We all have our reasons for falling in love with the beautiful game.
I grew up in the days before Sky Sports, when ‘Saints and Greavsie’ was a thing and live football on TV was a rare treat. So, like many of my generation, it was initially through playing that the romance was kindled. I’d play at any opportunity, in any weather, for my cub-team, my school-team, at play-time, in the park, in the garden or on the driveway, kicking a ball against the garage-door, the clang of rubber against metal reverberating through the dusk air.
I knew from an early age that I supported Manchester United, though I didn’t quite know why – that came later – and I would display this unquestioning love with fist-pumps and heartfelt cries of “Yes!” when my dad told me we’d won, or crestfallen groans at news of defeat.
Yet it was my first visit to Old Trafford that really stoked the fire that burns to this day.
We all remember our first trip to watch our team. Not so much the details as a swirling cocktail of visions, emotions, smells and sounds – an exhilarating, confusing cacophony of stimulation for the young, impressionable mind.
Walking down Sir Matt Busby Way (Warwick Road North back then), men hawking fanzines the soundtrack to the stroll, the stench of chips and pies and gravy and beery breath thickening the already rarified air. My dad gripping my hand, pointing out a meeting-place under the ‘Quicks’ clock should we be separated. The crush of bodies, the expectation, the hope – you realise, over time, that you always hope, no matter how hopeless it all is.
Then into the stadium, smaller and more dishevelled then, before the stock-market flotation and the relentless march towards money-drenched modernity. My dad and Uncle Billy to their positions in the stand, my friend, George, and me to the front, to clamber onto the red railings with the other kids. Up close to the action, where the players’ voices could be heard. So many people all in one place, the collective roar, the synchronised leap as the ball travelled through the air towards the goal, the deep groan of thousands of voices as it was tipped over the bar.
The match is a blur. I don’t recall the score, or even the year, just that it was early in Alex Ferguson’s reign, before the rampant success and the knighthood. I’m pretty sure we were playing Everton, though it could have been any other team clad in royal blue. It doesn’t really matter.
Then back up Sir Matt Busby Way, rubbish swirling in the wind, chips and horse-manure flattened underfoot, the early evening air filled with voices earnestly discussing the game – it would probably seem ludicrous to anyone who didn’t understand just how important it all is.
Then, on Sunday, all these memories came flooding back as I took my little boy to his first match.
He probably won’t remember that we were playing Spurs, nor that we beat them handsomely. He certainly won’t realise the importance of the result or the relief and joy those of us who have been going for years felt seeing such a fine performance. But he may just remember the grip of my hand and the tears in my eyes on one or two occasions when he looked up, in wonder at this new experience, and pride and love got the better of me. He may recall me picking him up so he could see what was going on whenever United approached Hugo Lloris’ goal. He may remember me buying him his first United hat and scarf, and sharing chips on Sir Matt Busby Way before kick-off, me pointing out the Sir Matt statue we were to meet under should we be separated, explaining who he was, what he meant to this club. He may remember the ridiculous race down countless steps after the game, a throng of rushing bodies bearing down on him from behind, as if fleeing some unimaginable incarceration, clutching my hand because his life depended on it.
He will never know how profoundly moving that day was for me – a day I couldn’t have imagined all those years ago when I was about his age, but a day that will live with me forever.
Then again, maybe he will, when he, one day far in the future, yet within touching distance, takes his child to the match for the first time.