Tag Archives: Manchester United

Clash of the titans

When it comes to sport, there’s no place for people who sit on the fence. I can understand people who don’t particularly like sport at all, but it’s the sports fans that can’t quite bring themselves to pick a team that are weirder to me. Yes, I know that in a ideal chocolate box utopia where the world is governed by cute little puppies, sport should be about the Olympic ideals and the dignity of sportsmanship. But this ain’t no utopia, and when it comes to sport, tribalism and the desire to win lead the way.

The thing is, I love a sporting rivalry; the above-and-beyond enmity and loathing that exists between two teams, sometimes than for a reason that was forgotten decades ago. The kind of competition between two fierce rivals that has fans of both teams thinking of little else for the week before they clash, and which causes the losers to slink off with their tails between their legs resolving not to read the sports pages for at least a month.

Britain does sporting rivalries particularly well. In cricket, there can be little more exciting than a clash between England and Australia, even if the only thing at stake is a tiny urn containing a bit of burnt wood. Infact, so strong is the rivalry that the avid English supporters known as the Barmy Army (or, as I prefer to call them, the ‘Public School Oiks With Too Much Time On Their Hands After Daddy Died And Left Them A Castle’) have landed themselves in deep water for attempting to put the Aussie captain Ricky Ponting off his game with booing and some polite inquiries into the exact nature of his parentage.

Then there’s England vs Scotland (or indeed England vs Wales) in the rugby – a rivalry more explained by England’s political domination of its two smaller mainland United Kingdom territories. After all, when it’s still effectively legal in my native Chester to shoot a Welshman with a bow and arrow after nidnight, it’s not hard to understand why the Welsh and Scottish might get a little hot under the collar about a sporting chance to redress the balance.

It’s football (or, as I have to insist on calling it in the US, football) where the fiercest rivalries exist. Up and down the land, local rivalries such as Portsmouth & Southampton, Norwich & Ipswich, Chester & Wrexham, Sheffield United & Sheffield Wednesday, and Newcastle United & Sunderland all exist to fill newspaper column inches and the minds of those who support one or the other.

For me though, the fiercest rivalry is that between Manchester United and Liverpool. I mean, I would say that, given that the pain of being a sixteen year old in the away end at Anfield watching my beloved United taking a 4-0 beating at the hands of Liverpool still hurts to this day twenty years later. I’ve sung more songs about my inner contempt for Liverpool supporters (mostly people I’ve never met, let’s remember) than I’ve eaten bags of fish and chips. And let me tell you, I’ve eaten a lot of fish and chips.

Put simply, United fans and Liverpool fans hate each other, and never the twain shall meet. Apart from in the home of my (Liverpool supporting) sister and her (much more sensible and United supporting) husband, obviously.

And to be fair, I’d never have it any other way.

Here in the United States, the level of rivalry in sports just isn’t there. Sure, there are college sports rivalries, and occasional local tensions, but nothing that would inspire more than a vague “Rangers suck” cry in a crowded bar; presumably a reference to the quality of New York’s ice hockey team rather than the sexual proclivities of the state’s country park guardians.

Part of that comes from the fact that there’s really no such thing as ‘away support’ in American sport. Sure, people expatriated from their home city might put in an appearance when their team swings into their new town, but there’s no away section and fans of both teams sit together in relative harmony. Apart from when one or other has had a few Bud Lights too many, obviously. Fortunately the New York Knicks haven’t hosted a game against the Chester Jets yet, so I haven’t seen a need to test the theory out too closely.

There is, however, one rivalry that seems pretty deep rooted – the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. So, feeling the need for some sporting tension this week – and, more importantly, acutely aware that impending fatherhood means that there will soon be more chance of me being invited to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world than spend a night drinking beer and watching sport – I grabbed a ticket for the Red Sox trip to the new Yankee Stadium to witness the battle for myself.

The sad thing was, the rivalry was muted at best. Sure, there was the occasional t-shirt alluding to the fact that there was never a curse of Babe Ruth and that the Red Sox had actually just sucked for 86 years. But apart from the occasional boo for a Boston player, or a jeer directed at a Red Sox-hatted fan, it could barely have been more harmonious. Of course, it helped that the Yankees battered the Red Sox, although that merely seemed to empty out the stadium way before the end of the game.

Thankfully though, order was restored an innings before the end of the game. A young guy mistakenly walked up the wrong staircase after a visit to the bathroom, and looked around confusedly for his friends who were actually a whole section away. Enjoying his mistake, a crowd of Yankees fans roundly booed and jeered him, and sent him scuttling back to his own seat with his tail between his legs.

Some people would say it was the baseball cap with Boston’s logo on it that caused the heated treatment. But I know that it was actually his t-shirt.

After all, you can’t expect to wear a Liverpool football shirt in public and get away with it.

Will humankind ever learn?

I’ve always been a little bit superstitious, for some reason. To be fair, I’d like to think that I’m just easily suggestible, and that the people around me have lured me into their shadowy lair of hocus pocus claptrap done in the name of good luck. Nevertheless, my lack of backbone leads to me doing all manner of silly things in an attempt to ensure that good fortune shines on me.

When I was a kid, my grandmother always insisted that I say ‘white rabbits’ on the first day of the month, if I was to have good luck for the next four weeks. If ‘white rabbits’ wasn’t the first thing I said that day, then a quick chant of ‘white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits’ was apparently a manual override of the bad luck that would ensue. Good fortune’s version of being given lines at school, I guess.

Whenever I go to Manchester to see eleven men in red kick a football around, The Best Man always insists that we walk up the furthest staircase of four to our Old Trafford seats, for fear that United will lose if we don’t stick with tradition. I have seen them win, lose and draw when following this policy, yet despite knowing that it doesn’t work, I still stick to it even if The Best Man isn’t with me.

And I always put my left sock on before my right one, after meeting a wise old man in India who insisted that I would have a long and prosperous life if I maintained this early morning devotion. OK, that’s a lie – I’ve never even been to India, let alone developed a sock donning habit – but I reckon I’d be susceptible if anybody came up with even a half-compelling story about why I should do it.

The strange thing is, I don’t believe in much of the made-up nonsensestuff that many people avidly follow. I don’t read my horoscopes, I don’t think that tarot cards or tea leaves are a harbinger to my future, and I’m certainly not a church-goer. Hell, I don’t even believe in the stupid superstitions I have, but I still do them just in case my life turns to one giant pile of mush if for some reason I stop.

On this basis, I think I have discovered the root of America’s current economic woes. As every British child knows, it is absolutely imperative that all evidence of Christmas decorations be removed from your house by the evening of the 5th of January (or Twelfth Night, as it is more commonly known). I know it’s linked to Candlemas or Epiphany or some other such blah blah blah, but all I know is that if there’s a single trace of tinsel hanging up after the 5th, then a plague descends on your house, and all your worldly possessions turn into celery. Or beetroot. Definitely one or the other.

It’s a rule we stuck to rigidly when I was a kid, and my life has been pretty damn good so far. Indeed, such has my commitment been to the Twelfth Night principle, that in the last years of living alone, I didn’t even put decorations up for fear that I would somehow forget the 5th and I’d come home to find that my TV had been transformed into a root vegetable.

Here in the US, they don’t care. We’re now in early February, and most nights as I walk home I see a Christmas tree or two sitting forlornly in the gutter having finally had its two month stay in some household or other brutally terminated. Is it any wonder that the economy has gone to hell in a handcart given this slovenly approach to the fundamental traditions that make this world tick?

They can talk about subprime mortgages until they’re blue in the face, but herein lies the root of the financial crisis. If you walk past the old offices of Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual or Bear Stearns, I bet you’ll see a Christmas tree in their lobby. Sure, its lights may be blinking merrily, but that’s just the tree sending a message to the other trees around it.

“Sit tight lads,” it’s saying. “Seems like they’ve forgotten the Twelfth Night rule. We’ll be running this place before you know it.”

The campaign for the abolition of taxi talking starts here

Getting into a cab in New York is generally like entering a little yellow bubble. Sure, there might be a slightly musky smell from the previous passenger, or the driver’s lunchtime burger/kebab/sag paneer, but on the whole drivers keep themselves to themselves. Most drivers are too engrossed in impenetrable conversations with various family members, and don’t bother giving you a second glance after they’ve found out where you’re going. There might be a small exchange between the two of you when you realise that they’ve taken you to Central Park West rather than Brooklyn, but other than that you can largely enjoy your journey in relative peace.

The same can’t be said about a black cab journey in London, or indeed most places in the UK. Clearly there are some drivers who keep quiet, only speaking to ask their passengers questions such as “is that bloke going to throw up?” But there’s a sizeable proportion for whom the period of time between passengers is a temporary break in an otherwise non-stop all-day conversation. I say “conversation”, but really what I mean is a “bitter and marginally aggressive diatribe against anything and everything that moves”.

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to listen as a driver railed against governments, immigrants, teachers, parents, young people, Asians, the disabled, upper class prats and the police.

A faked phone call will get you out of listening to some of it. But eventually you just have to submit to the drivel, and hope that you don’t hit heavy traffic.

Taking a cab with The Best Man, The Beancounter and Sickly Child this weekend, we encountered the chattiest can driver in the world. Within a matter of minutes, he’d told us that his daughter was a top model (and showed us a picture), that he had accused his now son-in-law of being gay, and that he and his sons were all handy with their fists and would batter anybody who crossed them (or his daughter). That was shortly before he tried to marry off Sickly Child to one of his punch-happy boys, obviously. Oh, and that during the 60s he had been George Best’s driver who had once failed to persuade a drunken George to get out of bed to go and play for Manchester United.

We were only in the taxi for fifteen minutes, but by the time we got out of the car we were exhausted.

It’s enough to make you pine for the dubious odours of a yellow cab.

A lesson in money management

I still vividly remember the feeling I had when I first lost a substantial amount of money. I was probably about twelve years old, and my sister and I were visiting my grandmother’s house with She Who Was Born To Worry (aka my mum). My grandmother lived just outside Chester, and I often used to be allowed to take a short walk to the corner to get a newspaper or some sweetscandy. Walking back from one such mission – no doubt with a sherbert fountain or a quarter of chocolate limes in my hand – I reassuringly patted the back pocket of my jeans to check for my money, only to find it was no longer there.

Obviously, I retraced my steps in an attempt to find the little leather wallet, getting more and more frantic as I remembered the £10 note (a birthday gift from one relative or another) that had been neatly folded up within. But it was nowhere to be found. I tearfully walked back to my grandmother’s house, and dutifully received the ten minute lecture on looking after my money. All I could think about for the next five days was the lucky git who had picked up my wallet, and was now probably sitting smugly in their house surrounded by what felt like a lifetime’s supply of cola cubes or wine gums.

Of course, since that day I’ve lost plenty more money. Sometimes it’s fallen out of my pocket, and on others it’s been willfully extracted by The Best Man, The Beancounter or Sickly Child playing poker on a trip up North to see Manchester United. I’ve also found money, although wherever possible I’ve tried to hand it in just in case it belonged to another forlorn 12 year old with an inability to keep his cash safe. That’s not to say that I haven’t seen a twenty quid note floating on the breeze with no one else in sight, and deftly pocketed it. I mean, I’m an idealist but I’m not a fool.

As a result, maybe last night was karma wreaking its revenge.

Picking up a few items at the local supermarketgrocery store in order to feed a sickly Special One, I pulled a twenty dollar note out of my jeans pocket at the cash desk. Given that the dollar is like toy money, and you can pick up a notebook worth of dollar bills in any one day, I have a startlingly bad habit of stuffing all my bills into a pocket in one giant (but worthless) wad. Sadly that wad sometimes includes a few coins, and last night three or four quarters came flying out and scuttled across the floor.

More embarrassed at the noise than anything else, I quickly picked up the three coins that had fallen at my feet. Another had rolled no more than a couple of yards away, and a man in his fifties kindly bent down to pick it up for me. I smiled self-consciously at the shop assistant, paid for my shopping, then turned to the good samaritan for him to return the coin.

Except the man wasn’t there any more. He’d picked up my quarter and walked off with it.

Community spirit – you can’t beat it.

The love of the game

If I was still living in the UK, I’d be squashed up in the back of a cab right now with The Best Man, The Beancounter and Sickly Child on the way to Luton to catch a flight to Moscow. A flight containing two hundred already drunk slightly overweight men gently sweating nicotine and harassing flight attendants. On arrival, I’d be questioned at length about my right to be in the country before being herded onto a poky Russian bus. I’d then be forced into a segregated compound for hours on end, denied the right to drink even a watery beer, and have to spend an age queuing for the right to relieve myself in a excrement smeared portaloo. After around three hours of bowel-clenchingly unbearable tension, I’d be manhandled back onto a bus, back to the airport, and onto a plane with two hundred practically feral men. Part way through the four hour flight, I’d celebrate my 36th hour without sleep by removing the beer belly of a slobbering electrician from Billericay from my arm rest. Once back at Luton, I’d have to endure a three hour journey across London in rush hour traffic just for the right to fall back into my bed.

Oh, and I’d have paid £750 for the whole privilege.

Strangely, I’d pay twice that much to be in the back of that cab now.

Football – it’s a funny old game.

They think it’s all over

It’s not every day that I start to get a hangover at about 4pm, but then I guess it’s not every day that Manchester United win the Premiership. That’s the English ‘soccer’ league, for the uninitiated. In retrospect, starting to drink beer at 10am on a Sunday was never going to be one of my best-laid plans. But having already bitten my nails down to stubs in the run-up to the deciding game, I had to find something to do with my hands. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it…

Of course, while soccer is admittedly undergoing a young person/Beckham-induced boom, mainstream America’s indifference towards the beautiful game is well documented. My office is actually packed with football fans, but – like Britain’s reaction to baseball, American football and (to a lesser extent) ice hockey and basketball – ‘proper football’ is about as interesting as rat droppings for most people.

As such, it can be difficult to find anywhere to view matches where the big game atmosphere constitutes anything more than The Special One asking me to pick my shoes up off the floor. But with United (or ManYoo, as they’re generally called by the limited number of Americans who have heard of them) just needing a win to clinch their tenth title in sixteen years, I ploughed the depths of Google to find a bar in Brooklyn that would be showing the big clash.

Seeing the closed doors on my arrival at Floyd NY didn’t bode well, but it turns out that they were just trying to keep the sun off the giant screen showing the game within. And despite being the official home of the New York Tottenham Hotspur’s Supporters Club, the place was packed full of United fans eager to see Rooney, Tevez, Ronaldo (and eight more men that no normal American has ever heard of) attempt to win the title for the second year running.

Now here’s the strange thing. The majority of the people in the bar were probably British – or at least not American. Put them in a bar in the UK, and they’d almost certainly be screaming at the television every time a United pass went astray, or swearing with abandon at each missed opportunity. But unless you’re in one of the huge football pubs (such as Nevada Smiths or the Red Lion, if you’re in New York), football watching seems to be a much more cultured and respectful pursuit – and that rubs off on even the British hardcore. So much so that when I laughingly mentioned to a couple of bystanders that the Chelsea captain John Terry would probably miss the Champions League final with a dislocated elbow, they gave me a look that suggested they suspected me of surreptitiously relieving myself in their pints of beer.

Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of joyful roaring as each of United’s two winning goals went in, and collective relief when the final whistle went to confirm them as champions. But whenever you have to rely on Spurs fans to provide the only chanting at a game, you know something’s gone horribly wrong.

Now with the Premiership finally in the bag, the only question is where to watch the Champions League final.

“From behind the sofa with my hands partially over my eyes” is my current thinking.

School papers

I’ve blogged before about the impossibility of doing anything in this country without some form of ID, and rarely a day goes by without me thinking that I should muster the will to go get a driving license. Not so that I can drive, you understand, but just so that I can spend more than $75 on a credit card at Virgin Megastores without facing a full cavity search by over-zealous staff.

To be honest though, lack of ID can be a benefit as well as a burden on occasion. I’ve managed to use it as an excuse to get out of doing something I can’t quite summon up the energy to do. Go to the bar to get a drink, you say? Sorry, I don’t carry photo ID on me, and you know what they’re like in this place. You want me to pick up that package you ordered? Erk, no photo ID so I’ll probably just have to go home and watch Padma Lakshmi on Top Chef I’m afraid. Do the washing up, you say? I seem to need photo ID to get into the kitchen unfortunately.

In the UK, ID is something that you see as often as Heather Mills at a Justice For Fathers demo. There’s plenty of talk of introducing a national identity card, but at the moment people have to rely on their good looks and charm as their sole identifier. Is it just that the British are more trusting? Or perhaps it’s merely that we don’t insist on using a 220 year old document to justify carrying a sub-machine gun in our back pockets, so there’s less to worry about from a security perspective.

Whatever the case, it’s not just moaning newcomers who suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous admin. The Special One took The Youngest to a middle school this morning, to be interrogatedinterviewed about her ability to give a good wedgieacademic record with a view to being given a place in the school later this year. Given that the interview was at ridiculous o’clock in the morning, The Special One just grabbed her phone and some cash, and then made her way to the subway. Having returned a few moments later after forgetting The Youngest, the two of them trekked into the city.

In retrospect, the sound of an SMS arriving early in the morning was never going to be a good sign, and I could feel the seething resentment from five miles away as I picked up the phone and read ‘we don’t have photo ID, they won’t let us in’. Early morning humour isn’t a key attribute for The Special One at the best of times, and if the poor unfortunate security guard on duty isn’t this evening looking for a new job where he has to take less abuse, I’ll eat my Manchester United bobble hat.

Don’t get me wrong, I know all about Columbine, Virginia Tech and Dunblane, and how utterly terrible those events were. I understand the need for security to protect people in large establishments. But to my knowledge, Eric Harris & Dylan Klebold, Seung-Hui Cho and Thomas Hamilton didn’t turn up at school with a written appointment for an admission interview and with a ten year old child in tow. And with nothing other than a phone and a scowl in their possession.

I’m sure that the school prinicipal was delighted to be dragged down from his 5th floor ivory tower to pick up two (by now) irritable individuals. Fortunately the interview went well, but it didn’t exactly get The Youngest’s relationship with the school off to a flying start.

Come on people, just because we’ve got rules doesn’t mean that we leave good sense at home. Unlike our ID cards, that is.

Open brackets

I’ve been a footballsoccer fan for as long as I can remember. I’ve still got a picture of me resplendent in my first ever Manchester United kit, proudly sitting on Brit Out Of Water Senior’s lap one Christmas. And I was even humiliated at my wedding (sorry, who am I kidding, I mean at The Special One’s wedding) with a blown-up photograph of a bobble-hatted me aged six, standing infront of United’s ground. Rarely can dimples have looked more prominent.

On one of my first trips to Old Trafford, I can vividly recall sitting on a coachbus taking us to Manchester, and desperately trying to make sense of the ‘league ladders’ that had fallen out of my brand new copy of the bible (or Shoot! football magazine, as I believe it was actually known).

Essentially the Shoot! League Ladder was a piece of cardboard with a tiny piece of card on it for every club in the country. Each one was pushed out of the cardboard frame until you had 92 thumb-sized tabs that could be pushed into the perforated card to reflect where each club was in the league at that point in the season. Given that this was the 1980s, I never had to move Manchester United’s piece of card much above position 8, although I did take a relatively inexplicable interest in seeing the rise and fall of “Harry McNally’s Blue & White Army”. Or Chester, as most pundits seem to insist on calling them.

Statistics have always been at the heart of being a sports fan. Whether it’s the percentage of first serves achieved by Andy Murray or Roger Federer, or the lap times of a 10,000 metremeter runner, being a proper sports fan is something that requires a mind for numbers. You also need an extraordinary ability to retain the facts that Rain Man would struggle to remember. I only remember the date of Brit Out Of Water Senior’s wedding to The Wicked Stepmother because it coincided with Ryan Giggs’ first goal for Manchester United, in a 1-0 triumph over our light blue City rivals.

Of course, in America, sports stats are just as important. But to say that I know nothing would be to do a disservice to those who know nothing. I’d have a better chance of guessing the number of grains of rice in the world than I would have of telling you how many three pointers Nate Robinson has scored in the last three seasons.

Yesterday I was forcedpersuaded into taking part in my office’s NCAA brackets competition. I assume that NCAA stands for No Clue About Anything as that pretty sums up my knowledge of this sports prediction tradition. Essentially there appear to be about 32 teams (which I assume to be college teams, given that UCLA and Stanford were among them), and you have to choose who will beat who, all the way through to the eventual final. I guess that the person who gets most right wins the prize.

Suffice to say that it was only about half way through filling in the form that I realised that this was a basketball competition. I haven’t even heard of some of the places involved, let alone know whether they’re a good team or whether they’re capable of beating another team I’ve never heard of. I ended up with Tennessee winning, just because The Special One would never forgive me if I didn’t. It’s akin to picking Scunthorpe United to win the FA Cup because you like the colour of their kit.

Apparently they call it ‘March Madness’. The only madness is the fact that I’ve made another $20 donation to a fellow colleague’s pocket.

Where’s Sky Sports when you need it?

There’s something slightly strange about watching football on television in the United States. For a start, you have to tune into a station called the Fox Soccer Channel. I’ve no idea what this ‘soccer’ thing is, but if anybody has got any insight, do let me know. Nevertheless, if you’re separated from your beloved team by a matter of a few thousand miles, this is the place you have to turn.

I think it’s fair to say that the Fox Soccer Channel isn’t one of the most watched channels on American cable. On Time Warner Cable, it’s down at position 124. In other words, there are 123 channels considered more important than FSC – including the Speed Channel, which is currently showing a programme called ‘Unique Whips’. Mainstream stuff, I’m sure…

The relatively low viewership is particularly evident in the advertisingcommercials that appear around key games. Most of the adverts have been shot on a budget that wouldn’t even buy you a coffee in Starbucks, and I’ve seen better production values in kindergarten art classes. And that’s the good ones.

What’s most alarming though is the nature of the products being advertised. Tuning in yesterday to watch Manchester United’s second half demolition of Newcastle, it was like being forced to sit through the 3- 4am slot on one of QVC’s less successful competitors. Merely being marginally impressed by one of the products on offer would be enough for family members to have you committed. I daren’t even think about the consequences of actually making a purchase.

Among the items being sold were the Teeter Hang Up, a device that hangs you upside down by your ankles so that you’ve got gravity on your side when you’re doing your exercise. It looked ridiculous on the TV, but you’ve got to hand it to the website for their attempt to sell it:

“Used sensibly, inversion is extremely beneficial, and no more dangerous than many other popular and widely practiced fitness activities.”

No more dangerous than other widely practiced activities? Such as boxing blindfolded, presumably.

Also on offer was the Riddex digital pest repeller which apparently “eliminates rodents automatically”. Ignoring the sheer bravado of the product claim for a moment, I was particularly taken by the customer testimonial of one old lady (who was in no way an actress), who claimed:

“Riddex just makes me happy”

After all, who needs love or money when you’ve got a digital pest repeller?

My absolute favourite though was the Forearm Forklifts, a device to help you lift heavy furniture or equipment with the minimum of effort. I’d like to report that the Forearm Forklift is a small and highly mobile lifting device. It’s not. It’s a couple of plastic straps that you and a mate put on your arm to help lever your sofa into the air. They’re selling it for $20 if ever you’re seized by a desire to purchase something that cost 56 cents to manufacture.

Impressively, Fox Soccer Channel doesn’t interrupt the match to play commercials. Sadly that means that there’s no expert analysis at half time, just constant adverts for sleeping aids, home decorating aids and dodgy exercise devices. Clearly advertisers believe that the average football fan is a lazy couch potato whose general untidiness leads to armies of rats invading his (or her) messy pit.

It’s amazing how accurately consumers can be targeted these days, isn’t it?