I Heart Manchester United: A Confession

29 May

Picture the scene. The Champions League Final, 1999. Reading University Student Union Bar. My future wife and best friend have just witnessed Teddy Sheringham’s last-gasp equaliser against Bayern Munich and she’s dancing on the sticky, alcohol-sodden floor whilst he’s lying on a pew in disbelief. Cue Solksjaer and we all know what happened next.

Whilst all this is going on, I’m huddled by a fruit machine with my future child’s godfather, both of us skulking and seething with hatred for Ferguson’s team. We miss the celebrations and later that night, I drunkenly (and idiotically) try to pick my first and last ever fight. Needless to say, I would have lost against my friend Steve and it has forever been a point of embarrassment that I was unable to share in some part, the joy these two people who remain dear to me, experienced that night.

I have no real defence for my actions twelve years ago. It was the ‘90s and fashionable to pour scorn on Manchester United’s dominance of the game, just as it was de rigueur to dislike Liverpool in the ‘80s. However, my relationship with United runs much deeper than this and has always been complicated by other factors that have shaped both my life and the way I watch football.

My father had left us only a few years before the famous final. He was a United fan; his support deriving from the club’s international renown in the ‘60s making its way across Europe to a mountain village in Greece. Naturally, he had wanted his one and only son to follow the team he followed. So my first experiences of football were being forced into a United shirt and being ‘told’ this was my team. I didn’t know where Manchester was at the time let alone who the players were. Football matches were rarely on television when I was growing up and I developed an aversion to the game, trying to block the screen because I didn’t want to watch football when the 1982 World Cup was on. I was admonished for that and preferred to go and play with my animal collection or tuck into my mum’s apple pie. I hated Manchester United. I hated football.

As the years passed, my parents’ marriage broke down and I would find respite in the sounds drifting through my bedroom window of the crowds at White Hart Lane cheering as goals were scored. I was intrigued by this. Regular readers of Dispatches will know the rest…

My anger at my estranged father would manifest itself through football though. As a result, my vitriol was reserved for United and United alone. The Arsenal rivalry was something a lot warmer but United had me spitting irrational venom for a few years.

Time has mellowed me of course and I’ve come to realise that Manchester United, whether I like it or not, are inexorably bound to me for the rest of my life. I was born exactly twenty years after the Munich air disaster. On the 6th February every year, I cannot help but spend a few moments quietly contemplating what was lost on that day and I find it difficult not to challenge ‘fans’ of other clubs who derive sick pleasure in singing those heartless, inhumane songs. I also am married to a Manchester United fan. Through her, I’ve worked through a lot of my demons to a point where I recently relented and allowed her to plant official Old Trafford grass seeds on our lawn…(how suburban can one be?). She finds it difficult to support United when they play Spurs. She genuinely likes my team and I feel a little foolish whenever Spurs even have a sniff of a decent result against them and I’m jibing and taunting her to little effect.

I guess it’s the football equivalent of the Lord Alfred Douglas quote about homosexual love – “the love that dare not speak its name”. The relative anonymity of Twitter allows people to confess attitudes and beliefs that they would never reveal to those they physically interact with on a daily basis. I’ve had a West Ham fan admit to me to originally being a United fan and a Celtic fan guiltily revealing that he secretly owns a Tottenham replica shirt. We all have different reasons for supporting the clubs we do. The romantic notion is that we all come to them through some metaphorical handing of a baton from generation to generation but to some extent, geographical shrinking and television have dismantled traditional rites of football-supporting passage.

I’ve probably watched more Manchester United matches than I have Spurs matches on television over the years. Simply because of United’s continued success and enduring appeal to the media. Ferguson’s sides are as familiar to me as any of the teams sent out by the merry-go-round of managers who have lodged at White Hart Lane in that period. More than any other side, I would have gladly seen the cream of these sides playing in a Spurs shirt. Cantona, Keane, Giggs, Bruce, Ronaldo and many more were players I have begrudgingly come to admire as the years have passed. The top table at my wedding was called the Gascoigne/Cantona table while the guests sat on tables named after our favourite United and Spurs players. I could never say the same for Bergkamp, Wright, Henry, et al. While my attitude to United has softened and I have become aware of my own identity, my attitudes to London rivals have rightly hardened.

Fast-forward twelve years. The same four individuals are in my living room watching United lose to Barcelona in this year’s Final. Two of those people are now married with a child. One is engaged. The other happily sits in an armchair getting drunk. The match is on but we share many laughs and reminiscences, contentedly easing in to our maturity. I want United to win but we all acknowledge the greatness of the Catalans. All is well with the world. Some things are more important now.

Today is Sunday. I’m about to go and do what all grown-ups are apparently supposed to do on a Sunday. I’m going to mow the lawn. I’ll just make sure to avoid a certain patch. This is what ‘angry young men’ eventually become.

See you next season.

Further Reading: Out of the Shadows: Arsenal and Me 

Dispatches is taking a well-earned break to enjoy the summer and the first flushes of fatherhood. A massive thank you to everybody who has read & supported this blog. It’s been a pleasure to write it. 

Keep your eye out for some Summer Specials. Dispatches From A Football Sofa will return in August. Until then, keep your sofas warm.

 

 

2 Responses to “I Heart Manchester United: A Confession”

  1. SpursSimon May 30, 2011 at 08:49 #

    Great work over the season Greg.

    Can’t agree with you about United – but I think it is Fergie I have the dislike for, that he manages to increase without fail each and every season.

  2. pete May 30, 2011 at 21:21 #

    Dont miss the utd patch, it will muck up the stripes in the lawn (I put grass but Rach made me put Lawn)!! Which will just look wrong!

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