Rob Robertson, Sports Journalist, Scottish Daily Mail
Sometimes, as a Scottish journalist covering games in England you are classed as “foreign press” and put in with writers from overseas. One such occasion for me was when I was sent to cover Manchester United’s FA Cup semi-final replay against Arsenal at Villa Park back in 1999.
I was sitting with various nationalities like the Italians, the French, lots of Japanese and one lovely lady from China. I was at the end of the row next to the woman from Beijing who spoke not a word of English and I not a word of Chinese. Or should that be Mandarin?
Either way, after some polite smiles between us we went into our own little worlds, me trying to get a signal on my mobile phone, her back to marvelling at the size of the crowd. I was working for The Herald at the time and had a quarter-to-twelve deadline, so I could actually sit back, take notes and enjoy the game.
It turned out to be a match to remember.
United took a first-half lead with a classy long-range strike from David Beckham in a game that ebbed and flowed, until the Gunners equalised midway through the second half with a Dennis Bergkamp shot that squirmed under the body of Peter Schmeichel.
The match took on a whole new dimension when Roy Keane was sent off for a second yellow card and, with the introduction of Marc Overmars, Arsenal were in the driving seat. Nicolas Anelka had a goal disallowed for offside and United’s chances looked over when Phil Neville brought down Bergkamp to give away an injury-time penalty. But the drama had only just begun and Schmeichel saved Bergkamp’s spot-kick to force extra-time.
Arsenal still had the upper hand until Ryan Giggs ran from halfway, beating the entire Arsenal back-line before firing into the roof of the net to score an outrageous goal that ranks among the all-time great solo efforts and was deservedly named the greatest strike in FA Cup history.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s side held on to the final whistle which was the cue for celebration in the United end of Villa Park and also in the seat next to me. My Chinese lady friend may have been a journalist, but there was no attempt to remain unbiased on her part.
In the blink of an eye she had pulled off her jersey and just when I thought she was going to be arrested I noticed she thankfully had a red Manchester United top on underneath it. With a tear in her eye she was shouting at the top of her voice in words known from Beijing to Bathgate, “United, United.”
To be honest, I was a bit sniffy with her, because in my pompous way I felt only professional journalists should be in press boxes, not Manchester United loving fans from Beijing. But do you know something? The pleasure that lady felt at the end of the match showed me the unconfined joy football can bring to one and all and my frown turned upside down into a smile.
It was a moment I have never forgotten. Even now, if I’m at a game that is rather dull, I think back to my smiling Chinese lady and my faith in the beautiful game is instantly restored.