Welcome, folks! Last time out I reminisced about a match in which I was involved in making some very poor decisions both before and after the game. Now, let me tell you a story about making some poor choices when it came to actually getting to the game! My Tale of Two Halves colleague Andy Costigan has some similarly wonderful tales to tell from his days following Everton around the country during the 1970s- try this one.
So, tell me this: if you could go to see your team playing during the greatest season in the club’s entire history, and could choose any of their home games to watch during that year, would you opt for a game against one of the giants of world football?
Well, I would and I did. Or, at least I thought I had. The club was Manchester United, the season was 1998-99, and the game in question was in the Champions League against Barcelona. Unfortunately for me, it would become ‘the game that never happened’.
Let’s start at the beginning. I was living on the north coast of Northern Ireland at the time, in the town of Coleraine, and I was young- well, younger than I am now- free and single. I therefore had a reasonable amount of disposable income, some of which I duly disposed off by traveling to watch my beloved Manchester United as often as I could afford to.
I had also joined up with the local Portstewart branch of the Manchester United Supporters’ Club, not least because they always seemed to have a decent supply of match tickets for nearly every home game at Old Trafford. I’d also freely admit that the presence of legendary ‘Busby Babe’ Harry Gregg, their Branch President, was an added bonus of attending club meetings. Harry was usually present at these, albeit often a silent, brooding and, if truth be told, slightly intimidating presence. Harry is a big man, and he doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
I’d been a member of the club for several years by this point, and had got to know a few of the lads who traveled over to games on a very regular basis. Previous to this tale, though, I’d always made it to Manchester under my own steam.
At the meeting prior to the Barcelona fixture, I’d applied for a ticket, and was one of the fortunate ones to be successful. As you can imagine for such a huge game, the demand far outstripped the supply of tickets available to the branch. Amongst the other lucky ones were most of the gang that I had got to know a little; nearly all lads around my age.
The Fellowship of the Match
Due in no small part to this circumstance, we decided it would be in everyone’s interest (both financially and for a bit of added craic) to see if we could hire a minibus and head over on the Belfast- Stranraer ferry for this game, rather than all flying over to Manchester or Liverpool individually. One of the lads had a contact in a bus hire business, so that seemed like a good way in.
The Big Day Arrives
The big day arrived. I had taken two days holiday off work, and mentally prepared myself for spending many hours confined in a minibus with boys who would probably be audibly ‘reminding’ me at regular intervals that they had had an Indian meal the night before, especially when copious amounts of alcohol were being consumed on the journey too.
That morning I met up with a couple of the boys, ‘Toastie’ Shaw and Willie, at a snooker club in Coleraine. It was about 11.00am. We were booked on the 1.00pm boat from Belfast. I figured that was cutting things tight, even though the journey down to the docks was only a straight shot of about 55 miles. We were heading down in a minibus, not a Ferrari, so I felt we needed to be out of Coleraine by 11.45am at the absolute latest.
By 11.30am everyone had gathered at the snooker club, as pre-arranged over the previous week- except for the guy charged with hiring the bus. 11.45am, no sign of him; frantic calls were made to his phone. Mobile technology was still in its infancy in 1998, but by this stage I wasn’t alone in being concerned about the time slipping away.
Time…Keeps On Slipping Into The Future
12.00pm… nothing. By now, I was about as happy as a pig in an abattoir. I sat considering where I would have been if I’d been making my own trip across, as I usually did; no doubt at Belfast International Airport, about to happily board a flight to John Lennon Airport. Then a bus to Lime Street station, a train from Lime Street to Piccadilly, then a tram out to the ground. A few pre-match pints and a sing-song with Pete Boyle and the lads in the Bishop Blaize bar, followed by shouting the boys on to victory over mighty Barcelona.
12.15pm, finally he turns up, with the bus. The runt had slept in, after having a night on the town. Frantic, we all piled in, but by then I knew it would take a miracle for us to make the ferry before it pulled anchor and started its way up Belfast Lough.
A Ferry Big Problem
The big thing about ferries is that they aren’t like aeroplanes. If you miss your flight- as I’ve done on numerous occasions over the last 30-odd years- there are usually possibilities of getting on a similar flight with another airline, or simply connecting through a different airport. If you miss your boat…too bad. Especially if there’s a match kicking-off at 7.45pm in Manchester. The referee wasn’t about to delay his whistle to accommodate the late arrival of a bus load of Northern Irish muppets who couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery.
Worse than that, even making a later ferry wasn’t going to solve this problem- once you get dropped off in Stranraer, you then have a 225-mile drive across Southern Scotland and down the M6 motorway to Manchester. As we were leaving Coleraine I realised the futility of even continuing on this bus journey: there was simply no way this lot were going to be at Old Trafford for 7.45pm.
I wasn’t the only one who had come to that conclusion. Sitting across the bus from me, ‘Toastie’ Shaw was fuming. He glared across at me, and in that second of eye contact we both came to the same decision: it was time to cut short this trip, write the match tickets off as a loss, and head home.
Time To Get Off
We both gave voice to this decision as the bus was about to head south out of Coleraine. The others, already pissed off at the driver who had caused us all to be so late, were even less happy about the prospect of two fee-paying members of the party dropping out now. It meant they all would be paying much more of the travel costs themselves than they had bargained for, but to be honest I couldn’t have cared less. I was furious at the prospect of missing what I expected would be a fabulous game against one of the world’s elite clubs due to the selfish indiscipline of the clown behind the steering wheel.
So, Shaw and I got out at the Lodge Road roundabout, and I dejectedly made my way back to where I’d parked my car just over an hour earlier, and drove home. Having taken the day off work, I was free to lay around licking my wounds, dreaming of where I would have been had I made some sounder decisions.
As the afternoon wore on, I thought about the game, and where I was going to watch it. I didn’t want to share my own company that evening in the house. I wouldn’t have wished that experience on anyone, to be honest.
In The Presence of a Babe
Then, I had an idea. If I couldn’t be at Old Trafford to see the game, I would do the next best thing- watch it in the company of someone who used to grace the hallowed turf himself! Harry Gregg used to be stood behind some of the greatest players to have ever kicked a ball- Duncan Edwards, Liam Whelan, David Pegg, Roger Byrne, Eddie Coleman.
At that time, Harry owned a small hotel/bar on Portstewart Promenade called The Windsor Hotel. A reflection of its owner, from the outside it didn’t look like anything special, a normal seafront hostelry. However, in the front bar beyond the doors, there were on display some of the mementoes gathered from a wonderful football career at the top of the game. Harry had old shirts from some of the players he had played both with and against, as well as the odd medal, shield and trophy, framed and hung from all four walls. It wasn’t Old Trafford, but for this evening it would more than suffice.
You can imagine my delight then, as I turned up at around 7.30pm for the start of the ITV coverage of the game, to find the big man himself behind the bar. This wasn’t always the case, and I hadn’t really expected Harry to be there that evening, but there he was, larger than life.
Of Course It Became A Thriller….
That’s how I came to watch one of the all-time great United sides- a team that would go on to achieve something that no other English club has ever done by winning the Treble- play out a thrilling 3-3 draw against one of the best sides in Europe in the company of one of the Busby Babes…and still be disappointed to have done so! I should have been at Old Trafford to shout the boys to victory, not sat in a hotel bar in Northern Ireland.
Bizarrely, United played in their white away kit that evening, allowing the visitors to don their famous red and blue stripped shirts. I had forgotten that fact until I researched this article.
In the event, the game itself was so enthralling that it made missing out on being at the ground even harder to stomach afterwards. United, with as strong a side on the park as existed during Sir Alex Ferguson’s 26 years in charge, stormed into a 2-0 half-time lead with goals from Ryan Giggs- a rare superb header from a sumptuous David Beckham cross from the right side of the area- and Paul Scholes, profiting after Barcelona keeper Ruud Hesp could only parry a brilliant overhead-kick by Dwight Yorke back out into his path. How United would love to have those lads in their prime available now.
In truth, they made the Mediterranean visitors look more like Bolton Wanderers than Barcelona in the opening period, and should have led by many more at half-time. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer should have had a hat-trick in the first-half alone. It was prolificacy they would regret later. Sonny Anderson gave a hint at what was to follow when he forced Peter Schmeichel into a fabulous goal-line stop late in the half.
Barca Bite Back
The Catalans were far from down and out, as they should have been, and scored an instant reply after the break through prolific Brazilian hitman Anderson. When they equalised through a penalty (given for a Jaap Stam challenge on Rivaldo) by another Brazilian, Giovanni, on 58 minutes, things looked a bit nervy for United.
Step forward that man Beckham! In a scene he would repeat some years later in an England shirt into the same goal in front of the Stretford End, the lad from Leytonstone curled a phenomenal free-kick into the top corner after 63 minutes. Harry and I hoped that would be the last of the scoring. It wasn’t.
Anderson, a constant menace, saw a glancing header cannon back out off Schmeichel’s crossbar, the big Dane a bemused spectator. From the ensuing goalmouth scramble, substitute Nicky Butt handled a goal-bound effort away, and despite the Barcelona forwards putting the ball back past him into the net, the Italian referee insisted in pulling the play back for a penalty kick; Butt got a straight red card.
Future Barcelona manager Luis Enrique made no mistake from the penalty spot, and thereafter United survived a couple of scary moments from Anderson and Dutch right-back Michael Reiziger before the referee blew time on a truly remarkable topsy-turvy encounter.
And To All- Except Those In a Minibus- A Goodnight!
As for me, I gathered up my coat, said goodnight to Harry and the few other lads who were in to watch the game, and made the short journey home. Meanwhile the minibus crew apparently made it to Old Trafford mid-way into the 2nd half, and therefore missed nearly all of the exciting action they had made that long journey to witness in the first place. I can’t say I felt even the slightest bit sorry for them when I heard the tale several days later.
Manchester United drew 3-3 with Barcelona on their way to lifting the European Cup (ironically in Barcelona) some eight months later- but for me it will always be “the game that never happened”… though I still have the match ticket to prove that it did!
16th September, 1998; Old Trafford, Manchester.
Referee: Stefano Braschi (Italy).
Manchester United (2) 3 Barcelona (0) 3
Manchester United: (4-4-2) Schmeichel; G. Neville, Stam, Berg, Irwin (P. Neville 79); Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Giggs (Blomqvist 84); Yorke, Solskjaer (Butt 55).
Manager: Alex Ferguson.
Barcelona: (3-5-2) Hesp; Reiziger, Abelardo, Sergi Barjuan; Figo, Cocu, Luis Enrique, Zenden, Rivaldo; Sonny Anderson, Giovanni (Xavi 68).
Manager: Louis van Gaal.
Manchester United: Giggs (17), Scholes (24), Beckham (63).
Barcelona: Anderson (46), Giovanni (58, penalty), Luis Enrique (70, penalty).
Manchester United: Butt (69, deliberate handball in the penalty area)