While Manchester United sauntered off to Barcelona, Howard Pattison had Gillingham on his mind. And so did a small, red man with horns and a pointy tail
When Christopher Marlowe wrote Dr Faustus, he was only concerned with the notion of selling your soul to the devil in return for immense wealth (or whatever it was, it’s years since I saw it). Interestingly, for someone who was bumped off so close to the Millwall football ground, he never speculated on what lengths one might go to in return for a good cup run, or a monster upset against a Premiership outfit, or a late winner in injury time. Think about it for a moment. Exactly what would you sell your soul for?
I only mention this because I happen to have done three deals with the devil in the past week. If I tell you that I am a Manchester City supporter and that I am writing this on June 1st, you might be able to guess what those deals were. If not, let me enlighten you.
With a media frenzy surrounding United’s bid to land the Treble (incidentally, note how Treble has been accorded the status of a proper noun, similar to how the MCC once hijacked the English language in order to create a thing called a Test match) I was repeatedly asked by my colleagues how I was bearing up, and would I be rooting for Bayern on the Wednesday night.
I replied that, frankly, I couldn’t care less. With City a few days from a crunch fixture that would determine when, or if, they began their long road back, I really couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss what the boys across the road were up to. There were a couple of implications here. One, City fans have to stop torturing themselves by staring at sweets in the shop window when they haven’t even earned their pocket money; and two, I was clearly willing to bargain with United’s success. As far as I was concerned, United could have the glorious, wretched Treble as long as we sneaked a win against Gillingham in the Second Division play-off final.
At this point Old Nick entered stage left. Was that the deal? United’s glory in return for City’s last-gasp face-saving effort. Yes, that seemed fair. I was desperate enough to avoid humiliation. And so, being a football fan and therefore ridiculously superstitious, I was seriously alarmed when United approached injury time in Barcelona and were still a goal down. “The bastard,” I thought, “he’s double- crossed me. You just can’t trust these fallen angels.”
But no. Lucifer’s word is, surprisingly, his bond and, if you look carefully, you’ll see that Sheringham and Solskjaer were cloven-hoofed as they belted the ball home. Twice. In injury time. To win the Treble. So that was it. Jovially I contemplated City’s win against Gillingham. It was a done deal.
But the closer the big game came, the more suspicious I felt. Was this bargain enough? I thought not. Accordingly, I offered the devil my lottery winnings if City won the following day. The devil is not an ass, though, and he redrew the contract thus: if I won the lottery on Saturday, I wouldn’t care about promotion on the Sunday. So he had a straight choice with which to torment me. He would deny me something, but what? Either way I figured I couldn’t lose. But suddenly I realised I could. “Hang on,” I screamed, as he prepared to leave. “It has to be a big win. Nothing less than five numbers and the bonus ball.” Disconcertingly, he paused for a moment and smouldered – literally – and I wondered if I hadn’t just had the closest call of my life.
It seemed I was wrong. The closest call of my life was on Sunday afternoon. Fifteen seconds to go and City 2-0 down. “The bastard,” I cried out – again – “he really has double-crossed me! We’re going to win bugger all and United will win… everything!” But as I contemplated an away trip to Scunthorpe, the unthinkable happened. We scored. Yet I was unmoved. This was typical of City, dangling hope in front of you when all reason had fled. Yet then the commentator uttered a strange incantation: “The fourth official has indicated five minutes of injury time.”
Five minutes! It was an age. The game was back on. And so I called upon the devil a third time. If City got the equaliser in the next five minutes, I would never again spout vitriol at United for all those jammy 95th-minute goals. And it happened again. The devil spat into his hand (it steamed and hissed, just like you’d expect) and we shook. And a few moments later, there it was. Our very own jammy 95th-minute goal. Just like the other lot get. I have to be honest, you can see why they’re so fond of them.
It took three diabolical deals to do it, but we finally got our promotion. But what I’m pleased about, really pleased, is that I was clever enough to outsmart the devil. Because even if he had double-crossed me, I wouldn’t be that much worse off. The future would still belong to me. Unlike the 40,000 Manchester City fans who left Wembley that Sunday to be met outside by a horde of demons all demanding their souls. The team may be in the First Division, but their fans, not for the first time, will think it’s pandemonium.
And if you think this is fanciful gibberish, let me prove my point to you. Back at work, a friend said cheerfully: “You’ll never guess what – Saturday night we won the lottery!” And he handed me my share of a £10 note. I stared at it in horror as I realised how close I’d come to selling all my hopes for a miserly couple of quid. Moral of the story: if you’re going to do a deal with the devil, make sure you read the small print.
From WSC 149 July 1999. What was happening this month