The Diary

19 October 2008: Yet Another Premiership Lesson Learned At Old Trafford

So much for our mini-purple patch, then. Nice while it lasted, of course, but when you go a-travelling to the Land Of The Constant Rain Cloud, the number of realistic outcomes in prospect are but few, and even fewer involve walking away from the so-called Theatre Of Dreams with three points adding a decidedly unnatural bulge to one?s trouser pockets. Today?s games are in progress as I write, but unless I?ve read the tables wrong, the maximum number of places we can drop this afternoon is but a minuscule one.

I suppose I have the Leeds United fixture I attended recently to blame for that United jaunt: the sticking-point there had been our truly dismal away record against The Smog Monsters, and not wishing to travel all that distance to see us get a nasty tanking, I decided instead to join ?Im Indoors at Elland Road: yeah, I know, people have been committed to psychiatric institutions for less, but there you are ? sod the Riverside, hello Leeds.

My post-match reaction upon returning to our vehicle in the car-park opposite is well-documented, but for the benefit of those not conversant already, I?m sure the word ?explosive? will amply suffice. The result? Right there and then, I prayed for the Baggie gods to forgive my Yorkshire trespasses, while further promising to expiate my sins and show proper repentance by attending our next away fixture ? which just happened to be yesterday?s.

?Im Indoors, unwilling to pay the full whack (around 45 squid, plus travel on top) for United elected to do his own thing. Lucky me, getting Old Farts? rate, did much better, but it still made the old purse creak a tad: with a recession coming on, for how much longer can Premier League clubs afford to mug their punters in this way, I wonder? So, the trip being a solo venture, I bade farewell to my other half in the East Stand car-park, and headed on out for coach 4, where The Fart ? who had my match ticket, so he?d better be there! ? awaited my pleasure.

I didn?t have to look far, fortunately. There he was, outside our coach, talking to a young lad stuffing the contents of a McDonald?s ice-cream tub down his throat as fast as his juvenile gullet would allow. At the time I entered the gathering, El Tel was telling the young lad in question that he?d managed to buy a Magnum lolly in town for about 60p. Cue look of pure incredulity on the acne-ridden face of the lad concerned.

?Blimey!? said he, ?I pay around a quid more for one where I go?..?

And that, dear reader, was the precise moment that The Fart remembered that his own purchase still lay snug within the innermost recesses of his very capacious bag, now sitting in stately repose upon the two seats he?d reserved for us both! As his backside disappeared at near-light speed up the steps and into the aisle, I could only hope that the thing hadn?t melted completely: a distinct possibility, given the delightfully sunny day and pleasing clime we had going for us at that time.

Not so very long after that, we were away, and more or less in convoy. But strong indications of trouble ahead came no sooner we hit the main motorway junction ? an ambulance, then a police car, and both heading on out in the same direction we were. Clearly, someone out there had not long whacked into another vehicle, so progress would be pretty painful.

Hooray for the sheer gumption of our driver who, on spotting both vehicles going hell for leather down the slip-road, quickly made an executive decision to head along the southbound carriageway of the M6 instead, and boomerang back on to the ?proper? route from there. As I was to discover later, some hadn?t, thereby prolonging their journey time by an exhausting and demoralizing 90 minutes or so. Isn?t that right, Norm Bartlam?

And our driver used his noddle again still further up the motorway. Realising that the message on the gantries concerned a ghastly dose of congestion around Junction 15 (being near the Potteries, that?s very much Noise territory), and the two on either side of it, when we hit Stafford, we hit the A34 instead, rejoining the M6 again only when we were as close to our destination as dammit. One quick weather note: by that time, the skies had clouded over, and spots of rain began to assail the windscreen. ?Welcome to Manchester? indeed!

It was while we were negotiating the multiplicity of motorways surrounding the city that I spotted one headline in The Fart?s Daily Mirror that had me practically heaving with suppressed laughter. Maybe you?ve seen it too, but it?s still worth a reprise, so I will. It reads: ?GEOVANNI ? GOD TOLD ME TO GO TO HULL.? Now hang on a minute, mate ? are you REALLY sure you didn?t mishear the very last word of The Good Lord?s command to you from On High?

By the time we reached our destination, you?ll not be too surprised to hear that the previously mentioned premonitory spots had rapidly transformed into a thoroughly depressing drizzle. Just as well I?d brought my Mogga coat with me: dead useful, as it boasted quite a substantial hood. Out of our vehicle we trooped, in the direction of the newly-erected Law, Charlton and Best statue United had recently erected on the car park side of the pavement, right opposite their megastore, where massive queues were already building, you?ll not be too surprised to hear.

After pausing briefly to allow The Fart to do proper photographic justice to his ?victims?, we then headed on out to the multiplicity of stalls adjacent to the ground busily flogging an amazing range of United-related memorabilia to the faithful, all of it ?unofficial?. Which set off ?blimey? bells aplenty in my head. The reason? Simple ? the last time I?d been to Old Trafford, there had been nowhere near the same number of stalls going full-blast. Now it seemed they?d multiplied, just like bacteria! But how could that be? Surely United must resent the effect they were having on their own merchandise, and take appropriate action to shift the ?squatters? from their pitches every so often?

Voicing my puzzlement to The Fart, I never thought for one minute he?d simply ask the stallholders how things were with the parent club to their faces ? but that?s precisely what he did! And the answer, devastatingly honest, absolutely staggered me: in short, United get a cut! The only time they get nasty, apparently, is if the traders reproduce the United logo faithfully: when that happens, United inform Trading Standards, who then descend in droves upon the culprit(s) concerned, and confiscate their stock. But, spats apart, the normal relationship between both concerns seems to be a symbiotic one for most of the time. Amazing.

Yet another revelation from one of the stall people ? the sheer preponderance of ?Celtic? stuff on United memoriabilia - set me thinking again. (Yes, I know, nasty habit, and I should stop it immediately.) The whole United legend ? all of it grounded in their Catholic roots, hence the Celtic connection ? and the way in which United?s ground had become not so much a place where a Premier League side played its fixtures, as a tourist-attraction-cum-place of worship for the truly faithful.

In some places, you couldn?t move for the presence in great numbers of camera-clicking, goggle-eyed ?admirers?. And the ground?s a stop on the city?s open-topped bus tour, it would seem. Some might also argue it?s a prime showbiz attraction, too ? and all of that taking place under just one roof.

Those were the thoughts going round my brain ? more on the same topic later - as we went through the away turnstiles: just before that, I?d been giggling fit to bust when stewards somehow got it into their brains that The Fart was a suspicious looking cove necessitating a probing search of clothing to properly confirm absence of harmful intent. As they ?did their thing?, I kept up a constant commentary along the lines of: ?Oooh, you?ve got a right suspicious one there, pal. One pint of brown and mild inside his guts, and he?s a wild man ? and what he was like the night Mafeking got relieved you wouldn?t believe. Nobody could control him, not even the Chief Plod?..? Cue for outbreak of raucous laughter from the geezers in the fluorescent coats. Anything to relieve the mindless tedium of their working lives, I say!

As per usual, the concourse underneath the stand was packed to the rafters with bibulous Baggies: what wasn?t was the tight little aggregation of people, all of them seemingly hunched around one solitary person. Puzzling initially, that ? but said mystery quickly solved once I realised that the bloke at the dead centre of the gathering was none other than our very own SuperBob! And not long after that, just to leave people in absolutely no doubt as to the interloper?s identity, there broke forth a lusty rendition of: ?SU-PER, SUPER-BOB! SUPER BOBB-Y TAYLOR!....?

Alan Cleverly of the Supporters Club was acting as ?minder?, and yup ? it seemed the lad had travelled up on the coach, just like the greater majority of us. Maybe someone can tell me different, but to date, the only other ex-player I?ve known to forsake the artificial comforts of executive boxes, to take the alternative option of doing his Baggie-watching up close and personal with his former admirers, was none other than The King, bless him.

Once in our seats, I mentally resumed the train of thought that had left the station just outside the ground. It was about the whole of the United hype: how a club could be so many things to people, and lose its soul as a football club as a direct consequence of becoming so. Being in such close proximity to the stadium on matchdays puts one very much in mind of the double-standard existence of places like Lourdes: yes, it is venerated as a place where the sick might ? just might ? get healed, but to get to the genuine article, you first have to negotiate the plethora of religious tat-sellers that proliferate throughout the town, and profit greatly from the Catholic Church?s shrine. Seems odd to me, the Church permitting the existence ? no, the clear tolerance ? of such blatant profiteering, within a stone?s throw of their well-publicised holy place.

Old Trafford as a pukka place of worship? You have a congregation that doubles as a choir (words and tunes, as per their answer to ?Hymns Ancient And Modern?, available on the internet ? and no chanting, except at the ?approved? times, and in their ?correct? context, please); there?s a ready-made archbishop in the venerable Alex Ferguson; the ?litany? comes courtesy of their PA announcer. And even when they?re winning, the place remains pervaded by a strange cathedral-like silence: the seminal event that made all this possible ? Munich, 1958 - is hardly ever mentioned by either ?clergy? or ?congregation?, but the entire place is forever redolent of the miasma of it.

Step outside the ground once more, and the presence of religious symbolism becomes even more pervasive. Churches have their crosses atop steeples, Gothic architecture, gargoyles, flying buttresses and all. United have statuary of Matt Busby gazing down atop the stand containing their megastore, appropriately enough; three of their most famous players; a clock, the face of which is perpetually set at the precise time that fateful flight rolled down the icy Munich runway; and their piece de resistance, a plaque close to the away end bearing the names of That Team in the fashion they would appear on the field of play, i.e.: lined up in formation. As The Fart commented during our ?constitutional?: ?That Munich disaster made United?. Amen to that, I say.

But back to the Baggies. As the place filled up, I happened to notice a mass movement of Albionites towards sockets situated just two rows in front of us, all of ?em Supporters Club luminaries, and with them, a certain once-prolific scorer for the club! Time to confess a distinct hankering for Bob to sit in close proximity to me on matchdays. Why? Not the usual ?worship? thing, just a profound interest in what Bob would have to say about the game in progress, given the fact he?d been there, done that, worn the T-shirt to the point of becoming positively threadbare. To what degree would his take upon a game be different to mine, I wonder?

At least the rain had stopped by then, the small area of sky not covered by the huge stand roofs revealing a tantalizing glimpse of bright evening sunshine outside. The general ambience? As I said earlier, a quasi-religious one. Much gallows humour from the visitors: all the usual stuff, viz: ?My Garden Shed Is Bigger Than This??, ?You?re Only Here Coz It?s Albion?, plus that age-old standby: ?We Support Our Local Team?? And, penetrating all the racket in somewhat spectacular fashion, the familiar tones of John Homer, seated just two rows in front. Come on, John ? what, precisely, is a ?twonk??

The team announcement sprung few surprises. Brunty back from his enforced leave of absence to patrol the midfield, leaving the benched Miller as the displaced player. And, at that point, I would have muttered: ?And rightly so?.?, but Miller?s twin contributions towards the end were to rapidly escalate my estimation of the bloke?s abilities. Oh, dear ? I wonder if he heard me the game before?

Kick-off time, then, accompanied by an ear-splitting roar (around 2,500-strong) from our neck of the woods. And it didn?t take long for John Homer to get into full stride either: not that the referee, a certain Mark Halsey, made his task all that difficult. The United offside disallowed goal apart, the number of decisions given in favour of our favourites were pathetically few. United seemed to have been given complete tacit licence to stage Thespian acts of one form or another ? Ronaldo seemed to be the worst offender - at times. (Great hilarity in our coach, on the way home, when a United bod rang Alan Green?s show to compliment Halsey on the quality of his refereeing! I swear to God our charbanc nearly overturned with the force of the subsequent gale of laughter that erupted ere those sadly erroneous words were spoken.)

The amazing thing about our first-half performance was the fact that for long periods of time, we not only held our own against the home side, but enjoyed long spells of possession also, a phenomenon that led to ironic cheers aplenty from our lot every time a sequence of unbroken Albion passes developed. And on the rare occasions our goal came under real and direct threat, Scott Carson was at his impeccable best to nullify the danger.

United may have had the stars and the class on the field, but off it, our people were embarrassing their moneyed counterparts into silence. :WE ARE ALBION, SAY, WE ARE ALBION?? was the constant mantra ? and by God, we sodding well meant it. As if by some strange process of osmosis, a feeling began to percolate through our ranks of ?maybe, just maybe?. Or was it something in the United Bovril? Somehow, I don?t think United were expecting this Black Country mouse to roar with such ferocity: for me, Rooney seemed to be the only United player performing on all four cylinders, that first half. My personal Baggie heroes, that half? Carson, of course, and Zuiverloon, who simply oozed class from every single pore, out there.

Tel (who had his ?steam radio? well and truly plugged-in): They?ve just said on the radio that there?s not many sides come to Old Trafford stringing passes around like that?..?

My reply was lost in the bout of ironic cheering that arose when Mark Halsey actually gave a decision in our favour, for once! Not long after that, Halsey was to do us another favour: disallowing a United ?goal?, much to Rooney?s displeasure. Why, I don?t know, as everything seemed pretty legit to me.

Interesting also was the respective attitudes and philosophies of both sets of supporters. The United people, currently devoid of all passion, all seemed to be saying ?entertain me?, and, by way of contrast, our people clapping, cheering, constantly encouraging, in fact ? and reducing their vocal chords to an absolute frazzle by doing so.

And so to half-time. Overall, it?s fair to say that United had been a significant threat, but not as much as I?d feared. The lads held their own well, frustrated the home side considerably, even. But we were sadly lacking one important component of our game: someone with the ability to turn those rare half-chances into goals, the few times we managed to penetrate deep enough into enemy territory to do significant damage. Bednar, pacing a lonely beat up front, was doing his best, but employing a solitary striker does have its limitations, no matter what League you happen to play in.

Realistically, the best we could hope for was a clean sheet, and a sharing of the spoils, but this was the real world, and we were well and truly in it. But whatever the outcome, our people hadn?t disgraced themselves by any means. In the meantime, our supporters amused themselves shouting ?Handball!? at the brace of children?s sides performing on the improvised junior-size pitch below. The reason? Whatever our side did during the first half, their crowd seemed to misinterpret our actions as a contravention of the law of the game related to illegally handling the ball while the damn thing was in play. Got so amusing, we resorted to shouting similar back, every time we could.

And so to the second half. United seemed determined to finish us off, no matter what: mind you, when you?ve had Ferguson bellowing at you for the best part of ten minutes, the last thing you?d want is a repeat dose, come the final whistle! But a glimmer of hope did briefly flicker, with but a few minutes gone, when Brunty smacked the ball with an almighty wallop from close to the box. A shame it would have counted as a perfect conversion, in Rugby Union!

You gather your crumbs of comfort as and when you can, in places like Old Trafford. And even the solace of keeping United out was to disappear not long after Brunty?s misfire. Maybe it was Mogga?s 53rd minute change of striker ? Miller for Bednar - that upset our rhythm. Maybe it was the time of year. But whatever precipitated it, the stark facts are that just three minutes after the change, and right after Carson postponed the inevitable by fisting a United effort that surely would have gone in otherwise, it fell to Rooney to finally break the deadlock. Perhaps justly, as he?d been about the best United player on the park, thus far.

Unsurprisingly, once play was resumed, United shut up shop, so our only real hope was of catching them on the break ? and they?re way too cute to get caught like that. Everything was still holding together in defence, mind, so there was a faint hope the miracle would happen ? but not after they made it two, around 14 minutes after their first. Heaven alone knows what our defenders were thinking of ? a nice spot of clubbing back in Brum, perhaps? ? but the net result was to let United in for the kill. Aspirant actor Ronaldo was the perpetrator of the damage, that time, and for about the firs time in the entire game, we saw the slumbering mock-Mancs awaken, finally.

After that, complete collapse of Albion defence ensued. Berbatov was the next to register on the score-sheet, followed very late on by a Nani effort, where Rooney turned cross-provider. But back to that man Miller. From the very first moment he stepped out on the field of play, he seemed almost predestined to stage a repeat of his usual Laurel And Hardy form. After stumbling over the ball, and losing it, for the umpteenth time, I turned to The Fart, and cried despairingly: ?Whatever he is, it ain?t a Premier League footballer, that?s for sure!?

Cue, then, ?Eat Your Words Time? for this column. A few minutes before time, the lad actually came the closest of the lot of them to wiping the smug smile off United?s conspicuously consumptive faces, if only partially. Attempt Number One was a screamer of a shot that only narrowly went wide of the post. Blimey! But that wasn?t all: just seconds later, our man took United on at their own ball-trickery game, the result being two Mancs left scratching their heads in utter confusion, and keeper van Der Saar having to make his one and only serious save of the game! First task for Mogga ? find out why it is he can?t turn out that standard of striking play all of the time, and not just when he feels like it!

And that was that. United 4, Albion 0 ? and yes, despite the magnitude of the defeat, we still clapped our favourites, those who bothered to make their way towards the away end, that is. Overall, they?d put on a gallant show ? and, as we?d never seriously entertained thoughts of getting something from Old Trafford in any case, we weren?t too disappointed at coming away empty handed either.

Back through the now-darkened area around the ground, to the nearby coach park where our chariot awaited. Some unpleasant news via the radio about violent incidents at both Villa Park and The Emirates Stadium ? strange, that, as both sets of home supporters conducted their matchday affairs as if in the strong grip of a major tranquilliser, never mind start getting punchy with it ? and a much-anticipated munching of post-bellum sarnies by yours truly. The filling? Very much in keeping with United?s corporate image, I reckon. Smoked salmon and cream cheese, would you believe? The downside of the journey back? Experiencing considerable delays in getting to our motorway junction. The cause? All those United-lovers, exiles to a person, wanting to take the same motorway south as ourselves!

DORK OF THE DAY AWARD TIME?? Not to anyone involved in yesterday?s game, but to the chap I spotted in a pick-up truck, as our car emerged from the island at Junction One, and headed down the Brummie Road to the ground. His claim to fame? A somewhat dispiriting tendency to wave a Dingles shirt outside the front window of the vehicle every time he saw a group of Albion supporters which, being so close to the ground, and around the time most Baggies were walking to catch the coach, wasn?t exactly a task fraught with difficulty.

My other half?s reaction? Shouting, as he drew level with the offending vehicle, ?So you?re not going to Old Trafford, then?...?

I suppose we ought to spare just a little sympathy for them: when they played at Swansea the other week, no sooner had the home side notched up their second, their crowd instantaneously tested the temper of just about every Dingle-lover in the place to breaking-point by bursting into a very pointed rendition of: ?Boing, boing, Baggies, Baggies!?.?

MEANWHILE, ELSEWHERE?.. While I?ve been typing this piece up, another drama unfolded upon our TV screen. That of Stoke City v Spurs, who look just about ready for the dead-cart after losing 2-1 at Stoke. A penalty, two of their number sent off, another carried off unconscious (the word from Sky was he subsequently regained consciousness, but was taken to the local hospital as a precaution anyway), so it?s not looking good for them, is it? But my biggest beef about Spurs was the fact they couldn?t muster sufficient combative spirit to see off Pulis?s band of licenced thugs!

 - Glynis Wright

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