You May Not Have Asked For It, But You’ve Got It Anyway
I know that there has been a bit of news today, mostly involving Danny Ward signing a new contract and The Klingon getting into the England team ahead of ‘Gaz’ Cahill. The thoughts on the latter, and I’ll tell you if I wasn’t on nights those thoughts would keep me up, will appear tomorrow. In the meantime, sit back, grab your Ovaltine and listen to the tale that I will tell.
As you will recall, we left our hero at the age of nine, being patted on the head by Frank Worthington and being given a free can of Coke for getting himself lost in Burnden Park. He has been taken back to Urmston by his parents but still follows the dastardly Manchester United. However, his eyes are soon to be opened……
How I got to support Bolton would be described by some as a journey, but I would rather call it an inevitability. After the family weekends died a quick death due to my sister discovering clubs, alcohol and boys, and not necessarily in that order, I started to go to Old Trafford more and more, first of all with my father, who was under strict instructions not to let me anywhere near the violence of the Stretford End, and, by 1982, with our sixteen year old next door neighbour, who made sure I got as near the Stretford End as I could, without actually setting foot on it as he preferred his body parts where they were and wasn`t going to take the chance that my mother may just turn up unannounced one weekend when he least expected it. Probably Norwich City at home.
The Stretford Paddock was a curious beast. At the Stretford End but not the Stretford End. It was cheaper and had one of the seven foot fences installed after the hooligan problem, partioning it from the main event.
It was certainly noisy but never seemed to be as much fun or as dangerous as United`s answer to Liverpool`s Kop. Schoolfriends who had been in there talked of the atmosphere with almost mythical reverence. Of the swaying back and forth, the songs, the chants, the banter and the casual racism, sexism and homophobia.
I couldn`t wait.
The club obviously thought so little of the paddock that when they redeveloped the ground the paddock went and where it stood is now the players tunnel.
My time came in the summer of 1983. United had won the FA Cup and a group of us at school wanted to get on the Ron Atkinson bandwagon that would surely deliver the elusive league championship soon.
The only way guaranteed to get to see every game was a season ticket, one of which you had no chance of procuring due to what seemed like a hundred year waiting list but was in effect only ten to fifteen, although you try saying only ten to fifteen years to a fiteen year old boy. There was, however, its poorer cousin, the League Match Ticket Book, or the LMTB, which guaranteed you entrance to league games but meant that you had no priority for cup matches. So, if United made it to a final, you had cock all chance of going. I took this with a pinch of salt. I had problems making it to Sale on my own without being told to “ring when you get there”, so going to Wembley? I had about as much chance as Bolton.
It was a motley crew of lower middle class teenagers, all wearing what passed for the styles of the time. Adidas jackets, jeans and trainers. Public transport of differing sizes would turf us out on the Chester Road and, after a quick glance in the souvenir shop to see if they had anything good, which always turned out to be a disappointment, it was a quick walk round the ground and a quarter past one entry to get our normal spot, halfway up, next to a stantion. Someone would bring out a packet of twenty Benson & Hedges, someone else would bring out a box of matches and those of us that smoked would spend the next ninety minutes looking hard while we all used language that would belie the fact that we went to one of the best Catholic Grammar schools in Manchester.
The United team of that era weren`t that bad but they could never push on to win the league. That wasn`t to say that they didn`t give us unforgettable nights. That first season, a 3-0 win against a Barcelona team containing Diego Maradona, overturning a two goal defecit to win on aggregate, sparked the one and only pitch invasion that I have ever been a party too. The following year, a nine game unbeaten run from the start of the season had us all believing that this was the year. It wasn`t. They finished fourth. And it was during this unbeaten run that my teenage love affair with Manchester United ended.
It began like any other day. I caught the 253 bus from Urmston to Old Trafford, meeting those like minded individuals who lived along the route. The twenty minute bus ride consisted of a few ribald songs, two Dunhill each, courtesy of my father`s emergency pack, and the general terrorising of shoppers on their way into Manchester. Well, they should have caught the train.
Depositing us on Chester Road, it reminded me of the stories my parents told us of when they worked in Trafford Park when, at the sound of the finishing hooter, 100,000 people came out of the factories and you could pick your feet up and be carried along in the crowd. Outside Old Trafford, before the Hillsborough tragedy brought an end to terraces, 60,000 attended the games and, if you attempted to lift your feet, you may well have been carried along in the crowd. However, these were also the days of hooliganism and random acts of violence outside grounds, so if you tried this you were more than likely to receive a forceful rebuke from someone called Liam from Audenshaw.
Making your way through what is now the Munich Tunnel, but at that time was better known as the place you could hassle such luminaries of the game as Arthur Graham and Garth Crooks for their autograph, you came out and rounded the corner, joining the throng that passed over the bridge, underneath which passed the Manchester-Liverpool line. A quick queue at the gate and you were in, usually at about 1pm.
Now, by the time September 1984 had rolled around, we were coming up to sixteen years old and some of the more, shall we say, moronic amongst us fancied their chances of climbing from the Stretford End into the United Road stand to make their way to the other end and “have a go” at the away fans, who at that time were stationed in the Scoreboard End and not the gods as they are now. In the late summer an advance party had managed this at Lou Macari`s testimonial, but in hindsight it may have been quicker to just ask as the stewards didn`t seem to really care what a bunch of fifteen year olds were doing while the retiring Macari played kickabout with a few friends.
Cometh the hour, cometh the idiot, as one of our crew from Sale Moor decided he would test this theory and, as the ground filled up, he made his move. Obviously, we all moved down to the partition between the stands to watch him vault over the wall and climb into the seats before disappearing into the stands. Then, to my indignation, another one tried it. Then another one. By the time the stewards collared me for standing next to a wall and minding my own business, there were three of us left.
I stand by the fact that I never had any intention of climbing into the United Road. It had taken me so long to get into the Stretford End I couldn`t see the point. If my compatriots felt the need to go and taunt Newcastle fans about their funny accent, their “bairns” and their “tabs”, then they could go right ahead and be my guest. I liked the Stretford End and I didn`t want to leave it. And I was still telling the stewards this as they marched me out of the ground, making me go through the turnstile the wrong way, causing it to stick for a couple of minutes.
I caught the bus home. It was, quite possibly, the loneliest journey I ever took as fans were still getting off the bus as I got on. Walking down the main road in Urmston, I was spotted by my mum and sister who just happened to be passing by. It was 3:15pm. United were already winning 2-0. They went on to win 4-0.
It was not a good day.
I didn`t go off on some mighty strop and refuse to go to anymore games at Old Trafford. That would have been a waste of money. But at the end of the season I gave up my ticket, partly in protest of the way they treated me and partly because I couldn`t afford it.
However, the time between being thrown out and the end of the season gave me the opportunity to scout around for another team to support. City were out, there was no doubt about that. I didn`t want to be an obstreperous relative. There was Altrincham, but they were just too low, bouncing around the Alliance Premier Leauge, waiting for an election to the Football League that would never come. So there was really only one choice.
After the club that I had supported most of my, albeit short, life had thrown me unceremoniously out of their ground like some sort of hooligan, the club that, years before, had treated me like a human being, looked after me and given me a can of coke would now be my team.
And so, on August 17 1985, I found myself back on the terraces at Burnden Park as Bolton opened their season against Rotherham. My sister was also there, but only because her current boyfriend was a Rotherham fan. I know the score was 1-1, that Tony Caldwell scored and that there were very few people there. After being part of crowds of 60,000 at Old Trafford, this came as a bit of a shock. Obviously there was a bigger shock the year after, when they fell into the fourth division for the first time. But it felt like home, that there was something real here that I never felt in Stretford. I`d hate to call it family, but there was a kind of fraternity in adversity that we all felt.
In a way, we still feel that way today.