The Crash of ’79.


For football fans who love or hate Man United. Which is all of them.

The Crash of ’79.

Or was it a crush? It was certainly crushing, and as a 13 year-old, I could hardly take it in.

     Keep that fact in mind: I was 13, and my life’s priorities hadn’t sorted themselves out yet. I ate Polos a lot, at 3p a tube. I went to Jedburgh Grammar School without knowing what the word grammar meant. I played trombone in Jedburgh Band, marching in all weathers around the streets of local towns. (This I did when in the company of and surrounded by the rest of band, I should add, not on my own. ‘Boy makes Irritating Noise in Border Towns, Where will he Strike Next?’). I had a satchel to take to school and enjoyed Clark’s shoes, and hated my maths teacher. To be fair he was terrifying, and for a long, long time he was a large scary blot in my life. But the over-riding interest, the passion above all else, was football, specifically Manchester United.

     Like every other teenage boy, my bedroom was covered in pictures of my heroes, with my No.1 favourite, Steve Coppell, next to my bed. He was the England right-winger, and as I played in that position myself, for the Jedburgh British Legion under 14 team, he was very much an idol. The left-winger, also of England, Gordon Hill, was also a favourite of mine, and many, many years later, with a good career going as a trombonist and pretending to be an adult, I actually lived in an area of north London called Gordon Hill. But at age 13, in 1979, it was Steve Coppell who ruled OK.

     Of course I had all the other paraphernalia, not just the posters, and pictures torn from Shoot! magazine. I had scarves, in United’s home and away colours, I had pennants pinned and stickers stuck to the walls, and my Parka was laden with United badges. It was pretty much an obsession.

     A brief, irritated interjection from the future here: Manchester United are the most supported club in the world, they have fans absolutely everywhere. I remember looking out of a Malaysian hotel room window on my first morning there and being delighted to see a man in a Man United shirt walking in the park below. And the equally universal sally to an MU fan is to ask them ‘What part of Manchester are you from?’. One is supposed to support one’s local team, and to do otherwise is considered rather low. So as an MU fan, it’s commonplace to be asked about my apparent birth and early life in the centre circle of Old Trafford. To which I tell people that Manchester has a population of 500,000 people. There are 659 million MU fans in the world, in 39 countries. We can’t all come from Manchester. That does seem to work.

     Back to 1979, and a Manchester United team that was doing OK, but not likely to win the League. That was because Liverpool did that. They were giants. They destroyed all before them, with one of those rare famous teams that most football fans over 50 can name every single member of, and most of the substitutes bench. And they all looked like John Holmes, which must have been intimidating in itself. The moustachioed Mr. Holmes was, shall we say, an outstanding member of the porn industry in the 70s, and to face 11 of him on a football pitch must have felt belittling before the game had even started.

     So we weren’t going to win the league. But in January, the FA Cup started, and we beat Chelsea 3-0, and my spirits rose slightly. In the next rounds, we beat Fulham, Colchester United (only just) and Spurs after a replay. By now I was totally caught up in it. Each round was an exciting new horizon, an increasingly obsessional step on a road that might lead to Wembley, the Promised Land of English football. But first came the semifinal draw. We got Liverpool.

     By this time I was wearing all my gear to school every day. I must have had to get up an hour earlier to wrap myself up in scarves and bobble hats, and weigh myself down with badges; I looked like a Polar explorer that warm March.

     There was no way we were going to beat Liverpool, and reach the Final. And after 17 minutes of the game, the brilliant Kenny Dalglish – even I admitted he was pretty good – started our downfall by scoring their first goal. Here we go. But hold on, only a few minutes later, Joe Jordan, a man twice as terrifying as my maths teacher on account of having no front teeth, headed us level.  We were playing well, and it was a real battle. Liverpool were controlled, effective, their usual confident and highly dangerous team. But we had something, we weren’t rolling over for them. They got a penalty, which the exuberant commentator Brian Moore described as ‘very, very, very harsh.’ Three ‘very’s. But it was Liverpool, they always won. Here we go. They missed the penalty, and clutching my scarves, hope started to flicker. Then we scored. Was this real? Could we be on our way to Wembley, on our way to the FA Cup Final? We carried on playing well, it was a hell of a game. But Liverpool, classy and experienced team that they were, also pressed on. And as I thought the damning thought ‘We could actually do this’, they equalised. Of course they did. In the 83rd minute that lanky but fairly reliable defender Alan Hansen wandered into the United 6-yard box and found the ball at his feet. Even he couldn’t miss from there. It ended 2-2, and we had to do it all over again, in four days time.

    During those four days I was deranged. I became extremely superstitious, taking anything and everything as a possible omen for the replay. After surviving the onslaught of one of the greatest teams of the century, it seemed now impossible to me that we could do it again. It was a mountain too far. The level of superstition and desperate involvement, ‘obsession’ is a word that’s come up twice already, became such that I distinctly remember, on my way to school on one of those four days of hell, thinking ‘If I go across that bridge, we’ll lose the match’. The bridge was about 50 yards from the school, but I turned back, and went a considerable distance round to arrive from another direction. I was doing things like that all the time.

     The replay was blood and thunder all over again. Both teams attacked each other strongly – and there was none of today’s diving and pretending to be hurt going on, it was shoulder-to-shoulder, contact and fair football, as it should be – and another terrific match. And again, somehow, we weren’t daunted by the giants. The first half passed without a goal, though you’d never have thought it from Brian’s exhilarating commentary.

     We fought on, and then glory be! In a moment I will never forget, in the 77th minute, our Jimmy Greenhoff stooped to head a wonderful goal, and raced off in absolute elation. And elation it was to be, the only goal of a rollercoaster of a game. We were through to the Final, and we’d beaten mighty Liverpool to get there. It was a euphoric time for me. Going back to the fact that I was 13, a boy, I drew about a dozen different pictures of Jimmy’s goal. I relived that moment by setting it down in crayon over and over again.

     The FA Cup Final was in those days a ridiculously over-hyped affair. With the match starting at 3pm, the whole morning’s TV was given over to every possible detail and minutiae they could find that had anything to do with the forthcoming contest. There were weather forecasts for the afternoon every 5 minutes. The wives and girlfriends were brought to the studio and interviewed about what their fellas liked for breakfast. What sun lotion did they use? Did they like gardening? How fascinating! All of these facts were, of course, portents for the match ahead. The Wembley groundskeeper was interviewed about the brand of lawnmower he’d used to cut the grass that morning. The ball that was to be used in the match was examined, and its leather pronounced to have come from a particular herd of Friesans near Rutland. There was an hour where a camera followed Jimmy Greenhoff’s terrapin in its tank, OK, I’m making it up a bit now. But only a bit.

     Can you imagine the feverish state of a 13 year-old boy that day, festooned in red scarves and hats, waving flags at the telly at 3pm after all this? Not just this morning and Jimmy’s terrapin, but the weeks, months of build-up, superstition (there’d been piles of salt on the floor behind my left shoulder at every meal for some time now) and desperate hope. To say I was glued to the telly is bald, I was of the telly, inside it as much as as if I’d been in the stadium itself. It was a glorious hot day, perfect FA Cup Final weather. 12th May, 1979.

     We were to play Arsenal, I should mention that. In their yellow strip, I wasn’t particularly interested in them, but they were a good team, with plenty of potential match-winning stars in it. In my eyes though, they were a rather dull team from London somewhere; I was so United-orientated that Arsenal were just ‘the rest’, though I was also aware that strange things could happen and that, though they weren’t Liverpool, they did at least have the chance to stop United’s runaway train and take everything away from me today. I was a mess.

     The first half, to the 13 year-old, was a let down, to say the least. Arsenal scored twice, quite easily, and I wondered where our fire had gone. We were being bored into defeat and everything was deflating a bit. The second half started, and carried on the same way. Except that now that they had their 2-goal lead, Arsenal were even more measured and controlled and dull. We were hardly playing at all. This didn’t take away from my increasingly frantic state of mind, and as the game wore on I clutched my flags harder and harder. Surely this wasn’t how it was all going to end, like a firework fizzling out?

     As I perched there on the edge of the sofa, my every thought willing my team on, my mother entered the room. She must have been well aware of my consuming obsession over the last several weeks, she saw my agonised face, and sensed the tension in the room.

     ‘So, it’s the reds against the yellows is it?’ she said heartlessly. Even if she did grasp the intensity of the situation, she had no time for it, and stated her disdain quite blithely. Reds against yellows? It meant SO much more than that.

     And so the game drew on. It was getting close to the end now, and Arsenal were still comfortably rolling the ball around and we didn’t seem to be making any progress at all. Where was the fire and indomitability that had seen us defy Liverpool? Five minutes to go. After that the build-up would all have come to nothing, the dream would just end, flat and disappointing. So we scored. In the 86th minute, our own lanky, lolloping defender Gordon McQueen managed to poke the ball into the net and the fans went nuts. I went nuts too, but it was all too late. Four minutes to go. Three. Two. Then the impossible happened. In the 88th minute my hero Steve Coppell looped a great pass through to Sammy McIlroy, who twisted and turned, with defenders all round him the ball seem to stick to his legs, and then, before my disbelieving eyes, stroked the ball past the keeper. Time stopped, the ball rolled on, it was going to miss, it wasn’t going to reach, then it bobbled just inside the post to the corner of the goal. This time I started running. Round and round the room, also jumping and hooting. This was unbelievable. We’d saved the match, snatched a draw from a non-entity of a Final, and would now be ready to go again in a replay in midweek.

     As I celebrated, my jubilation overflowing, Arsenal trundled the ball back to the centre circle and kicked off again. They were sapped. After dominating the whole match in an almost lazy fashion, they’d been stung, rattled, suddenly smashed by Manchester United’s inspiration and ebullience. How could any team hope to match that? The ball was passed upfield. A yellow ran forward and nudged it out to their left-winger. Then, before I’d even sat down again, he sent a long, arcing ball right across our penalty area. No-one was going to reach it. It went over our goalkeeper’s grasping arm and was on its way to the corner flag. But right at the back post, Alan Sunderland was racing in, stretched out a leg about 7 feet long, and guided the ball into the net. 89th minute. I stood dumb, open-mouthed, immobile. It wasn’t happening. It couldn’t have happened. It wasn’t believable. The world had changed. From euphoria to utter incomprehension. A few seconds later the whistle blew and it was all over. Arsenal 3-2.

     With my scarves trailing to the floor and my head drooping, I must have looked like bunting falling down in the rain after a street party. It wasn’t right, it couldn’t be right.

     The next few days, and my reaction to this dose of life have been erased from my memory. I can still feel the anguish now, but the immediate aftermath has been expunged. I’m not even saying it was a life lesson, although it most certainly is. But I do remember all the good bits, the exhilaration of the build-up, the all-consuming obsession and drive and hope of a 13 year-old boy. And I still watch Jimmy Greenhoff’s goal on YouTube today. Off to do so now, in fact.

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