Manchester United fans

The joy of following Manchester United away

Manchester United’s new away kit for 2020/21 goes on sale this Saturday morning, unveiling the look that will lead us into battle in the Europa League semi-final against Sevilla on Sunday night in Cologne, and across a season of away days throughout the forthcoming campaign.

And while fans aren’t able to follow, follow, follow the Reds to Rome or Mandalay at the moment, it got this season-ticket holder thinking about what makes an away day following United across the country or the continent such a special experience.

You never forget your first away.

Sure, you never forget your first game at Old Trafford either.

But if going to the Theatre of Dreams is like your United baptism – your entry to the faith – then travelling away with the Red Army is like getting your driving licence. Or going on that first night out with your mates at the age of 18 – or maybe even a little earlier.

Most of us go to our first home match as kids, with a responsible adult, or at least an older sibling. You’re surrounded by fellow Reds, and sights that scream ‘United’ at every turn.

Wayne Rooney and Wes Brown, plastered on top of the chippy at the top of Sir Matt Busby Way. Sir Alex Ferguson’s statue outside the ground. The famous neon sign that bears the words ‘Manchester United’.

Manchester United fans at the Nou Camp for the 1999 Champions League final
United fans at the Nou Camp in 1999.

Everywhere are symbols that scream: this is where you are meant to be. This is where you belong. If United is your faith, this is your church. The altar at which you have come to worship.

But that first trip away…

When you’re young, on a train bound for some provincial town you might never have ventured to before, wondering how you’ll get to the ground –
whether you’ll even find it – surrounded by older Reds whose faces seem to bear the stories of a thousand games…

It’s something else entirely.

For some, the buzz beforehand – the thrill of meeting your mates and travelling to some far-flung part of the country or the continent – is alone enough to inspire a lifetime commitment to following the Reds.

But if that’s not enough to seduce you, the match probably will.

Here, you’re not always surrounded by welcoming faces.

If you’re crossing Stanley Park towards Anfield, or walking up Ashton New Road to the Etihad, or anywhere near Elland Road, you’re very much going to get a sense that this isn’t a place where worshipping Manchester United is permissible.

Instead, you’ll feel like Daniel entering the lion’s den. Like you’re a secret behind-enemy-lines agent for the town of Manchester. Like you’re not just there to watch United, but to represent them.

It’s a privilege, first and foremost. Allocations for away games are small, and tickets aren’t easy to come by. You’ll know, if you’ve ever applied for one, that almost every game is massively oversubscribed.

There are exceptions. Like Astana, last November, where we ‘only’ took around 1,000 supporters. But I reckon that’s fair enough given it’s closer to Japan than Manchester. And we’d already qualified for the next stage of the Europa League.

But whether you’re in Accrington or Astana, that thrill of being part of the travelling support is priceless. And once you’ve experienced it, it will probably change you.

Manchester United fans gather at a statue in London ahead of the 1968 European Cup final
Travelling Reds gather in London for the 1968 European Cup final at Wembley.

My first ‘proper’ away (without my dad) was for a night game at Portsmouth. I remember it all like it was yesterday.

Stopping at the service stations on the way down – every one of them studded with Reds, with smiles on their faces. The game itself wasn’t a big deal. The act of going down there to support United was.

I remember being stood next to a young-ish lad – he couldn’t have been more than 25 – who’d decided to bring his six-month old baby along for the evening’s entertainment. From Manchester, to Portsmouth, on a Monday night.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Fratton Park, reader, but let’s just say it wasn’t the world’s premier baby-changing facility back then.

But there he and his young child were, and he never stopped smiling. None of us did. We sang en masse from start to finish, and then all the way out of the ground after the final whistle.

Manchester United fans at the Bernabeu Stadium, April 2000
From Manchester to Madrid... Reds make themselves seen and heard at the Bernabeu Stadium in April 2000.

When the game is a big deal, celebrating a vital goal at somewhere like Anfield or Stamford Bridge is one of life’s great feelings. Silencing three sides of a big stadium and going absolutely wild with two or three thousand other people whose only thought is to let go and enjoy themselves through their love for United.

As you go more and more often, through the years you make friendships and associations with people you never see anywhere else other than at United matches.

It’s like being part of a special small club. And it can be surreal.

I remember meeting a fellow Red from Blackley (where I grew up) in the Hilton Hotel bar in Astana at about 6am after that Europa League game. Plenty of people in south Manchester have never heard of Blackley – let alone the average man on the street in Kazakhstan. Yet there I was on the other side of the world getting to know someone born in the same hospital as me in a nondescript suburb of north Manchester.

Away days combine all sorts of these kinds of brilliant buzzes: the local and the global, the ephemeral and the historical.

Manchester United fans outside Wembley Stadium for the 1968 European Cup final
Another scene from '68, this time outside Wembley Stadium as European Cup final fever increases.

The sadness right now is that, as the Premier League schedule for next season begins to form, we don’t know if we’ll be going to Elland Road to see that first United league game there in nearly 17 years.

We don’t know if we’ll get to celebrate the Aaron Wan-Bissaka overhead kick at Anfield that sends Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United five points clear at the top of the table.

Those dreamy thoughts remind me of how lucky I am to have already experienced so many amazing moments while following United. And they also reestablish just what we’re missing while supporters are unable to attend games up and down the country.

But one day soon we’ll be back doing what we love most: following United away.

And that first game back, after this painful pause, will taste sweeter than ever. If I get a ticket, of course…

The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.

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