Manchester United v Real Sociedad from inside the trial ‘Singing Section’
Despite strong competition from Paul Merson, Phil Thompson and Charlie Nicholas, it is Paul Walsh on Soccer Saturday that always gets to me. Although not for his playing career, which took in Liverpool and city, or his terrible punditry.
I first encountered this long-blonde-haired forward of the non-Uruguayan variety in January 1994, when he played for a then second-tier Portsmouth, at an Old Trafford league cup tie. (Our team that night was Status Quo-tastic: Schmeichel, Parker, Pallister; Irwin, Bruce (no-Sharpe-or-Ince); Hughes, McClair, Keane [sub] Cantona; Robson, Kanchelskis, and Giggs. Come on you Reds!) Walsh scored both as they twice pegged us back in a 2-2 draw. Although drawing a winnable cup game could devastate a young Red, it wasn’t the result in itself which lingered. After all, I had the perspective being at the Forest game in ’92, plus we still had a replay. No, it was that Walsh had ruined my Birthday.
My Dad had got tickets for us both, plus a group of my friends, for what was probably a decent cup game with plenty of goals. United with my mates. My mates from the playground, where we named ourselves after our heroes and swapped Paninis (‘You’re not having my Mark Hughes!’). Perfect birthday, apart from Walsh.
Despite the result, nights like that emphasise to me the ‘Club’ in our team’s name. A club to which I belong. You belong. We all belong, and share this membership. That face at aways, whose Kids you forget the names of, but whose half time proclamation away to Villa a decade ago you’ll always remember. Or the previously hidden Reds who suddenly reveal themselves when you stick a particular song on a jukebox. Or the strangers you forge a friendship with in a European city, whilst negotiating the local public transport. And we all know that spares are only sold at face, no matter what game, to other members of our Club.
The Stretford End’s second tier opened in 2000, with MUFC proclaiming it The ‘Singing Section’. At a time when waiting lists did exist, this was the first chance for an LMTB in many a year. Some were lured to the ‘Singing Section’, wanting to constantly get behind the team, but many just wanted a book. It meant the singers weren’t concentrated from the off.
That October, against Middlesbrough, it seemed everyone was bouncing in the concourse at half-time, inspiring a second half comeback and 2-1 win. For the next home game, against Spurs, the stewards had been briefed and quickly sat down groups of singers before the crowd could get going.
Banning orders, stewarding and an increase in both prices and tourists diluted the Stretford End atmosphere further. The club were reluctant to move people’s seats, but Peter Kenyon agreed for a League Cup home game to be unreserved. We got an away draw, were knocked out, and Kenyon left. The great plan for vocal Reds to turn up early in and swarm the front rows of the Stretford End was forgotten.
I am not advocating who should sit where, just why I think the original singing section did not fulfil its full potential on a weekly basis. Vocal Reds were too spread out, groups of mates too few.
There is room for lots of supporters in our Club: Reds who would rather sit, away from singers that block their view and pollute their ears; Reds who want an appropriate environment for their Kids, our future Reds; Even tourists, who delight us when abroad by associating Manchester purely with ‘Ah, United!’, want to be in our Club. (Although maybe they should pay more, and only if we don’t sell out.)
With such diverse support, these groups naturally want to gather together. But, due to ticket availability, prices and MUFC’s seat-changing policy, not since that birthday could I do so inside O.T. Not until Sociedad.
The Ticket Office happily placed four of us in an L-Stand row. I knew the lads behind from aways, and saw other long-known friends upon entering. This felt like my Club. Weeks earlier, in K-Stand against Palace, I was conscious that to shout, sing or stand would be out of keeping for my surroundings, like swearing in front of my Mum. Against Sociedad, I instantly felt I could behave in a way more natural to me at the football. Like swearing in front of the cat.
Flags, colour, singing, standing, and enjoying the game with mates. I looked around to see older heads smiling and joining in, and youngsters watching the mouths around them, trying to learn the words. And the stewarding caused no tension whatsoever. Following Southampton, it was pleasing to hear the manager’s name sang early on. Moyes gave us a wave, as did De Gea in the second half.
I enjoyed that home Champions League group stage game more than any in many a year. An area for similar types of Red to watch the match in the way they want to can only be a good thing. But I still can’t stand Paul Walsh.