Kicking Out: Oul Pat's the only place for future United-Liverpool games
NB: If you need any proof of the point this column makes, consider that it was written in its entirety by 4pm on Sunday, some 30 minutes before a ball was kicked in an entirely predictable game at Anfield…
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ON Sunday, we took a rare notion of takeaway for dinner.
In our house, we have avoided moving with the rare Irish tradition of moving the dinner on Sunday to lunchtime. Why is that a thing?
The coupling of these decisions meant one of us would have to drive into the town, collect food, drive back and then eat it.
All of this right in the middle of Liverpool v Manchester United.
Rediscovering my inner six-year-old, I dug my heels in. If I had to go, I’d have missed the middle bit of the match.
Leaving it just wasn’t an option, yet you just knew instinctively it wouldn't be worth watching.
For the first time in years, it feels like a vocation to support United again.
Even though it is the halfway point of the season and their home form will eventually catch up on them, this was the biggest game for a number of years.
The big games growing up were always Champions League games. We didn’t have Sky at home, so saw precious little of the Premier League.
I was obsessed. On one fine summer Sunday afternoon, the parents announced we’d go down to Oul Pat’s to watch United.
I’d never met Oul Pat, didn’t know who he was or where he lived, but if he had Sky in, he was my friend.
Our house is at a dead-end with just rows of fields behind us. Off we went down those fields.
“A shortcut”, Da said.
After walking for what felt like an hour, we arrived at an old wallstead. Two half-sides of the old ruin were still standing.
“This is Oul Pat’s,” he announced as we stepped in through.
“Where’s the Sky?” I quivered.
Back when ITV had rights to show games on both nights, I would plop myself on the best seat in the house at 7pm sharp.
The programme didn’t start until 7.30pm, the match 15 minutes later, and this meant sitting through Emmerdale. But you didn’t want to miss a single second of the build-up.
Jim Rosenthal would appear. Chat would be brief, given they had ads to squeeze in and analysis to do before handing over to Brian Moore or Clive Tyldsley.
In the days before social media, the grey pitch ITV used for graphics was where you found out the team news.
I had everyone’s head tormented. We didn’t have RTÉ for a good few years either and in the days when they showed live 3pm games on a Saturday, I’d hop across to Mickey and Philomena’s house next door and take control of their remote.
When it was a really big league game on Sky, we’d go to my aunt Rita’s house.
Saturday, 12.30pm kick-off. Myself and Da would land in. The fry would be started, and served to our knees so that we didn’t have to miss a moment.
Rita’s husband Brian would be there, cracking jokes and wondering whether Nottingham Forest were due a revival.
My first United top was the second-hand grey one they only wore once.Their son Sean had owned it, all 6'6" of him, and I wore it endlessly despite it falling beyond my knees.
On one particular night that United were playing, I was sick. Not too sick to miss going to Rita and Brian's, but enough that at 15 I was introduced to the magical healing powers of The Hot Whiskey.
By the time I had it drunk, it had long been just whiskey.
In the later teenage years, there was blue WKD laid on. The fry didn’t stop.
The great United-Arsenal clashes of that era were played out in Rita’s living room. I might as well have been standing between Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira in the Highbury tunnel, been on John O'Shea's shoulder for that chip in the epic 4-2 victory, or felt the point of Sol Campbell's elbow on the bridge of Solskjaer's nose.
You’d sit in a daze of glorious excitement until Da stood up to pack the cigarette box into his jeans pocket, and then it was time to go.
We were actually in my other aunt Mary K’s house when Peter Schmeichel saved Dennis Bergkamp’s penalty in ’99. He had the silver box snapped down and packed away, and was standing with one foot out the door. He quickly sat back down.
Maybe it was the sense that this was out of the norm, perhaps it is even misty-eyed nostalgia, but the big games rarely seemed to disappoint back then.
Not the way they do now.
Worrying about who’d go for the takeaway on Sunday was a completely pointless affair.
In our friends’ WhatsApp group, I confidently predicted before a ball was kicked that it would finish 0-0 without a shot on target for an hour.
When you come to expect so little of these games, it is a bad sign for the sport.
Four of the last six meetings of the two have been 0-0 draws.
As one observer pointed out, they had three brilliant games against each other in 1999 and there hasn’t been a good game since.
My first trip to Old Trafford was for United v Liverpool and despite the pandemonium of The Stretford End when Pepe Reina could only push Rio Ferdinand’s injury-time header into the top corner, it was a truly woeful game up until then
United and Man City played out one of the worst 0-0 draws in Premier League history before Christmas. They mustered just two shots each on target.
When City and Liverpool played in November, they amassed five shots on target in a 1-1 draw.
That was the same figure as last season’s Champions League final. The football that Bayern Munich and PSG had played to get there was at times scintillating but the end product was a turgid show.
The fear of losing takes on enormous undue weight.
All of this got me thinking that we’re very lucky in the GAA.
Not only do our All-Ireland finals retain the razzmatazz, noise and colour to match any sporting occasion in the world, but they tend to match it with the game.
Go back through the finals this century. Whereas in other sports you will occasionally get a good final worth remembering, we’ve tended to get more good ones than bad lately.
Dublin’s utter domination of football hasn’t quite extended to one-sided deciders. Mayo could have had them twice in consecutive classics, while they played out two absorbing games with Kerry in 2019.
Even 2020, without fans, was a breakneck game for 50 minutes until Mayo fell away.
There have been a few classic All-Ireland football semi-finals in recent years too, though nothing on the scale of hurling, which never seems to have a bad semi-final any more.
Our showpiece games often project the best lighting on the sport. That has been one of the primary arguments against a straight knockout championship and it is a compelling one.
When Dublin, Kerry, Mayo, Tyrone, Donegal, Monaghan and Galway come into contact with each other, they seldom disappoint.
Looking at the crap that Liverpool and United produced on Sunday, you have to ask yourself: How often can I be fooled into thinking the next big soccer game will be any different from the last one?
I’d be as well going to Oul Pat’s to watch the next one.