Being a Manchester United fan is something akin to being a bit of a spoilt b**tard. Well, a lot of a spoilt b**tard. To fans of other clubs United followers seem to be perpetually that lad at school who always had the wet-look gel, the Kappa tracksuit and pulled out a gleaming 24-gear bike that shone like a thousand new pennies when you brought your pride and joy 18-geared conveyance round to his on Christmas morning.
As such, when asked to pick the favourite goal I ever saw scored by United a number of options jumped straight to mind; Cantona’s chip against Sunderland, Giggs’ goal in the semi-final against Arsenal in ’99, almost anything by Paul Scholes and Ronaldo’s soaring headed goal in Rome in 2008 were all contenders.
However, the goal I’ve picked is a little bit different. It may not be the best technically, it might not have been all that important in the grand scheme of the season, but it is special to me.
It came in a European Cup quarter final game at Old Trafford on the 5 March 1997, when United faced Porto, a more than tidy side that you could refer to in those days without referencing a certain stubbled, hyper-arrogant football manager with an ego the size of Saturn. The eleven that night also had between the sticks the appositely-titled goalkeeper Hilario, who now spends his days kicking his heels at Chelsea praying Petr Cech will fall down the stairs or something similarly debilitating happens.
Pre-Glazer, and at that time even pre-Murdoch, my lot used to regularly go to games. This included a subdued night when Juventus came to town and with a seasoned, cosmopolitan air strode all over the park, winning 1-0 with a penalty scored by some bloke with outrageous facial hair. We used to sit in the so-called ‘Family Stand’ most of the time but it was about as cosily familial as dinner at the West’s, with blokes still openly swearing and spitting everywhere. Even at 12 I knew this was an ace place to be.
That evening something was different from the get-go. I still recall the walk to the ground, the smell of burgers and hot dogs on the air, smoke billowing out of hundreds of mouths and curling into the breeze, the hubbub of collective voices with pockets of singing breaking out, that frisson of anticipation as you saw the glare of the floodlights for the first time up SMBW.
Back then, United swept all before them in the league while starting to move away from the archetype of ‘The British Football Team’, namely one that placed directness and pace, not to mention a bit of old-fashioned grit, far ahead of guile. Even though that night the team wasn’t exactly a gang of toughs I’d wager you wouldn’t have wanted to spill Cantona’s or Pallister’s pint. Of course, compared to today’s mob they’re practically an XI of Chuck Norrises; if you took Nani’s pink WKD off him and tossed it at the wall he’d probably just cry and go home to his statue. Of himself.
But I digress. With the hiding in the Nou Camp and our lack of nous being exposed at Galatasaray fresh in the mind from recent years, the team was climbing the learning curve of how different things were in Europe. You couldn’t fly at teams and cough up possession with the abandon of a drug mule with a hair-trigger gag reflex as you wouldn’t see the ball again for days, traipsing around midfield after a Keyser Soze ball you heard about but never saw.
My favourite part of the build-up then used to be the moment on that fourth-to-top step, when you ascended and saw the illuminated lush baize of the pitch spread before you, knowing you were there. As kick off approached and then went, I learned about a real football crowd, what it was and what it could do. You can keep the script tossed to ITV and Sky whenever Liverpool has one of their Famous European Anfield Nights© (remember those?) calling on all and sundry to wax lyrical about the Kop, that night was a crowd, loud as you like and balls-out (not literally) partisan. Roared on, United with an exhilarating sense of momentum tore into Porto, emerging 4-0 winners.
The goal for me then was the third of the night, Ryan Giggs’s. At 2-0, with goals from May (more medals than Shee-rar) and Cantona, a sense of anticipation of what could be, tinged with the relief we had a result, was washing around the stadium, which was raucous, a hundred thousand eyes all glisteningly transfixed in the dark stalls away from the stage lights.
From my end I saw the ball worked wide and in a flash Giggsy’s boot had gone through the ball and through the keeper and into the net below me. I remember next being almost upside down as the whole area around me erupted and I don’t think, to that point, I’d ever been that happy in my entire life, not even when I found the mucky channels on the outer reaches of our hooky cable box. The images of the winger’s foot in backlift, the despairing challenge never getting there, and the net billowing out, are eidetically seared into my mind. Andy Cole, who my old man had spent the whole second half berating, rounded the night off with a smart finish that induced further hysterics around me.
In a sense, I think I love that goal as it was probably the moment I got ‘It’ as a football fan. I cherish the day my old man forced me to sit down and watch the 1992 Rumbelows Cup Final with him and forbade me to support anyone else as that was where it started, but that night I felt that ineffable connection with my football team forged.
And that’s why Ryan Giggs’s rather spawny finish is the best goal I’ve ever seen.