Former Manchester United players are typically the only players to get a warm reception at Old Trafford. If a previously unheard of sub makes an appearance, they will get a chorus of “who the fuckin ell are you?”. If they’ve mouthed off at the ref over an incident or made a particularly nasty challenge on one of ours they will get booed every time they go near the ball. And God help them if they’ve ever played for Liverpool!
However, on a rare few occasions, our fans can be appreciative of the opposition.
The most obvious example is when Ronaldo (the real/fat/Brazilian one) came to Old Trafford for the European Cup quarter-final in 2003. We’d been batted at their place, with them going 3-0 up with less than 50 minutes played, Ruud van Nistelrooy face with a consolation goal to make it 3-1. We were up against it if we were going to progress to the semis, but it’s never say die at United.
Ronaldo got an away goal to cancel out Ruud’s with just 12 minutes played. Van Nistelrooy equalised just before half time, only for Ronaldo to put them 2-1 up on 50 minutes. An own goal put us back on a level playing field a couple of minutes later, but with less than an hour played, Ronaldo got his hattrick. David Beckham then came off the bench, obviously easy to impress against the club he was planning on leaving us for, and scored two goals to give us the 4-3 lead. It wasn’t enough to see us through but we’d just witnessed a bloody brilliant game of football and had to gracefully acknowledge we’d been knocked out by the better team.
In contrast to Steve McManaman, who’d received abuse all match, the crowd stood and applauded Ronaldo off the field when he was subbed with over 20 minutes to go, having done the job. A truly marvellous display.
Whilst not on the same level, Dean Ashton is a player who got a good reaction by our fans. We were drawing close to the end of the 2007-2008 season. In our last league game we’d lost to Chelsea and in our last match we’d beaten Barcelona to book our place in the Champions League final. Our nerves were in tatters.
West Ham, who had denied us the title in 1995 after miraculously keeping the ball out of the net, were coming to Old Trafford and they were going to be up for it.
Thankfully, before we even really had any time to worry, we were 3-0 up. Cristiano Ronaldo grabbed two whilst Tevez bagged the third with just over 25 minutes played. We were now surely just one game away from confirming the title with a win against Wigan.
However, the ball came to Dean Ashton in front of the Stretford End and with a superb over head kick he rifled the ball in to the back of Van der Sar’s net. So we shrugged and applauded him. That wasn’t much else we could do. It was a great goal.
He was linked to United at the time with us looking to bulk up our strikeforce. He seemed a likeable fella, was a United fan as a kid, and the manager liked him. When he signed a five year extension with West Ham a couple of months later, I was a little disappointed if I’m honest. I wasn’t desperate for us to sign him, but I liked him, and had wondered if we could have got him for a good price.
Regardless, the sad news is that, aged just 26-years-old, Ashton has been forced in to retirement. His initial ankle injury came three years ago and he’s never been able to properly shake it off.
“It’s a rubbish situation,” Ashton said yesterday. “I just want to be able to walk properly and, at the moment, I cannot. My health is obviously more important than football. I was told if I kept trying to play football, I might never walk again. I am going to hospital on Tuesday for a fifth operation. It’s unlikely I will ever be able to jog again, but right now, I can’t walk properly. My left ankle is still very sore. It will be a while before I feel okay and get over this disappointment. There is a bit of bitterness and I think ‘Why me?’. It’s a sad part of football. In August of this year, I tried to join in with the first team. I went to do a jog around the pitch, but at the end of second lap, I was struggling. The noise coming from my joint was terrible. Kieron Dyer thought it was my boots making the noise. I went to the side and was crying on the floor. This was the second time I’d broken down in tears. I knew this was it. Definitely. My last chance had gone. I was finished. The lads were all shocked and saddened to see me like that. Generally, I don’t show a lot of emotion so it was probably strange to see a big lad like me crying. But I knew that was it.”
Gutted for him.