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"It's Only a Game?"
Manchester United Football Club are known throughout the world. So when in 1999 they won the 'treble' of English Football League, F.A. Cup, and European Cup, sports followers everywhere noted their achievement. The heroes who made the headlines were star players like David Beckham and Peter Schmeichel, and manager Alec Ferguson (to become 'Sir' Alec soon afterwards). But football, like any other spectator sport, can only exist if it has the support of the public. So we are going to follow the story of the treble, and with it a look at football in Britain in the nineties, through the eyes of a fan who witnessed first hand all three parts of the treble. As we do so, it will become clear that football, like other sports, is not 'only a game', and that it has enormous significance in society.
Brian is 41 years old, married with two children, and works as a civil servant in Fleetwood, Lancashire. He is also a Manchester United fan and this is his view of the treble.
THE TREBLE - BEING THERE!
There is no doubt that this was the ultimate. All the years of following Manchester United, through thick and thin, culminated in them winning firstly the English Premiership, then the FA Cup and finally the European Cup in the most dramatic fashion imaginable - all this in the space of ten magical days in May! And to be able to be at all three occasions was something I will never forget. But as with all stories, perhaps the best place to start is at the beginning.
BECOMING A FAN
It all really began for me in the summer of 1967. I was eight years old when I was given the chance to go to watch Manchester United play Tottenham Hotspur in the Charity Shield, the pre-season fund raiser between the current League Champions and FA Cup holders. The match nowadays is played at Wembley but at that time it was held at the home of the Champions, so we set off for Old Trafford with 60,000 others for an afternoon which was to influence greatly the rest of my life.
The match was a thriller - a 3-3 draw. I had attended the game with my three older brothers - one a United fan, the other two Tottenham supporters, and it was Michael and Peter who were celebrating early. The "Spurs" were 2-0 up after only five minutes with the second goal a drop kick from Tottenham goalkeeper Pat Jennings! However the great Bobby Charlton scored what seemed like two identical goals to even the scores. Denis Law and Jimmy Greaves traded goals in the second half (the names just go on and on!) and honours were even. My first taste of professional football had been a classic. I had fallen in love with the game, but most of all I had fallen in love with Manchester United. There would be many rocky times along the way, but this was a relationship which would certainly stand the test of time!
STAYING A FAN - THROUGH THICK AND THIN
While it has been a distinct pleasure to be a Manchester United fan during the nineties, this has not always been the case. There have been many disappointments since I started following the 'reds' in 1967, including relegation to the Second Division in 1974, (even though it was only for one season). But in Britain we say that real supporters do not abandon their team when times are hard, but stay with them 'through thick and thin.' I have been more fortunate than most as in 1993 I managed to acquire a season ticket to the "Theatre of Dreams" to coincide with the most successful period in the club's history. I had always attended as many games as I could, but to be one of the privileged 40,000 or so guaranteed a seat for every home game is what dreams are made of. It has been sheer delight (in most cases) to make the 170km round trip each game during the last six seasons and adding together the occasional away match, I have felt very much a part of the club's success.
Manchester United have certainly been the team of the nineties in English football. However until United won the first of their League Championships in 1993, it had been 26 years since they had been the top team in England. Since then no other team have come close to winning the number of trophies United have this decade - five League Championships, four FA Cups, one League Cup, one European Cup Winners Cup, one European Super Cup and of course one European Cup - with the chance of one more, the Inter Continental Cup to be played in Japan in November against the South American Champions.
BEING THERE - PART 1 - Last League game of the season - Manchester United v. Tottenham Hotspur, Old Trafford, 16th May, 1999
United's league campaign had gone very well, with Arsenal emerging as the only real challengers for the Championship as the last few games approached. The two giants went into their penultimate matches on level points. Arsenal had to travel to Leeds on the Tuesday while United would visit relegation bound Blackburn on the Wednesday. Surprisingly, Arsenal were beaten 1-0 by the Yorkshiremen, but perhaps more surprisingly United were held 0-0 by Rovers. This gave United a one point advantage as they faced a home game with Tottenham (ironically Arsenal's fierce local rivals) at the same time as Arsenal entertained Aston Villa. It was a tense atmosphere at Old Trafford and it became more strained early on as Les Ferdinand netted for the visitors. United fought back and right on half-time David Beckham equalised. 1-1, and 0-0 at Arsenal, also at half-time. Andy Cole came on as a second half substitute for United and within two minutes had scored a wonder goal to make it 2-1 to the reds. Things were now looking good but soon the news came through that Arsenal had gone 1-0 up which meant that United had to stay in front. Tottenham would not lie down and there followed the most nerve-wracking 30 minutes I can remember at Old Trafford. But United held on, and the celebrations began as the boys achieved their 5th Premiership title in 7 years. There were only two games left of the season - the small matters of the FA Cup and the European Cup finals!
MANCHESTER UNITED THE BUSINESS
Manchester United is big business. To myself and to the vast majority of fans it is a football club, and Old Trafford a place to go to cheer on your heroes and to escape from the humdrum of everyday life for a short while. But to those running the club it is a massive commercial enterprise, with match days bringing only a small portion of the club's income. The club is a major financial institution, floated on the stock market, and was this year the subject of a 630 million pounds bid from media tycoon Rupert Murdoch's Sky Corporation (a bid which was thrown out by the British Monopolies and Mergers Commission). There are two Superstores at the ground selling everything from replica kits to Manchester United wine and thousands of other souvenirs. There are also plans for many other retail outlets throughout the world. The Old Trafford ground houses various meeting and function rooms which are used on a daily basis, and the club even has its own radio and TV channels. These commercial activities are so prominent now that even the words "Football Club" have been removed from the official badge, but to the fans who have followed the reds over the years, a Football Club is all it will ever be.
THE FA CUP
United have always had a love affair with the FA Cup. They have won the cup 10 times, more than any other team, and it was their success in this competition during the comparatively barren 1970's and 1980's which prevented following United being totally depressing at that time. The English Cup competition is unlike any other in Europe - probably the world. Over 500 clubs, many of them semi-professional, enter the competition with the dream of playing one of the big teams and ultimately playing the final at the home of soccer, Wembley Stadium. The FA Cup is taken just as seriously as the league with the matches being played at week-ends unlike on the Continent and the prestige of getting to the final is sought by all clubs who enter. I have been lucky enough to attend 6 FA Cup finals (won 4, lost 2) and it has always been a great day out at Wembley, even though it is 400km away!
BEING THERE - Part 2 - F.A. Cup Final, Manchester United v. Newcastle, Wembley, 22nd May, 1999
The FA Cup took place six days later and I had managed to get a ticket. The popular belief was that United would not be firing on all cylinders in this competition with their progress in the European Cup, but how wrong could they be with United having to overcome Middlesbrough, Liverpool, Fulham, Chelsea and Arsenal (in two epic matches) to reach the final. Once again it was a great day at Wembley with Newcastle United not proving to be much opposition for the reds as we strolled to a 2-0 win. The script was being enacted perfectly, two down with one to go - now simply the problem of overcoming the mighty Bayern Munich in the European Cup Final!
It is obviously very sad that United are not entering the competition this year. Their participation in the World Club Championship in Brazil in January coincides with the fourth round of the FA Cup, the second in which United would have taken part. United asked the Football Association to be allowed to enter the cup at the fifth round (a luxury afforded to Real Madrid in Spain who are also participating in Brazil) but this idea was vetoed by the other senior clubs. Negotiations took place to try to find a solution to this dilemma but the fact that the FA (and the Government!) insisted that United go to Brazil so as not to jeopardise England's bid for the World Cup in 2006 means that there is no way United can defend the trophy they won in May. It is also indicative of how important Sport is nowadays to governments. (See: Sport and Politics) The United fans have naturally been very upset by the decision not to enter. The magazines written by the true fans, traditionally known as "fanzines", have been bursting with letters from supporters wishing that a compromise could have been found. There is no doubt that the FA Cup competition will be devalued without the holders and all-time record winners.
CHANGES - PLAYERS, STADIA, WAGES, AND PRICES
Football has changed a great deal over the last thirty years, and nowhere more so than in England.
Andy Cole, who scored in the win over Spurs, is only one of many black players in the Football league who would have been considered exotic curiosities in the 1960s. It's also true to say that the behaviour of certain fans to black and coloured players has improved enormously in that time too. (See: Ethnicity and Sport)
One of the most noticeable changes has been in the stadia. As a consequence of the Heysel and Hillsborough disasters, in which over one hundred football fans were killed, all-seater stadia are replacing many of Britain's grand, but dilapidated, old stadiums. Nostalgia tells us that the days of queuing to get into the stadium three hours before the kick off, standing on rain swept terraces and getting crushed as the ball went near the goal, and being unable to find a public toilet never mind something to eat, were the best. Common sense might suggest otherwise. One positive consequence of this change is that women and young girls have become more visible at football games. This reflects greater interest from women in football in general. My 12 year old niece is a formidable centre-forward in her school team! (See: Sport and Gender).
A less positive consequence is that although the comfort has improved tremendously, the cost of watching football has increased dramatically as the clubs try to compensate for the lower ground capacity of all-seater stadia and the cost of the improvements. The players too have also become a massive drain on clubs' resources as they hold the upper hand in wage negotiations following the Bosman ruling, a European Court edict allowing free movement of labour and giving footballers much more power as their contracts expire. One major way in which the clubs have increased revenue is by allocating a large number of seats for corporate hospitality. By throwing in a meal and a few free drinks, as well as perhaps the chance to meet an ex-player or two, clubs can attract business people to pay about 100 pounds per seat as opposed to the normal price of 20 pounds. This may be of great benefit to the clubs but since the average supporter cannot afford these prices, it's another big move away from the game's working class roots.
Manchester United, like other British clubs, also have large numbers of foreign players on their books. The Frenchman Eric Cantonna is a legend in Manchester as he is associated with the beginning of the period of United's domination in the nineties, but other foreign imports have played equally significant roles in United's success in the last few years, like Schmeichel, Solskjaer, Stamm,etc. However Manchester United still have a strong core of six or seven British players, unlike some Premier League clubs who struggle to field any British players some weeks in their eleven (like Chelsea and Derby!)
Supporting United Abroad
I have been very fortunate to travel abroad twice to watch Manchester United. I visited Oporto in Portugal in March 1997 to see the European Cup Quarter Final second leg with United leading 4-0 from the first leg. There was obviously a carnival atmosphere as 10,000 fans travelled for what was to be an easy qualification to the Semi Final. The trip was memorable for a number of reasons; meeting all the United players on arrival at Oporto airport as they waited for their luggage, the wonderful weather, the very friendly local people, "Superbock", a very palatable Portuguese beer and the magnificent gathering of United fans beside the River Douro before the game. Less memorable were the game itself, a 0-0 draw, and the totally incompetent way the Portuguese club and police dealt with the vast red following. Their closing of the stadium gates before the game claiming many of the United fans had forged tickets could quite easily have caused a disaster of Hillsborough proportions - I can honestly say it was easily the most frightened I have been at a football match. The fact that the Portuguese riot police fired plastic bullets at some fans after the game came as no real surprise such was their aggressive behaviour throughout - we had just made sure that we kept well out of their way. But it does show how the reputation which British fans have as 'hooligans' is hard to live down, even when it is only a very small minority of these fans who ever cause any trouble.
BEING THERE - Part 3 - European Cup Final, Manchester United v. Bayern Munich, Camp Nou, 26th May,1999
The road to Camp Nou, Barcelona, had been long and hard. Among the teams we had to overcome to get there were the Polish Champions ŁKS Łód, Barcelona, Internazionale of Milan, and Juventus in the Semi-Final (winning 3-2 away after being two goals down). And now only Bayern Munich stood in the way.
Eight of us set off on the morning of Tuesday 25th May, flying from Manchester to Gerona on the Costa Brava. It was a carnival atmosphere all the way, a flight full of United fans confident of securing a unique treble. The weather was brilliant in Spain, and we had a great time meeting and mixing with both United and Bayern supporters in the holiday resort of Lloret de Mar, our base for the three days. After a long evening sampling both the Spanish hospitality and one or two "cervezas", we set off the next morning for Barcelona to join the estimated 50,000 other United fans preparing for the game. The vast majority of those fans had congregated on La Rambla, a paved roadway extending from the harbour to the Plaza de Cataluna and the focal point of the city. The whole area was a mass of red and white and the supporters were certainly enjoying the hospitality being offered by the many bars along the road. After a couple of hours wandering along La Rambla, meeting many people we knew both from Fleetwood(our home town) and from attending matches at Old Trafford, we took the underground to the stadium. Unfortunately, the Spanish police were rather over-zealous when dealing with the vast United following and we were basically herded into the ground, but once inside I knew that I was going to enjoy the evening. The atmosphere was absolutely electric with both sets of supporters trying to out-sing each other and simultaneously competing with soprano Montserrat Caballe and our very own United supporting tenor Russell Watson. As the teams came out, the noise became deafening and although my ticket showed a seat number, there was no chance that anyone would be sitting down at any time during the game.
My view was fantastic, about 12 rows from the front just to the left of the goal Peter Schmeichel was defending in the first half - in fact the view was too good only six minutes into the game when Mario Basler scored direct from a free kick for Bayern right in front of me. The German fans reeled with delight, this was perfect for their game plan as they are past masters at defending a lead. United tried hard to break down the well drilled defence, but half-time arrived with no success despite the constant encouragement from the United hordes, who must have taken up at least two-thirds of that magnificently imposing stadium. The second half began as the first ended with United pressing without really creating any clear cut chances - any half chances were dealt with quite easily by the solid Bayern rearguard. The electronic clock on the giant scoreboard at both ends of the ground ticked on incessantly as the reds struggled to get into the game. It seemed to me that it just wasn't going to be our night - in fact as I looked around and listened to the ever prompting United fans, I decided that I should simply enjoy the experience of attending a European Cup Final in one of the best stadia in the world. United manager Alex Ferguson had to gamble and did so by introducing substitutes Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the last 15 minutes. United attacked and probed, but left gaps at the back which Munich almost exploited as they hit both the bar and the post. It was all but over.
I remember looking to the fourth official as he held up the board to show time to be added on - I was hoping it would say 20 minutes, but it was only three. Nobody had left the ground, and when United won a corner, a huge roar erupted to beseech the reds to score. Even goalkeeper Schmeichel came forward, hoping to cause havoc. David Beckham swung the corner into the middle towards the big Danish keeper, the ball bobbled around and was half cleared by the Germans but only as far as Ryan Giggs. He swung his right foot but did not connect very well. However the ball went towards Sheringham who diverted the ball into the bottom corner of the net. We all went wild - my glasses flying off in the melee - as the prospect of extra-time sunk in. My recollection of how we won another corner within a minute is very sketchy, but the ensuing minutes will stay with me for ever. Once again Beckham floated in a great corner, Sheringham launched himself to flick the ball on with his head and before any of the Bayern team could react Solskjaer (the "Baby-Faced Assassin") stuck out a foot to send the ball into the roof of the net. I will always remember the beautiful sight of that net bulging just metres in front of me. Needless to say the joy was abounding. I remember being hugged by and dancing with complete strangers, grown men and small children, in fact anybody and everybody who was close by. The full-time whistle sounded seconds later to ensure that the celebrations would continue not only late into that balmy Spanish night but also in the weeks and months to come back in England.
As far as I am concerned, I'm fairly sure that nothing will surpass that achievement, nothing come close to that feeling of bliss as United collected that elusive piece of silverware. The memories came flooding back, good and bad, of the many years supporting Manchester United. Did those players realise that as they celebrated their fantastic treble triumph, they had fulfilled the dreams of so many avid fans, including myself? The Premiership, the FA Cup and the European Cup all in the space of ten days - and in each case I will be able to say to my grandchildren those immortal words:- I WAS THERE!
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