The Top And The Bottom Of It


There’s nothing like going to Manchester United. It’s like entering the centre of the earth. Even on an Easter Sunday morning when the drizzle is chilled and there are no lorries on the M25 at 7.30am, even when the A56 just outside the ground is closed southbound. I’m there early. God only know what happened when the traffic really started…

I’m supposed to have parking, but I’m not on the list. Ho hum. I have deep-seated reserves of charm, so the nice lady with the list lets me in and the equally nice man at the media door frisks me down, but I know his heart’s not in it. He’s very apologetic, mumbles something about the Olympics and I’m in. I make the lame ‘good job I didn’t pack my customary stick of gelignite’ and rather than punching me in the face as I deserve, he smiles gamely…
There’s nothing glorious about reporting on Manchester United, apart from actually doing it. They don’t like the press here, they really don’t and they see no need to court us. The facilities are nowhere near as good as Arsenal, the food is nowhere near as good as Manchester City and the seats are more luxurious and less cramped at Birmingham City. There’s never enough room in the hackroom. The hackfood is barely edible: I chance a sort of breakfast which comprises fatty bacon, lukewarm baked beans and sausages made from indeterminate meat. “I wouldn’t if I were you,” whispers a steward. I do. He was right. At half time I avoid the chips and chance a meat and potato pie. The liquid filling is the consistency of semolina and tastes of neither meat nor potato. Even the coffee’s rubbish. And I have an undignified 20-minute battle to get the wifi working.
But, hey, hey, hey, this is Manchester United, the greatest club English football has ever seen (I’m not a fan, but the truth is the truth) and afterwards when I’m filing my second report from an empty press box in an empty stadium, I could weep at the sheer beauty, grandiosity and history of it all.
Today they’re playing Queens Park Rangers, who are a) paying more with each passing defeat for panic-appointing Mark Hughes or b) looking at possible survival after defeating Liverpool and Arsenal in the wake of Mark Hughes’s inspired appointment.
But they lose today before kick off. Hughes has clearly decided that Wednesday’s visit of Swansea is more winnable than today’s tussle and objectively it’s hard to argue with him. He picks a team to avoid humiliation and United ought to be out of sight before they score. In the event it’s a penalty, given when Shaun Derry gently pushes Ashley Young, who was offside.
Rangers rail at the injustice of it all and rightly so, but the referee didn’t pick Taye Taiwo, Jamie Mackie and Samba Diakite; the referee didn’t give the ball away whenever an attack looked possible; the referee didn’t rest Joey Barton to avoid a 10th booking and the referee wasn’t thinking about Swansea.
The sending off kills the game, even though Adel Taarabt makes a tackle – two to be precise – and United lose the impetus, apart from Paul Scholes who without raising much beyond a gentle jog, dominates the game, albeit aided by the compliant Rangers midfield who elect to stand back and admire rather than, say, tackle.
Afterwards, Sir Alex Ferguson keeps away. The Premier League are too craven to force him to honour his obligation to speak to the press post-match; even UEFA are more manly, so we have to resort to standing beneath a television taking notes when he speaks to the BBC, Sky and MUTV. The MUTV questions are less than taxing and everyone laughs bitterly when Ferguson says how much Derry’s dismissal put United at a disadvantage. Mark Hughes eventually turns up to moan at the referee rather than his own white flag waving. That’s how it goes. I drive around the closed road to Altrincham and the joy of an early start means I’m back in time for Homeland. Whoo and further more, hoo.
As someone once said, tomorrow’s just another day. And being at a loose end on a wet and windy East Monday, means only one thing. Instead, I go to Barnet v Crawley Town.
Going to Barnet is a secret delight. There is nothing bad about it, apart from the football sometimes. After all, I can park outside the ground 20 minutes before kick off. I can stand on an open terrace munching a pie which is overcooked at the bottom and undercooked at the top. I can sip Bovril like it was 1979 and I can watch substitute Scott McGleish – one of the few footballers to invite me into his own home – chat with fans as he warms up. I’m not sure he thought he was going to be a permanent substitute when he took the loan move from Bristol Rovers. I can hear the players shouting at each other and at the referee. If swearing is introduced to the Olympics (and nobody could seriously argue against that, could they?) then Barnet’s Dean Brill will be a fucking gold medal prospect.
On the way in, I’m given a form to vote for their player of the year. Their cheery line of greeting is “do you fancy a laugh?” I vote for Sam Deering, who’s tiny but relatively gifted.
They’re playing Crawley, who’re in some disarray. They might be in the automatic promotion places, but manager Steve Evens left this morning for the bright lights of Rotherham, although the club have known for a few days. I don’t get that one at all, but there’ll be a reason for it, especially if it’s true he applied for the Northampton job when Gary Johnson was sacked. I’d like to know if it’s really true that this intriguing scamp wears eyeliner. But that’s just me.
Anyway, the rain is cold and my hood is up. Barnet belie their lowly status and they’re ahead when Michel Kuipers spills a shot and Ricky Holmes taps in. That will be Kuipers’s last error of the day. From there, he plays a blinder and when he’s beaten Izale McLeod rattles the post. Barnet press and press and then Crawley score when John Dempster was left alone to head a corner in and then Dan Davies’s 30-yard howitzer was deflected past Brill. Crawley waste time, celebrate their luck and even Sergio Torres’s sending off doesn’t ruffle them. Poor Barnet. They’re as desperately unlucky as they were when Torquay United stole a 1-0 victory a few days ago “There’s still hope,” said the PA announcer afterwards as we shuffled out. There’s always hope, but it’s tough at the bottom.