last attack of the game at Wembley in 1979.
My first ‘live’ game, about which I remember little beyond the almost pants-wetting excitement of finally being at the mecca of Old Trafford, came along in September 1983, when a buccaneering United side under the reins of the flamboyant Ron Atkinson edged the reigning (and, by then, seemingly permanent) League Champions Liverpool 1-0 with a goal by legendary Irish striker Frank Stapleton in front of the Stretford End. I was hooked from the start. The sound of nearly 60,000 people roaring and singing was intoxicating, I simply never wanted the game to finish!
My day was complete when I got a chance to meet my hero, Bryan Robson, after the game, as well as a young upstart from back home called Norman Whiteside, who had made a name for himself already both at United and for Billy Bingham’s Northern Ireland side at the World Cup in Spain the previous summer.
Finding My Passion
What that visit did achieve was to rubber-stamp my undying devotion, not only to United but to the game in general. I simply couldn’t get enough of it. I was already a religious collector of “Shoot!” magazine every week (paid for by Mum, of course!). I kept a journal of United’s results, including team line-up and goal-scorers (yes, I was a nerd…). I never missed an episode of ‘Match of The Day’ or ‘The Big Match’ (presented by the legendary Brian Moore on ITV). Along with the other lads on our estate, I played football in the park every single day during the summer holidays until it was too dark to see the ball- that’s how you knew it was ‘full-time’! Who did I impersonate? Well, it was always Bryan Robson, wasn’t it?! Well, except for a few months during the autumn of 1982 when an Italian striker called Paolo Rossi stole Robbo’s mantle!
So, by the time I had harangued and harassed Dad into a second visit to south-west Manchester, it was October 1984. He used to travel over from Northern Ireland a few times a season with several mates and had been to a few away games as well at places like Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion and Liverpool. I’ve no doubt (now) that he was enjoying a “lads’ weekend” away at the football in England, but to a young schoolboy like myself, it seemed unfair that he got to go so often, leaving me behind!
Just Along For The Ride
Of course, I had nothing at all to do with organising the travel arrangements, accommodation or match tickets for our upcoming home game against Tottenham Hotspur- I was just along for the ride. For this trip, we were going to get the Belfast-Liverpool ferry, and we were staying in Liverpool at a hotel called ‘The Feathers’. Travelling on this particular ferry was going to be a new experience for me, since my only previous trips on such a boat were on the Larne- Stranraer route whenever we visited Dad’s aunt and uncle in Greenock, Strathclyde.
So, on that Friday evening, we left home- Mum warning Dad to look out for me- and drove to pick up Dad’s mate. For security purposes, let’s just call him “Jimmy”. Jimmy was a United fan, too, and he was also a police officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a very pertinent fact that would prove crucial to us later…
You’ll Never, er, Sail Alone…
We arrived down at Belfast docks in good time for the departure, and after boarding and stowing our gear in what struck me as a very cramped cabin, we went to find a seat in the lounge bar. As a teenage kid, I was strictly on the Coca-Colas, I hasten to add!
It was as the bar began to fill up that it first struck me: nearly everyone coming onboard was male, and clearly bound for the football games in England tomorrow. What was also very quickly apparent was that about 95% of them were clad in Merseyside red. Liverpool were due to host their Blue neighbours at Anfield the following afternoon, and it was obviously a hugely anticipated fixture, particularly since Everton were starting to emerge as a genuine force in English football under Toffees legend Howard Kendall.
We quickly found ourselves totally surrounded by Liverpool fans, most of whom were Belfast natives if the accents were anything to go by. Dad had never been a ‘colours wearer’ anyway, so for our part, we were not showing ourselves to be Reds of a different persuasion. Back then in the mid-1980s, even though there was a fierce loathing between United and Liverpool fans which has endured and strengthened over the intervening years, United were not viewed as a threat to Liverpool’s enduring dominance on the pitch by their fans.
A Scarf To Behold
As the ferry started its voyage up Belfast Lough, Dad and Jimmy got talking to one of the middle-aged fans sitting beside us. He regaled how he’d followed Liverpool loyally since before the days of the great Bill Shankly’s revolution at Anfield. He then proudly showed us his most prized possession: an ornate scarf. It had clearly been hand-crafted and stitched and had a multitude of metal badges and several rosettes of various Liverpool players from the 60s and 70s pinned to it, and a multitude of patch badges sewn onto it. It was truly a work of art, and much as I disliked Liverpool, it was something that any fan would have recognised as both extremely unique and valuable.
At Anfield…Or So It Seemed
After another hour or so, when the beers had been flowing for a while, and the night lights of Northern Ireland had long since disappeared behind us (replaced by the black darkness of an autumn night at sea, and a rough, tumbling sea at that), the singing began. Of course, it was started by our ‘friend’ with the scarf, who abruptly rose to his feet and began the opening bars of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. Within seconds he’d been joined by pretty much the entire bar clientele, our party and a lone, brave Evertonian (who I mentioned in this previous tale which focused on the Everton side of 1984-87) seemingly the only exceptions.
If we had thought the serenading would quickly die away again after that anthem had been sung a couple of times, we were badly mistaken. Now that it had been kicked off, this lot were clearly intent on running through a whole repertoire of current Anfield favourites…marvelous. I sort of half recognised one that talked about hating Nottingham Forest, United and someone else, but otherwise, I was lost.
Sleepless…Just Not In Seattle
I can’t recall anymore just how long the singing went on for, but it was more-or-less still going by the time we made our excuses and headed for our cramped cabin quarters some hours later. In the event, it wouldn’t have mattered if we’d stayed in the bar with the scousers for the rest of the boat journey overnight as far as sleep (or lack thereof) was concerned. That’s because my bunk bed in our cabin had clearly been designed as a medieval torture device, and was only masquerading as a place of comfort… Allied with a boat which was, by now, rolling around quite alarmingly on the heavy swell, and I can certainly vouch for it not having been my favourite journey of all time.
At some stage I must have succumbed to the need for sleep, because when I awoke some hours later it was morning and we were already docked at a windswept Liverpool quayside. It was a grayish October morning, with a threat of rain in the air, but I couldn’t have cared less: we were about to go to Old Trafford!
First, though, it was a taxi to the Feathers Hotel, and then out into Liverpool for breakfast, which turned out to be a poor version of an Ulster fry with a weak cup of tea. Needless-to-say I had left my colours safely stowed away back in the hotel room- as is still the case, walking around Liverpool wearing United gear wouldn’t be advisable if you quite like how your face is currently arranged.
I wasn’t really aware of it at the time but apparently the adults’ travel plan was to catch the train from Lime Street station to Manchester Piccadilly, where we were to be met by a mate of Jimmy’s called Joe. Joe was a United season-ticket holder from Wigan who just happened to have a couple of mates who weren’t going to be able to use their own season tickets for the Tottenham game that afternoon and had been willing to allow Jimmy and Dad to use them instead. I should add that this was a long time before any kind of photographic ID, or indeed photographs of any nature, were introduced to ticketing by clubs so you could literally just walk up to the turnstile, flash a season ticket at the operator and you were ‘in’.
I’m not sure that my own admission into the ground was ever even an after-thought with the men, but we’ll get to all that later.
So, we got back to the hotel, got our gear and caught a taxi to Lime Street. It was still only late morning, around 11.30am, so I thought we were giving ourselves plenty of time for any unforeseen happenings en route.
From Trains To Pale Felines
I can’t recall anything about the train journey so it must have passed uneventfully. When we got to Piccadilly, Joe was indeed there to receive us at the front entrance of the terminal and off we went for a ‘pit stop’ at a pub called The White Lion, which is a favoured stop for United fans on the way out to Old Trafford.
We must have been there longer than I thought at the time, because by the time we were leaving it was going on for 2.15pm, and we were suddenly a bit tight for time. Joe got us back on Chester Road, and as we crept along in traffic the floodlights at Old Trafford came into view.
Where Is He?!
The arrangement for the ticket collection was that the Wigan-based lads were to give their season tickets to a mate, who also knew Joe. This guy was then to meet us at a pre-arranged place outside the ground at 2.50pm, and we’d all meet again at the same place after the game to return the tickets to him. Looking back at this arrangement now as an adult, to me it seems HUGELY reliant on trusting the people involved to ‘do their bit’…remember these were days long before mobile phones had been invented- so if people weren’t at the location they were supposed to be at, you couldn’t just give them a call or send them a text message to find out what the situation was.
Of course, the guy didn’t show up. I guess it wouldn’t have mattered that much if we could have obtained tickets ourselves by another method, even bought off the ticket touts. However, the truth was that the match was pretty much a ‘sell out’, and worse, by the time we realised our contact was a ‘no show’, the match had already kicked-off. We could tell this by the very audible roars and chants emanating from inside the ground every few seconds.
Meanwhile, realising that his contact was not going to show up, ‘friend’ Joe had abandoned us to our fate, keen to get to his own seat before he missed any more of the action. Cheers, pal- thanks very much.
Locked Outside The Gate
So, there we were, stood helpless on the forecourt outside the Scoreboard End, no tickets for a sold-out game, said game already in progress inside and- for once- not a tout in sight even if we had wanted to do some business with one. I felt like a kid who is promised a new PlayStation 4 for Christmas and wakes up expectantly on Christmas morning, only to find the empty boxes that the Grinch has left from his raid the night before. It seemed as if we’d traveled a long way for absolutely nothing.
A Jimmy Dodger…
That’s when Jimmy decided to put his line of work to good use! As I said earlier, he was a police officer back in Northern Ireland, which wasn’t a particularly pleasant occupation during the Troubles, always leaving you susceptible to murderous attacks from terrorists- Jimmy had lost a few colleagues to just such attacks over the years. However, on this particular occasion, it was to prove the saving factor for our whole weekend trip.
To be honest, he never even said a word to Dad or I, just sauntered up (a Norn Irish expression!) to the big policeman he had recognised as being the sergeant in charge at the gate into K-Stand. After a few minutes of conversation, which we couldn’t hear, Jimmy disappeared into the ground with this policeman, leaving Dad and I standing there looking at each other…
The Dozy Ballix
The selfish swine had gotten himself ingratiated with the Greater Manchester cop, and gotten admitted into the game on the basis of being a fellow policeman, but hadn’t thought to mention us! By now, I was a very unhappy camper- the time had gone on towards 3.15pm and we could hear all the commotion of 54,000 people singing, shouting and making a din inside whilst we stood outside, two arms the one length.
After about ten minutes, Jimmy reappeared at the gate, a sheepish look on his dozy face. He’d suddenly remembered that he wasn’t in Manchester by himself, and had come back down to persuade his new ‘friend’ to let us into K-Stand as well.
And that, readers, is how I came to see big Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United beat an admittedly quite mundane Tottenham side (then under the guidance of little-known Welshman Peter Shreeves) 1-0 for free! The goal was a special finish and came thanks to a lovely effort by Welshman Mark Hughes into the Scoreboard End goal midway through the second half after miscontrol by strike-partner Alan Brazil (see minute 2.20 on the YouTube video below). Thankfully, the goal hadn’t occurred during the first 30 minutes of the game, since we’d missed all that.
We didn’t have seats- let’s face it, we didn’t even have tickets(!)- and I- along with Dad and Jimmy- had to cling precariously onto a railing at the back of the stand. To be honest, it was as good a vantage point as I ever had at Old Trafford, and the non-stop banter going on between our lads in K-Stand and the visiting Cockneys in the terraced paddocks behind Ray Clemence’s goal in the second half was almost worth the admission price alone. Though, of course, we hadn’t paid any admission price…
Meeting The ‘Pink’
Afterwards, we milled around waiting for Joe to return and give us a lift back to Piccadilly station. Whilst waiting, I had my first experience of the ‘Pink’. Older United and Manchester City fans may know what I mean by that. The local newspaper, The Manchester Evening News, used to gather all the afternoon’s football and sporting results together and rush-print a newspaper to sell to fans coming out of the grounds and making their way home through the city streets- as I recall it cost about 20 pence! The paper it was printed on was pink in colour (I don’t actually know why that was the case), and so it became known to football fans in Manchester as the ‘Pink’.
On this evening, the Pink delivered some nice news from Liverpool too, where our old chums Everton had managed to win the Merseyside Derby 1-0 at Anfield through an absolute belting volley by Graeme Sharp.
The rest of the evening, and indeed the next morning having breakfast in the Feathers Hotel, was fairly uneventful. Then it was time to make our way back to the docks for the ferry home to Belfast.
You’re Not Singing Anymore!
What a different trip that turned out to be, compared with the party-like atmosphere on Friday night! Following their chastening defeat by their neighbours across Stanley Park, none of the Liverpool contingent onboard the Belfast-bound ferry seemed interested in talking about football, much less singing about it. Perhaps the reality of just how good this young, hungry Everton team had become already was dawning on them. Some may have realised that their club’s days of dominating English football almost unchallenged were about to be ended- by a most unlikely rival.
They’d Stolen His Precious...
Our ornate-scarf wearing, singing neighbour from Friday night’s boat journey had perhaps had one of the worst Saturdays in his football-following experience. Not only had he been present to watch Everton deservedly run out victorious at Anfield, but at some point during the game, he had been “relieved” of the colourful scarf he had proudly shown us that Friday evening. It had literally been stolen from around his neck whilst he was stood on The Kop terracing.
Even as a 13-year-old kid who supported a bitter rival club, I felt sorry for the guy. That scarf was totally irreplaceable, a family heirloom, and you could see the anger and hurt in his eyes as he told us exactly what he’d like to do to those who had taken it, presumably during a crowd surge in a moment of excitement.
When Skies Are, er, Blue…
By contrast, the lone Evertonian was full of smiles and was happy to make his bold prediction that when United came up against this Toffees side the following Saturday at Goodison Park, there would be only one winner, and by a handsome margin at that. He predicted that Kendall’s men would triumph 5-0. I laughed at him. He was clearly delirious, one of these people who thinks his team are world-beaters on the back of a single good result.
The following Saturday, I was very happy that I didn’t know that guy personally- Everton thrashed United….5-0. It would be one of the worst beatings any United side has endured in the last 50 years, administered by a side who were on the edge of greatness, albeit short-lived greatness.
And so this tale draws to a conclusion. I got to watch Manchester United win a competitive game at Old Trafford for free (well, the last 60 minutes of it, anyway) thanks to the unofficial “old boys’ network” in operation between officers of two different U.K. police forces.
It’s one of those trips, one of those memories, that help create an even closer bond to the father who got you into this wonderful sport in the first place. It may have been a bit unconventional, but it was another trip that left me with a tale to tell.
20th October, 1984; Old Trafford, Manchester.
Attendance: 54, 516.
Manchester United (0) 1 Tottenham Hotspur (0) 0
Manchester United: (4-4-2) Bailey; Gidman, Moran, Hogg, Albiston; Strachan, Moses, Robson, Olsen; Brazil, Hughes.
Manager: Ron Atkinson.
Tottenham Hotspur: (4-4-2) Clemence; Hughton, Roberts, Mabbutt, Miller; Perryman, Stevens, Galvin, Hazard; Crooks (Hoddle), Falco.
Manager: Peter Shreeves.
Manchester United: Hughes (56).