Saturday, 1 November 2008

Going back to Old Trafford

It's been a while.

I don't really call myself a supporter of Manchester United any more, as I don't support them in any tangible sense, or get to any games, other than today. If anyone asks I say I follow United - in that I look out for their results and dearly want them to win everything going, but I can't lay much more of a claim to fervent fandom than that.

Part of the problem is that I am exactly the sort of person real football fans despise, a Southern red. In mitigation, I visited Old Trafford with my godfather at the age of 5, and, as the first professional football ground I had ever been to, it made sense to adopt them as my club. And Gary Bailey had blond hair like me, which was how I ended up being a goalkeeper at school.

My first game at Old Trafford was a pilgrimage as a student, on my own, doing the same journey from Oxford Road to Trafford on a rickety train. I stood on the terraces and was thrilled when my heroes Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe started knocking a ball around before the game just a few feet away from me. I don't even remember who we were playing - I think it was either a Cup Winners Cup game against Montpelier (circa Carlos Valderrama - that was surreal watching such an exotic World Cup figure in the flesh skipping along the touchline) or an FA Cup game against Brighton (which we won 2-0 - that's all I remember).

For the last 17 months I have been visiting Manchester on a regular basis to present the Stephen Nolan show. I didn't get my act together to grub up any tickets at all last season, something I was very keen to resolve this time round.

Strangely, two sources appeared within days of each other, and I arranged to meet a colleague of a schoolfriend (who introduced us via email from Australia) two hours before kick off at Old Trafford for a Premier League encounter against Hull.

I met up with Wayne after arriving early and getting roped into signing up for a United credit card in exchange for a free scarf outside the ground.

Wayne is a lifelong United fan thanks to his father - he told me his first game was United vs Benfica in the 1968 European Cup Final at Wembley - not that he remembers much about it, being 4 at the time.

Wayne also appears to be very wealthy. He's got 2 season tickets in the prawn sandwich seats (access to a lounge bar and restaurant, cracking view) and was driving up from London in a hire car this morning before flying back down this afternoon.

I think it's fair to say we didn't have much in common, but I'm grateful to him for giving me his spare seat and providing a slightly confusing insight into the world of global property market indices.

The game itself was weird. United were firmly in control, but couldn't kill it off. We eventually won 4-3, but Rooney and Berbatov were off their game, leaving that Ronaldo fella to put two away, with the other two from Vidic and Carrick (who I once met outside a Madonna showcase in Camden - he was a Spurs player at the time and terminated the interview when I asked if he was going to Old Trafford).

It was great to see 7 goals, but only 2 were at our end and the atmosphere was odd too. When I lived in Oxford I used to go to the Manor ground and by far the best thing about the experience was the wit of the London Road end (although given how dire the football was, that's not saying much).

At Old Trafford there are a fair number of songs, but no one shouts anything other than abuse. Yes, yes I know - I'm watching it in the wrong place. My other contact has access to tickets in the Stretford End - I'll go there next time.

The wonderful thing about the game was seeing a full strength United team in full flow. The worst player on the United side was Gary Neville. The rest - Ronaldo, Nani, Anderson, Berbatov, Rooney, Carrick, Vidic, Ferdinand, Van Der Saar, Evra (and Giggs and Tevez as subs) were brilliant, especially Anderson, Ronnie, Ferdinand and Vidic.

What I was pleased about was that I could recognise all the United players almost instantly, and actually tried an imaginary commentary in my head to prove it to myself. The Hull players might have been from Mars.

In the same way I've always wanted a proper local pub, I've always wanted to go to football games on a regular basis - have a club to call my own, and now I'm that sort of age, have the bonding experience of taking my kids to matches. Sadly, my lifestyle dictates that although I have 4 lovely pubs on my doorstep, I'll never be a regular customer, and unless I move to Manchester when 5live comes up here, and my daughters show an interest in the communal experience of attending football matches, I'll never be a regular at live games.

I have toyed with the idea of taking them to Fulham or Southampton, and trying to get involved in that, but what would be the point? I've got no interest in Fulham or Southampton. I could never love them like I love United.

Although I am the archetypal plastic fan, I have followed them for 30 years and been actively enchanted by them for the last 24.

Oh well, back to the armchair.


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