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Do you remember the first time?

12/08/2013

Jimmy Greenhoff

Nowadays there’d be photos. Lots of them. And probably posted on Facebook, Instagram or somesuch accompanied by a liberal sprinkling of exclamation marks. OMG. Wow. Back then it was different. We took only memories. A couple of days before my eighth birthday on 19th February 1977 I made my first visit to Old Trafford with my dad. My memories of the day are rather sketchy and, typically for me, mostly unrelated to what actually happened on the pitch. United beat Newcastle by three goals to one with my first football hero Jimmy Greenhoff scoring a hat trick. Whenever United are at home to Newcastle I think back to this day.

Somewhere in amongst my hoard of old football programmes there’s the one from this match. Twelve pence it was. And there’s the bit of the front cover where my younger sister, not appreciating the significance of this particular edition of the United Review, had started to colour in Tommy Docherty’s head with a yellow felt tip pen.

I can’t remember any of the goals or what sequence they were scored in. I’ve trawled the internet looking for details of the match with little success. It’s easy to forget, in these times of saturation media coverage of top flight football, how relatively scant the reporting of football was only a generation ago. But somehow, for me, recalling everthing that happened on the pitch doesn’t matter. In more than thirty six years of going to football the main attraction has not necessarily been events on the pitch but everything that goes with it; the noise, the atmosphere, the colour, the humour, the passion and the camaraderie. That’s what makes football special for me.

My main memory from my first United match was the noise. It was loud. Fifty two thousand people could make a right din. And by the final whistle this nearly-eight year old was a bit overwhelmed by it all. We’d sat in the main stand as my dad must have figured that taking me into the swaying mass of the Stretford End for my first game might be a bit much. We’d taken a flask so that we could have a hot drink at half time. It might have been tea or soup, I can’t remember, but it warmed us up on a typically cold, grey February afternoon. To be honest, I’m not totally sure whether it was that cold or grey or whether my mind has played tricks on me and somehow superimposed those bleak, yet stunning, images of Joy Division on Hulme bridge in the winter of 1979 over a February afternoon two years earlier.

Before the match we’d queued to squeeze into the cramped souvenir shop and once inside we were urged to “move along the back please”. I think we bought a red, white and black rosette. I’d already got a scarf for Christmas and an ace red United holdall bag. Along one side of it was a photograph of the 1976-77 United squad. I loved that bag and for a year or two it was my most prized possession as it accompanied me to school.

MUFC team 1977

Being an out-of-town supporter was different then. For a start, I don’t remember anyone else being into United. Many kids followed Liverpool as they won stuff. And later the playground would see an increasing number of Nottingham Forest fans as they began to win trophies as well. Even then the non-conformist in me quite liked following a different club to everyone else. And at least I got to go to a few matches. Being outnumbered I used to get a lot of ribbing about the bag and later some cheeky scamp added glasses and a false moustache to Stuart Pearson. I never did find out who did that.

In addition to the noise, there was a smell that day that has remained with me throughout my football watching days. A multi-layered mixture of fried food, cheap aftershave and tobacco smoke. Even now, when I smell tobacco smoke outdoors on a cold night it reminds me of being at a football match.

The only other time I went in the same stand was almost exactly twenty eight years later for a Champions League match against Milan. By then, I’d long since given up my season ticket and was merely a member applying for tickets for each match with no guarantee of getting any or, if you did, where you’d end up in the ground. Before the match I’d marched with hundreds of others from Old Trafford station to the ground and then around it to protest against the threatened takeover by the Glazer family. There was a lot of anger that night. We sang “not for sale” and I meant it.

MUFC not for sale

As a result of being part of the protest I arrived at my seat about five minutes after kick off. As he rose to let me through, the bloke next to me made clear his annoyance with my late arrival and as he sat down again he mentioned to the smartly dressed young woman next to him that it’s a shame that “some people” can’t arrive on time at football matches. I wanted to lean over and explain why I was late and ask him why he wasn’t also on the protest to save the club from a hostile takeover but I let it pass. It may well have been that young lady’s first visit to Old Trafford and thirty years on she might even write a piece about how some daft sod turned up late at her first ever football match.

At the end of my first game, I remember we hung back for a few minutes after the final whistle to avoid the worst of the crowds and then I clung onto my dad’s hand as we walked back to the car. Once there we put the radio on to find out the other scores but they were talking about rugby instead and a match between England and France. It seemed to be ages before anyone mentioned Jimmy Greenhoff.

Years later I visited the Tuol Sleng museum in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, probably the most horrific place I’ve visited in my life. It’s the site of a notorious prison codenamed S-21 where Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime tortured and killed thousands of prisoners during their reign of terror from 1975 to 1979. Somewhere between one and two million Cambodians, as much as a third of the country’s population, were starved to death, tortured or killed during this monstrous genocide.

Tuol Sleng

The Khmer Rouge documented their slaughter meticulously and on arrival at S-21 all prisoners were photographed and interviewed. There are hundreds of these black and white photographs on display at the museum. Faces, young and old, male and female, staring at the camera with a look of terror in their eyes. Hanging from most of the prisoners’ necks was a board with a few numbers on it; their date of arrival at Tuol Sleng. Underneath the picture of one young lad was the date “19-2-77”. He can’t have been much more than sixteen or seventeen years old. It stopped me in my tracks as I could recall exactly where I was that day; one of the happiest days of my life. It left me reflecting on the unfairness of a world where, on the same day, one young person can have such a wonderful time yet, on the other side of the globe, another young lad be faced with absolute terror.

Exactly thirty five years on from that match and I attended another game with my dad. Again, our red shirted heroes triumphed by three goals to one but this time the team in red was FC United of Manchester and the opposition was Stocksbridge Park Steels and we were at Gigg Lane in Bury. My dad had been with me to a few FC games before but I don’t think he’d really “got” what FC was all about. But this time on the tram back into town he remarked how much he’d enjoyed the match, the atmosphere and the singing and about how he looked forward to coming again. Maybe next season he would get a season ticket and come more often. We smiled at each other. I didn’t say it at the time but those few words meant a lot.

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From → Personal, Sport

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