Old Trafford, Manchester, England, capacity 75,000. Home to Manchester United Football Club, it is an international tourist destination that attracts visitors from all over the world to the industrial city of Manchester. It is nicknamed “The Theater of Dreams” but for away supporters over the last 25 or so years it can be more appropriately titled “the Theater of Nightmares” as more often than not their teams have been swept aside as Manchester United raced to 13 titles in 21 years. Yesterday, I made the trek up to Manchester from London to watch my beloved Tottenham Hotspur take on Manchester United in a pivotal clash, which would go a long way to determine who would qualify for next season’s Champions League. Despite victories at Old Trafford in the last two seasons, Old Trafford has been a ‘House of Horrors’ for Spurs as they failed to win there between 1989 and 2012, but I was still hopeful that Spurs would be able to conjure something from the match. I had never been to Manchester before so I thought this would be a good opportunity to see a new British city while seeing the mighty Spurs play in one of football’s most hallowed grounds.
I made my way up to Manchester by train the night before the match and had the pleasure of sitting next to a Manchester City fan who has been to almost every home and away match for the last 35 years. He said he had only missed three in the last 15 years and the match against Burnley at Turf Moor that was happening as we were on the train was his fourth. At one point on the journey up he looked at his phone and said that Burnley had gone a goal up, but it did not seem to bother him at all. I guess when you have seen your team for 35 years through the top three divisions of English soccer it is very easy to get grounded on your team’s success and was used to seeing them lose which many new City (as well as Chelsea and Manchester United) fans are unaccustomed to. It was a fitting prelude to what I would experience the next day in Manchester.
Touring around Manchester on Sunday morning, it really struck me that Manchester really is a soccer town. To put it one way, you can often see what a city is known for based on what people are trying to sell you in and around the city center. In Paris, they try to sell you plastic Eiffel Towers. In Rome, it’s fake Coliseums. In Brussels, the city center is oversaturated with chocolate shops. In Manchester, they try to sell you Manchester United scarves. Half and half matchday scarves, Wayne Rooney scarves, Robin van Persie scarves, Adnan Januzaj scarves; the whole nine yards. There were even some stores that were also selling matchday tickets. It was quite a change from the city of London where on matchdays almost no team colors are seen except in the immediate vicinity of the various grounds. In London, there are many options for entertainment and leisure. In Manchester, there is soccer, and you are either red or blue. With that being said, there was a Manchester City team shop on the main pedestrian shopping street and the shop was completely empty. I ventured inside to see if they were selling gear for New York City Football Club (NYCFC) and indeed they were selling a couple of t-shirts. It seemed like everywhere I walked, everyone I saw was wearing a Manchester United scarf or replica shirt. What I was seeing definitely fit in with the theory that gritty industrial cities (which Manchester definitely qualifies as) tend to have better soccer teams than those from the lavish capital cities (like London) because there is a more dedicated and passionate support base from a working class background as soccer is the main source of entertainment.
After a stop at the National Football Museum, I started to make my way over to Old Trafford. The fastest way to Old Trafford from the city center is by tram and I made my way over on a tram that was filled with Manchester United supporters. Despite wearing Tottenham colors no one gave me any grief, except for one Austrian supporter who asked me to explain some Tottenham chant that he sees on TV at home. After getting off the tram at Old Trafford, I made the 10 or so minute odd walk to the ground via a detour to see the Old Trafford cricket ground which was on the way. The area around Old Trafford was surprisingly spacious, there was ample room for parking which is not true of any of the London clubs that I’ve visited. Like the London clubs, there were many options of paraphernalia available for purchase on the road leading up to Old Trafford. This included the scarves which were readily available in the city center but also some funny t-shirts commemorating Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea last year that ultimately cost Liverpool the title. Apparently sometimes seeing your rivals fail is just as satisfying as succeeding your own team succeed. There was also a ton of attire honoring Eric Cantona that more or less declared him as “The King of Old Trafford”. Manchester United fans’ obsession with Cantona always struck me as being strange because United had so many other great players during that era of success of the 1990’s – why immortalize the player who kung fu kicked a fan and had a reputation for being a hot-head. I didn’t see anyone selling anything honoring David Beckham or Ryan Giggs. When United came to White Hart Lane in December the away support sung a song to the tune of Twelve Days of Christmas and replaced every item with “Eric Cantona” so there must be something there that I’m missing. Not wanting to waste my money on the enemy’s attire, I continued my walk to the stadium quickly to soak in as much as possible before kickoff.
I took my obligatory picture in front of the Manchester United sign on the East stand and paid homage to the statue honoring the United trinity of George Best, Dennis Law and Bobby Charlton before making my way around the stadium. To be honest the outside of the stadium was not as impressive as what I had seen in pictures, but part of that might have been that the backdrop is Manchester, which is not the most aesthetically pleasing city to begin with. At one point on my circling of the ground I walked into a huge crowd that was cheering on suspended midfielder Angel Di Maria as he walked in through the players tunnel in a suit. I then walked through the Munich Tunnel and read the murals on the walls, which commemorated the tragic 1958 crash.
After that, it was time to enter the away end. The security was not as tight as it was at other away grounds I’ve been to like Stamford Bridge and the Artemio Franchi in Florence, but I was padded down by a security officer before heading in and the security were super careful to make sure no home fans infiltrated any part of the away end by completely surrounding the entrance to the away end with stewards. The concourse underneath the stands were filled with Spurs supporters getting in some last minute alcohol before the match and the usual medley of songs were sung. As the Harry Kane “He’s one of our own” songs was sung, I flashed my Kane scarve over my head for everyone to see and when they finished the song some supporters chanted “Yido!” at me which I must admit was very satisfying. The cacophony of noise continued into the main stand of the away end as kickoff got closer and closer.
The Spurs fans that made the long journey up from London were in wonderful voice. Unlike the previous weekend at QPR when it often felt like there were two different away ends singing two completely different sets of songs with very little cohesion, this time it was much easier to get all 3,033 Tottenham supporters in attendance to get on the same page. Before kickoff, a full round of “Oh When the Spurs Go Marching In” was sung before many renditions of “Everywhere We Go” in addition to some other classic Spurs favorites. At kick off, the atmosphere was electric – 3,000 of us, 72,000 of them. We could hear some noise coming from the Stretford End on the opposite side of the pitch but it was impossible to make out the words. There was also some songs coming from the corner adjacent to us which I learned after the match was a singing section implemented to help combat the dead atmosphere created by the Manchester United home crowd. Unfortunately the home attendance is now dominated by day trippers and tourists that are not imbued with English soccer matchday culture. Many people staying at my hotel flew in for the match and were from far flung places like the Philippines and Taiwan and were referring to Manchester United as “we”. While many teams have this problem, it increasingly seems to be a problem at Manchester United.
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