The Greatest Matches I Didn’t SeeBy Mark Meadowcroft| 02 November 2020
Our family has no discernible footballing ability whatsoever save one unusual skill. The ability to attend the mundane matches but miss the legendary ones. In this piece I am going to list my achievements, but before I start I need to mention my father, the master of the art.
My parents have been married for 54 years. To be precise, since July 30th 1966. When he and my Mum went to see the Methodist Minister, they were told that only one Saturday remained free in the summer of 66. They took it. The Vicar did comment on the fixture clash, but with the total confidence of a young man who has just become the first member his family to earn a University Degree, my Dad slipped into fluent hipster and said that England might get out of the group but would lose to the first decent side they met in the knockouts. Our primitive game would be no match for the sophisticates of Brazil, Germany, Hungary and Italy and the emerging powers of Portugal and Argentina, who were the serious contenders for the Jules Rimet Trophy. He loved his bride more than he loved the prospect of watching Portugal and Hungary duke it out.
The kindly Clergyman said that was fine as long as the groom knew what he was signing up to and the date was set. As it happened, the reception clipped along at pace, the newlyweds were sent on their way and the wedding party did at least get to watch Extra Time.
The son has kept up the family tradition. We’ll start with City and move on to other matches that slipped from my grasp.
Manchester City vs Southampton – March 1996
Reason: It’s only Southampton and I’ve been invited to a piss up.
I have never quite achieved an ever present season of City home games. The nearest I came was in 1995-1996 when I missed just one match. I saw a vast amount of Alan Ball’s tactics, Eike Immel’s goalkeeping and I remember Ronnie Ekelund, Scott Hiley, Michael Frontzeck, Buster Phillips and of course Gerry Creaney very well. The only match I passed on was Southampton in March, which had been planned for months as I had been invited to a weekend of what was basically solid drinking with 20 college friends. In Cornwall. Which is not convenient for Maine Road. I signed up because I desperately wanted to go, and it’s only Southampton. The memories of the abuse I had to endure for supporting City, for City being hilariously crap and missing the one game where Kinkladze scored the goal of that and several other seasons was not obliterated even by the ocean of beer I drank that weekend.
Blackburn Rovers vs Manchester City – May 2000
Reason: I was judging a dog show in the African bush
I too was on a hillside as this match played out. But it wasn’t the one outside Ewood Park. It was in the Ngong Hills in Kenya. Think of Meryl Streep in Out of Africa and The Flame Trees of Thika.
Amongst other things, I was repping a well-known global animal care business at the time. They had sponsored a dog show for the well-heeled White Kenyan ladies in their absolutely gorgeous community about an hour’s drive outside Nairobi. The place was deathlessly beautiful. Yes, these people did have elephant, gazelle, zebra and occasionally lions in their back gardens. Commercially it made sense as these people are what we would now call “influencers” so I was deputed to turn up, be a credit to global capitalism and judge the dog with the waggiest tail (they had flown in a Cruft’s judge to do the serious stuff).
I then saw the date and as City’s unlikely promotion push gathered pace, I began to foresee a problem that had no easy solution. The client expected me to be there. The delightful Kenyan ladies had their show on a Sunday and my explanation as to why the waggy tail bit would have to happen on Saturday was unlikely to cut it. So there I was in one of the most beautiful places on earth, my mind totally preoccupied with Blackburn, which isn’t.
Mobile phone reception was not something that happened an hour outside Nairobi in 2000, so I left in the morning knowing that what would be would be and that I would find out at sundown. Not only that, they insisted on feeding me and driving me back into the City that evening so it was well into the evening before I could say my final goodbyes, dash into the hotel, find my trusty Nokia 3310, call home and find out what had happened. And it transpired that quite a lot had happened.
At this time, I was spending a couple of weeks a month in Africa and this did have a number of football benefits. Anyone visiting Lagos in Nigeria knows that it’s not a place you can dash in and dash out of, and the commercial traveller spends much of his time waiting for meetings that often finally begin at odd hours. So I watched a lot of the absolutely sensational Euro 2000 from my room in the Sheraton at Ikeja. I also watched the Dutch take the worst series of penalties I have ever seen in the semi final against Italy in the company of a KLM flight crew that looked like they had seen a ghost. Which brings us on to matches I didn’t see where I was more of a neutral.
AC Milan vs Liverpool – May 2005
Reason: On a plane
This isn’t quite true. I did see the first half in Dubai Airport. I noted Milan’s third goal. I then got on the overnight flight home. The cabin doors shut, the safety video played, the plane taxied ,took off and banked slightly to port to head along the usual flightpath towards Iran, the Caucasus and Turkey. Emirates wasn’t overflying Baghdad in 2005 for obvious reasons. A drink was offered and accepted and I gradually drifted off to sleep. I was awoken when we were over Belgium. The totally uneventful flight concluded and I wondered through Heathrow. I then saw a TV monitor with Steven Gerrard waving the trophy around. I began to doubt the reality I was living. I stared at the screen. At the very least, I had questions. Given Harry Kewell’s performance, I indeed had several. It’s not totally easy to take in after an intercontinental flight. But whatever, it’s my favourite line to Liverpool fans. I enjoyed the first half of Istanbul very much. One day I will get round to watching the rest of it, but I haven’t found the time yet.
Netherlands vs Portugal – June 2006
Reason: Couldn’t lower the tone after a beautiful country house weekend
My wife still talks about this weekend and I think about it too. There’s a picture of us there hanging just outside our bedroom door.
Completely out of character, we were invited as house guests to a mansion on the South Devon coast so amazing that BBC4 did a 30 minute documentary on the place that we still watch together. It is by a huge distance the nicest place we have ever been invited to.
We were in the middle of a heatwave and the weather was Mediterranean, the company (parents of a childhood friend who tragically passed away and their friends) was utterly congenial, the place was amazing and Mrs M and I were totally content and blissfully happy. The fact that we were in the middle of the World Cup mattered not one whit.
On the Sunday evening, all good things had to end and we packed up the car to return home after 48 perfect hours. I had quite a flash car at the time which added to the ambience and we either chatted or listened to soothing, appropriate music as I drove home. We stopped at a motorway services and while she used the facilities, I turned on the radio, just to check in on the football. Holland vs Portugal. There’s a Riot Goin’ On!
When my wife returned, I told her excitedly about red and yellow cards, guilty pleasures, feuds being settled all over the pitch, a referee losing control and wishing that David Coleman was commentating.
I was accused of ruining the atmosphere. In retrospect, the missus was right and we completed he journey in near silence. She went to bed while I found a late night TV round up and gorged myself on it.
Red Star Belgrade vs Bayern Munich – April 1991
Reason: I was at Villa Park watching David White score four goals
This is different in that I only found out about this match more than a decade after it was played and while I knew the score and that it was decided with the last meaningful kick of the match, I was utterly oblivious to what made it so special at the time. The evidence – both the full match and a highlights package – is easily available online. It was then several more years until I realised that almost certainly the greatest European Cup tie ever played and quite possibly the best football match ever bar none was played at exactly the same time as a famous City win, the evening of April 24th 1991. I am not going to say I was short-changed by watching City win 5-1 away and Whitey score four of them. But just read on…
It’s the second leg of a European Cup Semi Final. Red Star had sensationally won 2—1 in Munich with two of the best counter-attacking goals I have ever seen. But when I mention the names of the emerging players in the Red Star team – Savecevic, Jugovic, Mihajilovic, Prosinecki, Pancev – then if you were as big a Football Italia fan I was then you would ask why this was a shock. They also had the hipster’s favourite player of all time, Miodrag Belodedici, a Baresi-level libero who had already won the European Cup with Steaua Bucharest, keeping the back door shut. They were an absolutely banging team. Bayern, as always, were very good in all areas, streetwise and highly experienced. They had Brian Laudrup, Stefan Effenberg and Olaf Thon in the team, so quality was not an issue and Jupp Heynckes was the coach.
So the scene was set excitingly enough for what promised to be a thrilling return leg, two weeks later, and yes a huge crowd filled the creaking Marakana in Belgrade. The atmosphere was already quite something as Red Star tried to belie the Yugoslav footballing reputation for talented bottling.
But that wasn’t enough. It wasn’t even the start of it.
Between the two legs, the first shots in the wars that led to the break up in Yugoslavia were fired. This was now a major match being played in a conflict zone and everyone realised this was the last high level football match happening in Belgrade for some considerable time, something confirmed by the broken crossbar action after the final whistle.
The Serb/Yugoslav leader Milosevic understood the significance of the moment and felt the Red Star Ultras needed some help. From Arkan the Warlord, who came along to cheer on his heroes. So it was quite tasty in the stands and not at all political. The online spectacle is also helped hugely by the Serbian TV commentator. I have no idea who you are Sir, still less what you are saying other than “Gol Gol Gol” which I can make a guess at, but you may be the best I have ever heard.
What then happened (without giving away too many spoilers) was a football match that contained brilliant, searing, unforgettable attacking play from both sides who both came with the sole intention of outscoring the other, outrageous pieces of individual skill, brutal violence, a goalkeeping calamity for the ages, goals from ridiculously long range, a comeback that was simultaneously out of nothing and totally inevitable, world class goal celebrations, deflections, a ball rolling on to a post while two players descended on the rebound and a conclusion to the match that can only be described as Aguero-esque with added high comedy.
Every time I watch it, I need a lie down afterwards and I know what’s coming. And all the time, I was at Villa Park, lapping up David White’s greatest moment. I refuse to regret not being in Belgrade that night. I had a great time in Birmingham and the atmosphere in the stadium would have been terrifying. And boring, mundane, football is still wonderful. The last match I was at was City’s win at Sheffield Wednesday in the Cup in March. It was forgettable fare, but what I would give to experience even that once again.