Old Trafford 1989
Before the glory years
United against Tottenham December 1989. Gary Lineker’s greatest goal. A young Gazza. Chants of Fergie Out. Tony Hill recalls his first trip to the Theatre of Dreams.
December 16th 1989: the train I’m on is on the slow arcing crawl around to Victoria Station in Manchester, through a desolate landscape of derelict houses and factories – the rotting skeletons of the industrial revolution – the skies are slate grey, the tower of Strangeways Prison is visible in the distance. But I love what would be a dystopian scene to others; it sings to my soul, the landscape of my favourite soundscapes; Joy Division and The Smiths, but I’m minutes away from stepping off the train into a colourful cultural revolution coursing through the streets and realising things will never be the same again.
I’m heading for Old Trafford, the Theatre of Dreams, a Manchester United supporter from Nottinghamshire, today people like me are looked on as glory hunting Judas’s for not supporting their local team, but back then no one gave a fuck, and anyway I’d started supporting them at the age 7. Dad had shouted ‘Llook look Tony, George Best’ pointing at the TV, I looked at the screen and saw this mesmerising figure who looked like Jesus in a Red Devil shirt dancing past defenders before leaving the goalkeeper on his backside with a body swerve and coolly side footing the ball into the net. He was a wizard from a fairytale to a football mad kid, I signed up to his cause like the disciples did after they saw Jesus perform miracles, like the Romanovs fell under Rasputin’s spell. I was only one of a handful United fans in the mining village I lived in: there had been more in the 70’s but when Clough’s Forest became the greatest team in the land, then Europe, they quickly discarded their Red Devils shirts, shoving them under the bed and quickly donning Forest shirts; like the grebs had with their petunia smelling, heavy metal patch adorned denim jackets to put on punk gear a few years before when the punk scene took over the village club with The Ruts, Angelic Upstarts and The Members turning up and they realised this is where the gory glory now was.
The train pulled into Victoria, being unemployed (the pits in my area had all closed, turning some former close-knit communities into drug infested ghost villages) I’ve only about £15 in my pocket, but enough for a fry up at the greasy spoon café in the Arndale bus station or chips from Lou Macari’s outside Old Trafford, maybe a record or two from Vinyl Exchange, the bus fare to the ground and most importantly entrance into the Stretford End. It’s was only about £2.80 to stand on the terraces. Back then the game was still very much for the working/unemployed class people, of the people, supported by the people – who’d always supported it.
I have a walk around the city centre before heading off down to Old Trafford and immediately I can feel the buzz, see the colour and hear the sounds of MaDchester, a Guy Called Gerald, 808 State, Inspiral Carpets, Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses are drifting out from the nearly every shop and pub. An alternative country bumpkin still in my straight jeans, black Converse boots and old leather jacket I feel old and passed it – at the age of 24! – as I take in the colourful baggy fashion of the youths down in the streets. I decide to call in to see my sister; she’s a fashion student graduate, recently moved to Manchester and working in Afflecks Palace. It’s my first visit there and I feel like I’ve walked into a psychedelic Aladdin’s cave, as cool as fuck, as are all the people in there and suddenly I’ve an inferiority complex developing. But I love it all and want to be part of the revolution of ecstasy.
I catch the orange double decker bus down to Old Trafford, it goes straight through the concrete crescents of Hulme. My sister’s boyfriend lives there: Edward Barton, a mad minstrel who’d appeared on The Tube singing ‘I’ve got no chicken but I’ve 5 five wooden chairs,’ wrote the Inspiral Carpets b-side ‘Two Cows,’ the Top 40 single ‘It’s A Fine Day’ and directed the first James ‘Sit Down’ video (my sister would go for dinner with him to Tim Booth’s flat at the location of the original Factory offices at 86 Palantine Road). He had a room in his Hulme flat full of drift wood where he’d sit on a wooden throne. When my sister visits Edward in Hulme she has to run for her life from the wild packs of dogs that roam the estate; wild alternative gatherings take place by bonfires in the middle of the green (it’s like the make-believe dystopian areas of after hours Glastonbury but real) and Edward is twice mugged at knife-point. As a naive teenager I’d been unaware of this a few years before when I’d missed the bus back from Old Trafford after a European night match, so walked straight through Hulme late at night, reading the match programme, blissfully unaware of the dangers of the district I was drifting through.
Soon I’m in my element, an electrically charged, vociferous element, swaying in the mass United youth (the average age is about 24 – now it would be about 44 I’d guess) on the terraces of the Stretford End; one love, one United entity, the heart of Old Trafford, as an essential pulse and noise to the United experience as is the MaDchester revolution – coursing through the city centre streets earlier – was to the culture of the city. The terrace supporters seem to have a collective consciousness in the way they respond to chants from the opposing fans or fuck up by one of their players, the atmosphere is not orchestrated or rehearsed; it’s spontaneous and immediate, often funny, sometimes threatening. Several areas of the Old Trafford terraces are all singing different songs at once, then as United attacks they all join into one thunderous chant of United United United!, deafening, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, this is real atmosphere.
But the writing’s on the wall (and in the match programme) for the terraces: in the wake of the Hillsborough tragedy earlier that year plans are already drawn up to make Old Trafford all-seater and flatten the Stretford End and as a consequence flatten the real atmosphere forever. I was at Hillsborough (Forest supporting friends had a spare ticket), saw the scenes outside of Leppings Lane at 3.00 pm and dying bodies on the pitch that I’ll never forgot. But terraces weren’t the sole cause – incompetent policing of the match and other factors all played their part.
Some of the chants of the Stretford End are against their own manger ‘Fergie out out out,’ sporadically breaks out. In his programme notes Alex Ferguson talks about going through a difficult spell, the reaction of the fans at him leaving Mark Hughes on the bench as ‘the worst experience of that nature of my career – I hope that in the light of the day the United fans will have to realise that it was not intended as a snub of the player, but something which had to be done in the pursuit of the excellence we all want to see at Old Trafford….I am sure fans would not me to sit back and just hope things would come right. It was time for action.’
He’s been there 3 years now, won nothing and some of the football has been dire. And the performance of his team this day adds fuel to the fire, their opponents Tottenham outclass United, none more so than a young lad in midfield, outclassing the mighty Brian Robson, his name is Paul Gascoigne, at his impish best, maybe to be as good in the future as the Best, George. Two years later the dark side – that seems to be the side effect of so many geniuses – will see him implode in front of millions on Cup Final day and never fulfil the potential; to be one of the greatest footballers of all time – that I’d seen on display that afternoon. Gazza slips the ball to another England legend Gary Lineker, who scores – what he will consider the best goal of his career – curling the ball into the top corner from outside the box, it’s the only goal of the game, United are in the bottom half of the table, the knives are out for Fergie again, that Christmas the fanzine Red Issue will have a cartoon showing Santa giving out presents to the United players, when he comes to Fergie there are no presents left, only the sack.
This day, match and feeling in the city and at United, has stayed with me as much as any of the glory days to come, the 80’s only had weeks to go before the dawning of a new era, much of what I witnessed that day has now gone, Fergie being the last institution standing until this week. Yes glory days were to come for him, United and me – some of the most memorable days of my life just over the horizon – but are things better at United and in Manchester than on that day in 89 in terms of atmosphere, football, culture and music? I think not.
All words by Tony Hill. Tony is the author of If The Kids Are United and a lifelong fan of the reds.