Just Like Heaven : When The Seagull Flew Excerpt | Manchester United News

Just Like Heaven : When The Seagull Flew Excerpt

Just Like Heaven : When The Seagull Flew Excerpt

…Sunday 2nd May 1993…

It begins the day before. Just after 5-45pm at Mottram Hall golf course in Cheshire. The club bar is packed with members watching the dying embers of Aston Villa versus Oldham Athletic on Skysports. The air is tense for the Latics are leading 1-0 with just seconds left to play. If this score remains the same, then not only will Oldham have saved themselves from relegation.

But Manchester United will be crowed champions for the first time in twenty six years.

Amongst those watching most intently is a fanatical United supporter and season ticket holder. Forty six year old Michael Lavender.

Being too nervous to sit and watch the entire game Lavender has been out hitting a few balls on the course. He’s only just returned because he thought the agony and the match would be over.
But still it goes on.

‘How long to go George?’ He asks the bartender, whilst ordering a beer.
‘Anytime now Mike, They’re in injury time.’
The barman hands Lavender his pint just as the referee blows and the entire room goes crazy with delight! Drinks fly off tables and corks from Champagne bottles pop and fizz in the air.
‘Where’s Fergie?’ Somebody shouts.
I’m sure he’s around’ screams another.
Alex Ferguson is a member and arrived at the golf course hours before with his oldest son Mark. Utterly convinced that Villa would beat Oldham to keep the title race going into the final week of the season, Ferguson decided to simply not watch it and enjoy another of the great loves of his life.

A tearful Lavender is finding it all hard to take in. ‘Twenty six years. Twenty six fuckin’ years’ is all he can say.
The barman George Davies notice this and makes his way around the bar.
He’s also a red and whispers into Lavender’s ear. ‘Ferguson will be around the sixteenth or seventeenth green. Why don’t you go and tell him he’s won the league?’
Lavender nods and smiles.
‘Thanks George.’
‘Champions Mike!’ Exclaims George. ‘Bloody champions!’
The two men embrace.

Lavender heads off to his car. He drives up the path around the course until finally he sees two figures on the seventeenth. Lavender drives closer and his heart skips a beat. He heads over.
Alex Ferguson looks at his watch and son Mark starts to laugh.
‘Forget it Dad, we’ll know soon enough. Besides if it was good news then somebody would have come out of the club to let us know.’
Suddenly Lavender’s car screeches to a halt nearby behind them. The startled Ferguson’s turn around and see him racing over. Red faced and out of breath, but smiling wide. He stops facing just a couple of yards away.
‘Excuse me Mr Ferguson’ says Lavender. ‘I’m sorry to interrupt your game, but you, we are the champions. Oldham have won at Villa!’
Not certain at first whether this man is taking the mickey Ferguson stares hard at Lavender. But then he notices the tears in his eyes.
‘You’re absolutely sure about this son?’ Asks Ferguson
‘Oh yes boss’ grins Lavender. ‘I’ve never been surer about anything in my bloody life!’

Suddenly Mark hugs his dad and Lavender thinks it best to just leave them alone. He heads back to the car. His moment in Manchester United legend forever immortalised as the man who broke the news to the man!
A grinning Ferguson takes off his cap and wipes his brow. ‘Bloody hell!’
An emotional Mark tugs his arm. ‘So what happens now?’
‘We win it again next year son.’
Mark starts to laugh. ‘No I’m talking about should we head for the eighteenth or go and celebrate?’
‘Best go and tell your Mother first eh?’
They laugh and with Ferguson’s arm around his son’s shoulders they walk off back to the club house.

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 17.08.35…Monday 3rd May 1993…

It was only fair that when dawn broke over the River Irwell on this day of dreams that the man in the sky should decree there should be sunshine.
That all beers should be drunk cold, that all songs should be sung loud.
That all tears shed should be tears of joy. That all things worn should be red.
And that all those we love should be hugged within an inch of their lives. Mother, fathers, brothers, sisters, wives and lovers. Those no longer with us put a scarlet ribbon on their gravestone so they can party too.

For it’s been an eternity. Twenty six long and lean years. But now there’s a new word in Manchester. Not London, Leeds, Liverpool or Birmingham.
But Manchester. The home of the Industrial Revolution. LS Lowry, Alan Turing, Marks and Spencer. The city of the Busby Babes. Of Best, Law and Charlton…
And now of Cantona!
It’s Monday 3rd May 1993, and a chant not sung for many a sun or moon can finally be shouted from the rooftops.

Across the city From Moston to Wythenshawe. From Sale to Shaw. Ardwick, Ancoats, Collyhurst and Newton Heath. All points north. On the council estates of Harpurhey and Blackley they are dancing in the streets. Toasting with strongbow and whiskey chasers and half decent wine in Collyhurst.
The streets of Salford, that ‘Dirty old town’ signposted United red has simply gone mad! Stretford, Urmston and Flixton are out on the roads. Stick a traffic cone down, pull out the tables, crack open a beer and drink and drink to ‘Eric the King. The leader of our football team!’
From the hostelries of Altrincham to the wine bars of Hale, Bowdon and Alderley Edge they raise their glasses in the air. The red, white and black flags across Manchester are not just flying high, they are covering the sky. The party has begun!

Amidst the chaotic revelry that has engulfed Manchester on this beautiful May Bank Holiday Monday, there still exists the small matter of a football match to be played at Old Trafford. Manchester United against Blackburn Rovers this evening in what is now nothing more than the supporting act of the champion’s crowning.
A party twenty six years in waiting and those with an invitation blessed.
Touts can name any price and many are doing so. If Jesus Christ was to return himself performing juggling, turning water to wine and curing lepers a ticket would be easier to come across.
From early morning the roads and streets around Old Trafford are crammed with excited supporters. Counting down the seconds to that glorious moment later on tonight when the trophy is presented in the stadium.
The hawkers arrive and set up shop. Finally able to shift their chancer’s arms, job lots of Tee shirts and baseball caps. Collateral damage from last season desperate climax to the league. These and those newly printed in the last twelve hours. Plus scarves, flags, banners and cups. All with one word inscribed.
As for those responsible on ending the curse and causing an entire city to jump in a barrel of beer, the players partied equally long and hard at Steve Bruce’s house. What began as a small get together with close friends and neighbours swiftly grew into a full scale celebration as team mates naturally migrated to their Captain’s home. Soon all were present and any thoughts of the next day’s game disappeared. The unyielding pressure forever present in the closing months of the campaign giving way to one almighty blow out!

Last order didn’t apply at the Bruce’s.

Stood in the kitchen with Bryan Robson enjoying a quiet beer, the Captain looked through into the living room to see Giggs, Ince, Parker and many others at various points of no return.
He smiles wide. ‘God helps us against Blackburn Robbo. We’re going to get bloody hammered 10-0 tomorrow!’
Nearing kick off next evening, hangovers have settled sufficiently for Alex Ferguson to name a full strength team. In the dressing room he’s gathered all his players and staff together. Ferguson stands in their midst as the crowd noise, their songs and chants echoes loud through the walls.
But as he begins you can hear a pin drop.
‘I want you all to look around this room because without each and every one here we could not have won this league. Now you’ve all done absolutely marvellous. Aye, I’m bloody proud of every single one of you.’
He focuses his stare on the players. Many of them heavy eyed and still dog rough. Desperate not to catch the manager’s eye.
He smiles. ‘Now I’m not even going to ask what you lot got up to last night. I don’t want to know.’
That said Ferguson’s glance turns towards Steve Bruce, who puts his head down, but can’t fail to hide a slight smile.
‘Now I don’t want this lot turning up here tonight and ruining it for everybody. Dalglish will have his players wound up and ready for a scrap, so if you’re not up for they’ll turn us over. Now your fitness is good. Despite the rumours I’ve been hearing today and looking at the state of some of you.’
A few spluttered cough and embarrassed smiles as most players continue staring shamefaced at the floor.
‘Whoever doesn’t perform in the first half is coming off for Robbo in the second, so make sure you’re on your game. And finally, this is one of the few occasions where you can just go out and enjoy it. So express yourself. Soak it all up…But win!’
Laughter breaks out around the room. It’s clear that despite winning the league, defeat for this man can simply never be tolerated.

There have been many special nights under the Old Trafford floodlights. Wonderful atmospheres, spine chilling occasions, but as the cry goes out across the terraces ‘Bring on the champions.’ Few have ever come near to matching or beating what is occurring here on this warm Mancunian summer’s evening of Monday 3rd May 1993.
Amongst the crowd, the flags, banners and scarves waving there are as many tears as smiles. Thoughts of those no longer present who didn’t live to see this moment. Twenty six years is an awful lot of funerals. United season tickets exist in families like DNA. The faces may change, even names, but the passion like Manchester United never dies.
The players led by Steve Bruce appear and are met with a wall of noise from the fortunate 40,447. They head into the centre-circle to wave and accept the acclaim of a rapturous red army. As Queens ‘We are the champions’ blasts out the home team break for a brief kick about. The anthems continue with a tribute to their latest hero and legend already in making.

‘Oh Ah Cantona’ begins and swiftly resonates from all parts of the stadium. Drunk on alcohol and euphoria an ecstatic red choir are as one hailing their new king from across the channel. Cantona remains calm and cool. The trademark shirt collar up and ready for battle. His features etched in concentration for it’s time to go to work.
As Alex Ferguson warned his team beforehand, Blackburn have turned up in a mood, not so much party spoiling, but more on the lines of putting a hand grenade in the punch bowl. United have started slowly with passes going astray all over the field. None in red appears capable of trapping a ball never mind create an opportunity. Even Cantona is affected, his first touch normally so sure, temporarily deserting him. Whereas Rovers are fast, hard tackling and seemingly intent on turning this Mancunian fiesta into a damp squib.
On eight minutes midfielder Jason Wilcox plays a pass out wide for his full back Nicky Marker to cross low and Scottish international forward Kevin Gallagher lashes a sensation near-post effort past a stunned Schmeichel into the top corner.
On the ball hitting the net the roar of ‘champions’ starts up loud once more from the Old Trafford terraces to rouse their team. More importantly Ferguson heads down to the touchline, his face reddened with anger. A look that says more than a thousand threats and a message succinct and clear. ‘Step it up or else.’
It’s like the switching on of a light as United click in and start to resemble their true selves. The passing swift, incisive and slick with one man at its red heart. Cantona’s radar is up and running. The runs of Hughes, Giggs and Sharpe are now being found by the Frenchman with the astute ease of a young child devouring an ice cream.
On twenty one minutes Paul Ince is fouled and Ryan Giggs steps up from nearly thirty yards, to flash a left footed free kick into the top right hand corner past a stunned Bobby Mimms in the Blackburn net. Old Trafford explodes in delight at this wonderful goal by the prodigious Giggs.

Truly a moment worthy of a coronation.

Ferguson himself beams wide at this piece of supreme skill from the youngster, who already has the footballing world drooling at his dancing feet. A boy wonder starting to remind many older supporters of a past United legend.
A kid from Belfast whose lightning pace off the mark, bewildering dribbling and balletic grace and movement over the grass saw him illuminate not just countless grey Mancunian afternoons. But also cause hearts to burst, break and soar, both near and afar.
The word on Ryan Giggs is that even George Best rates him.
Higher praise is hard to find.
Half time arrives and Ferguson as promised introduces Bryan Robson.
The second period is one way traffic as Manchester United now playing with a freedom of expression that comes only from knowing you’re the best are producing some exquisite football. Not surprisingly Cantona is at the fore. Teasing and tormenting two Blackburn defenders in the penalty area before skipping past both and delivering an inch perfect pass for Robson to smash a ferocious fifteen yard volley straight at Mimms, that nearly cuts him in two.

It’s now a siege as on sixty one minutes Cantona again is causing havoc. Looking for an opening, he produces a delicious slide pass that takes out three Rover’s shirts for Paul Ince to race onto and fire low past Mimms from eight yards. A small cameo of the champion’s season. Wonderfully vivid, a swiftness of mind and feet then rapier fast and ultimately deadly.
The class of 93.
In the dying seconds Cantona again beats two defenders on the edge of the penalty area and sets up Mark Hughes, only for him to be brought crashing to the ground. A free kick and there’s just one Manchester United outfield player yet to score this season. As Old Trafford holds it breath, the big defender Gary Pallister is called for and wearing a huge smile he lumbers up field and casually lashes a right foot shot into the net that Mimms never sees. A perfect ending to what has been a sensation performance.
Once the hangovers had shifted!

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 17.11.48But now the moment all those with United in their heart have been waiting for…
On a star lit Mancunian evening in front of an emotionally charged and electrifying packed Old Trafford, Steve Bruce and Bryan Robson prepare together to lift high the Premiership trophy and officially signify the twenty six year drought is over. Hysteria, great joy and an overwhelming sense of relief fills the air. An albatross around the neck of all at Manchester United disguised as a Liver bird can finally be cast off.

Sat watching events unfold nearby where Bruce and Robson stand and wait is an elderly gentleman. Eight decades and three years old. He’s forever and rightly immortalised in the legendary Spinners tribute song about the players lost at Munich. The Flowers of Manchester as ‘The Father of this football team.’ The old man in his thirties came to the club with a burnt out ground, dying and on its knees after World War two. Along with his assistant Jimmy Murphy they together built it into what United is today.
A worldwide phenomenon.
From the snow, blood-drenched runway of Munich to European cup glory ten years on. Then he retired and the walls to the kingdom crumbled. Manchester United fell from grace…Until now.
A smiling Sir Matt Busby watches on with tears in his eyes, but fiercely proud as amidst a thousand flashlights, blinding and illuminating this dark and memorable Mancunian night, Bruce and Robson lift together the measure of red dreams. Old Trafford erupts and United are back!
Each player follows and is handed the trophy to enormous cheers from a delirious and grateful crowd. But none more than the one ninth in line. When the name of Eric Cantona is mentioned over the tannoy the roars from the stands echo far away in northern skies. Andrei Kanchelskis passes to Cantona and as he lifts it above his head Old Trafford again self-ignites with noise and furore.
Watching on a smiling Alex Ferguson has the look of a proud father. His audacious gamble on Cantona now proving to be the work of a genius. The Frenchman’s signing undoubtedly the catalyst that has brought about one of the greatest nights in the history of Manchester United.
When the players return to the pitch many look quizzically and unimpressed at the small miniature of the trophy they have been presented with.
‘All that fuckin’ running around for this,’ jokes Paul Ince.
‘You won’t get much champagne in it,’ smiles Bryan Robson.
‘When did you ever need a glass?’ Laughs Bruce. Whilst putting an arm around Robson’s shoulders.
Ferguson is stood talking to Cantona.
‘Do you remember boss, when we first met and I said to you this is a magical place where dreams come true?’
‘I do Eric’ replies a smiling Ferguson. ‘I remember it well.’
‘Well, for me now, magical does not do it justice.’
Cantona glances around at the amazing scenes of joy and celebration amongst his team mates and the supporters.
‘It is just like heaven’…

The above is an excerpt from RetroUnited.com’s John Ludden’s book ‘When The Seagull Flew’ – order it on Amazon here.


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  1. Swede

    Great reading as I was at the Villa-Oldham game just hours after we met Nobby Stiles who entertained us scandinavians with his stories from his career. Game at home to Rovers was just one big smile and I was so lucky to be there.

  2. ralphmilne

    my late dad had stuck with the reds from 1945 until he died at the match in 2004 unfortunately he had booked a holiday in may 93 and had to watch the Blackburn match in spain said he wasn’t bothered but I didn’t believe him !

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