It’s Been A Long Time

Unless there’s been another government U-turn in recent days, there’s a reasonable  chance you might be reading this sat in your seat at OT. Imagine that, eh? Walking to the ground, buying the mag, reading it pre-match, or going home on the tram, the bog at work… whatever. It’s been quite a while, hasn’t it? So before we start I’d like to echo the Editor’s sentiments by thanking everyone for their continued support and for helping to keep Red News going over the last 18 months. 

You probably don’t need telling that most people get their United-related content in a different format these days. Indeed, many consider printed fanzines to be relics from a bygone age. Personally speaking, whilst acknowledging there’s room for the vlogger crowd in the United stratosphere, what they offer simply isn’t for me. I can see the comic potential of an ex-copper doing a passable Alan Partridge impersonation live from his spare bedroom, but I honestly don’t care what him and his contemporaries think about the club. It makes me happy that we’re able to offer a more authentic voice and that there’s still an audience prepared to put their hand in their pocket and support it. 

Perhaps stung by the protests back in May, United quickly burst into action this summer keen to get essential improvements boxed off early. Whereas previous transfer windows were dogged by lengthy negotiations dragging on for weeks, in late June we woke up to the bombshell news that the ground was receiving a coat of paint. I’m not certain if the contractors used premium Dulux Weathershield or a standard All-Surface Paint and Primer, but nevertheless, it was good to see the Glazers come out answering their critics with a such a bold statement of intent. The leaking roof can wait until next year, presumably. 

To no-one’s great surprise, we also signed Jadon Sancho. It was difficult to get too giddy about this given we all knew it was happening since the process had been ongoing for over a year. The more enticing prospect is Raphael Varane, a freshly minted transfer saga that carries all the hallmarks of a fruitless pursuit that will ultimately lead to him signing a new contract with Madrid. I really want to believe that this one could happen, but I refuse to get excited despite widespread talk of a deal being close. It just seems too good to be true. Excuse the cynicism but we’ve been here before, haven’t we?   

With United being United, we’ve probably got several more weeks of speculation and rumour to endure before it’s possible to assess whether it’s been a successful window or not. Whatever happens, it’s unlikely that we’ll see the changes necessary to mount a serious title challenge this season. Things have improved over the last 12 months, but it’s progression at a glacial pace. Gdańsk showed that we still lack that certain something at key moments in big games. That trophy was there to be won, but in all honesty, Ole fluffed his lines. 

Gdańsk felt like one of those defining moments where we simply had to win. It was a big stage and when Ole needed to be bold and decisive, instead he sat on his hands. Villarreal were a spent force after an hour and the game was there for the taking. He dithered over his substitutions, leaving Rashford on the pitch despite his atrocious performance, mindful of penalties when there was still over an hour of football to be played. For someone reputedly well-versed in the attacking traditions of the club, it seemed a curiously over-cautious strategy against opponents who were clinging on for dear life. 

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that Solskjaer deserves at least another season in charge but what I don’t understand is the decision to award him a new contact now. What specifically has he done to merit that? Surely the prudent approach would be to see how this season pans out first? We’re going to look pretty stupid if United go on to have one of those 3 month cycles where everything turns to shit and they’re sat mid-table at Christmas. The same simpletons lauding “My Manager” now would be squealing for him to be sacked then.

If I was somewhat perplexed by Solskjaer’s new contract, that’s nothing compared to my confusion about the club’s decision to offer Paul Pogba a pay rise. Whichever way I look at this, it just does not compute. Pogba has been back at the club for 5 years now and honestly, how many good games has he had? 10 maybe, tops. 15 if you’re being really kind. If his lordship appeared remotely arsed about playing for United I would try to suspend my disbelief and focus on the advantages in keeping him here, but his utter disdain for the club couldn’t be more apparent. 

We all know his ultimate goal was always Real Madrid, but since COVID and other factors have screwed everyone’s budgets barring City and PSG, that ain’t happening. If him and his agent had any shred of decency he’d happily re-sign with the understanding that as soon as a mutually satisfactory offer arrives – perhaps next year, when normality resumes – he’ll be on his way. Absolutely no chance of that. Instead, it looks like he’ll leave for a cut-price fee this summer or more likely, we’ll have another year of him turning up when he feels like it featuring a prolonged 2 month stint in Dubai over winter, recovering from some mystery ailment that’s untreatable at Carrington. Then he’ll walk away for free, trousering a gargantuan signing on fee and leaving United with precisely zip. Again. 

You couldn’t wish for a tastier first game back at a full capacity OT than Leeds United. Younger readers might not appreciate how ‘lively’ this fixture was back in the 90’s. You always ran the gauntlet at Elland Road and it was a similar story whenever they came here. The first time they turned up after winning promotion in 1990 was particularly memorable as it resulted in the most sustained fighting I’ve ever seen inside OT. Indeed, even my usually placid old man got ejected that day after he suffered a 1970’s Red Army flashback right before my eyes. 

I don’t think either club realised the level of hatred on both sides as I’m pretty certain it was pay-on-the-gate that day. A few hundred of them were dotted round the ground and predictably, they all went up when Sterland equalised which led to it kicking off all over the place. The widespread scrapping took the police and stewards completely by surprise and it was a good 10 minutes before anything like order was restored. Needless to say, every game after that was all-ticket and OT hasn’t seen anything quite like it since. 

Copyright Red News – August 2021

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Let’s Gdańsk

For most of us, watching football was very much a social activity before it became a solitary pursuit once lockdown was imposed in March last year. After Roma were despatched in the semis, the realisation hit that with pubs opening up again, it might present the opportunity to watch the final together with a few match-going pals – a nice little reunion of sorts. It was only when proposing this to one of my group that he mentioned United might be getting a limited allocation for the game and flying to Poland could be a possibility – the thought hadn’t even occurred to me previously. 

Over the next few days, the logistics of any proposed trip became clear. Since Poland was on the Amber list, PCR tests would be required before and after travelling as well as a 10 day quarantine period upon return. Obviously this was going to be a massive ball-ache, but the illogical part of my brain was now fully intent on going. It was a European final after all, and these things have to be done if the opportunity exists. Funds were in place and I had plenty of annual leave to take from work, so let’s have it. 

The only real concern was whether I’d be successful in the ballot with minimal credits, since United were only due to receive 2000 tickets. Unsurprisingly, the prohibitive cost of tests and quarantine had put many regular travellers off so I ended up getting lucky. A couple of mates were assured tickets due to having a million credits and we were good to go. All that remained was to book flights, decipher exactly what paperwork was required to get out and back into the country and to stock the fridge for quarantining once I was back. 

Match day arrived and it was a brutally early 3am start at an otherwise deserted Manchester Airport. The flight over was uneventful and after minimal queues checking COVID documentation on arrival, it was a half hour bus ride into the centre of Gdańsk. What a lovely place the Old Town was too. After 5 minutes wandering round you couldn’t help be impressed with the architecture and how picturesque it was. However, being English we weren’t there for sightseeing and culture. Our plan was to find an Irish bar so we could spend the day getting shitfaced on industrial strength lager whilst screaming obscenities at any passing locals. 

Of course it wasn’t… although having been up for hours already we were in desperate need of refreshments at this point. It didn’t take long to find a decent bar and it was a surprise to discover that despite the COVID restrictions in place they were happily serving punters indoors. The beers were inexpensive and there was plenty of choice available for the connoisseurs in our little group. The main problem was going to be seeing the game at all as it was still 10 hours ‘til kick off and most of the ales were in 6-7% range. It promised to be a long and potentially messy day. 

At this point we bumped into a couple of my brother’s pals who’d arrived the day before. I enquired about the reported trouble from the previous night and they confirmed it was nothing to write home about. A few local hoolies had attacked a bar late on when most reds had already departed, they were swiftly despatched and that was that. For the rest of the morning we took a leisurely stroll round the Old Town, stopping off for more refreshments whenever we saw a bar that looked good. There were plenty to choose from and most were doing steady business as you’d expect. 

Whereas most of the United contingent were holed up in the pub, the streets were a sea of yellow as Villarreal fans were everywhere. It was hard not to feel chuffed for them as they all appeared ecstatic at the fact they’d made it to the final. They didn’t really bring groups of lads, there were entire families there all decked out in bright yellow. Mum, Dad and Grandad with kids in tow… all smiling and snapping photos at every opportunity. It was all very wholesome. We’re so blasé about the successes we’ve witnessed over the years, it was nice to see a set of fans experiencing this for the first time. 

As the afternoon progressed we’d pretty much seen all of the Old Town as it’s only a small place. It was time for a change of scenery so we jumped in an Uber and asked to go to the coast. We ended up just south of Sopot and only a couple of miles from the ground. We spent the next 2-3 hours sat in deckchairs at a beachside bar, still enjoying cut-price booze against the panoramic backdrop of the eerily-still Baltic Sea. A few other reds had done the same thing and it was a nice vibe there, quite a contrast to the typical pre-match build-up one encounters on a Euro away. 

As kick off drew nearer and after a solid 7 hours on the ale, food appeared to be the sensible option. There were half a dozen restaurants to choose from in the vicinity and we settled on a pizza gaff that looked alright. 3 pizzas, starters, more beers, coffee and a dessert came in at a more than reasonable €50, so we felt obliged to leave a more than generous tip. We then had a final round of G&T’s back at the beach before it was time to start thinking about making our way to the ground. 

After convincing Danny that hiring a scooter wasn’t the best idea considering he’d been drinking since 10am, we set off walking. 20 minutes later the Polsat Plus Arena loomed into view – think Allianz Arena from the outside except in an unpleasant shade of yellow. From the direction we were approaching there was literally no one else around. The game was kicking off in half an hour yet you would have had no idea anything was happening other than the fact there was a helicopter buzzing around in the distance. 

After getting masked up and negotiating the electronic ticket checks, we were in. The ground was absolutely quality inside, a proper 21st century stadium that again highlighted how tired OT looks in comparison now. The atmosphere pre-game was good too considering the reduced capacity. It was weird having so many empty seats but there was plenty of noise from the reds in attendance – you couldn’t really hear Villarreal at the other end of the ground. 

I’m not going to talk about the match because I’m sure that’ll be covered in detail elsewhere. But as midnight approached everyone trooped out feeling a bit dejected given how everything turned out. It wasn’t the first time the actual match turned out to be the low-point of a European trip and I’m sure it won’t be the last. We headed back to the buses and started the long journey home. I ended up back in the house at 5.30am, a mere 27 hours after starting out. Belting day out, shit result. Was it worth all the hassle? Yeah, of course it was. 

Copyright Red News – August 2021

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Alive and Kicking

Sometimes I sit down to write this column and it’s a struggle to hit the word count if it’s been a quiet few weeks. And then there’s occasions like this where it’s difficult to know exactly where to start. Super League, Woodward’s exit, anti-Glazer protests, European finalists… it’s no exaggeration to say the last month or so has been fairly eventful. 

The proposals for a European Super League announced back in April came as both a surprise and no surprise at all. It was always going to happen one day, it was just a matter of when exactly. What I didn’t anticipate is that the product would arrive as such a half-baked, amateurish package. Everything about it was essentially crap. The justification for it, the timing, even the logo and the site looked like they’d been knocked up in a couple of hours by some low-end web design freelancer.  

If something of this magnitude was ever going to succeed, it had to come out fully-formed and ready to roll. Instead, it turned out that the invested clubs weren’t even convinced as the whole thing had collapsed within 48 hours. The ESL arrived dead on arrival because fundamentally, it offered nothing of value to the very people it was being aimed at. They were attempting to sell an inferior product to the one that already exists. It was nothing more than an opportunistic power grab from morally bankrupt, financial leeches who’re ideologically opposed to the very notion of ethical business practice or protecting the sport as a whole. 

The motivations of their plot were so transparent that the entire football community were unanimous in their condemnation. Here, after contentious topics such as Brexit and COVID, was a subject everyone could agree on. The momentum was strong at this point and there were encouraging noises being made that we might potentially see a review leading to reform of football club governance. One of the loudest, most passionate voices was Gary Neville. This struck me as a little strange given that Neville is a multi-millionaire thanks to football’s relentless commercialisation over the last 20 years. Perhaps that was just me being cynical and we had to give him the benefit of the doubt here.

The fact that the Glazers were front and centre in ESL discussions came as no surprise to United supporters. This, after all, felt somewhat inevitable given it was widely acknowledged 16 years ago that their ultimate goal would be to oversee a gargantuan boost in revenue stemming from devolved TV rights. We were largely ignored when pointing this out back then, probably because the only party likely to suffer in the short-term from their takeover would be MUFC itself. The reaction was a bit different now the penny had dropped there might be consequences for English football as a whole. 

Faced with the prospect of the sacrosanct Premier League applecart being upturned, there was a whiff of revolution in the air for about 72 hours as fans across the country took to the streets in protest. The media cheered from the sidelines and Boris Johnson quickly hopped on the bandwagon, condemning the breakaway clubs for trying to establish a “cartel”. This was later proven to be shapeshifting nonsense as The Sunday Times revealed that Johnson had met with Woodward in the days preceding April 18th and had apparently given the plan his tacit approval. He denied this of course, but it’s a bit of stretch to believe the ESL wasn’t discussed in No 10 that day. 

As one of the main instigators of the plot, the hapless Woodward soon resigned and after dominating the headlines for a few days the news cycle quickly moved on. The ‘football family’ had spoken and that seemed to be that as far as the mainstream media were concerned. Errr… not quite. United supporters, after all, have longstanding issues with the Glazer family that dwarf any lingering outrage about plans for a breakaway ESL. 

After being the source of much bitterness and acrimony between 2005-2010, it’s fair to say debate concerning the Glazer ownership dwindled after the Green & Gold protests petered out back in 2010. It never went away completely, as referenced in these pages month after month – but a sense of malaise had crept in as people conceded they were likely going nowhere. In truth, after 5 years of banging our heads against a wall in an atmosphere of divisiveness and intimidation from certain parties, most people were probably tired of the subject.

Fast forward back to 2021 and that palpable sense of injustice was back with a vengeance. First we saw a bedsheeted up band of interlopers infiltrate the training ground before that glorious Sunday when a couple of thousand took to the streets and against all the odds, managed to force the postponement of the Liverpool game. Mission accomplished. If the powers that be weren’t listening before, they were certainly listening now. 

This time, however, the prevailing media narrative had shifted. Whereas a couple of weeks previously, the noises coming from commentators and journalists were encouraging of supporters taking direct action to protect the national game, the mood changed once this exact scenario was being beamed live into people’s living rooms. All of a sudden it wasn’t about justifiably outraged fans protecting beloved community assets, this was being framed as a minority of thugs overstepping the mark and taking things too far. “Of course you should protest, just make sure you don’t protest too loudly”, seemed to be the consensus. 

This reaction was as depressing as it was predictable. Pat Nevin whipped himself into a frenzy on 5 Live, spending over an hour lambasting the protesters. Jermaine Jenas was so out of his depth on MOTD that he seemed bemused as to why he was being asked to give an opinion at all. I mean, come on. It genuinely defies belief that someone paid to talk about English football doesn’t have a grasp of why Manchester United fans might have an issue with the club’s owners. This isn’t a new story. This is something that has been brewing for 16 years. There have been books written about this subject. It led to the formation of another football club for goodness’ sake.

Thankfully, the likes of Neville and Keane were on hand to provide some common sense and perspective amidst all the hand-wringing. Much respect to Jamie Carragher too, who appeared to grasp the protestors’ perspective better than any of his colleagues. Whereas Neville continued to pontificate about the ESL, Carragher cut through the noise and correctly pointed out it was nothing to do with the Super League at this point. It may have have been the catalyst, but this was battle lines being re-drawn in a war that began back in 2005. 

Unsurprisingly, the reaction from rival supporters was just as dismissive as some of the nodding dogs in the media. Whereas a fortnight previously there was universal rejection of the ESL proposals, now we were out on our own with people falling over themselves to denigrate the motivations behind the protest. Again, this was entirely predictable. There’s no solidarity amongst football supporters in this country. It’s no wonder that fans have been exploited for decades when club rivalries and petty name calling seem preferable to working together to bring about change that might benefit all clubs in future.

Whether the current strength of feeling continues to gather momentum remains to be seen. We’ve been here before of course, and in the past the Glazers have ridden out similar periods of disquiet holed up in Florida. United’s fanbase is large and made up of many disparate groups. We’ve been prone to squabbling and infighting at key junctures previously, but now is the time to forget all that. Many thought all was lost back in 2005 but the last few weeks have shown that the resistance is still strong. Unity is powerful. Let’s keep the pressure on.

Copyright Red News – May 2021

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