‘There are so many very unhappy people around..’ my wife said , her voice tailing off despondently as we watched the TV coverage this week of rioting, looting and arson wrecking lives and destroying communities. As Hilary and I tried to make sense of it all, our mood swung wildly from anger at the wanton nature of the destruction to despair at the social alienation these tragic events signified. But the overwhelming emotion was sorrow at the plight of people driven from their homes and businesses by violence and fire, while the police appeared to be doing nothing. We have friends or family in or near many of the riot hotspots so it has been a very disturbing time, especially as our daughter Kat was giving us regular updates from her FaceBook connections. She was trying to keep track of what was happening while giving warnings to friends in places such as Hackney, Clapham, and Ealing, helping co-ordinate evasive action and self-protection. There were horrifying, Blitz-like scenes across London as cars were torched and shops set on fire. For us it was made worse knowing that Kat had friends within sight, sound, heat and smell of the flames destroying the iconic Victorian furniture store in Croydon, as we could see from apocalyptic uploaded pictures of the blaze. Another friend was riskily taking photos of looting in Clapham which he put up too.Locally we heard that the Texaco gas station a couple of roads away had been completely trashed and the attendant badly beaten up by a masked bunch of hoodrats, while all night we heard the sound of sirens howling through the high street, destination uncertain. Maybe Putney, maybe Fulham, maybe Hammersmith, maybe Clapham, maybe Wandsworth. Where next?

Throughout these terrible days and nights of rioting the same phrase kept coming back: ‘It’s kicking off’.

It was those words,ordinarily cheerfully applied to football, that made me think, I really can’t ignore the riots in writing a preview piece for Manchester United’s first game of the Premiership season, when it all kicks off in a very different sense. First several league cup matches in London were postponed and then they called off the England friendly against Holland at Wembley, where I’d hoped to see young Tom Cleverley’s international debut. Gradually news filtered through that the rioting was spreading beyond London to Birmingham and Wolverhampton in the West Midlands and then to Liverpool, Manchester and Salford in the North West. Finally the words I’d been dreading came through: ‘It’s all kicking off in West Bromwich’.

Good old days?

I had been looking forward to sharing a few memories of a match I witnessed fifty years ago between West Bromwich Albion and United at the Hawthorns in 1961, with no thought of today’s ills, thinking only about how I could bring those distant days to life. Normally I really don’t like to portray things as ‘the good old days’ or suggest that X or Y ‘wouldn’t have happened in my day’ because all periods have their good times and bad. We each have our own cherished memories, so it’s beside the point to set up one era above another as somehow superior. But, by chance, the period I’m going to write about had certain qualities that really did stand out as different from today. The Tory prime minister of the time, Harold MacMillan (‘Super Mac’) famously claimed, ‘You’ve never had it so good!’ and whether or not that was true, people then certainly had optimism and hope in a way that they don’t now.

In the early Sixties that glad confident spirit was even just beginning to apply to United, despite the still raw scars of Munich and the fact that trophies seemed a long way off.

What WBA have meant to Man United

I have always had a liking for WBA, who have a long tradition of trying to play football the right way. They were one of the founders of the Football League in 1888 and they have won all three major domestic trophies, including the FA Cup five times. United supporters have particular reason to be grateful to them for providing two of the greatest figures in Old Trafford history, 1930s hard-man half-back Jimmy Murphy, who became Matt Busby’s Assistant after WW2, and then in the 1980s, ‘Captain Marvel’, the inspirational Bryan Robson, who was signed from Albion by manager Ron Atkinson,himself a recruit from West Brom, bringing a period of relative success to Old Trafford.

It’s odd, but until the 1970s very few players passed from United to WBA, more going to such teams as Luton Town and even Brighton & Hove Albion. But relations between the clubs seem always to have been good, and several ex-United players had spells as managers at the Hawthorns, including Johnny Giles, Nobby Stiles, Lou Macari and Bryan Robson, with varying degrees of success.

Holy Trinity ‘firsts’ against WBA

Beyond the movement of players and managers one way or the other there have been three very significant United ‘firsts’ involving WBA, each landmark events in the careers of the ‘Holy Trinity’.

In 1958, Bobby Charlton played his first game after the Munich Air Crash against WBA, starring in a 2-2 draw in the FA Cup at the Hawthorns, a tremendously significant encounter which I’ll return to in a moment.

Then in 1962, Denis Law made his first appearance for United against WBA in the league at Old Trafford, scoring his first goal for the club with a flashing header in a 2-2 draw. It was the first match of the season and disappointingly United threw away a brilliant early 2 goal lead and were slow-handclapped off the pitch at the end.

In 1963, George Best played his first game for United at the age of 17 in the league against WBA at Old Trafford. He didn’t score but aquitted himself well in a 1-0 victory, although few would have then predicted how things would turn out for him in the following decade.

Saturday 1 March 1958: FA Cup 6th Round: WBA 2 Man United 2

Before we come to 1961 it’s worth saying something about this momentous match, which set the scene for so much that followed in United’s history. United had already beaten Sheffield Wednesday 3-0 in an astonishing, emotion drenched FA Cup 5th round match at Old Trafford in their first match after Munich with a patchwork team of fringe-players, youth teamers and just two crash survivors, Bill Foulkes and Harry Gregg. Now, prompted by his football-mad mother, Bobby Charlton had decided that he must return to action for United and help the club rise again from the ashes. He was given a secret fitness trial in the snow under the eyes of acting manager Jimmy Murphy, while the club had to plead with the Army to release him from national service for the match at a time when he was officially ‘sick’ from injuries in the crash. Lance Corporal Charlton later admitted he’d felt ‘old and slow and fat’ in the physical after his involuntary lay-off but Murphy knew how much even a half fit Bobby would lift his rag-tag team.And so it proved.

I didn’t see the match at the Hawthorns myself (we had no TV, and it would not have been covered anyway, as few matches were then). But when I got the score after school and heard about how brilliantly Bobby had played he instantly became the hero he has remained in my eyes ever since. I remember poring over match reports at home and in the school library in Berkhamsted and I thrilled to the ebb and flow of the match which was evidently played in the best possible spirit. The attendance was 58,000, with over 15,000 coming from Manchester, an amazing figure at a time when relatively few fans travelled to away matches.

WBA were a very good team in those days, finishing fourth in the league that season, with terrific players such as Bobby Robson, Ronnie Allen, Derek Kevan and Don Howe. They sure played to win in this cup-tie, as shown by the fact that they forced a late equaliser in the dying moments, having seen the indomitable United twice take the lead, inspired not just by ‘our kid’ from Ashington but also by veteran signing Ernie Taylor. Everyone who witnessed the match says how rich in drama and intensity it was as the United youngsters showed astonishing inner resolve, an implacable insistence that they just would not give in.For many of the players, being out on the pitch was probably their best refuge from their grief and anguish at the loss of so many friends and team mates.

At the end of the match both sides were near emotional and physical exhaustion, but soon raring to go for the replay.

Wednesday 5 March 1958: FA Cup 6th Round Replay: Man United 1 WBA 0

If the 2-2 draw at the Hawthorns had been a match full of emotion, it was as nothing compared to the return at Old Trafford before a packed house under floodlights, with twenty or thirty thousand locked out. From what I’ve heard, although the noise was just as extraordinary and the atmosphere equally electric, it was subtly different from that famous first win against Wednesday. Now there was a real feeling that some sort of historic revival was possible, not just in a one-off show of emotion, or in some distant future, next season, or the season after, but right now, this year. Everything was now staked on the FA Cup, which took on a symbolic significance, for players, for fans, and for the wider public.

Funnily enough I have a strange, slightly embarrassing memory of this match. I had a good friend called Dave Harrap, who had been a United fan since before the Crash (indeed I remember how angry he had been at the way Aston Villa had beaten the Babes in the 1957 FA Cup Final, when ‘keeper Ray Wood was virtually assaulted by winger Peter McParland and had his cheek-bone smashed) and I became irrationally jealous of his name when yet another youth team player was thrown in the deep end for United, named Bobby Harrop. I so wished there was an Oakley out there helping United, and how I wished it was me. Dave was lucky, he’d got a near name-sake out there, a Harrop who apparently played his heart out in a historic win as a left half. (Bobby Harrop played a handful of games for United before being transferred to Tranmere the following year, another possible casualty of the Munich too-soon syndrome).

United beat WBA with a goal scored in the final minute from a Bobby Charlton pass which fizzed across the goalmouth to find Welsh winger Colin Webster at the far post. More grounds for my hero-worship of the modest Bobby-Soxer. Three years later Bobby gave an interview where he described this as ‘My Greatest Cup-Tie’. He recalled that after Webster’s late clincher,

‘We scarcely had time to re-start the match. The crowd was insane, the uproar was uncontrollable and the crowd lingered and lingered and lingered. It seemed they never wanted to leave the scene of this unforgettable match, and it took us hours to get away. So it was…when we qualified for the semi-final of the Cup. When we had calmed down, after the end, Jimmy Murphy telephoned the result to Matt Busby, still in hospital in Munich. All the boss could say was, “Wonderful, wonderful”.(Daily Herald, 27 January, 1961)

Of course, United won the semi final against Fulham after a replay and faced Bolton in the Final at Wembley. They lost, but that mattered less than the fact that Manchester United had indeed risen from the ashes. They were still contenders.

Supporter’s Club (London & District Branch)

By the time of that 1961 Herald interview with Bobby, I had long been a committed United fan and had even managed to get to several matches, despite the hindrance of having to go to school on Saturdays. I had joined the Supporter’s Club London & District Branch a couple of years before, mainly to enable me to get badges, handbooks, photos and newsletters. There was something admirable about the attention to detail by all the various voluntary officials in responding to requests for things, fulfilling the club motto, ‘To Help – Not to Hinder’. Some letters were hand-written, others carefully produced on old-fashioned ‘sit-up-and-beg’ type-writers with inky ribbons, so primitive by modern digital standards. There was a rather touching formality about the letters on headed note-paper (‘LIfe Honary Member Commander A. Burke’), particularly the way people would always be identified with initials, ‘Yours faithfully, P.Ball’, something characteristic of trade union and other working class organisations at the time, perhaps stemming from a desire for ‘respectability’ and order. I saw the same in the letters and minutes of the football and cricket clubs I played for back home, though not in my main team a few years later, Amersham Ravers FC, a by-word for ‘alternative’ informality. Many of the letters I got from the MUSC were from the secretary, a woman named (Miss) J. Wakeling from Rotherhithe, who became rather less formal as time went by, even revealing her full name. As a 13-year old boy much prone to blushing, I fantasised about the prime of Miss Jeanne Wakeling but I never met her. Neverthelss, I’m grateful for all the hard work she and others did in keeping the flag flying with kids like me.

Of course the Club organised trips to matches, several every season, mostly at times I couldn’t manage until I finally spotted a particularly alluring fixture during the Easter break in April 1961: WBA away. I’d always wanted to see the Hawthorns, a venue that loomed large in my historical imagination after that epic cup tie in ’58.

Football Coach

I had never been to Birmingham or West Bromwich, which are effectively part of the same urban sprawl, although technically about five miles apart. The Hawthorns is very close to the boundary and is said to be the highest stadium in the UK, although I can’t say I noticed it at the time. What I was more aware of was how many stretches of countryside still encroached healthily on parts of the city, something I always liked many years later when going to the BBC’s old Birmingham studios at Pebble Mill, close to Edgbaston Cricket ground.

For West Brom I had booked a seat through P.Ball for the MUSC coach to ‘the aforementioned’ match, leaving London from Charing Cross Underground station at 9.45 am. It cost me 15 shillings return, a huge sum for me at the time, aged 15 (equivalent in decimal terms to 75p, although that’s very misleading regarding actual purchasing power). First I had to get up to Baker Street from Amersham and then cross town to the Embankment, making for a very early start and a long day. I couldn’t persuade anyone to come with me, even Dave-not-Harrop.

I was both nervous and excited, fearful I’d somehow miss the coach or get left behind after the game, uncertain what to expect from the other supporters, who were in fact friendly, but much older and they all knew each other. There was a crate of beer at the back and there was an incessant round of what we’d now call banter with all that quick-fire wit that fans seem to develop automatically, even among those who can suddenly become tongue-tied in front of authority. Sadly I can’t remember anything specific now, but it was funny and very noticeable how cynical they were about United’s players, with none of the wide-eyed adoration I felt for them. Yet, there they were, clearly regulars, just as committed to the cause as I was, just as passionate.

I shrank back into my seat near the back listening in awe to the speed of the repartee, not exactly excluded, but hardly part of it either. Still, it was the start of a thrilling adventure for me, very different from what I’d been doing the previous weekend when I went on the Easter Sunday Aldermaston ‘Ban the Bomb’ March in support of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmanent (CND) with my parents and brother Chris, marching along with bearded Beatniks and duffle-coated Trad Jazz bands playing ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’. It’s not that one event was middle class and the other working class, but there were quite different cultural groupings at each. I felt pleased to be part of both.

Birmingham: City of Stilts

In the early Sixties Birmingham and its different neighbourhoods hadn’t yet got the reputation for ethnic tension that they still clearly have today in the wake of the tragic deaths during this week’s rioting. The first national awareness of the problem came in the 1964 General Election when there was an openly racist Tory election campaign in Smethwick, with the ‘unofficial’ slogan ‘If You Want a Nigger Neighbour, Vote Labour’ daubed up on walls, which helped tip out the sitting MP.

By the time of the Handsworth riots of 1985, there were further, significant tensions between the different ethnic/ religious groups, just like now.I remember filming there for a BBC documentary on ‘inner city blues’ (not about City), taking a nervous production assistant who’d never been to the Midlands before. To distract her from worrying about ‘urban unrest’, I told her the interesting thing about Birmingham was that it was the only city in Britain built on stilts because of the marshy terrain. To my amazement she believed me and as we entered Birmingham, she shrieked, ‘Ooh look, Giles, I can see the stilts!’ as she pointed out Spaghetti Junction.

Anyway, I digress. There was no massive motorway interchange in 1961, and more of the classic red-brick Victorian and Edwardian architecture still survived, some of which was sadly the victim of urban regeneration in the later ’60s and ’70s. But in terms of football and the black community, we should here pay tribute to the role of WBA who did so much to pioneer the employment of black players, such as Cyril Regis, Laurie Cunningham (who later briefly played for United) and Remi Moses, who joined United as part of the deal that took Bryan Robson to Old Trafford in 1981. Albion were far ahead of United who remained disappointingly white for far too long until the arrival of Big Ron at Old Trafford in the ’80s (which makes Atkinson’s later downfall as a TV commentator for making a bizarre racist remark even more inexplicable).

Saturday 8 April 1961: WBA 1 Man United 1

At the time of this match, WBA had just won their last seven matches and they were playing attractive, progressive football under manager Gordon Clark, after a faltering start to the season. They still had several of the key players who’d featured in the epic cup matches of 1958, including Bobby Robson, Don Howe and Derek Kevan and now they had a wonderful ‘ball-playing’ inside forward, the marvellous David Burnside. He was famous for his ball juggling tricks, which he’d been known to display on stage as well as at the Hawthorns.

The stadium was hardly a classic venue in some ways, being more functional than grand. My main memory of it then, before the major transformations of later years, was of two long low stands along either side of the pitch, and small stands behind the goals providing partial cover from wind or rain but also acting as a kind of giant echo chamber, amplifying the noise of the 27,000-odd fans, adding to the raucous atmosphere. When I went through the turnstiles and found myself standing on the terraces out in the open somewhere near the halfway line I easily found other Reds, all unsegregated, some wearing red & white ‘bar’ scarves. I didn’t want to hang on nervously to the others off the coach, but kept an eye on them, taking my cue from then when to leave at the end.

I’d bought the local papers, the Evening Despatch and the Evening Mail plus the programme and I was curious to see how the Albion fans would react to the return of Maurice Setters for his first match since signing for United the previous season in slightly acrimonious circumstances. In fact he was given a warm welcome, perhaps reflecting the fact that neither side faced relegation nor hoped for silverware. Both were anchored in mid-table, in 10th and 11th place. Spurs, who were on their way towards the Double, had no less than 24 points more than United, yet there was already a buzz that the team was beginning to shape up.

In cool, dry conditions on a severely worn pitch, this was a terrific match, dominated for long periods by Albion, putting the United defence under constant pressure, which brought the best out of Setters -out to make a point, perhaps – and Mr Immaculate at left back, the cerebral Noel Cantwell, who we now know was highly critical of the lack of up-to-date coaching at Old Trafford when he arrived from West Ham earlier in the season. United had all my favourite attackers, Albert Quixall, Dennis Viollet and Charlton, plus youngsters Johnny Giles and Mark ‘Pancho’ Pearson, whose rock ‘n’ roll sideburns I particularly liked to emulate, causing no end of trouble at school. I was constantly told to get my hair cut and shave off my ‘burns, once being memorably told, ‘You really are a hairy ruin, Oakers!’

There were occasional glimpses of the fast-interweaving forward play for which United were famous (with or without ‘coaching’) but Bobby Robson was showing why he became a regular for England, orchestrating attack after attack with crafted passes through midfield. I always liked him as a player and thought he was one of football’s great characters as a manager, a decent man with a genuine love for the game and its players. I remember once finding myself entering a London Tube train with him at a time when he was somewhat under pressure from the tabloids as England manager. As we sat down opposite each other and simultaneously got out our copies of the Guardian he gave me a lovely rumpled grin with a little nodding wink of approval towards my paper.

Anyway, back to 1961. Somehow the first half ended goal-less, helped by an outstanding display from Dave Gaskell in the United goal, in for Harry Gregg, injured since helping United beat table-topping Spurs in January.

Second Half

The second half began explosively when a smooth United move by Quixall, Viollet and Giles forced a corner. The ball was played short to Shay Brennan, he whipped it in to Mark Pearson who hammered it home with venomous power, like a ‘rocket’ the evening paper later said.

United’s lead was somewhat against the run of play and now their goal was put under siege, forcing save after save from Gaskell. As the end approached I thought United had weathered the storm and was furious when what I thought was a good goal by Pancho was disallowed by the ref. Bobby Charlton was now running freely down the left at the WBA defence, where he was up against England full-back Don Howe ( a coach at Arsenal ten years later when they won the Double) and looked a cut above anyone else on the pitch. Then disaster struck.

Derek Kevan, a muscular, if limited centre forward (who’d kept our Bobby out of the England team in the 1958 World Cup) skillfully flicked a return ball out wide to Howe who equalised with a powerful low drive into the corner of the nest, well wide of Gaskell.

The match ended 1-1 which probably flattered United, but it was part of a very good run at the end of the season, seven matches without defeat, including five wins, scoring 23 goals in the process. They finished in 7th place, only 21 points behind Spurs, which , given how poor United had been earlier in the season, was a real sign of progress.

When Noel Cantwell had words with me

After the match I found my way back to the coach, anxious not to be left behind. Advised by one of the older hands I went to get autographs, something I’d never done before, although I had a good collection of signatures from after the Spurs 4-1 defeat when an elderly supporter gave me a whole bag full of old programmes and memorabilia, including several Babes’ autographs from before and after Munich (including, as it happens Bobby Harrop’s). In fact I was unlucky by the time I found the team coach because all the players were already aboard together with Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy. My one and only chance came when the last player came striding out of the player’s door at the Hawthorns. I moved deferentially towards him and said quietly to the gentlemanly Irish full-back, ‘Excuse me Mr Cantwell, please can I have your autograph?’

‘Fuck off,’ he hissed out of the side of his mouth, ‘I’m not signing’.

I was shocked, not in the sense of moral outrage, but surprised, and very disappointed. Noel Cantwell, who later led United to victory in the 1963 FA Cup Final was a bit of a hero, a very cultured defender, who I’d seen many times not just with United but also with West Ham , as when he faced Stanley Matthews on the only occasion I saw the legendary winger.I had never before been spoken to by an adult in that way and even among friends it was rare to hear the f-word.

In these days when I am as free as anyone in my use of bad language it’s hard to explain how different things were 50 years ago. I never heard my parents or grandparents swear, mild expleteives such as ‘Christ’, or ‘God’ or even ‘bloody’ being pretty taboo, even in a very free-and-easy, liberal household like our’s. I remember a West Ham-supporting East Ender telling me that the worst he ever heard from his Mum was when she’d say, ‘Ooh blimey!’ at the cliff-hanger ending of every episode of Coronation Street.

Matt Busby certainly never swore, although Jimmy Murphy had a very fruity repertoire,as does Sir Alex Ferguson today, much to the delight of many a fan, especially when it’s directed at the likes of a Daily Mail hack. But there are many people in football who see this change in public behaviour as a matter of great regret.Ken Ramsden, who joined United as an office boy in 1960 and rose to become one of the most important parts of the administrative team well into the 2000s, noticed the change over time:

‘In the Fifties and early Sixties, if a youngster swore at a football match he took a clipping and would be told not to use that type of language. Nowadays it’s common to see fathers and their children swearing together; I’ve seen children on the shoulders of their fathers when the team bus arrives and they have both been giving the team a two-fingered salute. That’s one change that hasn’t been for the better’. (United we Stand, General Editor Graham McColl, 2002)

Let’s leave kicking-off to football

So, what, if anything, does the experience of watching football fifty years ago tell us about our current discontents? Certainly I never felt a moment’s anxiety at football in those days when I first started going to football in 1959. There was no problem of hooliganism until much later in the ’60s, when some of the worst violent behaviour of fans was not unlike what we’ve seen this week. I wish we could turn the clock back in this one way, I’d like to see a return to the sporting spirit shown most of the time then in the early Sixties, when there was certainly passionate rivalry but it was not so intense and there was little sense of hatred or bitterness in defeat.

But most of all, the thing that is different today from half a century ago is the loss of the optimism and hope I mentioned before. Despite the tremendous advances in some material aspects of our lives, especially in terms of technology, we all seem to feel that the future is bleak, uncertain, insecure. There’s a huge and growing gulf between rich and poor, and a very strong sense of helpless social injustice infects marginalised communities, giving angry , resentful young people with low self-esteem the feeling they have no connection to any wider society and nothing to lose, however they behave. I was delighted when Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney showed genuine concern over what was happening in the areas like those where they grew up , in Peckham and Croxteth, and sent out Tweets to call for calm and a return to peaceful life. Whether alienated and disconnected youth listen to multi-millionnaire footballers I don’t know, but I’d rather see players I admire show some sign of social conscience than not.

In the meantime, let us hope that football this weekend performs that role that Matt Busby and others believed so central to their working lives, entertaining the working class and lift them out of their problems for a while and help revive energies for creating a better world. Above all, let’s hope this weekend the only ‘kicking off’ is at football matches, including the one at the Hawthorns. Let’s stay United.