I can see it now if I close my eyes. I can smell it. I can feel it. The hamburger stands that line the streets. Pop-up shops selling scarves, flags, and badges, typical match day regalia. A crisp bite is in the air as I make the walk from Trafford Bar station and toward the famous stretch of pavement formally known as Warwick Road. The streets are filled with red, black, and white. Reds are here, reds are there, reds are everywhere. The buzz in the air is indescribable. It has to be felt to be believed. The buzz that can only mean one thing, match day in Manchester.
I was 16 years old the first time that I saw Old Trafford in person. It was a day and a feeling that I’ll never forget. I was three days late to the first home match of that season, a 2-1 Manchester United loss to Swansea. Maybe it’s best that I wasn’t there. As me and my Uncle walked up the road and the famous cantilever roof of the East stand appeared I was overcome with emotion. I had supported United for most of my life, I had dreamed of this day; Old Trafford is literally my Theatre of Dreams. Then it became a reality. It was right in front of me. What a feeling it was. I was only able to tour the ground and go through the museum during this trip. I could spend hours in that museum (and have on subsequent trips) immersing myself in the history of our club, but on this occasion, my uncle was spared from spending too much time there. It was one of those days where everything just seems to click. I was where I belong. I was home.
I was due to be in Manchester with my dad a few weeks ago. We had tickets to United’s home match with Sheffield United (we don’t need to get into the details of the match being postponed because of the FA Cup quarter-final, now). I was so excited to feel that feeling again. To be home. To feel that indescribable buzz. But then the world turned upside down. Our conversations went from “Maybe we should reconsider our trip?” to “Well, there’s always next year.” Not only was our trip cancelled, not only was the match postponed, but football was cancelled. First it was the NBA, then the Champions League was postponed, then the inevitable: the entire sports world was shut down indefinitely. It felt a bit like the end times.
If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from this time of quarantine/social distancing/lockdown/whatever your preferred name is, it’s that I took normalcy for granted. I took all of the constants in my life for granted. Going to school, going to work, but most importantly, waking up too early on a weekend morning to see United play. I took for granted the constant of having United around. The constant stream of team news, rumors, opinion pieces, analysis. Over the last few weeks, all of that has dried up. After all, you can only talk about Odion Ighalo’s Europa League stunner (in front of almost no one) so many times.
Since the football world has been halted for the foreseeable future, I’ve been immersing myself in the history of United, and the sport in general. I’ve been consuming books, YouTube videos, and replays of any old match I can get my hands on. Anything just to have that feeling of normal, to hear the sounds of football. I started with Daniel Harris’ book on the Treble season, The Promised Land, chronicling the best single season a football team has ever had. Period. His month-by-month view of ‘98/99 is a joyous, compelling, and emotional ride. It has a brilliant spin on the John Lennon lyric that perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to wholeheartedly follow the club. “Life. What happens when United are busy making other plans.”
Along the way, I re-watched the season review video from that year as I finished each chapter. A season so full with incredible contests, great storylines and a load of incredible goals. If you have the time to re-watch the semi-finals against Juventus and Arsenal, the group stage match against Barcelona at the Nou Camp, or the title-decider on the final day against Tottenham, I highly recommend it. There’s some fantastic football on display there, and even a few cameos from a certain boss man who traded in his number 20 for the manager’s suit and tie.
Not everything I’ve been reading has been about the glory days. If you’re going to read about the greatest season United ever had, you have to read about one of its worst. The second book on my list was Wayne Barton’s Too Good to Go Down about the fateful 1973/1974 campaign when the club were relegated to the second division. It seems like such a foreign idea now, Manchester United in the Second Division. Not only were they sent down, they were sent down on a goal by a sky blue wearing Denis Law at Old Trafford. The mere idea of a modern equivalent is enough to make your stomach turn. The book talks about the post-Busby era and frighteningly describes the mistakes the club made following his retirement. Increasingly more frightening if you draw the similarities to the post-Ferguson era of the last few years. However it does offer the hope of the team that would rise out of the ashes of relegation, as only Manchester United could, and did.
It’s easy to get bogged down in the current state of the club. When you read about seasons past, or are reminded of the way things used to be, it can be a bummer. But instead of dwelling on the present day, and how we’re currently in the valley, I’ve become appreciative of how great the club is and can be. I’ve grown to understand why what I previously thought was merely a form of escapism, is almost essential.
The history of Manchester United might be the greatest story ever told. It certainly is the most compelling story in sport. At one time the club was saved by a St. Bernard named Major. Almost fifty years later, it became the first English winners of the European Cup. United’s history has seen some of the greatest players to ever play the sport. Names like Charlton, Best, Robson, Keane, Beckham, Ronaldo, and countless others played for our club, they wore our shirt. What a story to tell, what a club to support.
This world filled with uncertainty has made me certain of one thing: I am incredibly thankful for the role football plays as a form of escapism, and thankful to support a club like Manchester United. May I never take these things for granted ever again.
I wake up every morning dreaming of the day when we return to the normal world. I dream of walking down Warwick Road, smelling the hamburgers, and feeling the buzz that has to be felt to be believed. Some time soon, we’ll all be able to congregate again, with the common goal of supporting the greatest club on earth. What a day that will be, what a feeling. In the meantime, we get continue to immerse ourselves in the splendour of the greatest story ever told and by doing so, we keep the red flag flying high.