It would have been sometime around 1995 or 1996 when I first watched a game of football. It was the season of Newcastle’s collapse, of “I’d Love It!” and supposedly not being able to win anything with kids.
I grew up in a non-football household with not a single family member showing the slightest interest in it or indeed any other professional sport for that matter. I owe my initial footballing education to a boy who lived across the street when I was only 8 years old. It was the early days of Sky Sports and the FA Carling Premiership (as it was then known) when the pre-packaged, event-like status of each match was truly taking off. The presentation of Richard Keys (shudder), Andy Gray (shudder) and the peerless Martin Tyler made every 90 minutes seem vital, essential viewing for any aspiring football fan. The boy’s father was the only person I knew who had access to live football (yes live, not just the selective once weekly highlights on BBC’s Match Of The Day), the exclusivity making it even more special. I don’t remember the exact moment, or even the exact game. Only that there was a time when football was an unknown irrelevance to me, and then suddenly the only thing that mattered.
The jarring goalkeeper shirts of Peter Schmeichel, Giggsy’s curly mop and the upturned collar of Eric The King are just three of the images that now seem emblazoned forever in my memory. It began with a battered VHS tape that would arrive each Tuesday morning containing the action from the night before. Monday Night Football was on too late for a kid like me who still thought Power Rangers were the epitome of cool and thus I would wait expectantly for the recording to be delivered each week by my mate’s dad. As they were both United fans then these were the only games I received. It was then, with a certain inevitability that I became enamoured with the Theatre of Dreams and Fergie’s Fledgelings as they chomped away at Newcastle’s healthy lead. Each tape held one game, Manchester United versus Southampton stands out for some reason but I can’t remember why, especially when the picture was jumpy, constantly requiring the tracking to be adjusted. Plus, with no sound. Without Tyler’s dulcet tones and the roar of the Old Trafford faithful, I was left to fall in love with football on my own terms. No grisly ex-pros were there to influence my own reading of the game, telling me which players were having a stinker or how the latest South American import ‘didn’t like it up at em’ on a cold night at Burnden Park. It most likely had something to do with the encryption placed on putting satellite TV onto VHS but I didn’t care. I shrieked and yelped by best impressions of Messrs Motson, Davies and Co., providing my own narrative by commentating on contrastingly dull and pulsating affairs.
Of course, it helped that Manchester United was winning and that they played such an exciting brand of football, full of heart and commitment. However, from the moment I began sourcing my football from a Man United-dominated household, there was a certain inevitability about where my loyalties would end up. By the end of that wonderful season, I recall receiving another video, this time a season review entitled ‘The Double Double Winners’ that showed every goal, the ill-fated grey kit and the emergence of a new team that would grow to conquer Europe within a couple of years. That 90 minutes or so of edited highlights encapsulate everything about why I follow United; belief, vibrancy, hard work, youth, nouse, class, flair and all that purveyed over by a Scot who has been sitting in the dugout longer than I’ve been on this earth.
The term ‘glory-hunter’ is one I’ve come to accept now though it still rather sticks in the throat. I know I’m not a Mancunian or have any real affiliation to the city of Manchester. I probably should have supported one of my local teams to guide me; Shrewsbury Town, Crewe Alexandra or someone of that ilk, but I had no father figure to guide me along that path. I ended up being a product of my environment; watching re-runs with a mad Man United fan that lived across the street. It could have just as easily been Liverpool, Everton or Hamilton Academicals and I grant that United’s success made it more difficult to escape their clutches, especially for an impressionable youngster just wanting to fit in with his mate.
Those crackly VHS tapes were the foundation stones but my dedication to football and United was solidified by a trip to see a European game under the floodlights in the autumn of 1996. Rapid Vienna travelled to Old Trafford for what was a largely uneventful match, notable for Ole Solskjaer having his crown jewels crushed at the hands of an Austrian defender whose name escapes me. From the fanfare of the Champions League anthem to the fluttering of the large football-like bed sheet in the centre circle, I was hooked. Those forays north to sit in the Stretford End have sadly been few and far between given the rising costs and insatiable demand amongst supporters but I continue to follow the Red Devils’ progress from the comfort of my armchair, at least for the present.
So, my allegiances are laid bare for the world to see. Most people who know me know I support United, but as I make my first few tentative blogging steps, I thought it prudent to put forth the whys and the wherefores behind the colours pinned to my sporting mast. This piece may sound like one long nostalgia-tinged soaked-in-a-rose-tinted-bath of footballing memories and, for the most part, it is. I love United but I love football more. If told to choose between the two I would continue watching the game as it is the intrigues and intricacies that make up the sports wider narrative. The devil is in the detail. We love it because of the subplots, the rivalries, the ex-player returning to his old stamping ground and the statistics that hang around the necks of once hotshot strikers suffering a barren patch in front of goal. Without United, all these factors would remain and though supporters and fandom is the lifeblood of the game, I would still watch Rotherham against Accrington Stanley quite happily in order to fill an afternoon.