A Stones Throw Away


What a glorious afternoon the Chelsea game turned out to be. I’d spent so much time during the preceding week imagining all the possibilities that I could only offer a shrug of the shoulders and a stupefied silence when faced with the ‘well, what do you reckon?’ question in the pub, pre-match.

It was always gonna be a nervy afternoon but well, Javier Hernandez (I still refuse to say ‘Chicharito’), what more can be said about the lad? That 1st minute defines his contribution during the last 9 months. The dramatic ‘point towards Pat’ at kick-off, hares around for a bit, measured run, composed finish, ecstatic celebration. Beautiful. The kid is most certainly the real deal and here’s hoping his big smile continues to light up Old Trafford for many years to come. What a signing.

In a season where we’ve only clicked on odd occasions and for the most part have stumbled onwards via character, habit and sheer bloody-mindedness – it’s fitting that we saved our best performance for the biggest game. Ji-Sung Park and Tony Valencia stood out but everyone played well – the cutting and incisive football played during that first half was pure United.

I have to mention Howard Webb though. I don’t subscribe to the modern day pre-occupation with referees and the decisions they do and don’t give – the old cliché of ‘things even themselves out’ will do for me. But what on earth was he on? The Ivanovic challenge on Rooney was as blatant a 2nd yellow card as you’ll ever see. Nothing given, not even a glance in his direction.

This incident came up during post-match discussions, but as a mate rightly pointed out to me – we should take comfort from that fact he wasn’t sent off because then there’re no excuses from anyone. We beat them 11 v 11 and as a bonus, didn’t have to endure another reminder of Gary Neville’s non-reds at Stoke and West Brom. Did you hear Martin Tyler (alluding to the missed handball the previous Sunday) suggest Vidic ‘was lucky to be playing’ after he scored? How bitter can you get?

So alright then, we may not have exactly played like champions for much of the season, but like the ‘You’ll win nothing with kids’ double winning year of 1995/96 – there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had from watching a team grind out results and over-achieve. I don’t really care whether the current side is considered ‘vintage’ or not, there’ve been some classic moments during this league campaign. Berbatov’s hat-trick v Liverpool, Rooney’s winner v City, the comebacks at Blackpool and West Ham, Bebe’s performance v Wolves…all will live long in the memory.

To cap it all, we’ve only gone and reached another European Cup Final too. Bizarrely, Shalke proving less of a match than either Crawley or Scunthorpe did this season. Not taking anything away from United’s performances, but both legs of the tie were an absolute stroll. 6-1 up on aggregate in a European semi-final? That was just…weird. Not how we usually do our business at all. Where was the gut-wrenching fear and headache-inducing last 10 minutes? Not very us, that.

No such shocks emanating from elsewhere within the club, however. If they weren’t so depressingly predictable in their thinking, you’d almost have to admire the chutzpah of the ticket office. The day after the Shalke 2nd leg they were right on the case – season ticket renewal letters announcing a price increase despatched to the rank and file, exec members contacted individually being offered an increased allocation of final tickets in return for early renewal. Nice work. Given the reported struggle they had in shifting corporate facilities last summer, a European final on home soil has arrived like manna from heaven for the ‘MU Hospitality’ sales team.

Anyway, let’s not spoil the mood! North London may not be the most exotic location for a Euro final, but what a day next Saturday promises to be. Those of us not lucky or old enough to have attended the final back in ‘68 grew up watching grainy black and white images of Benfica’s defeat and can only imagine what it must have been like. I’m not suggesting victory v Barca would eclipse that achievement or that nu-Wembley is anything other than a sterile monument to financial mis-management – but I can’t wait for next weekend.

I don’t think any of us is bold enough to be wholly confident of victory. For starters, I just hope there’s no repeat of the humiliation suffered in Rome 2009. I’ll be there with my usual European final head on – not exactly expecting victory but cautiously optimistic and ready to enjoy the occasion.

If we are to upset the formbook, then recent games have surely demonstrated the way forward. Our current strongest XL now picks itself. Hernandez needs to start and Valencia gets the nod ahead of Nani. Rooney is given the freedom to play in his true No.10 role and will provide additional midfield cover if required and please – if those Latin lessons are to be heeded, no Anderson this time out. Yes, there’s been a marked improvement from the portly Brazilian this season, but leave him on the bench…bring him on if it goes to penalties.

At first glance 25,000 tickets appears to be a decent allocation – though given our numbers, the ticket prices and the way these are allocated, thousands will have to make do with the telly rather than being there.

As we’re all aware, many long-standing reds have sacked their ST in recent years and given up on the 21st century OT matchday ‘experience’. Lots still continue to watch United on Euro-aways via a membership, however – the pills, thrills and bellyaches these foreign excursions provide, offering a complete contrast to the sanitised atmosphere found at routine home games. This group (thankfully) remain the antithesis of the ‘sandwiches and flasked-up’ punters travelling with Thomas Cook.

The clubs position regarding these old-skool, red army veterans is clear and each knows the score – they won’t be able to apply for a ticket should we reach the final. The message from the club is clear: give us your money each summer and buy a season ticket. Their priority lies with looking after execs and ST holders – and rightly so, many would argue.

It seems that the vast majority meeting the minimum, official criteria for applying (season ticket and ACS) appear to have been successful via the club ballot  – plenty have got tickets despite not being pre-registered with the travel club and having no previous euro away applications to their name. It’s a shame therefore, a small percentage of our allocation can’t be put aside to sort out those who’ve attended multiple euro aways despite not holding a season ticket. 1000 or so tickets (only 4% of our total allocation) would have comfortably taken care of this group.

Bearing all this in mind, one could possibly suggest this’ll be the most middle-class cup final ever. It’s a sad indictment of modern football when the outrageous sum of £80 is being asked for the cheapest ‘Subbuteo view’ brief. Starting price via the tout option is reportedly an eyewatering £1200 – I seriously don’t know anyone who would even contemplate spending that on a single football ticket. Plenty of loons will happily pay out though, I’d imagine – expect a few touts to be paying their mortgages off over the coming weeks.

Whether you’ve got lucky or not, have a cracking day next Saturday and enjoy the summer.

Copyright Red News – May 2011


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