Respected and feared in equal portion, this old Seventies School bruiser punches like a dream in both fanzinese and online quippery — but he also has good football bones in him. Like a barometer, he senses storms ahead.
At midday on Saturday, after he’d polished off his Fray Bentos Special Reserve and Real Ale lunch, he declared to all us colleagues that defeat awaited at Molineux, once he’d perused the weather forecast, the state of the pitch, and a record book that stated we were just 90 minutes from a new benchmark. It was doomlordery in excelsis and he was, of course, as correct as he usually is in such matters. (He once confidently told me during the hairiest second-half bit of Moscow ‘08 that the game would finish 1-1 and we’d win on penalties, when any sane man would have predicted a minimum 3-1 Chelsea victory. I really ought to let him do the Euromillions for me.)
Spleen — not his real name, d’uh — would, like me, remember the last truly significant time Wolves kicked us in the teeth, when an unfeasibly hair-do’d George Berry scored the only goal at Old Trafford to inflict our sole home defeat of the 79/80 season — when we’d lose the title race to Liverpool by two points.
How times change: Berry was a real oddity in that era, one of only half a dozen black lads playing in the First Division, and I’m fairly sure every player on the pitch that day was from the British Isles. Some things rest eternal, however; the shock defeat inspired widespread doom and grief amongst Reds, and we never really rediscovered any self-belief that season until we beat Liverpool at Easter to restart the title challenge in earnest.
So today there’s generalised hair-wrenching and teeth-gnashing, much of which is centred upon the true cause of the defeat — and of the numerous near-defeats that have preceded it on our travels this term — namely the midfield.
I’d say a good 80% of Reds would agree with the proposition that we never want to see Carrick and Fletcher as the central duo again, and that (as I suggested last week) midfield was the one area where we would have welcomed a purchase in the window.
I’d sign up to the fans’ prescription too, though I’d still argue as I did last week that, given the advantageous position we are in, and the other resources we have available to us in the squad, there ought to be enough fuel in these tanks to clinch the 19th, if properly deployed. A gigantic ‘if’, of course, especially in light of the unprecedented admissions made by Fergie this season that, on more than one occasion, he has committed bad mistakes in both selection and tactics.
Still, be grateful for this: at least City now won’t have the opportunity to spend the next six months boasting about shattering the Crap Invincibles’ record. Saturday’s still remains the biggest derby of most of our lives, of course. You have to go back to March 1968 for an equivalent, when City counter punched superbly to win 3-1 at the then-champions’ home, a position from which they would clinch their title on the final day at our expense.
That derby truly felt like the beginning of the end for us, which they’d emphasise 16 months later by putting four goals past us at Maine Road to herald a decade of Manchester supremacy.
Oh, and one last omen? Just a couple of weeks before that ‘68 derby, United had finally surrendered a home unbeaten run record that had stretched to 37 games. I think I’ve outdone even Mr Spleen for Doomlordery.