The Heartbeat of United: Sadok Hajri

Friday 07 June 2024 06:00

Long before the Premier League turbo-charged English football’s march towards worldwide domination, Tunisian television would broadcast one First Division match live each Saturday.

In a holiday resort called Hammamet, a young boy would tune in, transfixed, hoping for a glimpse of his boyhood hero, Bryan Robson. 
Last November, that same boy, Sadok Hajri, celebrated a remarkable 30 years as a Manchester United employee. 
It’s been quite the journey. 
Sadok arrived in the UK in 1993 and was initially misdirected to Yorkshire, where he lived in Malton, not far from Scarborough. But after a short trip to visit a friend in Manchester, he pledged to find work in what was then (and still is, of course) the UK’s hippest city.
Sadok recently celebrated 30 years at Old Trafford.
“There was this job in the paper, at United, and I applied for it,” he remembers. “I was qualified as a head waiter, but only this job, as a waiter, was available. I did that for about six months and then moved up to supervising, and eventually to catering operations manager.
“I was always into football. People in my age group in Tunisia liked Liverpool, because they were the dominant side, but I used to watch England and Bryan Robson was the main guy for England, so I got to like him. Robson was playing for West Brom at the time. But luckily he moved to United at the time I started liking him.”
Sadok could scarcely have pitched up in M16 at a better time. 
“November ’93 I started here and that season we won the league. It must have been me!” he jokes. “When I came in, it was just amazing. It was like a dream come true. One day you’re watching it on TV, the next you’re there. It was like a family. I used to look after the players. I met Sir Alex, David Beckham... the staff were very close, because we weren’t a very big team. Everyone knew each other.”
The club has expanded since those early years, but Hajri – like Kath Phipps, Cliff Butler and other long-standing staffers – helps United maintain its links to bygone eras. As we chat to Sadok in the Red Cafe, he delivers wonderful memories of encountering Sir Alex, Sir Matt, Sir Bobby and many more.
“The best player to talk to for me was Louis Saha,” he explains. “I remember he was injured at the time and I got to know him well. I used to look after the players in the VIP area, and when everyone went off [to play] he would stay in. I used to speak to him in French.

“Saha was really nice. Patrice Evra too, and Rio Ferdinand is another top bloke. Steve Bruce was very funny! I’d just speak to them about general life. I don’t like to get involved in what they do [professionally].”
How Robbo & the fans beat Barcelona Video

How Robbo & the fans beat Barcelona

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Sadok describes himself as a ‘football addict’, but there’s a bittersweet quality to his job, because whenever United play at Old Trafford, he is invariably too busy to catch the action live.
“I very rarely see five minutes,” he admits. “I get to watch a bit on TV, but you’ll be busy, so when I go home I watch the highlights or Match of the Day. Probably my best memory was Paul Scholes's goal against Barcelona at Old Trafford. I was working that game but, by pure luck, I just looked up and saw the moment. Scholes is my no.1 United player.
“I’ve seen lots of great games, though. I used to go to away games, particularly when I was younger. I’d get to know a lot of fans that way. I’d meet a lot of them in hospitality too. I also went to three finals: Barcelona, Rome and Moscow. Amazing. 
“I probably shouldn’t say it, but in Barcelona I was that drunk that when we scored the second goal I thought we were still celebrating the first! I had to watch it back the next day [to fully understand what had happened]! But what a great experience.”
GOTD: Scholes v Barcelona Video

GOTD: Scholes v Barcelona

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As our chat with Sadok winds to a close, we embark on a comprehensive analysis of the current United team; of what needs to happen for us to return to the title-challenging days of the ’90s and ’00s, when our first XI was chock-full of what Hajri labels “character and quality”.
His passion is infectious, as any fans that have encountered him in our hospitality areas will know first-hand. It’s been a long journey from those early years in Hammamet, but Sadok is proud to now call Manchester his adopted home. 
Manchester, and United, are very lucky to have him.