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Today sees the staging of the traditional curtain-raiser for the domestic football season here in England. The Community (née Charity) Shield will be contested at Wembley between the League Champions (United) and the FA Cup winners (Wigan) in what is generally regarded as the final warm-up game before the real business of the season begins.
However, Wigan were relegated after their FA Cup heroics against Citeh, so as a Championship side, they are already about 2 weeks into their season. As for United, their pre-season form has been spotty to say the least and new manager David Moyes is finding it every bit as challenging a job as you might expect. And, to be honest, he hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory either.
If only it were this simple…….
On the pitch, United have lost more games than they have won, which is not really that big a problem as long as you get things sorted by the start of the season. However, in mitigation, it should be said that Moyes has been bedevilled by the unavailability of players, either through injury or due to extended periods of rest after their involvement in (for example) the Confederations Cup or other summer frolics. Shinji Kagawa and Javier Hernandez have largely been absent and the likes of Jonny Evans have been sidelined with injury.
Then there are the off-the-field shenanigans, which I’d have to say have been somewhat more worrying. This summer’s class clown has been Wayne Rooney who despite earning his weight in banknotes every week has decided that United just don’t love him enough and that he wants to play for Chelsea. Rooney has not been seen in competitive action for United since April and made only a fleeting appearance on the pre-season tour before being flown home with an alleged hamstring strain. He is smart enough to realise that he has pretty much burnt all his bridges with the United fans – no-one asks to leave United twice – but Moyes’ problem is that he knows that Rooney is still a very good player and he doesn’t want to sell him to a rival team, yet no overseas team seem willing to take Rooney on – wisely, in my view.
This toxic scenario is likely to drag on for the rest of the month and, for once, United can find common cause with the derided Dippers down the East Lancs Road who are going through an almost identical scenario with cute & cuddly ‘Goofy’ Suarez, who has decided he wants to move to Arsenal in order to play in the Champions League this season rather than the Lancashire Senior Cup. I suppose there is some solace to be had here from the old saying that there’s always someone worse off than you – at least Rooney hasn’t tried to eat his way through an opposition defence yet.
Even so, Moyes will have to decide whether he would rather have Rooney poisoning United’s much-vaunted ‘esprit de corps’ or alternatively run the risk of seeing him banging in 25 goals in Chelsea blue next season. There are rumours circulating that senior United pros like Giggs, Rio and Pat Evra have already told Moyes how fed up everyone in the dressing room is with Rooney’s antics, so I think Moyes will have to sell him in the end. Let’s hope he manages to persuade Mourinho to throw in Juan Mata as part of a player + cash deal; I think most Reds would drive Rooney to Stamford Bridge themselves if Mata was part of any deal – he’s exactly the type of player we need in our midfield.
And there’s the second problem for Moyes – and in some ways it’s even more of a worry than the Rooney situation. The new manager very publicly nailed his colours to the mast in terms of identifying his summer targets – first of all it was Thiago Alacantara – now a Bayern Munich player, then it was Cesc Fabregas – still very much a Barcelona player – and of course, there was always the mirage of Ronaldo coming back shimmering in the background. Now we’re on to Luka Modric, apparently, who, if we are truly after him, is about 4th choice – and he will be aware of that. Ultimately, I fear that Moyes will end up going back to his former club Everton and being made to pay through the nose for Baines, a left-back we do not need and Fellaini, a midfield beanpole who is probably not good enough for United and certainly not the playmaker we have needed for years now.
What makes all this even more of a concern is that our main rivals – Citeh and Chelsea – seem to have had no problem in targeting and buying the players they wanted. United are, after all, the reigning champions, so you would think that players would be only too keen to join the club, but it would seem that the uncertainty about the post-Ferguson era and Moyes’ relative anonymity in Europe is now working against us.
If there is any good news at all, it is that the young players who took part in the pre-season tour are all progressing very nicely. Fergie’s final signing, Wilfried Zaha looks a real find and home-grown youngsters Jesse Lingard and Michael Keane are also likely to be pushing for first team action. There was also much enthusiasm for 18-year old Adnan Januzaj, but he’s a little raw right now. It would be nice to be able to report that two other promising youngsters, Will Keane and Nick Powell, are close to returning from injury, but even MUTV have offered no definitive information about either.
David Moyes needs a convincing win against Wigan this afternoon, just to quell the undercurrents of unease among United fans. He also needs to identify a midfield playmaker who can make things tick – and sadly, he probably also needs to get Wayne Rooney out of the club. It’s going to be a long season….
Living in this house has, for the first time in over 20 years, almost become a cat-free existence. Not so long ago, we had three cats of contrasting demeanour, but three years ago we lost Oscar, a Persian/Tabby cross who we all loved unreservedly and who loved us back with equal enthusiasm. Now, we have lost Eric – very much the yin to Oscar’s yang – “a cat’s cat” as many have said, a character, a curmudgeon and a cat who, late in life, discovered a scathing meow of such howling intensity that it brooked no denial.
Now we only have Charlie, a nervy, needy, small, black, neutered tom of about 15 years, who has reacted to Eric’s demise by effectively choosing to live outside in the back garden through most of the recent hot spell. He comes in only to eat, then bolts out through the catflap as though pursued by a pack of wolves. Then again, he’s always been neurotic, so who can say with any certainty what this bizarre shift in behaviour presages?
Eric – we reckon – was about 20. When we first encountered him, he was called Simon by the woman who had adopted him and about 100 others in a council house in Quinton, out to the west, where Birmingham imperceptibly turns into the Black Country. Eric’s dignity was clearly affronted by being landed with such an inappropriate name but his haughty demeanour softened a little once the partner’s niece had re-christened him Eric, after United’s maverick French talisman, Eric Cantona. Like Cantona, Eric was a little bit haughty but like Cantona he was the Boss. Even on the way back from Quinton in the car, he sorted Oscar out with a judicious clip round the ear, thereby establishing a pecking order that was to persist until Charlie arrived to disrupt everyone’s equilibrium about 5 years later. Eric’s story was that he had already had a false start with an Afro-Caribbean family in Handsworth; the lady of the house ‘returning ‘ Eric after a week with the news that her kids didn’t like him.
Their loss, our gain, although we took the view that Eric had faced early competition from either another cat or maybe a dog in that Handsworth household. In his early years with us, if Oscar got too close to Eric’s food dish whilst he was eating, Eric would growl in his throat, warning Oscar to keep his distance.
Whilst Oscar concentrated on winning hearts and minds indoors with his ludicrously loveable behaviour, Eric was out ploughing the lonely furrow to preserve his territory. He was always a scrapper, often returning with his ear shredded or scratch marks across his nose. he spent far more time outside than Oscar and that only increased once – for better or for worse – we added Charlie to the merry feline throng about 5 years later.
In latter years, and particularly once Oscar was no longer around him to protect him from Charlie’s needy behaviour, Eric – as so many cats do – found a second home next door with our neighbours Steve & Kat. In their house, he had no competition and would sleep the day away in peace before returning home for food and another nap. By this point, Eric had acquired a piratical air, having lost many of his teeth and about half of one of his ears. His fighting days were over, but thanks to Charlie (we think) he learned how to meow late in life and developed a screeching howl of great intensity that he used when he decided that we should feed him.
Eric’s demise was signalled by increasing unsteadiness of gait and (if possible) an increase in his need for sleep. Towards the end, he spent more and more time next door where he was dealt with by Steve & Kat with enormous kindness and sympathy. When the end finally came, we buried him at the point where he would cross from our garden into Steve & Kat’s garden – it seemed appropriate.
Bon voyage, Eric – we all enjoyed being members of your staff for so many years. We are diminished by your loss and life will never be quite the same.
Seems like I have nearly achieved my aim of learning to say nothing…..
It’s been well over a month since I last posted here and in truth I find that has only bothered me intermittently.
I can’t quite make my mind up whether it is a slump in visitor numbers that has enhanced my indifference or simply that blogging no longer offers me any genuine satisfaction.
It’s not that there has been nothing going on – you will read of the death of another family member if you continue to the next entry – and there’s been other stuff happening as well..
To be honest, the trip I made to Poland – and specifically to Auschwitz – in April still weighs heavily on me. I am in the process of reading more books and watching more documentaries about the Holocaust, but you can only bang on about this stuff for so long before people’s eyes glaze over. I have found that even close friends aren’t really as perturbed by it as I have been – perhaps you just had to be there. I have to say that my first visit to New York City in 1999 was the last trip to have such a profound impact on me.
My mood on that Polish trip was not helped by domestic issues and I now have difficulty in contemplating the idea of another ‘family’ trip – memories of the way I was packed off to Berlin ‘with a flea in my ear’ still rankle and I have already declined the opportunity to join a subsequent ‘family’ expedition to the west of Ireland.
My 60th birthday year was supposed to feature a lot of travelling, but somehow, like this blog, it’s all gone a bit sour.
One of my more bizarre claims to fame is that one of my distant ancestors was Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates. He was the member of Scott’s ill-fated 1910 Antarctic expedition who announced that he was “going outside and might be some time”, before walking out to certain death in the blizzard that raged around the camp.
This might be an apt way to end this entry. I may be back but I may be some time. The blizzard continues unabated outside.
Although the football season is officially in abeyance right now, there is still some football being played, of course. Most notable over the last week or so has been the European U-21 Finals which are being held in Israel this year. Today’s web pages and newspapers will doubtless be sprinkled with discreet amounts of can’t-really-be-arsed angst about how and why the England U21’s crashed out of the tournament after 3 successive defeats against Israel, Norway and Italy.
In case there are any regular readers here and in case they are under any misapprehensions regarding my attitude to International Football as played by teams representing a specific country, allow me to summarise…..
Essentially, whilst I will cheerfully watch some of the games in the big International tournaments like the World Cup and the Euros, I regard International football as a sideshow. The pre-eminence of club football via the Champions League and the sheer volume of ‘overseas’ players in the Premiership/Bundesliga/La Liga/Serie A in Europe mean that we now get to see the best players on the planet every week. It’s got to the point that if you switch on and see Lionel Messi wearing an Argentina shirt rather than a Barcelona shirt it seems a little strange. In short: International football? Who needs it?
There was a time of course when the only time you would see players like Pele and Jairzinho was wearing a Brazil shirt in World Cups. These days, FIFA try to puff up the international fixture list but they are undermined by the Champions League and major European Leagues and are in any case surely heading for a major PR and logistical car crash over the mooted 2022 Qatar World Cup.
Additionally, there is increasing friction between clubs and national associations regarding the availability of players for what are usually described as ‘meaningless friendlies’ in mid-season. More and more players are retiring from international football once they have secured a place on the European club ‘gravy train’, reflecting an attitude to playing for one’s country which is, at best, pragmatic and at worst, completely cynical. The old Corinthian values of the ‘honour’ of representing one’s country started going out the window around the time that Bobby Moore got arrested for allegedly stealing a bracelet from a Bogotá jewellery shop. Nowadays, players will pay lip service to those ideals but it’s debatable how many of them are actually sincere about it.
As for England, winning the 1966 World Cup was – as Dickens would have said – the best of times but also the worst of times. For all the gap-toothed glory of Nobby Stiles’ victory dance and Bobby Charlton’s combover angst, the fallout from that soggy Saturday afternoon at Wembley in July 1966 has become the cross that all England international players have had to bear ever since. The chances of England repeating their 1966 victory have receded year by year until there is now some doubt as to whether they are going to qualify for next summer’s Brazilian beano at all – and even if they do, does anyone seriously believe that they are going to win the tournament or even come close?
Even the television companies – usually prone to the worst type of hyperventilated jingoism – have noticeably throttled back their expectation levels during recent tournaments. There is a general acceptance that we don’t really have a good enough squad and that the most we can aspire to against the better teams is to be hard to beat and then (probably) lose in a penalty shoot-out. During the same era, from 1966 onwards, English club sides – albeit girded by the addition of choice imports from ‘foreign parts’ – have won multiple European club trophies and reached many more finals. Even ‘unfancied’ clubs like Middlesbrough and Fulham have had their moment in the sun. Little wonder that the glory-hunters of TV scheduling have chosen to concentrate on tournaments where English teams do have a chance of winning.
There seems no way out of this conundrum and it seems only a question of time before there is a major club versus country confrontation – a confrontation in which there will surely only be one winner. We are undoubtedly heading for a scenario where players signing up for the top clubs have ‘secret clauses’ in their contracts where they agree to ‘retire’ from international football. Come to think of it, this has probably already happened.
And so back to the small beer of the latest Ing-er-land debacle in Israel. Manager Stuart Pearce, who has always struck me as being a bit of a plonker, has come out and publicly blamed the players for their dismal performances, something that rarely happens at this level.
Generally we get some managerial double-talk about the poor standard of pitches, refereeing, facilities or (more realistically) the impact of a long season catching up on the players. Not this time, though – Pearce has – for once – not pulled any punches. The crucial phrase ‘already on the beach’ has been used to describe the players’ attitude, though not necessarily by Pearce himself. Clearly his comments are those of a man who does not expect to be in his current job for much longer – and probably rightly so. If he cannot motivate the squad and get them playing together effectively then he has no business being in the job. Then again, could anyone else have done better?
I am an avid consumer of U21 football at club level and thoroughly enjoyed watching United’s U21’s beat Tottenham to lift the National U21 League title, so I find it hard to understand why the only United player involved in the Israeli tournament was the incoming Wilfred Zaha, who isn’t really a United player yet as he’s only just arrived from Crystal Palace.
Having said that, 3 of that United squad – Sam Johnstone, Tom Thorpe and Larnell Cole – are in Peter Taylor’s U20 squad who fly out to Turkey today to participate in this summer’s U20 World Cup. I would have to say that I am surprised that the likes of Jesse Lingard, Michael Keane and Ryan Tunnicliffe have failed to make the cut and am equally sure that Michael’s brother Will would have done so had he been fit. Whether Taylor’s squad will be any more successful and how the media respond will, I suspect, be largely dependant on whether there are any big transfer sagas unfolding at the same time. It says a lot that many English journalists will be more concerned about the destiny of a certain Portuguese superstar and whether he’s going to remain at his current Madrid address or relocate back to the glittering towers of Mancunia. The omens don’t look that great right now, but I live in hope…..
Time to interrupt the jollities of a very late spring and the first seriously hot day of the year with news from afar that my Uncle, my late Mother’s brother, 96, suffering from severe dementia and living in a care home for a couple of years now has finally succumbed to a chest infection that has been bothering him for some time.
The most startling measure of his age is perhaps to reflect that he was born in the Attercliffe area of Sheffield on a night in the autumn of 1916 when the city was being peppered with bombs from a German Zeppelin. This was the first air raid on the city and is quite well documented here:
My Mum’s family moved to Northamptonshire in the late 1920’s because of a lack of work in the Sheffield area. My grandfather had worked in the steel industry in Sheffield and got a job at a small foundry in Kettering as well as securing a council house nearby. My mother, then 3, her sister (my late Aunt) and my recently-deceased Uncle moved into the house in 1929 and indeed he was to remain there for the next 82 years, surely one of the longest unbroken council house tenancies of all time.
The Kettering house was a kind of ‘Little Yorkshire’ where an ‘us against the world’ mentality was maintained indefinitely. Of the 3 children only my Mum fled the coop and got married – and both she and my Dad were put through the wringer for doing so. Her parents would not and did not attend the wedding even though it took place just 10 minutes down the road and there was only a partial reconciliation when my Dad wrote to inform ‘Little Yorkshire’ that a grandchild was imminent, though as I was born in Northampton, I would never be eligible to play cricket for Yorkshire….
My childhood was dominated by dreary fortnightly Sunday trips to ‘Little Yorkshire’ where my presence possibly helped to dispel some of the tensions that still existed between my Mum and her family – I hope so anyway. I recall the air of gloom that would have descended on the house if Sheffield Wednesday had lost the previous day or if the Yorkshire cricket team were not doing so well.
My Uncle – clearly a bright boy – had enjoyed a successful education but there was never any possibility of him going on to University. He left school and began work in a local shoe factory where – apart from a short spell in the Army at the very end of the Second World War – he worked for the rest of his adult life. This fitted in with my Grandfather’s ‘model’ – he carried on working at the same foundry from 1929 until his retirement and my (also unmarried) Aunt worked in the same clothing factory for her entire adult life. Change was not embraced in this household; no wonder my Mum wanted to escape.
My Uncle stayed put, however and having a reputation for a certain intellectual acumen – read a broadsheet newspaper (the ‘Telegraph’ of course), listened to classical music, made occasional trips to London to see operas – was treated like royalty by his Mother in particular. My Grandfather, meanwhile. was not held in such high esteem; he had a weakness for the horses and his clandestine trips to the bookies would often enrage my Grandmother. Even so, he had the occasional win and in the late 1940’s he came up trumps with what was for the times a major windfall of a few thousand pounds – enough to buy a reasonably-sized house.
Here was the mentality prevalent in that house; just round the corner from the council house they occupied was a lengthy row of newly-built semi-detached private houses with substantial gardens front and back. With money in the bank from his winners, my Grandfather carted the whole family off to look at one of these houses that had come up for sale. My Mum told me that she distinctly recalls having a good look around and being really excited after which the whole family assembled at the foot of the stairs with the vendors. At this point my Grandfather uttered the immortal lines: “Thank you very much for showing us round. It’s a lovely house but it’s not for the likes of us…….” I have to remind myself that this is not a Monty Python sketch – it really did happen.
Anyway, once my Mother had left and got married, her family closed ranks again and though we were tolerated we were always treated with a certain amount of disdain – particularly by my Uncle. who was, I think, made a little uncomfortable by my Dad’s upward mobility as he built a thriving career as a teacher and – ultimately – a headmaster. My Uncle stayed on in the house through the deaths of both his parents and his sister, my Aunt. Only once she died and he was living alone did his attitude to the wider family change and once my Mother died, he and my Father had to deal purely with one another, something I think they both found pretty awkward at times.
Around ten years ago, it was clear that my Uncle’s mental capacity was diminishing and his ability to look after himself came into question. As a single man living in a 4-bedroom council house, the local Council were keen to move him into a single-occupancy sheltered flat, but true to form, he would not move. In the end, care packages were put in place to help him cope but this was always an inadequate option and only the interventions of a caring next-door neighbour made the situation viable at all.
In the end, change was triggered by one hospital admission too many. His ‘capacity’ finally fell below what Social Services perceived as being the minimum necessary for him to adequately look after himself. The neighbour found him naked on his bedroom floor where he had been for up to 24 hours, unable to get up. This time, when the hospital discharged him, it was into a care home where he spent the last 2 years of his life, oblivious to everyone he had once known.
My Dad always said that my Uncle would outlive him and that’s the way it’s turned out. My own view is that my Dad had a mental hitlist of things he felt that he needed to do before he could move towards the end of his own life and getting my Uncle into a care home was one of the major items on that list. He did it for my Mum of course; caring for her brother – spiteful and small-minded though he could be – was a task my Dad felt he had to take on. I have to say that I felt under no such compulsion. As far as I was concerned he was warm and fed and looked after, but he was also oblivious to his surroundings and to anyone he had once known and failed to recognise me for several years before he went into the care home. I stayed away and when I go down to tie up the loose ends next week, it’s going to be administrative and nothing more as far as I’m concerned.
And so, the ranks of my family grow ever thinner. There’s really only myself, the Princess, my Aunt in Scotland and my Uncle in Sydney of my immediate family who now remain. Sic transit gloria mundi…..
Tonight Old Trafford played host to the National Reserve Team Play-Off Final (or whatever it’s now called) between Tottenham Hotspur and United’s U21 teams. This was definitely the final game of the Alex Ferguson era and in many ways it was a far more representative encounter than yesterday’s 10-goal thriller at West Bromwich.
For all that, Fergie wasn’t there – or if he was, he was keeping out of sight. In point of fact I seem to recall him at his Press Conference on Friday saying that he was going to a League Managers Association Meeting where presumably he would pick up his umpteenth and final Manager of the Year award. New boss David Moyes may well have gone with him; certainly the two of them were at Carrington this morning as Fergie presumably helps to ease Moyes into his new job by introducing him to the coaching staff, some of whom may lose their jobs once Moyes takes over.
First team coaches Rene Meulensteen and Mike Phelan were at tonight’s game, as was Sir Bobby Charlton, looking a little frail at 76, but still able to present the medals and the trophy at the end of the game.
He would have been pleased to present the trophy to United skipper Tom Thorpe, something that looked pretty unlikely at half-time following 45 minutes of comfortable Spurs dominance, graced by two excellent goals from Jonathan Obika and Alex Pritchard. Spurs could have been even further ahead as both Obika and his strike partner Harry Kane also hit the frame of the goal in the first period. By contrast, United could offer little by way of response. Reserve Player of the Year Adnan Januzaj was asked to play as a lone striker which isn’t really his forté; he’s a clever player but he doesn’t really have the physical presence to play this role and United found it difficult to get anyone forward to support him.
The dearth of strikers has been one of Warren Joyce’s major problems this season, with Will Keane out for the season through injury and others like Macheda and King leaving on loan or permanent deals. However, something had to be done and early in the second half, Joyce withdrew U18’s midfielder Ben Pearson (whose day will surely come) and sent on Welsh striker Tom Lawrence to help Januzaj out.
And it worked. Slowly but surely, United began to push Spurs back and to apply consistent pressure on the Spurs defence. Lawrence was giving them an extra set of problems and Januzaj could now play with greater freedom. On the hour mark, the young Belgian’s countryman Marnick Vermijl (my choice for Reserve Player of the Season) got forward from right back and picked up Ryan Tunnicliffe’s beautifully-weighted pass. He cut in and fired a low shot across Spurs’ keeper Archer and into the far corner of the net. From that point onwards, United stormed forward and equalised after 74 minutes when Larnell Cole fired home off the underside of the Spurs crossbar after Januzaj and Jesse Lingard had created havoc in the Spurs defence.
Spurs responded strongly as they began to see the game slipping away from them and substitute McEvoy fired into the side netting from an acute angle. However the force was definitely with United and in a typical Fergie-era late finale, Cole drove home the winning goal after great work by Lawrence on the right. United played out 4 minutes of added time without too many problems and the final whistle saw a good deal of jubilation from the team in red.
So, after beating Aston Villa in a penalty shoot-out in the final of last year’s Play-Off, United retained the title, though the trophy is a new one, reflecting the new format for this U21 tournament this year.
Whenever Sir Alex gets back from his meeting and his trip to the racing at Newmarket, I’m sure he’ll sit down and watch the video of this match – the last match of his era as United boss and in many ways a typically thrilling and ultimately successful occasion. Well done to Warren Joyce, Nicky Butt and all the young players. Let’s hope some of them are given a chance in the first team next year by David Moyes.
As scores in football matches go, this is one that would have been common enough in games involving my under-11 team or games of Subbuteo table football I might have played with my mates as a 12 or 13-year old. But hang on, this is the deadly serious, all-grown-up world of the Barclays Premier League – and, not only that, but this was the 1500th and final game overseen by United’s retiring Svengali of a manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.
For the record, it’s United’s first 5-5 since 1895 and the first ever 5-5 in the Premiership since it began in 1992. And I was there…..and it was fairly insane…and people will still be talking about it in 20 years’ time.
12 months ago, I also attended West Bromwich Albion’s final league game of the season against Arsenal. I did so partly because my good friend and long-time Albion fan Serge offered me a spare ticket and partly because I simply could not contemplate the tension of staying home and watching United’s final game at Sunderland whilst hanging on the result of the City-QPR game from the Council House.
Like yesterday, it was a beautifully sunny day, but my mood was very different. I am now fairly sure that I cracked a bone in my foot getting off a bus in Birmingham City Centre and having limped my way to The Hawthorns to meet Serge, we went in to watch what I didn’t realise at the time was Robin van Persie’s final game as a Gooner before joining United. Behind us an Albion-supporting but United-hating young lady kept us informed of affairs in the United and City games and after she gleefully announced news of Aguero’s 94th-minute winner for City, I left The Hawthorns in a fairly bleak mood, to the extent that I cannot even remember the score in the Albion-Arsenal game.
Things were rather different yesterday. Though I now have two dodgy knees to replace my foot injury, I was feeling relatively sprightly as I walked up Halfords Lane past the occasional Mancunian chancer wanting match tickets – there were rumours of them changing hands for £2000.
Anyway, since that rather grim day of the Arsenal game, RvP has become a United hero and the Premier League trophy has returned to rather more familiar pastures in the United trophy room. Even so, this was Fergie’s last game after a 39-year management career going back to East Stirling in 1974 , where upon his arrival, as he recalled, the chairman informed him that he had 8 players and no goalkeeper. Things have improved a little for him since then.
Inside the ground, the atmosphere was febrile even among the Albion fans. The e-Bay mentality ensured that the match programme sold out in record time as people bought 3 and 4 copies; after all, this was history in the making. Out on the sun-drenched pitch, the United players were warming up and I was delighted to see Paul Scholes among them. Scholes has now retired for a second time after a career of great distinction, making 717 appearances for United in all competitions. He has been my favourite United player of the modern era and has been one of the game’s truly great players, though his tackling remained awful to the end. I knew Scholesy would not have made the journey down to the Black Country unless Fergie intended to bring him on at some point – and so it was to prove.
There was a double ‘Guard of Honour’ before this game – all these pre-match ceremonials make me long for the days when players just used to run out of the tunnel on to the pitch and simply start the game after a cursory warm-up. Not these days; I suppose that we should be grateful that the Albion mascots didn’t form a mini-Guard for the United mascots. What we did get was a G.o.H. for the United players by the Albion players, followed by a joint extended G.o.H. for Fergie by both sets of players. Albion have had a good season themselves, achieving their best position (8th) since 1980-1 under Steve Clarke’s thoughtful guidance and their fans were in largely benevolent mood in the late Spring sunshine. The United players got a mixed reception, but the applause for Fergie was generous and general. He emerged from the ruck of players and apparatchiks to wave to the United fans who had occupied half of the Smethwick End away to my immediate left.
After all this ceremonial nonsense, there was a surreal atmosphere once the game started. Fergie’s final starting XI left most of his experienced players on the bench, with only Michael Carrick holding things together and wearing the captain’s armband. And of course, as a footnote, it should be observed that there was no Wayne Rooney at all. He had allegedly been given the day off as his wife is due to produce Rooney Junior # 2. I think most United fans are of the view that – barring another ludicrous volte-face – he has probably played his last game for Manchester United and that this is perhaps the best solution to his problems. For someone who was until quite recently perceived as United’s lynchpin, it’s surprising how little he has been missed of late.
Certainly United set off at a fair clip and eased into a 3-goal lead within the first half-hour. Goals from Kagawa and Alex Büttner were split by a Jonas Olsson own goal and the atmosphere was more akin to a testimonial match or pre-season friendly. However, James Morrison prodded home from six yards out on the stroke of half-time and you sensed that Albion had finally decided that they were simply not prepared to accept a role as cannon fodder for the Champions.
Crucially, Steve Clarke brought on Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku for the second half and he scored a great goal on 50 minutes and generally looked to be giving Jonny Evans and Phil Jones a far harder afternoon than they had bargained for. The truth is that having wrapped up the Premiership a couple of weeks back, the United players have been in party mode ever since and for all the blithe talk of beating Chelsea’s points total and seeing off the departing manager in the right fashion, they have – mentally – been on the beach for a while now.
So, even though sharp finishes from RvP and Javier Hernandez took the score to 5-2, there was still plenty of time left and in an extraordinary last ten minutes, Albion scored three times with Lukaku running at will through our increasingly porous defence. Not even the introduction of Scholes (who inevitably picked up a final yellow card for a woefully poor challenge on Mulumbu) , Giggs and Ferdinand could stem the flow and in the end, it would be churlish in the extreme to deny Albion a hard-fought point in a generally crazy game that will live long in the memories of all who witnessed it.
The departing, conquering hero emerged with a slightly rueful smile from the ruck near the tunnel to acknowledge the noisy United away support and then he was gone – for (presumably) the last time as the United manager. Interestingly, the United fans were already airing a new song about David Moyes, encouraging the incoming manager to adopt the style of the Fergie era.
Hopefully he will do so – and let’s hope he adds the substance of those years as well.
I’ve just finished reading David Browne’s ‘Fire and Rain’, a lengthy volume which attempts to explain many aspects of why the 1960’s Hippie Dream turned sour and does so by concentrating on one year – 1970 – and on 4 groups or artists for whom 1970 was a big year; Simon & Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Beatles and James Taylor.
All 4 released albums in 1970 – Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge over troubled water‘, CSNY’s ‘Déjà Vu ‘, James Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ and The Beatles’ ‘Let it be’. Each of those albums were important inasmuch as they signified the end of the road for both The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, whilst ‘Déjà Vu‘ demonstrated how the addition of Neil Young to the mix completely destroyed the huge promise of the first ‘Crosby, Stills & Nash’ album from the previous year. With hindsight, only James Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ can be seen in a positive light; after all, it was the template for Taylor’s hugely successful career which still endures to this day.
All of these albums – particularly ‘Bridge over troubled water’ – were highly successful in terms of sales but all except for the Taylor album are freighted with negative connotations.
Simon & Garfunkel’s final album was patchy. The title track was a monster hit everywhere and became an instant ‘standard’ and there were other fine moments like the quirky ‘So long Frank Lloyd Wright’, but there were some patchy moments as well. Overall, the album lacked the homogeneity of 1968’s ‘Bookends’ and, as Browne points out, many of the tracks featured either Garfunkel’s voice or Simon’s – there weren’t many moments where we were treated to the sweet joint harmonies of yesteryear.
‘Let it be‘ was a ragbag mess of a record after the smooth fluidity of its predecessor, ‘Abbey Road’. Few of the songs were of a quality that matched The Beatles’ achievements at their ‘Revolver’/’Sgt Pepper‘ peak. ‘Let it be’ revealed a band falling apart. The only surprise is that it was released at all; few other bands would have got away with it.
‘Déjà Vu‘ and the US concert tour that followed it turned Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young into the world’s biggest band by the summer of 1970. Yet the record – like the band – is deeply flawed, lacking the unity of mood, purpose and underlying philosophy which made the 1969 ‘Crosby, Stills & Nash‘ album one of the finest début albums of all time. By contrast, ‘Déjà Vu’ sounds like the work of 4 solo artists, which as Browne’s book reveals was pretty much the case. Only Crosby’s hippie potboiler ‘Almost cut my hair’ avoids this label as he insisted the whole band record it live in the studio. Looking back, it’s clear that Young only joined the CSN collective in order to further his own solo career. It’s of some significance that Young’s ‘After the Goldrush’, another 1970 release, leaves ‘Déjà Vu’ standing – and I say this as someone for whom Neil Young’s lengthy solo career is largely a monument to self-indulgence and tedium. All in all, it has to be said that whilst ‘Déjà Vu’ has its moments – Stills’ ‘Carry On’ and Crosby’s title track maintain the quality of the first album – the rest is pretty forgettable.
So, for Browne’s chosen artistes, we have two bands who disintegrated in 1970 plus one who were hardly together at all and all of this came in the wake of the Woodstock dream being soured by the events at the Altamont Speedway at the end of 1969. Even for Taylor, who was well on his way to becoming a major artist by the end of 1970, success was curdled by lengthy episodes of drug abuse and flirtations with the mental instability that informed some of his lyrics. All in all, it’s not a pretty picture, but the thing is, it’s also a distorted one, because in many other ways, 1970 was a time of harvest for many of the bands and performers who had been developing their music over the previous few years.
Even a perfunctory glance at a list of the albums that were released in 1970 show an extraordinary diversity and range of talent. This was the year of Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’ , of Santana’s ‘Abraxas’, of Pink Floyd’s ‘Atom Heart Mother’, Traffic’s ‘John Barleycorn must die’ and Joni Mitchell’s ‘Ladies of the Canyon’. How different, how much more positive could Browne’s story have been if he’d chosen these albums and artists instead of the ones already mentioned?
Well, of course, Browne chose the artists and albums he did because they illustrated the specific point he was trying to make about the death of 1960’s idealism and the encroachment of greed, ego and narcotics upon the hippie heartlands of yesteryear. To be honest, his points are well-made, but I have to ask myself which of the artists he covered were on my personal ‘playlist’ in 1970. Maybe ‘Déjà Vu‘ – though I usually reverted to the first ‘CSN’
album by preference – and from time to time later on in the year, Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ once it strayed across my radar. The other two were not albums I listened to at all – I always felt that ‘Let it be‘ was rubbish aside from a couple of the tracks and I found ‘Bridge over troubled water‘ too syrupy and bland. Some people found the title track magnificent; I just found it overblown.
I’ve already mentioned a few of the top albums released in 1970 – here’s a more comprehensive list:
Derek & the Dominos – ‘Layla and other assorted love songs’
The Mothers of Invention – ‘Burnt Weeny Sandwich’ / ‘Chunga’s Revenge’
Free – ‘Fire & Water’/’Highway’
George Harrison – ‘All things must pass’
Grateful Dead – ‘Workingman’s Dead’ / ‘American Beauty’
Jimmy Webb – ‘Words & Music’
Joni Mitchell – ‘Ladies of the Canyon’
King Crimson – ‘In the wake of Poseidon’ / ‘Lizard’
Led Zeppelin – ‘III’
Neil Young – ‘After the Goldrush’
Pink Floyd – ‘Atom Heart Mother’
Rod Stewart – ‘Gasoline Alley’
Ry Cooder – ‘Ry Cooder’
Santana – ‘Abraxas’
Soft Machine – ‘Third’
Supertramp – First Album (‘Supertramp’)
Allman Brothers Band – ‘Idlewild South’
The Band – ‘Stage Fright’
The Byrds – ‘Untitled’
The Doors – ‘Morrison Hotel’
The Rolling Stones – ‘Get yer ya-ya’s out’
Todd Rundgren – ‘Runt’
Traffic – ‘John Barleycorn must die’
Yes – ‘Time and a Word’
Family – A Song for Me’
Mountain – Climbing!
Egg – ‘Egg’
Miles Davis – ‘Bitches’ Brew’
The Flying Burrito Brothers – ‘Burrito Deluxe’
Country Joe and the Fish – ‘C.J. Fish.’
Blodwyn Pig – ‘Getting to this’
The Who – ‘Live at Leeds’
Ginger Baker’s Air Force – First Album
Dave Mason – ‘Alone Together’
Fotheringay – First Album (‘Fotheringay’)
Quicksilver Messenger Service – ‘Just for Love’ / ‘What about me?’
Nick Drake – ‘Bryter Later’
Tim Buckley – ‘Starsailor’
Spirit – ‘The 12 Dreams of Dr Sardonicus’
Roy Harper – ‘Flat Baroque & Berserk’
If – First Album & ‘If 2’
It’s a Beautiful Day – ‘Marrying Maiden’
John McLaughlin – ‘My Goal’s Beyond’
Quintessence – ‘Quintessence ‘ (Second album)
John & Beverley Martyn – ‘The Road to Ruin’
OK, so here are close to 50 LP’s which also saw the light of day in 1970 and might paint a rather less negative picture than Browne offers in his book. People often talk of 1967 as being the magical year for music but for me, 1970 is the year that really counts. You can make your own mind up about that.
After this, of course, there was Bowie and The Eagles and Little Feat and Steely Dan – overall, something new. Whilst the 60’s was a fading dream , the 70’s offered something different. 1970 was a year that marked the dividing line between the two decades and gave us a whole new set of possibilities.
Been quite a week at Manchester United with Sir Alex Ferguson announcing his retirement, Wayne Rooney announcing his desire to escape from the club, Cristiano Ronaldo linked with a return to the club and Everton’s David Moyes unveiled as Ferguson’s replacement. Unfortunately, I fear that Fergie’s retirement means that Ronnie won’t be coming back any time soon. Pity, but there you go.
However, I think most United fans would be happy to see the back of Rooney. This is twice in about the last 3 years that he has said that he wants to quit; few players say that once and get away with it at Manchester United and I suspect that if they can get a decent return on a player who has flattered to deceive for much of the season just ending, United will grab it. Rooney has been at Old Trafford for 10 years now and whilst he clearly still has considerable talent, it is equally clear that he has fallen out of love with United, so a clean break for all parties may be the best strategy.
As for Ferguson, the world and his significant other have been queuing up to eulogise about ‘the Great Man’ and MUTV have been running blanket coverage of Fergie documentaries full of former Fergie players and even the likes of Tony Blair waxing lyrical about his achievements and his qualities . Elsewhere Liverpool fans and some journalists have been staging street parties to celebrate his retirement. The general line seems to be that no matter what you thought of the man, his curmudgeonly bile and hairdryer outbursts masked a fierce loyalty to those under his purview and were the outward signposts of an almost pathological will to win. In short, you couldn’t have one without the other. By general reckoning the late, great Sir Matt Busby was a much nicer man than Alex Ferguson and consequently a less successful manager in terms of trophies won. Hmmm, well maybe….
I once had the memorable experience of sitting in on a Fergie press conference at Old Trafford. I was playing Sancho Panza to my mate Dominic’s Quixote and had squeezed into Old Trafford’s amazingly uncomfortable Press Box alongside Dom and his guest pundit on the radio that night – who may well have been Paddy Crerand. As I recall, the opposition were Charlton Athletic and following a tight game with a late Ole Gunnar Solskjær winner for United, Dom was waiting to interview the principals, but to his chagrin both Fergie and Charlton boss Alan Curbishley showed up at more or less the same time.
Having cornered Curbishley, Dom thrust a minidisc recorder into my hands and told me to go into Fergie’s press conference and record it. So, in I went, to find His Nibs sitting there about 2 yards away from me, waiting for the latecomers like me to filter in. Journalists were coming up and dumping their recorders on the desk in front of Fergie, so I pressed record and did the same, then searched for somewhere to sit. The media room at Old Trafford is like a small lecture theatre with raked banks of seats and the only place left for me to sit was – you guessed it – front and centre, right in Fergie’s line of sight.
“Who’s that bloke in the front row?”
It was a routine press conference. He rambled on about the game for a minute or so then answered a few minutes-worth of perfunctory questions. Was it just my paranoia that made me feel that his eyes kept drifting to me? After all, he made it his business to know the Press Pack and I’m sure he pegged me for an unfamiliar face. Every time that watery, blue-eyed glare came my way, my heart beat just a little quicker, but in the end I escaped with my recording and my identity intact.
Really, enough has been said elsewhere about the man and his astonishing trophy haul, so I will pass on that, stopping only to thank him for all that he has done for my club since 1986 and to observe that his replacement, Everton boss David Moyes, has got a hell of an act to follow. Good luck to him.