I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Can I rationalise the way I feel about Man United?

There’s been all sorts of fallout in the hours and days following Wednesday’s staggering Hillsborough revelations. Quite rightly, most attention has been focused on the sheer depth of the Establishment cover up that was put in place and kept in place for twenty three years.

A second element of the fallout has been a pleasingly general mood that this might be a time for football fans to put a stop to some of the hate. Well, three cheers to that. Any half way decent human being must surely be disgusted when the Chelsea fans hiss out the sound of the Auschwitz gas chambers as a way of getting under the skin of their Tottenham rivals. When Millwall played Leeds last year, a few Millwall fans actually went to the effort of shopping around to buy a large Turkish flag. Because two Leeds fans were stabbed to death in Istanbul. Can you even begin to imagine how that must have made the families of the lads who were murdered feel?

We nearly got the Walt Disney ending we all hoped for yesterday. Gerry Marsden was once again number one in the charts with ‘You’ll never walk alone” after a gap of fifty years. How did that happen? It happened because football fans from all clubs all over planet earth logged on and shelled out 79p to show solidarity with Liverpool. Not a small thing.  And yet a few morons at Old Trafford couldn’t resist having a go. They sang out a new ditty of theirs that was born out of last year’s Evra/Suarez affair. ‘It’s never your fault…you’re always victims  … it’s never your fault…” On the surface it took the Mick out of the way we circled the wagons when our number 7 behaved like a complete and utter spoilt pratt. But underneath was an unmistakeable reference to our long campaign for the truth about 1989 to be revealed once and for all. A simple truth. We didn’t kill each other. We were killed by the authorities. And even when that truth was presented in the ultimate black and white, it wasn’t enough for a few nutters who chose to ignore it as an inconvenient truth. They opted to ape the actions of the Holocaust Deniers who to this day claim Auschwitz was little more that a detention centre.

To his credit Sir Alex Ferguson did his best to urge us all to use this historic week for football to wind back the loathing. And it is really hard to argue with those sentiments. And yet it isn’t at all easy to follow the advice.

Not for the first time I have found myself trying to find a proper, logical explanation for the way I feel about Manchester United Football Club. I like to think I am a pretty easy going sort of guy. I manage a charity, I abide by the law, I have a poster of Martin Luther King on the wall. And yet for ninety minutes when United come to Anfield, I do a complete Jekyll to Hyde. For those ninety minutes I hate those eleven players and their fans in the Annie Road End more than I have ever hated anything else in my life.

I will never forget the first time I took my oldest son to a Liverpool/United game. He was five at the time and at the very start of his career as a Red. He was at the posters on the wall and sticker book stage, more than happy to lap up every ritzy Sky TV bit of superstar hype. Of course he supported Liverpool, because his dad and granddad supported Liverpool. And he loved the noise and passion of Anfield in the days of Barnes, Rush and Fowler. But the United game was different. He was quieter. Almost scared by everything he saw around him. I remember looking down at him a few seconds after Steve Bruce had tried to cut Rushy in half with a scything tackle. I had just gone mental. My dad had just gone mental. Absolutely everyone in the stand had just gone mental. We were all more or less frothing at the mouth. My son’s face was a picture of confusion. What was happening here? Why were his dad and granddad behaving this way? Why was everything so very different to every other game he had ever attended? And how do you explain the nature of sheer tribal hatred to one so young? Well there was no need to explain. It seeped into his bones that afternoon. It was his rite of passage. And a year later he had fully joined the tribe and was screaming along with the rest of us.

It is something I have always felt uncomfortable with. It makes me feel a kind of shame and guilt when watching news items from places where this kind of mindless tribalism turns into rivers of blood. In Belfast. In Bosnia. In Rwanda. In Chechyna. In the Sunni triangle. In South Africa. We shrink back in horror at the cruelties committed when two tribes settle their age old scores. But are we really all that very different?

This deep seated hatred makes you do and feel things that you are not all that proud of. I remember this lad from school who switched from supporting Burnley to United back in 77. He was seduced by Tommy Doc’s team of Greenhoff, Coppell, Mcilroy and Gordon Hill. He had been a mate before making his switch. But once he became a typical gloating, crowing Manc he became insufferable. I remember the day of the O Levels results when he was fighting back the tears because he had blown it completely. I really should have felt some sympathy. I didn’t. Not one jot. And I ain’t proud of that.

When my son was just short of five he started primary school in Blackburn. Not surprisingly, well over half of his class were United fans, even though King Kenny was building his Rovers side that eventually won the league at Anfield. At the end of his first week Dyonne came home and announced with great seriousness that he had decided that he was going to support Man United. As in every father’s nightmare. I sat him down and said that such a decision was of course his choice entirely and that we are are lucky to live in a free country where we are free to say what we like and support who we like. Then I said it had been nice knowing him and wished him all the best for the rest of his life. I suggested he might as well go up to his bedroom and pack his stuff. This obviously induced a look of sheer panic as I explained further that he was more than welcome to become a Manc, but he couldn’t possibly live under my roof. Well obviously not. He decided there and then to stick with Liverpool and to this day the story makes him shudder. How very easy it can be for a young child to be drawn to the dark side! We have always laughed at the memory, but is this really any way to behave to a five year old? Not really. And yet in my heart of hearts I can never quiet bring myself to believe I did anything wrong.

When Dyonne was twelve we got tickets for the 4th round of the FA Cup and a visit to Old Trafford. This was a huge deal for Dyonne. And for 89 minutes all was on course for it to be one of the best afternoons of his life. Owen scored after five minutes and for the next 85 minutes we passed them to death and would have been four up but for wasteful finishing. The Stretford End was as quiet as a library and we were louder than loud. Three minutes stoppage time. Andy Cole. 1-1. Dwight Yorke 2-1. And all of a sudden there seemed to be about a million crowing, dancing Mancs all over us like a swarm of ants. It was like a nightmare. The sheer weight of the pent up waves of hatred seemed to suck the air out of the lungs. And I will never forget until my dying day the unholy thought that wriggled into my brain like a rabies-ridden rat. As I stared at the rank after rank of ugly, leering, jeering faces pressed up against the police line, I thought the following. If someone were to hand me a grenade right now I would gladly pull the pin and throw it.

And it was like opening a door onto something you never want to see. For I had been introduced to that most ugly of all our animal instincts. The instinct that made Hutus slice up Tutsis with machetes. The one that made Srebrinica. Necklaceings in Soweto. The darkest place of them all.

Thankfully the thought faded as quickly as it had arrived leaving me feeling ugly and crap.

A few months later, that same United side had their own Istanbul moment in the Nou Camp when Sheringham and Solskjaar scored injury time goals to snatch victory from Bayern Munich. I watched the game with a mate who is a big Chelsea fan in a pub near Warrington. The room was wall to wall Mancs and we had to take care not to so much as smile when the Germans took the lead. The injury time drama was something of a test. When all was said and done, an English side had just managed a miracle to overcome a German side. Surely there had to have been 1% of me that was glad. Not a chance. Not a millionth of a percent. Interestingly my Chelsea mate felt exactly the same. We both left our pints and left the pub. Neither of us could stand the sight of those bastards lifting the trophy.

The big question is why? Why such hatred? Is it all completely irrational or can I at least put some reason to it? Maybe it is best to go through things one by one.

Well it can’t be a North/South thing. Our two cities share than same latitude and despite what the redrawn lines on the civic map say, we are all basically Lancastrians. Do I hate the city? Not at all. I lived there for two years in the eighties in a terraced house in shadow of the Kippax St stand at the old Maine Road ground. It was great.

Managers? No. Not managers. Who could even begin to hate Sir Matt Busby? He was a titan, spawned from the same Ayrshire coalfields that gave us Jock Stein and our very own Bill Shankly. Tommy Doc was a star. And I could never really dislike Big Ron Atkinson with his sheepskin coats, cigars and bling. Then we have Sir Alex. Maybe I am in a minority, but I have always been a massive fan. It seems to me that if you like Bill Shankly and King Kenny, you cannot hate Sir Alex. He comes from the same set of no nonsense old school Scottish socialist values. I was delighted that the press highlighted the fact that he was the first to call Kenny after Hillsborough to offer 100% shoulder to shoulder support. He was also the first manager through the door to visit Gerard Houlier after his heart attack.

So no, it isn’t a manager thing.

Players? Well of course you hate them in the heat of battle, but let’s face it, there have been any number of United players I would have loved to see in a Liverpool shirt: who would have graced a Liverpool shirt. Charlton, Best, Law, Stiles, Crerand, Coppell, Greenhoff, Robson, Wilkins, Whiteside, Cantona, Giggs, Keane, Vidic. It has always seemed such a crying bloody shame that Rooney was born into a family of deluded Evertonians and never managed to see the light like Jamie Carragher and Robbie Fowler. I have always liked Gary Neville because he has never made any effort to hide his loathing for all things Liverpool. Why should he? He’s a Manc. It is how it should be. Fair play to him. When it comes down to it, there are only a handful of United players I have really hated over the years. Beckham, Ronaldo, Nani, not many. So it’s not a player thing either.

Which leaves the fans.

Ah, the fans.

Anyone who enjoyed the dubious pleasure of being packed into the infamous Scoreboard Paddock in the 70’s and 80’s as a Liverpool fan will have very few fond memories of the experience. I recall one particularly horrendous afternoon when we went down to a Jimmy Greenhoff goal. They had a new song and it seemed like the whole of Manchester was throwing it into our faces at full volume.

“He’s only a poor little Scouser, his face is all tattered and torn, he made me feel sick, so I hit him with a brick, and now he won’t sing any more….”

Nice. But they never get much of a picnic when they come to Anfield and we can match them point for point when it comes to frothing hatred. At the FA Cup game a couple of years ago when Kenny made his comeback, we were surrounded by a spectacularly Neanderthal bunch. One lad in particular had worked himself into a huge fury at the sight of two Mancs the other side of the police lines whose main crime in his eyes was to be wearing Mexican style Sombrero hats. The fact that the lad in question was wearing a bizarre Sherlock Holmes deerstalking number himself was neither here nor there. For the whole game he was throwing himself around doing a version of a five year old being an aeroplane. At one point it seemed as if every blood vessel in his face was about to burst as he yelled.



And yet I have always felt that there is something that sets the United fans apart. After all, it isn’t just Liverpool fans who can’t stand them. It is everyone. And it isn’t just because they win everything. Nobody could stand them in those wonderful years when they won nothing.


Well, to state the screamingly obvious, there is no difference at all between any of us on an individual, human being basis. Obviously there isn't. But groups of very similar individuals can behave completely differently once they are forged into a group. This is where it comes down to the prevailing culture that drives the group. Most of us agree that we share many similarities as people with the Germans. Yet just look how differently we both behaved in the 30's and 40's. I reckon the reason why a majority of football fans hate United fans it is down to their insufferable sense of entitlement and their complete inability to show any sense of sportsmanship and class. This has always come from the top down. United was the first uber-commercial club. The first ‘brand’. They were selling duvet covers, wallpaper and lampshades long before anyone else even dreamt of it. Old Trafford has always been seemed like a place of capitalist smugness, purpose built for Johnny-come-lately day trippers.
We have never been like that, in fact now we are paying the price because we are always broke. We never learned to turn on pitch success into increased lampshade and wallpaper sales.

So are we all that different? Well. Yes actually. We are. I don't think I have a rose tinted memory when I recall most of the country being pretty pleased when we won the European Cup all those times in the 70's and 80's. And in Istanbul. Just like I was more than happy to cheer on Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest.

The Kop has always prided itself on its sportsmanship. We take time out to clap the opposition goalie when he takes up his position between the sticks. And they clap back, appreciative of the gesture. Unless it is a United keeper. They make a point of not clapping back which has always seemed so small as to be pathetic. You soon learned that a failure to abide by the rules of the Kop would prove costly. In the late 70’s some moron threw a coin at the City keeper Joe Corrigan. It hit him on the head and drew blood. You could almost feel the Kop growl. Soon a chant grew and grew. ‘Get the bastard out! Get the bastard out!....’ The guy who had chucked the coin was picked up and rolled over thousands of heads and literally thrown onto the gravel behind the goal for the cops to arrest. Would that have happened at the Stretford End? I doubt it.

I remember a European Cup night in 1982 when we played a completely unknown Polish team, Widzew Lodz. We were the holders. The undisputed Kings of Europe. It had been an unbelievable shock when they had beaten us 2-0 on an icy night in Poland thanks to two howlers from Bruce Grobbelaar. We needed to win at least 2-0 and it was to be one of those epic Anfield European nights. But we didn’t win 2-0. We won 3-2 and got knocked out. The Poles played out of their skins and at the final whistle they didn’t really know what to do with themselves. They had no fans in the ground. They were just about to make their way off the pitch when they realised that a packed Kop was applauding them. And they made their way to the penalty box to applaud back. It was a hell of a blow to get knocked out by an East European team we had never heard of. But it didn’t stop us from clapping them.

Then there was that epic night when Arsenal stole the title with the last kick of the season a few weeks after Hillsborough. They had plenty of fans in the ground and the fans went completely mental. Of course they did. Nobody left the stadium when Tony Adams collected the trophy. And Arsenal did a lap of honour all the way round the ground. I had a seat at the front of the Kemlyn Rd stand at the time. I remember shaking Tony Adams hand as they made their way round the pitch. We were all completely and utterly gutted, but we still knew how to lose.

So what about United? A couple of years ago I watched their Champions League final against Barcelona at Wembley with my brother in law who is a huge Manc. He was staying with us so I was determined not to crow too much if Barca took them apart. With some difficulty I persuaded my two sons to do the same and all three of us managed not to jig with delight as the Catalans took them apart piece by piece. But after 70 minutes I could stand it no more.

“You know what. If Liverpool were playing this lot tonight it might have been 6-1 to them instead of 3-1. But there is one thing I know for certain. They wouldn’t be out-singing us. Not a chance.”

There were two United fans in Wembley that night for every Barca fan. And yet as Messi, Xavi and Co weaved their magic, you couldn’t hear a peep from the United End. They stood and sulked and long before the final whistle they had left and skulked off into the night. That old sense of entitlement. That old inability to behave with any class whatsoever. And then there was the truly pathetic picture of Scholes and Van De Saar who had both announced their retirement standing in front of 40,000 empty seats. Those Mancs had just had the privilege of watching a complete master class from Lionel Messi and they were incapable of acknowledging it. When Kaka took us apart in the first half in Istanbul, we responded by filling the Turkish night with the sound of ‘You’ll never walk alone.” And if things had turned out differently and Milan had gone on to stuff us 6-0, we would have kept singing to the bitter end and given Kaka the ovation he deserved.

Why? Because we are hard wired to be that way. We always have been.

So what of the Liverpool/United gamenext week? Will I be able to take heed of Sir Alex and find a place in my heart to not hate United as they take the field? Well, I certainly will not be singing any Munich songs. I never have. Most of us never have. Just like most of them have never sung the Hillsborough songs. That has always been for a minority of idiots both sides of the line. But will I still hate them? I’m afraid I will. And is it completely irrational? Well, maybe not completely. But I would say that, wouldn’t I!    


1 comment:

  1. Hi MARK

    Thoroughly enjoy your blogs as usual and of course forward them on to the far flung corners of the universe to my family and friends.

    As usual I smile to the references to United. I was born in Salford. 1949.

    As usual I agree with a lot of your views.

    As usual I disagree with a lot of your views.

    But this time I agree with almost everything you say. Especially the bit a a few morons spoiling it at Old Trafford. Mind you the mention of United morons was soon removed by contempt to the "we circled the wagons" with reference to Queen Kenny/ Racist Suarez (I was only stroking his black skin and calling him nigger because its a term of endearment back home and I have only been in Europe 6 years so didn't know this was a problem) and his own personal moron campaign that finally led to you lot ironically dethroning him! Pure bliss!!!!

    Especially laughed at the 2-1 game where you were tempted to throw a grenade in to the United Crowd. I was one of the crowd there, learing, jeering and ugly as usual. So my friend I would have been on the end of that. However I realise I was never threatened at all. Because the laws of probability would have meant that, you being in the scouse crowd, would have discovered that when you went in your pocket for the grenade... guess what. Yes. Someone would have already nicked it!

    Also my daughter often tells the tale of when she phoned me to say she had met the man of her life.. her future husband... Her Dad asked her one question and one question only.. Does he support Liverpool. Replied No. Then that's fine said Dad!

    So my friend, we have many similarities. Strange but true. I shared the same intense feelings when the 23 years campaign finally brought an apology. But not justice. And even then it seemed a reluctant apology from certain individuals. But the most vile and nauseating statement came from ex Chief Constable Norman Bettinson (now Sir Norman Bettinson);

    "Fans behaviour To the extent that it was relevant at all, made the job of the police, in the crush outside leppings turnstiles, harder than it needed to be. I held those views then and now. I have never since hearing the Taylor evidence unfold, offered any other interpretation in public or private"

    He tried to retract this 24 hours later.

    I remember being at a speakers evening with the main guest being Sir Alex. He caught every ones attention when he mentioned the Ibrox disaster and then led on to the Hillsborough disaster and informed us all that in 1981 supporters were being crushed at a semi final, in the very same stadium, Hillsborough, between spurs and wolves and gates were opened by the police which resulted in a massive fall out between Wednesday and the Yorkshire police! He then told us that in 1988, the very year before the disaster, complaints had gone in to both the police and the FA from fans at that semi about serious safety concerns! What amazed us equally was not only these statements previously unknown to us, but also that he knew these facts and obviously felt passionate about the injustice and the campaign for the truth by the Hillsborough Families Supporters Group.

    Last Thursday I sent a card with my sincere congratulations and expressed my (United) appreciation to Margeret Aspinall of the Hillsborough Families Support Group.

    One final thought... why don't we meet up outside the theatre of dreams. You bring the grenade. I'll bring an hatchet. I have an idea for both implements.. it involves a certain ex chief constable. Perfect time to bury an hatchet!

    Kind Regards


    Oh by the way I called last Thursday to see you.About 12.30 ish. Have got some stuff for you. I went in the front door and shouted but no answer. I had to leave without seeing you because I started to look through your books and got to the Istanbul one and then for some reason needed the toilet. Urgently.

    Take care friend.