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Old 13th October 2015, 11:56   #1
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Default Andy Mitten: United's support contains plenty of characters and many stories

Andy Mitten
Manchester United's support contains plenty of characters and many stories
ESPN October 13 2015

Every fan base has its characters, every fan has a story. Within Manchester United's match-going support, some have become better-known than others, such as legendary characters like "Paraffin Pete", who once fell through a roof at Bristol City while singing "United, top of the league!" On a preseason tour in the 1980s, Pete asked then-United manager Ron Atkinson if he could borrow five pounds. He got an autograph instead.

Pete would set off to games days in advance. He'd walk across the Pennine hills from Manchester to Sheffield and once hitched a ride to Aberdeen for a friendly, which was called off due to fog.

Pete, who refused to shave his beard in the 1980s "until United win the league" usually hitched. He once thumbed a lift to Belfast to buy a ticket for a testimonial game before hitching back with ticket in hand. A few weeks later, he made the same journey to see the game.

In 2008, Mick Burgess from Blackpool went to a preseason friendly in Nigeria dressed as a Nigerian tribal leader. The locals were amused at the exceedingly rare sight of a white man dressed in such flowery attire; Burgess claimed he was overwhelmed by offers of marriage.

Another United fan who goes to every game is Tony Veys. A badge seller, he drove from Manchester to a preseason match in 1975. In Iran.

Then there's John Brindley, a Mancunian who goes to every United game home and away from his home in Everton, Liverpool.

"My wife's an Evertonian, so I moved over there," Brindley told me. "She understands me going to football because her dad had a season ticket at Goodison for over 60 years. She helps me apply for tickets. My first wife hated football. She said it's me or United. So I left.

"I've done some pretty daft things to see United. Once, at Coventry, I couldn't get a ticket. I loved clothes and ended up swapping my treasured long Crombie coat, which cost about 200, with a tout for a ticket. It was freezing stood on that open terrace."

Younger fans will make their mark, while older fans tend to enjoy reminiscing. Michael Webster is 62 and a steward at Old Trafford. He's been going to his local football ground since childhood, for decades as a supporter and for 22 years as a steward.

His responsibility now includes keeping an eye on journalists, who are hardly the boisterous fans he used to mix with. He does his job professionally, though the occasional muffled cry of "Get in!" when he hears Manchester City or Liverpool have conceded a goal indicates a deeper passion.

Webster works for his lifelong love. He watched United win the 1963 FA Cup final aged 11 and started going to games regularly in 1967-68, catching a bus from Flixton, which is five miles from Old Trafford.

"We had to arrive early because it was first-come, first-served in the Stretford End, there were no tickets," he recalls. "Even when we arrived, the vast queues would snake right down the United Road. The turnstiles would open two hours before kick-off and we'd rush in and stand on the left side."

Territory on the famous terrace was clearly defined.

"The Stretford End was divided into left- and right-siders," says Webster. "Before the '70s fashions, we wore two-tone trousers, cherry red Doc Martins and a long Crombie coat with a United badge on the lapel pocket. If you dressed like that then you were one of the boys. If you didn't then you weren't. We also wore scarves around our wrists and it became fashionable to get an away scarf. A lot of scarf swapping went on, believe it or not. Relations between rival fans were good, but then fans decided it would be better to steal a rival scarf as a badge of honour."

There were other ways to get kudos.

"Starting a chant," says Webster. "I used to get loads going. My favourite was just after we won the [1968] European Cup and it could go on for 20 minutes. We'd start by singing 'We are the Champions' and the right side of the Stretford End would reply 'Champions of Europe.'

"It used to be packed on that terrace and crushes were not uncommon. The worst one was after Denis Law's back-heel [for Manchester City in 1974]. Everyone surged forward and I had to get on the pitch for my own safety."

The public perception of away fans could be disconcerting.

"People away from football thought of me as a hooligan, but I didn't consider myself to be one," Webster says. "I was boisterous, I did things I wasn't supposed to do like jib [not pay] for a train, but I never hit an innocent fan, I was never a fighter."

Though his team wouldn't win a title in his first 26 years of going to games, Webster just loved following United.

"The buzz was in travelling to see United and we had great trips, like the one to Northampton when George Best scored six goals," he says. "We hitched overnight via an army truck in Altrincham which took us south until we found a derelict house in the middle of a traffic island, where we slept. We woke up about 4 and got another lift straight to Northampton in a fish wagon from Fleetwood docks."

"When we got to Northampton about 6 a.m., we felt like we were the advance guard of Reds and that was a great honour. A local reporter approached us and asked for a word because he was doing a story about the invading United fans. He loved the story about us hitching down. The reporter asked: 'And what mood do you think the Manchester United fans will be in?'

"'They're not to be messed with; they're in a wrecking mood', I replied. I was joking, but after the game I saw a Northampton newspaper. It had a full-length picture of United fans leaving the train, a huge picture. The accompanying headline said: Skinheads turn up in wrecking mood."

Sensational headlines brought about strong reactions.

"We'd get to town centres early and people would just stare at us like we had two heads," Webster says. "There were some who caused trouble, but I bet they didn't have as good a time as we did. We used to drink with home fans a lot of times and, after being initially fearful, were usually friendly football people."

Away games to further destinations would take 24 hours of Webster's time.

"We went to Ipswich one year and arrived at 5 a.m.," Webster recalls. "At first light, we saw that a gate was open at the stadium so we walked in and started playing a game of football. I was just doing a Steve Coppell impression on the wing when I realised that I had nobody to pass to. The groundsman had been alerted to our presence and was going crazy. Everyone scarpered."

Away games in Liverpool were among the closest to home.

"A BBC reporter asked to speak to me outside Anfield one year," he explains. "I told that him that we didn't look for trouble, but if we were attacked then we would fight. There was a lot of bravado. I think I said: 'If the Scousers want it then they'll get it.' Me saying that to the TV camera still pops up in nostalgia programmes about United.

"We'd get back from away games exhausted, but still high on adrenaline. People used to love hearing stories about what had gone on and I felt part of it. It was so easy to watch United because games were pay on the gate. It wasn't expensive and you could stand with your mates. You can't do that now."

A poacher turned gamekeeper, Webster has a lifetime of United memories.

"I'd say that other than the birth of my kids, United has given me the greatest moments in my life," he smiles.

There are many like him.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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