United away: a phrase to send chills down your bank balance. But forget all that! It’s about the romance of the cup, the triumph of David over Goliath, the anti-establishment versus... the establishment, right? Wrong! Here’s a clinical look at a fourth-round FA Cup tie.
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know this was my seven-year-old son’s first away game. Did I want to go? Hell no! I wanted to be at home, watching on TV with a lager and a curry, embraced by the warmth of my cat. But this game seemed like the best opportunity to break his duck as it were, and so off we went.
The funny thing about the northern parts of this country is that I’m pretty sure all the place names are made up. Brownhills. Burntwood. Shirley. The sort of towns that you’d expect to find in a novel about a chap who works in a cotton mill in the 18th century who’s slowly driven mad by his oppressive employers. From the motorway, they just look like barren wastelands of gravy and broken dreams, with a smattering of brown bushes.
What I will say about the north is a) they love a varied service station (bridges you can eat on? Shut up!) and b) the M6 toll road is wonderful. Forget you have to pay, it really is the only way to travel up there.
By the time we reached Stoke, I’d given up on responding to my lad about arrival times, where the stadium was and how many snacks were left. On top of this, I had some info through on the STAR burner phone to say one of the coaches had broken down. Sad times for all involved, not least because some lunatics were blaming the supporters’ trust for the incident, which I have to say I found very funny indeed.
Once the car was parked, we made our way towards Old Trafford. My son spotted a Reading scarf…
Him: look, it’s a Reading scarf.
Me: It’s not really.
Him: It has our badge on it.
Me: Yeah, but it has United’s on there too.
Him: Oh yeah. Can I get one please?
Him: Why not?
Me: Because they are half-and-half scarfs and whether you are 27, 77, or seven, they are unacceptable.
Me: Because you support one team. Why would you want a scarf with two teams’ badges on?
Him: …I have pocket money.
Suffice to say, he DID NOT get one because I am a man of consistency and principal. We got programmes instead, which took some explaining as to the point of them. I forget he’s never had the experience of them at the Mad Stad. Thanks Covid and football economics, thanks a lot.
Whatever your feelings on United, their stadium is quite a place. Theatre of Dreams is a stretch, but the structure of it, the sheer size of the stands and the way everything is presented never ceases to amaze me and I’ve been there a number of times. We also know their stewards are pretty OTT at times, but I found the experience with them overall pretty good: friendly, fair, respectful. They got a little bit close on the pat-down mind, but you can never be too careful these days.
I’ll be honest, I found the first half stressful, negative and largely avoidable. We invited way too much pressure, had no out-ball, gave possession away far too cheaply and should have been one/two goals down at the break. Others will argue we showed resilience. That’s partially true, but we offered little to nothing other than making up the numbers. I was just hoping we’d be able to string some complete passes together in the second half, let alone try and attack a little more.
You’ll be reading this now and going “it was United, what do you expect you idiot?” and you’d be well within your rights to say that. It’s a free country, crack on. But to play two strikers (Andy Carroll and Lucas Joao) who basically need the same things to be successful and then starve them of that, whilst playing a midfield that seems incapable of doing anything productive, almost defeats the object of starting the game in the first place.
There was some proper drama at half-time when someone near me dropped their coke and the steward nearby offered to get him one for free. Nice touch that.
In the second half United upped their game ever so slightly (i.e. they were more clinical) and they got two goals in quick succession. We failed to provide any sort of impetus until we were down to 10 men (go figure!) and were deserved losers on the day.
Surprising? No. But could we have done the basics better? Yes. And this goes into the big fat bin of not really making teams work for wins or points (Stoke City, Sunderland, Preston North End, West Bromwich Albion, Watford...). It’s a pattern, right?
And that, my dear reader, is my main annoyance. Not this game in isolation - we’ll get plaudits for playing the way we did for anyone who’s not seen us this season. But as regular fans, we know this is our lot currently. Maybe this is because I didn’t want to go in the first place, I don’t know. I just felt we could have done more in the game. I didn’t expect us to win, but I wanted to have a bit more of a go, keep the ball better when we had it, push them a little harder.
Post-game I had the absolute pleasure of bumping into our esteemed editor Sim, sharing a handshake, whinge and then a wave.
As my son and I walked back to the car, I noticed a massive Willy graffitied on one of the concrete piles holding up the car park roof. That was a decent conversation to have after a long day with a seven-year-old who was over-tired.
Back to normality next week against Watford at the Reading International Arena. Let’s hope for a return to winning ways sooner rather than later as that table is looking mighty congested right now.
Until next time.