As I get up in the morning, I feel rather nervous and uneasy. I am not quite sure why. I am to sneak off from the conference I am attending to catch Manchester United against Bournemouth, and from there I am heading off to Huddersfield for my first two-matches-in-a-day-experience in England.
I am not sure what the nervousness and uneasiness is about. The sneaking away from the conference? I did my presentation the previous day, but I feel I ought to attend the presentations of good colleagues and friends. Next the United match. I have to store up my suitcase at the station – and I always feel uncomfortable about that for some reason. Next, for only the second time in four months United have the chance to break into the top 5 with a win. Last time they blew it with a frustrating and disappointing scoreless draw against lowly Hull at home. Are we destined to do it again? Three weeks ago, the photographer from the United Review took photos of Dale, Thomas and me with Lou Macari and Bryan Robson. Will they be featured in the match programme today?
After the match. I will have 70 minutes to get back to Manchester Piccadilly, pick up my suitcase and catch the train to Huddersfield. It is quite a few years since I have tried to be in the rush after a match to get on a train to the city centre. I have been based in Chorlton for every match the last four years and therefore been walking to the ground – and anyway, for most matches I have stayed around the ground after the final whistle. Will I make it? And my second match? Plenty of things to worry about.
I have breakfast early at the hotel, hoping I won’t meet anyone and have to explain that I am choosing the football over them. But the Spanish girl Noemi is there, and we have breakfast together. She is to present on a French sports cartoon hero, Michel Vaillant. I later discover that it is in fact a motor racing hero, dubbed Mark Breton in the Danish version, which I read on a weekly basis in my childhood. When I discover it, I feel even worse about skipping the session. Noemi is from Madrid, and I love the way she pronounces Real Madrid. It sounds much better than the Danish and English ways. I have to go some day. I explain that although I ought to support Barcelona having family there, there is more of a connection between United and Madrid than between United and Barcelona – and that the press image of Barcelona as the purists and good guys annoy me. She knows what I mean, but then she runs through Franco’s and the system’s allegiances with Real, and I am reminded why I really ought to support Barcelona.
Anyway, I get on the train and get to Manchester. There are quite a few people queuing up at the left luggage counter, which is quite worrying. All of them are going to the match and will have to pick up their luggage at the same time as me. Fortunately, most people opt out of the queue for some reason, probably having the same anxiety as me, but with a clear-cut idea of an alternative. Well, I haven’t got one, but because others seem to do, it is quickly my turn. “Allow 15 minutes for pick-up” the guy tells me. My train leaves at 15.41, meaning I will have to be back at the station at 15.26 – with the match due to finish around 14.20. That gives me about an hour.
I move on to get on the metro. The queues for the ticket machines are long, and the first train for the ground leaves the crowded platform. Fortunately, a woman turns up selling event tickets to the ground for cash only, and I manage to get on the second train. It is still almost 2½ hours to kick-off, but the train is pretty full. It adds to my feeling of unease. If the trains are pretty full going to the ground at this hour, they will be packed for more than an hour leaving the ground after the match. I have some regrets that I have packed in two matches on the same day. Normally, at this hour, the metro is just about the most quiet place you can be. People on their way to work are quiet and focused, but everybody seems to be talking on the way to the match. It is incredibly noisy.
Getting off at Old Trafford Metro stop, however, eases my mind. Running the gauntlet among grafters that today not just offer matchday scarves for tourist but “Ibra” or “Zlatan” scarves as well – as well as a few ticket touts who by this hour when the police are out in full force have decided to move from the stadium to the station, I get this sense of home again. The walk up the Warwick Road passing all the stalls, The Trafford Bar which reopened only three weeks ago after curiously being shot down for 3 or 4 months, and finally the row of shops along Chester Road which look pretty much the same as they did the first time I came here about 40 years ago. The Red Star Souvenir shop on the corner, the Lou Macari Fish ‘n Chips and all the other grill bars.
Normally, I would go straight to The Red Star to say hello to my friend Angelo, but today I head straight to the ground to buy the match programme. Immediately, I browse through it to see if there is a photo of us in it. There isn’t. It feels a bit flat. I had promised to buy copies for Dale as well, but no need for that now. I make my way back to Angelo’s.
As I enter, Angelo’s wife Lisa sees me and smile. Angelo is busy displaying some United trainer shoes to a man. The inside of the box is an inside photo of the ground. Impressive. Angelo asks me about my thoughts on his latest business idea. A 3-D scanner, where visitors can be scanned, attached to a 3-D-printer that can print a statue of them, with Eric Cantona standing next to them, his arm around their shoulder. Of course, people would have to pay, but wouldn’t that be a great idea? I am a bit skeptical. “It depends on how much they have to pay. I say”. One thing is to get your wife to accept you spending time and money to travel to football matches. But to come back with an even more expensive statue to stand in the living room, well that could well be the final straw that will see the end of several marriages.
As I leave the shop, I come to think of another reason, why I wouldn’t do it. I was keen to buy the match programme because there might have been a photo commemorating a fantastic day at Old Trafford, actually meeting Lou Macari and Bryan Robson. It is the actual meeting that I somehow want to extent by having some memorabilia from it. How would it feel to have a statue with Eric Cantona without even meeting him? Well, I did briefly see Eric some ten years ago, when he was the patron of the football world cup for homeless in Copenhagen. And he smiled and nodded approvingly, as I asked him to sign my ticket for the 1994 FA Cup final, in which he scored United’s two first goals. But a statue produced in this way would not commemorate that meeting. Instead, I imagine, it would lead to some embarrassing situations. Having memorabilia is basically about story-telling. When people see my old authentic player’s shirt with Bobby Charlton’s autograph, I can tell them both the story of how then United manager Ron Atkinson presented it to me, and how I got Bobby Charlton to sign it. But I wouldn’t be able to tell anything from such a statue. In fact, I would have to explain that we actually didn’t meet, but it was made in a shop. Finally, I have always found it a bit smug to have paintings let alone sculptures of yourself.
But it may be of interest to the same sort of event-seeking fans who also purchase matchday scarves. From Angelo’s shop, I go straight to the chippy. Alas, it is not the same lady who is usually there, and who saw us filmed by MUTV three weeks ago. So my plan to ask for a free meal in return for the good advertising I have given them, seem out of place. I go to the usual house opposite the Bishop Blaize to eat it. The Bishop Blaize is one of the pubs where United fans gather for a song and a drink before the match. But you sense that it is still early hours. The singing is not as loud as normally.
There is a convenient garden wall that makes it up for a table, although I feel a little guilty every time using somebody’s frontgarden in this way. I am careful not to drop anything, but other less careful fans may get inspired to take up the position. As I dump my tray in a container on the corner of Chester Road, I spot the lovely lady with the Zlatan scarf who I met outside the Cricket Ground the other day. She walks along with a young man talking, but whereas he continues, she goes to the doormen regulating entrance of fans into the Blaze. She talks with them for quite some time, before walking away.
I walk after her and tap her on the shoulder. “Hello – we met the other day”. “Oh, you remember me!” she says. Of course, I do. She displays her t-shirt under the jacket. Marlon Brando has given way to a drawing of United players. I take a photo of her in the new outfit. She had tried to get inside the Blaize as she wanted to join the singing inside. But she hadn’t been able to persuade the doormen to let her jump the queue. But she loved the singing. She asks for my match prediction. Normally, I am very cautious. Cocky predictions always come back to haunt you. But somehow I feel I have to be optimistic to make a good impression on her, so I go for a 3-1 win. “Oh, do you?” She is sensibly more cautious and go for a narrow 2-1 win, but adds that it is about time we take our chances and give somebody a hiding. As she walks down the road, she starts talking with a couple of men. It does look as though they are going to the match together, but on other hand, she would be talking with anybody she met.
Lifted by this meeting, I take a walk around the ground. I buy the Red News and United We Stand fanzines. I really miss my favourite one, Red Issue. After almost 30 years and some fantastic stunts such as unfolding the “Manchester is Red”-banner on the Kippax stand for Manchester City’s last match at Maine Road, and a 19-times-champions banner at Anfield, they called it a day last year, allegedly because they felt that they had become to mainstream. Today, though, a brand new fanzine hits the road for the first time. “1878” it is called. It is a nostalgic view on the good old days and, of course, I buy that one as well.
Afterwards, I head for the Stretford End. I take a walk around and watch the MUTV giving the team news and pre-match analysis with Borjan Djordic. As far as I can remember, he only played one or two matches for us some 10 or 15 years ago. I need a drink, and as I only had a bowl of cereals for breakfast, I am not completely full after my fish ‘n chips an hour earlier. So I am tempted by a 3 item offer that will give me a twix bar for the train ride, a drink and an opportunity to taste the “United Pie”. Steak, cheese and fiery chili in a shortcrust pasty base. I only eat half of it, but almost feel sick. I am glad that I don’t have to go on the pitch.
There is something about early kick-offs that is not quite right. You have not quite got the pulse up for the match. And quite often, not all the players have. For United, this is obviously the case for Zlatan and Pogba. Or maybe they have had the same problem as me in trying to fit in breakfast and prematch meals before 12.30, and feel just as bad. At the same time, Jones, Rooney, Shaw and Carrick make their first starts for a long time and all seem rather rusty, particularly Jones. In some ways, I identify with Jones. Whenever he makes a clumsy challenge, is turned by an attacker and left struggling for pace, whenever his touch is heavy, or he is caught out of position, I think “that could be me”. In some ways, it is nice to be able to identify with a player, but I prefer United playing central defenders who do not remind me of myself. Jones is lucky to get away with an early slip. But I do feel uneasy. United have all the position and – despite the rustiness and early morning blues – take advantage of some poor Bournemouth defending to create a string of chances, but fail to score. The atmosphere is quite ok. The strange thing about Old Trafford is that when you are standing in the Stretford End, there is almost non-stop singing going on all around you. But somehow the acoustics of the ground with 75.000 bodies covering the concrete, and with the roof almost like a sound bell pressed down over the Stretford End, you can’t hear it at all if you are sitting in another part of the ground.
With United looking rusty at the back and seemingly playing their keeper warm with a string of saves, the uneasiness creeps back into me. But, we do eventually go one goal up, and that makes me relax. Surely, now, Bournemouth have to come forward in the second half, and Mourinho will put on Rashford and his pace to exploit the space. But five minutes before halftime, Jones’ rustiness makes him give away a penalty with a clumsy challenge. That was not in the script. 1-1. A double incidence involving Zlatan leads to chaos and the sending off of a Bournemouth player. Surely we will win against 10 men in the second half, considering the string of chances we have created against 11. But there is still an uneasiness, well merited as it turns out.
Gradually this uneasiness grows to impatience in the crowd. Bournemouth players keep going to the ground for treatment, making the crowd upset, and this seems to spread to the players. And the keeper is master at timewasting. All the good moves of the first half disappear. Now we just seem to go for the quick long ball to Zlatan, but that is leading us nowhere. 18 minutes from the end, we do get a penalty. I am right to the middle of the pitch, looking directly down at the penalty spot. Surely, this will sort it for us. The lady in front of me, dare not look, but turns around. Her anxiety is proved right, as the keeper gets down to save it. Now the frustration around the ground is so thick that you can cut through it with a knife. And it gets to the players, so when Pogba gets two guilt-edged chances in injury time, he scuffs them. The performance turns out to be like the chili in the pie, not very fiery after all.
I feel absolutely sick as I climb down the stairs of the stand. I have prided myself that United have won all matches, I have attended in the post-Ferguson era. 13 matches. And then that run is ended by 10-men Bournemouth! When a win could have lifted us into top 5. I decide that rather than building up more frustration in endless queues for the metro, I will walk to the Piccadilly. According to Google maps, it is a 68 minutes’ walk. I do have 70 minutes. I have to allow time for the luggage, but I think I can speed walk my way out of that. But I forget that 75.000 people flooding out in the streets make speedwalking rather difficult. At first, I plan to cross the railroad via the bridge next to the Stretford End. But the crowd queuing up to get on the bridge seems to be standing still. So I walk through the Munich tunnel. The crowd is moving, but very, very slowly.
As I eventually get through and hit Warwick Road where the fanzine sellers are back in position, I see my new lady friend talking with one of them. Once again, I tap her on the shoulder, she grasps my hand and shakes her head in frustration, but says some words that I can’t quite hear in the din of the crowd, but she appears to be upbeat. I instinctly grab a card from my pocket and hand it to her. Chances are that she is not the emailing type, and will never drop me a line. But I am somehow intrigued by her, and would dearly love to spend a match day with her, as she walks around the ground, chatting with people and trying to get to a sing-song.
Rather than continuing down Warwick Road, I turn left down Chester Road. At least we are at normal walking pace now, but it is difficult to overtake people. It is not until the Trafford Bar Metro station that I can hit full speed. All along the way, there are scattered groups that have opted for the walk back to town just like me. And when I get a glimpse of overcrowded trams inching towards the city center, I am glad I have the opportunity to vent my frustration by some exercise.
I get to station after exactly 60 minutes, with ten minutes to train departure. Fortunately, there are only three people in front of me at the luggage pick up, and I do manage to get on my train in time.
Knowing that I would be short of time, I have booked a room in the hotel, which on google maps looked most convenient for a stop enroute from Huddersfield station to the ground. “The New Huddersfield Hotel” it is called. That sounds good. But “new” turns out to be a bit premature, as it is very much work in progress. The receptionist seems surprised that a guest turns up at all. Having checked that I have made a reservation, he asks me to follow him. It would have been impossible to explain the way around several corridors and stairs, half of them looking like a building site, and the place apparently empty apart from the two of us.
I am reminded by a 1970’s episode of “The Persuaders”, where Roger Moore as Lord Bret Sinclair thinks he is in hospital. But then finds out that he is kept by villains in an empty country house, where they have furnished a single room to look like a hospital and kept him drugged with a hospital-soundtrack in the background to fulfill the illusion. Somehow, this looks like a similar deception.
In my room, I can hear the singing of Newcastle United fans, who swarm outside the pub that is next to the hotel. Room without view and wifi but with match day atmosphere outside. My shirt is sweaty after the speedwalking, so I change and hurry outside.
There is quite a lot of police in the streets, preparing to take on the Toon army. But there does not seem to be any trouble. There is steady flow of people walking towards the ground. So if I had any doubts as to the whereabouts of it, they would quickly have been repelled. Anyway, I have several times looked down on The John Smith Stadium from the train running through Huddersfield. It is located down in a valley, so the direction more or less gives itself. Downwards. On the way, I pass a car that serve as an old programme stall. All profits, it says, are to an Alzheimers and heart foundation. Which remind me that Sporting Memories actually does some great reminiscence work. This is another way of helping out.
I am full of anticipation (but still sick at United’s draw) as I head towards the ground. The John Smith Stadium belongs to one of the first new stadiums after the Taylor Report in 1990 (although Huddersfield apparently had been contemplating a move even before that), and it distinguishes itself by being an architectural award winning stadium. Whereas most other grounds from the early 1990’s before the money got really big were at best functional and nothing else, this was designed to be inviting as well.
Like most grounds at the time, it is not built as a bowl but consists of four separate stands. The special thing about it is that the stands are not square but rounded and sort of tied together by some impressive white floodlight pylons. It looks more like some futuristic octopus-like underwater world from a 1970’s movie than a football ground. Only two of the stands were built, when the first match was played in 1994, the north and south stands first being added in the following three years. I wonder what that may have looked like.
There are several car parks incorporated in the complex. “Nearly there” a giant sign proclaims. Not only the 20 or 30 coaches or so with Newcastle fans but also a lot of the locals are parked right next to the ground.
When I arrive, it is only 25 minutes to kick-off, so there is not that much time to walk around the ground and take in the atmosphere and little details. Most people seem to be in a bit of a rush to get inside, and I find it difficult to dwell on what I see. Maybe this is why, I find it surprisingly barren. There are no statues, no memorials. The only two elements inscribing some element of history are a sandstone ornament from the Huddersfield Cricket Club of 1874, and two gravestones. The two latter ones are both for Rugby players, Ronan Costello and Dave Valentine.
Mark, the curator at the Manchester United’s museum, who lives in Huddersfield, told me that when Leeds Road was demolished, he asked the curators at the local museum if they had done any collecting to document the history of the club and ground. They hadn’t. “Huddersfield does not have any history of importance”, was the answer. To which Mark had replied that they were only the first club to win three successive league titles back in the 1920’s. There is no trace of the history either in the souvenir shop. No books on the club’s past.
Instead of something to commemorate the history, there is a fitness center and a giant “Odeon – fanatical about film” behind the ground.And a guide to watching the bird life by the river.
Inside the ground, the stairways and the concourse all look nice and stylish, but it is too crammed with people. Somehow, they have got the dimensions wrong, certainly compared to other more modern grounds. I am still feeling full after my double prematch meal at Old Trafford, and although the pies look tempting, I decide just to have a drink.
Inside the ground, I see to my horror that each seat has a clapper attached, just like the King Power stadium at Leicester. I really hate the noise they make and they seem to me to be a modern marketing colsutant’s attempt at reviving a fading atmosphere. Strange, because in both previous matches I have seen Huddersfield – at Bolton and Preston – they have had an excellent away support. Great numbers, vocal and with some great chants. At Preston, they kept going till they went 3-0 down – and although they by then got a little more quiet, they were still as noisy as the home fans. Why would they need clappers here?
This is not the only ‘foreign’ fan element, however. There is a touch of latin Ultra to it, with blue and white boards being held up in the air by the Huddersfield fans behind the goal, they wave some gigantic flags, and in my section, the air is full of confetti before kick-off.
To my surprise, it is the home fans doing the singing and chanting prior to kick-off, and not the famous, travelling Toon army from Newcastle. I am seated almost right next to them, in the corner of the ground, so I can see their faces. I grab the opportunity to do two stadium counts rather than one – one for the home fans and one for the away fans. As for the home fans, it is pretty much average, with 98% white 86% male crowd. The Toon army, though is 99% white and 93% male. But then travelling to away matches is not really a family thing.
Although there is this “Huddersfield Ultra” section behind the goal, most of the ground join in on some of the chants. And all the ground take part in the oohs and aahs. It really is a passionate atmosphere. In my section, close to the Newcastle fans, a lot of the fans are preoccupied by the visiting fans. People are standing, shouting, chanting, and gesturing towards the visitors. Right in front of me, a Huddersfield fan has brought his girlfriend with a spectacular hairstyle along to the match. She is a bit upset that she has to stand up to be able to see anything. But some 10 minutes into the match, he spots that the two seats to my left and the two seats in front of them are still vacant, so they move up next to me, enabling her to have a fair view despite sitting. Further to my left, all fans are seated.
Newcastle are top of the league, and they look very solid and confident. After less than 10 minutes they are awarded a penalty. The Huddersfield fans think it is very soft, and maybe rightly so. I am not quite certain. But now I have the perfect opportunity to film “an away end erupt” – a chapter in one of my favourite football books, Daniel Gray’s “Fifty Delights of Modern Football” (my other favourite books being Dave Robert’s books on “32 programmes” and “Home and Away” with Bromley in the Vanamara league).
Newcastle score, and the Toon army gets a boost. But – the Huddersfield fans don’t go quiet. They chant to rally their team. Although Huddersfield have a lot of possession and put in a lot of effort, spurred on by the crowd, Newcastle seem to me to have the match under control. After some 35 minutes, a Newcastle player tackles the ball away from the Huddersfield keeper as he dives to pick up a long cross in the penalty area, and the Newcastle player rolls the ball into the net. The keeper is furious, so are the Huddersfield fans. They hurl the clappers towards the pitch. The woman with the hip hair next to me is hit by one, and her boyfriend, who has been busy hurling abuse towards the referee and linesman, now directs it to the crowd behind us. One of the policemen down by the corner is filming us, detecting and documenting offenses. The stewards grab one or two of the fans closest to the field and issue a warning to them.
Maybe it is the sense of injustice, but the Huddersfield fans seem even more up for the match now. The fan with the girlfriend next to me wheels his arms in the air as he tries to get a “Hud-ders-field, Hud-ders-field” chant going. In the second half, Huddersfield enjoy even more of the possession, and they do put together a couple of decent attacks. However, it takes a penalty 12 minutes before fulltime to bring them back into it. The fans in my section go wild with even more gesturing towards the Newcastle fans. You would have thought that Huddersfield were winning by now, judging from that.
The fan next to me shouts out something that sounds like a mixture of “magpies” and “maggots” towards the Newcastle fans, laughs diabolically, before assuring his girlfriend that he doesn’t even know what it means. You sense that there may be a way back in this for Huddersfield after all.
As the match enters injury time, Huddersfield win a corner. Their keeper comes up for it, but has to make a hasty retreat, as the corner is cleared. Huddersfield do win the ball back, but the keeper is still way outside his penalty area, as a Newcastle clearance is belted up field. The keeper runs to head the ball forward, but somehow he mistimes it, and the ball skids of the top of his head as he falls to the ground, leaving the ball to a Newcastle forward who can just walk it into an empty goal. The Huddersfield fans are stunned into silence, whereas the Newcastle fans go mad. Several of them tear off their shirts and wave them in the air. I am wearing my winter jacket as well as thermal underwear and am still freezing by now. But not the Newcastle fans (and to be fair, there are also Huddersfield fans around me wearing only a short-sleeved replica shirt). I spot a boy of no more than five or six years of age in the Newcastle section. He is sitting on his father’s shoulders and has also taken off his replica shirt. Like the hard core fans, he is also waving his shirt, bare wasted. I wonder if his mother would approve, if she knew.
That’s it. The final whistle, and the Huddersfield fans curse their luck and their keeper as they leave the ground. I take a quick look around outside to see if there is anything I missed before the game. But in the darkness, I don’t really see anything new. I make my way back towards the city center. Police escort a long line of coaches with Newcastle fans towards the highway. By now, only scattered groups of Huddersfield fans are walking towards town.
Finding a place to eat in Huddersfield on a Saturday night without having reserved a table turns out to be difficult. I ask for a table in the first half dozen of places, but they are all fully booked. So I have to settle for a 20 minutes wait at “Nando’s”. I have some chicken and rice and a glass of wine. Afterwards, I head back to the strangely abandoned hotel. The receptionist is still there, but in a world of his own listening to music in his earphones. Apart from him, the place seems empty. I get to my room and turn on the television to see the football highlights.
Match of the day focuses on the Zlatan incidence. A Bournemouth player trampled on his head, apparently deliberately – then Zlatan clearly elbowed him. Not surprisingly the match of day crew argue that the trampling could be accidental, whereas the elbowing couldn’t, so United had been aided by the referee. They also argue that the first booking for the sent-off Bournemouth player was a bit harsh, and that Zlatan went to the ground too easily when he was pushed over for the Bournemouth’s player to get his second yellow card. To top off their argument, they point that the United players got him sent off, because the referee initially overlooked that he already had booked the player. Well, the embarrassing thing about that is that all officials overlooked it – and deliberately pushing a player in the chest Is an offence whether you go to ground or not.
I turn off the telly and go to sleep, but I am woken up at about 3 A.M. Some men are banging on a door, trying to wake up somebody sleeping somewhere in the building. It is, in a sense, comforting that there is somebody else here after all. But I can’t fall back to sleep. The bed is so short – no more than 180 centimeters, and it is so shaky that whenever I move, it makes an alarming sound.
I finally decide to get up at 6.30 and go looking for somewhere to have breakfast. I want to have a shower, but discover there is only a bathtub. Well, I have a bath and go downstairs. There is nobody at the reception, only a sign asking to leave the keycard in a basket. I do that, and go down the main street, hoping to find somewhere they serve breakfast. The only place, however, is McDonalds. I gather there must be something at the station, and go there.
They may not have any statues outside the football ground, but there is one outside the station. Harald Wilson, the former prime minister, apparently was from Huddersfield. I also notice that the pub “The King’s Head” in the station complex has a portrait of Jimi Hendrix underneath, although I can’t quite come to think of any connection between Hendrix and Huddersfield. I enter the station to start on the next adventure: a trip to the Stadium of Light in Sunderland.