It’s an early Sunday evening in M16 and the rain is barrelling down from slate grey skies. Monday morning and a return to work is closing in.
It sounds like a bleak scene, but around a patch of grass illuminated by golden floodlights, there is a crackle of electricity in the air.
Here the rain only serves to heighten the senses. For the last two hours 73,288 people have sat, stood, screamed, sang, swore and swayed.
The Manchester derby has just finished in a crescendo at Old Trafford and it’s the home side who have bragging rights.
That event you’d been waiting for all weekend has proved to be worth it.
It was better than your wildest dreams – with apologies to the 3,000 or so Manchester City fans looking as downbeat as the weather in one corner.
The Manchester United players linger on the pitch.
They soak in every last drop of adulation as the Stretford End roars its approval at what feels like a landmark win under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
The weekend is almost over, but here the weekend is just beginning.
There will be derby day barbs at work on Monday morning, but for now, there are celebrations. As fans file out of Old Trafford and into pubs and takeaways nearby the conversation would have followed familiar routines. ‘What about that’? ‘Are you going to Linz?’ ‘You’re flying via where?’ ‘See you in a couple of weeks?’.
Only there wouldn’t be another game at Old Trafford in a couple of weeks. Within days, everything had stopped.
Watch the footage of players and supporters celebrating after full-time again now and it feels different. A moment of shared joy now looks like a long goodbye.
It’s almost as if they knew.
Many conversations back on Sunday, March 8, 2020, would have been framed around coronavirus. It was no longer a distant disease making news in China. It was on our shores. Nobody knew what was coming next.
What didn’t come next was going to the game. There is another Manchester derby this weekend, this time at the Etihad, but it will be played out to silence and empty stands.
On Monday it will be a year since Old Trafford last hosted a crowd. A year of not going to the game, a year of rituals broken, of friendships paused, of life put on hold.
How’s it been for you? Have you missed going to the game? Has your relationship with football changed?
Non-football fans often shrug in bemusement at the way the game dominates every watercooler conversation, at how people structure their weeks around matchdays, at how train timetables, motorway closures and flight schedules are pored over.
Yet for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people, football is the game that gives them an escape. For some it isn’t part of their life, it is their life. And for a year it’s been taken away, like so many of our freedoms and liberties.
Dave Pye, a United regular at home and abroad who hasn’t missed a game in nine years, sums up the mood for many when asked how the last year has been without the comfort blanket of the football.
“Terrible to be honest. It’s a habit you get into, when it’s not there you realise how much you miss it,” he said.
“It’s not just the football you miss, it’s the experience of being a football fan, going with your friends, meeting up with people, the journey to away games.
“I go on the Mostonian coaches and help steward them, I said to the driver the other day that United have been unbeaten away in a year and we’ve not had those return journeys, when you get back on the bus and you’ve won in the last minute and the journey home is brilliant.”
Pete Bolton will be a familiar face to many United regulars, not only following the first-team, but he doesn’t miss Under-18 or Under-23 games if he can help it either. He sums up the ritual of matchday.
“You meet up with your mates in the pub. You meet people outside the ground and stop and chat with them, then you go away and see them and think ‘I wish I knew his name’,” he said.
“Then there’s the excitement after the match, you go outside and everyone is chatting leaving the ground. Now it’s game over, switch off the TV and 15 minutes after full-time I can be in bed. At a home game normally I wouldn’t get in for two or three hours after kick-off.
“When we won 9-0 people were saying ‘I bet you really enjoyed that’, but I didn’t. I’d have enjoyed it if I was there, but I didn’t enjoy it because I wasn’t there.”
It is the social element of going to the game that almost everybody spoken to for this piece said they missed the most. The football is the frame around which the day is built, but the 90 minutes doesn’t have to define the day, even though it can be a bitter pill to swallow if United have lost.
Ian Stirling is vice-chair of the Manchester United Supporters Trust and explains the role of MUST has gone into unchartered waters this year.
He’s been watching United for nearly 40 years and in that time has built up social connections based almost entirely around football.
“I’d say 90% of the people I interact with revolves around football, going to the match, making plans for a game, or a European away, transport, travel, tickets, those kinds of things. It’s a large part of people’s lives and it’s a part of people’s lives that defines who they are as well,” he said.
“The difficulty has been with that being taken away and trying to maintain those connections with people, some who’ve known you for years and years and not being able to see them in the usual circumstances.”
Sean Tallon follows United all over the continent and it’s that camaraderie that he touches on as leaving the biggest hole.
“It’s the social element, without question. Whether it’s meeting at a regular haunt in town, getting the train to Euston for an away or travelling across Europe – meeting the regular faces, and having a good time, is ultimately why we do it. It’s a main pastime for me, and to have that ripped away for over a year – it’s rough,” he said.
Dave Cox travels up from London and has sat in the same seat in what Old Trafford regulars know as K Stand for more than 30 years.
“I miss seeing my mates who I go with and also the people who sit by me. I’ve known some of them for a long time,” he said.
“You can’t get the atmosphere anywhere else. Some of the best moments of my life have been at football.
“It’s the moments you share with people when you celebrate a goal, you can’t do that indoors. You might jump up and down a bit but you soon get told to be quiet, at a game you get taken away by it all. You can’t replicate that anywhere else apart from being at a game with your mates.”
“There’s people I know and I didn’t even know their surnames and I’ve known them years and years,” adds Ian Stirling.
“We mix on matchday, they’re from all walks of life, from all sections of society, football is a great leveller for that with following your team and going to the game.
“I’d guess the majority of people who go to the game are not great watchers of the match on TV. It’s a poor second best.
“There’s no social element with watching the game so it’s been a hard time for all football supporters. There’s a lot of hidden support that people get from that interaction around football, being able to just sit down, talk, have a pint and relax, and that’s gone. Along with the isolation at home a lot of people’s mental health is suffering with it and there’s going to be people who do struggle to get back to who they were before.”
While for most people the Old Trafford derby was the final game they attended before the season was paused and stadiums were locked, that wasn’t the case for everyone.
Pete Bolton was at the Under-18s 3-2 win at Everton’s Finch Farm training ground on the Tuesday (March 10) and two days later Dave Pye was in Linz. Hundreds of United fans who’d already booked transport and accommodation decided to still head to Austria, even though it was the first game to be played behind closed doors, a decision made at short notice.
“I still travelled to Linz. Outside the end to the left of the main stand, there was a gap in the fence and there were about 100 fans watching, it was quite a good view and the police just stood there. That was surreal,” he said.
“A lot of people who go away especially will tell you football is the cherry on a big cake. That’s especially true for European trips, you go and see a new place, spend time in the city, have different experiences and go to different grounds.”
After the 5-0 win behind closed doors in Austria United didn’t play again for 100 days. When they did resume it was in empty stadiums and it remains that way. There will be no fans returning until May 17 at least, which will mean 14 months with no fans in the Premier League.
United have now played 56 games since Project Restart began in June. There were 2,000 spectators at the London Stadium against West Ham in December but that has been it.
For those who rarely, if ever, missed a match, suddenly having to watch games on television has not been the same.
“Initially, I was completely against the idea of ‘Project Restart’. As the weeks passed by though, I got on board with it; as much as you can in the circumstances,” says Sean Tallon.
“It has brought some positives – Liverpool’s ‘title win’ in particular. Now though, it is starting to wear thin. If we’re back in at full capacity, come August, I can live with that. Any longer, and it will be unbearable.”
Dave Pye lives around the corner from Old Trafford but when the ground hosted its first behind closed doors game, he couldn’t bring himself to watch.
“Of my mates who go home and away like me, everyone was against it coming back because they didn’t want to miss out on it. It sounds a bit selfish, but I was thinking I don’t want it back because I don’t want to miss going,” he said.
“I didn’t watch the Sheffield United game. I only live around the corner from the ground so I took my bike out and went past Old Trafford, just out of curiosity really, and as the game kicked-off I was down Salford Quays on my bike, I just wasn’t really interested.
“As time has gone on I’ve watched a few more, but at the start I tended to listen on the radio. Even with the crowd noise I just found it weird watching it on TV. It just didn’t seem right.
“As time has gone on it’s become a bit of a norm, but it still feels false to me.”
While the absence of fans is difficult, people who contributed to this piece were keen to point out how proud of the club they were for their efforts during the pandemic, a point made by MUST vice-chair Ian Stirling.
“We’ve been in the fortunate position with United that they’ve taken their social responsibility very seriously,” he said.
“All the work they’ve done has been fantastic, from communication with supporters to consideration for people, things such as welfare calls with legends, the work they’ve done with the NHS, they’ve provided meals.
“I don’t think in my time supporting United, and I’ve been going since 1973, I’ve seen such a positive response to what the club has done.”
As cases, hospitalisations and deaths continue to fall and the vaccine roll out spreads through the population, hope is on the horizon.
There have been too many false dawns for anybody to be getting carried away, but that May 17 date that could allow 10,000 fans back in grounds is a target. What it could lead to for the start of next season in August is the great unknown, but when the turnstiles at Old Trafford clink again it will be a day to remember.
Asked what he’s looking forward to most about going back, Dave Cox summed up the mood of most people. It’s not necessarily the football, but the anticipation.
“The walk to the ground I think. When I’ve got my bag of chips and seeing the stadium again. I’ve got hairs on the back of my neck thinking of getting in there and seeing inside the ground again for the first time,” he said.
“Then This is the One playing when the players start walking out. You can’t beat that, it’s the excitement of what’s going to happen. I really miss that.
“You soon start getting annoyed when the game starts but before it, it’s the excitement and the expectation of seeing United play again.”
For some regulars it will be the recommencement of rituals. Dave Pye goes to home games with his dad, who recently turned 75, and can’t wait to sit next to him at Old Trafford again.
But he’s aware that going to the game might not be exactly as the same experience it was a year ago.
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Manchester United were held to a 0-0 draw by Crystal Palace on Wednesday night.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his players were frustrated for the third goalless game in succession, dropping more points to allow Man City to streak away at the Premier League’s summit, on a poor day for the forwards.
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“Things will have changed as well, there will be people whose attitudes have changed. You get into a habit of going and that habit has been broken for a year,” he said.
“There might be some people who think they’ve quite enjoyed saving the money and watching on TV, there might be some older people who think it’s time to call it a day and are worried about health.
“We want to be back in as soon as possible but some things will have changed and will never come back. Me and a mate collect programmes and ticket stubs, but ticket stubs are probably a thing of the past now.
“There will be aspects of football that will have changed forever in the last 12 months.”
The ideas of a habit being broken, a chain being unlinked, is one touched upon by Ian Stirling as well.
“For some fans it will be difficult for them to go back. A big habit has been broken,” he said. “There’s other things that may have taken priority, whether it will be their home life, their health, financial considerations.”
You certainly won’t keep Pete Bolton away, and for whoever else returns, football should certainly never take them for granted again.
“It’s going to be emotional. Everyone will want to go, there won’t be any spares that day,” said Pete.
“It’s going to be so exciting, it’s going to be bigger for me, football will be bigger. These clubs have forgotten about fans in recent years because they make so much money elsewhere, but this has just shown that football without fans is nothing.”