In the second and final part of his Saturday trilogy (OK I know a trilogy has three parts but he had to miss Gateshead’s draw with bottom club Hyde, which was to form the vanilla part of his neapolitan, because there simply wasn’t the time) Pete Sixsmith reveals how his long term relationship with the beautiful game was put to the test by a liaison with his first love …
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER.
The walk back from Eastlands was distinctly more enjoyable than the 90 minutes spent inside the bowl, watching us give a passable impersonation of a team heading on a one way ticket to Palookaville.
The sun shone, the City fans we encountered were more than happy to chat and there was a feeling, for a short time at least, that football was rediscovering a small part of its soul.
A delightful couple, in their 30s, articulate, sociable and with absolutely bang on Manchester accents, said that they had given up their annual foreign holiday to be able to afford their 3 season tickets, which made me reflect on the sacrifices that people make to follow their team.
Passing the Jolly Angler in Ducie Street, an untouched and unchanging gem of a pub, I thought of the times I had slipped in here in the 70s and 80s and had supped a pint of Hydes Best before heading to Old Trafford on the bus and how much the game had changed since those day. Not all of those changes have been for the better, although any attempt at conversation with an opposing fan in that era would probably have resulted in a visit to Manchester General A and E.
My destination was Old Trafford and I took the tram from Piccadilly Gardens, disembarking at the Cricket Ground and walking up to the football ground, along Brian Statham Way.
The cricket ground was open and for the princely sum of 20p could be accessed. The sun shone and I sat in the stadium, as warm as I have been in a cricket ground all year, drinking tea, reading the paper and listening to 5Live. Ah, what bliss to be alive!
A short stroll and Brian Statham Way changed to Matt Busby Way and I walked around the stadium to The Sir Alex Ferguson Stand, where presumably all the clocks are five minutes behind the referee’s watch. Climbing the stairs to the Second Tier was almost as exhausting as the climb at the Sports Direct/Wonga/ Pound A Flesh Loan Company Arena but was worth it as I took my seat a dozen rows from the back for the biggest game in the Rugby League calendar.
Regular readers know that, like Harry Gration, Clare Balding, Bradley Wiggins and Wayne Rooney, I love my Rugby League. Brought up ten minutes from Headingley, I am a long term Leeds follower, who idolised Lewis Jones before I was acquainted with Johnnie Crossan, Charlie Hurley and Brian Usher.
In the 50’s it was the ultimate cloth cap game. My granddad wore his best one to attend games and my memories of the crowd is of men wearing gabardine raincoats and flat caps, smoking Craven A and Senior Service and berating the hapless players of Blackpool Borough, Bramley and Dewsbury.
Its public face was Eddie Waring, a short pudding faced Yorkshireman, whose sing song voice launched the careers of a thousand impressionists and just about made him persona non grata at Crown Flatt, Belle Vue and Mount Pleasant.
Now, it’s a game that is slickly presented, and the Grand Final is brilliantly staged in what is the perfect stadium for a match like this. The stands were full –the attendance of 70,000 was a record – and they witnessed a game of epic proportions which, at times, made me wonder what I ever saw in Association Football.
The game is played by men who appear to be super human. Leeds skipper and all round genius, Kevin Sinfield took a tremendous hit in the face from a Warrington player. He went down, he got back up again (after receiving treatment) and kicked a vital penalty.
Compare that with Mario Balotelli, who rolled around when he fell down or Yaya Toure, who collapsed after one innocuous challenge as if he had been poleaxed and don’t even get me on about Cabaye who took a couple of seconds to think about his response from the light brush off that van Persie had given him.
Leeds won it 26-18, with a masterful display of tight, disciplined and controlled Rugby League, which the more flamboyant and open Warrington ultimately failed to counter. Sinfield was simply magnificent with his probing kicks and his ability to be wherever there was danger. No red cards for this skipper, no lunging in for balls that could not be won or haranguing referees after the game. It was indeed a true captain’s performance.
Back up came from the likes of Jamie Peacock, Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow and Jamie Jones-Buchanan, players who have been together at Headingley for a number of years. Successful clubs at any sport have a hard core of senior pros who provide the backbone of the club. Leeds have it in abundance, Sunderland do not.
It was a wonderful spectacle and when Ryan Hall, a piano playing, literature loving wing clinched it with a glorious try, the stadium rang out with Leeds songs. The crowd was young and old, male and female and from all social classes.
Decent ticket prices (mine was £9 less than the one earlier in the day) meant that the bank did not have to be broken to take spouse and a couple of urchins. Rugby League is still an affordable game even at the top level; I fear that football is in serious danger of pricing itself out of the reach of more and more fans.
A great evening, which made up for the disappointment of the early afternoon and took me back to my childhood, listening to the shouts of “Get him onside Ref”. I am sure that in Rugby League strongholds like Dewsbury, Batley and Halifax, those are the first words that are uttered by a fledgling fan, closely followed by “Give him a bucket” as some poor full back drops a high ball.
To add to my growing disillusionment with the game I have loved for 50 years, BBC Look North saw fit to make the new Newcastle United shirt deal, third story on tonight’s news. A complete non-story, but dressed up as something that would affect the whole North East, complete with pointless vox pops outside the SDA.
Our game is in serious danger of eating itself. Pass me this year’s Eddie Waring annual.