You just haven’t earned it yet baby…
By Jonathan Allsopp
As we’ve seen a few times in recent weeks being in a crowd can sometimes do peculiar things to you. At the end of the match at Torquay the other week as the fans applauded the players and the players applauded the fans and everybody got a bit misty-eyed at the wonder of this FC United of Manchester thing of ours, I found myself nearly joining in with a chorus of “we’re gonna win the league”.
For a split second it almost felt right, a note of defiance at the end of a game where we’d done ourselves proud against a team of full-time professional footballers from two divisions above. But then I came to my senses. It was only the first week in February after all. As any two-bit television pundit will tell you “league titles aren’t won in February, Clive”. And FC were in sixth place in the league, fourteen points behind the leaders, albeit with a few games in hand. Hardly a cue to crack open the champagne just yet. Most importantly though I swore in the summer of 1992 that I’d never indulge in any impromptu footballing giddiness ever again.
Twenty three years ago I stood on several away terraces and sung “we’re gonna win the league” with Manchester United seemingly poised to win their first league title in a quarter of a century. In pole position with games in hand on a Leeds side that appeared to be feeling the pressure of the title run-in it seemed only a matter of when rather if we could start making plans for an open top bus parade. The United We Stand fanzine declared that we would be “Champions At Last” and there weren’t many who disagreed.
Aside from football, 1992 was also a General Election year and this time it looked like, maybe just maybe, Labour might actually kick the Tories out of Downing Street. On the last day of March as we drove away from Carrow Road after United’s convincing 3-1 victory against Norwich the radio news announced that Labour had a seven point lead in the latest opinion poll. There was barely a week to go until election day. Surely they wouldn’t mess this up. It felt like the double was on and even more so the following Saturday as Party Politics won me a topical few quid on the Grand National and city thumped Leeds 4-0.
Of course Labour’s opinion poll lead proved to be a mirage. The Sun did its worst and an overly triumphalist Labour party rally in Sheffield probably didn’t help the party’s cause amongst floating voters either. It looked like the political equivalent of singing “we’re gonna win the league” too soon. Nevertheless going into election day there was still hope of success with many commentators predicting a hung parliament. But not long after midnight on election night as a grinning Tory with bad hair triumphed in the bellwether seat of Basildon, I headed to bed. Essex Man had spoken and after thirteen years of divisive Tory rule it felt like a kick in the teeth.
At work in Cambridge the following day I refused a lunchtime invitation to go out and celebrate the Tories’ election victory. I was despondent but at least there was United’s first title in yonks to look forward to.
Shockingly that flame of hope became a roaring Dantean inferno of despair as United blew it all in the space of five games in eleven dismal days in late April. Half a lifetime on it still pains me to recall this miserable handful of games but here goes. First up was a nervous Thursday night 1-0 win at home to Southampton before, two days later, a drab 1-1 draw away at a Luton side that we’d hammered earlier in the season.
Then on Easter Monday, Fergie left out Mark Hughes and we lost 2-1 at home to a Forest side that we’d beaten at Wembley in the Rumbelows Cup only a few days before. By now the early season swagger had vanished and we were on the ropes. On a horrible Wednesday night at Upton Park an already relegated West Ham delivered the knock out blow, playing out of their skins to win 1-0. Their supporters celebrated like they’d won the European Cup. Officially we lost the league at Liverpool the following Sunday but there was no coming back from this.
By the time United took to the pitch at Anfield Leeds had won 3-2 in the lunchtime kick-off at Bramall Lane and we needed a win to take the title race into the final weekend. The soil was however already tumbling over our heads. In truth, United played alright at Anfield, as if the unbearable weight of expectation of the last few weeks had been lifted. We hit the woodwork several times but Liverpool won 2-0. The scousers, of course, loved it, delighting in the fact that we had lost the title on Merseyside and reminding us of exactly how many times most of us had seen United win the league.
As me and a mate sat tight-lipped in the Kemlyn Road stand even the nearby stewards were joining in with the phlegm speckled choruses. United had lost the title at Anfield. Leeds had won the league. It didn’t get any worse than this. Whoever uttered that phrase about us needing to experience the lows in life to truly appreciate the highs was having a laugh.
As the sullen train home gathered pace through suburban Liverpool I turned to my mate and said that I didn’t think we’d ever see United win the league in our lifetimes. He muttered something in agreement. It felt like that was our best chance ever and we’d blown it. Later in the evening, still on my long journey home, I bumped into two women from work who’d been to see a show in London. They had, they informed me, had a lovely evening. “How about you?” they asked.
The thought crossed my mind right there of simply packing in going to football and just enjoying life. You know, doing the things that normal people do like going to the cinema or the theatre or going for a walk or reading a book. It sounded attractive and look how happy it made people.
The double whammy of the Tories getting back in and United’s self destruction in the title race left me unable to even pick up a newspaper for weeks after as I went on a self imposed news black out. From being a regular devourer of the morning papers, the front and back pages, I went cold turkey. A week after the end of the season I passed a newsagent’s and caught a glimpse of Howard Wilkinson and his players with the league title on the front of one of the red tops. A shiver ran down my spine.
Twenty three years on and our red shirted heroes of FC United of Manchester have a great chance of winning promotion to the Conference North. Our best chance yet after seven seasons in this division which have included four appearances in the dreaded play-offs. We’re top of the table with not many games left and giddiness abounds.
There’s even talk among some excitable young things of when and where (not if) we might actually win the league. Call me an old curmudgeon whose glass is always half empty but after that double kick in the bollocks of 1992 I’ll be refraining from any rash predictions that may come back to bite us later. The scars are still there from Anfield and Upton Park. Until I see Margy sipping champagne from summat large and silvery with over-sized handles you can count me out of any “we’re gonna win the league” light-headedness.
The same applies to the forthcoming election; the possibility of the Tories getting back in and those fruitcakes from Ukip enjoying any sort of success is simply unthinkable for the survival of our NHS. Come on you Red bastards.