Chris Taylor’s dreams of watching Juan Sebastian Verón turn into an evening comtemplating has-been celebrities, at a typical reserve match
I had not expected to be discussing the members of Take That while stood on the Popular Side terrace at Altrincham’s Moss Lane ground.
The debate was raging over Howard’s surname. I was sure it was Howard Marks while my brother-in-law assured me it was Howard Orange. The argument raged for some time, until we noticed people were eyeing us suspiciously. Embarrassed, we thought the best course of action was to change the conversation to something more manly. “What about Henry’s goal last night,” I shouted, making sure everyone could hear me. “It was at least five yards offside.”
That’s the main difference about watching reserve-team football – the whole experience is more relaxed. Where Ryan Giggs’s equaliser in the previous night’s top-of-the-table clash of the millennium, or whatever hyperbole Richard Keys used to describe it, against Arsenal was met with an outpouring of sheer bloody joy, Matthew Williams’ opening goal against Leeds reserves was met by a high-pitched, pre-pubescent squeal from the younger fans, and a ripple of mild applause from the older heads. Think Under-21 internationals and you can’t go far wrong.
Before the match there was intense media speculation as to whether or not Juan Sebastian Verón would be playing. According to reports in the morning papers, Veron was all set to fly back from Italy after recovering from a knee injury, leap off the plane straight into his kit, and play a full 90 minutes football in a bid to be fit for the forthcoming clash against Real Madrid. As an avowed Veronista, it was the promise of seeing La Brujita in action that took me to Moss Lane that night.
It almost goes without saying, then, that we found out he wouldn’t be playing as soon as we hit the M60.
We couldn’t be too disappointed, however, as there were still four other full internationals on show. Manchester United fielded Northern Ireland goalkeeper Roy Carroll, while Leeds had Ireland’s Stephen McPhail, Paul Okon of Australia and Teddy Lucic, who played in all four of Sweden’s World Cup games. As you’d expect it was these four players who looked not only technically superior to but physically stronger than all the others. Carroll, who started the first five games of the season for the full team, used all of his experience to bawl out instructions at a frightening volume, like some sort of terrifying reincarnation of Peter Schmeichel. It’s not hard to imagine the big Dane sitting in his luxurious house somewhere in the Cheshire belt, tutting furiously to himself as his quiet evening is ruined by the deafening roars coming from Altrincham.
For a match between Manchester United and Leeds United, the atmosphere was more than a little disappointing. None of the loathing and venomous bile you’d associate with the fixture was in evidence, although a group of south Manchester scallies in expensive tracksuits tried their best to fan the flames of hate by singing provocative songs throughout the first half. I got the distinct impression, however, that rather than their songs being motivated by anger and a myopic mistrust of anything Yorkshire, they were just looking for an excuse to use the f-word.
The atmosphere did pick up somewhat in the second half. Manchester United were leading at half-time thanks to the well taken goal from Wales Under-21 striker Williams, who picked up the ball on the halfway line before beating a defender and slotting it past Leeds keeper Scott Carson. Three minutes after the break David Fox doubled the lead with a 25-yard driven free-kick. The goal was met more vociferously than the first, thanks to the men who had found their way out of the bar at half-time.
One booze-hound in particular took it upon himself to harass the Leeds keeper at every available opportunity. He seemed unimpressed by the fact it was Carson’s first match in the reserve team, having made the step up from youth-team football, and he fully embraced the first rule of war: show no sympathy for the enemy. “Get a proper job!” he yelled at one stage. I somehow doubt Carson was tempted. Perhaps my priorities are askew, but given the choice between living out the hopes and dreams of men young and old across the globe and getting a “proper job”, I’d be in that Leeds kit in five seconds flat. And I hate Leeds.
It’s not until the mood is stripped down to this level that you realise quite how pathetic you can be at a football match. Death threats, hatred and profanity? Don’t make me laugh. (I doubt very much if I remember that next time we play at Anfield or Elland Road, mind. I tend to get caught up in the moment and I’m a sucker for peer pressure.)
Leaving the ground I turned to my sister, who had just watched what was only her third football game, the other two being a pre-season friendly between Grimsby Town and Grantham Town and a European Cup tie at Old Trafford against Anderlecht. “What did you think?” I asked her. “I thought it was Howard Donald,” she replied. I tell you, that was a weight off my mind. It had been bugging me all match.
From WSC 197 July 2003. What was happening this month