Category Archives: Football

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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Shortly After Takeoff

The relentless schedule and lack of crowds has stripped football down to its base components. Even Sky and BT seem to have twigged there’s little point in hyping fixtures played in front of empty stadiums. Each game fades from memory within hours and focus immediately shifts to the next one. The Premier League currently resembles those Guinness Soccer Six tournaments that existed back in the 80’s. It’s knockabout, exhibition match fun devoid of any real credibility. 

We’re now fast approaching 12 months since the first national lockdown. Although post-COVID football is no substitute for the real thing, it’d be churlish to deny it doesn’t possess some charm. There’s only so many box sets you can tolerate and I think we’ve all reached the stage where everything decent on Netflix has already been consumed. Watching United every 3-4 days breaks up the week nicely, even if we are viewing a slapdash, small screen adaptation of the sport. 

Like drugs, alcohol or music, football has always offered an outlet to escape the mundanities of life. The daily grind feels especially uneventful at present and football’s contribution towards keeping the nation’s sanity intact shouldn’t be underestimated. When my future grandkids enquire about my memories of living through a global pandemic, I won’t paint a bleak picture of government incompetence, social isolation and heavy drinking. Instead, I will look them in the eye and fondly recall Liverpool’s non-event of a title win and Bruno Fernandes scoring an extraordinary number of penalties. 

The chaotic timetabling and lack of preparation time have actually had a positive impact on football to some extent. Recent seasons have seen City and Liverpool rack up gargantuan points totals that have obliterated any pretence of competition. It’s not necessarily their fault of course, the entire point is to win as many games as possible. It just feels a bit demoralising when the top sides have lapped everyone else when the league is barely past its half-way stage. This season has been the recipient of a welcome dose of the unpredictable to help enliven proceedings. 

Aside from a drubbing at Villa, Liverpool started the season in much the same form as they ended the last. Before Christmas it appeared another title win was on the cards given the rate at which everyone else was dropping points. The subsequent implosion that occurred was as sudden as it was spectacular. How do you get from being undefeated at home for 4 years to losing 4 on the bounce? Christ, even Everton have got in on the act. It’s truly the worst title defence since Blackburn Rovers. Sadly, it remains unlikely that relegation will follow. 

As Liverpool’s great unravelling occurred something equally unexpected happened. Yes lads, Manchester United went top of the Premier League table. For 2 glorious weeks we were even being referred to as (no, don’t laugh) title contenders. Unfortunately, hitting such giddy heights afflicted the team with a devastating outbreak of altitude sickness. This was cured via a spellbinding run of 6 points from the next 15 available, leaving us in the all too familiar position of being 10 points off the lead with Pogba on sabbatical again. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted. 

Despite the best efforts of the Portuguese magnifico, issues persist within the team that have been evident for a long time. There’s still a desperate need for a commanding centre half. Lindelof gets bullied too easily and whilst Bailly looks decent alongside Maguire, he can’t be relied upon due to his woeful injury record. The right hand side remains as problematic as ever. Wan Bissaka has clearly been encouraged to develop the attacking part of his game but his crossing ability remains haphazard at best. For the most part he’s adopted the Antonio Valencia maxim of ‘when in doubt, smash it as hard as you can’.

Despite those longstanding gripes, I can’t help feeling that the main thing that scuppered any chance of maintaining a serious title challenge has been a lack of goals. And yes, that’s despite United being the league’s leading scorers at this point. If the squad had a proper goalscorer at its disposal (I’m not counting the 34 year old Cavani) there’s every chance we’d still be right up there. Rashford has made an solid contribution operating from the left mainly, but we’re so over-reliant on Bruno to deliver at key moments it’s ridiculous. 

There was a short period last year where the penny seemed to have dropped with Anthony Martial. For a first time in his stop-start United career he appeared to have added some consistency to his game, adding scruffy goals to his repertoire and doing a good impression of looking sharp and focused. It didn’t last, sadly. This season he’s looked a shadow of that player. The perpetual frown is back and a goals tally of 4 in 20 league games for a Manchester United No.9 is obviously nowhere near good enough. 

All strikers can endure a barren spell, but Martial seems to suffer a full-blown existential crisis every 6 months. Ole only ever has positive things to say about ‘Anto’, but surely he must have his doubts after witnessing his centre forward strolling round and looking bored shitless for months? I’m no body language expert but I honestly can’t think of anyone who’s ever looked less enthused at the prospect of playing up front for United. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so judgemental here. I mean, it’s doubtful my work colleagues would describe me as the life and soul of the office either. 

It’s easy to forget the mess that Solskjaer inherited when he took over. Whether he remains the board’s preferred choice or not, he’s done well to slowly construct this squad and nudge it in the right direction. Despite the regular setbacks, United have been entertaining to watch for much of the season. Indeed, the biggest compliment I can pay Ole is that watching games no longer feels like a chore. The dark days of Van Gaal and Mourinho, characterised by terrible signings and no coherent long-term plan appear to be behind us finally. 

Due to City selfishly embarking on a marathon winning streak, any prospect of silverware this season looks to be confined to either the FA Cup or the Europa League. One suspects that if Solskjaer is going to remain in the job for the next few years, he quickly needs to demonstrate the ability to guide his players beyond semi-finals. Now would be the perfect time to back up evidence of progress with a trophy, strengthening both his credentials for the role and the belief he’s capable of leading the team to even greater heights.

Copyright Red News – March 2021

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