'Being a home-and-away Red is part of your identity'
Last weekend saw the long-awaited return of fans to Old Trafford and, this Sunday, the travelling Red Army will attend its first away game for almost 18 months when United take on Southampton at St Mary's.
It's been an interminable wait for many loyal Reds, some of whom have been following the team home and away for decades.
One such supporter is Steve Black, who has been following the club since the 1970s, and now attends every game with his son, Luca, 15.
And while United matches continued behind closed doors throughout the pandemic, Black says nothing can replace the feeling of returning to stadiums and, in particular, away grounds.
“We are so giddy about going down to Southampton,” he smiles, “The hyper feeling we've got about Sunday and getting back into those real strong relationships and bonds that we've formed over the years, we're just so excited. I'm so excited, even at my age, and everyone I've spoken is just [saying]: 'Brilliant, we're going to be back together.' Our end at Southampton is usually very good, bouncy, and makes a lot of noise. We just can't wait.
“And there's also a real feeling around United in many [fans], that actually we've got something really good to watch. The Leeds game couldn't have come at a better time in terms of: 'Wow, this team could go somewhere, something is being built.' We've got some great football to watch. I just couldn't have pictured it better: a decent trip with a decent away end and a really good team to watch.”
Steve says that the absence of away games during the worst of the pandemic had a profound effect on many of the club's most hardcore fans.
“I've gone home and away since 1979, every game,” he explains. “I've missed the odd one obviously, but doing over 40 games every season since 1979 is just a way of life. People who don't do that probably think it's quite sad, and I get that! But for us it's never been a chore; it just becomes routine.
“So when it first stopped, it was a shock. As time went on and it didn't come back, watching it on TV was awful. Absolutely awful. It was awful because I felt – and I know others felt the same – like we'd lost part of our identity. Going home and away becomes part of your identity. You can be lots of things in life – father, son, brother, mother etc – but part of your identity is definitely being a Manchester United supporter, and being a home-and-away Manchester United supporter.”
It wasn't just Black's own sense of self that was hit hard. The community that our away fans had built over many, many decades was effectively shut down, leaving many feeling isolated.
“If you'd come out and said after the Derby County game in the cup [in March 2020], that that would have been the last time we were going to get on the coach and gather together as an away following, I wouldn't have believed you.
“There's an affinity with everyone who travels away with United. When you're with people, and often the same people, for every two weeks of your life – apart from the summer break - you miss them. They're people who you might not see a great deal of outside football, just because of geography, lives. There's been a lot of people who have not been able to see a lot of good friends for 18 months.
“That alongside jobs losses and incomes coming and going, changes of jobs, lockdowns, loss of friendships in terms of not being able to see people... it's been horrible. We've also lost friends and family, and we mustn't ever say football is more important. There are people who will be on that coach on Sunday who have lost close relatives. And there won't be people on the coach who we've lost. We're very mindful of that. There's giddiness that we're back, but some aren't, and some never will be.
“There was a huge sense of loss at not being able to go to the match,” he concludes. "That loss of identity for me was quite big, because I couldn't do what I'd always done. Mental health-wise, it's almost part of your stability to go back. There's a lot of catching up to be done!”