Saturday 31st January 1987
I did love going to Old Trafford. I loved huge stadiums and being part of a massive crowd.
Coventry City were a small tribe. Lads knew each other, if not by name or reputation, we just recognised each other. We’d see people on the West End or the Kop or Tomangos or The Three Tuns or Fishy Moore’s or school. We didn’t necessarily speak to each other, but we didn’t have to. New people stood out, their credentials easily checked, not that we were being infiltrated by the CIA exactly, but we would spot outsiders before they could say ‘You make me happy, when skies are grey’.
But Manchester United lads didn’t have that advantage. The crowds at Old Trafford were so huge and their fanbase was country-wide, so local Man Utd lads couldn’t spot away fans so easily. And we didn’t want to be spotted.
Another reason I didn’t mind Man United was that they were shit and they’d been shit for a long time. Despite their money and massive crowds, they hadn’t won the league in my lifetime, done nothing in Europe and were relegated in the 70s (which we weren’t). They won the FA Cup occasionally and sacked their manager every three years. Alex Ferguson who was finding that winning the Scottish First Division with Aberdeen wasn’t the same as winning the English First Division. His solitary management skill seemed to be finding new excuses week after week and blaming anyone except himself. I’d bet any amount of money that he’d be sacked by the end of the season, and most Man United fans I knew hoped he would be too.
However, the reason I loved going to Old Trafford most was the market stalls that were set up outside the ground. They sold a massive range of t-shirts, hats and scarves and every era and every player was available. George Best, Denis Law, Sir Matt and the celebratory FA Cup wins of ‘83 and ‘85. There was also plenty of uncensored terrace humour. But if you were lucky, some stallholders would drop the hinged-backboard of the stall and briefly reveal plenty of darker bad-taste stuff involving Leeds, Liverpool and Man City. There was also some non-football related stuff such as Chernobyl, Space Shuttle Challenger, Beirut, Hungerford, you name it. What they achieved in innovation was more than matched by their sick taste.
Busier than any market in the country, we could mix with the crowds and soak it up before making our way to the other end of the ground.
The pitch was half green and half white. Apparently, the Man United undersoil-heating, like ours, had broken down. The half of the pitch in the shadow of the stand was frozen solid, the other half had thawed.
From the start of the match, the mood in the Cov end was one of defiant resolve. We were going to enjoy our day out but expectations were low, a draw and a replay was our best possible outcome, even though we were above them in the league and our form at least as good as there’s, if not better.
But we knew better than to set our hopes too high. We would always find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and, for our own sanity, it was best to protect ourselves with a healthy outlook of doom and gloom. For me, the news that Dave Bennett was injured was catastrophic and meant that we’d be handed an even bigger hammering than I first feared.
However, as things turned out, I was wrong.
After 27 minutes, Keith Houchen managed to push the ball into the net with his nose after the longest goalmouth scramble ever. We went mental, me and Chris grabbing each other and surging down the terrace, fists punching the Manchester air, thrilled that we’d scored.
Once we’d settled down, the bloke behind me summed up what supporting Cov was all about. “Typical,” he said. “We’ve scored too early. Now we’ll get really hammered.”
But we won. One-nil, thanks to that Keith Houchen goal. The striker had now gone from injury-prone liability to an actual living legend in just one day.
I wanted to stay in the ground for as long as possible and soak up the atmosphere. The United fans were quick to leave, which meant I could look up on both sides of the stadium at tens of thousands of empty red seats. At the far end, almost empty but for a few stragglers, was the Stretford End. And we had silenced the 45,000 United fans and emptied this famous stadium.
I breathed in the air and savoured the silence, then made a dash for the coach.
Spirits were high on the way home. It was as if we’d beaten Liverpool or Barcelona away, not Manchester United, but it was good to go to Old Trafford and win for once.
We all sang about how Greg Downs had no hair and we didn’t care, how there was only one Brian Burrows and that Brian Kilcline was six-foot-two, had eyes of blue and that he’s after you. And we bounced along to ‘George and John’s Sky Blue army’, belting it out for 20 minutes.
Once the sore throats and eardrums demanded a break, we settled down to discuss the match. The feeling among us was that we weren’t a bad team this season and we were now into the last 16 of the FA Cup. We’d all be glued to Radio Two on Monday to hear the draw for the fifth-round, and we fancied anyone at home. Arsenal, Tottenham and Everton were all in the hat with us and I personally wanted to avoid those three, but anyone else, home or away, would be fine.
“I told you we’d win,” Bal beamed, grabbing my arm and ruffling my hair.
“You did,” I said, swatting his hand away. I had to hand it to him, he was right.
Bal’s smile stretched ear-to-ear, “Who knows now-“
“Don’t say it!” I warned him. “Don’t even think it!”
“No!” I snapped. “You’ll jinx it.”
Bal sealed his lips and his smile deflated.
We both knew, whatever we thought or hoped for, we couldn’t say it.
Bal dropped into the seat, simmering with frustration.
He had my sympathy, but rules are rules.
I nudged his ribs and said, “I wonder who we’ll get in the draw.”
“We’re in the fifth round of the cup,” he gasped. “Can you believe it?”
I snuggled back into my seat, reliving Keith Houchen’s goal. Each time I relived it, the ball took longer and longer for him to finally push it into the net. It was like the ball was a balloon rotating and floating in the air, just out of his reach.
The noise was ratcheting up. Everyone was talking, shouting, and songs were breaking out again, left, right and centre.
“Steve,” Bal said.
“Yeah,” I said.
He was sitting arms folded, eyes closed, and his enormous grin was back.
“Sometimes you have to let yourself dream.”
As we passed Fort Dunlop, after booing at Villa Park, I settled into my seat, pulled my hat down over my eyes and took a moment to myself.
I’d been close to missing the game, certain that we’d lose, but, luckily for me, the lads had changed my mind. And as I replayed the highlights of the day, there was one thing that kept coming back to me. It wasn’t Houchen’s goal, although it had been brilliant, and it wasn’t the final whistle that confirmed that we had won. It was what Bal had said.
“Sometimes you’ve got to let yourself dream.”
Maybe he was right.
I talked a good game, but I never really dreamed big when it mattered. For some reason, I always held something back.
I felt in my pocket for some change and found at least five ten-pence pieces amongst a fist full of shrapnel.
Now, I thought, it’s time to ask Question Five.
This is an extract from Paul Gilbert’s book, She Wore a Sky Blue Ribbon, the story of how Coventry City won the 1987 FA Cup. She Wore a Sky Blue Ribbon: The Romance of the Cup, Highfield Road and 1987 is available to buy on Amazon now.