Braced for what could be the best Red week of the century

ONE spends much of any season these days complaining about the grim plastic fraud of the modern game but every now and then you get an afternoon like last Saturday to keep you hooked nonetheless. Ewood Park was everything you want the football experience to be about: a fittingly throbbing start to what could be the best Red week of the century.

Yep, Blackburn was a jaw-clenching, jugular-pulsing, pant-moistening nerve-fest. (With 50 hothead arrests before and after to boot). The true fan loves these games that aren’t going well, yet where everything is at stake; the crowd simultaneously seeking to support, criticise, howl in frustration, and spleen-vent at the smirking opposition. Here us roar, hear us growl. To reword the Duke of Wellington, they frighten us as well as them.

The team and fans begin to overcome, and those oppos’ smirks turn to fearful frowns: then it’s the race against the clock, the almost savage artillery-smash of chances exploding right in front of our Darwen End, with spectacular defensive resistance finally beaten down at the death.

Now it’s OUR turn to explode. And how we did. That Tevez header was the third time he has popped up at the end of a 1-1 draw on our travels to provide a season-changing moment.

There was Spurs in January, then Lyon, and now this: all key games United probably deserved to lose, yet which were transformed by one defiant South American touch. That Lyon goal might well in time be seen as the moment we put out hands on the European Cup. On Saturday, his header had ‘Title-clincher’ written all over it. The point gained transforms The Bridge Saturday from do-or-die to a game we can afford to lose. After all, to then drop points against either nothing-to-play-for West Ham or the loyal-Red-managed and safe Wigan would be all but inconceivable. Oh dear: the phrase ‘famous last words’ swims sniggeringly before me even as I type it. But really: they will all require shooting if they fail from here. It’d constitute a worse collapse than even the one in 1992, and that one still hurts even now.

If only Tevez could give up his dummy – the most disgustingly self-indulgent of all such gestures ever seen in the PL — none of us gives a toss that you have a kid, mate – then he would be quite perfect. Unlike the referee Rob Stiles, who exhibited the kind of serial incompetence that would have had him instantly fired in any other walk of life.

Blimey: imagine if ‘Grassy Knoll’ Wenger had been in charge of a side on the wrong end of all those decisions such as Fergie had to endure on Saturday; his head would have exploded with rage. Poor Arsene: quite unhinged last week, wasn’t he? Even Fergie felt moved to touch him up in sympathy.

But there’ll be no such sentiment on offer for the similarly beleaguered Frank Rikjaard over the next week’s action. Tonight kicks off the tie that we will surely savour the most of all those we have played this season, for we have such a special affinity with Barcelona and the Nou Camp, and the ultimate prize on offer is so magnificent.

And so desperately desired, of course.

Our meetings with Barca have been rare enough to have avoided breeding the contempt of familiarity, and each has been a cracker: 1983/4’s produced Old Trafford’s greatest night of atmospherics; 1990/1’s gave us a second European trophy after 23 years of waiting; 1994/5’s contained a home classic, and then an unforgettable awayday nightmare that reshaped our entire strategic approach for a generation; and 1998/9’s pair of six-goal thrillers represented all that is best about our two clubs. Even the fans have a heartening bond, thanks to the longstanding ties formed between IMUSA and the Blue Elephant group that propelled Laporta to presidential power.

So we like them, but we still want their heads on a plate, though. And viewing the current Nou Camp turmoil, we will never have a better chance to reproduce the ‘99 Gran Torino. May we all, fans and players alike, do ourselves proud, and set up next Tuesday as the kind of European night that Old Trafford has been waiting for since 1984.

* By Richard Kurt, whose classic ‘Red Army Years’ is now re-issued, only via redissuebooks@hotmail.co.uk

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