Tuesday 16 July 2019

The day John Motson told me where to go

A dream excursion to Manchester United's theatre of dreams started terribly but ended magically for fan Eugene O'Brien

BBC ‘Match of the Day’ commentator John Motson. Photo: PA
BBC ‘Match of the Day’ commentator John Motson. Photo: PA

Eugene O'Brien

I hate following Manchester United at the moment. I hate the joyless sterile football that culminated this season with the shockingly limp passionless Champions League home defeat to Seville.

I hate everything about Jose. His egomania, his cult of the self, his bullying, and like a true politician he is only ever truly energised when defending his own reputation and position of power.

But we had a great 20 years of success so I can't complain. The treble of 1999 being, of course, the highlight but football, like life, goes in cycles and anyway I'm stuck with them. Once you choose your team in childhood, that's it.

The usual way you get started with a team is through a big brother or father and in the 1970s in Ireland that meant they got you obsessed with either Man United, Liverpool, Arsenal or Leeds with the odd exceptions of Chelsea or QPR.

Now my Dad has no interest in soccer and I am the eldest in my house so I might have escaped it but for my friend Kenneth's big brother who lumbered me with this affliction for life.

His room was covered in posters and scarves and he had Super 8 highlight reels of the 1977 FA Cup final against Liverpool which he'd project on the wall.

This dodgy unofficial footage was mostly the back of someone's head in the crowd. But this was before video so we had to make do.

We actually used to sit around a record player and listen to a vinyl LP he had of the BBC commentary of that said final.

And Manchester United weren't even any good in 1978. Ten years on from the glories of Wembley and the Best/ Charlton inspired European Cup win, they were very much mid-table under-achievers.

The 1977 cup-winning side managed by Scot Tommy Docherty showed promise and they were a very exciting team but Tommy, a tabloid editor's dream, was caught riding the physio's wife and was sacked.

In came the sober and soft-spoken very English Dave Sexton. A decent coach but he never seemed to quite have that larger-than-life bullshit factor you needed for the Old Trafford high stakes circus.

Anyway I was 10 years of age, going on 11 and the dream was to go to Old Trafford but in the meantime that summer's 1978 World Cup in Argentina took over. It became an obsession.

We followed the much- heralded Scottish team who crashed and burned but not before sending us into ecstasy with Archie Gemmill's wonder goal against the Dutch.

Inspired by what was happening on the fields of Argentina we took to the back garden. There were four sets of brothers; two O'Briens, two Farrells, two Mcdermotts and two McCormacks.

It was always Brazil v Argentina and I would always commentate because I could do a good impression of the BBC's John Motson. The boys liked when I commentated. It made it easier to slip into the fantasy. We became Mario Kempes or Rivellino. We were transported via satellite from Edenderry, County Offaly, to Buenos Aires for the night, until the darkness came at 11 and we stopped playing only because we couldn't see the ball.

Then it was back to school in September, our last year in the boy's national school or the 'masters' as it was referred too, where my other best friend Martin broke some great news to me. His father was going to bring us to Old Trafford that December to see United take on Spurs.

We were beside ourselves with excitement. We counted down the days and eventually the Friday evening came.

We boarded the ferry to cross to Liverpool. This was the first time I had been away from home without my parents. I felt a bit scared as everything seemed very adult.

There were lads singing and obviously pissed. There was no berths available so we sat in seats for the overnight crossing.

I was anxious. I have always had the coward's imagination - we'd be kidnapped or thrown overboard or taken hostage like in that film, Raid on Entebbe, we'd just seen in Edenderry cinema. But Charles Bronson wouldn't be around to rescue us.

I was trying to calm down when I became very aware of the movement of the ship and how my stomach was beginning to churn.

I was Moby Dick, sick as a pike for the whole night but I didn't puke. I wished I could. Get rid of it. Better out then in. But I couldn't.

We got to Holyhead and the coach took us to Manchester and all the time I was feeling various degrees of sickness, but still no puke.

The three of us went into the city centre and had beans and sausages for breakfast in Woolworths. I picked at mine but I did my best as the theory was a bit of breakfast might settle the stomach. We left the cafe and were walking through the homeware section of the store when I felt a violent surge of bile about to have lift off. Houston we have a problem!

There was no toilet anywhere near. I couldn't stop it. I barfed. A whole 10-hour 'sore tummy' worth of sickness spewed forth and splattered on the floor and absolutely destroyed one of the sofas on sale. My friend's dad froze. What to do? He had a quick look around. Checking both left and right. No sign of any staff. He looked to us and said: "Right boys. Let's bolt!."

So we did. We high-tailed it away from the scene of the crime as fast as our legs could carry us, boarded the bus and were taken out to the promised land.

The theatre of dreams, Old Trafford, loomed into sight and the night's misery on the boat and the puke- covered sofa were but a distant memory. We were about to have the best day of our little lives.

In those days the first team players arrived at the ground in their own cars, and we were waiting with autograph books primed.

We looked up at the giant Gordon McQueen, a Scottish centre half, who had been the most expensive player in English football when United bought him from Leeds for over half a million pounds.

He scribbled his signature and then a coach pulled in with the reserve team and any first team players out through injury.

Martin's father had worked with United's sub goalie Paddy Roche's dad on the docks in Dublin so he signalled to Paddy and we were let on to the bus and we were in wonderland as player after player who we'd only ever seen on posters on our bedroom walls were now here living and breathing in front of us.

The major coup was the signature of Stuart Pearson, who had scored against Liverpool in that 1977 cup final.

We were on a high, cloud nine, and then we spotted the BBC outside broadcast unit truck and cables and cameras. They were covering the game for Match of the Day. Then we spotted John Motson himself across the yard, complete with famous sheepskin coat. We were awestruck.

Martin's da prepared himself. Motson was walking towards us. Martin's da stepped out in front of him and explained what fans we were. How we listened to him every Saturday night and would he sign an autograph.

I wanted to say that I did a very good impression of him but Motson did not look impressed.

Motty was not in the mood. He looked at us and replied: "I'm sorry, please get lost, I'm far too busy." And he vamoosed back into a Portakabin. We were stunned. John Motson had just told us to get lost!

We soon recovered as it was time for the match. We took our seats and it was pure magic. Everything we had ever imagined.

They had bad football hooliganism back then but they also had real atmosphere. A tribal, primal edge to the crowd that has been lost.

Ossie Ardiles from the 1978 Argentina World Cup team was brilliant for Spurs but United won 2-0 with goals from Andy Ritchie and Sammy McIlroy.

We got a berth home on the boat and slept soundly and didn't puke over any more furniture and floated on air until we got into school the next Monday.

It was there we regaled the lads with stories of our epic trip and realised it was so much better that Motty hadn't just signed our book and smiled.

The fact that he told us where to go got a huge reaction from our classmates and we were the talk of the school.

The four sets of brothers who played soccer together in that summer of 1978 are alive and well. They include a barber, a New York police officer and a one-man musical act called Yakity Yak.

I always wonder if Woolworths in Manchester ever managed to clean up and sell the sofa.

I wish John Motson well on his retirement at the end of this season. Here is a piece of commentary I always remember from him as he described United equalising in the famous 1979 cup final before Arsenal got the last minute winner.

Fair play Motty, now please get lost, I am far too busy!

"McIlroy's through... McIlroy's through…. and McIlroy has done it. What drama here! McIlroy for United, it's 2-2. United score twice in a minute. Manchester United through and through, McIlroy, he went round one, he went round two, he got the left foot to the ball and it's two goals each and for the first time in 13 years a team comes back from two goals down in a cup final."

Sunday Independent

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