Behind the scenes at Old Trafford's reminiscence sessions

Friday 17 November 2023 06:00

Dip into any one of the thousands of fan conversations that take place around Old Trafford on a matchday, and you’ll find evidence of the enormous, connecting power of sporting memories.

The Busby Babes, Best, Law and Charlton, Cantona and the Class of ’92... whatever your age, if you’re a Red, stories of our beloved football team provide a sense of time, place and identity.

Want to know what you were doing in, say, November 2006? Well, if you’re anything like me, simply look up who United were playing, and there’s a good chance a raft of associated recollections will start to pour forth.
That kind of thinking is behind a new, bi-weekly fan session that the Manchester United Museum have started holding at Old Trafford. Principally created for older fans – particularly those who might be experiencing issues with loneliness or memory loss – the idea is simply to create a fun, social environment to talk all things United, past, present and future.
A sit down and chat on all things United brings about many personal and absorbing recollections.
Each week there’s a set topic for discussion, but that’s merely the starting gun. What follows for the ensuing two hours, is a communal magic-carpet ride through United history, written by those who have lived it and loved it.
“The last session we did, we used Bobby Charlton as our starting point,” begins Jason Leach, one of the staff members that hosts the group.

“Some of the stories... fantastic. One of the lads recalled seeing Bobby scoring an overhead kick in a Youth Cup game and remembered that, at the time, this was the first time the press had ever seen an overhead kick by an Englishman! This is 1955, 1956! I’m sat there listening to this and it’s just gold dust.”
There’s a cast of regulars that attend – among them the legendary Derek ‘Digger’ Gardner, Sean Kelly, Don Corker, Peter Evans, Stephen Stafford.
Many of these lads have been attending games since the Busby Babes era and even before that. That’s near enough 70 years of United experience. Once the tea has been poured, and the biccies doled out, what can only be described as a whirlwind conversation takes flight. At the session I attend, we’re talking European football, as United are flying out to Bavaria that very day to take on Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
The Museum have brought along Henning Berg’s (unused) shirt from the 1999 Champions League final, and a match programme from the 1991 Cup Winners’ Cup final, for the group to talk about. And before long, we’ve dialled up some classic clips on YouTube. We start with the famous European Cup quarter-final against Athletic Club – including Billy Whelan’s crucial late strike in Spain, which set up the astounding comeback that was to follow in the second leg at Maine Road.
Museum artefacts, such as Henning Berg’s unused shirt from the 1999 Champions League final, help direct the talking points as the group share their unique stories.
Then it’s on to the 1968 European Cup semi-final against Real Madrid. We glimpse a cat jumping out of what’s now the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand and running behind the goal line at the East Stand, just before George Best thumps in the only goal of the night. That sets off a fairly eccentric chat about the appearances of animals at Old Trafford down the years – cats, dogs, mice and more.

Digger, a former policeman, explains how he once had to threaten to lock up George Best at Bootle Street station, after the Northern Irishman initially refused to divulge information about a brawl he had witnessed. Thankfully there was a happy resolution to the story!
On we go to the raucous 3-0 win over Barcelona in 1984. Maradona? “I never rated him!” laughs Don, while Digger laments missing out on the trip to Spain due to working in Morecambe at the time.
We also have copies of the new official Old United in Colour book on hand, which features many classic old photos that have been colourised from their original black-and-white incarnations. It’s another fantastic tool for stimulating discussions. We talk not just about the all-time legends, but many less well-known players, who nevertheless touched fans’ hearts. People like David McCreery, Carlo Sartori and Alex Dawson – who is a relative of Mason Mount’s dad, apparently.

Anecdotes and nuggets of information like that pepper every twist and turn of the discussion. 
One of the matchballs from the 2017 Europa League final against Ajax.
“As someone who loves the history of the football club, I’m learning from these lads,” admits Leach.

“They’ve got stories there that are just tremendous; stories that you’re not going to find in a book – queuing up for the terraces, bumping into players arriving on their pedal bikes for the games, seeing George Best in town and stopping to have a chat with him. You name it. These are real-life experiences from lads who’ve lived in an era when football was very different to the way it is today. I find it so inspiring, and it’s a joy when they all get together. A cup of tea, and all of a sudden, they spring into life.”
Of course, the recent passing of Sir Bobby – who struggled with dementia during his latter years – brought great sadness to all United fans, particularly those elderly supporters who remember watching him. We lost not just one of the greatest players in the club’s history, but also the last remaining survivor from the 1958 Munich Air Disaster, which has shaped the club’s identity more than any other event.
The departure of such a great man can lead to the odd despairing thought that an era has ended. That we’ve lost what Gary Neville called “the golden thread” that connected the Busby Babes era to the present day. But attending events like these regular get-togethers reminds you that the stories, the goals and the incredible aura of people like Charlton live on, in our eyes and in our minds, and the testimonies of those that experienced their contributions.

It’s our duty to keep these memories alive – they help not just the elderly, the lonely and those struggling with diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s, but also everyone else. Because this is our collective, shared history.
The sad passing of Sir Bobby Charlton was the starting point for the meeting covered in our article.
“I think it’s very, very important,” agrees Jason. “I’ve no idea how it must feel, but I suppose when you get to a certain age, you can feel like things are drifting from you a little bit. I’ve been told that it can feel quite lonely.
“The best thing for me is to see people come alive with the stories, with smiles on their faces. And I suppose that lonely feeling can kind of disappear for an hour and a half; that they feel a little bit more complete and together with friends. I know that the boys love it and, for me and the other lads that attend and help set it up, it’s a joy to do it.”
As I can attest, it’s a brilliant way to spend a couple of hours, whatever age you might be and whatever your personal circumstances. Football memories are almost like a form of time travel, and which United fan doesn’t like to take the odd voyage through our glorious, romantic history every once in a while? It’s always a thrill and, as these sessions prove conclusively, always a comfort.
If you are interested in attending one of our sessions, which are held at Old Trafford every two weeks, contact the United Museum on 0161 676 7770 or email