While football was eventually restarted after the first wave of the pandemic, sadly it remains a hollow viewing experience right now. This is solely down to the lack of fans in the stadium, making the whole thing seem entirely soulless. We can all remember how great it is to watch live football, in a packed stadium, surrounded by friends & family, soaking in the atmosphere. So for this week’s edition of The Football Pink’s Greatest… we had our writers come up with their favourite match going experiences.
Rodney McCain – Manchester United v Juventus, Champions League 1997
I’ve taken in a few games in my time. Some were tame, some were nuts! Old Firm in Glasgow? Done that (most ferocious atmosphere I’ve ever experienced, easily!) Manchester United vs Liverpool? Yep, tasty. Belfast “Big Two”? Many, many, many times; no love to lose there…However, the “daddy” of them all….? Manchester United 3 Juventus 2, 1st October 1997… wonderful!
Marcello Lippi’s Juve were a “who’s who” of European talent in 1997: Zidane, del Piero, Inzaghi, Montero, Deschamps, Padovano, Peruzzi. They were amongst the favourites to win the European Cup, and it wasn’t hard to see why. United had never beaten the Italian giants in Europe.
They came to Old Trafford on 1st October to face a United side now without inspirational midfielder Roy Keane, badly injured at Leeds weeks earlier. Alex Ferguson drafted Norwegian Ronny Johnsen into midfield to try to keep tabs on the lethal Zidane… it didn’t work very well initially
.Juve scored after just 20 seconds through del Piero, who cleverly ran off Henning Berg’s shoulder onto a delicious through ball. I’d barely taken my seat in what would later be renamed the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand. It looked like a long, long evening ahead for the 55,000 crowd in Old Trafford… Then the hosts had a good goal wrongly ruled out for offside against Teddy Sheringham, who had headed in from a Giggs’ headed return across the face of the Stretford End goal.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer squandered a glorious chance to equalise when allowing Peruzzi to save from close range… was it going to be one of those nights? Things went from bad to worse when Nicky Butt had to be withdrawn with concussion after 35 minutes; a youthful Paul Scholes wasn’t a bad replacement, mind you! He’d barely got on before Sheringham did equalise with a brave header from a looping Giggs cross from the left side. We went nuts in the stands….game on!
Then, midway through the second half, with a pulsating game switching from end to end as the home faithful roared the Red Devils on, good fortune swung it in United’s favour. Deschamps, always impetuous, received a second yellow card for pulling Johnsen’s shirt.
Within minutes the enterprising Scholes gave a hint at the glorious career to come when coolly slaloming past Peruzzi in the box to stroke United into a well-deserved lead…. utter bedlam!!
Juventus were on the ropes; David Beckham curled a lovely left-footer just wide of Peruzzi’s far post, before Giggs took centre stage… He’d tortured Juventus right-back Ferrara all evening; this time he ran onto a Sheringham lay-off before twisting Montero and thrashing a left-foot rocket past a startled Peruzzi from the edge of the box for 3-1…. fabulous! I think I might have landed three rows from my seat, thrust into space by the joyous hordes around me!
There was just time for Zidane to remind everyone what a simply brilliant player he was when he arrowed a sumptuous free-kick past a hapless Peter Schmeichel from 20 yards with the last kick of a sensational match. It may not have had the late drama of Barcelona in May 1999, but it’s the best money I ever spent on a football match ticket.
Eliott Brennan – Derby County v QPR, Playoff Final 2014
When Steve McClaren’s Derby and Harry Redknapp’s QPR lined up for the Championship playoff final, the piercing cold tension cut through the warm sunshine. A lot hanged in the balance for either side and, most importantly, a huge pile of money was waiting to be handed to the winner. As the teams walked out and kick-off was taken, there was a natural belief something special will happen. The opposing fans attempted to chant it into existence, but the forces bounced off one another to form a stalemate.
A Will Hughes penalty shout and a Jamie Ward freekick for Derby, and a 30-yard shot from QPR’s Charlie Austin, which sailed over the crossbar, were the moments of the half. As the saying goes, little separated the sides.
The second half began similarly to the first. Little chances partnered the little idea of when the breakthrough would happen. The signs moved into Derby’s favour with their ability to control possession with greater effect. Derby’s struggle to dominate finally broke QPR’s defensive lines when Johnny Russell was through on goal. Martin O’Neil took the foul just outside the penalty area…. And with it a red card. The Derby fans were buoyant, QPR’s fell silent.
Nothing came of the resulting freekick though it was clear how the rest of the half would go. QPR’s top goalscorer Charlie Austin was forced to be a left-winger and their veteran captain Clint Hill subbed himself to reinsure Rangers’ defence.
Derby’s attacks were soon coming in waves. Chance after chance, save after save, it seemed only a matter of time before Derby finally beat goalkeeper Robert Green. Some QPR fans could not bear the sight and looked away. But Derby’s moment did not come. The Ram’s relentlessness was met with QPR’s unbreakable defence. Every heroic block, save, tackle or Derby mistake was cheered in a galvanising roar.
The clocked ticked into the minutes of the game. Extra-time was just around the corner. Another 30 minutes and it is almost inevitable QPR’s back will finally break. Instead, Rangers’ managed to get the ball up the pitch.
Suddenly Junior Hoilett found himself in a crossing position in the 90th minute. A tamed hopeful pass found Richard Keogh whose clearance fell to Bobby Zamora. Time stopped. Zamora’s first-time side-foot effort floated past Keogh, then goalkeeper Lee Grant, and into the top left corner of the goal.
Beyond all doubt, QPR had done it. The sea of blue and white scrambled on top of one another in celebratory disbelief. There was little time to think about what has just happened. Every fan had to soak in every second.
When the final whistle was blown, the sound was thunderous.
Graham Hollingsworth – Ipswich Town v Sheffield United, Championship 2003
Following a two year stint in the Premier League, where they’d beaten Liverpool at Anfield, Leeds at Elland Road, and drawn with Arsenal and Manchester United at home, Ipswich were sent packing to the Championship. We were pushing for promotion once again, and came up against Neil Warnock’s Sheffield United. The two sides had played out a 4-3 thriller in the FA Cup the month before, with Ipswich coming from 3-0 down to draw level, only for Paul Peschisolido to seal victory with a last-minute winner for the Blades.
The game started off as badly as it could have done, with Pablo Couñago being sent off for violent conduct after just 20 minutes. While he would later become a cult hero at Portman Road, few were on his side following the silly dismissal, even if the red card seemed harsh. It felt very much like the referee was going to be against us that day.
Warnock’s men took full advantage, with Peter Ndlovu and Dean Windass scoring either side of half time to seemingly put the game out of reach, with the away fans celebrated wildly. While many sides would have given up the fight here, Joe Royle’s men refused to know when they were beaten, and looked to fight back.
It was two former academy players named Darren who would turn the game around for Town; Darren Bent and Darren Ambrose. Bent got the first on 57 minutes, volleying in an inch-perfect cross from Jermaine Wright. They then pressed on looking for an equaliser, which came 20 minutes later. Following an incredibly scrappy passage (which wouldn’t look out of place on the Crap 90s Football Twitter feed) Ambrose headed it home to draw level.
With the crowd roaring them on, and with Sheffield United now looking nervous, Royle’s side pushed for a winner. It came two minutes before time, with Ambrose’s cross finding Bent at the back post. The 25,000 packed inside Portman Road went absolutely beserk, the scenes more reminiscent of a cup final rather than a mid-February league game.
Comebacks against all the odds are one of the sweetest things you’ll ever experience as a football fan, especially when it comes after feeling a particular sense of injustice only 45 minutes previously. And while the turnaround was remarkable, it stands out more because it was probably the last time my home team ever truly made me believe that anything was possible. Since then, they have found new ways to disappoint each season, with a return to the Championship seeming a million miles off at this point.
But I will always treasure that day back in 2003. Going to watch football with my Dad, with us both celebrating with restraint is one of my favourite parts of my childhood and one I hope to be able to one day share this feeling again with him, once we’re finally allowed back into stadiums.
Andrew Haines – Nottingham Forest v Oldham Athletic, FA Cup 2013
For those of you well-versed in Oldham Athletic’s 2013 FA Cup run, which saw Latics reach a fifth-round replay, this may come as somewhat of a bizarre choice.
In the fourth round, Paul Dickov’s side famously saw off Liverpool, who were packing players such as Luis Suárez and Raheem Sterling, with Steven Gerrard introduced from the bench in the second half.
Then, in the fifth round, a last-minute header from Matt Smith earned a 2-2 draw with Everton and sealed a replay at Goodison Park – with Oldham by that time under Tony Philliskirk’s guidance after Dickov’s resignation.
So, one would expect that either game against the Premier League big boys would be my choice of any game during that FA Cup run in the 12-13 season.
However, there was just something special about that game at the City Ground, perhaps because my expectations had never been lower.
Latics were struggling in the league and the draw against Forest was one of disappointment, it did not seem anything like a glamour tie, but the Nottingham club would still beat Latics and any FA Cup hopes of a giant-killing would die with a whimper.
With a packed out away end, my fears were reaffirmed in the first half when Smith – the hero of the later rounds – scored an own goal to put the hosts ahead.
In a quickfire, second-half turnaround, though, Dickov’s side were 3-1 up in what felt like the blink of an eye.
Robbie Simpson fired in a sumptuous strike from 25 yards into the bottom corner first. Then, he doubled his tally minutes later with a spectacular looping header that, to a 14-year-old me, seemed to be airborne for an unbelievable amount of time – as if in slow motion.
Next, Danny Collins saw red for hauling down Smith when he was in on goal and from the resulting free-kick, Jose Baxter drilled the ball low into the bottom corner and Latics looked all but set for the fourth round. In the away end, there was complete pandemonium.
The nerves following a late Billy Sharp strike for Forest only added to the game’s enjoyment.
As explained, it certainly wasn’t the biggest scalp of Oldham’s FA Cup run that year, but for some reason, it caused an undefeated level of elation.
James Bolam – Boca Juniors v Banfield, Superliga Argentina 2019
My greatest match experience was not one of football’s most classic games or indeed a 4-3 thriller. No, my greatest football experience was a dead rubber in a league in South America, that players of any significant talent leave relatively young and only return if they are on their way down. Except this dead rubber wasn’t just anywhere. It was at one of the greatest arena’s on earth: La Bombonera. I wanted to do something that was long on my bucket list for my 40th birthday. Boca Juniors just happened to be at home that day and so I headed to the southern hemisphere for an evening I would always remember.
Tickets at Boca are hard to come by but I was put in touch with Maxi, a football and political journalist for Argentina’s Clarin newspaper. He managed to get us a place behind the goal where the Barra Brava’s stand. Maxi met me at my hotel and in our Boca shirts, we walked across the centre of Buenos Aires to get the bus to La Boca. We were stopped by a man who started talking to Maxi. He explained where we were heading and why and this stranger wished me a happy birthday. It turned out this was famous comedian Juan Acosta and him and Maxi had never met. He was a Boca fan and had stopped us because he wanted to talk football.
We arrived in la Boca and got off the bus by the docks. There were already fans on the streets jumping about and singing. It was still three hours to kick off. As you approach La Bombonera it towers above the barrio. There were rows and rows of police checks and barriers. Bars were only serving soft drinks. Alcohol is banned anywhere near stadiums in Argentina due to violence. Once inside we climbed the steps past an old lady selling unofficial Boca merchandise and I told Maxi that I wanted to stand in the middle of the second tier. He told me this was out of the question as it is populated by Barras Brava’s and it was not safe for a gringo. We took our place in the top tier instead.
We were early and the stadium was filling up but tranquil. There was still quite a time to go until kick-off. As the shout of ‘Hamburguesa!’ echoed around the arena. I noticed two lads climb over the wall into the more expensive seats. The view from the back of the top tier over Buenos Aires was stunning. The tranquillity didn’t last long. The stadium filled up and the fences were covered with flags and pictures of fallen Barra leaders. Whether this was by natural causes or otherwise. Shortly before kick-off, the noise of a band could be heard. The Barras must have arrived on their bus. The fans started to sing prompted by the noise outside as the Barras began to enter and the noise got louder. The singing didn’t fade but just got louder and louder until the teams entered the pitch.
The team appeared and arms flailing, at a deafening volume, the fans sang ‘Boca! Mi buen amigo!’ The thing Argentine fans do with their arms always fascinates me. It’s like they are worshipping their gods with passion and energy. Perhaps letting go of the daily stresses in a cathartic release from the economic crises and hardship.
The game itself was an enjoyable one but I only had half an eye on it. The whole crowd sang throughout and danced in time with the music being played by the Barras. Was I at a football match or a rave? This was not confined to one stand but the whole, stadium including those in the hospitality boxes. The far end looked like a can of wriggling maggots such was the amount of movement and jumping up and down.
As Boca’s two goals went in I saw the famous avalanche up close. The roar was akin to a jet plane taking off and you could feel the whole stadium shake. The images you see on TV don’t really do it justice, it has to be experienced in person.
The last act as the clock drifted to 90 minutes was for the Boca faithful to make the stadium shake one last time with a rendition of ‘Dale Bo!’ and songs celebrating River Plate’s spell in the second division. We left La Bombonera with the Barras still playing, into the edgy barrio of La Boca and a taxi. Back at my hotel, I reflected on the most incredible football experience of my life, with the songs going round and round in my head until I drifted into a jet-lagged sleep.