Teletext, in days that now seem ancient, was a valuable commodity for those who had not yet come to realise the damning aspects of football. By @Herzogchild.
It was, in essence, a forerunner to the illimitable and vacuous resources we’ve now become inundated with – heck, even desperately burdened by – in modern times – namely twitter, and the smile-embossed, excitement bombasts of Sky Sports News.
Back then, TVs would be hurriedly switched on each morning, evening and night, as fingers punched in the relevant numerals to attain the day’s news. Immediacy was non-existent, unlike now, and the 10-15 seconds it took for your requested page to show on the screen was usually accompanied by indescribable unease.
Finally, when it did arrive, eyes flashed firstly at the headline, which was finely capitalised, before scanning the remaining, usually less intriguing, news of the day. This was done perhaps thrice a day. Or, with, say, the summer transfer window, thrice hourly; there was, after all, sadly little else to do. There was a coldness to its features, however, presented not in the luminescent din of flashing yellow, as Sky’s combustible presenters and breaks appear, but eerily flung there, all black, white and stark.
Imagine, then, if you will, the cruelty of the outlet, when it one morning confirmed the severance of not just a player from a club – for that happened frequently – but a brimful of joy from a young heart. I was a mere 12 years old, bereft then of the insurmountable doom that football has since unleashed.
To a kid, blissfully ignorant of the stunting politics the game’s embroiled in, it was just about games. Games and players, and goals and going to the games, and cheering the goals, and having a player. My favourite then, and perhaps the last I adored in the only way a child can, was Jakob ‘Jaap’ Stam. And it was teletext, a source I would never use again, which took him from United, from me, forever.
My fascination with Jaap was alike all youthful adoration; it stemmed not from something deep, or even having seen him play too often; absurdly bland in my reasoning, Stam was picked on grounds that now, almost a decade later, appear preposterous: he was tall, bulking, hard and had a weird name. That was it. That was enough, I reasoned, and after torturously deliberating over which name I would have adorned on the back of my United shirt, it was Stam’s, coupled with the number six, I picked. A devotion unlike any other before was manifesting within me, and I wore the shirt daily, its red fabric almost wearing into my skin from over-usage – or non-washing, a complaint my mother would issue.
Snared from PSV for £10.6m, a then costly fee, despite looking terribly little in today’s market, Stam shambled through his opening few games. Lost in the hysteria of 99’s triumph, it’s easily forgettable that United failed to convince in the season’s earliest days. August’s sun-drenched jaunt to the capital ended in hefty defeat to Arsenal, the previous season’s champions. It was followed up soon after by a Groundhog Day defeat, this time at Highbury, as United’s newly emplaced centre pairing struggled.
It was said of Stam that an early failure to adjust to the rigors of the league would ensure United, like 12 months before, would again fail to win the title. Goals were leaking, as United’s erratic early form saw them win a miserly 2 of their first 5 games, a perhaps unimaginable stat after large spending pre-season – on Stam, Blomqvist, and Dwight Yorke -a controversial £12.6m signing from Aston Villa. Yet even in those turgid days, the signs weren’t as blatantly ominous as the merchants of doom professed. Stam’s form improved, showing that pre-season hope was slowly, yet surely, beginning to emanate.
History, of course, was made, as Ferguson’s 3rd crop of fledglings alighted not only a flurry of excitement and moments that surpassed the surreal unearthliness of fiction, but also a team which could not, in any instance, be even begun to be contended with; a team which, through its impetus of all-out attacking bullishness and flare, brought about a whirlwind 9-month campaign that will forever remain unmatchable.
Jaap Stam, who by now had a quite-perfect chant coined in his honour, led from the back. There was a hardness, an unerring gutsiness to never be done over, lying deep within him. It is perhaps a measure of Stam’s class that there was not one, nor two, features which exemplified the unbridled greatness he so personified.
One could point towards his leadership qualities, certainly, for United had two colossuses striding the pitch, Keane the other, maximising the team’s spirit, its guts, and ensuring that, unlike now, they were rarely, if ever at all, bullied on the field of play by others. But then to highlight a sole attribute does a disservice to the others, of which he possessed many. There was the tackling, hard yet nearly always clean, and the pace, a staggering trajectory for what appeared to be not a man, but a bald mountain. In the rare instances where Stam let loose a striker, it was even rarer that he would let them get much further, hurtling his frame forward with a fervency yearned for in all defenders, before lancing them and wriggling away once more with the ball. Simple. It was all the stuff that defenders, in the purist sense of belief, are meant to do, but are rarely capable.
Stam was, in the most literal sense of the word, a defender – of all that came, and all that followed. And yet, in a queer way, it was perhaps not defending at all that I derived most pleasure from him. It was in the moments when he felt time, or the result, offered him the opportunity to discard his duties. Taking grip of the ball in his usual position, Stam, as most reds will remember fondly, would bring the ball out, go, go, keep going, and with the grace only a winger attunes themselves to, gracefully skip past the hapless who dared try intervene, and unleash a thunderbolt just shy of the netting. That all of his dizzying runs, venturing as they did into, as cliché denotes, ‘nosebleed territory,’ amounted to precious nothing matters little, especially now. It was the rarefied sight of a prematurely balding Dutchman with oak trees for thighs, zooming and cutting through an entire pitch with ungodly flair that ballooned my heart. Stam was a stealth bomber, sharking and delivering fear, and it was great.
There was, we shall not fail to mention, the solitary goal. A stat that felled me regularly at the time, but would later please me immeasurably – for it somehow felt right, felt that bit, um, special. For various, all equal, reasons. For the nature of the goal, scored like it was at the death at Filbert Street. For the style with which our – my – ‘big Dutchman’ scored, on the volley as it was. But, and again this falls into the youthful ways we remember, it’s the celebration, not the goal, that is most vivid.
Having thumped it into the net, past Keller, cementing a 2-6 rout in mid-January, Stam did not slow himself and attempt to savour the moment. It was, do not forget, his first ever goal for the club; yet, the atypical Stam bizarrely wheeled away, with no arm-raise, or badge-kiss, or mass group-hug. Stam, it soon became apparent, was satirically racing back to his centre back position, tearing past his nonplussed team-mates, in the fashion of a player whose team need just one more goal to attain glory.
Ferguson, in a rare moment of letting go, stood on the sideline chuckling at Stam’s bewildering run, whilst the rest of the team struggled to catch up with him. Many great goals were scored in that season; Ryan Giggs, it need not be pointed out, scored if not the greatest goal ever, certainly United’s. Andy Cole’s title-winning lob over a stranded Ian Walker was a joyous moment, as Old Trafford nearly collapsed under the indescribable weight of euphoria. There was Solskjaer’s scouse-busting low-drive, of course, and his dink of a toe that also so happened to be a defining moment in history.
It was Stam’s half-volley, though, that brought much pleasure to my young self. I didn’t see it live – it was teletext again, with its bare minimum detail, that informed me of the Dutchman’s feat. Shocked isn’t the word, but it comes close enough to describing the moment I read his name on the scoresheet. The wait for Match of the Day was tortuous, as you can imagine, but when it did come it was worth it.
It was a goal I later went to practise in the local park, an overgrown enclave we entitled ‘The Baths.’ Whilst other young dreamers contorted their frames into bicycle kicks and diving headers, I loomed ominously at the back-post, trying and trying and trying again not just to score, but perfect that goal. Once, I even tried to replicate the celebration, but in doing so made an arse of myself and inspired confusion in a chum, who looked on bewildered as I tore through a small patch of grass to a far fence.
Other moments, as I write on, are coming now, too. The gruesome, yet enthralling, spectacle of Stam being momentarily displaced from an International to unflinchingly have his brow stitched was terrific. To the adults I watched with, he was just a footballer. To me, that kind of bravery was usually reserved for the battlefields; his calmness in injury was the kind found not in sport but soldiering. His penalty miss in Euro 2000, which, they say, is still travelling even now, pained me beyond words, but it didn’t stop me from taking a jaunt to the garden in hope that it would land in my outstretched arms.
It was his fierceness, you see, that above all else intrigued me. Jaap was not a dirty player, not at all, but was one of few who played hard. He looked mean to the point where he and Royston Keane, if they were not footballers, could have been unbreakable henchmen. Or killers. Or something worse. Patrick Vieira, a player who, when not faced with United, was unafraid in imposing himself upon others, looked about ready to disintegrate whilst clamped in the hands of Jaap at Highbury.
Hard But Fair
Stam’s approach to the game is something that is missed within United now. The same applies to the one harboured by Keane – players who, even when things were going tits up, stood forward unrelentingly and refused to be bullied. Battlers on the field uninterested in the illimitable trappings that lay off it. Coupled with attitude, there was outstanding attributes making Stam the player all reds came to love. Early ill-judgement quickly dissolved, giving away to an ease and calmness that ensured nothing was done rashly. His reading of the game was exceptional, personified by his heroics on the line in Turin. His placing in a team that won everything was an apt achievement for a player who had everything. To a young red, at a time when heroes are millionaires from sport, Jaap Stam was United’s Superman.
Browse the forums, the fanzines and lend an ear to pub discussions: in personal 11s, Jaap Stam’s name appears more often than not. It’s a curious reality, given not only the length of his stay, but also the brilliance of those who came after him and achieved more: Ferdinand, and the imperious Vidic. It goes to prove, it can be conceded, that memory is often dictated by fondness and not necessarily statistics.
Far more likable than Rio, and – despite the mythologising – far harder than Vidic, Stam’s name remains etched into the hearts of all reds that lived through a period that can never be matched. Even now, when United’s travelling support journeys into nostalgia, Stam’s name rises regularly. Whilst some terrace chants border on the preposterous, the Stam ditty was marked by genius and, to make it better, held truth within each ones of its lines.
He was big, he was Dutch. That was a given. But it was the third line, the challenge of ‘get past him, if you fucking can,’ that raised a smile. It was a song that I billowed loudly when I was still little more than a child, in the garden, on school trips, in the shower, and at the games – where big Jaap strode not far from me, enormous and absolutely great. If I had known what was coming then, perhaps I would not have devoted the time, the energy, heart.
Doom, a recurring trait in battle-worn reds, is non-existent in childhood. Games and goals mattered. You picked your hero, you defended them unmercifully, and you wanted to be them all of the time. The notion of it seems ludicrous now, naturally enough, but that was the way things were at eleven. Whether watching the games on the television, or seeing them in the flesh, or having to give yourself over to the catastrophe of the live radio commentary, it was Stam’s name that I looked out and listened for, hoping for a smashing tackle, a goal, an off the line clearance, or, a favourite, a mazy run.
1999 was a year that surpassed those that came before it. It was a year that, due to its nature, will surpass all those that follow. Football’s leaning into an ever decreasing decline. Ruination is evident. There is a sadness that what came before will never be matched, but a joy that it happened before us.
Imagine, then, if you can, those moments that broke everything. Selective memory has rendered the remainder of the day incomplete. Over time, I’ve come to the belief that the day lasted for the sum total of 2 and a half minutes, and the succeeding 10 years have amounted to nothing but eternal angst. The morning started off alike any other: up, showered, dressed, and bundled on the ground at the TV.
The numbers, which I again have permanently expunged from my mind, were tapped in as they were. The wait took the same time as always, and, similarly as always, I filled it by concocting some wild guesses as to what news the page would bring. Was Batistuta finally ‘OT-Bound’? Had the latest German wunderkind declared an allegiance to the mighty red devils? Would Ronaldo hint a move?
The problem with gigantic news is that, whether it’s divine or deathly, we convince ourselves it’s too bizarre, too unreal, to be genuine. We think of cracks in the system, of hackers, of senseless pranks – anything that will account for the surreal codswallop lying there, dangling like a rotten fish before us. And there it was: UNITED SELL STAM TO LAZIO, and yes, as a phone-call to an uncle confirmed, it was true. The news was as unexplainable then as it is now, though a later reading of his infamous autobiography went some way in explaining his quick passage out of M16.
I later watched Ferguson attempting to justify the move by pointing towards his age, the touted fee, and it being hard to say no. I switched him off, enraged and cursing not just the premature destruction of a role-model, but also my innocence and the onrushing of doom, which even then I could envision hurtling towards me. It has stuck around, needless to say, and that’s that. All of the above may sound like infantile fanaticism, but like all ties to people we don’t and never will know, it was unexplainable and sad when it ended.
Written by the excellent @Herzogschild, who you can follow on Twitter here.