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Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Lovable Old Git

Roger, SU stalwart, United fanatic, well regarded actor, occasional RN contributor (under the name of Old Git, though he never was one) and one of life’s good guys sadly passed away last year. He will be sorely and dearly missed. He had a character that defined what supporting Manchester United was, and should be, about. As a tribute we reproduce a piece he wrote in 1996 for Red News. We miss him already.

April 7th is a Red Letter Day for me. Or, rather, a REDS Letter Day. 50 years ago, April 7th was an Easter Monday and the games master took us to see United. Playing at Maine Road, whilst OT was being rebuilt, the first of Matt's great teams was almost complete. I'd love to say the match beating The Sheep 3-1, was a revelation; in fact, I remember little about it - perhaps a fleeting memory of Jimmy Delaney's bald head flashing down the wing and the elegant Johnny Carey (also follicly challenged) striding forward from the back - and only my match programme provides proof of the start of a 50 year love affair.

At the time, I was 'playing around'; going to, yes, I admit it, City (be fair, Frank Swift was the best goalie I've seen, Peter Schmeichel apart), as well as still seeing the first love of my footballing life, Stockport County . I do remember one match there clearly. County played the Liverpool in the 5th Round of the FA Cup. The Scouse sported Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan in defence and the centre forward immortalised by The Beatles on the cover of Sergeant Pepper, Albert Stubbins.

Alex Herd (David's father) was upended in the area and the penalty wasn't given. County, despite the efforts of 'Tiger' Bowles (Stan's father) in goal, lost 2-1.I learnt the phrase 'We wuz robbed'. This was before 'The referee's a wanker' had been invented. There was a dangerous crush in the overcrowded ground and we kids were passed over the heads of the crowd to the side of the pitch. I sat on the gravel, near enough to right winger McCulloch to have touched his boots when he took a corner. Well, that's how I remember it.

My serious relationship with United didn't start until May 1948 and it happened without even seeing them.

My mate and I listened to the Cup Final on the radio. Those who saw it say it was the greatest ever, with United behind at 1-0 and 2- 1 before winning 4-2. It was breathtaking even over the radio and the minute the final whistle blew, we rushed into the street with a football to recreate the goals, taking turns to be the goalscorers. Jack Rowley (2), Stan Pearson and John Anderson.
The team which lined up that day became a instant mantra 'CromptonCareyAstonAndersonChiltonCockburnDelaneyMorrisRowleyPearsonMitten' - and I was hooked. But these were grown men, heroes to be looked up to by a young lad, fascinating but remote, like Hollywood film stars. Then, suddenly, my first heroes had gone and the United team was full of teenagers. Duncan Edwards, Eddie Colman, David Pegg, Bobby Charlton and the other Babes were all about my age. I felt I could have been one of them, if only I'd had the talent.

My generation was sick of being told to keep quiet and let the Oldies run everything. The Babes seemed to say anything was possible, age was irrelevant. They were the signpost to the Youth Explosion of the Sixties. And when many of them went, at Munich Airport, it was like losing a brother or a friend.

Five years before the 'I remember where I was when I heard Kennedy had been assassinated' syndrome, everyone who was around Manchester on February 6th 1958 remembered when he or she heard the news.

I was an accountant's clerk, working in the dingy basement of a boiler insurance company, not far from Granada TV'S studios. About 4 o'clock in the afternoon, someone rushed in with an early edition of the Manchester Evening News, pointing to the Stop Press which said 'United Crash' and a few sentences. Work stopped. Then the rival 'Evening Chronicle' appeared. Same story. It must be true. And soon, the next edition began to sketch in the tragedy. Queues formed at news stands. The Evening News front page (I have the copy still) screamed UNITED'S CUP TEAM PLANE CRASH; "10-15 SURVIVORS". There had been no time to reset the now poignant back page headline EDWARDS SHOULD BE FIT; MORGANS DOUBT.

The next day in Manchester was eerie. There was a silence over the city. People were still queuing for papers. No one spoke much. It, wasn't the formal grief of the death of George the Sixth, six years before, it was PERSONAL. They were our friends, our children. That day, Manchester became United.

Of course, it wasn't only the Babes who died. It was the United staff and the pressmen, too. Huge Frank Swift, by then a reporter; Don Davies, the Guardian's 'Old International' (these were the days when posh papers didn't allow by-lines) and arguably the greatest football writer of them all; the outrageous Henry Rose of the Daily Express, whose purple-prosed presence at a match was billboarded HENRY ROSE IS HERE; and many more. And there were 'the forgotten ones', the ordinary people who happened to be on the same plane.

We Thought It Was All Over, but, miraculously, it wasn't, thanks to Matt and Jimmy Murphy, the surviving players and the supporters. The whole of the Manchester area willed the revival. Noone thought of suggesting that United wasn't a 'Manchester' team.

The club became the embodiment of Manchester's spirit. The cotton mills, on which Manchester's wealth and fame was founded, were dying. King Cotton was replaced by King Denis.

And with George, Bobby, Paddy and the rest came the magic. Until 1993/4 I never thought I'd see more exciting football. But it wasn't, as often portrayed, all nirvana, all Georgie running rings round Frank McLintock and leaving him sitting on his arse in the mud. By then I lived in London; my girlfriend caught me one evening, a tranny to my ear and in apparent agony. The explanation that United were losing cut no ice. 'You show more emotion for bloody United than you do for me' prompted me to take her up to OT. Twice. Both scrappy, ordinary matches and the glimpses of genius too few and far between to make my case.

The seventies and Eighties were bad times, after what had gone before. But it was a unique act of faith by the fans to believe that, not only would success return (every supporter has to believe glory is just around the corner), but that it was possible with the flair and excitement of Matt's teams. More than that, it HAD to be done that way. No grinding out Arsenal-style championships. Nothing less than creative football would honour the memory of those who had gone before.
And then, as we stood on May 3rd 1993 to 4 welcome the Champions, the act of faith was rewarded. King Denis was there for the crowning of King Eric. And in 1993/94, for me, United's football at least matched the '68 vintage. The only sadness was wondering what the Babes would have produced, given the chance. But at least the Gods blessed their memory by sending us another genius from a tough Scottish community; I bet Matt wears a permanent grin when he gives his team talk in Heaven.

Football is now fashionable, just as it was, briefly, after the 1966 World Cup Final, and vastly richer. But to those who Vincent Hanna recently called BMRs (Before Munich Reds), it has nothing to do with fashion or age or riches, whether we sit in South Stand or (try to) stand in K.

Supporting United, for me, has always included a political thread; it's about the wealth of England being created among the Dark Satanic Mills of the North (and frittered away on the symbolic Marble Halls down South), a proof that class doesn't dictate excellence and a reminder that London isn't England.

Politics aside, OT means excitement, athleticism, the joy of triumph, the despair of failure, as for other clubs. But being Man United demands more. The determination to play Pele's ‘beautiful game’,to create art (thank you, Eric) and ALWAYS to aim for the impossible. It is an example which can make millions of peoples' lives better and more fulfilling. Only the greatest politicians can say they've done that.

At the Porto home tie, as Ryan blockbusted number 3, my son flung his arms round the woman next to him. “I shall tell my grandchildren about tonight”, he screamed and then, turning to me, said quietly, “Seeing all those players out there my own age, at last I understand why you go on about the Babes”. The wheel has come full circle. And in more ways than one; if we get to the Final, we play in Munich.

I'm just grateful to have lived through this glorious 50 years of United's history - and it's wonderful that there's a new generation of fans, just as passionate and committed as we have been. So don't let us down, lads and lasses. This United stuff isn't just kids refusing to grow up, as the knockers would have it. It's serious.

Roger wrote the following in his recollections of May 26th 1999 in European Glory:

IMUSA and SUAM's campaigns and the Government's eventual rejection of the bid have been well documented, but the overriding lesson is that United are an emotional part of so many lives that woe betide anyone who messes about with something they don't understand. For the present. United is independent. But the story isn't over. The Murdoch bid threatened a divorce, but the marriage survived. Fans. via IMUSA, and shareholder fans, via SUAM's successor, Shareholders United, now have to find a way to structure the Club so its independence is never again threatened. Why Chief Executive Martin Edwards insists on being painted a villain when, by putting his shareholding into a controlling Trust, as C. P.Scott did at The Guardian, he could be a local hero, the latest in a dis tinguished line of great Manchester benefactors, is a mystery.
and he ended that piece with this postscript:

Being a United fan started, appropriately, as a slim thread running through my life, just as Granny Brierley started winding cotton in Stockport's Vernon Mill at the age of 10. The thread has thickened over the years to become a rope. It's not too fanciful to say it has become a lifeline in times of difficulty, a comfort when unhappiness strikes, a source of excitement and intense pleasure, alternating with the necessary gloom of defeat. Most importantly, my son understands and shares the same belief and passion.


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