The Voyage to the Big Time
I was young, not quite sixteen and my brother Joe, who was seventeen, suggested we go to Old Trafford to see Man U vs Arsenal. This seemed like an amazing offer but Slatterys Travel agents in Dublin offered match packages at the time. Tickets for the ferry to Liverpool, the train to Manchester, and the match ticket. I picked up the tickets and we prepared for the adventure. It wasn’t that expensive at the time but I can’t remember how much.
We headed down to the harbour on Friday to get the ferry. It was overnight and we had got the cheapest seats. We had to find one and sleep in it. We couldn’t afford a cabin. But we were young and didn’t really care. The way it worked was we travelled on Friday night, got into Liverpool the next morning, then got the train to Manchester and then the bus to Salford and finally walk to Old Trafford. Then after the match, immediately do the reverse, because we had to get back to Dublin by Sunday to go to work on Monday.
The sheep were herded
The match was on January 19th and it was reasonably mild at the time. The ferry crossing was bearable and we had a few pints to sustain us. They were always fairly busy at the time as there are huge connections between Ireland and the North of England.
Everything went smoothly enough although we went past our stop on the train. We went out on the platform and got the train back in the opposite direction to the right stop, all the time worrying that they might ask us to pay something. We didn’t have a lot of money. We landed in the middle of Manchester and found our way to the bus. It was when we got off the bus that we had our first shock. The Man U fans, of which I was inadvertently one, and I certainly wasn’t brave enough to wear my colours, were shepherded by masses of police, many on horseback, all the way to the ground. If you accidently found yourself caught up in the surge, I am not sure how you would get out. Although they did check for tickets at some points.
A magic atmosphere
We went in to Old Trafford. It was not the magnificent stadium it is now but far smaller and dingier. Still it had an atmosphere unlike any other. Even today, I still feel that, every time I go there, it has a buzz, an excitement, unmatched at other grounds. Highbury, in the old days, had a similar feel, I was among my own people. People who work for a living, long before the invasion of the corporates. It was rough and ready and you were squashed together on the terraces. Really squashed together.
And that was my first shock. When the first goal chance happened, the crowd surged forwards around twenty feet, my brother and I were carried helplessly down at around 55 degrees and then dragged back up to a standing 90. I was astonished and a bit scared. I had no control over it. But as it continued to happen I started to look forward to it. Being brought down and then back up became fun. The match was scoreless in the first half but there was plenty of excitement, it seemed to me, although it was difficult to see, being small. I was mesmerized by the noise, the singing and the vitriolic abuse sang lustily by both sides. The Arsenal fans made plenty of noise, but I had to stay silent. I didn’t really want to go there to die. The Man U excitements were fine, I was ferried up and down. But for the Arsenal excitements, the crowd went silent. I had to be very careful not to expose myself. I really did believe that they would have torn me apart like a pack of Arctic wolves.
Arsenal had all the old guard, Bertie Mee the manager, Bob Wilson, Peter Storey, Frank Mclintock, John Radford, Ray Kennedy and most of the double team. No Charlie George though and I never got to see him play live, although Alan Ball was there. Man U had the flamboyant Tommy Docherty as manager. And Alex Stepney as the only survivor of the 1968 European cup team. It did have stars such as Willie Morgan, Sammy McIlroy, Martin Buchan, Lou Macari and others who would have long careers there.
After we had pie and chips, and a pint at half time, we headed back out for the second half. I kept looking around at all the signs that we were really there, the home of the most famous club in the world. The fans, the extraordinary noise, the abusive comments to the ref and the opposing fans. The constant chanting, the surges up and down. The moments when I wanted to cheer but couldn’t. The match came alive not long after this with Steve James scoring for the Mancs. And despite Arsenal efforts, it looked like I had come all this way to be beaten. Until Ray Kennedy rescued the day very late on to equalize. The crowd went silent except for the Arsenal fans. I was jumping inside. But we came to Old Trafford, we didn’t get beaten, and we were the Arsenal.
Anyway, it seemed like a good result. Both of us were reasonably happy. We could enjoy some more pints on the way back, discuss all the ins and outs of the day and arrive home totally tired but amazed that we had done all that and got back home safely. My mother told us afterwards that she was very worried, but for us, we were grownups, and travelling by ourselves was just an adventure. And I had got my first taste of that unique English football atmosphere. And I wanted more. And hey, I still do.