Football: Old Trafford trip highlights problems faced by football

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The Independent Online
BOXING DAY football matches are something of a tradition in our family. It's the one day of the year when my mother will dress in a warm, politically incorrect coat and grudgingly go to a game in support of my father. Invariably, after about 10 minutes, she'll ask me which way we are playing. As my mother is an exceptionally bright woman I am sure her bimboesque questions are a deliberate attempt to reaffirm her sporting apathy to the family, lest we think that she actually enjoys the Boxing Day ritual.

Dad is now coaching at Bradford City so this year's 26 December game was always going to be more exciting than 1998's, when the opponents at Huddersfield's McAlpine Stadium were Grimsby Town. It was way back on a balmy summer's day that I scrutinised the 1999-2000 fixture lists, and we hit the jackpot - Manchester United at Old Trafford.

The reality was rather different to the glamorous day out I had envisaged back in August. Demand for tickets was high and mother managed to extrapolate herself from the trip across the Pennines in martyr-like fashion, "donating" her ticket to those more needy: namely, two of my boyfriend's pals who had driven down from Scotland for the match.

It was a slow, slushy and arduous journey on the M62. The motorway was heavy with fans of every denomination. Our car was laden with presents, luggage and cramped passengers. My boyfriend's mum, who was being dropped off at Manchester Airport on the way, filled my mother's boots nicely, however, with the question: "So is this a friendly match, then?"

Perhaps she hadn't realised that Bradford had hit the dizzy heights of the Premiership, or perhaps she had some insight into Alex Ferguson's team selection. The Bradford manager, Paul Jewell, must indeed have thought it a "friendly" starting line-up without Giggs, Beckham Cole and Yorke...

The weather was atrocious, a combination of hailstones, rain and sleet conspiring to create by far the worst playing surface I have seen all season. It all aided Bradford's battle for a 0-0 draw, which was only spoilt when Fergie brought on his substitutes, Cole and Yorke. The South African left-winger Quinton Fortune, invigorated by the presence of the super subs, opened the scoring and an onslaught was inevitable.

The Bradford fans, just happy to be there, sang their hearts out before, during and after every Man Utd goal, which further emphasised the lack of singing, chanting, sledding or any other fan-type behaviour coming from the Stretford End. Ferguson was so concerned with the lack of singing last month that he suggested a choir be introduced to help the fans along.

At least United's players still celebrate their goals - though I'm told there's a chance next season that they might opt out of goal celebrations in every competition except for the Champions' League to avoid a celebration backlog. As we sat queuing around Old Trafford so we could then queue on the motorway, I surmised that the game I had seen was a pretty accurate reflection of football at the close of the millennium:

1) The divide between the haves and have-nots is very much alive and growing. The rich clubs will get richer while the poor ones will struggle for survival. The next big television deal will only exacerbate the situation.

2) It was a game played in a ground with major extension work going on. Most Premiership clubs are either rebuilding, moving or extending - which is an extension of the first points.

3) The highest ever paid British footballer was on the pitch, though Roy Keane's pounds 55,000 a week is certain to be eclipsed in Y2K. Players' salaries will continue to spiral as they get a share of television deals - see point 1) again - while lower league players may end up part-time. It's all in the name of progress, but at what price remains to be seen. For an indication, see England's performance in the Euro 2000 finals.

A happy New Year to you all.