February 26, 2010
There are three effects that make the demand curve slope upwards, and United tickets have segued their way through them all over the last twenty years. First an addiction, next a status maximiser, and then a giffen good – something you purchase because you've no choice.
But now, demand is plummeting faster than Alexander Lemming; in the week preceding the Westairmfrewnfrew game, the club desperately hawked seats to anyone they'd ever heard of, and at a discount; once upon a time a much-coveted privilege, now no better than a ruddy tulip.
It's not that tickets shouldn't be cheaper – of course they should be – but as a principle, not because of market forces. The apathy is both depressing and encouraging.
February 19, 2010
There was no shotgun shack or beautiful automobile, but racing along a gangway in front of the Milan fans celebrating United’s third goal, arms flailing and shrieking like a braking train, I suddenly found myself asking a question made famous by Talking Heads: how did I get here? This was quickly followed by two more of my own: what am I doing, and how am I still alive? Sadly, I’ll never know the answer to any; such is the price of the Champions League.
Repeated visits to the same cities impose no obligation to sightsee, entertainment sought instead in the twin pleasures of good food and good drink. If the former is easily found, the latter is perhaps too easily found, and raises problems of its own; how to measure the precise amount of red wine that will sustain a warming buzz until after the post-match lock-in? Someone may have happened upon the formula, but it is most assuredly not me.
Losing my mates en route to the ground I somehow managed to wander into the curva sud, helpfully identifying my allegiance with a green and gold scarf. Exactly what happened next is unclear, the first half passing in something of a blur, and my only real memory is of being foxed by the perennially cunning interval into thinking the game was over.
February 13, 2010
Last Saturday was the 52nd anniversary of the Munich air crash. As I toasted the Babes with a large glass of malt (Highland Park 18 years, now that you ask), my girlfriend challenged me as to why I was remembering something that I couldn’t remember.
In simple terms, it’s fairly straightforward to transpose personal experience onto such intense embodiment of panache, youthfulness and strength, but that still doesn’t quite capture the significance: for Reds of my generation, the Babes never died, because we know them only as the eternal heroes of eternal tales that will last for eternity. Figments of our imagination and figures in our dreams, we grew up with the hope that someday they might come back so that, just once, we can watch them play.
This makes our relationship with them very different to that of our fathers. We can’t possibly conceive the trauma of leaving for school glowing after an important victory then coming home to find half the squad dead and the manager on the precipice. But it’s woven into our psyche nonetheless, just like the events passed down through other aspects of our identity.
So to me, for example, the Babes are a motif in the same way as the slaves in Egypt, the Zionist pioneers and those who had the misfortune to be in Eastern Europe in the 30s and 40s - all, of course, to varying degrees. And like most desperate times, each is synonymous with song. The Spinners’ memorial, ‘The Flowers of Manchester’, is one of the very first I can remember being touched by, although for years I thought the outside left was called David Peggalso.
The manner in which Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy rebuilt the club in the aftermath of Munich makes its current predicament all the more mortifying and the delight taken by supporters of almost every other club equally unsurprising. It isn’t that we’re seeking sympathy - emphatically we are not - and I understand that people are riled by our numbers, cockiness and success. But when any club is jeopardised, it should be everybody’s problem. However much I enjoyed the footballing aspect to Leeds’ demise (and it was a lot), no set of supporters should have to suffer simply because the rules aren’t strong enough to prevent idiotic or rapacious ruination.
Portsmouth are another case in point, not just of monetary ruin but of what Arsene Wenger calls financial doping - spending artificial wealth or borrowing heavily in pursuit of success. And rather like its athletics equivalent, it’s not only dangerous but cheating.
Despite occupying bottom position, Portsmouth are nowhere near the worst side in the league. With the obvious exception of the unpleasant Jamie O’Hara, they’re not a team of donkeys, generally passing the ball quite nicely before contriving to miss any ensuing chances. Wobbling on the touchline like John Major’s Spitting Image puppet, you could see why Avram Grant might urgently need a massage.
With Scholes and Giggs both rested, United lacked imagination in the middle of the pitch, only threatening-ish in the opening period. Nonetheless, a collection of goals always seemed likely, and a couple duly arrived before half-time, the first via a short corner, incredibly enough. What a goal Berbatov’s was, holding off some admittedly pathetic challenges to fire into the bottom corner with characteristically laconic cool.
Even so, and despite an earlier scooped pass to Valencia that should also have resulted in a goal, there were still plenty of people criticising him afterwards. It’s not quite a ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’ kind of deal, but neither is it far away - the game will be remembered for those two moments alone. What exactly is to discuss? The purest artist at Old Trafford since Veron, the prospect of seeing not just the brilliant but the unforeseeable is something that should exist every time United play. Even when it ends in disappointment, the anticipation is worth the frustration every time.
A niggling injury and the success of the 4-3-3 formation meant that, as expected, Berbatov was back on the bench at Villa - thanks to Martin O’Neill, no longer one of the better aways. Now a half-decent outfit, it suddenly costs 43 quid for a crap seat - far too much, even for one in the same section as Milky Milky, Napalm Death, Toni & Guy and other prominent United characters. Suddenly capable of attracting some support, the away allocation has been reduced too, and since last season - at O’Neill’s behest - the away section has been moved from behind the goal, a petty attempt to gain an advantage that reflects badly on his team and those purportedly there to cheer them on.
It’s impossible not to be needled by the loss of four points to Villa, given how the games have unfolded. Crucial this time was the careless waste of the first 19 minutes, United only waking up after going behind. Immediately and thereafter, they played with urgency and intent, the lack of celebration for the equaliser at least indicating that they were suitably annoyed with themselves.
Down to ten men soon after, the slow start arguably cost United victory, although they remained more likely winners. Villa will have known they’d likely still be out-passed, and were legitimately wary of being caught on the break, but are nonetheless shamed by playing like a bunch of eunuchs.
United’s chances of forcing the win probably ended with Giggs’s injury - all we can do now is wait for Fergie to rush him back for the Milan home game, in classic style. Although not playing particularly well, he was still the team’s most astute finder of space, and replacing him with Park would at least have enabled the most likely scorer to stay nearest to the goal. Instead, Rooney went to left midfield and Berbatov came on, receiving neither the service nor support he needed to make an impact, though I acknowledge that, on this occasion, it would’ve helped if he’d put himself about a bit more.
At least it looked strange seeing Rooney on the left, especially pleasing given that next week United play a Euro away. Let’s hope they go to Milan and play with enterprise and courage - the Babes certainly would have done.
February 5, 2010
How Gordon Brown must wish that he could call upon Wayne Rooney. Instead, he’s had to make do with quantitative easing and Peter Mandelson - far less entertaining and far less adept at obscuring the truism that skint is skint is skint.
But there’s a limit even to Rooney’s talents. Ten days ago, the worry was that a couple of good results might cause the resistance to lose focus, but it’s now clear that the situation has escalated beyond that. Even though the second half at Arsenal was punctuated by loud anti-Glazer sentiment, if that doesn’t translate to direct action - the only way of banishing them from our club - they’ll continue laughing at us for evermore.
More interviews like the one given by David Gill last Sunday lunchtime won’t do any harm, deceitfully spluttering his passive-aggressive way through a spot on BBC Radio 5 live. Despite questions less penetrating than a castrated fly, when not resorting to desperate escapes like “you’ll have to ask the owners” - well we would if they could or would speak to us - and infantile retorts like “but you’re not an accountant are you” - no, but we can count - he was demeaning us with a condescension that must be the only way of hiding his very palpable guilt.
After once promising to be “behind the barricades” should the Glazer takeover succeed, the sorry lump of money-love was good enough to let us know that the demonstration planned for the Milan home game is “ridiculous”. Though perhaps the biggest insult was referring to United as a “family club”. Family’s club maybe, but family club? In the words of the late, great MC Ruff, “officer me lord, you must be mad”.
But let’s humour him and run with it anyway. The roles of rich, senile old man and gormless uncles are taken, and Gill is perfect as the interloper who’s not actually a relation but manages to insinuate himself into the will nonetheless. And if Fergie’s the ageing patriarch who’s wronged and righted everyone in his time, and the players the hired help, that only leaves the supporters; bastard offspring who embarrass everyone, refusing to take the hint and keep quiet.
Anyway, to the relieving balm of the football. The famously lucid Paul Merson declared pre-match that “Arsenal could run riot”, while Wenger commented that “we look always forward to it”. Well perhaps they any more won’t, after another demoralising hiding.
At least that’s what it seemed like, based on the bits that I could see. No more than Arsenal and their plastic Hornbyites deserve - the Emirates is easily the worst of the new grounds, locating supporters as far from the pitch as possible, despite the promises made when work began at the new site. Fine, there are unobstructed sightlines, but you can get those on the telly; people go to games to be involved in the action, not to talk amongst themselves while it takes place somewhere in the distance.
No sooner had ‘The Wonder of You’ finished - about as congruous at the football as a fluorescent pink combine harvester embroidered with ermine - than United took over. Dominating possession and territory, they spent the first 20 minutes trying to break Arsenal down, Arsenal trying simply to break. Even though Arshavin had two half-chances in that period it would have been hard to worry had he scored, United’s superiority such that they looked good for at least a couple of goals, as indeed they were.
The game’s outstanding player in the first half was Nani, three consecutive performances of excellence illustrating what can be achieved via the complex strategy of picking a player consistently and in his position. After two years of mediocrity, my dad speculated hopefully that perhaps he’d come from a job interview when we saw him in a suit at Stamford Bridge, and the majority of others, myself included, would have also rejoiced in his sale.
However this was more an issue of personality than ability, his performances hampered by selfish, brainless indulgence on the ball and a demeanour of indignant entitlement off it. Now, in the opinion of no less a luminary than Micky Phelan, he looks like he might develop into “a United player”, which it’s nice to see he realises is about more than being picked to wear a United shirt. If he could just sort out his cheating and his hair, who knows - maybe one day he’ll be a Red.
Given that so far this season, United have managed only a single league goal from over two hundred corners, the ability to score from the opposition’s is very handy. It’s always pleasing to see Arsenal in particular undone on the counter-attack, a tactic some seem to think was patented by Wenger, rather than pioneered by Fergie.
Also worthy of note was its employment in the beating of a decent outfit, something Arsenal, for all their aesthetic demolitions of Charlton and West Ham, have rarely done. Nor can I remember a Wenger team so devoid of power and pace. For all the players with nice first touches, there was no one likely to beat a full back on the outside, placing almost all the creative responsibility on Fabregas - a brilliant footballer, but one United have learnt how to exclude from games between the sides.
Instrumental in doing so this time was what we hope is now a settled midfield, that simple fact of greater importance than the personnel comprising it. Anderson’s recent sulk means that Fletcher will be joined by either or both of Carrick and Scholes, the latter’s passing deployed higher up the pitch at long last, where he remains perhaps the league’s most intuitive unpicker of defences.
Of course it also helps if you have Wayne Rooney, devastating when given proper support. As well as his obvious technical skill, he has a natural stamina that enables him to retain his top speed for longer than others, and married to a brain that sends him in the right direction, he’s incredibly difficult to pick up. Long may he stroke his zits in triumphant post-match interviews.
But none of the above is to say the performance was perfect; United relaxed after the third goal when they should have been punishing Arsenal with four, five and six, though maybe they were under instructions not to decimate their confidence completely, as it’d be useful if they took points off Chelsea on Sunday.