Opinion: How it feels to sleep out at Old Trafford

Monday 06 November 2023 15:00

It’s 3am and my decision to drink a flask of hot Vimto before bed has worked against me. Needing the toilet, I groggily stand up, still half asleep, and immediately remember I’m not at home. It’s freezing cold, windy and the rain is sweeping in. I’m at Old Trafford and this is the Stadium Sleepout.

There are another 124 volunteers lying across the East Stand's concrete wheelchair platform, huddled together in sleeping bags and with ponchos to protect themselves from the downpour. It’s dead silent as the lights illuminate the pitch and four empty stands. It’s a beautiful sight and a lone security guard gives me the nod, as if in agreement. I consider the fact he might have the most picturesque job in the world, look around and take the moment in. It’s completely surreal, but not the most surreal of the night. That’s still coming.

At 6am, I usually wake up to the sound of my two-year-old son walking into our room and getting into bed, but at 6am on Saturday I woke to the sound of David May climbing to his feet just a yard to my left. He’s typically chirpy and packing up his things, though thankfully not demanding to watch CBeebies. I look around and realise we’ve done it; we’ve slept rough, weathered a storm and raised money for two vital organisations: the Manchester United Foundation and Centrepoint. 

There was a strong sense of achievement among the group, and everybody felt proud of themselves, but the experience also came with a stark reality. We slept outside as a one-off and, being totally honest, we enjoyed the novelty of it. The atmosphere was upbeat, we swapped stories and a real camaraderie developed.

But for thousands of young people across Manchester and the UK, it is their reality every single night. They can’t head home to get warm and catch up on sleep.

They are stuck in a terrible situation.   

Sadly, it was estimated that 129,000 young people aged 16 to 24 were homeless or at the risk of homelessness last year, and the problem is getting worse. During the evening we listened to recordings of young people phoning Centrepoint for help and their stories were heartbreaking. They were also worryingly possible. 

I think most people associate homelessness with drink or drugs – I was guilty of that – but what I heard were young people without support systems. People who had lost jobs at short notice and couldn’t pay their bills anymore. People who didn’t have friends or family to lean on. People who had nowhere to turn and nowhere to sleep. People without hope who desperately need help. 

That’s why the Stadium Sleepout is becoming such an important event in the club’s calendar and, unsurprisingly, the people of Greater Manchester are stepping up. Seventy supporters took part in last year’s inaugural event and the number rose to 125 this time around. It’s a cause that is uniting our great city, too.

While it was mostly Reds soaking up the pitchside experience, there was also one Blue who wore a retro City shirt and grimaced as everybody shouted 'United!' during a group photo. But fair play to him. He earned everybody's respect and admiration for taking part.

Stadium Sleepout: A poem for Sir Bobby Video

Stadium Sleepout: A poem for Sir Bobby

Foundation CEO John Shiels paid tribute to Sir Bobby Charlton before the Sleepout, by reading a moving poem...

Our group also included Foundation CEO John Shiels and he spoke powerfully about the cause, before paying an emotional and poignant tribute to Sir Bobby Charlton. They had worked together since forming the Soccer Schools project back in 1978 and their relationship was central to the Foundation’s continued success.

John read a poem called ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ by Ian Gibson and it was impossible not to feel moved, as rain showered down onto the hallowed turf Sir Bobby and the Babes once graced. The late club icon named our home the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ and it wasn’t with a sleepout in mind, of course, but his presence at another important Foundation event was felt by all.  

At the time of writing, thousands of pounds have been raised for the Foundation and Centrepoint, with the total amount to be confirmed in the coming days.

Times are hard right now and there are so many worthy causes out there. But if you can spare a few pounds, there’s still time to donate via this JustGiving page.

We thank everybody who has supported the campaign so far and, who knows, maybe we'll see you next year?