The most memorable moment of yet another dreadful first half at Old Trafford was when Jonny Evans passed the ball back to David de Gea from near the half way line in the 22nd minute. A wayward corner from Ashley Young ended up with Daley Blind on the opposite flank. He passed to Evans near the halfway line who in turn passed to de Gea. Evans had no choice, he couldn’t pass safely to another United played where he was so he did what any sensible centre half would do. The howls of disapproval, most notably from the K Stand, were the angriest I’ve heard Old Trafford since the anti Moyes banner flew around Old Trafford last April. Some people thought that the crowd were having a go at Evans, but I think it was more a case of a pissed off crowd who had seen far too many moves evaporate this season in this manner. That there was no outfield player available to Evans to pass to is more a problem for his team mates as a collective, than it is any culpability for Evans after an attacking position moments earlier fell apart. Not for the first time this season, United fans chanted attack, attack, attack-attack-attack, however to my ears, this was shouted with a bit more vigour than usual.
Possibly the most terrifying image I’ve ever seen used to advertise a football match. Incidentally, Thriller by Michael Jackson is still available in all good record shops (while good record shops last)
This was the first of only four seasons where there was to be two group stages in the European Cup. United had cruised through the second group stage without too much problem, beating Girondins de Bordeaux home and away and losing at Fiorentina just before Christmas, partially due to a rare Roy Keane mistake which gifted Gabriel Batistuta the first goal in a 2-0 win for the Viola. This season saw European football at saturation level. On the 21st of March 2000, I was high up in the almost vertical Estadio de Mestalla watching Valencia and United play out a 0-0 draw which was very convenient for both sides. I didn’t know it at the time but exactly two weeks later, I would be back in Spain watching United play 200 miles from where I was at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. Back in Manchester on the Friday after the Valencia match about Midday, the news came through that United had drawn Real Madrid in the Quarter finals. Huge mobile phones were abuzz with all kinds of excited phone calls and text messages flying about with plans to go. I remember being sat by a computer on the Easyjet website ready to book flights from Speke to Barajas and it went swimmingly, return flights booked for four at a grand total of just under £350.00. Sitting there feeling very pleased with myself, we all went to the pub for an all dayer in good spirits. The first sign of worry came when we heard later on that day that the match at the Bernabéu was on a Tuesday night. We’d booked flights to go out on Wednesday morning and as everybody knows, once a flight with Easyjet is booked it’s cast in Moses tablets and impossible to change. We found flights going out of Gatwick on the Tuesday morning with Air Europa which cost us just over £100.00 apiece that did have the consolation of the fact that we could smoke on the flight (in those days, a very rare privilege, nowadays illegal).
Walking down Stretford Road on the way to Old Trafford tonight, I had a gut feeling that the game I was about to witness was not going to be a classic. The smell of the doughnut van parked up on the junction of Stretford Road and Chester Road has left a stronger and more pleasant memory than anything I witnessed on the pitch. Halfway through the second half, the 700 or so pre-pubescant kids that were congregated in the L stand were engaged in a chanting competition with the Cluj fans. It was by some distance the most entertaining occurence on a night of football so indescribably bad and on a night so cold that it is believed that Vladimir Lenin was shivering in his Mausoleum. After the full time whistle I felt more inclined to applaud the kids in the L stand than anybody wearing a red shirt on the pitch. Cluj won with a fantastic 25 yard shot from Luis Alberto on 56 minutes but were knocked out of the Champions League due to Galatasaray’s win in Portugal. On 75 minutes, stadium MC Alan Keegan announced a crowd of 71,521 to laughs of derision from all around me. I don’t believe there was any more than 55,000 in Old Trafford tonight. Years ago, in the days of pay on the gate, squeezed in the Stretford Paddock and knowing there was at least 52,000 in the crowd, the crowd was sometimes underestimated to something like 45,000 and you knew somebody at Old Trafford was on a collosal fiddle. Nowadays it’s the other way round. Whoever came up with that crowd figure for tonight must’ve been the same person whom over the summer made the risible claim that United have 659 million fans worldwide. One more thing I learnt tonight was that with United avoiding a draw, it is now, According to Man United magazine columnist Steve Bartram, Uniteds longest run without a draw since 1896 (26 games). I bet that you really wanted to know that.
I could be all philosophical about this. In the cold light of day, we are (give or take) a third of the way through the season and two points off the leaders, having beaten both Liverpool and Chelsea away and Arsenal at home. All said though, after this performance, pragmatic philosophy is of no comfort. I was convinced before the season kicked off that Chelsea and Arsenal were all talk and the title race was between United and City. The results today haven’t changed anything; Chelsea won’t win the title and unless United do something dramatic in January, say bring Roy Keane out of retirement or something akin, then this title race is City’s to lose. Man City, who have been having a post title winning hangover that we ourselves experienced in 1999 are, for all that, still unbeaten in the league. United have lost three times this season and for two and half of those matches, United’s performances have been a disgrace.