One sunny Saturday at the beginning of May in 1976, (yes, that hot summer), I sat down to watch the FA Cup final between Manchester United and Southampton with my mum and dad, both of whom were cheering for Southampton. Dad, because we lived in Devon, which is sort of near Southampton, and mum because she liked the look of Laurie McMenemy.
I thought I would cheer for the opposing team to make it interesting. I hadn’t shown any particular interest in football up to that point, but the FA Cup Final then, was as big as the Champions League Final is today and it was difficult not to get carried away with all the hype. Though the match didn’t kick off until 3pm, the build up started around 9am, with team stories and interviews, lots of televised special events, including Its a Cup Final Knockout and Cup Final Mastermind ( with fans of both teams taking part), followed by coverage of the teams arriving at Wembley and then walking around the ground in their best suits.
Manchester United were the clear favourites that day, but were stunned by a Bobby Stokes super goal and Southampton were crowned winners. I was devastated. As the heartbroken players sat on the grass with their heads in their hands, the Manchester United manager Tommy Doherty, marched around the field, consoling his team and assuring them that they would be back next year. I followed them all through the next season and I was hooked long before they did win (against Liverpool) the FA Cup Final, the following year.
Of course, there was very little live football in those days, so I would listen avidly for the results every Saturday afternoon, and then on Sunday morning, cut out the match report from the newspaper and stick it in my scrap book.
Although a couple more FA cups were won over the next few years, it was the arrival in 1986 of Alex Ferguson which took Manchester United to a new level.
A couple of unforgettable European Champions League nights will stay with me forever, I was 7 months pregnant watching in 1999, and vividly remember crying with joy, sitting cross legged on the floor in front of my television, as The Red Devil’s were crowned Champions of Europe.
Years later on holiday in Spain, we watched another Champions League Final, this time against Barcelona. Not such a good result, but when The Reds did score, in a room full of Spainards, I stood up and danced. My children still recall that evening and cringe. “Mum, you actually danced!”
I sometimes wonder if it would all be very different had it been Queens Park Rangers playing Southampton that day or Derby or Liverpool. Such is the hand of fate. I do know that I have taken a lot of stick over the years, when people comment that I am not a true supporter as I’m not a Mancunian. I also had to get used to boys (and later men) disregarding my opinions about football as I was just a girl. As late as the early 2000’s, I can recall having a “conversation” with 3 men about a match. Though I think I had some valid insight, they literally ignored me, as if I was not in the room!
I admit I have only been to Old Trafford about 20 times over the years, but each time I become completely overwhelmed and emotional. And I genuinely don’t feel that trips to the stadium equate to how much of a loyal supporter one is. Last summer, my son and I did a ‘Legends Tour’. I met Sammy McIlroy and Alex Stepney, who coincidentally were both playing that day in 1976. Alex hugged me and said he was sorry for letting the Stokes goal in! I didn’t stop beaming all day.
The fact is, Manchester United has saved me many times, which may sound over-dramatic, but it’s absolutely true. They were a constant when my life was very dark. There have been many up and downs over the last 42 years, mostly ups, and I’ve cried with them when they have lost the big matches, and celebrated when they have won. I’ve shouted and screamed at the television and have had a succession of favourite players from Martin Buchan to Jesse Lingard.
I read about the eye watering money that drives football these days, and how apparently, the fans are no longer needed by the big clubs in order for them to make a profit and survive. I would disagree, if you have ever been at Old Trafford for a big game alongside 72,000 other football fans, the atmosphere is unique. I can’t see teams playing to empty stadiums, however lucrative the televised rights are.
Manchester United has given me more than I could ever have guessed from that innocuous start in May 1976, and I don’t begrudge them a single penny of their wealth. What they have given me over the last 42 years, and continue to give, is absolutely priceless.