This felt more like a home movie than a documentary, but I mean that in the most positive of ways. It was like catching up with old friends. People whom I hadn’t seen for years. Arthur Albiston. Kevin Moran. Norman Whiteside. Paul Parker. Ron Atkinson was like some embarrassing old great-uncle who always says the wrong thing and makes everyone cringe! Some were people we still see regularly. Bryan Robson, my childhood hero 🙂 . David Beckham, still one of us even if he’s a world famous megastar living in America. And, of course, Eric Cantona. Wearing a flat cap and making cryptic comments, although at least he didn’t mention seagulls.
People were relating little anecdotes, like you do at family gatherings. Players reminisced about Alex Ferguson making them have margarine instead of butter, and talked about feeling like part of a family, part of a tribe. United director Mike Edelson, whose daughters were at school with my sister and me, told the bizarre tale of how, in 1986, he rang the Aberdeen FC switchboard, put on a fake Scottish accent and pretended to be Gordon Strachan’s agent, knowing that he’d never be put through to Alex Ferguson if he was known to be from United.
I was hoping that it’d tell the full story, starting in 1878, but it started with the Busby Babes and ended with That Night in Barcelona in 1999. So it wasn’t really a history of Manchester United: as I’ve said, it was more like a home movie. Was that really 22 years ago? “Who put the ball in the Germans’ net?” I’ve got a miniature troll which I bought on holiday on Norway in 2004, and he’s called Ole Gunnar, long before anyone ever dreamt that Solskjaer would one day be the manager. Well, what else could I have called him?! A girl in my year at school had a dog named after Kevin Moran. Plenty of people have named babies, never mind trolls or dogs, after footballers. This is what we do. This is us.
The word “Glazer” was never mentioned. Nor, for that matter, was the word “Knighton” or the word “Maxwell”. No mention of boardroom politics. No mention of sponsors. No mention of TV companies. Not even any mention of the changeover from the Football League to the Super League. Instead, we had appearances from Shaun Ryder and Bez from Happy Mondays, and Peter Hook from New Order, all lifelong United fans. And Andy Burnham, who, although we all know he supports Everton, was welcome because we know he loves football. He mentioned that his dad, working in Manchester at the time, went to the first match after the Munich Air Disaster. So did my dad, with his dad.
This is us. This is coming out of school and learning from the Manchester Evening New billboards that Ron Atkinson had been sacked. No mobile phones in those days. The odd Walkman made its way into school, but I’m not sure that we had Walkmans with radios in 1986. We certainly did by 1990/91, because I remember sneaking mine in so that I didn’t have to wait until I got home to hear the Cup Winners’ Cup draws for the next round! This is arguing (amiably, ish!) on the school bus with kids who support City. And this is hundreds of thousands of people packing into town to cheer the treble-winning team on their open top bus tour when they got back from That Night in Barcelona.
Let’s get back there. It’d be very nice indeed to get back to the glory days of 1999, but, first, let’s get back to having packed stadia, and to having people crowding into the streets to cheer on teams after winning a trophy or winning promotion. And let’s get back to everyone accepting that the clubs belong to us, to generations of loyal fans.
We got a bit of general social history. Partly from Andy Burnham. Partly, bizarrely, from Michael Heseltine and Neil Kinnock: I’ve got no idea how they got in on the programme! And we got the general story. From 1958 to 1999 only. If you’re actually reading this, you’ll probably know it all. The glory of the Busby Babes. The tragedy of Munich. Matt Busby’s incredible building of a new team. The European Cup triumph in 1968. The struggles after Sir Matt retired. 26 years without a league title. Tommy Docherty running off with Laurie Brown’s wife. The drinking culture in the Atkinson years.
And the struggles in the early Fergie years. We didn’t appreciate quite what a mess he had to sort out. By early 1990, there were all sorts of stupid jokes flying round. “Alex Ferguson, OBE – out before Easter.” “What’s red and costs £15 million?” “An expensive tomato.” £15 million was an awful lot of money in pre Premier League days. And the Mark Robins goal that saved us all! Then the nightmare of 1991/92, when we blew it. Signing Eric. And then the joy of 1993, and the many wonderful years that followed. They didn’t end in 1999, but I suppose it seemed like a good place for the programme to end.
It’s 22 years to the day since That Night in Barcelona. I’m hoping that that’s a good omen for tonight’s Europa League final in Gdansk. In 1983, the year that my little self finally convinced my dad that I’d behave if he took me to Old Trafford, and I attended my first match (we beat Stoke 1-0), Lech Walesa, Gdansk’s most famous son, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but he couldn’t accept it in person because he was afraid that the Polish communist government wouldn’t let him back into the country afterwards. And in Valencia, home of Villarreal, tonight’s opponents, it was only a year since Spain had completed its transition to democracy after the death of Franco. I feel really old now I’ve written that!
Anyway, we’ll all be watching, wherever we are. Alex Ferguson. Eric Cantona. David Beckham. Bryan Robson. The musicians, the politicians, the journalists, and everyone else who featured in this programme. Like Eric said, we’re a tribe. And, whilst this won’t be winning any awards for great documentary making, it wasn’t half great viewing!