'Tottman,' arm wrestling, road trips: Man United tours in the '70s and '80s
Manchester United kick off their seventh U.S. tour in 14 years on Saturday night with a game against LA Galaxy. Preseason trips now are driven by commercial impetus and feature games against big clubs; United will play Manchester City, Real Madrid and Barcelona in the space of six days. The players will be fortunate to be allowed one night out in the 19 days they're away from Manchester.
The club is unrecognisable from the pre-Premier League era; so are the tours undertaken and the stories that emerge. In 1985, before the internet and 24-hour news cycles existed, United played several games in Jamaica.
"It was brilliant," said former defender John Gidman. "We played a friendly game against a Jamaican XI, but me and Arthur Albiston were injured so we got a few beers and sat on the bench. The Jamaican Air Force were putting a show on and one of their top men stood in the centre of the pitch by a giant cross that had been marked out. He proudly told the crowd of 30,000 that the match ball was going to be delivered to the centre circle by a parachutist, who would land on the cross. I saw 30,000 fans look up in expectation and could see the parachutist miles above.
"I bet Arthur £100 that he wouldn't land in the centre circle," continued Gidman. "Arthur had it and we watched as this bloke came closer and closer with the match ball. He seemed like he going to make the stadium until a gust of wind blew him off course and he landed in the car park, hurting himself. We could already see a second parachutist above him. Arthur said 'double or quits,' but the poor lad landed so far away I bet it wasn't even in Jamaica. A third and final parachutist was coming in and we went double or quits again, agreeing that all he had to do was land inside the stadium. The bloke came closest, but became tangled in the roof of the main stand. He was injured, yet all we could do was argue about the technicality of whether he'd landed inside the stadium or not. The game started, only to be stopped 10 minutes in when the fire brigade turned up to cut the bloke free! I won the £400."
It was not the only memorable moment on the trip.
"I was sitting on the beach when this little lad came along selling spliffs," said Gidman. "I sat there chilling and having a smoke under a palm tree. I'd never had cannabis before or since, but it made me laugh, especially when I saw Ron Atkinson and [his wife] Maggie walking along the shoreline. All of a sudden, a Caribbean trade wind picked up and Atko's hairpiece lifted up like the roof of a Ford Escort Cabriolet, before resting flat back on his head. I was howling with laughter and told the chairman, Martin Edwards. He used to call Atkinson 'cabriolet' thereafter and Atko couldn't understand why."
In 1983, United played in Swaziland, the tiny landlocked country in southern Africa, which was chosen because political sanctions prevented a game playing in neighbouring South Africa, where the system of apartheid was in effect.
United played Tottenham twice in the Lobamba national stadium, which was full of wealthy South Africans, winning one and losing one. In between, the two English clubs combined to form a single team -- "Tottman" -- and this bizarre entity won 6-1 against a Swaziland XI.
The meticulous organisation of current tours wasn't there in the 1980s and the players often had to improvise when it came to travel.
"After the [Swaziland] tour, Big Ron flew off to Mauritius to work on his tan," said former defender Albiston. "But we were unable to get back to Johannesburg for our flights home because fans had booked them up. The Tottenham lads had flights, so Glenn Hoddle rented us his hire car -- after some hard bargaining. I drove Gordon McQueen, John Gidman and Kevin Moran 400 miles to Johannesburg where we had a few days enjoying ourselves."
At almost three weeks, United's current tour is a long one, but it's got nothing on the summer of 1975 when, despite great reluctance from senior players, a trip took place that lasted well over a month.
"The older players were arranging meetings about meetings because they didn't want to be there," said Albiston. "They were away from their families for 38 days and played 10 matches. There were 14 flights and 32,000 miles to fly. We went to Iran, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand, Australia. [Manager] Tommy Docherty had to come on as sub in one of the games; he got sent off. Jim Holton and Alex Forsyth missed the births of their kids. It would never happen now. But for the younger lads, who were shielded from the arguments, it was a great adventure and we loved the trip. I saw the world at 17."
An early 1980s trip to the Mediterranean island of Mallorca was closer to home, but also didn't go without incident.
"We had a wee bit of a run-in with the American Navy, who had come into Palma for a few days," said former defender Gordon McQueen. "Paul McGrath, who was never the most subtle guy when it came to getting up and dancing, pushed one aside and started dancing with his girl for a bit of fun. Two of his mates started getting into McGrath. I was with [United captain Bryan Robson] and we started thinking, 'Oh no.' We went over and I left-hooked one with a big haymaker. Then I hit another one with a right-handed haymaker. They both felt it and I thought, 'I am going to get my head kicked in here.' Robbo thought the same. Except the military police came in and battered the living daylights out of the Yanks for causing problems."
Four years later, diplomatic relations were restored somewhat when the United team met some U.S. Marines in Japan and challenged them to an arm wrestling competition.
"I was the champion arm wrestler at the club; well, me and [Mark Hughes] were," said Clayton Blackmore. "He's bigger than me but it's about technique, not how big you are. We were turning these Marines over, but I was getting more tired with each victory. They brought this big lad out; I thought he was going to break my arm. It was America vs. Britain. All the Marines were stood around the table going, 'Oooh, ooh, ohh.' He did beat me in the end, sadly."
United's current players will see a chunk of America without really experiencing any of it. Travel will consist of return airport to hotel, hotel to stadium or training pitch trips. There will be little chance for sightseeing, let alone cross-country drives or run-ins with the American military.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.