Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 6 December 2023
Originally the plan was to stay up in the North-West for four nights, taking in the matches at Manchester United and Everton without the need to travel up and back twice. I had booked accommodation near Piccadilly for Wednesday night, and accommodation near Goodison Park for the other three nights. With it being our last-ever visit to the old lady, I thought it worthwhile to base ourselves in Liverpool, exploring some previously unvisited areas – North Wales maybe – while being close to the stadium for one last hurrah.
That was the plan.
And then Frome Town buggered it all up.
The Mighty Dodge drew ex-Football League outfit Torquay United in the Third Round of the FA Trophy. Well, I couldn’t miss that. I even thought about leaving PD and Parky in Liverpool and driving to Frome on the Saturday. But then Parky decided that he needed to make other arrangements and we chose to cancel both stays.
At 1pm I collected PD in Frome and we began our journey north. It honestly did not seem too long ago that I last visited Old Trafford; it came at the end of last season, the first of two games in Manchester in a mere five days.
It’s a well-worn path. This would be my twenty-eighth away game with Chelsea at Old Trafford. It used to be a decent hunting ground. However, those days seem a long time ago. It is now over ten years since our last win at United, a lone strike from Juan Mata giving us the points in May 2013. Alex Ferguson announced that he would retire as United manager the very next day. I would like to think that the two are linked.
We reached “The Windmill” at the Tabley Interchange on the M6 at 4.45pm and we had a bite to eat. At 6pm, I set off on the last stretch. Alas, we were hit with tiresome traffic congestion as we crawled along the A56 through Altrincham and Sale, and then eventually along Chester Road and into Stretford. Past the old Art Deco cinema. Past the new McDonalds where “The Drum” used to be, past the shopping centre. We were parked up at 7.15pm.
It was a clear night. A little cold. No rain.
I am sure I could walk this last section in my sleep. It is so familiar.
Across Gorse Hill Park. The floodlights of the cricket ground to my right. Back onto the Chester Road again. Past a lot of new buildings, much changed in the last fifteen years. But still that working men’s club on the right. A new car dealership. The hot dog stand. The steel of Old Trafford across the way. That large “Tesco” on the right. A new pop-up bar on the other pavement, a re-furbished 20’ sea container. Those tower blocks to the left. The trot over the road. “The Bishop Blaize” pub. The line of fast food places as you walk up to the cross-roads. Red-brick terraced houses beyond. Lou Macari’s chip shop. People queueing for food. The pungent smell of vinegar. The grafters selling match day scarves. Onto Sir Matt Busby Way. The bloke yelling out “United We Stand” and yet more stalls selling scarves and tat. The crowds getting deeper, a mix of accents. The line of police as the forecourt is reached. The neon signage on the East Stand. The Munich memorial. The Munich clock. The slope down to the away turnstiles. The hunt for familiar faces.
I spotted Kim, from the US, now residing in Liverpool, and I handed over her match ticket. We bump into each other at a variety of locations – the last one a boat in Bristol harbour – and this was her first visit to Old Trafford for a few years.
It’s always the biggest away game for me, this one. It’s a classic battle. North vs. South. Red vs. Blue. Manchester vs. London. Old Trafford. The largest club ground in the UK. The scene of our 1970 FA Cup win. The scene of our 1915 FA Cup loss. Some huge battles over the decades.
My SLR is banned at both Manchester stadia and so I again wanted to take a few photos of the match-going support, close-up, rather than rely on too many grainy and fuzzy action shots using my smaller camera. There was a mandatory search and I was in. It was 7.50pm.
There was a new vantage point for me for this one. I am usually positioned in the curve above the corner flag. This time I was in Section 233, square behind the goal-line, a few yards inside the pitch. I was only a few seats away from the home fans. It allowed me a few new angles of Old Trafford for which I was grateful.
This was an 8.15pm kick-off. This relatively new kick-off time, at the behest of Amazon, seems particularly pernicious. An extra twist of the knife for match-going fans. There seemed to be no valid reason for it. Why not stage all of “their” midweek games at 7.30pm? With an 8.15pm start, it’s more tiredness, more pain, more stress, especially for those pour souls who were straight back in to work the next morning.
Alan, alongside me in row seven had travelled up by coach. There were no trains back to London after the game. He aimed to get back home to South London by around 6am, another couple of days of annual leave used up, just like me.
Kev, a few rows behind me, had travelled up with some friends from the Bristol area, and although his father Brian was taking a turn to drive, Kev would be back in work at 6am on the Thursday, the poor sod.
Despite the ridiculous kick-off time, our end was full. Three thousand strong. But of course. We may be going through a tough spell but the clamour for away tickets is as frenzied as ever. I saw no gaps in our section. Not one.
Before the kick-off, I met up with Pete from Texas. His wife, a United fan, was in The Stretford End.
The teams entered the pitch from the corner. I had not yet seen the team.
Cucarella – Silva – Disasi – Colwill
Enzo – Caicedo
Sterling – Palmer – Mudryk
Or something like that.
The home team had a mixture of names that I was and wasn’t overly familiar with. This isn’t the team of Rooney, Ronaldo, Ferdinand and Evra.
It isn’t even the team of Coppell, Buchan, Hill and Macari.
The current United team is not known in my household.
The game began.
I had heard a new song in the crowded concourse before the game and here it was again.
“Who’s that twat who comes from Portsmouth?”
Well, Mason Mount wasn’t even playing, nor was he even on the bench.
We were under the cosh from the start and in the fourth minute Robert Sanchez collapsed well to finger-tip an angled shot from Rasmus Hojland, whoever he is, past the far post. It was all United.
On nine minutes, after another United attack, the referee signalled a penalty after VAR was called into action. I did not know why the penalty was given. There is no TV screen at Old Trafford. There was just the briefest of mentions of the penalty on the scoreboard in the corner of the Stretford End. So, I was left in the dark as Bruno Fernandes tee’d up the penalty. I lifted up my camera to capture the kick. With everyone stood, I saw nothing. I just heard a roar and I immediately tried to ascertain, in a nanosecond, if the roar was from us or from them. It was from us.
I had no idea if the ‘keeper had touched it, but I did not care one jot.
It was still 0-0.
Not long after, Cole Palmer intercepted a pass from Sofyan Amrabat, whoever he is, and the ball fell to Nicolas Jackson. He passed to Mykhailo Mudryk who tamely shot against the near post.
Gary wasn’t sure who the United midfielder was and we both said that he looked like Juan Sebastian Veron.
“Don’t worry, we’ll sign him in the summer.”
United were carving us open, with their wide men enjoying tons of space. I didn’t like how Levi Colwill, the night’s captain, was not close to his man, while Raheem Sterling was reluctant to double-back and help Marc Cucarella, who often had to cope with two or even three men running at him. A shot from Alejandro Garnacho was saved by Sanchez and in the immediate break, Mudryk must have been overwhelmed as he raced forward with players in support to his left and right. In the end, his pass to the right to Sterling was awful, and was easily intercepted.
Shots were exchanged. Antony at Sanchez. Enzo at Onana.
Possession was given up easily. It was as if the ball was an unexploded bomb awaiting detonation. The ball was nobody’s friend. On twenty minutes, a move down our right carved us open, and when the ball came back to Scott McTominay, the midfielder purposefully volleyed it low and into the net. He celebrated down below us.
More mistakes followed. And chances. A poor touch by Jackson allowed Onana to block.
It frustrated the living hell out of all of us to see Chelsea continue to play the ball out from the back. This well-rehearsed ploy attempted to entice United on, allowing us to cut them open with a series of blistering passes played with cutthroat precision that would lead to devastating counter-attacks.
Our passing throughout the first-half was to prove to be our Achilles heel. Yet United were almost as bad. This was no remake of the 2008 Champions League Final.
On the half-hour, Jackson set up Mudryk. He drove on in the inside left channel but his effort was as tame as they come, the ball idly missing the near post by yards.
The mood in the away end was of frustration and then perhaps even anger.
I noted how Cole Palmer often came deep in an effort to knit things together but he found it oh-so difficult. Enzo was quiet. Caicedo non-existent.
Approaching the last five minutes of the first-half, I quickly tallied up that it could have been 5-3.
With Harry Maguire finding himself in an advanced position on their right down below us, the tall centre-back adeptly back-heeled the ball to a team mate and the United fans in the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand collectively laughed.
On forty-five minutes, Mudryk played in Palmer. He drifted in along the edge of the penalty box, defenders close by, and magnificently stroked the ball in at the far post.
We went doo-fucking-lally.
He must have loved that, an ex-City player scoring at the Stretford End.
There was a song for Palmer.
“He moves it from the left to right. Cole Palmer is dynamite.”
This was followed by a loud “Carefree” that rung out from Sections 230 to 233. We had been pretty quiet as the half developed but here was a moment to enjoy.
The inevitable “just like London your city is blue.”
At half-time, I bumped into a few faces in the concourse.
“Not much quality but there’s a lot going on.”
I briefly met up with Johnny Twelve from California, celebrating his fiftieth Chelsea game. His wife was alongside him in the away section. I spotted that hundreds of central seats in the lower tier of the Stretford End were empty at the start of the second-half. This is obviously where United had decided to locate many of their corporate guests, many of whom were taking their time to return to their seats.
The lower tier of the Stretty.
This end was the beating heart of Old Trafford when I was younger, when I first visited the stadium in 1986, and throughout the next few decades. I can’t imagine what the United faithful think about this.
Modern football, eh?
Mauricio Pochettino replaced the keen but exposed Cucarella with Reece James. The second-half began and we wondered what on Earth would happen next.
Chances were not so frequent as in the first-half.
Luke Shaw, at left-back, and defending near us, was the object of some abuse from Gary.
“The size of your shorts, Shaw.”
“Oi, Shaw. Billy Smart wants his tent back.”
A corner from down below us from Mudryk was flicked on by James and Jackson’s header at the far post really should have hit the target. A strong run from Mudryk then took him into the danger area but his shot was deflected for a corner. At the other end, Garnacho cut inside and his shot on goal reminded me so much of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s late equaliser against us in the autumn of 1997. Thankfully, this effort continued to rise over the bar.
Alas, from virtually the same place in the penalty box, Garnacho sent a teasing cross over to the far post and Teddy Sheringham, Eric Cantona, Andy Cole, Denis Law, Lou Macari, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney, Gary Pallister, Billy Meredith and Bobby Charlton were among those lining up to head home. Scott McTominay got the touch.
Two goals for McTominay. Bollocks.
There was a sniff of VAR cancelling the goal – again, I have no idea what for – but the goal stood. What with late kick-off times and VAR replays for those watching elsewhere, football is a TV game now. As if anyone was in any doubt.
There were twenty minutes’ left. The mood in the away end deteriorated. Rather than improve things with stability, James was having a ‘mare. In fact, the whole bloody team were awful.
Garnacho, with an instinctive angled shot, wide.
In the first-half there had been rare breaks. In the second-half there had been virtually nothing. Armando Broja replaced Mudryk on seventy-seven minutes, and I wondered why Jackson will still playing. He had been, perhaps, the poorest of the bunch all night long.
Reece James blazed over from an angle.
Ridiculously, we were only losing 2-1 and we were one goal away from the most improbable point. In the last few minutes, a deep cross from James found the leap from Broja at the far post. He hit the frame of the goal.
The final straw for me took place in added time, with us showing no urgency at all at a throw-in, and no players looking like they were too bothered about anything.
No movement. No desire. No talking. No gesticulating. No fervour.
The final whistle was blown and I headed for the exits. I couldn’t face clapping the players, but I heard the boos from among our fans. I just glowered.
We walked, as quickly as we could, back to the car. I overheard a few conversations from the home fans. They were pragmatic, but generally subdued, far from euphoric.
“Scott McTominay. He’s our top scorer now.”
“Says it all, doesn’t it?”
Yeah, Scott bloody McTominay.
We walked past the chippies. The smell of vinegar cut through the air again. Along the Chester Road, the familiar walk, the familiar feeling.
We were back on the M6 at 11pm and, after stopping at Keele Services and Strensham Services, I made good time heading south. PD ran through the league positions and – yes – all of the teams above us are undoubtedly better than us. We seem destined to finish in tenth place this season. I joked that the best that we can hope for in May is to finish top of the West London League, ahead of Brentford and Fulham.
Everton on Sunday will be a struggle and I can hear the words already.
“I’ll take a draw now.”
It is becoming our mantra this season.
I eventually made it home at 2.50am.
There is no punchline.