If you’ve never seen Jonathan Glazer’s directorial debut Sexy Beast, I implore you to do so. Ray Winstone plays a retired mobster who lives a tranquil and peaceful life soaking up Spanish sunshine, until he’s dragged back to London for one last job. It’s a classic; a rehearsed plot but done with the sort of swagger indicative only of actors who are destined to play the giant, computerised floating head of a multi-national betting company. The opening scene to Sexy Beast is its most famous:
“Bloody hell. I’m sweatin’ ‘ere. Roastin’. Boilin’. Bakin’. Swelterin’. It’s like a sauna. Furnace. You can fry an egg on my stomach.”
Imagine me, standing at the back of the Newmarket Road End on what must have been, to my memory, the hottest day ever recorded on British soil, copiously sweating away litres of last night’s lager and praying beyond belief that we actually try and fucking do something decent this season.
It was the first weekend of the 2013/14 season and for some mad reason the most audacious landline provider around, BT, had decided in their infinite wisdom that this distinctly average looking season-opener deserved to be broadcast worldwide on their new sports channel. Halifax had just been promoted from the mire of regional football to the Conference, and there we were, trying everything we could do to escape from it. It was our ninth year in that wretched league, and (for the time being) it would be our last.
It had been a summer of upheaval; in his first full season Richard Money had pretty much signed an entire new squad. From Cunnington to Donaldson, and Champion to Miller, nine of the eleven players made their debut on that sweaty afternoon in CB5, and would go on to form the backbone of a glorious promotion winning side.
It’s easy to forget that Halifax actually took the lead. I have absolutely no memory of Lee Gregory’s goal, but I distinctly remember thinking, “here we fucking go again”, and instantly resigning myself to another year as a mid-table Conference team. Halifax weren’t a bad team (made evident by their eventual finish in the play-off positions and their subsequent return to the Abbey in May where the stakes were a fair bit higher), but all the bounce that comes with an opening game in the sunshine of your own backyard was threatened to be viciously sucked out of us. It could have brought us crashing back down to earth.
Fortunately, United went on to turn the game on its head, playing with the spark and get-go that would characterise this squad. It helped that the visitors underwent the rare sight of being reduced to nine-men in the first half. Within the opening 22 minutes they had taken the lead, conceded the lead, and then found themselves with a two man handicap. Captain Danny Lowe went first, and then goalkeeper Matt Glennon followed suit – it was always an uphill battle from then on in for them.
United aptly and confidently put the game to bed, with two from Cunnington (could have been three but for missing one of his two penalties), two from Sam-Yorke (the second being one of my favourite goals of the season, where the ball sits nicely for him around the penalty spot and he leathers it onto the underside of the crossbar before hitting the net), and then one delicious finish from Donaldson, a theme we would so gladly get used to.
In retrospect, the whole afternoon was awash with the rose-tinted glean of a game seen through sunglasses, t-shirts and cold lager in plastic cups. I had hope, but I didn’t yet have expectation. It took a few months for this feeling to turn into genuine excitement -probably after Cunnington’s header took us to a 1-0 win at Grimsby in early October is when we started looking at each other and thinking, “oh right, hang on, we might actually do this”.
At the time, this Halifax game was like all opening games of the season, where concrete judgment cannot yet be ascertained, but we can instead savour and enjoy it because it lacks any crucial, season-defining risk. I enjoyed this game for what it was – a very good game, and a good start to the campaign. But now, I’m afforded the luxury of looking back on it as the embodiment of just how fucking fun that season was; the numerous ups, the few downs, and the amount of really good football matches we got to see. We went on to draw at Welling and then beat Aldershot, and the rest, as they say, is history.