Our best pre-season memories

Wednesday 12 July 2023 10:42

The start of pre-season always stirs the emotions as thoughts turn to a new campaign.

With optimism high, pointers and clues as to what can be expected in the upcoming term are always provided at this stage of the year.

Whether it's new signings, fresh young talent being afforded a chance to press their claims or even tactics and systems being tried out, there is usually something to whet the appetite and 2023's edition is certainly no different.

So, ahead of Wednesday's opener with Leeds United (16:00 BST), which, like all eight of our matches, is live on MUTV, we asked a selection of our staff for their thoughts and memories on pre-seasons of the past...

Sam Carney: Saluting Scholesy!

"Although Paul Scholes would later shock us all by coming out of retirement and winning another Premier League title, the 2011 friendly with New York Cosmos at Old Trafford was a deserved testimonial for 17 years of stellar service. I was excited to be in attendance to applaud a player who gave me so much joy in my early years of watching United, with the opposition including a number of other famous names who were creeping towards the end of their careers, including Fabio Cannavaro, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires.

"In truth, I remember little about the game itself, which finished 6-0 to the Reds, but the occasion sticks in my mind, with red and white flags handed out across the north stand spelling out the word ‘Genius’ in a vibrant display, before tifos were a common sight in football.

"The presence of Cosmos manager Eric Cantona also helped boost the jubilant atmosphere at the Theatre of Dreams to something more than just an exhibition match – as did Scholesy’s brilliant opening goal!"

Steve Bartram: Fabien up front!

"For a staunchly uncompetitive period of the calendar, pre-season has thrown up unexpectedly memorable moments down the years. First glimpses of unknown quantities like Ruud van Nistelrooy or Chicharito stick in the mind, as do randomly thrilling encounters with Celtic and Internazionale. But, for pure, freakish, it-could-only-happen-in-pre-season vibes, I have to pick out Fabien Barthez’s cameo as an outfielder.

"Having spent his first season at Old Trafford showcasing a wide range of feints and footwork, the France international goalkeeper had long been agitating to get more involved in the game. As such, Sir Alex Ferguson acquiesced and, ahead of the 2001/02 campaign, we were treated to the sight of Barthez replacing van Nistelrooy for the final 10 minutes of a thumping win over a Singapore XI.

"Already 7-1 up, United won 8-1 and during his brief sojourn, the French stopper soon demonstrated precisely why he wore gloves, showing a couple of neat touches but lacking the physicality and pace to cut it as an outfielder. Just as entertaining was Sir Alex’s post-match take: “He’s been pestering me for ages to let him do that. I just thank God he didn’t score because we’d have never got him back in goal!”

Fabien Barthez nagged Sir Alex Ferguson about playing outfield!

Adam Marshall: A connection since childhood

"I think I have a special connection to pre-season, all stemming from the fact one was the first professional game I ever saw. Although United fans, my dad took me to see Crystal Palace play our local team when they came to town for the only friendly there I ever remember taking place of that magnitude. Terry Venables was managing the so-called 'Team of the Eighties', and this was the start of that decade, and I think Vince Hilaire played. Of course, this was just a taster and I really wanted to watch United, so we would often trek around the country to see the Reds in friendlies. One I went to was for Barry Fry's testimonial, at Barnet, but it would appear this was in March and not the summer, even if it was a first chance to see Bryan Robson in the flesh. 

"With the 1980s terraces not always a great place for a young kid, I think these friendlies were seen as a way to ease me in to live football so I'd approach the first games of a new season with real excitement and eagerly look out for any fixtures that might be nearby. As I grew older, I went to a match at Rugby Town, when a young Mark Robins played up front, and even carried this tradition into adulthood. Soon after moving north, we had a friendly at York City's old ground Bootham Crescent and David Beckham definitely played, taking a corner right in front of us, where a small batch of pretty giddy local fans were located. Roy Keane scored both goals. I remember seeing Giuseppe Rossi's debut at Burnley.

"I saw a United XI play at Harrogate Town around this sort of time and, obviously, through work later down the line, have witnessed many more, from a youthful Marcus Rashford scoring at Trafford to bigger arenas, to Zlatan Ibrahimovic's first goal for us against Galatasaray, in his native Sweden. Every year, I would watch the friendlies and tours on TV and a number of these involved staying up all night.

"One, while working for the club, was followed by stopping by at the Premier Cup for youngsters on the way home afterwards, and seeing Angel Gomes, key to helping England Under-21s win the European Championship at the weekend, spraying passes around with aplomb soon woke me up. So I love the pre-season, starting afresh with hopes high for the new campaign."

The rain lashed down during our pre-season clash with Aston Villa last year.

Joe Nelson: Rain-soaked recollections

"The beginning of the 2022/23 season was my first pre-season with Manchester United, when the team travelled to Thailand and Australia. I vividly remember the Aston Villa match at Optus Stadium in Perth when, back here in Manchester, we firmly believed that the match would get called off due to the sheer amount of rain we could see on our television screens.

"It went ahead and, although Villa came back to draw 2-2, the imagery from that fixture is simply stunning. There's just something about the biblical downpour and floodlights that makes those photographs so striking. The result meant that we continued our unbeaten start to life under Erik ten Hag too."

Mark Froggatt: The King of Sweden

"At the close of Tour 2015, in Chicago’s Soldier Field, I saw Zlatan Ibrahimovic score against us with Paris Saint-Germain. That’s weird to bring up, I know, but it was the first time I’d seen him in the flesh and I remember being so impressed by a man whose personality had captivated football.

"A year later, Ibra joined United to link up with his old Internazionale boss Jose Mourinho and, by fluke, his first appearance was in Sweden. As a young reporter, I flew with the team to report on it. And I was buzzing. The game was in Gothenburg, 150 miles from Malmo where Zlatan grew up, but it felt like his city for the weekend. The atmosphere was incredible. Absolutely electric.

"I remember there was a huge police presence outside the team hotel to maintain a massive crowd of supporters that had gathered, despite the fact we were miles outside of town at a plush golf course. But Ibra was - and is - an iconic draw. And everybody sensed that he was there to put on a show. Just four minutes into the game, and playing alongside Wayne Rooney, our new no.9 announced himself in sensational fashion, scoring with an acrobatic scissor-kick that his strike partner would have been proud of. It felt like a mission statement, too. Zlatan was here and he meant business. It was pure box office."

Watch highlights from Zlatan's super show against Galatasaray.
Adam Bostock: A finale in Florida

"I had personal highlights aplenty on the successful pre-season tour of 2014, from the opening 7-0 win over LA Galaxy in Pasadena to the impressive 3-1 victory against Real Madrid when a remarkable crowd of 109,318 - a record for a 'soccer' game in the States - rocked up in the scenic surroundings of Ann Arbor. If surveying that scene from our press seats high up in the gods was a breathtaking experience, the post-match dash from there to catch our soon-to-depart media bus - down one side of the stadium bowl and up another - just left me breathless. The fitness of club journalists not quite being up to the level of the players in Louis van Gaal's squad that summer.

"And there was a similar sprint in store at the very end of our three-week American adventure, when the challenge was to make it to the airport and ultimately our flight home as soon as possible after reporting on United's final game, against our arch-rivals Liverpool. At a rainsoaked Sun Life Stadium, home of the Miami Dolphins, we watched with growing encouragement about the forthcoming campaign under the new manager as goals from Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard overturned Steven Gerrard's first-half opener from the penalty spot. Maybe the Merseysiders were dazzled by the extraordinary laser and firework show that we watched in awe at the interval, making us wonder if we were actually at the World Cup final and not a glorified friendly. But whatever the reason for the second-half turnaround, United were worthy 3-1 winners as a very memorable pre-season campaign drew to a close."