Well, there was no choice, was there? Not when you consider that the house in Didsbury where I grew up was once owned by the legendary City captain of the 1930’s, Sam Barkas. Yes, his signature is on the deeds, so my mum has, in the safe at the Building Society, the autograph of one of the club’s most famous pre-war figures. My autograph collection, in contrast, is slightly more recent. Ray Ranson, with splatterings of mud telling the story of how I’d pigeonholed him immediately after training… Trevor Francis, signed with the pen of a handily placed Swedish journalist, after the one I provided had run out… and, most poignantly, Tommy Caton, who gave me a personal tour of the ground way back when, after my mum had written to him explaining that he was my favourite player… try getting a tour like that for your little boy, off some overrated media pin-up like ShagSpice at The Swamp.
And then, of course, there was Big Joe Corrigan… I was mightily impressed when he visited Beaver Road Primary on a road safety promotion, handing out luminous orange pump bags so that we wouldn’t get knocked down when crossing the road at night. Somewhere in the archives at Central Library, it’s possible to find an MUEN photograph of me and all my classmates in the school hall with Mighty Joe… but so gobsmacked was I to have met this giant of a man, I thought little of posterity, and allowed my face to be partly obscured by the absent minded holding aloft of said luminous pump bag.
But I think the main man I have to thank for initially becoming Blue is a little man with a moustache and glasses who looked uncannily like the cartoon tax inspector who keeps popping up to tell us about self-assessment… his name was Gerald Sinstadt, and he comes from a time long gone, when Sunday afternoons meant not Sky Sports Super Sunday, Manchester United vs. Anybody, but our very own, free, north-west regional ‘Kick Off Match’. The concept of ITV’s football coverage in the late 1970s and early 80s is probably impossible to grasp for anyone under the age of 21. Believe it or not, each region had its own hour-long highlights programme every Sunday at 3 o’clock (usually just after ‘The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams’, a fictional character reportedly based on Gerry Gow). Granada’s ‘Kick Off Match’ was easily distinguished by its fantastic theme tune – something that sounded as though it was being performed on a Rolf Harris Stylophone. This classic piece of music began and ended with five seconds of the Stylophone pencil frantically and hapharzardly scribbling over the metal bit that made the sound, with the main body of the piece consisting of the same five notes being played repeatedly in ever ascending key. It may not rank alongside ‘Bohemian Rhapdoy’ or ‘Blue Guitar’ as the most profound of musical statements from the era, but for me it was the highlight of the week, as it signalled the arrival of my ticket to the wierd and wonderful world of professional football.
The great thing about ‘Kick Off Match’ was that City were on it for roughly two weeks out of every three. If we were at home, of course, there was a more than even chance of us being featured, with Gerald Sinstadt doing the commentary. It’s so strange to hear Sinstadt’s lacklustre commentaries for the BBC these days, because back in the days of ‘Kick Off’, his enthusiasm was so infectious, he truly brought some of the unique atmosphere of Maine Road – or wherever – into Sam’s old back room. But even if it wasn’t a City home week, there was always a good chance that City would be on one of the two supplementary matches bought in from other regions… these introduced me to such commentators as Brian Moore when he used to be good (shouting a lot and well before he became obsessed with the trite ‘it’s in there!’ motif to describe every goal), and the inimitable Hugh Johns, of the staccato speech and catchphrases such as ‘wahn-nothing’ and ‘opens his account’.
I enjoyed so many magnificent City victories this way… the legendary 3-1 Maine Road defeat of European champions Liverpool, for instance… a Peter Barnes tour de force at Tottenham, where his exciting wing play laid on chances that even Mike Channon could not miss… and another London triumph, at Stamford Bridge, where Asa Hartford’s quick thinking managed to keep the ball in play just as it looked like it had gone for a goal kick, and enable him to set up the clinching goal.
Yes, I was an armchair fan. Well, I was very young, and at a time when hooliganism was at its height (and mainly from MUFC’s now castrated ‘Red Army’, I hasten to add), it still wasn’t considered safe for me to be there. But, thanks to Gerald and his friends, I still felt part of it all, especially on my visits to the Maine Road souvenir shop after school, where the gentle old French lady who used to run the entire operation single handed, would show immeasurable patience while I spent an age wondering which picture I should spend my pocket money on – Dennis, Asa or Big Joe.
Eventually came the time when I would see my heroes in live action… maybe I was the jinx, as it also coincided with the time that things started to go wrong. I also maintain that the change in design of the programme, from portrait to landscape layout, also had something to do with it… not forgetting the mysterious appearance of some bloke wearing a big chain, talking in a funny accent and smoking a large cigar. Nevertheless, this was the time that I began to appreciate the work of all the players on the pitch, as for the first time I got the complete picture… instead of the obvious televisual appeal of Dennis Tueart or Peter Barnes, my favourite players became the likes of Ranson and Caton. It was rather like ceasing to be an Abba fan and moving onto Echo and the Bunnymen and OMD. This truly was a passage into adulthood.
But, although the Rags and their multitude of armchair fans provide an easy target, when I think back to my own introduction to the wonderful world of MCFC, I can’t help but acknowledge the influence of the little black box in the corner of Sam Barkas’s living room… and wonder whether, if we were to turn the clock back to the days of regional football highlights on a Sunday afternoon, instead of the blanket national coverage of Sky, would there be ‘quite’ so many Cockney Reds? Perhaps we should get that nice Anne Aston back to add up the figures…
First printed in: MCIVTA Newsletter #331 on
D. M. Gilbert