South African Red says farewell to Old Trafford

Wednesday 29 May 2024 07:59

Manchester United's penultimate home game of the 2023/24 season, against Arsenal, was a disappointing one as the Reds lost 1-0.

But for one fan present in M16, and the supporters' club she belongs to, the result was the least important part of the day.
For Sunday 12 May was the day our South African branch secretary, Ethel Sleith, said her goodbyes to Old Trafford.
The 73-year-old has been the heartbeat of her country’s official United supporters’ club since she was invited to join its committee in 1993 – by former United goalkeeper Gary Bailey, who, of course, grew up in South Africa.
Since 1998, Ethel has been helping countless Reds from her country achieve the lifelong dream of making it to the Theatre of Dreams.
Ethel has been involved with our South African branch since the early 1990s.
“I have some wonderful memories,” she told our official matchday programme, United Review, ahead of her final visit.
“I took up the reins in ’93, because the then branch secretary had just been diagnosed with cancer, so I stepped in. It’s been great. There are times when it’s been very taxing, but the rewards, especially on the trips... when our coach gets into the area and everyone gets a first glimpse of the stadium... I just like to sit and watch their faces.
“A lot of people in South Africa would never even dream [of going to Old Trafford]. But if you say to them: ‘I’ll book your flights, I’ll book your hotel, I’ll get you to Old Trafford – all you have to do is get to the airport’, it works. There’s a lot of satisfaction at the end of it.”
Amusingly, when we ask for the memorable matches, Ethel plumps not for Barcelona ’99, at which she was among five other South African Reds present, but for a fixture that was cancelled! The infamous Bournemouth game of May 2016.
“We’d been invited by Chevrolet into one of the suites,” Sleith remembers. “A lady came to the door in a red outfit and said: ‘You all have to leave the stadium... there’s been an incident.’ So we all got out into the car park and then a man came along and said: ‘Everybody leave the area, the game’s been cancelled!’
“So there we were; we’d travelled 5,000 miles to come to this game that had now been called off! All our arrangements were for the game to be on the Sunday, and to leave on Monday to spend a couple of days in London.
“But all the way to London people were on the phones booking trains and accommodation in Manchester. Tuesday morning, everybody headed straight back up for the [rearranged] game! My friend’s husband drove the two of us from Watford. Then he drove us back afterwards! Out of our whole group, there were just two people who didn’t travel back for the game. It absolutely sums up the dedication of our fans.”
Ethel shares a laugh and a joke with United legend Paddy Crerand.
Thankfully, most other trips have been much less stressful. And, of course, many of the most special memories derive from simple interactions with great people.
“We used to do our own Player of the Year awards, which Barry [Moorhouse, player liaison officer] would organise trips to Carrington for. We’d have the opportunity to make a presentation to the players out on the field.
“One time we had an award for Roy Keane who – as usual! – was suspended, so we had to give it to Ruud van Nistelrooy, who was so wonderful. But he was disappointed that there was a bottle of wine for Roy and an award for Roy but nothing for him! So after that, every year that he was still with us, I’d take a bottle of wine for Ruud van Nistelrooy...”
Watch Ethel Sleith being interviewed by MUTV's Sam Homewood, prior to the Arsenal game on 12 May.
The aforementioned trip to Barcelona in 1999 remains, unequivocally, Ethel’s personal highlight. And, like many Reds, she has a unique story from that madcap day in Catalonia.
“I missed both goals!” she laughs, disbelievingly.
“I was sitting down, with my face in my hands, saying a little prayer, when Teddy scored. And then with all the mayhem after that goal, I got a friend’s binocular cords caught in my earring, so I had to sit down again and extricate myself. That’s when Ole Gunnar scored – I’ve never lived it down!”
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Sadly, at 73, the 11-hour flight from Johannesburg, and a five-hour minibus from London, is becoming a little too much. But the brilliant matches, and the magic of Old Trafford will, of course, endure in the mind.
“It was hard to leave the stadium for the final time,” she admits. “For me, the stadium is just as awesome when it’s empty as when it’s full.
“You’re going for the atmosphere, for just being there. You’re there to just be in the Stretford End, however it turns out, whoever United are playing.”