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

Manchester Evening News - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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