The First Old Trafford UFC Fight
We had driven over from Dublin that morning in my battered old Honda Civic. We made our way via Holyhead through onto Manchester and on to Stretford and Old Trafford. We had done this in previous years but this time we had an ace in the hole. My brother Pat had been able to get us tickets for free in previous years as he knew one of the Manchester United director’s, Tom Williams. He had a huge wallpaper company and my brother was the manager of the trade section at Wigoders, which at the time were one of the biggest hardware stores in Ireland. They bought a huge amount of stock from him and he was always offering my brother VIP passes which Pat turned down. This time we said let’s take them. So myself, Pat and my Manchester United supporter brother Joe took our VIP passes and I parked my ancient car in the carpark, reserved for players and VIP’s. It was a totally different experience than all the times before. No worrying about parking. Flash the card and we were through.
1990 October 20th Old Trafford. A great day, or was it?
I should say it was early, and we went to reception to be greeted by legends. Denis Law, Pat Crerand, Bobby Charlton and others were all there, making us feel at home. Alex Ferguson was walking around, talking to everyone, from cleaners to stewards and amazingly, he would have a quick chat with them all by name, asking after their family by name, and little incidents about them. He knew all about their lives. I suspect that was one of the reasons he was so effective at people management. He seemed to genuinely care about them. And he was smiling all the time, in contrast to the grim image he portrayed on screen.
He could smile, sometimes
The Irish superstars had arrived
We were given champagne on arrival, given a tour of the ground, as they explained that the grass had extra deep roots so that it would stay green. Grass technology had arrived. It was a magnificent stadium vastly improved from what it had been the initial time I was there in the 70’s. This was, strangely, though, the first time I had really looked around. It truly was impressive.
It was so nice inside as well. Suddenly we were in an environment we weren’t used to. There were luxurious carpets everywhere. Ubiquitous Man Utd crests adorned doors and hallways. This was how the other half lived. We had worn fairly nice clothes as we didn’t want to look out of place like my old car did.
We were ushered into a fabulous dining hall for what has to have been one of the best culinary experiences of our lives. The Man Utd crest was on everything, the napkins, the cutlery, the wine, and the food was fabulous. Pat and I were Arsenal so we had to be circumspect. We were asked to forecast the result and I put 1-1 but Pat put 1-0 to the Arsenal. It was for a prize to be presented by the players after the game. I should have said that we were scheduled to meet them as part of the deal. I was trying not to drink much as I had to drive back home but with so much food inside me I was soaking up all the alcohol.
Famous people on and off the pitch
There were famous people wandering around and all sorts of legendary players, Gordon McQueen, Martin Buchan and others and I was grabbing autographs whenever I could. Bryan Robson was another as he was out injured and I have never seen a player so patient with fans, he signed autograph after autograph, and lined up for photo after photo.
We took our seats in the VIP section and we had incredible seats. Did I mention they were playing Arsenal? Liverpool, United and ourselves had made good starts to the season. This was an early defining match. We were second to Liverpool who had won all their matches whereas we had won five and drawn 3. United were 5 points behind us so a win and they were breathing down our necks. Alex Ferguson had pretty much got the United team he wanted at that point and they were soon to start their period of dominance. Graham had brought in Anders Limpar of Sweden and he was a magician. He really made an impact bringing a flair and a style to Arsenal that we had been missing. I never accepted the boring, boring Arsenal epithet as we scored plenty of goals, were involved in many exciting matches and always kept fighting to the end. But George Graham was a defensive minded manager, that was certain. Get that right was his first order. He also knew you had to kill them from the front as well. All of his players could play football, they were good in the air and on the ground. He had them well organized.
Anders Limpar made all the difference
Rough and tough from the start
They needed to be, that day. United came charging out of the blocks and Steve Bruce clattered into Alan Smith. I knew we had a game on our hands. They laid siege to our goal, coming close from corners and David Seaman was very busy and superb. As were the whole team as defenders, trying to keep out the Red waves coming toward us. We had scarcely a chance for the whole half until Anders Limpar skipped through, fired a scorcher which Les Sealey parried. Keith Hackett, the referee, was in the perfect position and he said it was over the line. 1-0 to the Arsenal! Against the run of play. But I had to jump inside because we were surrounded by Utd supporters. I bravely smiled, though.
It was a tough match. Lots of fierce tackles and players lying on the ground. They were always feisty affairs, derbies in all bar name. United came out for the second half ready to take revenge and continue the one sided way it was in the first. We were a bit better, though, and caught them a few times on the break. Thomas. Rocastle and Limpar had good chances to put the game to bed. The United players were getting frustrated, feeling that Keith Hackett was not giving them justice although the kicking, as far as I am concerned, was coming more from them. The kicking had increased, and Denis Irwin, aimed a sly kick at Anders Limpar as he lay on the ground.
Stop the handbags, ladies
Shortly afterwards Limpar was crude in the tackle and then it all kicked off. Nigel Winterburn was on the ground and Brian McClair was kicking him over and over. Suddenly both teams got involved and it was difficult to see who was doing what to whom. I had a great view and honestly, United players seemed the worst offenders. But Winterburn, who was being kicked on the ground, astonishingly got booked as did Anders Limpar. No one from United.
Nigel Winterburn got a yellow card for being kicked
We won, though. I would still challenge anyone to look at that match and say Arsenal were rougher than Utd. Arsenal were fined 2 points and Utd one. They had the bigger clout at the FA.
It meant for a very subdued atmosphere post match. Only Neil Webb and Mike Phelan turned up to meet the VIP guests. Pat was presented with 2 Manchester United wine bottles in a presentation box for getting the correct score. Of course he did, no Manchester United fan was ever going to forecast that, everyone, including the players looked at him suspiciously but he didn’t care. He had got it right and he had won. They tasted very nice, by the way.
Hey, we won, I had a great day. We were treated like kings and despite all the handbags being thrown on the floor at Old Trafford, no-one was seriously hurt. Bitches will fight. We could look after ourselves, and Limpar had added the flair we were missing. We were Arsenal and it was United who had to crawl back to their luxury Cheshire homes defeated and crying. We, of course, went back to our very ordinary Dublin homes where that picture of Pat being presented with his wine takes pride of place on the wall to this day.
With Neil Webb and Mike Phelan! Would they be smiling if they knew they had a Gooner in their midst?
64 Points max total
With six games to go and Everton and Chelsea to come, it is very hard to see Europa League qualification. The final route to Europe is a Final. Can we do it? It is hard to be optimistic but on our day we can. We need to be the Arsenal football team and not Team Kroenke.