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FA Carling Premiership, 16/10/99
Manchester United
By Ian Grant

It's an impressive place, no question. The sprawling pre-fab structure of the temporary megastore teems with tourists and their bulging carrier bags as we walk in the immense shadow of the half-finished stand. People having their photographs taken and countless ticket touts compete for pavement space as we take in a pre-match lap of the stadium. No-one pays us any attention, Watford are just incidental to all of this.

Inside, Manchester United Radio is inescapable, brain-washing enthusiastically through speakers like some Orwellian nightmare. The first view of the pitch brings a few gasps, the three-tier stand at the side ascending toward the heavens like a futuristic metropolis, the inhabitants of the top tier little more than distant dots. Yeah, it's impressive.

But it's nothing more than a monument to winning. Not to success and not to glory, both of which imply some kind of humanity, just to winning. And it's disgusting, sickening. The world's biggest club is also the most parochial, unable to see anything beyond its selfish universe - "THE WORLD IS UNITED" bellows a merchandising advert in the programme, any sense of scale long since abandoned and replaced by total self-obsession.

There is nothing here that we'd want to take home with us, nothing to be jealous of. No grace, no elegance, no humility, no self-deprecation, no humour, no courtesy, no community, merely bloody insufferable arrogance and grotesque self-importance. The playground taunts of glory-hunters and soulless success junkies will forever echo around this wretched stadium, it will never be cleansed of the stench of winning at any price. It is one of the most horrible places I have ever visited.

Writing this is just therapeutic, of course - slagging off Manchester United is like trying to kill an elephant by scowling at it. I have rarely felt as powerless as on Saturday afternoon. They don't understand...and, worse, they don't care that they don't understand. When Watford fans, four down with more in prospect, launched into an immensely heartfelt chant of "WE SING 'CAUSE WE LOVE OUR TEAM", the response from the muppet masses spoke volumes - "YOU'RE SH!T AND YOU KNOW YOU ARE", missing the point by light years, no comprehension at all. Following a football team is about taking pride in something that's more than a giant trophy cabinet, in something that continues to exist even when it's not winning. Football has no place at Old Trafford.

I'd have given anything for a victory.

But it was never really on the cards. In the end, we achieved the most basic of our aims - we gave a good account of ourselves (to anyone who happened to notice that there was another team on the pitch) and were not disgraced. Apart from the flurry of goals either side of half-time, a serious thrashing never looked that likely. The mood afterwards was disconsolate, but picked up quickly once we were free of the home fans' jibes and able to reflect on a day of conducting ourselves with pride and dignity. Beaten, but not really.

It was a curious match, presented to us in three distinct sections that barely fitted together at all. No question that the home side deserved to win it by a comfortable margin - they may only have slipped into top gear on a couple of occasions...but when they did so it was simply awesome, and we were blown away like moths in a wind tunnel. Yeah, they're quite good.

So we couldn't live with them for ninety minutes...but we did manage forty. As at Highbury, our work-rate disrupted the flow of international class players enough to reduce the game to scrappy, indistinct drabness while the home fans grumbled. After an initial spell of activity, Cole chipping over and Yorke forcing Chamberlain to tip over with a sizzling half-volley, there was precious little to choose between the sides.

Indeed, there was also much cause for encouragement in the final third. The endlessly lively Nordin Wooter ran his socks off and presented more than a slight threat to that monumental United rearguard. You run at people, they don't like it. Gradually, thrillingly, we came out of our shells. Paul Robinson barged his way down the left and fed Wooter, his skipping run past defenders ending with a fiercely-struck drive that dipped over the bar; Richard Johnson followed Robbo's example on the right and Wooter headed the resulting Gibbs cross wide. Watford fans in full voice, United fans eerily silent.

Best of all came after twenty-four minutes. As a Kennedy corner was cleared, Johnson retreated into midfield to pick up possession. His instant cross-field pass, hit on the turn with his left foot when he barely seemed to have the ball under control and hadn't even bothered to look up, was gigantic and staggering, dropping from the sky at Kennedy's feet inside the area. The move ended with Micah Hyde and a low shot, gathered by Bosnich with Wooter in close attention. Brilliant.

For United, frustration was beginning to show in misplaced passes and petulant fouls. The booking count does not tell the whole story. Ludicrously inconsistent refereeing is something that fans at all levels of football have to live with - the difference in the Premiership is that the mistakes are amplified by reliance on cards and chest-beating over common sense. Hence Robert Page was booked for a late tackle only a few minutes after Scholes had walked away from an identical offence. Ditto Irwin on Gibbs in the second half. Just to show that I'm not being biased in my criticism, Michel Ngonge also escaped for exacting retribution after an earlier tussle with Silvestre. Bad tackles unpunished, while two Watford players were cautioned for (stupidly) shooting after the whistle had gone. You'll find very little abuse of referees in these pages - it's something that far too many of us seek solace in when we should be looking closer to home - but the standard of officiating in this division is absolutely bloody appalling.

Anyway, it was all looking rather good. Yorke and Giggs both had close range efforts comfortably saved by Chamberlain, but two goal attempts in thirty-five minutes tells its own story - United were not getting an easy ride, the resolute defending of Page, Williams and Palmer interfering with the slick interplay between the strikers. The break edged nearer and, although the threat of a second half onslaught of Highbury proportions meant that chickens remained uncounted, there was a feeling that half of the job was almost done....

...And then we were three-nil down. It can happen that quickly against a team of this quality.

The first two goals were fabulous, destroying our defences in a few blitzkrieg seconds. Butt's right wing cross met with a brilliant overhead from Yorke, the power of the effort taking it past Chamberlain's groping hands. Three minutes later the lead was doubled, the sheer fluency of United's football scything through our shell-shocked rearguard - Yorke to Giggs, the low cross met by Cole with a diving header from a couple of yards. Too much for us, no shame in that.

The third was rather more controversial, Beckham taking a fairly elaborate tumble as he attempted to beat Kennedy inside the box. It looks more like a penalty on video than it did at the time, yet the referee was unmoved and in the process of waving play on as the linesman flagged. Irwin ended the debate by slamming the penalty into the top corner. From nil-nil and looking confident to three-nil and looking beaten in five terrifying minutes.

There was no respite after the break, Cole making it four with an acrobatic volley after a cross had looped up from Williams' attempted clearance. The threat of absolute humilation loomed large...but we're made of stronger stuff.

Partly through United taking their feet off the gas and partly through the uncrushable spirit of this Watford side, the match returned to its former state. Having already been stung in spectacular style, we were understandably a little tentative in our occasional ventures forward, lacking in decisive movement on several occasions. But we grew as the half continued and, having paused for a rest, United found themselves unable to resume the onslaught.

For a while, it was extremely pedestrian stuff, and the atmosphere (or lack of) around Old Trafford didn't help. Silence, basically, apart from almost constant support from the away section and the occasional round of applause for a substitution. There's little that's quite so strange as fifty thousand people sitting down and making no noise, presumably listening to the bursts of fanatical singing from still-proud Watford fans resounding around the stadium. You'd have thought they had nothing to sing about. Pathetic, utterly pathetic.

Finally, after an hour or so, we hit a raw nerve. From somewhere, the chant of "PLASTIC SUPPORTERS! PLASTIC SUPPORTERS!" emerged and it seemed to sum up the absurd spectacle around us perfectly, better than I ever could. Only one United fan in the section next to us responded, by standing up and trying to get some noise started...and he was thrown out by the stewards. That's the so-called "Theatre Of Dreams". We're supposed to feel envious of this hellhole, right?

Back on the pitch, little was happening. Wooter and Johnson shot from distance for Watford, Scholes did likewise for United, none of them hit the target. Then, out of nowhere, a consolation goal of real class. Gibbs' cross was typically dangerous, over Wright's head at the near post and into the space beyond. Johnson arrived, took it in his stride and simply blazed the ball past Bosnich into the roof of the net before peeling away in celebration. Cracking goal, Bosnich's clean sheet soiled in style.

After Chamberlain had parried a shot from Solskjaer, we might've added more, failing to take full advantage of two further chances. Kennedy's cross found Wooter stretching his dwarfish frame to loop a header onto the crossbar, Bosnich just watching. As injury time approached, Tommy Smith, who buzzed around with irrepressible energy for five minutes and deserves a longer run-out while others are crocked, danced through towards goal but his decisive touch was too heavy and Bosnich advanced to block. In a parallel universe, we scored from both chances, Robert Page grabbed an equaliser in the fifth minute of injury time, and I'm too busy drinking champagne to write this match report.

In the end, the game ended on a sour note. It's easy to see why the referee gave Mark Williams his marching orders - his chest-high challenge on Greening must've looked awful from the wrong angle - and I can't say that my protests were particularly whole-hearted at the time. Yet the decision was wrong, video evidence proves it. He won the ball and he won it cleanly, a sensible decision would've been a free kick for dangerous play and nothing more. With Page and Robinson also now suspended for the Coventry game, we can only pray that an appeal is successful...but history tells us not to get our hopes up too much.

We have every reason to feel proud of ourselves and of our team. The defeat is meaningless, the suspensions less so...more than anything, however, it was a day of feeling grateful that Watford Football Club is what it is. Because Old Trafford is f***ing vile, nothing to aspire to.

What we have is priceless. Not for sale.