RoM Contributing Writer, Giles Oakley, looks at the hurt Manchester United have caused him, and us, over the years.
Make sure you’ve got a cuppa and a snack before you sit down to read this one though. You have been warned.
Anybody entering the Dreamland that is football soon has to wake up to the sad truth that at its heart lies inevitable disappointment, even for Manchester United fans.
In the aftermath of United’s almost humiliating 2-0 defeat by Barcelona in the Champions League Final I was plunged into a mood of numb incomprehension. How did that happen? Yes of course Barca are a great team and thoroughly deserved their classy victory, which made the graciousness of the United players and staff in acknowledging Barca’s superiority the only consolation. But questions remained about United’s tactics, formation and poor levels of performance on the night. Where was the team that brushed aside opponents as good as Inter Milan, Porto and Arsenal in earlier rounds, combining exhilarating attack with superbly marshalled defence? Where was the fighting spirit that had rescued victories from the jaws of defeat only weeks before against Aston Villa or Spurs? The more I thought about it, the more I gloomily faced the possibility that perhaps United had been left behind by one of those periodic seismic shifts in European football. That prospect left me demoralised. Well into the following day I was left feeling more depressed, deflated and disappointed than I could ever remember after a game.
But then slowly I began to ask myself, is that really true? Have I truthfully never felt this bad after a defeat? Is there really such shame in losing a Champions League Final against one of the best teams in the world? Then I began to think back, realising with something of a shock that I can look back over over half a century of disappointments in supporting United. In evoking the past one normally likes to share cherished memories, recalling the good times and celebrating the great moments, such as the first time I saw Denis Law playing for United in 1962, or my favourite Denis Law goal five years later. Indeed it’s easy to think back to all the trophies won over the decades with enormous pleasure, very conscious that it’s not every fan who sees their team win so much. But now I want to do something rather different. I’m going to re-visit defeat and dejection and disappointment, which are at least as authentic a part of being a United supporter as celebrating the victories. I want to put those twin imposters, victory and defeat, into proper perspective. Could it be that it’s only when you have really plunged down into the depths that you can appreciate the good times? Maybe it’s precisely the intensity of past disappointments that binds us together, and makes us United.
The first time I ever saw United in action was in the 1958 FA Cup Final, which I saw on TV at my grandfather’s. I had to go to school on Saturdays and play football (and later rugby) in the afternoons and I missed the beginning of the match. By the time I got there Bolton were already winning 1-0 and Grandpa sadly told me United were struggling. Sure enough, Nat Lofthouse scored his second goal soon afterwards, sealing an easy victory. It was a new experience for me to see the heroes I’d only ever read about or seen in photos, and I was left with a feeling of deflation. Some of the players I’d revered from afar didn’t actually look that good.
I had followed United’s phoenix-like revival in the weeks after the Munich Air Disaster, willing on at a distance the makeshift team of reserves and youth team players. I thrilled to descriptions of Bobby Charlton’s thunderbolt goals or Harry Gregg’s finger-tip saves, conscious even then of the haunting look of ineffable sadness in the eyes of air-crash survivor and skipper Billy Foulkes. For weeks I had become ever more identified with United’s cause, grieving like so many others when the great Duncan Edwards had finally succumbed to his injuries and died. We had no TV at home, I could never get to a game, so the Cup Final was my first brush with reality. At the end I felt genuinely sad as Lofthouse triumphantly held the cup aloft. I had so wanted United to win, for the sake of those who died on the runway at Munich and for the grieving survivors. And so a lifetime of disappointments with United began.
It’s hard now to compare what I felt then as a 12 year old boy in the face of crushing defeat by a far stronger team with how I reacted today aged 63 when Barca beat United , by now defending European Champions. In so many ways there is no comparison, yet the emotions were remarkably similar. It’s only a football match, someone will have said to me, and it will have made no more difference then than it does now. I know some will find that pathetic, but there we are. To me, United were always about more than ‘only’ football. Even then, 51 years ago, inspired by words I’d read about Matt Busby and those players who died in the crash, they somehow embodied ideals of how to conduct yourself, not just on the field but in life. For anyone not touched by the appeal of sport this will seem absurd and even laughable, but I still feel the same.
So, I felt deflated, downhearted and deeply disappointed after Bolton’s victory, made no easier by the knowledge that Lofthouse had in truth fouled Harry Gregg when scoring one of his goals, as shown by the photo-strips in the papers the next day. (All these years later I still argue the point with my oldest friend, a Bolton fan). I now had to accept the obvious reality that United were poor on the day, and there was a gulf in quality even compared with an average team like Bolton.
My desolation at United’s Cup Final defeat slowly evaporated through the close-season however, and soon I could hardly wait for the next campaign. That’s something that still happens every year. Hope springs United as the new season comes around.
Funnily enough, United did remarkably well in the season after Munich, almost defying any reasonable odds to end the season runners-up, 6 points behind Wolverhampton Wanderers. I used to rush home from school to hear Sports Report for the football results on the wireless. Still no TV at home, not that league games were covered, but I would go out with my brother to get the Pink’Uns and Green’Un, the results editions of the 3 London evening papers, which reached our town of Amersham about 6pm. The man on the newstand had a hare lip and a sinister look, bellowing out nasally, ‘Star, News and Standard! All the classifieds!’ Known locally as ‘Whomper’, he had a weird sense of humour, from making strange menacing whooping noises as you took a paper to whispering conspiratorially, ‘I hear it’s snowing pound notes in Woolworths’.
Well, in that ’58/59 season, I got ever more addicted to United, still unable to see them live, devouring everything I could read about the team. I remember the shock and dismay when United were knocked out of the FA Cup in the 3rd round by 3rd Division Norwich, ruining my hopes of a Wembley return and more TV coverage. In the last few weeks it was obvious to any objective observer that United didn’t really have what it takes to win the league, not that as a 12-13 year old I could admit that, even to myself. Illusions consistently precede disillusionment, naturally enough. But the great thing about even that over-achieving United, with Matt Busby back at the helm, was the constant high goal scoring. The goals would pour in their fours, fives, and sixes, almost impossible to believe today. In total they got 103 goals in the league in 42 matches, equalling the club’s best-ever total (in the Babes’ 2nd championship winning season of 1956/57). The problem was the defence. My disappointment at United’s failure to win the title was a slowly dawning realisation that it just wasn’t going to happen, very different from the sudden deflation of the Cup Final defeat. Of course I’d still rush home from school to get the results, but really I knew it was all over. I remember a particular sensation of desolation when United lost 4-2 to Burnley over Easter.
I suppose that first year of supporting United instilled something permanent into my footballing soul. I’d always liked football but never supported anyone in particular, I just used to love reading about great players and dreaming of their fabulous exploits. I remember getting football autobiographies by players such as Len Shackleton or England Captain Billy Wright and the Hungarian Ferenc Puskas from the local library. Then I got Matt Busby’s book, My Story, which helped cement my loyalty to United. I loved his philosophy of how the game should be played and, more important, how people should be treated. I was deeply inspired by the human as much as the sporting saga of United’s recovery after Munich (initially under Jimmy Murphy), and I truly believe I would have continued supporting the Reds for evermore even if success never came their way. I came to love heroic failure almost as much, if not more than, the grim accumulation of points. Spurs skipper Danny Blanchflower summed it up: it’s not the winning, it’s the Glory.
So, I’ve tried to compare my feelings of disappointment after the Barca defeat in 2009 with what I felt as a 12 year-old in 1958. But it doesn’t end there. Of course I can’t go through every disappointment in half a century, as that would take for ever. But I will just dip into some of the low points of the last five decades, mainly the occasions when United didn’t live up to their own best expectations, sometimes inexplicably. Few readers will need reminding of how bad it felt after AC Milan demolished United 3-0 in the Champions League second leg semi-final in 2007. That too looked like the ultimate pricking of United’s European aspirations, so good did the Italians look, yet the following season United were champions and remained unbeaten for 25 matches, an all-time record in the CL. Just shows it’s rash to base too much on single results, however spectacular. I can also remember in the 1990s feeling we would never catch up with the likes of Juventus, yet who did we defeat so dramatically in the semi-final in 1999 on the way to the Treble? Nevertheless, there have been far too many other low points in Europe, which are harder to dismiss or rationalise away, such as the 4-0 hammering by Barcelona in 1994, or the defeats by Real Madrid in 2000 and 2003. Worse in some ways were the defeats by ‘lesser’ teams such as Galatasaray in 1993, or Bayer Leverkusen in 2002 and Porto in 2004. People who blame the absence of a Roy Keane for the Barca defeat should remember that Keano was skipper during some of the most disppointing recent defeats in Europe.
In the Sixties everyone remembers United’s brilliant league championship victories in ’65 and ’67 culminating in the famous 4-1 victory over Benfica in the European Cup Final in May 1968 , which gave Matt Busby the trophy at long last, ten years after Munich. What is less often recalled is the heartbreak and disappointment on the way and all the other trophies that could – maybe should – have been won in that period. In fact, despite the thrills of watching United in those days, in gloomier moments I tend to think of all the might-have-beens. Yes the Holy Trinity of Best, Law and Charlton, were the best trio I have ever seen together in a single club team, each a European Footballer of the Year, but it’s worth asking the question, why did United win so little in that period, rather than why did they win so much?
United got to the FA Cup semi finals 5 years in succession from 1962 to ’66, yet only got to the final once. Quite often United seemed to implode across several fronts at once, as in 1964, when within the space of 4 days United lost 3-1 to West Ham in the FA Cup semi final and then were thrashed 5-0 by Sporting Lisbon in the Cup Winners Cup Quarter Final (abysmally throwing away a 4-1 1st leg lead). That season in the league they also slipped up to finish as runners up, 4 points behind Liverpool. (United lost fewer matches both at home and away than Liverpool, so under current Merseyside logic we must have been the better team in ’64). On the days when ‘the real United’ showed up the football was exhilarating, but too often that didn’t happen, contrary to the golden impressions sometimes given of United in those days.
Another desperately disappointing season was in 1965/66. I can remember seeing United slump to a dozy 2-1 defeat against Leicester City at Old Trafford in April ’66, four days before an away leg European Cup Semi Final against Partizan Belgrade (from former Yugoslavia). United were sluggish and out of sorts, with Europe clearly on their minds, as so often seemed the case. The main bright spot was seeing the debut of fullback Bobby Noble, a brilliant player whose meteoric career ended in a car crash the following season. Apart from the kid, only winger John Connelly seemed up for it, scoring a good goal, showing the form that got him into the ’66 World Cup squad. Not only did United lose but George Best got injured, hobbling off in obvious pain after the usual round of hacking that was so routine then as not to arouse comment. I sensed at that moment that this was not going to be our year. Sure enough Partizan won the first leg 2-0 four days later, as seen on TV, helped by the presence of the palpably unfit Best, who never played again that season. United couldn’t overcome the deficit in the return leg. Three days later United then went down 1-0 to Everton in the FA Cup semi final, and United were a poor fourth in the league. Liverpool were the champs, to rub it in. Year after year April was the cruellest month for United.
Another terrible disappointment was seeing United lose 2-1 to Sunderland on the final day of the 1967/68 season, when Man City were able to pip United to the league title by winning at Newcastle. The Stretford End was packed but seemed strangely subdued that day. I couldn’t understand why the players showed so little passion or drive, apart from Best, who scored United’s goal. Didn’t they know holding onto the Championship was at stake? Of course the players again had on their minds the European Cup semi-final second leg in four days time against Real Madrid. For many supporters, and presumably for the players and Matt, the vindication came when United got through to the Final and went on to win the trophy against Benfica. But for me, it was a massively deep disappointment, one that rankles still to this day. One of the worst. We could have won the league that season. We could have won an unprecedented Double. Didn’t Busby and his players care about that anymore? Of course none of us could know that we would have to wait a quarter of a century before we’d see another league title at Old Trafford.
It would be a mistake to think that because of all the failures and disappointments of the 60s United were somehow not a great team. They just could have been greater. I’ll forever hold dear memories of United at their best in that era, and thank God I was alive at such a time to see them play. It’s just that I’m greedy, and then, as now, I wanted United to win everything. In case I seem carping or negative, let’s remember that there were many terrific teams in the 60s – Spurs, Everton, Liverpool, even City at the end of the decade – yet United overall were the best, and don’t let anyone say any different. When people spoke of great attacking football that got crowds on their feet, it was United they thought of. Not Leeds.
The same could not be said in the 1970s, a low disreputable decade, so full of disappointment for a dyed in the red like me. Of course the relegation of 1973/74 was the lowest of low spots. Everyone remembers Denis Law’s back-heel for City, which is wrongly blamed for our relegation, but for me personally the key moment was at Southampton a couple of weeks earlier. I remember the massed ranks of grim-faced and twitchy police as United fans were dragooned like chain-gang criminals on the long route from the station to the The Dell. The fans went in for that Bay City Rollers look, scarves tied round wrists, all mouth and bravado, defiance in their eyes which was awesome in its way, given how poor the team were that year. The atmosphere was tense, bordering on malevolent. There was little to cheer either team on the pitch, just tough , attritional trench-warfare. Nothing of the Glory Game about Tommy Docherty’s team then against fellow relegation strugglers Southampton. We had some good players, such as Alex Stepney and the great Martin Buchan, the young kid Sammy McIlroy or wingman Willie Morgan, plus the diminuitive ‘Skip to My Lou’ Macari, but not enough. We could only manage a 1-1 draw that day, and that was not enough either. The players looked drained, despondent, lacking in conviction, clearly destined for relegation. Jim McCalliog scored the goal for United, and I thought he was one of the better players, not truly United quality, but honest, trying to use the ball with intelligance and guile. But in the end,not enough, the story of the season. Two years later McCalliog was to play for the Saints in the FA Cup Final when, still in the second Division, they beat United 1-0, another match I saw, another deep, deep, disappointment. At least by then United were back in the top division.
Of course United bounced straight back after relegation, when they won the 1974/75 Second Division Championship at a canter. They were playing some fantastic attacking football, stirred on by Stuart ‘Pancho’ Pearson (not to be confused with the original Mark ‘Pancho’ Pearson of the late ’50s), with his trademark bicep- flexing goal celebrations. I saw him score a couple of crackers at Fulham, and marvelled at how well he held up play, fending off defenders and shielding the ball like Sparky Hughes was to do ten years later. There was another terrific player then, the Irish international Gerry Daly, who I saw score a really cool winner down at the Den against Millwall. Every time I went there I witnessed violence involving the heavy docklanders, and it was one of the most intimidating arenas I’d experienced. (I remember a hail of bottles directed at a linesman there once when he gave a Bolton player a throw-in, correctly as it happens.) I should add, when I saw United there, no-one threatened me. That’s maybe because I never issued a peep in support of United throughout the game.
Despite winning the second division in ’74/75, the season was, inevitably, not without its disappointments. I have one particularly strong memory of such a let-down, but not in quite the usual form. It had always irked me that United never seemed to take the League Cup seriously. I believed you should try to win every competition you enter. Winning becomes a habit, then an addiction. Start small, build up. Today’s League Cup Winner is tomorrow’s Champions League Champion. See United in 2006, then in 2008. Back when the competition began in the ’60s, Busby showed no interest. In fact United never won it until 1992, which is a minor scandal, and another major disappointment. Well, in 1975, for once United had taken it a bit more seriously and by some miracle we faced Norwich in the 2-legged Semi-Finals. I didn’t get to see either match as I was then working in Egypt, then as now a wonderful place.I well remember my first night alone in Cairo. I was attempting to cross the Nile to return to my hotel when I was stopped at a military road-block. A lone soldier came out with his rifle, clad in a long trench-coat against the chill January night air. As he advanced he suddenly opened his coat, made a very un-military rhythmic gesture with his cupped hand and said, ‘Jig-jig? You like jig-jig?’. I explained that I worked for the BBC, which confused him totally and enabled me to walk on unmolested as he stood scratching his head, still muttering about ‘jig-jig’. Anyway, I somehow managed to get the result of the Norwich first leg in the free English language paper in the hotel, 2-2 at Old Trafford. I knew the second leg was a week later, and that night I tried desperately twirling the dial on my hotel radio , hoping to get BBC World Service,but with no luck. Oddly I did catch a pounding Muddy Waters ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ amidst the wailing Arabic singers on Egypt radio, but no football. Knowing I’d have to wait till the paper arrived in the morning, I tried to get to sleep. Unfortunately I was taken violently ill in the middle of the night, projectile vomiting at one end, something else at the other. It could have been ‘Gyppy Tummy’, but I blamed the Nile Hilton. On and on it went through the night, till I almost felt I’d created a vacuum where my stomach used to be. I lay on the floor gasping for air whenever a brief moment of respite came. Then around 7 a.m., I heard the long awaited sound of the English paper being pushed under the door. Luckily I was briefly in remission, so I shakily crawled towards the door, stretched out my trembling hands and grabbed the paper.I turned straight to the sports section, scanned the tiny results columns past various hockey matches in Port Said and at long last found the vital score: Norwich City 1 United 0. Norwich win 3-2 on agg. At that moment another wave of nausea struck me and I threw up again into the toilet.
In the 70s United only won the second division championship in 1974/75 and the FA Cup in 1977, beating Liverpool and depriving them of the Treble. There were the losing finals of 1976 and ’79, but otherwise that was a decade of almost unredeemed disappointment. Yet there were still great days, strangely enough. Tommy Doc’s team rose from being a desperate, nervous, scuffling, incoherent team of misfits to a marvellous swashbuckling team of all-out attackers. Somehow the United philosophy was rediscovered. It spluttered to life again a bit in the 1980s, with Big Fat Ron Atkinson’s two FA Cup victories in 1983 and ’85 that just about kept hope alive, but otherwise it was more disappointment, disappointment, disappointment. Spirits were high only to be dashed when United won the first ten matches in 1985/86, and were undefeated after 15. It all seemed to fall apart when rumours surfaced that Barca had an agreement to sign Mark Hughes at the end of the season, which was indeed what happened. Sparky’s explosive goal-scoring dried up and United sank to 4th place behind, inevitably, Champions Liverpool. Would the misery never end? The brightest part about United in that period was the magnificent Bryan Robson, one of the greatest players I have ever seen for United in any era. It’s a shame that in his best years that he was all too often propping up the team almost single-handedly. Yes there were some terrific players around him, such as Hughes, Kevin Moran, Paul McGrath, Arnold Muhren or Norman Whiteside (scorer of such a sublime goal in the FA Cup Final against Everton in ’85, a match I saw), but the strength in depth wasn’t there. I was so glad that at the very end of his career in the ’90s Robbo managed to get at least some of the medals his heroic efforts in the bad years had deserved. It’s far easier to be a hero in a successful team stuffed with stars than to to have to do it almost on your own, like Robbo at times in the ’80s. What remained remarkable throughout all those years of failure was the loyalty of the United crowd, home and away. When the team was struggling at times, the support remained magnificent and attendances continued to break records. Today people sneer at United ‘Glory Hunters’, but in the lean years supporters always kept the faith.
Of course I could say much more about the problems and failures of the post-Busby managers, all of whose teams I saw many times, often with yet more disappointment. But one thing I would say that to succeed at United a manager has to discover for himself the true devil-may-care attacking spirit of the club, which has roots reaching back before Busby even to the days of Billy Meredith and Sandy Turnbull before World War I. That ethos sometimes lies dormant waiting to be found once more and it’s not for every manager to find the key. There have been times when even a manager as indisputably great as Sir Alex has had to re-learn the lesson. One of the disappointments of the Barca defeat was that, for whatever reason, at a certaain level the team lost sight of its own attacking creativity and capacity to inspire and entertain. That’s what made the defeat so deeply disappointing, not the defeat as such, but its manner.
So, now we have returned to the United of today. It might be thought that with Fergie leading the team to 11 Premiership titles, the Treble and various Doubles and so many other trophies at home and abroad, it would be a bit much for me to complain that United have sometimes been a disappointment even in recent years. Yet, for an honest completion of this overview of failure, I do have to remind readers that no-one, however great can take victory for granted. Even the mighty have sometimes fallen, and that includes Sir Alex. I won’t list every defeat and every disappointment, but I will just take a few matches where I was present, when defeat was hard to take, when I was ‘gutted’.
As I’ve said, I have a thing about the League Cup, so one big disappointment was when United got beaten3-1 by Villa in the Final at Wembley in 1994. United would have won a domestic Treble if they’d won.
An even bigger disappointment came when Arsenal beat United on penalties in the 2005 FA Cup Final in Cardiff, after the match ended goal-less after extra time. United were utterly dominant against Arsene Wenger’s much-vaunted ‘footballing’ side, but just couldn’t score. Wayne Rooney deserved the winner’s medal he still craves. That defeat left United without silverware that season, never a happy prospect.
It was even worse when Chelse beat United in the 2007 FA Cup Final at the new Wembley. It was a pretty awful match but what was worrying was that again United failed to score (apart from Ryan Giggs’ disallowed ‘goal’, which looked good from where I sat, although some might think me biased.) Hard to take seeing Jose Mourhino lording it afterwards. At least we had the consolation that United had won the league, enabling even bigger lording for United fans. Still, no denying it was a big blow not winning, not least because it deprived Giggs of the chance of a record number of FA Cup winners medals (a record that gallingly, Ashley Cole has just achieved after Chesea’s victory over Everton )
Then there was the defeat on penalties after extra time in the 2009 FA Cup Semi Final against Everton at Wembley, again after a goal-less game going into extra time. If only Fergie had put on just one or two more experienced players I’m sure we would have won. The kids did well that day, but yet again, a worrying lack of goals. Knowing how much Rooney wants an FA Cup Winners medal, I wonder what he felt about the weakened side Fergie put out. I know I felt terribly disappointed at that defeat, but I was also worried by the United fans at Wembley that day. There was an arrogance and take-it-for-granted quality about their support. Everton fans have had nothing to shout about since they beat United in the FA Cup Final in 1995 (another disappointment!) which makes their desperate passion very understandable, but it’s not a good sign if the United faithful need reminding that success does not last for ever.
Ryan Giggs has often said that it’s failure that drives him on. The joy in winning a trophy is short-lived, but the pain of defeat lasts for ever. That’s maybe how I feel. Of course I have absolutely loved it when United have won trophies, it’s what backing the team is all about. Here I’ve been emphasising the pain and disappointment of past defeats going back 50 years, not because for the sake of some masochistic thrill, but because that is actually the true nature of football. Most supporters of most clubs have to dream of winning just one major trophy in their whole lives, if ever, yet still their support remains unconditional. I love fans like that, to me they are the essence of what football is all about, loyalty, communal solidarity, good humour in the face of the everlasting disappointments. People like that could well look at me and think, ‘how can he complain when his team wins so much and buys all the best players?’ In fact I’d have every sympathy for that point of view. Supporters like me have been spoiled by the privilege of seeing some of the greatest players of all time in teams that have won the lot. I know precisely how lucky I am, and that’s because I also know what it feels like to face defeat, despondency and disappointment, first in 1958, most recently in May 2009.