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Sunday, January 08, 2006

The worst United match ever?!

I had a wry smile after hearing United fans after the recent shite defeat at Boro. However bad it had been, and boy was it bad, I had to laugh at those stating it was one of the worst games they'd ever seen... boy, you youngsters ain't seen nothing!
Either Reds have very short memories, or they aren't old enough to remember REAL shit we've been put through over the years, where the likes of Boro were semi regular occurrences and though we’ve played crap at times recently it's nothing compared to the late Atkinson or early Fergie years. And even when Carlozzzz's tactics have bored us to tears, it has yet to have the consistently narcoleptic affect of Dave Sexton's era. We all have our pivitol moment which defines our support in terms of feeling so low after a run of bad results, storming away in disgust saying 'you've had enough' only to sheepishly return without regret (or shame!) the next game to show you have loyalty, but when all our supporting days are over, I doubt many will list Boro '05 as their crappiest and worst United display.

We all probably have a different game to select as our nightmare game, city 5-1 is up there of course, as is two back to back 0-0 draws under Dave Sexton when I'd have had more fun going to a dentist with Parkinsons Disease. But I still wake up in cold sweats about a 2-0 home defeat to Sheffield Wednesday on April 13th 1986. For many years afterwards I had an irrational hatred to Mark Higgins, a player who appeared only six times in a United shirt but who was so bad that day at Old Trafford, for once those fans leaving the ground in disgust saying “I could have done better” weren't lying. Stevie Wonder would have been better in defence.

It is hard to portray to Reds not around back then how devastating the loss of the title in 1985-86 season was to us. I think for any of our outstanding players in the squad back then (and we had a handful) it was such a traumatic experience that it set our attempts back a good few years. Fans and players found it hard to get over and the 19 year wait was to gain another 7 seasons before we finally rid ourselves of the title curse.

Even accounting for nerves, Robbo's repeated injuries that season, a lack of a decent squad and all the rest of it, I still can't fathom out how we didn't triumph in 1986. And anyone at the Southampton home game the Autumn before when asked who would go on to win the title, despite the gap since the last one, despite the fear that ‘this is United, we'll fuck things up’ would have been hard pressed to truthfully think we'd screw things up after completing our then record matching tenth straight opening win of the season. Indeed, we didn't actually lose a game until the 19th match that season, at Sheffield Wednesday funnily enough, and if ever proof were needed that in those days we were a one man team it came with Robbo going off injured in that match (just after returning from a knock), us losing the match and 4 competitive games out of the next 6. Robson didn't return until January. That season after starting the first 15 games, Robson didn't play a total of 15 more all season. Sadly he was dislocating his shoulder with more frightening regularity than playing, no doubt with the World Cup in Mexico on his mind. Sadly he dislocated his shoulder out there too. He deserved better.

Come the game before the Sheffield Wednesday match though and we were still in the hunt, It was Chelsea, midweek, at home, and we were only two points behind the leaders Everton and Liverpool. We were still in the hunt, and though only 45,355 were inside that night, the roof was raised to try and see us go unbeaten until the end of the season and see if it was enough. The mood pre-match had been darkened by a United fan being stabbed outside the Chelsea end before kick-off, and it was a bad omen, we lost 2-1, lost advantage to both Scousers and just HAD to win the next game at home to Wednesday.

There was just one change to the side from the previous Wednesday for this live tv Sunday encounter. Johnny Sivebaek in for Strachan, a defender converted once again into a midfielder. The team? Turner, Gidman, Albiston, Duxbury, McGrath, Higgins, Robson, Sivebaek, Hughes, Davenport and Olsen. Sub Terry Gibson who was to play his own fateful part in proceedings late on in the game.

That side should have been good enough to beat Wednesday. Bar Higgins of course. That I shudder whenever his name is mentioned probably does his career itself a great disservice. He'd been the Everton captain from 1982-84 and though we should have taken greater interest in the fact that he'd actually had to retire from the game because of injury, he'd returned the insurance money after playing once again, Big Fat Ron had said he was class, and we were so desperate to bolster the defence and believe that we could do it that we thought this was the man to take us that extra distance to the title. I should have known from his terrible acne that something wasn’t right from the off!

All he actually did was provide light entertainment 4 at a time when we wanted to cry instead of laugh. Though he played well for us returning to Everton with a point to prove, his partnership with Ooh Aah Paul McGrath never took off, and we were to concede 8 goals in the 6 games they played together. And only win one of them. Atkinson realised that Higgins wasn't up to a return to the top league and the Wednesday match was to be his last for United, and his last in Division One. So, could six games scar so much? Well, it's not really six games, it's just this one game. I have never before seen a player try and head the ball, and miss, so repeatedly, nor one who was turned so easily, and so often, by an opposition striker, so much so that Wednesday were quick to exploit this and feed balls through Higgins' space. With more pressure on him, his nerves seemed to go and his performance got worse as Higgins was unable to now head anything, and soon became unable to control the ball with his feet. It was the single biggest nightmare performance I can ever remember by a United player (Tony Gill at Notts Forest not long after ranks a close second). He'd rang Atkinson up himself to train with United and see if we were willing to give him a chance to return to the game. I developed so much paranoia in the wake of our complete title capitulation after having one hand on it that I thought it was all some dirty trick by Everton (and Liverpool!) to hinder our finale.

But one man alone doesn't lose a game, and only now do I realise how much of a scapegoat I made of Higgins when more high profile names around him went awol at that time, and the rest of the side did their damned best that day to play as if they were a Sunday pub team who'd never met each other before. I suppose with that era they had probably been in a Sunday pub earlier in the morning. These events get exaggerated over time as they become stuff of legend, but it was THAT bad. After the Chelsea defeat just a few days earlier, and knowing that this defeat against Wednesday as they easily took a 2-0 lead was the final nail in our last ditch attempts to keep holding onto the leaders coat tails, United fans had had enough. Rightly or wrongly there was barracking, only 32,331 present (13,000 down from the midweek game before) to witness what was the equivalent of a poorly antelope being picked to pieces by a vulture.

Our turkey had been cooked, even though we had enough chances to win, or at least save, the game. Terry Gibson, who may well have tiny folklore status for scoring his solitary goal against Arsenal for United to break their outbeaten run, may well have only been given sporadic chances at Old Trafford but he was nothing more than a decent journeyman footballer wrongly trying - well wrongly asked - to carve out a career at Manchester United. Your local pub singer doesn't get ask to play at the MEN Arena does he? Gibson (and Higgins) always gave their all, but at Utd we need more than triers.

He actually had three chances, and each miss was worse than the other. With only a few minutes left he took the ball past the keeper with only the goal to slot the ball into. He'd done everything right. An open goal. Maybe a late comeback? He then did everything wrong, his tiny feet got caught up in each other, he fell arse over tit and knocked the ball out of touch as he fell. It was poetic in its absurdity.

The crowd had had enough. By the final whistle the ground was deserted, and the league had gone, for another year. But this had been different to other failed attempts. We had not just led the league, we were far and away ahead of the rest. We could not mess it up. And we had fucked it up as only United at that time could.

We took this defeat hard. There were actually a few protests outside on the forecourt. This next story says how bad it got. Anyone who knew Dave, the lad from Luton who moved to Manchester to be close to Old Trafford and was one of the biggest United fanatics going until he passed away, was never one to criticise the club, or team. His nickname to Reds was Baby Bear, and after this game he walked visibly upset to the old letter box there used to be to drop things off to the Ticket Office on the forecourt and threw in his tickets for the next game, a midweek trip to Newcastle. He'd had enough (not for long of course, like us all we never walk away for long). Many Reds must have felt the same. In what must be one of our lowest ever recent turn outs for a League game we only took 400 (with god knows how many tickets returned or sat on a mantle piece in silent protest) to St James Park.

So that's it. My benchmark game which I judge any shite I have to witness these days with. And nothing touches it. I doubt anything will match it after we got that first title under our belts all those years later and at least partly dispelled the demons from 1985-86, Though I think it's best my path has never crossed Mark Higgins!

For some reason I kept my videotape of the game. I got home and of course never watched it. I still haven’t. But it's there, I suppose my own reminder of how things used to be, and how things might well be again some day if the cycle goes round again and inflicts more misery and pain on our watching days if we don't keep our outlook focussed. It's what supporting United is all about. But even in the dark days though this hurt, we had a laugh that season, even if we had to laugh at ourselves a lot back then. It was a craic. We were blessed weren't we, even during the bad times? In a way we're not so much during these comparative glory days now.

And in true United fashion, just 3 days after such a woeful display at Old Trafford, what did we do in front of that low United turn out? Put in one of the displays of the season, as Big Fat Ron went 4-3-3 (from 4-4-2) and we destroyed Newcastle 4-2. Too little, too late, but typically United don't you think?


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