A very strange and unusual build up to tonights match. I have never in my time of watching United viewed the visit of Stoke City to Old Trafford with any worry or trepidation. Over the last 24/36 hours an already depleted United have suffered injuries to senior goalkeepers David de Gea & Anders Lindergaard meaning that 21 year old Ben Amos was making his first start since the debacle against Crystal Palace two months ago (which wasn’t entirely his fault). A bone chilling cold night at Old Trafford with a patchwork United team playing what I thought, was a stubborn and awkward Stoke City team gave me cause to think that Stoke could’ve won at Old Trafford for the first time since 1976. As silly as that sounds now, a poor Blackburn came to Old Trafford on New Years and done a number on United. Read more
For the third season in succesion, United have been knocked out of the FA cup by loathed rivals. The previous two defeats against Leeds in January 2010 and City in April 2011 were deserved. This loss at the home of the once mighty, once proud, Liverpool FC was not. United controlled this game almost throughout, yet blew it with poor communication at the end to gift the industrious but mediocre Dirk Kuyt the winner. I understand that Liverpool fans enjoy watching their team beat United as much as I and my fellow reds enjoy seeing United beat, preferably destroy, them but the Liverpool players’ reaction to the final whistle spoke volumes. With all their high fives, hugging and clenched fist gestures to the Anfield Road and Kemlyn Road stands, you would have though they had just won the cup rather than just knocked out their main rivals in the 4th, repeat 4th round. Could you imagine the great Liverpool sides of Souness, Dalglish, Hansen, McDermott et al celebrating a win in the 4th round of the FA Cup in the same manner? Liverpool of that era prided themselves on their business as usual attitude to any victory apart from a cup final or title clincher. I suggest the gleeful Scousers that were watching today’s match at Anfield dig out their Liverpool FC 1970s/1980s DVDs and get all dewy eyed over them as they will never see a team like that again.
United banner for Anfield yesterday (Photo courtesy of Gareth Edwards)
I spent Saturday night with Peter G, being served by David Bellamy lookalikes, all kinds of beer at a CAMRA festival in Miles Platting. The beer was going down my grid with an ease that past experience should’ve made me wary of but I carried on supping happily. Only on the way to Chorlton Street this morning to pick up the Red Issue/UWS monkey bus to Arsenal did I realise how leathered I was last night. Mercifully, the atmosphere on the coach was very appropriate for a Sunday morning where people were chatting happily, but quietly about life, love and United.
A pretty smooth ride to Ashburton Grove was wrapped up by about 1.30 where I then started searching for a ticket. Bumping into a couple of lads that I know who are ticket brokers outside Arsenal tube station, I was told that the ticket was costing for the United end, something between £250.00/£300.00. I met up with Red Peter in the Worlds End pub near Finsbury Park, he’d got hold of a ticket from an Arsenal mate of his, sat amongst gooners and was trying to find one for me. After watching the City match in a pub full of Arsenal fans, who greeted the City win with expected glee, I walked back to the ground to see what the score was. I got a phone call off davids who was working the ticket near the North Bank, telling me he had an Arsenal fan next to him who wanted £100.00 for his ticket. With tickets for the United end being like rocking horse shit and tickets elsewhere, hardly abundant, I told davids that I’ll have the ticket, sods law would dictate that I was at the polar opposite end of the ground from where he was but I raced round there as fast my slighly knackered 38 year old legs would let me. It was a surreal experience being sat like a trappist monk amongst Arsenal fans, I don’t as a rule, make a habit of watching the match with opposition supporters. In March 1993, I paid what was at the time, the astronomical sum of £20.00 to sit in the Kemlyn Road stand at Anfield among Liverpool fans. Mark Hughes scored with a header from a Ryan Giggs cross and I, with the wisdom that you can expect out of a 19 year lad, jumped up and down in celebration. Liverpool fans close to me were not in a very hospitable humour and in the ensuing confusion, a scouser who’d grabbed hold of me had somehow ended up with a busted nose. Nowadays, I’m a lot wider both mentally and alas, physically too.
United ran Arsenal ragged in the first half yesterday, Nani, Giggs and Valencia were cutting through the Arsenal defence, Johan Djourou in particular, like a hot knife through butter. It was murder trying to maintain a poker face whilst United were attacking Arsenal with such vigour but worse than that, a few times I wanted to scream at Nani over his sometimes abysmal final ball, but I’ve kept my mouth shut whilst Mount Vesuvius is spilling over in my chest. Arsenal had chances in the first half but due to Walcott’s ball control looking like he was playing with a rugby ball, they were wasted. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with the exuberance of his eighteen years, gave United’s defence an awkward time in the first half yesterday. In first half injury time, Giggs had so much time to look up and pick out Antonio Valencia, that he just stopped short of lighting up a cigar before delivering the ball. Around me, Arsenal fans were screaming in horror when they saw the space and time that Giggs had been allowed on the ball. There was a demeanour of resigned inevitability from the home support near me when Valencia, unusually for him, scored with a free header in the six yard box. Too easy was the cry from the gooners around me, it wasn’t the first, or the last time this afternoon they lamented with them words.
United players and fans celebrate Danny Wellbeck’s winner (Photo courtesy of Neil Meehan)
I was in the top tier of the Clock end, literally just above the United fans on the bottom tier. The noise volume coming from the United end was very disapointing especially as United have always had a very boisterous travelling support. According my friend Neil who was in that part of the ground, the regular away faces spread out too much behind the goal. A load of tourist’s were in the United end, the type of people that Roy Keane famously lambasted after a Champions League game at Old Trafford in 2000 against Dynamo Kyiv.
On 51 minutes Robin Van Persie missed a sitter after Tomáš Rosický had capitalised on Chris Smalling falling over, he made no mistake twenty minutes later, sweeping the ball past a despairing Anders Lindegaard for Arsenal’s equaliser. All around me, Arsenal fans erupted whilst I’m stood clapping my hands through gritted teeth that must have made me look like a horse. I couldn’t believe that United had conceded an equaliser yet again in a game we should’ve been out of sight in. Arsenal, while they ain’t going to win the league anytime soon are no mugs, they beat one of the best teams I’ve ever seen, Barcelona, in the first leg of a European Cup match last March and in the process, completely naused up my betting slip. They’re a fragile team but one that when their confidence is up. are a real danger. I quietly feared yesterday that they’d now take control of the game but next thing I remember was a chorus of boos from the home support over the introduction of the well known feminist, Andrei Arshavin brought on in place of the lively Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Seconds later, Antonio Valencia goes past Arshavin like he’s invisble before crossing the ball for Danny Wellbeck to slam into the Arsenal net from ten yards. There is definetly a growing undercurrent of discontent amongst the Arsenal fans with Wenger. It won’t get to the disgraceful campaign that Blackburn fans have waged against Steve Kean, at least I hope it dosen’t, but there was a lot of people calling for Arsene Wengers head walking out of the stadium yesterday. Like last August, United could’ve made it a cricket score against Arsenal but despite that minor quibble, a win at Arsenal is always a great result.
After a blatant trip on Danny Wellbeck by Zat Knight on 21 minutes, Wayne Rooney forced a great save from Bolton Hungarian goalkeeper, Ádám Bogdán from the resulting penalty. This was Rooneys second penalty miss in a week and this was just symbolic of the day he had. Wayne Rooney had a one of them days where he couldn’t do anything right. Flicks and passes weren’t coming off and his first touch was wayward. As bad a game as Rooney had the great thing is that he never once went missing. Always available, always harrying and always chasing the ball, it was just one of them days. In first half injury time, the other half of United’s home guard, Paul Scholes, scored his first goal for United since a scorcher at Craven Cottage in August 2010. This goal was a more like a goal Javier Hernandez would score than Paul Scholes. It actually reminded me of a goal he scored against the same opposition in September 1995. I saw Scholes make three top class tackles today. There’s been all kinds of things said about his tackling, I’ve winced and squinted myself once or twice when he’s gone for 50/50 ball over the years. It’s as if in retirement, he’s somehow learned to tackle. Whether he could/can tackle or not, Paul Scholes is one of the best footballers I’ve ever seen, if he could have tackled like Roy Keane, Bryan Robson or Remi Moses, he would’ve been the best player I ever saw. There’s been a lot of moaning about Scholes coming out of retirement and I like the circumstances of him coming back as much as anybody else does. The fact is, desperation or not, Tom Cleverley is too inexperienced to take on his mantle at the moment and Scholes, whether he’s 27, 37 or 47 is by some distance, United’s best player on the ball.
The final score of 3-0 made it look at more comfortable for United than it was. There were a few anxious moments in the second half, standout moment being Rafael’s goalline clearance from a Petrov header five minutes before Danny Wellbeck put everybody’s mind to rest on 74 minutes with an excellent finish from a pass from Rooney. The move to the goal managed to temporarily injure both Rooney and Wellbeck. A clumsy challenge from Adam Ricketts injured Danny Wellbeck and he was down for a couple of minutes before Javier Hernandez replaced him five minutes later. Ten minutes later, Michael Carrick seized on a fantastic pass from Ryan Giggs to casually pass the ball into the Bolton net for his first goal at Old Trafford since February 2010. Carrick is a confidence player, I don’t think he’s been the same since United were well beaten by Barcelona in Rome, May 2009. With two excellent goals in the last four weeks and with United’s wafer thin resources, this would be a good time for him to start playing well again.
The Police were having a quiet day yesterday in town, obviously disapointed that there was virtually no trouble so they did what they’re the best in the world at and tried creating trouble to give justification for their heavy presence in town. All the baloney pre-match from the GMP about every copper near the Etihad stadium “being in riot equipment” was shown for the rubbish it was on approach to the ground. There was a line of police outside the away fans turnstliles and approximately 30 police across Ashton New Road togged up in riot gear scratching their arses outside the Kippax chippy. In town, the Police unilaterally closed the Paramount pub on Oxford road to a group of peaceful fans five minutes before kick off. With the timing of the closure, a person of a more cynical disposition may think they’d done that to wind up a pub full of lads waiting for the match to kick off by forcing them to find somewhere else at such short notice, maybe create a disturbance. In my view, anybody who has that train of thought is spot on.
As we all now know, United ran rampant in the first half yesterday at the Etihad stadium. Rooney made it 1-0 when City still had eleven men on the pitch. City skipper and Centre half Vincent Kompany was sent off a couple of minutes later. When I was growing up, watching and playing football, the tackle that Kompany did would’ve been at worse a booking and a free kick. Most referee’s would’ve ignored it and called it a fair challenge, but whether it’s 1982, 1992 or 2012, a two footed tackle was the same then as it is now, the only difference is, now it’s an automatic red card. I don’t believe Vincent Kompany did that tackle yesterday with any malice, but malicious or not is not really the point. A footballer of Kompany’s skill and a man of his intelligence knew what he was risking when he went in two footed on Nani. How low his feet were to the ground, whether he got the ball or not or intent is a complete irrelevance. The most alarming thing to me about the whole thing was Wayne Rooney running to the referee, Chris Foy, like a schoolyard grass pointing out the two footed challenge. I don’t like seeing that from any footballer, but when a United player does it, it disgusts me. Rooney, we all love as a player and for his commitment on the pitch but for Christ sake, I hope he turn’s that in.
United fans of my age and above, should be able to remember a time when United were the most popular second choice team of a large section of the English population. In them days, particularly of teams fielded by Tommy Docherty and Ron Atkinson, United played exciting, swashbuckling football, won the odd cup, even more friends but more often than not lost agonisingly to teams that didn’t play with United’s flair or free spirited abandon but with more professionalism and discipline. It was OK to like United then because they were relatively harmless. Liverpool were the big bad dull ogre in them days, in 1982, they won the title with such ease, that when presented with the title at Anfield, instead of players passing the trophy along to their teammates, they nonchelantly tossed the cup to each other.
Luis Suarez’s comical defence has been made funnier by the chicken mourning followers of his club suddenly becoming knowledgable authority’s on the quirks and nuances of Uruguayan dialect. Suarez’s claim of terms of endearment whilst saying to Evra after kicking him on the knee ”Porque tu eres negro” (“Because you are black”), “Dale, negro…negro…negro” (“Bring it on, blackie”) and “No hablo con los negros” (“I don’t speak to blacks”) whilst pinching his arm was obviously a touching display of misunderstood bonhomie, to use Evra’s mother tongue for once. Since the guilty verdict was announced, Liverpool went on a robust defensive. Alluding without explicitly saying they’d appeal, wearing t-shirts at Wigan in support of a proven racist and once they’d seen the damning evidence against Suarez released, reluctantly and aggresively accepting the suspension without appeal but hinting at some sinster agendum and misunderstanding which, presumably down to the official secrets act, they’re not allowed to disclose.