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Atletico away, 1991.

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    Atletico away, 1991.

    Atletico Madrid away, 1991.

    In the year of Rotterdam, United played European away games in Montpellier, Warsaw, Athens and Madrid. I was 17 and didn’t go to France, Poland or Greece. Older mates went and I did Rotterdam and Wrexham, but not a proper normal Euro away. Until Madrid in October ’91.

    United were in the 1991-92 Cup Winners’ Cup as holders and Atletico were the second opponents after Athinaikos, a team now in the Greek third division.
    I kept saying that I’d go to the next game and also learned a lot about mates that year – about the sayers and the doers. Saying that you were going to Montpellier didn’t mean you’d actually go and I needed more doers in my life than people who flew on what we termed ‘Ayingerbrau Airlines’. Sinclairs in Shambles Square sold us this Bavarian sounding rocket fuel every Saturday night until we were banned from the premises. When you drank Ayingerbrau, you were up for anything – including United Euro aways that you were never going to attend.

    Madrid would be different and I spoke to a few lads who I knew would go. Atletico were unbeaten and top of La Liga, while Madrid sounded mythical following five years of English clubs being banned from Europe.

    It was half term, which meant no school and I confidently walked into Thomas Cook in Manchester a few week before. And unconfidently walked out upon learning that a return flight would be £568. You can understand where the budget airlines saw the gap in the market. A couple of places in Manchester did cheaper student travel and one found us return flights, albeit from Gatwick, for £114. The match ticket was £27. Tony Veys, who still runs a swag stall at Old Trafford, offered to drive us in his mini-bus. He lived in Longsight but did a few pick ups around Manchester and came to ours in Urmston at 5am.
    I got up at 4am and got changed downstairs in front of a TV playing Hitman and Her. I didn’t want to wake my mum, especially on her birthday, but the TV was loud enough to hear Michaela Strachan presenting from a Middlesbrough nightclub. The song was called ‘Seven Ways to Love’ by Cola Boy which turns out to be St. Etienne moonlighting. Mesmerising.

    There was a knock on the door at 5am. I’d never seen the bloke outside not standing behind a stall selling swag. Now he was at my front door explaining that his mini-bus wouldn't start so we’d have to go to Gatwick in his car - an old Mercedes. Fine, except there were seven of us.
    What followed was the most uncomfortable five-hour drive of my life as we squashed in, but I had a solution to cheer the lads, a new album on cassette. Was it one of the many Madchester tunes which made ’91 an epic year for the city’s music scene? No. It was Cathy Dennis. List the worst albums you’ve ever bought and this was mine, but she was fit and there were a few catchy tunes. The Veys, who was not a male I’d ever associated with any musical interest, was not impressed and soft-ejected the cassette after three songs.
    We were numb on arrival at Gatwick, where one of the lads managed to get lost in the long stay car park. Paul from Milnrow was a lovely lad who went everywhere but he was so laid back he had two speeds of operation – stop and slow. The size of the car park mashed his head right up. They didn’t make them like that in Milnrow.
    About forty reds were knocking around the South Terminal and booked one of two noon flights to the Spanish capital. We went to check in (still missing Paul) and the Dan Air computer told us that we had cancelled our flights and had no seats.

    “The Barbie look-a-like managed to fix us with seats on the same flight,” I wrote in United We Stand 14. It’s a terrible article and I apologise 29 years later, but its terribleness should be referred to. A copy of the Daily Star was passed around on the flight south. The back page story explained how United fans were going to be met at the airport by a group of notorious Atletico supporting neo-nazis who were keen to “spill blood”. The accompanying shot showed a group of Nazis – in Germany. After an initial gulp, we established that the story probably had little substance to it.

    We dropped bags at our three star hotel, hung a United flag from the balcony, and took taxis to see the Bernabéu.
    “It was quite scruffy and you got the impression it needed a simple tidy up,” said 18 year old me in 15 words where five would suffice. “Give me K Stand any day.” We ate burgers and chips for breakfast, dinner and tea and noted that on the night before the game there were probably 250 reds in and around the Brindisi bar – a cheap corner bar you find four to a block in any Spanish city. There was no trouble.
    Now it’s funny how your memory plays tricks. I can remember bits of that trip perfectly and needed the old article to remind me of others, but in August 2019 I waited by the United bus outside Southampton to speak to players leaving the ground. One of the United security lads came up to me and I recognised him from the match. He told me that I’d let him use my room to get his head down when he was a young lad in Madrid in 1991. Nice.
    Match day and far more Reds around, with everyone walking through central Madrid asking: “Know where everyone is drinking mate?” Madrid is so big that there was no central place like there had been in Montpellier.

    We went to check out Atletico’s Vicente Calderon and bought half and half United/Atletico scarves that were popular for European games long before they became a domestic issue. Met a lad who’d driven from Winsford to Madrid by himself, too. Tony Veys was trying to sell United t-shirts to bemused Madrilenos. Knobhead here bought an air horn before we went back to the Brindisi bar, the sound system of which had been commandeered for a cassette playing Manchester tunes. I met lads that day for the first time I’d still call mates now.

    Not to be outdone by the shit-stirring from their Anglo peers, the Spanish press reported that there was going to be an invasion of 5,000 English football hooligans. In one paper, United secretary Ken Merrett discounted such claims, stating that United fans were well behaved and the away following was likely to be 1,500, not 5,000.
    Brindisi bar was now packed and chants of “We all fucking hate Leeds” proliferated alternating with ‘The pride of all Europe” and “Always look on the bright side of life”. Two coaches were laid on by UF tours to take us to the ground when two locals with scarves covering their faces, Liverpool badges and British bulldogs badges, approached and delivered the following line in English. “We are hooligans from the Ultras Sur (Real Madrid). Do you want to fight with us?”
    “Shut up you fucking pricks or I’ll give you a fistful from a northerner!” came a reply. They did.

    The coaches dropped us by the ground where there was a high riot police presence, but little trouble. The United seats were superb, right on the halfway line, high along the side of the second tier of the 70,000 seater Calderon. Down below, Atletico’s Frente ultras sang loudly and let off flares. They held up thousands of red cards when their team came out long before such practices were normal. Their leaders wore orange bomber jackets and Doc Marten’s boots. They were loud.
    United? It was an open terrace and most of the 1,500 Reds arrived late as always. I saw a man with ‘O’Neill’ on his hat and, in my impressionable young mind, thought it was the infamous Tony O’Neill. It wasn’t.

    I hung a United flag from the bottom hoping it would get on television and set about getting behind the lads. We later found out that transmission of the game had been pulled by Atletico’s notorious gangster president Jesus Gil minutes before kick-off. He wasn’t satisfied with the payments from the television company.
    The United team was Schmeichel; Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Pallister; Robson, Ince, Webb, Phelan; Hughes, McClair.

    Atletico’s star player was the German Bernd Schuster, with Portuguese Paulo Futre (later with West Ham) the star striker. Their coach was Luis Arragones. Futre put them ahead after 32 minutes but United matched them. The 3-0 scoreline, with two goals in the last four minutes, killed United’s chances of retaining the Cup Winners’ Cup.
    “We controlled most of the game and played some enterprising football,” said Ferguson in his very readable ‘Six Years at United’. “Neil Webb headed against the post and that 1-0 defeat would give us a fair chance at Old Trafford. Then, miserably, we conceded two goals in the last couple of minutes. It was a great lesson for us. You must never take opponents of that quality for granted and 90 minutes means 90 minutes.”

    “We had a nightmare in Madrid,” added Bryan Robson in his disappointing autobiography. “I had a header blocked on the line and we had a goal disallowed…when you lose by three to a Spanish or Italian team you know you have almost no chance of coming back.”
    The United players didn’t thank the travelling fans at the end and Alex Ferguson later apologised for this. The police kept us in for 40 minutes too. Most of the Reds headed back to Barajas airport after the match but we went back into own where we met four lads from Moston who had made it to Madrid for £6.20 – and £1.20 of that was from Piccadilly to Stockport. They jibbed it all the way back to Manchester too.

    The game at Old Trafford saw the European debut of Ryan Giggs and when Mark Hughes put United ahead after four minutes, the dream of a Barcelona ’84 style comeback was on. Old Trafford wasn’t even a sell out with just 39,654 there, but it was bouncing. “We were well and truly dumped,” said Ferguson.
    “A big blow after winning the competition a few months before,” added Robson.

    United were unlucky but used up plenty of luck the following month, beating a far superior Red Star Belgrade to win the European Super Cup at Old Trafford.
    Cathy Dennis? She became a songwriter and wrote right UK number ones, winning five Ivor Novello awards, including Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl and Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head. So there.


    This article appeared in UWS 298.