Old Trafford: Not like any other love
Old Trafford has been many things to many people during its 110 years in the land of the living.
Sir Bobby Charlton, arguably the Manchester United player, famously nicknamed it ‘the Theatre of Dreams’.
One former journalist was fond of referring to it as ‘The Shrine’, a place ‘where supplicants gather to share their faith'.
An oft-heard refrain among die-hard supporters is that Old Trafford is ‘their second home’.
But it might be something even more remarkable than that. After all, most of us move homes. Old Trafford cradles many from childhood to their final days.
I was eight when I first attended a match here, and it absolutely floored me. Stunned me.
Old Trafford has been the best attended English football ground since the 1950s.
For years, I thought that was because of a unique set of circumstances. My father only told me I’d be going to see United play FC Barcelona (in October 1994) just a few hours before kick-off. He delivered this sledgehammer news only seconds after I’d returned from school and flung my coat over the banister in our house in Blackley, north Manchester.
It was a midweek match. Being a small child from the north side of the city, I was unfamiliar with the area south of ‘town’. As we wended towards M16, it was gloomy, dark, mysterious.
Largely industrial, and full of factories and big ominous-looking containers, it was intimidating. How could anything magical emerge out of this?
Then you catch the first glimpses of the crowd, beavering in the same direction. You hear the growing chattering, faint traces of tannoy noise, and that unique, overwhelming combination of urine, cigarette smoke and chip-van burger fat. Enough to make your nostrils wince.
Suddenly, you see it: a crucible arising in the sky. You make your way in, climb the concourse stairs, and it hits you: that first shocking vision of greenery, blaring at you from under the floodlights.
I’ve since learned that everyone else’s first experience is pretty similar. The fact that Romario, Ronald Koeman and Pep Guardiola were all playing against us, that it was an exciting match, was secondary.
I’ve had conversations with countless other fans, family and friends, and they were just as excited, just as mesmerised, when they first went. It didn’t matter if they’d seen Ronaldo, Romario or Ralphie Milne. Or if we’d drawn 0-0 with QPR.
Because those first matches are only the start of the journey. They capture your heart, but then Old Trafford begins to take you somewhere else.
To me, it’s not a shrine. It’s not a theatre. It’s a time machine.
I remember my dad lifting me onto my seat when United attacked the Stretford End, because I was too small to see when everyone stood up.
I remember all the people that used to sit around me, when I became a season-ticket holder at the age of 16 in the North Stand. The players they hated; the ones they loved. The catchphrases they used to shout.
I think about swigging a can of warm lager on Warwick Road before we played Arsenal in the 2009 European Cup semi-final with my mate Ste, whose grandad (another United obsessive), was a friend of former manager Frank O’Farrell.
I remember cursing my sister as we walked back to the car in 1996, because I deemed her singularly responsible for us losing our 40-year home European record to Fenerbahce. That was her own first match.
I’ve not given this list of reminiscences any preparatory thought. Things are just popping into my head as I write. There are thousands of them; different things that happened that mean something to me. You’ll have your own. Sadly, there are just as many I know I’ve forgotten. Great bits of play that took my breath away, but have since drifted from my powers of recall.
Old Trafford through the decadesGallery
Take a look at how our home has evolved since hosting its first football match in 1910.
Famous French navel-gazer Marcel Proust came up with the phrase ‘involuntary memory’ to describe the way the brain effortlessly plucks things out, when prompted by smells, sounds, visual cues etc.
Anyone who’s been coming to Old Trafford for years will get that concept. But it goes even deeper than that, as you also begin to weave in the stories that belong to friends and family.
My great-grandad was a steward here in the 1930s and 1940s. My father and grandfather began coming to every game around 1964. In the 70s, my uncle Michael sometimes got brought straight to OT from his own Saturday morning football matches, in full muddy kit. In his mate’s dad’s fish van. Fragrant, eh? Their stories and memories were passed down, and now they’re also mine.
When I’ve been lucky enough to walk through the stadium when it’s empty, these are the things that often come to mind. Let your thoughts wander, and you can scroll through an endless carousel of anecdotes, both owned and adopted, touching the essence of things past.
It’s doubtless the same for fans of all clubs, but I think with United there is also a deeper resonance – though I would say that!
Brazilian superstar Romario – named Best Player at the 1994 World Cup the previous summer – starred in our writer's first match.
Because of the eight lads that perished in 1958, we have a complex relationship with the past. Even after the success of 1968 and all the subsequent glories, the simple horrible truth is that we can never recapture what was lost that day. Ever since then, United has been about trying to honour the hopes and dreams that the Babes were never able to fulfil.
Whether the club has succeeded or not, we’ll never know. But Old Trafford remains where they played, where “their ghosts still hover over the ground”, as Matt Busby later said.
Their memory makes this stadium a place of yearning; a place where their feats and heroics still feel tangible and alive.
And if you’re lucky enough to come here regularly, you’ll know that former players and managers are not the only ones who still seem to be with us.
The memory of players like Duncan Edwards gives Old Trafford a complex relationship with the past.
There are many others that have already left this realm, at ages both young and old, whose greatest pleasure was watching Manchester United play. When we lose a match, it’s them I often think about, as I remind myself how lucky I am to still be here to see the Reds.
Walk around the stadium, look across its stands, remember the pubs that used to populate M16, and you can dive back into the times you shared with them: the laughs, the pints, the moments both silly and serious.
This grand old football ground keeps something of each and every one of them alive, from Sandy Turnbull to Duncan Edwards, George Best to Liam Miller. From your grandma or grandad, long since departed, to the mate from school you haven’t seen for decades.
And one day I hope it will keep something of my memory alive, when my own children take up their place behind the goal at the Stretford End. Scrolling through their own carousel of images, in the Old Trafford time machine.
The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.