On the evening of Friday 13th November, terrorists attacked several sites in Paris, including the Stade de France, where France hosted Germany in a friendly, and a concert hall, where the Eagles of Death Metal were playing. 128 people are known to have died. We stayed up late listening to the news, and I went to sleep not knowing if my Parisienne friends were all okay. Thank God, they were. We’ve woken up early on Saturday morning to get the train to Manchester for the UNICEF Match for Children, and I’m in a sombre mood. I’m glad it’s a friendly, and I’m glad it’s a charity game, as I don’t really feel able to scream and shout and get behind a team today. Football and rock, my two loves, have been hurt, innocent people are dead, and it seems fitting that we are today getting behind a worthwhile charity that helps children who are in poverty and who are affected by conflict. I think the mood in the ground will be similarly sombre, especially as so many legends of French football will be on the pitch, though I wonder if some will actually make it.
This is a Britain and Ireland XI v a Rest of the World XI, captained by Beckham and Zidane. I’ve seen Beckham play several times but I’ve never seen Zidane. SpursBoy bought the tickets only knowing these scant details, so the rest of the lineup has come as a pleasant surprise. As well as the old Utd players we will see Pires, Vieira, Seaman, and Sol Campbell…SpursBoy is not entirely happy about that one!
Pretty much everyone on our the train from Euston is going to the match. The talk is about who is going to be playing and of course about the attacks. It’s very lively, and a bit like an old-school football special. The train is running on time and trundles through the bleak nothingness of Staffordshire and onto the North. We go past Stockport, and start planning our next trip up here; ideally a double-header with Stockport on a Saturday and City on a Sunday.
I’ve been to Old Trafford a few times, obviously with Arsenal back in the early ’90’s, but also in a famous Barnet game in the League Cup in 2005. We took 19 coaches up on a cold weekday evening, lost 4-1, and had a brilliant time. Our keeper, Ross Flitney, was sent off in the first minute, unfairly, for handling the ball outside the area, and I remember the home fans rather brilliantly applauding him off. We went one down from the free kick, and as each goal went in the song changed..”we’re gonna win 2-1”, “we’re gonna win 3-2” etc. We spent the second half singing “Have you ever won the conference have you F***?” and when Dean Sinclair scored we went nuts! One of the best away games I’ve ever been to, and one of the reasons I love lower-league football.
We find our hotel, the Trafford Hall Hotel, which was probably grand once but is now a little tired. But it’s clean, it’s cheap, the staff are friendly and it’s a short walk from the stadium. They are in the process of doing it up and it’s definitely a good choice if you are going to either football or cricket in Manchester.
Walking through the rain towards the Theatre of Dreams brings back memories. I see the famous Lou Macari Chip Shop, which I’d not thought about for 20 years, and SpursBoy spots the ‘Legends’ snack bar, which has pictures of all the Utd legends on the outside but mysteriously shows Beckham in an LA Galaxy shirt. We take a wander around the stadium, looking at and taking photos of all the statues; Busby, Fergie, and the ‘United Trinity’ of Law, Best and Charlton. We see the Munich Clock, and walk around to the Munich Tunnel. I’m taking photos of everything, and a steward spots me and says “I can see you never been here before!” “I have”, I tell him, “a few times, but usually I’m only allowed around the away end”. This time, we have tickets for the Stretford End, and I feel a bit like a usurper and a rebel, in my Arsenal hat and Barnet scarf and shirt.
I didn’t know what the Munich Tunnel was, and I wasn’t expecting the emotion. The loss of Duncan Edwards and the other victims of the crash wasn’t just a tragedy for Manchester United but was a tragedy for the whole of English football and for world football. To read about these fantastic players, and what could and should have been, is something which I’m not ashamed to say makes me cry, and on an already emotional day, and in the context of the Paris attacks, we both take a moment. Every football fan should come up here to pay their respects. Everyone should know about this tragedy.
We go into the ground, surrounded by the irritating sound of kids with Vuvuzelas. SpursBoy gets a text from the club confirming that the game is going ahead, which is a lucky as it’s already 2pm and we’re here! They issue a nice statement about Paris and about why they felt it was important to play, and I agree that it would be wrong to change our lives and give into these scum, especially when this is a charity fundraiser.
We go to buy a couple of bottles of cider from the concession in the concourse. The woman next to me is kicking up a fuss because she wants the lid to the bottle of coke she’s just bought, and after she and her idiot boyfriend have gone, after having insulted the people working there, I look exasperated and point out that she’d clearly never been to a football match before if she thinks she can keep the lid. I can’t stand people who are rude like this, especially to people working in the service sector.
The facilities are pretty good. There are decent toilets, the cider more expensive than Arsenal, but they do pretty good meal deals. A very funny steward tells us that he is going to allow us to drink in our seats because he wants us to have a good time, and it turns out that we are all allowed to because it’s not being televised.
Jack Whitehall is compare for the day, and he is good. On giving the teams, he introduces “one of the most popular players here today, Ashley Cole!” and “taking time from the Chelsea relegation battle, John Terry!” He also called Beckham’s team the “England and Ryan Giggs XI” which rather overlooks Darren Fletcher. Sadly, there is no Vieira and no Zidane, with Luis Figo taking over captaining duties, but we do have the presence of the amazing Robert Pires. We also have Andrea Bocelli performing before the game, but we can’t see him. Sounds pretty good though.
We have a minute’s silence for France. It is observed impeccably, and the only noise to be heard is that of the rain falling onto the roof.
The game starts, and it’s clear to see who has still got it and who hasn’t. There are immediately three great saves by Edwin Van De Sar, who frankly should still be playing. All the old Man Utd boys still have it, even if they are a little slower than before, and on 31 minutes a cross comes in from Beckham which is headed in by Scholes. Looking at the English players today – David James, Scholes, Beckham, Cole, Butt, Carragher – I really can’t understand how England never won a trophy when these players were at their peak. Of course Scholes retired from international dury, a decision which at the time I really didn’t like.
As I look through the teams, I look at Terry and Cole, and I realise there are more players on the pitch I dislike than like. And then Dwight Yorke comes on for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and I boo even more. Not a fan.
Peter Crouch is one of the few on the pitch who are still playing regulalry. I like Crouchy, especially after reading an interview with him in ‘Four Four Two’ when his answer to the question “What would you have been if you hadn’t been a Premiership football?” was “a virgin.” He is getting a good reception. Carragher is getting booed mercilessly, and is playing up to it. Terry is also getting booed, but Giggs and Becks get cheers every time they touch the ball. There is a great atmosphere in the ground, and the quality of football is much higher than I thought it would be.
It’s half time, and Rita Ora comes on to have a bit of a sing song. I have no real idea who she is, and I think her songs are pony, so I don’t pay much attention, being more concerned about the fact that I can’t get the Barnet score as the phone reception isn’t very good.
The second half sees David James be subbed for David Seaman, and Sol Campbell comes on for
Terry. Not only does this mean that Seaman and Campbell are reunited again, but Seaman gets to face his old foe Ronaldinho! There seems to be a bit of a cheeky rapport between them, and when Seaman saves an attempted Ronaldinho chip he looks at him as if to say “You’ll not catch me out again!”
Phil Neville is having a bit of a laugh with the linesman, at one point pretending to be angry with him and booting the ball just to the right of him against the advertising hoarding. Neville is another player who is just as skillful as before, if a little slower.
Crouch makes way for Michael Owen, and again he gets a massive cheer. I always think of him as a Liverpool player, so I am surprised at the good reaction. I take his substitution as an opportunity for a black boot count, and am impressed to see it’s 3-3.
A lovely little move on 66 sees Beckham cross to Scholes then Scholes tap it onto Owen for the second goal to the GB & Ireland team (that contains no Irishmen) and two minutes later Yorke scores for the ROW. I boo. My love for Bobby does not outweigh my dislike of Yorke, and now that Terry has gone off I can start supporting GB now!
On 76, the substitution of the century; number 7, Beckham, replaced by number 7, Beckham! Young Brooklyn isn’t so young now, and is a nifty little player. I mentioned to SpursBoy that he’s probably been having a kick about with Giggsy and Scholes in the back garden since he was a nipper, and he puts in a decent cross that nearly results in a Scholes goal. He got released by the Arsenal academy last season, but on the strength of this game he really should be picked up by someone.
Sol Campbell, bless him, is far from match fit, and asked to be taken off. Due to a shortage of substitutes, we then end up with two number 7’s, both Beckham, and my head explodes at the flagrant breach of FIFA regulations! There are cheers now when either Beckham gets the ball, and they are almost deafening when they pass to each other!
Owen scores again with goal with 5 minutes to go, through a keeping howler from Van Der Gouw, who had replaced Van Der Sar at half time. The attendance of 75,831 was called out, and the whistle goes.
It was a really good game. It was great to be part of this worthwhile cause and to see the United legends come back, and for all these players to have given up their time makes me feel a little bit of faith in the football and in the fact that there are still decent charitable people in the world.
We walk of to Salford Quays for beer and a curry with Billy the Manc-based Watford fan who we’ve arranged to meet. It’s been an incredibly emotional few days, but I’m ever so glad that we came to this and I’m certainly cheered up by the experience. I don’t know if or when I’ll ever get to Old Trafford again, but if this was my last time, it was certainly a memorable way to say goodbye. Almost as memorable as that Dean Sinclair goal 10 years ago…