A Dish Best Served Cold
From Issue 48, Autumn 2000
It had to be the cheese. My weakness for French cheeses – Camembert, Brie, Roquefort – and the French street markets in which they are sold – the freedom to sample a taste before you buy- the visual richness of the displays and the assault on one’s olfactory senses all combine to seduce me with all the ease of a Scandinavian teenager.
So it didn’t seem at all strange when the phone rang on that Friday evening and a voice said “Listen, we’ve got a bit of a problem with tomorrow’s big match. Graham Poll has been abducted by aliens and everyone else is busy. If you could get to Old Trafford by 9.30 you would be helping us out of a really deep hole.”
“Look, think of the kudos. Refereeing Manchester United against Liverpool. It doesn’t get any bigger than that.”
“Name your price. Money really is no obstacle at that club. Of course you would be expected to give them half a dozen or so dodgy decisions but they really do make it worth your while. Some people have made enough to retire after this fixture. Say you’ll do it?”
Being a Liverpudlian, I tried hard to do the decent thing and tell him that I shouldn’t really accept his offer because of my complete lack of impartiality in this fixture. But while I was trying to get a word in edgeways, the endless possibilities began to elbow their way to the front of my mind and I could begin to see how this was a heaven sent opportunity to right a few wrongs, settle a few scores and ruffle a few feathers. I said ‘OK’ in a reluctant sort of way, just to make sure he realised what a huge favour I was doing him.
Getting down the M62 at 620 mph in my Star Wars pod racer next morning was fun and we made light of the usual snarl up of traffic at the Croft interchange. My hair was a bit ruffled and my ears were ringing a bit when I pulled up at Old Trafford. The poor sod at the car park was a bit miffed at me upstaging all the Ferraris and Porsches. I walked off to the dressing room with the words “Becks is definitely going to want one of these…” fading behind me. But I had to rush back because I remembered that I had left the Ion thrust accelerator in the drive and we all know what can happen when you don’t immobilise your vehicle in Manchester……
Inside the ground I was assigned a minder who claimed he was there to protect me from those ‘sad Scouse losers who can get a little bolshie’. That wasn’t to be the first time I had to bite my tongue that day. I found it most unsettling when Siralex came in and started spelling out his game plan to me – why WAS he doing that to the goat? I just kept saying ‘Yes’ at regular intervals while, at the same time formulating my own vindictive agenda. As he and his goat left, he tossed a bundle of £50 notes into my kit bag and with a sinister look in his eye, added “Remember – we’ve got to win by three clear goals”. My tongue was starting to bleed. I nodded in the affirmative. I thought I heard the goat squealing again in the corridor outside.
Having been advised by Siralex that there was no need for the traditional visit to the team’s dressing rooms I decided to heed his advice lest I alert him to the fact that I wasn’t ‘on-message’. I was glad of this when, as I made my way to the tunnel, I heard the unmistakable sound of a bleating goat being ritually sacrificed behind their dressing room door. Siralex emerged from the dressing room seconds later wiping what looked like blood from his chin.
Out on the pitch the atmosphere was a bit special and they had even allocated a couple of hundred tickets to Liverpool. Those brave enough to run the gauntlet of that incisive Mancunian wit (not to mention the hail of rubble, bottles and mucous that invariably accompanies such wit) continued to make a disproportionate amount of noise and assembled unaware that, this time it was their team. OUR team that had the advantage. This time the Man In Black had a mind of his own and an attitude to match.
I had a nasty moment when I called the two captains together. I thought for a second that there was a flicker of recognition which flashed across Sami Hyypia’s noble Viking brow. It turned out to be nothing more than wind and we were soon enveloped in a sickly brown cloud. “Book him ref” insisted Roy Keane. I was quick to point out that there was nothing in the rules about farting on the pitch. “Nicky Butt got us a penalty against West Ham last season when John Moncur farted on him in the box” replied Keane. I could see that many mysteries were going to be revealed to me during this morning. I couldn’t find a way of switching their double-headed coin so they won the toss, picked ends and Liverpool kicked off.
Mercifully, the first ten minutes were a bit quiet as both teams seemed to be feeling their way into the match. This gave me a chance to keep a low profile and not draw attention to my allegiance. It was Steven Gerrard who put me on the spot first with a fabulous tackle on Giggs as he swept towards the Liverpool box. Gerrard emerged with the ball laying it off sensibly to Berger who, as ever, was available nearby. I was instantly surrounded by red shirts who insisted (in language of industrial strength) that my eyesight had failed me and that the marital status of my parents was questionable. I shuddered slightly as I feared how they would react to one of the more controversial decisions which I knew lay ahead.
Within a couple of minutes controversy arrived in the uncompromising form of Jamie Carragher. He lunged into the marauding Keane with both feet, sending Keane spiralling upwards in a most theatrical manner. Keane landed on top of Carragher with a sickening thud of bone on sinew. I awarded the free kick to Carragher and the yellow card to Keane – well, what else could I do? It was well inside Beckham’s range. To defuse the situation I had a quiet word with Carragher. The red shirts all thought he was getting a stiff talking to but what I really said was along the lines of “Next time roll out of the way before he hits the deck”. Jamie looked a bit shocked – which suited my little pretence and seemed to pacify the Mancs a little. They didn’t stay pacified for long because, from the free kick, Liverpool swept down to the other end of the pitch. Berger unleashed a laser guided cross to the far post where Fowler was waiting. He took the ball on his chest, it dropped onto his thigh and he hit a fabulous volley past Barthez. Straight away I recalled the trouble that Mike Reid had got himself into when celebrating Berger’s goal against Leeds the previous season so I restricted myself to a strangled ‘yersssssss’. I wasn’t aware that Paul Scholes was standing so close (I had a cold that day) and as he turned to remonstrate with me I did a very passable job of turning the sound of elation into a coughing fit.
As Cole restarted the match my telepathy (I did mention that I was telepathic didn’t I?) seemed to detect the message “Right, now he owes us – we can get away with anything” flashing around the red shirts. I knew things were about to get difficult. It was also going to be a hard job to protect the Liverpool players from the physical approach I knew the Mancs would adopt.
Scholes’ challenge on Redknapp gave me no choice – the card had to be red. Besides, the ginger tosser had almost rumbled me and was going to be a problem for as long as he remained on the pitch. I insisted that he repair the rip in Redknapp’s tights before he left the pitch. I thought he wasn’t going to go but then it seemed to occur to him that he had better go and have a word with Siralex. He trotted off but the noise was deafening. It only took a mere five minutes to restore order and re-start the game. I wasn’t phased by all the jostling but it was difficult to restrain myself when somebody like Beckham was screaming into my face from six inches away. The urge to deck him was very difficult to contain. But I knew that if I was to stay on the pitch and finish the job, restraint had to be the order of the day.
The penalty decision made itself really. Emile Heskey was understandably close to tears at the torrent of racial abuse heaped on him by Jaap Stam. It’s just a shame that the crowd couldn’t hear the little outburst which the Sky digital viewers with Nicam stereo prologic dolby surround sound were treated to. Then they might have understood. It is imperative that we kick racism out of the game and I was going to do my bit for the cause, however unpopular it made me. Redknapp (now sporting fetching lime green tights) put the kick high and wide of Barthez who by now had developed horns and a little pointy tail sticking out of the back of his shorts. He was reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards as he retrieved the ball from the back of the net and cloven-hoofed it up the field. The half time whistle came as a relief to us all although I knew that my dressing room would be the centre of attention at half time so I hid in a cleaner’s room to avoid trouble. How was I to know that it was the next room to their showers? And what was all that sniffing going on at half time? Was there a sudden outbreak of sinus trouble in the Manc camp? Anyway, I learned that talcum powder is a useful remedy because several of their players came out for the second half with white powder around their nostrils.
Fortunately, I was back out on the pitch before Siralex could present me with that meat hook, which I presumed was some strange Manc ritual. I knew that this was going to be the longest forty five minutes of my life but I was determined to exact my retribution for those years of diabolical decisions and stroke pulling that even the likes of Machiavelli would have shied away from.
The Mancs were soon on the attack and Babbel had to be on good form as Giggs kept throwing himself to the floor in a desperate bid to impress me. Events were soon taken out of my hands when the linesman flagged for a penalty after Giggs made one such lunge inside the box. As I couldn’t over-rule him, I had to award the spot-kick. As Dennis Irwin stepped up to take the kick, I had a word in his ear and told him that he had always reminded me of Liberace and did he know that his mother had had an unnatural relationship with a baboon? So it was no surprise when he did a Dean Windass and kicked the ball straight at my head, leaving Sander Westerveld’s goal untroubled. I didn’t mind too much – my head only hurt for about five minutes and it left me free to administer the justice which should have befallen Windass as I brandished another red card. The crowd was getting seriously hysterical by now. There were red shirts flying in everywhere but they were getting tired because there were only nine of them now.
I’m proud to say that my lack of impartiality had no influence on Owen’s sensational goal with ten minutes to go. He just turned Stam inside out and slotted it past Barthez who by now was breathing fire from his nostrils and looking distinctly satanic. As there wasn’t long to go, I decided to finish with a flourish. I booked Gary Neville for being ugly and Stam for looking like Mr Potato Head. Phil Neville got a yellow for giving away THAT penalty in Charleroi. Andy Cole got one for being crap but I reserved my ‘coup de gras’ for the Manc we love to hate. Of course they were giving me a hard time as we left the pitch and Becks was at the front of the mob. While he was busily engaged in trying to string a sentence together in joined up thinking, I grabbed his shirt and head butted him sweetly on the nose. The sensation of the bone breaking under my forehead was so satisfying but why was I hearing ‘Supertramp’ singing ‘Dreamer’ when I clearly wasn’t.…….. and that Radio City jingle.……..oh no, my radio alarm has gone off and I’m vowing never to eat cheese before bedtime again!