On May 21, 1983, I swore in front of my father for the first time. I was nine years old.
We were in the sitting room of the family home in Ballymena. He had just walked in. I’d been there for an hour or so already, waiting excitedly for the FA Cup Final between Brighton and my beloved Manchester United.
There was much that was odd in this situation. For a start, I was inside. On any given Saturday, I would have been outside playing. This was frequently not a choice. But on this day, I was allowed in. We had recently taken possession of a colour TV for the first time. Now, I could see what United REALLY looked like.
I had an early obsession with Arthur Albiston, United’s curly-haired Scottish left back. I can’t remember why. There was little outstanding about him, and he wasn’t as cool as Dalglish, the guy my friends talked a lot about. That guy Dalglish from that OTHER team. Left back was a position I was becoming familiar with in the school team. And the gags that went with it.
So, all told, it was tremendously exciting.
My dad was not a Manchester United fan, not then. He was, I remember, a Nottingham Forest supporter. It was all about Brian Clough. He liked Clough, a lot.
“Clough, you see Paul, does it his way.”
But on that Saturday, at around ten to three, he joined me to watch the teams stride out.
“Those boys will get beat today,” he smiled, as United, led by Bryan Robson, brought the noise. This was uncommon banter between us. This felt like the sort of thing adults would share. We were breaking new ground. It required a big comeback, something to seal the bond, something that lads watching their team would say. Realising suddenly how to keep the connection alive, giddy in the moment, I dived in.
“Balls!” I shouted. “Balls,” I roared with a massive grin. I knew Arthur would love that banter. And Frank Stapleton. And Kevin Moran. And probably Gary Bailey, with his glossy hair. “Balls!”
There was a moment of silence, a moment of stillness. A moment that stretched and stretched. I realised I’d overreached. Wembley, I’m certain, fell silent.
My dad’s face darkened.
“Don’t ever use language like that again,” he said quietly, seriously. “EVER. What would your mother say?”
Then he left the room.
I didn’t swear for some time afterwards.
United drew two each. I remember little of the game, but do remember the goals in the replay a few days later and United’s success.
This may read as a delightful and innocent vignette, a memory of the moment football clicked, a moment, different in detail, but shared by so many people. But it’s not. It’s really not. This is the Manchester United Justification Argument. It’s part of the guilt talk, the complex arrangement of Manchester United fan make-up.
Ask a stranger who they support and if it turns out it’s Manchester United, they won’t just say ‘Manchester United – what about you?’. They’ll explain they’ve been a fan for 20 years, 30 years, 40 years since Robson or Best or before United started winning things again. They remember their father/uncle/gran instilling in them a love for the Theatre Of Dreams, a hardwired mourning for those killed in the Munich air disaster, a desire to always see a particular brand of attacking football. They’ll never just say, we’ll never just say, ‘Manchester United’.
Part of the reason for the guilt is distance. A lot of United fans, a huge volume of United fans, don’t live in Manchester. Therefore, to show we’re REAL football fans, we have to over-explain. Quite why Liverpool fans who live outside Liverpool, or Arsenal or Celtic or Rangers fans who are not local to their clubs don’t feel this desire is unclear. Maybe we’re more soulful.
Tied to this is the need to be clear that we DO go to matches.
Like this: my A Level results weren’t great, and my choice of university was informed both by where I could secure a place and by proximity to Old Trafford. I went to Preston so I could get to the games. At that time midweek matches, standing in the Paddock of the Stretford End before it was rebuilt, were £7. You could walk up and pay on the gate. So I could afford to see Giggs rise and McClair and Hughes and the Ferguson era really kick off.
And this brings us to another of the reasons for the guilt: success. While it’s becoming something of a fading memory, for a generation, Manchester United were really, really, really good. Manchester United won everything. And therefore to admit to being a follower was to expose yourself as a goal-hanging glory hunter – the worst sort of Johnny-come-lately with none of the depth of the true fan.
It got bad at the fag-end of the Britpop Lad culture era. I was working as a music journalist in London and it became the very thing to show your hips by naming the under-performing lower division team you supported, to show you understood real football.
Once, in a moment for which I still feel shame, I claimed to be above all a Ballymena United fan. The lie unravelled quickly, given that I’d never been to a Ballymena United match, but the stain remains. I started travelling to Old Trafford again.
The guilt now is of a different sort. It’s because of money. The vast sums swirling around feel so alien, so ugly, that you begin to question the very fabric of the game. And Manchester United are SOOOOOO rich. Last year they took in more than £580million. And that will only grow. The salaries paid are beyond comprehension. £350,000 per week – PER WEEK – for Sanchez. Football, decreasingly, is the working man’s game. Unless you work in Silicon Valley start-ups that you’ve sold to Google. It’s hard to stomach.
When I read of a good man like Juan Mata trying to do something about this, trying to encourage all top-level professional footballers in Europe to tithe just 1% of their salary to help footballing charities around the world, I want to roar loudly that THIS is Manchester United. Then I see how many of his teammates have joined the pledge. None.
And so, the compound guilt makes me want to celebrate when Bristol City beat United in the League Cup, or when Huddersfield embarrass Pogba.
The best I have ever felt in a football ground was when Hibs won the Scottish Cup at Hampden in May 2016.
So many threads came together. The 114-year wait, Gray’s incredible 90th-minute winner, that joyous fan stampede onto the pitch (I refuse to be judgemental about it) – all of this was distilled into a moment as more than 20,000 Hibs fans sang, as one, Sunshine on Leith. The power of that song, the incredible, impossible, unvarnished, hymnal joy, made me realise that HERE was football.
And it made me feel that Manchester United had gone away, left this behind. That United the successful, obscenely wealthy club, my club, were not capable of these moments any more.
Why carry the guilt? Why bother? All is dissolved and gone.
Then, you get a ticket.
And you’re off the tram at Warwick Road. And you’re walking up Sir Matt Busby Way and you hear snatches of conversations about formations and excitement and predictions. The flag sellers still with more King Eric than anybody else, hot dogs and United We Stand. And you have THAT feeling.
The Munich clock, where the south stand meets the east, fixed in time forever. And the feeling grows. You walk into the stadium, THAT stadium, and the noise buzzes and suddenly it’s almost three o’clock and The Stone Roses’ This Is The One starts and you feel tears prickle and it’s the same EVERY time (why does it get you every time!) and there is no guilt and there is no explaining. There are just those 11 men in red out there, there in this moment.
And there is Best and Law and Charlton. And Stiles and Gregg and Edwards. There is McIlroy and Macari and McQueen, McGrath and Whiteside and Keane. There’s Sparky, Schmeichel and Giggs, McClair, Scholes and Butt and Cole. There is Carrick and Rio and there is Sir Alex and Sir Matt. There is Big Viv, Albiston and Parker, Irwin, Silvestre and Evra. There is Wayne and Beckham and Ole and Ronaldo.
And then there is always, always, always Eric Cantona.