On the twelfth day of TBIR Christmas – The Best game

Seeing over 100 games in 2012 means we have seen a few corkers.  And what better way to finish our 12 Days of Christmas than with our best three 90 minutes.  Well, in fact two of the three were only 45 minute games technically but made up want to stand up and cry “We love this beautiful game”.  Two of our favourites were international games, which was very surprising, and our winner only had two goals in, just to prove it is not always about the number of goals but the passion, drama and incident in the rest of the game.

So, thank you dear readers for coming with us on the past twelve days as we have waxed lyrical about all that was good (and bad) about our footballing adventure in 2012.  Same time, same place next year? Oh go on then.

3rd Place – Boston Town 4 Loughborough University 3
sam_3567Boston who?  You might say but United Counties Premier League sides Boston Town and Loughborough served up an absolute feast back in September.  I only arrived at half-time after watching the more famous Boston (United) play but the 22 players were obviously waiting for my arrival before putting on the real show.  The visitors were 2-0 when I made my appearance, and by the sound of it were running away with the game.  ”Bloody students…when you want them to be hungover from last night they bloody turn up looking like whippets” a local told me when I asked what the score was.  Over the next twenty minutes the score went 1-2, 1-3 and then 2-3 with just a minute to go.  The away keeper who had been in fine form then had a 90 seconds to forget.  First he let a simple shot squirm under his body and then with the last kick of the game Boston took the lead for the first time in the game when he was beaten with ease at his far post.  Just a shame there was only 55 people there to see it along with me.

2nd Place – England 2 Netherland 3
6797039632_aae5b301ec_bAn England game?  Are you mad?  Good old London Underground did their best to ruin the evening by delaying every possible route to Wembley and we didn’t get into the stadium until well into the first half but fortunately all the action was reserved for the final 33 minutes.  The Dutch showed their sheer class with three outstanding goals, whilst the English showed some true grit.  This was supposed to be the game that welcomed ‘Appy ‘Arry but a week is a long time in football, whilst a minute can sometimes be even longer as we saw in the 90th minute of this game when Ashley Young equalised for England then with the very next attack Robben curled an absolute peach into the top corner.  If all England games at Wembley were half as exciting they would be sold out every time.

Best game in 2012 – Egypt 1 New Zealand 1
7671833872_53594da8a5_bOlympic football in Manchester wasn’t supposed to get the general public on the edge of their seats, but the 60,000 who witnessed this warm up game to Brazil v Belarus on a sunny, but bloody cold day in late July saw one of the best games of football in decades.  Sure, there was only two goals but it simply was end to end action for 90 minutes.  Both, yet neither team deserved to win due to their attacking intent and last gasp defending.  Both keepers were heroes and to a man we all rose to applaud their efforts when they finished doing battle after an hour and a half.  Brazil may have been billed as the stars, but the extras but on an Oscar performance.

The Boys from Brazil – part 2

After the edge-of-your-seat excitement of the Blue Brazil yesterday in Scotland it was time for the second part of our Boys from Brazil weekend bonanza. A late night flight to Gatwick, followed by a crack-of-dawn flight back up the country to Manchester (I have planted a tree in my garden to make up for such air mile fuelled extravagance) was the plan of action.

The main event was obviously Brazil v Belarus at 2.45pm, the odds on favourites to take the Mens Gold Medal after the elimination of the Spanish  but before that we had a packed agenda. A trip to the National Football Museum at Urbis in the city centre was the first port of call, taking in the new permenant home of the history of our beautiful game. You could spend hours wandering around the (free) museum with its interactive displays, brilliant pictures and all sorts of momentos from around the world. Photos, did I mention photos? Well now you come to ask, yes I had a personal interest in them because a couple (well, OK 5) had been included in a section called “Fields of Dreams”. Those little snippets of life at Crawley Down (now with a Gatwick at the end), Hucknall Town, Ilkston, Beckenham Town and Chipstead all bring back memories for me and will hopefully evoke a tear or two in other peoples eyes. Alas, I am no Stuart Roy Clarke, the Daddy of football photography, and it is only good and proper that the exhibition features a collection of his work, but I can say to a small extent I have made it as a football photographer. Continue reading

Swans avoid a nightmare at the Theatre of Dreams

As Swansea City sign off on their Premier League travels, Abi Davies reflects on what could have been nearly a decade earlier.

On the 3rd May 2003, Swansea City faced Hull in order to determine whether they would retain their Football League status. Over nine and a half thousand fans poured into The Vetch Field to watch The Swans try to avoid the unthinkable, knowing that anything other than victory would see the side drop out of the Football League and into the conference. The Welsh side won the game 4-2 with James Thomas bagging a hat-trick which consisted of 2 penalties and a sublime chip over the keeper.

On Sunday, nine years on from the Hull fixture, Swansea City travelled to Old Trafford in order to play a pivotal role in concluding the destiny of the Premier League title, with their top flight status for the 2012-13 campaign secure.

Manchester United’s home form has been far from that which they have shown on the road this season, meaning Swansea had a realistic chance of denying Alex Ferguson’s side 3 points and returning from Old Trafford with more than their pride in tact.

Few would have predicted that with two fixtures of their maiden Premier League campaign remaining, Swansea would be 10 points off the relegation zone. Having taken the league by storm, Brendan Rodgers side now find themselves in a mid table league position highly reflective of their performances.

With Manchester City beating Newcastle in the 1.30 kick off, United knew that they had to record 3 points to keep alive their chances of retaining the title.  Swansea, bolstered by the return to fitness of Angel Rangel, as expected reverted back to a more traditional 4-5-1 formation for Sunday’s fixture, having experimented with three at the back during last weekends 4-4 draw at home to Wolves .

Rangel was instantly restored to the Swans back line along with left back Neil Taylor, whilst Mark Gower started in place of Leon Britton who was only fit enough for a place amongst the substitutes following the knee injury he sustained last week.

Alex Ferguson made three changes to the side that was condemned to defeat in last Monday’s Manchester derby as Ashley Young, Hernandez and Valencia were restored to the starting line up. Continue reading

Double Ginger Action

And the excitement of Christa Norman’s excellent piece on the pre-match New York Cosmos press conference, we sent James Boyes, Lewes Man Of The Year along to Old Trafford to watch the game itself.

“Train in the morning, pick up my children from school, play with them, have tea, put them to bed and then watch a bit of TV.”

This doesn’t sound like the typical day of your average Premiership footballer, but when you’ve been described by Xavi as “a role model” then you’re not really an average footballer anyway. Paul Scholes is definitely not one of those.

The last time Scholes played for Manchester United was as a second half substitute against Xavi and his Barcelona teammates at Wembley last May in the Champions League final.

It didn’t quite go to plan for the Red Devils who were made to look fairly ordinary by one of the best club sides ever to have graced a football pitch, but in his heyday, Scholes could have quite comfortably worn the colours of the European Champions.

One thing about Scholes is how highly regarded he is by other players, both past and present. One former European Champion Zinedine Zidane described him last year as “almost untouchable.”

“There is no doubt for me that he is in a class of his own,” said the Frenchman. “I never tire of watching him play. You rarely come across the complete footballer, but Scholes is as close to it as you can get.”

Scholes’ manager Sir Alex Ferguson describes him simply as “an absolute genius of a footballer,” so it’s fairly obvious then that the boy is pretty useful.

The midfielder’s only weakness is his tackling – he is the third most booked player in Premier League history with 90 yellow cards and has been booked the most times in the Champions League – but it’s a sign of his overall ability that he hasn’t been labelled with a “dirty” tag despite Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger suggesting that “there’s a little bit of a darker side in him.”

Despite this though, he’s a player that most supporters would want in their own side although interestingly, United never once had any interest for his signature from another club, partly because they probably knew he wouldn’t want to leave anyway.

In what seems a fairly unusual situation these days, Scholes not only played for his hometown club but also played with them for his entire career.

Contrary to popular belief, Scholes wasn’t a supporter of Oldham Athletic in his younger days – he only went to Boundary Park with his father because it was easier for him to get tickets than Old Trafford.

He was a member of Oldham’s School of Excellence but left when he was 14 to sign for United. His debut in September 1994 at Port Vale in the League Cup saw the local MP complain that United had dropped Eric Cantona, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis and were fielding an under-strength team of unknowns.

Scholes lined up alongside a number of United youngsters including David Beckham, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt and marked the occasion with both goals in the 2-1 win.

At the time, Scholes was a notable striker, netting on his full league debut, a 3-2 defeat against Ipswich, and going onto score seven goals from ten starts in his first season, and 14 goals from 18 starts in his second season.

Eventually he moved into midfield, playing in arguably one of the best quartets in Premier League history alongside Beckham, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs, becoming United’s fourth highest appearance maker (676 games) and lining up alongside Ruud van Nistelrooy as the club’s joint ninth highest goalscorer (150 goals).

His roll of honour includes ten Premier League titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups and two Champions League medals, although he was famously suspended for the 1999 final when United beat Bayern Munich 2-1 to clinch the treble.

Scholes won 66 England caps, scoring 14 goals under four different managers from May 1997 to June 2004. He decided to retire from international football after the 2004 European Championships at the age of 29, frustrated at being played out of position, and ignored the advances of Sven-Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren and even Fabio Capello last season to reconsider his decision.

He announced his retirement from football three days after this year’s Champions League Final defeat with the news coming when Scholes and his family were out the country on holiday, far away from the media gaze.

Manchester United v New York Cosmos – Old Trafford – 5th August 2011
There was no escaping that last Friday night at Old Trafford though, when Scholes made his final bow in front of a sell-out crowd for his testimonial game.

He had invited New York Cosmos along to be the opposition, but given the fact that they only currently have a developmental side, the team was made up of a number of football legends including Fabio Cannavaro, Michael Salgado and Patrick Viera, and a splattering of former United favourites in Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, Dwight Yorke.

Cosmos not only brought along Honourary President Pele but also Director of Football and ex-United striker/hero/legend/god Eric Cantona, who is a not insignificant figure around these parts.

With due respect to Cosmos, a player of the stature of Scholes ought to have guaranteed a big name club as his testimonial opposition, but with Cantona and Pele involved in building the club to rival its standing of the 1970’s, maybe in time it will be seen as a shrewd choice.

The same could have been said about the musical accompaniment, but Scholes kept that fairly low-key too, with singer and ‘Corrie” actress Kym Marsh blasting out a rendition of “Que Sere Sere” but cleverly changing the lyrics to “Only One Scholsey.”

The PA system was ramped up before kick off, as if the imminent arrival of United, Pele and Cantona wouldn’t have had the fans at fever pitch anyway. However, tracks from the Stone Roses, James and the Happy Mondays are entirely appropriate whatever the occasion. And being in Manchester makes it even more authentic for a southerner like me.

The players lined up to welcome Scholes and his kids onto the pitch, with the word ‘Genius’ held up in the North Stand, before a presentation by Ferguson and United Chief Exec David Gill.

Moments earlier, a massive cheer greeted Cantona’s low-key arrival, joining Pele in presenting Scholes with a Cosmos shirt before finding his seat.

The game itself was never likely to be a classic, but some players still showed they were more than capable, with Salgado and Cannavaro bossing things for Cosmos and Yorke proving he hadn’t lost his touch.

Scholes also impressed, pulling the strings for a full strength United side and pinging balls around like he was playing with his kids in the back garden.

They would have been impressed with their dad when he unleashed a screamer to open the scoring from the edge of the area, a fitting goal for his last at Old Trafford, which had the stadium rising in appreciation.

The supporters weren’t so appreciative for the second goal though, playfully booing Wayne Rooney who stepped up to take a penalty when everyone else wanted Scholes to score.

A number of substitutions changed the flow of the game in the second half as a younger United side attacked at will, although the party atmosphere following Danny Welbeck’s goal was ruined somewhat by Viera’s introduction, who was booed every time he touched the ball until the end of the game.

The fun returned when Neville replaced Salgado, and with half an hour left, a brief Mexican Wave fluttered around the stadium a few times as supporters tried to entertain themselves, a 6-0 win obviously not being enough for them.

Scholes thanked the crowd at the end of the game, and said that he hoped he had brought them some good memories. But a fitting end to a great Old Trafford career saw him salute the fans on one last walk around the stadium with his family, who no doubt will be seeing more of him in the months to come. And that’s just the way he likes it.

More pictures from the game can be found here.

You can follow James on Twitter here.

My first game – Steven Coupe

Manchester United v Aberdeen
Martin Buchan Testimonial
Old Trafford
17th August 1983

A quick scout on Wikipedia tells me that it was the 17th August 1983, which would make me 4, when my Dad took me to Old Trafford for the first time to begin a life-long love affair with the red half of Manchester, to see United take on Aberdeen in Martin Buchan’s testimonial match. Three things stick out in my memory from that night. Firstly the walk to the ground, Dad’s hand tightly grasping mine as we joined the throng heading for the bright red neon sign over the main stand “MANCHESTER UNITED”, like a lighthouse beckoning on the masses. Secondly, my amazement at the brightness of the floodlit pitch as we climbed the stairs out into the open and I got my first glimpse of the hallowed turf. I still get the same swooping feeling in my stomach today at 31. And thirdly, the childish decadence of chips on the way home, already up way past my bedtime, to provide chips on top of this must have made going to the football seem the most amazing thing ever.

I suppose there was some football played too. History says Frank Stapleton scored twice for United in a 2-2 draw and that Aberdeen was managed by a certain Alex Ferguson on his first trip to Old Trafford, and also that this was when Gordon Strachan first came to the attention of then manager Ron Atkinson. Perhaps it’s fitting as a four year old that I remembered none of this. Feelings and emotions are surely what football is supposed to inspire in people if moments are to be remembered, more than names and statistics.

Steven Coupe