The Case for Manchester United

I am the proud owner of a nephew who is 15 years old, 6 feet 2, and 85 pounds after a week in a typhoon. I’ve seen veggie burgers with more meat on them. Great kid, too, and a huge Manchester United fan – he recently did some school exam after one hour’s sleep, having trekked with his dad the night before to Barcelona and back to watch United in a European game. (Don’t tell his teacher). But despite the fact I like him a lot, and share his obsession with all things Man U, being just 15 he’s badly in need of a history lesson, so Sam Dempsey of Tamworth, England? Take the iPod buds out of your huge ears, and listen up.

Lesson number one: United weren’t always this good.

In a couple of weeks, amidst the swirling fogs of the Grand Sports Arena of the Luzhniki Olympic Complex in Moscow, the Champions League final will be played, and one team will be crowned best side in Europe. The Champions League (not to be confused with the European Championship, a tournament for national teams which begins in June 2008) is the premier competition for European club teams. What began with 32 teams in groups is now whittled down to a couple in a single, winner-takes-all game, and this year is the first time in the competition’s history that the final features two British clubs: Chelsea (or Chelski as they’re nicknamed given their Russian owner, the richer-than-God Roman Abramovich), and Manchester United. And if you started watching soccer fervently around the year 2001, as Sam Dempsey did, then it’s a surprise to you that United don’t make the final every year. In fact, the last time they made it was 1999 – Sam was 6 years old — before that, 1968, when his dad was 4. And before that, never, and that’s because of 1958.

Lesson number two: When Liverpool boss Bill Shankly famously said ‘Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that,’ it just proved what a twat he was.

Soccer fans around the world know that on February 6, 1958, an airplane carrying the Manchester United team back from a European game in Belgrade stopped to refuel in a snow-blasted Munich. In attempting to take off (for a third time), the plane crashed through a fence at the edge of the airport, into both a house and a hut used to store fuel, where it finally, and devastatingly, burst into flames. At the time, the team on board was nicknamed the Busby Babes, a combination of the name of the manager, Matt Busby, and the average age of the players, which wasn’t much more than Sam Dempsey’s age now. Ask a Man United fan to name the players who died, and many will forlornly say, ‘Bent, Byrne, Colman, Edwards [pause], Jones, Pegg, Taylor, Whelan.’ We pause not just for the rhythm of it, but for the fact that Duncan Edwards has, since his death, become a talisman of the shock the soccer world felt. He was 16 years old when he first played for United, 18 when for England, and by all accounts he was a phenomenon: hard-tackling, swift of mind, with a shot like a Howitzer. He was probably going to be the greatest player of his generation. But on that snowy night in Germany, it all came to an end: his legs were shattered, and his kidneys beyond repair. Amazingly, he lived long enough to reportedly ask a United official, “What time is kick off against Wolves? I mustn’t miss that match.” Just over two weeks after the crash, he was gone, along with three backroom staff members, six journalists, and four other passengers.

The heart of a soccer club, ripped out and thrown in the slush of a German airport. What to make of such an event? For weeks, England held its breath, hardly able to think about soccer, about sports, about much of anything. It’s a homogenous place still, small with poor weather, and national tragedies are just that: national. Matt Busby, the manager, had been very badly injured himself (he got the Catholic sacrament of last rites twice); there are chilling black-and-white movies of his disembodied voice coming over the loudspeakers at Man United’s ground, Old Trafford, messages he read to a packed stadium as he lay near death in a Munich hospital. Though the great Turin team of 1949 had similarly perished in a terrible air crash, this accident still seems to stand alone in sporting history. Maybe it was the ages of the players; maybe it was Duncan Edwards; maybe it was what Busby’s battle to live; maybe it was because of what came next: Busby’s return to full health, and the most glittering prize of all.

Lesson number three: When Man United wins, conception can follow.

By 1960s, Manchester United were back playing regularly in Europe, and on a warm May night in 1968 they beat a great Benfica team – a team that featured Eusebio, at the time the best player in the world – to become the first English team to win the European Cup (the forerunner to today’s Champions League). Finally, United had reached their full potential, a footballing potential so cruelly taken from them ten years earlier. Bobby Charlton, a Busby Babe who survived the Munich crash, opened the scoring in 1968, glancing a header past Henrique in the Benfica net; when the game went into extra time at 1-1, the great George Best rounded the keeper to put United ahead, and a minute later Brian Kidd echoed his own name by heading in on his 19th birthday.

Appropriately, Charlton finished the scoring on 99 minutes with a fabulous chip over the keeper from a crap angle, and Manchester United were, in the words of the Pathe News announcer, “supreme soccer champions of Europe.”

Six months later, I was born. I like to think that’s down to a team called Gornik Zabrze. In late February, almost exactly nine months before my first appearance for Muling and Puking FC, United had won at Old Trafford in their European Cup-winning year against the Polish champions. Brian Kidd scored that night, too, and talking of scoring, I’m sure my dad’s good mood. . . . By my personal second trimester we’d beaten Eusebio’s Benfica, but I was to grow up like Sam Dempsey, only dimly aware of United’s tragic/triumphant history. The first year I really followed them fervently was 1975. By then, Manchester United was something else entirely.

Lesson number four: Some victories should not be celebrated.

After 1968 the club went into a decline, and in late 1974 a player named Denis Law, a United legend who had only missed the 1968 European Cup final through injury, ended his playing career at United’s arch rivals, Manchester City.

In an end-of-season local derby, Law found himself with his back to our goal, and in perfect Law fashion (he was one of the smartest center forwards ever to play the game), he backheeled the ball into United’s net, thereby relegating them to what was then Division Two. Law was devastated, not realizing then that even a draw would have sent us down. No matter — he bowed his head in shame and walked away, leaving the field almost immediately (he was substituted), and retiring a few weeks later. My earliest memories of United as a central part of my life were therefore of the team playing teams like Oxford United and Leyton Orient. Throughout the rest of the seventies and eighties – or my childhood, as it’s known — United continued to flatter, but weren’t even deceptively bad. It was only with the ascent of Alex Ferguson to position as United manager that United started to dominate as they have done recently. We’ve won the Premiership ten times since 1992, including this year. It’s still a shock to some of us. We remember 1975.

Lesson number five: Uncles always tell stories; humor them.

I was watching a United game with my girlfriend the other night when she suddenly blurted out, “So has Man United ever been relegated?” Once I’d stopped headbutting her, I said, “Honey, let’s go back to 1958, shall we?” She was asleep by the time I got to Brian Kidd’s goal in the Benfica match, but I woke her to fill her in on the forthcoming Champions League final. As I did so, I realized there’s a thread running all the way back to 1958. It’s not just the coincidence of dates (’58, ’68, ’08), nor the fact that the remaining survivors of Munich have been invited to join the current United team in Moscow in a couple of weeks. No, it’s the thread of family that makes United fans (makes most sports fans, in fact).

In my case, my uncle Mike was a journalist in Manchester in 1958, and a colleague of his died in the crash. He went on to be pals with fellow-Catholic Busby; he wrote in the United programme every week; you knew you could prompt him to talk about the Busby Babes, but you didn’t dare. His younger brother, my dad, lived for United too, and died in 1990, before the team became good again. My kids were born the year United won the Champions League; now, they’re almost old enough to care, too, but only if a horse and a poodle somehow get in United’s starting 11.

Lesson number six: Unlike Christiano Ronaldo, this, too, shall pass.

But this final is not for my kids; they’re too young. This one’s for Sam Dempsey. He’s been to every United game this season, home and away, accompanying his dad, my elder brother, all over England. After about 65 minutes of every game they both lustily join in the chant in which “Serbia” somehow rhymes with “murderer,” an appallingly witty reference to our tough central defender, Nmanja Vidic; they call me with full reports of how we played. Sam thinks United have always been this good – that Ronaldo and Rooney and Rio are business as usual – that we’ll always finish in the top two, and will be disappointed if we don’t make the Champions League final. Well, hate to tell you son, but when I was your age . . . but no.

So what that my youth came and went with United winning nothing of note? Let’s leave Denis Law and the Second Division and Leyton Orient behind. Now, in my fortieth year, United fans are packing their bags with the ghosts of the fifties and sixties and seventies and eighties, and they’re flying over Munich on their way to Moscow. How could anyone root for any team but United, given what came before? It’s a question I often ask myself. No one’s answered yet, and for me, no one ever will.

Lesson number seven: Keep out of bars.

I was in a bar recently sitting next to a guy who follows Chelsea, the team United must beat to once again become supreme soccer champions of Europe. He was bemoaning what they’ve become; a once-fashionable West London club, in deep blue shirts, passing and dribbling, once in a while being successful but not really. All that has gone. Now, they have devolved into a team of superstars paid for by Abramovich, but who seem to publicly hate each other. Recently, stars Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack argued during a game against United about who was to take a free kick; and in their recent game against Newcastle, John Terry, their captain and presumed role model, ripped fellow defender Ricardo Carvahlo a new one when he left the field having fallen on his old one.

Then there’s some of their fans. The Chelsea Headhunters are a notorious group who dole out vicious beatings on other team’s supporters, then leave a snazzy calling card on their prone bodies. These same geniuses have also issued death threats against both Anders Frisk (a Swedish referee, though honestly, some of his decisions . . .) and two Reading players. Recently, a member of the groundskeeping crew at Chelsea’s stadium reportedly called a black United player, Patrice Evra, “a fucking immigrant,” and a full-scale brawl ensued.

So Chelsea are not hard to loathe, though I guess if I’d been born in West London I might well have supported them.

Lesson number eight: Just because you never met your granddad doesn’t mean you don’t look like him.

We support our teams because we like the color of their shirts, or because it’s our hometown team, or because something tragic happened before we were born, or because our dads did. Sam, your dad had no choice, just like his dad before him, a man who grew up four miles from Old Trafford. Your son, should you be so blessed by same, may well be conceived after a difficult away game in Italy, United 1-0 down after the first leg, and a young center forward, name TK, just like you banging in the winner at the very end. Luckily, you don’t have a brother, so your kids won’t be bored by uncle stories of Ronaldo’s solo goals, and Nani’s headbutts, and Scholes’ and Giggs’ demeanor as current untouchable United legends. Count your blessings, then, and in the words of the most famous United chant of all, some time soon let’s take a “walk along the Warwick Road, to see Matt Busby’s aces.”

Luke Dempsey is the author of A Supremely Bad Idea: Three Mad Birders and Their Quest to See It All.

The Case for Manchester United