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Heaven knows we were Les Miserables then

04/25/2017

It’s twenty five years since, what remains for many Manchester United fans of a certain age, one of the most gut wrenching days (and weeks) in our modern history. At the risk of inducing nightmarish flashbacks here’s a few memories from April 1992. Those of a slightly nervous disposition should look away now.

People sometimes remark that I have a decent memory for dates. I’m not entirely convinced about that but I do know that, after years of following Manchester United and now FC United of Manchester home and away, I find that I often connect events in my day to day life to particular football matches. Discussing Al Pacino recently with someone at work the conversation turned to the film Scent of a Woman for which he won an Oscar. “What year was that?” pondered my colleague. In the blink of an eye I knew it was 1993. Not because I have a particularly extensive knowledge of the films of Al Pacino but purely because I remember going to see it at the cinema on that golden afternoon that Oldham beat Aston Villa and United were crowned champions for the first time in twenty six years.

Sometimes the links are more tenuous. Like the year of a family trip to Blackpool illuminations recalled purely because of a midweek European match. Driving home from the seaside I can recall night time Radio Two crackling away on the car wireless, as we kept an ear out for the score in United’s UEFA Cup first leg match at PSV Eindhoven. It was 1984. Around that time I had a notebook in which I used to keep a record of all United’s games, the teams, the scorers, attendances etc and sometimes I wrote a mini match report. I was a right laugh as a teenager me but the legacy is an ability to recall the dates of often obscure fixtures.

And so it was that I was reminded of one of the most painful moments of United’s modern history on a trip to the theatre last year. On my last week in my previous job a group of us went to watch Les Miserables in London’s West End. We’d been meaning to go to the theatre for a while and, as I was leaving, I got to choose what we saw. The Phantom Of The Opera was mooted but frankly, I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than give a single penny of my hard earned to the loathsome Lloyd Webber, the multi-millionaire Tory peer who infamously flew back from New York to vote in the House of Lords in favour of cutting tax credits for some of the poorest people in the country.

Instead, I plumped for “Les Mis” as it’s one of the longest running shows in the West End (selling itself as “the world’s most popular musical”), and because everyone I know who has seen it, and some have seen it multiple times, said unfailingly that they enjoyed it immensely and invariably added “you should go and see it”. Oh and it’s got a bit of politics in it set as it is in post-revolutionary France and culminating in the Paris Uprising of 1832. I’m always a sucker for a red flag or two.

It was, I think, only the fourth musical that I’ve seen since we moved down to London nine years ago, and one of those was only because my partner got some freebie tickets through work. Strange really as both my parents love musicals and I grew up in a town where going to see one of the big shows was the centrepiece of most peoples’ occasional trips to the big smoke. It was almost a case of, well, why else would you possibly want to visit London? It still makes me smile when I see coaches from northern towns lined up along the Embankment on weekend afternoons, bored drivers waiting for matinees to end before collecting their punters for the journey back north.

But after sitting through two hours and fifty minutes of what is widely acknowledged to be one of the finest musicals of all time, I have to conclude that it’s an art form that I just don’t “get”. And I’m not convinced I ever will. It’s not that I disliked Les Mis but simply that it just didn’t stir the juices. For starters I didn’t recognise any of the songs. Not one. Which isn’t really a good start with a musical. My workmates looked askance. Surely you must have heard this one? Or this one? But, no, none, not a single one. Apparently Susan Boyle sang “I Dreamed A Dream” on Britain’s Got Talent a few years back and it went viral on the internet. But like most of what happens on reality television it completely passed me by.

Perhaps what is far worse though than all of this is that my abiding memory of Les Miserables will remain a football related one from a Sunday in April 1992. April 26th 1992 to be precise. That afternoon United lost 2-0 away at Liverpool to complete a thoroughly miserable week of football (three defeats in seven days) that had seen us blow, quite spectacularly, the chance of actually winning the league for the first time in a quarter of a century. A footballing capitulation of Devon Loch proportions. Earlier in the month, in pole position with games in hand on a Leeds team that appeared to be feeling the pressure of the title run-in it seemed only a matter of when, rather than if, we could start making plans for an open top bus parade. The United We Stand fanzine declared that we would be “Champions At Last” and there weren’t many of us who disagreed.

There was reason for optimism on the political front too as 1992 was also a General Election year and this time it looked like, maybe just maybe, Labour might actually stick it to the Tories. On the last day of March as we drove away from Carrow Road after United’s win against Norwich the radio news announced that Labour had a seven point lead in the latest opinion poll. There was barely a week to go until election day. Surely they wouldn’t mess this up. It felt like the double was on and even more so the following Saturday as Party Politics won me a topical few quid on the Grand National and city thumped Leeds 4-0.

Of course Labour’s opinion poll lead soon evaporated. The Sun did its worst and an overly triumphalist Labour party rally in Sheffield probably didn’t help the party’s cause amongst floating voters either. It looked like the political equivalent of singing “we’re gonna win the league” too soon. Nevertheless going into election day there was still hope of success with many commentators predicting a hung parliament. But not long after midnight on election night as a grinning Tory with bad hair triumphed in the bellwether seat of Basildon, I headed to bed. Essex Man had spoken and after thirteen years of divisive Tory rule it felt like a kick in the teeth. At work in an office in Cambridge the following day I refused a lunchtime invitation to go out and celebrate the Tories’ election victory. I was despondent but at least there was United’s first title in yonks to look forward to.

Or so we thought. But almost unbearably the flame of hope that burned so brightly at the end of March rapidly became a roaring Dantean inferno of despair as United blew it all in the space of five games in eleven dismal days in late April. A quarter of a century on it still feels like someone’s taken a dagger to my heart recalling this grisly handful of games but here goes. First up on a nervous Thursday night, a single Andrei Kanchelskis goal gave us a 1-0 win at home to Southampton before, two days later, a drab 1-1 draw away at a Luton side that we’d hammered earlier in the season. Then on Easter Monday, Fergie left out Mark Hughes and we lost 2-1 at home to a Forest side that we’d beaten at Wembley in the Rumbelows Cup only a few days before. By now the early season swagger had vanished and we were on the ropes. On a horrible Wednesday night at Upton Park (“Reds in Hammer horror” screamed the Mirror the following morning) an already relegated West Ham delivered the knock out blow, playing out of their skins to win 1-0. Their supporters celebrated like they’d won the World Cup. Again. Officially we lost the league at Liverpool the following Sunday but exiting Upton Park on that Wednesday night it felt like the soil was already tumbling over our heads.

By the time United took to the pitch at Anfield Leeds had won 3-2 in the lunchtime kick-off at Bramall Lane and we needed a win to take the title race into the final weekend. In truth, United played alright at Anfield, as if the unbearable weight of expectation of the last few weeks had been lifted. We hit the woodwork several times but Liverpool won 2-0. The scousers, of course, loved it, delighting in the fact that we had lost the title on Merseyside and reminding us of exactly how many times most of us had seen United win the league. As me and a mate sat tight-lipped in the Kemlyn Road stand even the stewards around us were joining in with the phlegm speckled choruses. United had lost the title at Anfield. Leeds had won the league. In football terms it truly didn’t get any fucking worse than this. Whoever uttered that phrase about us needing to experience the lows in life to truly appreciate the highs really was having a laugh.

The weekend railway engineering gods had also done their worst meaning that the only way to get back to Cambridge that evening was via London. As the sullen Euston-bound train home gathered pace through suburban Liverpool I turned to my mate and said that I didn’t think we’d ever see United win the league in our lifetimes. He muttered something in agreement and we barely exchanged a word for the rest of the trip. It felt like that was our best chance ever and we’d blown it. The double whammy of the Tories getting back in and United’s self destruction in the title race was almost too much to stomach. Would we ever get a better chance than in 1992?

After what felt like several hours we eventually disembarked at Euston and as we shuffled along the platform towards the station concourse my eyes were drawn to a series of large adverts to our left which featured the word “miserable” repeated over and over in large letters. A few years earlier in my first term at university a group of psychology students had invited some of us to take part in a study which involved sitting in a darkened room and looking at a computer screen on which were flashed random words, sometimes several at the same time, for about thirty seconds. The exercise was repeated three or four times with different sets of words and at the end of each round we were asked to spend a couple of minutes jotting down the words that we could remember seeing.

We must have seen hundreds of words on each occasion but I was only able to write perhaps a dozen down each time. And after the second round I noticed a bit of a pattern developing as I scribbled down words like “sad”, “lonely’ and “unhappy”. Of all the hundreds of words that were being thrown at me there appeared to be a theme to my choices. It wasn’t surprising in many respects as someone who has always found it difficult to make friends I was struggling hopelessly to adjust to student life, my solitary evenings of cans and crap telly not quite living up to the promised debauchery of wild student parties. I was, in many respects, perfect for this spot of amateur psychology.

On seeing the word “miserable” plastered across Euston station it briefly crossed my mind that the psychology project was being repeated. Miserable was how we undoubtedly felt so, amidst all the adverts at one of London’s biggest railway stations, miserable was what we saw. The adverts were in fact for the musical Les Miserables which had left the West End to go on tour and, at that point, was being played out at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. Hence the big advertising campaign at Euston aimed squarely at passengers clambering aboard trains to Manchester who might be unaware of their destination’s cultural offerings.

It’s an image that has seared itself into my brain to such an extent that twenty five years later whenever Les Miserables is mentioned, and even after having seen the show now, I instinctively think, not of the musical itself, but of Euston station on the 26th April 1992 and the miserable events that preceded it that day (and that week). Instead of recalling the heroic Jean Valjean, little Cosette, I Dreamed A Dream and a lovely evening out with cherished work colleagues, images of Liverpool’s beanpole striker Ian Rush scoring the first goal flicker in my mind’s eye. Ian bastard Rush who up until that point had failed to score against United in more than twenty games. And these scenes are soundtracked by songs of scouse joy, utterly jubilant that they should be the ones that denied us the championship for another year. Les Miserables? You bet we were.

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From → Personal, Sport

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