No you didn’t misread that – and there’s no punch line. On Wednesday night when Manchester United face Sunderland hoping to overturn a 2-1 first-leg defeat in order to reach the League Cup final, I will be cheering for them as loud as any of my ‘usually-extremely-vocal-but-recently-very-quiet’ United-supporting friends.
Just last weekend Man United played Chelsea and there was no doubt that a United victory would be much more to Man City’s advantage than a Chelsea one. Other City-supporting friends did the sensible thing and cheered them on. I tried, but couldn’t. So what has brought on this sudden incomprehensible change of heart?
At my father’s funeral last November I said this: “Our biggest disagreement was in the realm of football. We were both Manchester, but he red, and me blue. In Ireland it was reversed, he following the blue of Ballymena while I stuck with my maternal family loyalties with the red of Crusaders. Even here, dad was full of grace. He couldn’t understand rivalry and if United were knocked out of a cup, he would always support City. I’m afraid I have a long way to go!”
I do indeed, and have never managed it- until now. You see, there was another little phrase that dad would add at those moments of football reflection. If one or other of us were knocked out of a cup (ok, it was usually us) he would invariably commiserate with me – sincerely – and say: “Ah well, I’ll never see an all-Manchester final in my lifetime”. In 2010 both teams reached the semi-finals of the League Cup. We waited but, no, we were drawn against each other and City lost. “Ah well”, said dad, disappointment genuinely overshadowing his joy at United having made another final, “we’ll never see us both in the final in my lifetime”. In 2011, dad now in his 80th year, we made the last four of the F A Cup and again drew each other in the semi-final. This time City won en route to our first major trophy for 35 years. “Not in my lifetime” he said.
So it was with scarcely credible poignancy I watched the balls come out of the bag for this year’s semi-final draw just a few weeks after dad died, and realised that City and United had been kept apart. At the time of writing City are virtually there having secured a 6-0 advantage over West Ham in the first leg. Who would have thought that the stumbling-block to this historic elusive event in the Montgomery household would be a spluttering inconsistent United team? But that’s the reality. It’s over to them. And as they take the field against Sunderland on Wednesday night , strangely I will find it utterly natural to cheer them on in memory of, and in tribute to a father who longed for this moment and who would have done the same thing if the roles were reversed.
Will it be a case of dad having prophetic prescience and it almost being ordained that, like Moses on Mount Nebo, this Promised Match he longed to see would escape him? Or will they stumble at the last hurdle and cause me to look upward and echo his words: “Not in my lifetime, dad; not in my lifetime”?