Stepping into the South Stand at Old Trafford is like stepping back in time. The last vestige of the ‘original’ enclosed stadium. A throwback to a time when England won the World Cup. It feels authentic to the industrial city that is Manchester. It feels like a stand that was part of an old stadium. The last remnant of the ground that Sir Alex Ferguson first walked into back in the 1980s. The ground that Matt built.
A short jaunt up two staircases and you see the pitch. This part of the ground was finished in the 1960s. It feels lived in; the TV side, the side of the ground from which all your Manchester United memories were formed. When you think of Cantona’s free kick against Arsenal in ’93, you imagine it from the South Stand.
Last Saturday’s game against Crystal Palace was my first time in the South Stand since about 2000, and that had been a Stadium Tour. Seats in the South Stand are at a premium, and for good reason. Every seat is special. More intimate. Within touching distance of the pitch. The players can hear you. It’s first name basis. There are cries for Marcus and Tony rather than formal surnames preferred by those further away.
You never forget the first time you see Old Trafford. For me, I was ten-years-old in a taxi speeding across Manchester. As we drove up Trafford Road, our beleaguered taxi driver told me to look out the window. Peering out I saw the cantilever arches of the newly built North Stand for the first time; breaking the skyline, like the opening chords of Wonderwall breaking through silence. Time stood still. There it was. I was young but I felt like I had waited a thousand lifetimes to get there. And now that I was there, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
The South Stand is the last remnant of the ground that Matt built. It lacks the endless steps of the other stands. The steps are steep, too steep for modern standards but a throwback to a time when football was more important than health and safety. It is rare for non-season ticket holders to get their hands on tickets for the South Stand and my party of five Irish felt suitably honoured.
Our humility was not shared by all. Sitting fifty feet from the visiting fans brings its own perils. Arriving late to the ground, filled to the brim with the bounty provided the Bishops Blaze, the Trafford Bar or the Tollgate no doubt, were two Scottish fans who would probably struggle to remember much of their day. Initially incapable of reading their seat numbers, they then began shouting abuse in the direction of the Palace fans.
The Crystal Palace support is not necessarily known for troublemaking. They arrived knowing that a victory for their team would be an upset, but sang in abundance. More than the United fans for sure. It didn’t take long for a generic football chant to break out. ‘This is a library’ burst forth from the 3,000 Crystal Palace fans, drowning out the rest of the library.
Our drunken Scottish friends quickly took offence, perhaps remembering the vintage Manchester music scene stance, flipping that bird in the direction of the Palace fans screaming ‘You can’t fucking read.’ I should have mentioned that no part of the ground is sacred, and few sections of Old Trafford are safe for young ears.
There are probably few more sobering visuals for any drunken Scottish men that the sight of five hundred Londoners responding en masse, ‘Sit down, shut up.’ Even a friendly mob must be respected. Our Scottish friends did not move for the rest of the game.
The famed Irish scout Billy Behan, the ex-Manchester United player who brought Johnny Carey, Tony Dunne, John Giles and Paul McGrath from Dublin to Manchester would tell reluctant Irish mothers not to worry about sending their sons to Manchester, that Busby was a Catholic and their sons would be taken care of. The only religion or reverence on display on Old Trafford on Saturday was for a team currently struggling to live up to the hype.
On a good day, Old Trafford echoes and reverberates with the sounds ‘Twenty times, twenty times Man Utd,’ ‘Five Cantonas’ and ‘U-N-I-T-E-D.’ Someone once told me there are few greater feelings than when you sing your team onto the pitch. I think there are, but it’s only when they score. Last Saturday, United did not score. The football was poor and so too were the fans. Too often drowned out by the Palace minority, it prompted that philosophical debate about the chicken and egg, should the players spur on the fans or do the fans need to imbue and motivate the players?
People might gripe about the stadium being old or outdated, and even little things like the roof looking dirty; but Old Trafford is a church, and even on a dreary Manchester evening there is no place more special than the ground that Matt built under the lights. There are teams with newer grounds with better facilities; grounds like the Emirates, Etihad, Bernabau in Madrid or Allianz in Germany, but they all look the same. They look like generic, space-age castaways.
Old Trafford is a ground from another time, built in the heart of industrial Britain. A post-Brexit Arsenal or City might yet yearn for a ground that looks more authentically British. The pitch that Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard played on was the same that George Best and Bobby Charlton once did. The stand we sat in on Saturday was the same stand from which Robson and Bruce lifted that trophy to end a twenty-six-year drought.
There are people who think Old Trafford needs a revamp; that the South Stand needs to be renovated to look like the others. But to those people I say symmetry is overrated and history cannot be recreated. Let’s keep our history and enjoy stepping back in time on those rare occasions we are so blessed with great seats.
The day following the game, as our tram from Altrincham to Manchester city centre pulled up at Old Trafford Cricket Ground, almost a kilometre from the football stadium, I found myself stretching to peer out the window and catch a fleeting glimpse of the cantilever arches over the top of Old Trafford in the distance. It was fleeting, but I couldn’t help myself.
More than twenty years later, it’s still the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.