No more Beatles’ ‘When I’m Sixty Four’, I’m afraid. I officially became an Old Age Pensioner this week, which I celebrated by watching Manchester United on television beating Marseilles in the Champions League. It was a pretty good way to mark the occasion as it kept alive tentative hopes of United winning the Treble and inevitably got me thinking of times past, as these landmark events in life always do. I immediately thought of my happy 50th birthday fifteen years ago when I took my 11-year-old daughter Kat to see United at QPR and an injury-time equalizer from Eric Cantona snatched a last-gasp point. On that day the famous ‘kids’ found themselves at the top of the table for the first time that season, raising hopes of a possible ’95-96 ‘Double Double’.
United had achieved the first League and FA Cup Double in their history in 1993-94 and only just failed to do it again the following year when they were held to a draw in the last Premiership match of the season at West Ham and were beaten by Everton in the Cup Final the following week.Hovering over that excruciating Double Double near-miss was the enforced absence of Eric Cantona, banned for eight months after his Kung-fu kick at Crystal Palace. At that time no club had ever done the Double twice and it was bitterly disappointing to miss out on both fronts so close to the wire. Much as I loved the King, I wasn’t alone in thinking he owed United when he finally returned in the autumn of 1995, but after the initial come-back euphoria had worn off, United’s youthful squad struggled for form in the Premiership and were slipping well behind Newcastle United, who led by 14 points at one stage towards the end of 1995. Trophies lookes a bit of a remote prospect at that point.
‘The most important player ever to wear the red of Manchester United’
In the opening weeks of 1996 I had seen the worst and best of United with their cluster of youthful prodigies – Beckham, Butt, Scholes, the Nevilles- struggling to find consistency. I’d seen them going down to a humiliating 4-1 defeat at Spurs, but then go on to win a hen’s teeth-rare victory at West Ham, when Nicky Butt got sent off but ultra-cool Cantona turned peace-maker amidst the meyhem and scored the winner. United historian Jim White has asserted with just a little hyperbole, that this was ‘the night it became clear Eric Cantona had decided to become the most important player ever to wear the red of Manchester United’ (Always in the Running: The Manchester United Dream Team, 1996). It certainly felt like a major turning point, and it’s a matter for real satisfaction that it was also the night when my daughter Kat, then aged 10, saw United in the flesh for the first time ( as described in my When Eric Cantona turned Peacemaker). I had promised to take her again when I could and luckily the chance came up a few weeks later, despite a very intense period for me work-wise.
Remembering Munich in the Holy Land
Days after the West Ham triumph my BBC job took me to Israel, where we were trying to set up Israeli and Palestinian versions of our Video Nation project, in which we trained members of the public to use camcorders to record their lives and opinions for two-minute ‘slice-of-life’ shorts on BBC2. By chance the 38th anniversary of the Munich Air Crash on 6 February fell on one of the days we were meeting Israeli producers for dinner in Jerusalem and I found myself becoming quite emotional as I explained to the assembled throng what the deaths of the eight ‘Busby Babes’ and fifteen others meant to me. They listened with rapt attention, perhaps a little surprised that a supposedly reserved Englishman could speak about such matters with such intensity of feeling. They willingly joined me in a toast to the memory those who had died but I wondered even as they did so, was this something a little self-indulgent to do in a conflict zone such as the Middle East, so beset with its own confrontations with mortality?
A Stern talking-to in Israel
Of course throughout Israel and the Occupied Territories there are reminders of death and the heavy presence of history at every turning, although we were there during one of those rare spells of optimism about the peace process, when road blocks and security checks were greatly reduced. But there’s no escaping the past there, as we found when we met with the Director General of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, Yair Stern. It was obvious he’d been drinking over lunch and when we met he bizarrely demanded that we ‘wake him up’. My colleague Bob Long, executive producer of Video Nation, explained how we operate, aiming to reflect a wide diversity of opinion and experience across the UK. Stern loudly interrupted, ‘Persuade me! ‘he said, ‘I don’t have a good feeling about this.I know my people, they are hoodlums, irresponsible, not civilised, – they can’t even form a queue without pushing and shoving.No-one gives a shit about anyone else – they won’t be interested in something like this.’ Everyone in the room looked stunned, especially the Israeli programme makers who were clearly embarrassed by this burst of aggression. Before anyone could say a word I spoke up, ‘Everything you say is the perfect reason for why you should do Video Nation here. All these “hoodlums” and “uncivilised” people would make brilliant TV, you don’t want all goody-goody worthy people, it should be a truthful mirror to the nation at a critical moment in history, and it would get everyone talking throughout the middle east’.
I suspect no-one normally talked back to Stern like that, judging by the way for days afterwards IBA staff were talking about the confrontation in somewhat awed terms. They couldn’t get over the idea of a ‘gentlemanly’ Englishman from the BBC raising his voice as we argued the toss ( they’d clearly never seen BBC folk on home territory) . Amazingly we finally won Stern over, helped no doubt by the quality of the clips we showed but also precisely because we had stood up to the bullying.Not for the first time I thought of Alex Ferguson, reflecting that sometimes the way to deal with people like him in ‘hair-dryer’- mode is to slug it out , toe-to-toe. Sometimes, mind. Not always.
Anyway, we did get an Israeli/Palestinian Video Nation off the ground, with us providing format rights plus expertise and a training team. As part of the contract we’d get to show their shorts on BBC2, so we all benefitted from the deal.
It was only later that IBA producers, clearly rattled by our ferocious ding-dong, revealed that Yair’s father had been shot and killed by the British in the 1940s.It was then I twigged, his father must have been the leader of the the notorious Stern Gang , the underground Zionist terrorist group ( or freedom fighters) who were responsible for numerous atrocities in the struggle for independence leading to the creation of the State of Isreal in 1948. Evidently Yair never knew his father and had never forgiven the British. Bit of a miracle to win him over now.
We flew home from Israel in an upbeat mood, impressed by the potential for progress in the Middle East peace process, hopeful their version of Video Nation would somehow contribute to that by opening up a public dialogue, involving Muslims, Jews and Christians, Palestinians and Israelis. Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation, as the BBC motto puts it.
IRA Terror in Docklands
However, as if in mocking revenge for such optimism there came an instant reminder of our own problems with terrorism. The day after we got home a massive IRA bomb exploded in London’s Docklands, injuring around a hundred people, and signalling the end of the 18 month Republican ceasefire. It rocked but didn’t destroy our own Irish peace process, arguably the best thing John Major’s government initiated in the 1990s.
As if terror was catching, within days of the IRA mainland attack, the first of a series of Hamas suicide bombs exploded in Israel, also designed to derail the peace process. Exactly a month after we’d been there, to the hour, one suicide bomb hit a bus in the Jaffa Road, Jerusalem, killing 19 people. A month earlier and that would have been us. There were 4 bombs in eight days, including two in Tel Aviv, the second of which killed thirteen people. To me this was tragedy of the highest order. There had been hopes, however fragile, however much based on illusions over the willingness of either side to make concessions, but there had been palpable optimism in the air when we were there in Ramallah , Bethlehem, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. And now it was gone. And I don’t think it has ever really returned.
Meanwhile, back with United…
Confronted by the tragedies of world politics it’s a relief to retreat into the simple pleasures of life, and it’s only right that we should do so, some of the time. Recreation is just that, re-creation.Luckily for me at this difficult time, United were beginning to play well and get some vital victories under their belt, so escape from so-called reality was easy.No-one was really talking yet with much confidence about winning the title or going for another Double, but bit by bit Newcastle’s lead was being whittled away.
While I’d been in Israel United had battered Wimbledon 4-2 away, and had embarked on what turned into a superb run of form, winning all five February games in league and Cup. One highlight was watching Manchester City being knocked out of the cup on live TV, despite going a goal down and generally playing scrappily.Another televised match came a couple of weeks later, when Bolton Wanderers were blitzed 6-0 at the old Burnden Park, once a bit of a bogey ground. I could hardly believe it as goal after goal went in. You can bet Nat Lofthouse was watching.
Everything was building up to what promised to be a season-defining Monday night match at Newcastle United at the beginning of March. They were still top of the table, their lead now pegged back to four points, with games in hand, but with momentum perhaps swinging United’s way. A victory for either side would have enormous ramifications and I was on tenterhooks all day. I was up-to-my eyes with work on my department’s annual Performance Review document in which I had to assess everything, managerially, financially, editorially and in relation to our programme output, itself a huge distraction from actually attending to those very functions. I decided to stay on in the office in the evening to work on it, while breaking off to watch United on Sky. All day I had people popping in to wind me up over the big match, notably Geordie Ian Macrae, the Toon-army editor of the Disability Programmes Unit, who happened to be a cousin of ex-Newcastle star Paul Gascoigne.
Monday 4 March 1996: Newcastle United 0 Man United 1
This was was one of the most tense matches I can ever recall. Newcastle had some terrific attacking players, including David Ginola, Peter Beardsley and Les Ferdinand and they were utterly dominant for large swathes of the action, creating two or three good chances in the opening minutes alone. It prompted one of goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel’s finest performances, typified by his astonishing ‘star-fish’ leaps when he blocked everything by puffing out his body and arms and legs in all directions, keeping the ball out through sheer physical determination and will-power. It seemed for long periods that it was a one-man battle between the Great Dane and ten black-and-white striped outfielders. United looked punchdrunk, completely unable to string together anything coherent, and one feared the kids really had been rumbled, unable to live in this exalted company. It was a relief when half-time arrived and United were still in it at nil-nil. The second half resumed like the first, with Newcastle still running the show until suddenly, completely against the run of play, United at last mounted a proper attack. Of all people it was Andy Cole, signed from Newcastle little more than a year before for a record fee of £7 Million, who broke away and delivered a perfect cross into the path of Eric Cantona at the far post. Things seemed to go into slow motion as he volleyed the ball goalwards. Perhaps even he was afflicted by nerves as he fractionally mis-timed it and drove the ball downwards into the ground instead of into the gaping net. For a moment I thought he’d fluffed it completely but in fact he’d hit it so hard it flew up from the muddy ground and past the flailing keeper into the roof of the net. All alone in my office, surrounded with Performance Review paperwork I leapt into the air, Schmeichel-like and let out a primal scream of joy. Minutes later an anxious uniformed security officer came through the darkened open-plan desks with his torch at the ready to check that everything was OK, Sir. Indeed it was.
United held out with increasing assurance, with the Neville brothers in particular in defence demonstrating cool nerves and an indomitable spirit. The last few minutes seemed to take an eternity and to speed things along I even went to the loo, something I never do during a match. It hardly wasted any time, but at long last the final whistle blew and I did an embarrassing-Dad dance round my office. You could see distraught bar-code Toon fans slumped in the St James Park stands, big manly tears rolling down their florid North Sea-complexioned cheeks.
One victory and one defeat never a championship decide. But this was a brilliant result for United. Could we really start to dream of silverware ? On my way into work the next day I bought a kid’s football mag with an ‘Eric the King’ badge, which of course I had to don before entering the venerable BBC portals, proof positive of my growing maturity in BBC senior management.
Top Ten Victories
The following week I watched another important win on Sky in my office, when United beat Southampton 2-0 in the FA Cup, their tenth victory on the trot, a sequence in which Cantona had scored six goals. Week after week he was now delivering performances of swaggering confidence but now tempered with a steely inner calm, as though the angry retort and the swinging boot of vengeance and the inevitable red cards were all behind him. Yes, Eric had some brilliant players around him, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, and the amazing youngsters, so no-one could say United were a one-man team, but he was at the hub of everything, either controlling the flow of play in mid-field or orchestrating incisive incursions into the opposition’s penalty area. But beyond that, no match was ever beyond recall with Eric in this mode. United always had a chance, the gallic genius had such an astonishing ability to conjure something magical out of the most unpromising situations. As proved to be the case in United’s next match.
Shotgun Jack rides again
On the very day that United beat the Saints my old pal Shotgun Jack, the ex-offender who would be co-presenting our forthcoming BBC2 series Prison Weekly and who’d got me two West Ham tickets in January , was now able to offer me two tickets for QPR v United on the following Saturday. He could get them through some dodgy geezer tout, who of course was citing ‘massive demand’ to justify his high prices (some of which I assumed would slip Jack’s way) of £100 for two tickets, £16 face. The match would be on the weekend of my 50th birthday, when we were holding a party in th evening in a hired hall at Kat’s school . It was worth it to me to be sure of being able to take Kat again, even if I was paying over the odds. It was my birthday present to myself.
By this time, in early March I was emerging from the stress of redundancies, although one producer was still taking us through the appeals procedure, which made everyone a bit edgy. I have to confess I’d sometimes check his wastepaper basket at night to see what furious letters might be coming our way. Pathetic I know. There were some one-day protest strikes against redundancies in other departments, although union members in Education weakened their case somewhat by allowing spelling mistakes to creep into their picket-line leaflets.
There were also worrying reminders that even the staid old Auntie Beeb was not immune to other repulsive aspects of 20th century life. Around this time I went to an equal opportunites event and was aghast to hear allegations that racist comments were openly made within the finance department, with staff being called ‘niggers’, ‘coons’ or ‘bloody blacks’. Some middle rank staff were even supporters of the National Front. No wonder future director general Greg Dyke ( a United director in the 1990s) later termed the BBC ‘hideously white’. Thank God United had been a multi-racial team for years by that time, as had my department at the BBC.
Fortunately it wasn’t all doom and gloom at work as we had a number of series on air at that time attracting good audiences and strong press coverage, such as A Bad Time To Be A Man, with others in the pipeline. We were experimenting with all sorts of formats and one new studio series was very promising, A Room With Two Views, involving two people of different opinions on a subject confronting each other without mediation. I had to laugh when two gay Christians who were debating theological matters when one declared that, ‘ I have put my homosexuality behind me’. Childish of me to find it funny, I admit.
In the days running up to my 50th birthday people kindly arranged various little celebrations at work,such as a cheerful departmental lunch which packed out a local restaurant. Then at a meeting of my fellow Factual departmental heads champagne was wheeled out. The Managing Director, Will Wyatt, No.2 in the hierarchy, a cricket fan who I’d always liked, congratulated me on reaching my half century and said I was joining exalted company. There were apparently fewer than one hundred people aged fifty or over in BBC network TV, including both himself and one woman in her eighties, who ran the Blue Peter correspondence section. Only she understood the system, so she was unsackable. Will also said that ever since I had once revealed at a Weekly Programme Review Board meeting that I was descended from a Crusader he always imagined me with a helmet on my head, sword in hand. I had of course mentioned my ancestry on the occasion over a year before when I attacked BBC News & Sport coverage of the Cantona Kung-fu kick, when I vigorously challenged the endlessly repeated claim that what Eric had done was ‘unprecedented’.
By chance the Programme Review Meeting just before my birthday, which had been going well for me, with praise round the table for some of my department’s programmes , turned into a very sad and sombre occasion. There had been some hilarity over a caption in a documentary about mistresses which identified a silhouetted figure as ‘Giles-Serial Adulterer’. I said I had been refusing to confirm or deny this all week, which got a laugh. But the mood changed dramatically soon afterwards when a phone rang in the conference room annexe, which someone answered. They immediately hastened over to speak in an agitated whisper to the head of production in BBC Scotland, Colin Cameron. He looked stunned and left the room. He came back soon after and said that there had been a shooting in a school in Dunblane, near Stirling, and several children had been killed. It was only gradually through the day that we learned more details, that a lone gun-man had entered a primary school and killed 16 five-to-six year-olds, wounded fourteen others and killed their teacher. As my friend Roy Thompson, deputy head of children’s (and a life-long United fan) said, it’s horrible having to cover stories like this on John Craven’s Newsround. ‘What can you say to children that won’t leave them in fear of imminent attack in their own schools?’
In the days that followed I found it very upsetting to read about what happened at Dunblane, with all the unanswerable questions of Why? The feelings of distress were only intensified the following night when I went to see Kat perform in a version of The Pied Piper of Hamlyn in a small theatre in Thames Ditton, one of several items in a children’s drama show involving all ages of primary school children. Kat, now aged 11, delivered a confident and almost flawless performance, showing how far she’d developed in the last few months. But what really got to me was a sweet little version of Beatrix Potter’s Tom Kitten by five and six-year olds, precisely the age range at Dunblane. They all looked so small and vulnerable, how easy it would be to have the life snuffed out of them by some disturbed individual with death on his mind. It was unbearable to think of how the Dunblane families were dealing with trauma like this on such a scale. It took the sight of Kat’s bright-eyed pleasure in her performance to take me back to more positive thoughts.
Half a century
On the actual day of my 50th birthday we went out for a small family meal. There’s no doubt that, however jocular friends can be about reaching your half century it can be a sobering moment. It even seems to have prompted reflective thoughts in my much-loved mother-in-law, Ada Joseph, who suddenly started talking of matters she’d never really talked much about before. She was a Jewish refugee from Berlin in the 1930s, when her parents and all her three brothers escaped , but to different countries.Her brother, Victor had gone to France and joined the French Army to fight against the Nazis. After the Fall of France, when he was captured he somehow managed to hide his German Jewish origins and was released.He was then protected by the French Resistance, for whom he ran underground errands to help continue the struggle. We’d never heard these things before, which elicited feelings of sadness and pride. Although Ada and her immediate family survived the Nazis, many other relations perished in the Holocaust.
In the shadow of Loftus Road
I’ve always enjoyed matches at Queens Park Rangers whose small, intimate stadium always creates a crackling atmosphere when United come to town.Loftus Road is only a block or so away from the BBC and many a time I have seen the floodlights gleaming enticingly in the distance over roof tops from offices at Television Centre. The nearby White City Estate had quite a rough reputation in those days,entitling BBC staff to be escorted by security to nearby car-parks at night and I have seen a surprising number of violent incidents at QPR matches over the years. Nevertheless, the BBC sometimes used to hire office space within the stadium and I’ve often been to view rough cuts or approve fine-cuts in make-shift cutting rooms there. Many of the terraced working class streets around Loftus Road are named after Boer War sites, such as South Africa Road and Bloemfontein Road which run right alongside the stadium. When I see them they always remind me of my Great Uncle Fred who died in that imperial war in 1901. He was part of the force that took the city of Bloemfontein, where he played cricket for his regiment, the Shropshires against the Worcesters, top scoring and taking most wickets in the match. We Oakleys don’t forget our sporting triumphs. Tragically he died of enteric fever some weeks later when an untrained nurse who took a fancy to him gave him bunch of grapes, which finished him off. When the War Office sent the family a telegram announcing his death they got his serial number wrong so in the next message they said he was alive. Unfortunately the first telegram was correct, as sadly confirmed in the third and final wire. I guess most people don’t think of such distant tragedies when going to a football match.
Kat and I got buses to Shepherds Bush but we got caught up in a huge traffic snarl-up and we were nearly late, missing our planned leisurely lunch. As we half-ran to Loftus Road we encountered straggly groups of United fans in the side streets chanting ‘Ooh Aah, Cantona’ songs with all the swaggering bravado of ten successive wins. We just got into our seats in the Ellerslie Road stand as the match kicked off.
Saturday 16 March 1996: QPR 1 Man United 1
In the first half United were vastly superior, creating chance after chance as one would expect of a team who had won their previous ten matches against a team who’d only won one in their last ten, and who were staring down the barrel of relegation.It seemed inconceivable that United would fail, especially with the incentive of going to the top of the table if they won or drew, with Newcastle not playing until Monday. Equally, having played two more games than Newcastle a defeat would be a huge blow, perhaps fatal. As Andy Cole, David Beckham,Ryan Giggs and Roy Keane all missed good openings, Cole twice, I was beginning to get quite twitchy, worrying that it would be ‘one of those days’.
QPR had some good players, such as Danny Dichio, Simon Barker and today’s ever-popular favourite, the wholehearted Ian Holloway,now such a strong character as manager of Blackpool. Keane and Brian McClair were struggling to stem the tide in mid-field as Rangers passed the ball about purposively and I was getting very nervous, all my natural pessimism coming to the fore.
In the second half Rangers, who always tried to play thoughtful, constructive football, began to capitalise on some sloppy mistakes by United who began to look curiously lethargic. It was no real surprise when Rangers suddenly scored, Dichio netting with a powerful drive from the edge of the area after a perceptive pass from Holloway . The United players looked stunned, if not affronted. They quickened the tempo in resonse and began pouring forward again, launching attack after attack, but they kept missing chances. On came United’s subs, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Lee Sharpe. The silly errors still abounded but at least the urgency had returned, with even Schmeichel pushing forward now.
It was Rangers’ fans’ turn to get nervous. Their 1-0 lead looked very precarious and they were desperately whistling for the ref to blow for time. The gnarled old man next to me was getting more incensed by the second as the ref indicated with three fingers there were three minutes to go, when everyone thought we were already deep into injury time. Then centre-back Steve Bruce powered into the opposition half, won the ball and fed it to Giggs who had burst forward for the umpteenth time, this time down the left. Giggsy lofted a perfect cross over to the far post where there was the inevitable figure of Eric Cantona to crash the ball into the net with controlled violence. Pandemonium, 1-1. The Rangers fans went absolutely berserk and some tried to get on the pitch, presumably to lynch the ref. The police grappled the intruders to the ground, and hauled them off.
‘Cheat, cheat, cheat!!’
‘Cheat, cheat, cheat!!’ they chanted in frothing fury when the ref blew the final whistle moments later. Kat and I kept our heads down as the rage of anger swirled around us. She had tentatively donned a United scarf at half-time when hostility levels were low, even in the heart of the QPR members’ stand. I think she actually liked it when the match boiled over. Even as the players left the pitch with the boos ringing in their ears there was a near punch-up on the grass which got the QPR folk back on their feet in fury. None of it worried Kat as we left and she she commented that Mum would hate all the crowds and noise whereas she took after me and loved all the aggro. I’d promised her I’d get her a United hat so we walked all round the ground inspecting the stalls selling scarves, bobble hats, badges, t-shirts and posters, ignoring the bitterly contorted faces of the aggrieved QPR fans. She chose a Giggs poster and a discreet little red devil metal badge, then we hurried off while the QPR fans carried on their pointless ‘Cheat, cheat, cheat!’ screams at anyone in red & white. We just smiled to ourselves and made our escape.
United had rescued a vital point at the death, thanks to the great Eric Cantona, although given the heroic efforts of Bruce and Giggs in the build-up to the goal it was yet again evidence of that tremendous team spirit that was powering United back to the top. This was the first time United had been top of the table all season, and it was a huge psychological boost for the kids. There were plenty more twists and turns in the run-in, but United now knew they had it in them to go for the big prizes.There was a growing feeling that the Double Double really was on again.
For me, it was a beautiful 50th birthday present. Kat and I went back home and got ready to party party for the rest of the night with friends and family. Not a bad way to reach your half century, with Manchester United top of the table, just as they are now, when I’m 65.
One sad footnote to this tale. QPR did get relegated in 1996, and have never returned to the top division. It would be terrific if they can finally get back up into the Premiership this season so we can resume battle in that right little, tight little stadium in Loftus Road.
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