It was the afternoon of Saturday 18 May 1985. The strutting guitar riff of Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing’ was blasting from my parents’ stack stereo system and there was an excitement in the air that felt like Christmas. It was FA Cup Final day, and for a six-year-old Manchester United fan it was the culmination of a new obsession. Music down, television volume up, it was finally time for the main event.
Standing before us, in bright red shirts and tight white shorts, were my original cast of heroes. Their leader was Bryan Robson, a swashbuckling midfielder who channeled the devil-may-care bravado of Han Solo. Robson could do it all, wash it down with ten pints, then do it again the very next day. He was the epitome of rugged, manly cool, and the best footballer in the country. His poster was already on my wall, and his No. 7 already on my back.
My next favourite was Jesper Olsen, a waifish Danish winger who flounced around like the lead singer in an indie band. I loved his left-footedness and the fact he wore his socks around his ankles—a fashion statement I've mimicked on the sports field ever since. They said he was more style than substance, and maybe they were right, but he was a maverick in the United mould and his legend lives on. Besides, the beautiful game, like life itself, needs its airy-fairy bit-part players just as much as its courageous do-or-die central defenders.
Then there was United’s goalkeeper Gary Bailey, whose shock of blond hair gave him a passing resemblance to another prominent figure in my childhood, Luke Skywalker. That was reason enough to follow his progress and give serious consideration to whether he and Robson, given a Millennium Falcon, could take down the Empire (Liverpool). Robbo would never have left Bailey to destroy the Death Star on his own, that’s for sure. And he could have drunk Lando Calrissian under the table.
The two other hero crushes at the dawn of my United obsession were Mark Hughes and Norman Whiteside. Hughes had legs like torsos and they propelled him around the pitch and into the air like rocket launchers. They also came in handy when he was executing spectacular side-on volleys, which invariably fizzed into the roof of the net whenever United were in trouble. He was ‘a scorer of great goals but not a great goal scorer’, so went the oft-repeated tagline. Considering the vast majority of us aren’t either of those things, I’d take that as a legacy.
As for Whiteside, he was but 20 years old and had already made a name for himself through youthful exuberance (Big Norm, as we later found out, specialised in exuberance). Aged 17 years and 41 days he broke Pele’s record as the youngest player to play in a World Cup, when he turned out for Northern Ireland at the 1982 finals in Spain. The next season he became the youngest man to score in both an FA Cup Final and a League Cup final. That glorious day in 1985 he’d further his growing reputation with the most iconic contribution of his career.
United were up against Everton, the First Division champions and FA Cup holders, who under Howard Kendall were vying with Merseyside neighbours Liverpool for the title of best team in the land in the mid-1980s. Having already bagged the title and the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, an unprecedented treble was theirs for the taking at Wembley, and most expected them to do it. They were favorites, and for an emotional six-year-old in the grips of an overpowering infatuation, tears before bedtime were a very real possibility.
What happened next represents the moment United took over my life. With just over ten minutes remaining and the score still goalless, United defender Kevin Moran slid in at the feet of Peter Reid. It was the kind of tackle that in today’s game would warrant a straight red card and no questions asked. It would have ended Nani’s career, put Didier Drogba in a coma and probably killed Cristiano Ronaldo outright. But these were hardier times; these were two of the hardest players around. And there had never been a sending off in an FA Cup Final.
Replays suggested that Moran had at least entertained the idea of getting the ball, but he’d also scythed Reid down and denied him the chance to win the game. After much confusion and waving of arms, referee Peter Willis sent him off. It was a shocking moment, and through my naive young eyes he could barely have been more evil had his head spun 360 degrees while he projectile-vomited ectoplasm.
Then came my affirmation. United held on with ten men to the final whistle and then for the first half of extra-time. They needed to survive just another 15 minutes and there would be a replay. It was terrifying stuff, ten times more frightening than the episodes of Dr Who or the bullying scenes from Grange Hill that saw me dive beyond the sofa or under a blanket. United needed saving; they needed a hero.
Enter Big Norm. After collecting a delightful outside-of-the-boot pass from Hughes he lurched his giant frame in from the right and made inroads towards the penalty area. ‘Whiteside’s onside,’ said Brian Moore. We were up on our feet in the living room. The big man feigned to go to one way, made room for a shot and curled a sumptuous left-footed effort past the desperate clutches of Neville Southall and in off the post.
‘A goal! That’s incredible,’ said Moore in that high-pitched nasal tone of his, before United’s players descended on the bench to celebrate with the sunbathing Ron Atkinson. The red half of Wembley erupted in an explosion of flags and scarves, while the blue half sunk back into their seats. The contrast was stunning and the unexpected nature of United’s winner made it all the more exhilarating to behold. It was positively the most overwhelming moment of my young life, and it changed everything. The second Whiteside’s shot crossed the line I was an incurable Manchester United addict.
The celebrations seemed to last for ever. Robson, Hughes, Moran, Olsen, Gordon Strachan, Frank Stapleton, Mike Duxbury, to name but a few—all of them sporting sweat-drenched mullets and leap- ing around on the touchline like they were playing lead guitar for Van Halen (Google them, young people). Even my dad was in on the act, punching the air in celebration and jumping out of his chair to embrace the television set as if the box itself had scored United’s goal.
The rest is history. United clung on for an improbable triumph and it was left to Robson to climb those famous Wembley steps and lift the FA Cup—suffice to say he probably led the revelry afterwards too. It
was quite a crescendo to my maiden season as a Red, and it could only bode well for the future. If they could beat Everton with ten men, they could conquer the world. And this Atkinson guy is the best manager in football.
I re-enacted that Whiteside goal at least a hundred times that summer. And when I wasn’t at school I’m not sure I wore anything but that 1985/86 United kit for months—sliding around in the garden to the imagined roars of 100,000 fans, pretending to swap passes with Robson By the time the new season arrived there was no going back. I was a fully subscribed member of the religion they called Manchester United and the condition would impact on my happiness for the rest of my life. Team posters on the wall, fixtures list by my bed, United replica ball underneath it. Little else seemed to matter.
After a summer that seemed endless in my imagination, it was finally time to be reunited with my heroes. Atkinson’s United got the season off to a stunning start—winning eleven games in a row and opening a comfortable lead at the top of the First Division. I felt like the luckiest new football fan in the country. The FA Cup triumph appeared to have galvanised his team and their flamboyant, preposterously bejewelled manager was on course to win United a first league title since 1967. History beckoned and having spent heavily on the likes of Robson and Strachan, Atkinson was starting to give United a return on their investment.
What happened next was as unexpected as Moran’s red card and Stormin’ Norman’s Wembley wonder goal. It would usher in the central character in the next 25 years of Manchester United’s storied history, and justify the existence of this very book. Little did I know it then, but my life with Sir Alex Ferguson was just around the corner.
Extract taken from Life with Sir Alex: A Fan's Story of Ferguson's 25 Years at Manchester United, by Will Tidey. Published by Bloomsbury, £8.99 paperback.