It is a staggering 32 years since I went to my first away at Old Trafford. We lost 5-0 and were managed by Jackie Charlton. We’d been doing okay until not long before half time before John Ryan strengthened his bid for the title of “one of the worst players to have ever pulled on a B&W shirt” by playing a woeful defensive pass and in popped Jasper Olsen to start the rout. That Man Utd team contained players like Remi Moses, Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes, Gary Bailey, Clayton Blackmore and was managed by Ron “Big Ron” Atkinson. You may remember the tan, the tomfoolery, leather mac, supreme self confidence and despite big investment, his inability to rein in the dominance of Liverpool at the other end of the East Lancs Road. That was all long before the injudicious racist comments consigned his peculiar brand of commentary to the dustbin of history. Man Utd fans of a certain vintage, with whom you can have a reasonable conversation without them breaking into dull-witted slavver about Alan Shearer will acknowledge the massive support we had at Old Trafford that day, which at a conservative estimate was north of 10K.
A prolonged stay in the old Second Division meant our trips to Old Trafford between 78 and 84 had been off United travel plans and this was the first trip we Mags had made to the Theatre of Dreams (sic) over that time. My little gang of Gateshead runts weren’t going to miss out on this one and so boarded a transit in the usual style.
Unsurprisingly given the size of the away support and the era the game was played in there was plenty of contremps outside and the usual running around and all of that caper. I shouldn’t make light of it as the driver of our mini-coach was slashed across the back – to be fair at 6, 4” and scattering a gang of Reds swinging a wheel-brace around his head running around in the middle of the road, he was rather putting himself in harm’s way. It did no serious damage or seem to effect his thirst.
Football was played in a threatening and ugly atmosphere then. I won’t let this descend into some over-cooked sociological treatise but with jobs in the North disappearing to the backdrop of the insouciance of the Thatcher Government, there was something of a decaying environment for the national game, the communities it had sprung from and those (industrial working class) watching it.
But for all of the handiness of that away end at Old Trafford I do not recall our support indulging in any of the Munich abuse that accompanied Man Utd home and away over that period.
Man Utd is a difficult club to like. Their support is often arrogant and entitled with much of it of the glory-hunting variety drawn from well outside its natural geographical hinterland. The Alton Towers of Football if you like. I’m not going to defend the indefensible of Munich-baiting but it might be understood as a low-brow response to the wide-spread hooliganism the “Red Army” brought to football in the 70s. That might be an explanation for the at times toxic atmospheres Man U played in at Elland Road, Anfield and Maine Road in particular. It’s an explanation, though not an excuse.
The excitable elements of our support never really had a direct violent rivalry with Man Utd. In his book The Red Army Years, Richard Kurt explains the terrors of following Man Utd to St James’ Park in the mid-70s when it seemed the whole city turned out to put on some er, Geordie hospitality for a support which by then had become notorious. But because we’d avoided playing them in the early 80s, when football violence was at its height, the kind of poison that existed between Geordie hooligans and their peers at West Ham and Chelsea wasn’t as overt with the Reds of Manchester for example as it was with some others. Reds radgies had bigger fish to fry in their determined loathing and envy of all things Liverpool FC.
That might explain for all of the trips I’ve made to Old Trafford since ’84, I’ve never really heard our lot go in for the mass Munich-baiting so enjoyed at Leeds, Liverpool and Man City. I’ve taken pride in that and in particular when I’ve seen their goons attempting to provoke the away end into something of that theme by bizarrely mimicking the arms out-stretched, aeroplane act some of their rivals have done over the years. Good for us I’ve always thought.
That’s not to say we’ve been angelic. I recall having words with a lad in front of me in the 2009 fixture down there for giving it some Munich garbage and being upbraided for being a “do-gooder” by someone maybe a relative old enough to know better.
If that group of lads (who I’m sure weren’t bad kids really, just a bit full of piss and temper) took a few moments they would realise the Munich Disaster (and I’m making the leap everyone reading this is broadly familiar with that tragedy) touched our club and community.
Most people understand the familial links between Bobby Charlton, arguably the greatest ever English footballer, Ashington and Jackie Milburn, the iconic Newcastle United No.9 and as romantic a folk hero in our club’s history as you are likely to find. Bobby Charlton is a Geordie and whilst he may not have ever really worked on that association, having become something of the sole property of Manchester United and England, his roots are within the coal-mining community of SE Northumberland and part of a family with the deepest Newcastle United connections. Charlton was badly affected by that horrific tragedy on a Munich runway but he wasn’t the only one from our region on board that flight.
Tom Curry isn’t a name written large in the history of our club but he should be known to the modern Mag. Curry worked for Man United as the trainer for the Busby Babes but who lost his life in the Munich tragedy at the age of 63. He’d served as a sergeant with the Royal Engineers in WW1. Curry made 221 appearances for Newcastle United between 1919 and 1929. He was a South Shields lad born and bred as well as being in the Magpies squad of players that won the FA Cup in 1924.
Less well known than Curry was Ray Wood. Wood was a goalie born and raised in Hebburn-on-Tyne. Wood never turned out for us professionally but did appear in our club’s colours as an amateur before moving to Darlington and having almost ten years at Old Trafford, making 178 appearances and winning an England cap. He played for ten years after surviving the Munich disaster for Huddersfield, Bradford and Barnsley. He died in 2002.
Like many of you reading this, I’ve had the good fortune to talk to lots of Mags who followed United in the 50s. Clearly the stories of our three fantastic FA Cup wins make for great listening but there’s something else as well. I think its’ the boyish enthusiasm for a golden age in English football and the sense of wonderment and respect for the skills of Matthews, Finney, Mortensen, Lofthouse as well as the enjoyment of our own heroes: Milburn, Mitchell, Robledo, Harvey etc. There is an absence of spite and that’s something I recall in my old man talking about the players who perished in Munich.
Asked to name the best player my old man ever saw play and he’d blow out his cheeks before waxing about Mitchell, Shackleton, Allchurch, Moore, Greaves, Jimmy Johnstone and Billy McNeill but pause and say quietly … but the best of the lot was Duncan Edwards. Not George Best or Bobby Charlton. Duncan Edwards. My old man had a straightforward awe of supremely talented footballers and like many, he spoke of Edwards as capable of everything and he’d bemoan the tragedy of his unfulfilled talent.
As supporters we don’t tend to talk about footballers with that kind of enthusiasm any longer generally speaking. Messi and Ronaldo may be two of some rare exceptions but much of football debate is poisoned with bile and a glee in seeing footballers fail. Maybe its the distance between the common supporter and modern footballers in that previous era in those sepia tinted days but when you read some of the abuse going the way of our own players, from our own supporters via social media and Rafa’s regular exhortations (clearly for a reason) for everyone to be together, you can work out something fundamental has changed in football but perhaps also in society at large.
I’m going to Man Utd this Saturday. I hope to meet some Man Utd fanzine lads beforehand and have a pint. I’ll be excited to get into one of the world’s greatest football stadiums and get behind my team who no-one will seriously give a chance of winning. If we do get something it will be explained away by some blip of the home team by the football media. This is how it rolls outside the top six or whatever of the PL. We are here to make the numbers up.
My main hope is in the stands, in the away end where I hope any disappointment at the result (and the inevitable bad refereeing decisions we’ll suffer) or the goading of their balloons, we’ll leave any of the Munich rubbish to those with less class and appreciation for how that tragedy reached our club and communities. But mainly because we love football and we are straightforwardly decent people.
They call us Newcastle United ….
Michael Martin. Follow Michael on @tfMichael1892
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