Tuesday 19 March 2024

It's honour and glory the great man, he said...

The FA Cup quarter-final is precariously balanced on the precipice. A stonking, superbly see-sawing contest has swung one way and then the other as English football's two most successful and famous clubs have served up an all time classic. 

It is a tie befitting not only of Manchester United against Liverpool, but also of the world's oldest domestic competition. For all those naysayers who no longer value the FA Cup, this has been the epitome of everything it has to offer.

Perched up in the stand bearing the name of our now sadly departed knight of the realm Sir Bobby Charlton, I watch on with one thought uppermost in my mind: here we go again. I was preparing for the mental trauma of that footballing nuance we all love to hate or, maybe, hate to love: the penalty shootout. 

For a man still suffering from Villarreal-induced PTSD, it is all too much to bear. I begin to go through United's five penalty takers in my mind: Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, maybe substitute Christian Eriksen. Perhaps the excellent Diogo Dalot? Scott McTominay? Who will be the hero? Will lady luck smile on us this time? Please, someone somewhere, help us through this. I can barely watch, yet at the same time I'm held completely in thrall.  

Only Manchester United can put you through the wringer the way they did on Sunday. From the ecstasy of McTominay's early opener to agony as Liverpool hit the front and took control of a cup tie that suddenly looked out of our reach.  I experienced the entire gamut of emotions, twice over and back again. It felt like being on a 120-minute rollercoaster: a twisting, turning white knuckle ride with just about everything chucked at you en route. This club, man...

Delight as Antony - a much maligned figure written off as the main example of United's poor recruitment policy - scores with his right peg to drag United, kicking and screaming, into extra time with four minutes left. Despair as Marcus Rashford pulls wide with the goal, and the semi final, at his mercy, and Harvey Elliott put them ahead once more (with the aid of a deflection, just to really rub it in).

I thought that was it. We were done. There seemed no way back. We'd already got out of jail once: twice was too much to ask, surely? Even for a club as renowned for its last gasp acts of derring do as ours. Especially against this Liverpool side. With this manager. A manager who will be leaving in a few short months and his players finding an extra 5% within themselves as a result.

The FA Cup and a season that had promised so much but delivered so little was slipping away. To make matters worse, it seemed as if United would be merely a footnote on Liverpool's road to relentless, quadruple chasing history. 
Yet United dug in and found hallmarks once commonplace but sorely conspicuous in absentia over these last eight months. Fight. Courage. Character. Guts. Resolve. Back we come again as, in the blink of an eye, Rashford makes it 3-3 and this madcap game is thrown wide open once more. Now what? How often do you see one goal in extra-time, never mind two. I barely have time to think as my rapidly diminishing voicebox does it's best to rouse the players for one final big effort. 

Of all the live games I've been to, this is already the most memorable by far. I think of the journey this magnificent club, this huge part of my life for nearly 30 years has taken me on. The good times, and the bad, the rough and the smooth. The memories, the heartbreak, the friends I have made. But on this day I've seen nothing yet. 

And so to the denouement: 3-3, in the final minute of a sensational cup tie up there with the finest Old Trafford has ever seen. Whatever happens, United deserve credit. Written off by all and sundry, we have never given in, defended well when we had to and taken our chances when they've come. Liverpool may be ahead in terms of quality but the Reds have more than played their part in keeping them at bay. We almost won it, we could have lost it: either of those things could still happen. 

It's a strange feeling I can't explain, but football fans get an inkling, a sixth sense almost, that something is about to happen. As the Liverpool corner is swung in, Elliott sticks out an outstretched leg but the ball breaks loose. I get that feeling, somewhere deep inside. What happens next will live with me forever. Amad Diallo, the forgotten man thrown on perhaps more in hope than expectation, gets a foot to the ball. Alejandro Garnacho, United's jet-heeled teenage tyro two years Amad's junior, bursts clear and leads the charge towards Liverpool's penalty area. Old Trafford holds it collective breath as Conor Bradley - inexplicably the only man left covering - backpedals furiously as Garnacho runs. And runs. And runs.

Amad has kept up with his team mate in support and acts as a decoy as Garnacho shepherds the ball into his path. Amad changes his body shape side on to the ball and rolls it across goal beyond the diving Caoimhin Kelleher. For what feels like an eternity, the ball trickles across the famous, iconic turf before kissing the post and rolling in. On ITV, Sam Matterface manages to convey the moment brilliantly: "Amad for the semi final" he purrs succinctly but superbly - five small words that said everything. 

Cue some of the greatest scenes Old Trafford has ever witnessed. Cue sheer, utter and unadulterated joy. Bedlam. Hysteria. Scenes of wild jubilation not seen on this scale for many a year. The substitutes and coaching staff race from the bench to join the heaving throng of players and supporters alike. On the touchline, Erik ten Hag cavorts with delight. Inject that sound, the sound of our great theatre in full voice, erupting to it's collective core and roaring to the heavens.  Never have I hugged so many random strangers. The lad behind me has tears in his young eyes. I was not far off. His father throws his arms around me in celebration.  I hug anyone in sight, bellowing to the sky as all those pent up emotions come pouring out. Worry, nerves, excitement, hope, fear, joy, pride, happiness, you name it. It's all there. It's all in that roar into the Old Trafford rafters. This may 'only' have been a quarter final, but it feels like so much more. Winning this game in this manner means so much. Especially given the season we have had. I fall to my knees, like the dejected Liverpool players sprawled on the turf in front of me. I am spent. This is why Sir Bobby Charlton called it the Theatre of Dreams.

For everything I've seen, everything my beloved team has won, this is up there as one of my greatest days supporting this club. That's saying something considering the 20 league titles, the Treble, the 2008 Champions League and all that has come before or since. This club is gonna be the death of me one of these days but I wouldn't have it any other way. 

Who writes these scripts? A peripheral figure starved of game time, sent on to rescue a game slipping from our grasp, becomes an instant hero. A 21-year-old forced to the fringes by his manager writes himself into Manchester United folklore forever. The calmest man in the ground scores with almost the last kick to finally settle a totemic, titanic tussle and send United to Wembley. A player with only 13 United appearances to his name with the biggest goal of his career.  

A name to talk about for the rest of time. A young Ivorian to go down in the annals as a man who won his side arguably the greatest FA Cup tie we have ever seen. Against his side's biggest rivals in the final seconds. A lad who sent 400 million across the globe into delirium. As the man who sits high up in the posh seats in the stand that bears his mighty name once said: Football, bloody hell. 

In the chaos, I do not even not notice the red card brandished to the goalscorer. My scarf goes flying. My voice and any semblance of dignity or normality has gone with it. I am lost in a world of tumult, a world where nothing else matters, a world that I feel on top of. I am emotionally exhausted, mentally wrecked. I cannot think straight. Only football, or perhaps, indeed, only Manchester United, can do this to a man. I will never forget this day. Being there in the flesh making memories to cherish and to last a lifetime. Whenever the United vs Liverpool game of 17 March 2024 is mentioned in future, I will be able to say 'I was there'. 

As the Stretford End banner in tribute to United's first Great Scot Sir Matt Busby proudly proclaims: "It's honour and glory, the great man he said, there's nothing on earth like being a Red." 

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