one day to the big one!
After 22 years of covering United, reporting on 23 trophies, four managers, a host of stars and a string of exclusives, Stuart Mathieson is calling time on his dream job of being the M.E.N.’s Reds reporter
IT didn’t turn out too bad in the end.
One person said to me when I was appointed the M.E.N.’s United reporter 22 years ago: “It’s the dream job...until you get it!”
In my first few months in the role in 1995 I was beginning to think those words were very prophetic.
Over two decades later, I can safely say it was a dream – but with a few nightmares thrown into the enthralling and explosive cocktail that is reporting on United day-today.
When you are playing football on the Copacabana beach before a trip up to the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro ahead of watching United’s treble winners in Brazil’s iconic Maracana stadium, it is a dream.
The fall-out before and after that was the Reds controversially pulling out of the FA Cup that season in 1999-2000 to play in the inaugural Fifa Club World Cup.
That’s it with United, one minute you are in dreamland, the next you are plunged into some highly-contentious issues and you are met with a wall of silence from the Reds.
More early words of advice were: “You don’t have to look for Manchester United stories, they come looking for you.”
How true. Back page, front page, financial page – United are always in the news.
Those opening months were a trial.
My first weeks shadowing my predecessor, David Meek, included reporting on a domestic double go excruciatingly down the pan as a draw at West Ham’s Upton Park handed the Premier League title to Blackburn Rovers.
Six days later and Paul Rideout’s solitary goal in the FA Cup final for Everton ended in Wembley misery for the Reds.
Following that disastrous finale, I was officially the new M.E.N. United reporter. Cheers!
The summer of discontent followed as popular players Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis left the club.
The exodus prompted the M.E.N.’s editor to run a poll: Should Alex Ferguson be sacked?
Oh great! Just what I needed. The phone call soon followed. “That’s it. I have compromised with the national newspapers for too long for the Evening News. That cosy relationship is over,” a particularly frosty Fergie told me.
Eventually, the Reds boss thawed and the daily phone calls continued.
After a tough opening few months – and you can throw in a ‘You are finished with this club,’ hairdryer from Fergie after I naively went behind his back on one issue – the football started.
As a Mancunian who used to wait at six o’clock on the corner of Kingswood Road and Wald Avenue in Fallowfield for the M.E.N.’s yellow van to drop off the Saturday Football Pink, I was proud to phone over my first running copy.
But it was the ‘you’ll never win anything with kids’ 3-2 defeat at Aston Villa – and on the back of the summer of discontent I wondered what the hell I had let myself in for.
When I was sat on a Russian hotel bed, with a huge empty noisy fridge in the corner and a rat trap behind it, dogs literally wandering the landing, desperately trying to send copy over from Volgograd on an early excuse for a laptop with ear muffs you had to attach to the phone receivers to be able to connect and wire your words, I was also beginning to wonder where was this glamour job you promised me! But it didn’t half get better. At the end of that season Ryan Giggs, Gary and Phil Neville were inviting me on the team coach outside the Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough to give me interviews about the 1996 title triumph.
And days later I was filing Pink copy as Eric Cantona’s winner against Liverpool in the FA Cup final completed the double. What a difference a year makes. The drama was unrelenting and I was privileged to report on 23 major trophies United won in my 22 years on the paper.
The 10 days in 1999 when United swept all before them in a stunning treble success was everything a local reporter could wish for. Over 200 extra pages written in that condensed period, very little sleep, it was exhausting and exhilarating.
I doubt whether any other English provincial football reporter in the future will ever have that on their CV.
I believe it was a unique never-to-berepeated event.
As the clock ticked past the 90 minutes in the Nou Camp and Bayern Munich were stealing the Reds’ thunder, I was preparing mentally to write the story I didn’t want to have to write.
A colleague from the London Evening Standard leant over the press box, patted me on the back and said: “Never mind, another time.”
Minutes later I was scrawling simply ‘Solskjaer’ in my notebook and at 5am I was still flicking around the stations in my Spanish hotel attempting to find a re-run of his winner. In all the mayhem I had barely seen the goal.
Now, that was living the dream.
As someone who somehow managed to turn a hobby into a career, it was the football that always captured me.
The rest of it wasn’t really my cup of tea.
If the match reporting came easy, then the other side of covering United didn’t.
Two takeovers, one failed and one successful, the Rock of Gibraltar horse row with Fergie taking on Ireland’s so-called Coolmore Mafia over the super stallion and stud rights and all the legal fall-outs from that, plus the Rio Ferdinand missed drugs test controversy, that FA Cup withdrawal and the Roy Keane bitter exit to name a few, I can’t say that enraptured me.
But I muddled through it without a lawsuit against myself or the M.E.N.! Thank heavens the glory and the entertainment on the pitch far outweighed those gritty off-field episodes.
Moscow in 2008 was another highlight, except for when my wifi crashed just as Carlos Tevez stepped up to take the first penalty in the shootout against Chelsea.
I saw all the penalties, while tapping in my on-the-whistle copy, but clouding that heartstopping climax was the fact all I could really see was about four empty white pages in the next day’s M.E.N.
By some miracle the contact was restored (just turn the laptop off and turn it on again. Thanks IT!) Job done.
Dealing with Sir Alex was a pleasure and a pain. The phone slamming down end-of-conversation moments were liberally mixed with those frustrating words, ‘This is between you and me’ when I knew I was privy to an exceptional story that I’d never write.
But I’d gained his trust and that was enough compensation for me.
Sadly that ‘cosy relationship’ that almost ended in ‘95 was finally wrecked over the M.E.N.’s coverage of the rebel breakaway club FC United. Never to be restored.
I always said Fergie would see me to my grave. It wasn’t quite that fatal, but I was chucking up in an NHS papier-mache bowl post-op in May 2013 when the news broke he was retiring.
Brilliant, all those years dealing with him and I didn’t get to write the biggest story of them all.
“Football, bloody hell,” as someone once said.
It has been a new experience since then to report on managers coming and going, but in Jose Mourinho United may have finally landed the serial winner who can restore those glory years I enjoyed with the Reds and Fergie.
That’s it then in a nutshell – great players, great games, great experiences, great triumphs, last minute panicked re-writes as a deadline approached, some low points, some rows, but never a dull moment.
I recall my final sentence I typed at the end of the Treble season from Barcelona: “Thanks for the memories.”
It wasn’t an original line even then, but it seems apt for it to be the final M.E.N. words I type.
After two decades, I can safely say it is a dream job – with a few nightmares thrown in! Stuart Mathieson
Stuart Mathieson part of the press pack interviewing Sir Alex Ferguson
One of the highlights of Stu’s career, United’s 1999 Champions League glory
Stu’s first season in the job saw United win the Double in 1996 Stu covered two Champions League winning campaigns with the Reds