When the editor asked me to note down any recollections I had of United vs Barcelona in March 1984, I was shocked with the realisation that we were approaching the 30th anniversary of the game. THIRTY YEARS. Wow, where the fuck has that gone?
On reflection, 1984 was pretty miserable. My Dad’s work was sporadic at the time which meant there was very little spare cash floating about. Consequently, I was on free school dinners, rocking 4 stripe trainers off the market and riding round a purple Raleigh Chopper instead of the much-coveted Adidas Grand Slam and Mongoose BMX’s that my friends were enjoying. The news had stopped talking about imminent nuclear war and riots and was instead concerned with Torvill & Dean and the plight of the miners. Lionel Ritchie was Number 1 in the charts. None of this really registered with me to be honest, it was only background noise because I still had United to look forward to.
The Old Trafford of my childhood was nothing like the gigantic shrine to commercialism that stands in its place today. Back then, it was just a football ground that had barely changed in decades. If I had to sum up 1980’s OT in two words, they would probably be ‘faded glamour’. Paint peeling off rusty girders, cracked panes of glass, the stenches of chip fat, rancid burgers, bleach and perpetual under achievement – it was as grim as it was intoxicating.
United were doing pretty well by March, however. Unbeaten in 16 league games, we went top of the table 4 days prior to the Barca game after smashing Arsenal 4-0 at Old Trafford – a game notable for scores of people brandishing clipboards around the turnstiles, collecting signatures imploring the club not to sell Bryan Robson. It seems a quaint idea now, somewhat naive… but that’s how important Robbo was at the time. A figurehead, a leader, a genuine colossus – the sort of midfielder who comes along once in a generation. It was perhaps fitting then, that those United fans doing their best to persuade player and club to resist suitors from abroad, were rewarded days later with a performance that was probably the finest of his career.
Despite United possessing a genuine world class talent in Robson, Barcelona boasted an even greater star themselves in the shape of Diego Maradona – and just having the chance to see him in the flesh was a major event in itself. Back then there was no Champions League or televised football on the scale there is today – indeed I’d listened to the 1st leg, 2-0 reverse on the radio. The only time Maradona had ever really been seen was during the ’82 World Cup where he’d been largely anonymous and marked out of the tournament. Despite being this enigmatic, almost mythical figure, he was still generally considered to be the greatest player in the world – although he wouldn’t go on to prove that until the tournament in Mexico, 2 years later.
I’d been going to United for a couple of years by 1984 and had attended both previous European games that season, vs Dukla Prague (soon to be immortalised after being namechecked by legendary 80’s scouse pop-ironists Half Man Half Biscuit) and the never-again-to-be-heard-of Spartak Varna of Bulgaria. This was all very exciting in itself due to European football being all exotic and unknown and that, but drawing Barcelona in the QF was proper next level shit. It seemed about as big as it was ever gonna get.
After sweating on whether or not I’d actually get a ticket – my Dad was often lax in buying the requisite two programmes per game for the tokens – there was much relief when he confirmed it was all sorted. I had a ticket in my hand: Stretford Groundside Junior, for the scarcely credible by today’s standards sum of £1.20.
Although we always paid into the Stretford End (a season ticket or LMTB wasn’t a necessity back then), we never watched the game there because being sub-5ft and weighing about 5 stone at the time, I’d probably have been trampled to death. Instead we had a regular arrangement going with the old boy on the gate, who was paid £1 per game to let us through to the seats upstairs in E-Stand. Not that we ever sat down, our spec was right behind the goal at the top – stood up against the handrail.
That handrail was the bane of my life for a couple of years, since its height was exactly level with my line of sight. This meant I had two options: either I could watch the game on tiptoes with my chin resting on top or more comfortably, with my brow resting on the bar whilst peering underneath. As a result, I’d usually leave the match sporting a horizontal indent on my forehead that would remain visible for the next couple of hours.
The game, as has been recounted many times since that night, was absolutely incredible. I’ve been at pretty much every big match in the intervening 30 years and nothing, perhaps only the white noise madness of that five minutes in the Nou Camp in ’99, comes close to the atmosphere generated. As a kid, I just recall being absolutely ecstatic to have experienced it first-hand and almost overwhelmed with happiness and relief following the final whistle. Before writing this I watched the 10 minute highlights clip on YouTube again and it genuinely makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
It’s the 3rd goal that does it. Wilkins picking the ball up in his own half and wheeling his arm, signalling for everyone to bomb forward. Robson clips a glorious ball out wide that’s met by Arthur Albiston and by the time his cross enters the box, the Stretford End are already celebrating the goal. Just listen to it, it’s mad. The cross comes in and the strangulated “YESSSSSSSS…” starts whilst the ball is still in the air. Whiteside heads it back across the penalty area and then Stapleton buries it. Bedlam. The cheering starts about 3 seconds before the ball hits the net.
It was Robson’s night. Footage shows him absolutely exhausted at the end as he’s chaired off the pitch by hoards of cavorting wedge haircuts in stonewashed denim and Pringle jumpers. He staggers up the tunnel and is first gripped by Ron Atkinson, then looks in dire need of oxygen as he’s interviewed by Elton Welsby. Sadly, and typically for the era, our campaign fell to pieces after that. Arnold Muhren never kicked another ball that season, Robson was crucially injured for the 2nd leg of the Juventus semi and United limped home in the league, scoring only 8 goals and winning twice in our final 10 games. At least Robbo stayed though, with the board deciding to cash in on Ray Wilkins instead.
Despite being present as a 10 year old kid, I was fully aware of the night’s significance as it just felt absolutely huge in comparison to any game I’d attended previously. To this day, my Dad still describes it as “the best ever” and he’s been going to the match since the early 60’s – so that will do for me too. “Barcelona, Real Madrid, they will make a gallant bid, but United are the greatest team of all.” Damn right.
It was, quite simply, the greatest of the great Old Trafford nights.
Copyright Red News – March 2014