The Brand

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Saturday January 26th 2013 – FA Cup 4th Round – Manchester United (Red/White) 4 Fulham (White/Black) 1 at Old Trafford, KO 17:30pm. DSC00174

Attendance 72,596, admission £42, programme £3, match rating 3/5.

Best laid plans and all that! When I’d booked my ticket for this tie, it had been with intention of visiting a new non league ground in Manchester, before heading over to Old Trafford for the five thirty kick off for game 11 in my ‘Path to Wembley’ >

The extreme overnight snow storms put paid to that modus operandi, as apparently a foot of snow had fallen on large chunks of the North West.
On the journey up, Trafford FC , my first option (Salford City, No2 had already been PPd), could not be bothered to answer the phone or even leave a recorded message, so I decided to drive to Shawe View, I had plenty of time and it’s only four and half miles from there to Old Trafford. DSC00154

As I drove past fields with three or four inches of snow on them, I had very little hope of this game ever being on, but somehow it’s so much easier to tolerate a postponement when you see the ground and pitch yourself.
So it was that I skidded across the very slushy club car park at 1330, to then take a peer over the wall, to see, as expected, a snow-covered pitch, with the goals not even in situ.
Hey ho, a quick call to the secretary of East Manchester FC, who have a 3G pitch, and play in Manchester League gave me some peace of mind when he advised “all games off in the league mate”, as they use a 3G pitch, SO, I thought, that’s it, no double-header for me today.

Thankfully, as ever I travelled with my good beer guide, and twenty minutes later I was sitting in a comfy gastro pub in Chorlton cum-hardy, with a lovely pint of smoky porter awaiting some food, at least in the knowledge I had a game a little later to enjoy.

This was my eleventh visit to Old Trafford since 1979, nine versus Palace, and one England game v Greece in 2001, when a late David Beckham free kick goal gave us qualification for World Cup 2002. I’d never visited the stadium as a ‘neutral’, and was wondering how I’d enjoy the experience. My club has had a fractious relationship with United in the past, I was at the infamous ‘Cantona’ game, when Eric had decided to re-enact the Bruce Lee in the family enclosure of the main stand at Selhurst Park, and I can still remember to this day Paul Ince trading punches at the front of the stand, one of those, did that really happen moments? DSC00155

Sadly, as a direct result of his losing control after some abuse from a numpty Palace fan, it led to an FA ban, but the saga rumbled on. It was puzzling to me that he wasn’t sentenced to a few weeks thinking time in one of her Majesty’s public hotels? If it had happened outside a pub I’m sure that would have been the case.As it was, the atmosphere at the FA Cup Semi Final two months later at Villa Park was vile, and there were some serious horror stories heard after of United fans verbal abuse, and worse of Palace fans that day.

Of course, all this paled into insignificance later when we heard that a Palace fan (Paul Nixon) had died in a pub car park in Walsall pre match. Apparently after a group of Palace fans had been attacked when returning to their coach, seemingly running to escape he fell or was pushed under the wheels of the coach.
The match, in front of a full house at Villa Park was drawn 2-2, and a replay was scheduled for the following mid-week. Palace appealed to the FA to cancel the replay at least for another seven days as a mark of respect and Palace themselves suggested perhaps our fans should not attend in protest.

The FA in their usual wisdom were deaf to this idea, and the game was played out with just a little over 20,000 fans in attendance, with only about 2,500 Palace fans bothering to turn up. The 1-0 defeat hardly mattered, and I’ve always felt since then that some football fans need to get a grip of reality, and clearly place too much importance on their hero-worship on their favourites, yes, Cantona was a great player, no doubt. But as a character he was flawed, and his over reaction and response to his sending off that Feb evening set off a wicked chain reaction, described above, that I suspect he gave or gives little thought to, even to this day. As for that nonsense about seagulls following trawlers, well, honestly!

So, shame that such a wonderful gifted footballer should be remembered for, by at least one set of fans for an act of belligerence that ultimately highlighted the responsibility players have when they set foot on the pitch. Bill Shankly’s famous words were meant to be tongue in cheek, but never did those words sound more hollow than at that time. If you don’t know them, google, Shankly life and death.
That United fans still sing praise for Eric I guess is not surprising, he transformed their fortunes with his wonderful off the cuff ability, a player that probably made more of an impression in that era than any other. But sadly, when I hear Cantona’s name, I’m just reminded of a pub car park in Walsall and someone losing their life because of the football team they supported, it should never be as important as that, very sad.

So, in some ways, this visit was a way for me to try to cleanse my memories, and hopefully create a better feeling about United. What would I think stepping into the ‘self proclaimed’ theatre of dreams?
It was somewhat surprising to hear that United had not won the famous old trophy since 2004, although they have eleven wins to their name, a record.
What was a little hard to take was the guy on the PA, pitchside, to make reference, more than once, to United being the “Greatest club in the World”.
Well this might be true, possibly, although perhaps the likes of Barca and Real Madrid might have something to say about that? but this arrogance doesn’t sit well with me, and I wonder why they feel the need? Perhaps this feeling of superiority, backed up by trophies over the years is what attracts fans to travel there from all over the UK, as well as globally? DSC00163

What was very clear was that Fulham’s fans held out no hope of progression, honestly for an FA Cup tie at OT, a turnout of 3/400 max for a club who attracts gates to 20,000 plus for home games was little short of pathetic. Although in defence, I guess when you play them in the league as well the big game at OT doesn’t quite have the same appeal? Yes it was live on ESPN, but how many have access to this, and really to stand any chance of winning in front of 72K you need your fans behind you.
I sat in the South Stand, in the corner, over the tunnel between that stand and the Stretford end stand, a pretty good view, although leg room was fairly limited, a first for me at a football ground, were toilets for ‘boys’ and ‘gents’.

Berbatov made his return to OT, leading the line for Fulham alongside Brian Ruiz, ‘Berba’ was given a warm reception by the fans, and his class and quality on the ball was clear to see, his big problem, especially away from home is a lack of pace, the ball has to be played into his feet, and he didn’t link well with fellow forward Ruiz.

Frankly, the game was already up after two minutes, after a flailing Fulham hand, which I later heard was attached to Aaron Hughes, flapped at the ball.
The ever young Giggs converted, and United never looked back. Fulham rarely got out of their own half in the first half, and when they did, their build up play was far to laborious, not helped by far too much passing of the ‘sideways’ variety from Stephen Sidwell.

Rooney and Hernandez were always buzzing around up front, and Carrick seemed to have a firm control of the centre of the park. Rafael really impressed me at right back, with his surging runs and good use of the ball. Schwarzer in the Fulham goal made a couple of good saves and it was rather surprising it only stayed one nil at half time.
But on fifty two minutes Rooney scored the best goal of the game, some great footwork fooling a couple of static defenders before he hit a firm shot into the bottom corner, it was ‘definitely’ all up for Fulham now!
Just two minutes later however, Hernandez struck with a neat finish after good build up play and cross from that man Rooney again, 3-0.

After 66 minutes it was four, after Hernandez shot wrong footed Schwarzer and squeezed inside his left post.
There was just time for Hughes to score a consolation goal, a header from a corner, but that was all it was. Fulham had offered little, and their paltry away following started to drift away.

The atmosphere had remained muted throughout, yes the Stretford end had attempted to get some songs going, and their display of banners and flags hanging from the upper tier was impressive, but I had the feeling I was at a friendly international at Wembley, such was the lack of interaction and response from those in the stands to what was happening on the pitch, if the fans really cared, they were keeping quiet about it.
Perhaps it was the inept display from the visitors, or the sheer size of the stadium, but it was so quiet, and hard to comprehend seventy-two thousand people were present.
Ten, fifteen minutes from the end, the crowd started leaving in droves, and the game petered out on the pitch.
It was Great to see Scholes introduced as a late sub, he almost took out Berbatov with a typical mistimed late tackle that produced a large Ooohh, and then a chuckle from the crowd!

You couldn’t help but admire the technique, movement and ability of the United players. But, perhaps because of their success there is an expectation to always beat teams like Fulham, and therefore the fans don’t get up for the game?, I’m not sure. Whatever, it’ll take a very good team to knock United out of the Cup this year. And for ‘ole times’ sake I’d not begrudge Giggsy and Scholsey lifting another trophy in their twilights years! As the guy next to me left, he said “hope you enjoyed it”, I did, but with reservations, realising that these days grass roots football is where my passion is, but I’m glad I took this neutral perspective of a day out at the largest club ground in the UK.

Now I feel the urge to visit a FC United of Manchester home game and experience the atmosphere there, which I’ve heard is quite unique and rather, to want of a better phrase, ‘old school’ due to the enthusuiasm for this fan owned club.


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