One year of following United in lockdown
Today, 23 March 2021, marks a significant date in UK history. It is exactly one year to the day since Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed a national lockdown across the whole of the United Kingdom.
Of course, it's been even longer since Manchester United fans were allowed inside Old Trafford to cheer on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Reds, and to the mark the poignant anniversary, April 2021's Inside United, asked some of our club writers to reflect on their experiences following and reporting on United in that time...
"SHARED MOMENTS WITH MY SON"
“On the night of Sunday 8 March 2020, I was in a pub in central Manchester, thronged with United fans, celebrating our 2-0 win over Manchester City. If you’d told me then that I’d not be able to go to another game at Old Trafford for over a year, I’d have been crestfallen. And quite confused, obviously.
"But days later, the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK in earnest, and quite a few people who had been celebrating in that pub fell seriously ill. Thankfully they recovered, and thankfully, after a short break, football was back. It took a while to adjust to the no-fans concept, but eventually it became clear that having matchdays back – in whatever guise – was a good thing.
“I pine for the days fans can return but, still, United games are helpful staging posts in what can be very boring weeks. Matches are something to look forward
to; something to get completely lost in. That’s hugely valuable to me, given so much of the rest of life has been put on hold.
“And it’s been nice in other ways, too. I became a father in July, just a few hours after United beat Bournemouth 5-2 at Old Trafford. So probably the best thing about watching football during the Covid-19 era has been doing so with my son. Not that he understands any of it. And when Edinson Cavani scored two dramatic goals against Southampton, my reactions were so unrestrained that it looked liked his little heart was about to leap out of his body in fear!
“I can’t do Zoom calls during matches — United games are nerve-wracking enough, so I don’t want more sensory overload — but I do enjoy looking over at him, whatever is happening on the pitch. His smile makes me remember United results are not life and death (if this year has taught us anything, it’s that). And more than that, his rapid development makes me remember that time is moving quickly, and that one day, we will surely be back at Old Trafford.
“I’ve kept in touch with plenty of mates who are Reds, and we WhatsApp regularly. That community shows no signs of disappearing, no matter how long we are kept away from M16. One day, I hope my son will be part of it. Until then, our matchdays are confined to the front room; our pre-match pint reduced to a cup of coffee for me and a bottle of the house white for him.
“But without the current situation, I wouldn’t have spent half as much time with him. Wouldn’t have shared some funny moments around notable United goals. I hope there’s plenty more of those times around the corner, and thoughts of that nature are keeping me positive.”
Joe Ganley, IU contributor
"I DID A LIKELY LADS"
“My experience of watching United from home has sometimes been on my mobile phone, with the commentary turned down so as not to disturb my youngest daughter as my wife attempts to get her to sleep while watching the main television. It means, particularly with VAR, that some moments are not particularly clear – I simply could not fathom why Harry Maguire’s goal at Burnley was disallowed, for instance!
“My match highlight is a complicated story. A rearranged fireworks date was long in the diary for the family and, incredibly, it coincided with the Sheffield United away game when it was moved to a Thursday night. I did the old Likely Lads and avoided all contact with the outside world, including driving home in silence in case the radio mentioned the score during one of the news bulletins.
“On returning home, I was able to start the Amazon match coverage from the kick-off and watched the first half with no issues. However, it crashed at half-time when I tried to skip the studio chat and there was no way to restart it. So I had to finally admit to defeat and only play the highlights instead.
“These were basically just the goals and, when the Blades pulled it back to 3-2, I was nervous. Then it started to show another attack from the home side and I was having kittens – surely they hadn’t somehow snatched an equaliser? But they were only showing goals so this seemed the only explanation.
“Thankfully, Dean Henderson pulled off a fine late save instead and I must admit my heart was racing and it was a unique way to celebrate a United victory!”
Adam Marshall, IU contributor
"COMFORT IN FAMILIARITY”
“Bill Shankly was wrong. Football is not a matter of life and death, as the pandemic we’ve all lived through for the past year has proved. With all due respect to the man who managed the club we like to dislike, it’s not even close.
“And yet, football - and more specifically Manchester United - has managed to illuminate some of the gloomiest corners of this year like no other. Project Restart in June 2020 provided a welcome taste of normality in a world that had been traumatically turned upside down. Watching United battle back to earn a point at Tottenham undoubtedly beat doom-scrolling through Covid case numbers. Hitting the WhatsApp groups afterwards to ponder Paul Pogba’s dancing feet and Bruno’s penalty technique certainly topped talk of the worst recession in three centuries.
“And as the weeks and months passed in eerie, discombobulating fashion, it was this comfort in familiarity that really seemed to soothe. Live football has seemed almost as omnipresent on our TV screens as government briefings led by Boris Johnson and Chris Whitty (and far more enjoyable to boot).
“It helped that United have been largely brilliant since early 2020. We’ve been treated to some fantastic goals and thrilling wins, inspired by homegrown youth and swagger, all under the guidance of a manager with impeccable Red credentials.
“The new reality even heralded some new converts. My girlfriend, previously someone with less interest in football than almost anybody on the planet, was moved to observe that ‘Bruno is really good at penalties’ after a string of successful spot-kicks were beamed into our living room. ‘Don’t worry, he’ll score,’ was her verdict as the Portuguese prepared to shoot from 12 yards at 1-1 in the tense tussle with Aston Villa.
“Of course, it hasn’t been perfect. Sitting in the same spot on the same sofa to view the same silent games is certainly no substitute for watching the Reds amidst a seething cauldron of Old Trafford passion. But in these most uncertain times, watching United hit the heights has most certainly helped keep the lows away.”
Simon Munk, Senior Production Journalist
“A GLUT OF FOOTBALL”
What a long, strange trip it’s been. The last footballing year is impossible to unmesh from the events of the last year in general, and I find it quite difficult to process and rationalise either with any great clarity. There are lots of fuzzy edges and blurred lines.
“When football came back in June after the initial hiatus, I was delighted. It was an uncertain time, we didn’t really know what was coming next, so to be able to watch United on TV restored one simple plank of life at least.
“One thing I soon discovered was that I much preferred piped-in crowd noises to the ‘ambient’ sounds of the stadium. I’d have thought fake crowd sounds would be something I’d recoil from (like cringey canned laughter), but in the case of football I found I was quite happy to willingly
suspend my disbelief.
“Another adjustment needed was to the sheer volume of matches – it’s been a glut of football. There’s certainly no time to dwell… but it’s almost as though there isn’t enough time to process, either. Sometimes you’re still living the last game when the next one comes along.
“I wonder if this ‘treadmill’ sort of experience gives an insight into the mentality adopted by the players. You can absolutely understand why they so often talk about ‘staying in the moment’ and ‘taking each game as it comes’. It’s almost as though, if you get to thinking too much about one game, you’re going to be caught out by the advent of the next one. So as a defence mechanism, best not to ‘think’ at all, just to ‘do’.
“I really enjoyed our rise up the table, post-restart, to finish third at the end of 2019/20. I thought that was an impressive achievement, to react to an unknown situation probably better than any other team in the division. Ole and his staff must have been very canny in the way they prepared the team for the new normal, and of course the players themselves coped brilliantly.
“It was then very strange to be starting the next season so soon. I didn’t feel as though I’d fully finished with the last one, hit the reset button and was missing football again, which would normally happen over the course of months in the summer. I wonder whether there was any element of that sort of syndrome with the players – they’re elite athletes and among some of the most mentally robust individuals you could possibly find, but I do wonder whether the lack of sufficient time in which to mentally sign off one season, switch off completely, and then reboot to start another season was a factor in some of the bad early-season results in 2020/21.
“I’ve watched the vast majority of matches from the same spot on the same sofa, like most people. I do normally like to watch games from the local pub at times, and I managed that earlier this season when lockdown restrictions were temporarily lightened… but it was for the 6-1 defeat to Spurs!
“A better memory of an individual game was the 6-2 hammering of Leeds. I was a bit tardy in my pre-match preparations, so I was in the bathroom when the game
kicked off… and I came back to find us already 2-0 up! I was a bit annoyed but mostly delighted – luckily I still had four more goals to watch anyway. (I tried the bathroom trick a few more times, actually, but it didn’t work again!)
“I know I haven’t missed the physical matchday experience nearly as keenly as some – the season-ticket holders, the every-gamers, those who enjoy the event and the surrounding culture of it as much, even more maybe, than the game of football itself.
“I was at Old Trafford, though, for its last match with fans, that raucous derby. I try to treat my mum to a game at least once a year, and this was that game. Holding
on to that atmosphere, conjuring the scenes inside Old Trafford to mind, has been a source of great nourishment throughout this fallow period. Memories to provide succour, indeed. But also a symbol of what will return to us one day: more amazing – and shared – occasions like that one.”
“IT’S BEEN A FAMILY AFFAIR”
“I can’t quite fathom how it’s been a year, but then I suppose it’s been quite distracting juggling the usual workload alongside a new (and criminally underpaid) role as teacher and canteen worker in the world’s unruliest home school. I’ve tried to incorporate a fair bit of football on the (after-hours) curriculum where possible, meaning the kids have been roped into a fair few celebrations and the odd tantrum over the last 12 months.
“Particular highlights include Edinson’s late header at St Mary’s and the 9-0 return against Southampton at Old Trafford, both of which provoked especially boisterous scenes in our house. But it’s hard to beat the feeling of telling everybody that Bruno was going to score his free-kick against Liverpool, then leaping around the lounge with my nearest and dearest after being proven right.
“Don’t get me wrong: I’ve missed sitting on the Stretford End with my dad and with the usual crowd of characters I’m surrounded by, and there’s no question that it’s an entirely different experience to consume football through a screen. But making United even more of a family experience has been one of the upsides of an especially unusual year.”
Steve Bartram, IU Features Editor
"MISSING MY MATCHDAY RITUAL”
"I’ve missed going to matches so much and for so many reasons. Partly it’s because I’m a terrible watcher of games on TV, as, for some reason, I get far more nervous and annoyed sat at home than I ever do watching from the stands. I can go to Old Trafford and see us lose and by the time I get home my wife has to ask me what the score was because she can’t tell from my facial expression or mood.
“That’s not a deliberate thing, more likely because I’ve left it behind in the Stretford End, got it out of my system. Okay, so it’s not quite as straightforward as that (I sulked for days after Leverkusen knocked us out of the Champions League in 2002), but at least I’ve been able to chant, shout and be part of the experience. And that’s what football, what Manchester United, is to me – it’s an experience, an event, something social. It’s never just been about how well the players can kick a ball to each other. Plus, most of the pundits annoy the hell out of me and I finish watching every match on TV convinced they’ve an agenda against us and were willing on our
opponent. I also like to make my own judgments on the game, without the influence of commentators.
“The main reason, however, that I’ve missed going to games so much over the past 12 months (and counting) is that it’s such a cornerstone of my life. Matchdays with my dad are something I’ve enjoyed for over four decades. Our rituals have changed over that time, of course: where once he’d take me in the car with my scarf hanging out of the back window (with me dressed in full kit!), prior to the pandemic he’d come to my house and bookend the game by spending time with his grandchildren. That has been missed so much by us all over the last year, and alas it’s a ritual that will now only occasionally be happening. My dad has decided that at the age of 75 it is time for him to stop going to games. I’m disappointed but I understand his reasons.
“He’ll still see the kids (Covid allowing!), and I’m hoping I’ll be able to persuade him to the occasional fixture. Never did
I think when I walked out of Old Trafford after seeing United beat City 2-0 last March that it would be the last time we went to a match together. I’m still hoping that it won’t be the case, and looking forward to when my son and daughter will be old enough to start coming to games with me.
“After all, when we’re allowed back into Old Trafford I’m going to need to start a new matchday ritual, and it would be lovely if my kids were a part of it.”
Paul Davies, United Review editor