Football: Fan's Eye View: It is won and I love them all: No. 38: Manchester United

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The Independent Online
SOME of my most exciting moments in football have come courtesy of BBC radio, but none of them can compare with the moment at 5.50pm on Sunday when I heard over my earphones the roar of Oldham fans that signalled the final whistle at Villa Park. No one could have sparked more joy than the commentator who announced 'Manchester United are champions'. The expectation was finally, mercifully, at an end.

It was everything I had hoped for (the grandstand finale favoured by the neutrals never really appealed) and the sense of satisfaction was overwhelming, so much so that, like Sir Alf Ramsey in 1966, I almost forgot to cheer.

United have now won every domestic honour in the last four years, as well as the Cup-Winners' Cup. Is it me, or has the world suddenly become a better place?

But gloating aside, I should spare a thought for Big Ron. We have a fair bit to thank him for: two FA Cups, some magical European nights, Bryan Robson and Big Norm. However, since the sacking, Ron has shown no soft spot for United and this swing of allegiance is all the excuse I need to feel delighted that he has fallen just short of the mark again.

Last year I was preparing myself for all this and the gut-wrenching pain of seeing it slip away is still with me. A lot of experts reckoned United had blown it for good then - the psychological damage too crippling. But I think most United fans felt differently: rather than being damaging, the disappointment would give them the determination to succeed next time. After a dreadful start to the season, they soon confirmed that the quality was still there.

It was clear from the previous season and from Big Ron's nightmare of 1986, when a 10-point lead was whittled away, that United could not win it from the front. Around Christmas, the experts started to tip us, but I just prayed that Norwich and Villa would stay ahead until well into March. They obliged.

The supporters hit top form, even after a difficult March; their noise, as much as anything, has been a major difference this year. Nervous silences and anxious shouts accompanied too many performances last time. This year it has been chanting, chanting all the way. Walking away from Selhurst Park, I overheard a couple of Palace fans marvelling at the level and quality of support United had brought down. That was special. The determination of the players themselves was epitomised by the last-gasp win over Sheffield Wednesday. Having admired him for some time, I finally fell in love with Steve Bruce that day. I can't believe Graham Taylor doesn't fancy him.

And now it is won, I'm deeply in love with all of them. It is something that makes football unique, the way players and managers who achieve greatness inspire profound love. In the last few days the Zambians have been expressing it for their lost heroes, and of course, countless mourners expressed it for the Busby Babes. I was one of many who shook Alex Ferguson by the hand two years ago in Rotterdam but I'm afraid it's going to be kisses this time. He's created the greatest team I've ever watched.

He's done so with prudence, and, just as important, passion. While Sexton kept a cool head and Atkinson embraced the glamour of United, Ferguson took the club straight to his heart, managing with a fervour that mirrored that of the supporters. And he richly deserves his success, after enduring a spiteful campaign to put him out of work. I remember one regular who vowed, in 1989, to stay away until Ferguson was gone. It must kill him to see this success.

For my part, I still can't get used to the words 'United are champions'. Being a one-year-old when it was last said, this is the first time I've ever uttered the phrase. Ever since I became conscious of football, Manchester United's quest for the championship has been an integral part of life. As a Red, you're simply not allowed to forget it. Now we've won it, now that United are champions, life will never be the same again.

Former editor of 'The Shankill Skin-head' and writer for 'United Monthly'

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