View from the press box: Everton home

Saturday 07 August 2021 14:51

It doesn't matter whether it's your first or your fiftieth, and in truth it doesn't matter what stadium it is, the sight of your club's ground appearing in the distance is unbeatable.

At Manchester United, it's the view of those magnificent cantilever stands. On a grey day like Saturday, the whole stadium can seem only to reflect the clouds and the rain, but then those bright red letters pop out at you, just as the green of a new season's pitch beams around the ground. A glimpse of the Stretford End through a bus window, then it goes, and then a walk through the wet, that irreplicable smell of the football growing the closer to the ground you get.

It was only a friendly, of course, but I, like all fans of all football clubs, have missed this. The weather is not quite what we have hoped for, but if rain for this one means blazing sun for Leeds next week, I'll take that. 

The captain celebrates with United's returning fans.

Distance makes the heart grow fonder, silence makes your hearing more acute clearly. After more than a year - barring a couple of recent exceptions - we've forgotten what a wall of sound from an Old Trafford crowd sounds like. I was stood in East Stand for May's game against Fulham, an emotional affair for those lucky enough to get tickets, and 10,000 were loud, but this is a step up.

Only a smattering of people had arrived at midday and yet as the teams were announced for the first time just before then, the screams from across the three open stands were significant. I'd genuinely forgotten what this could be like. Five minutes later, the goalkeepers jogged out to a raucous response before the full team came out, Old Trafford taking to its feet to applaud. Special receptions were reserved for Paul Pogba and Luke Shaw, both players joining a couple of minutes late. First, Pogba, the Frenchman stopping to pray by the corner flag before greeting the crowd and sprinting over to his teammates. Once he had, as the rondo paused, he chatted to fans at the front of the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand in good spirits. Shaw came, too, a hero's welcome for an England hero.

As kick-off approached, Old Trafford filled to a level not seen in 18 months. The teams walked out and behind them was the Lowry-esque, painting-like scene of a football crowd, a hundred different shades of blacks, blues, browns and reds punctuated by the occasional luminous steward. Both sets of fans soon paid tribute to the frontline staff who have performed miracles all through the last year and a half and as the teams sprinted off of their centre circle markings, that roar came. That roar. How do you describe it? Everyone knows the feeling it sends into your gut, of excitement, anticipation, passion.

Maybe this all seems a bit much for a pre-season friendly, but it's not too much to say this felt like a league fixture. Everton's travelling support were in fantastic voice, their bellows drowning out those of our supporters. It was an atmosphere for a friendly like you've not heard before. Just wait until Leeds...

Two goals came early for United, the first showing off Mason Greenwood's freshness and his striker's instinct as he pounced on a mix-up at the back for the Toffees. Harry Maguire soon headed emphatically home from a Luke Shaw cross, undoubtedly making some England-supporting Reds nostalgic for the summer gone. United look bright, confident and fit, and there's no better cure for a rainy Mancunian day than a fluid footballing display from the Reds.

Bruno Fernandes, playing for the first time in pre-season, was in the mood. When Nemanja Matic won a free-kick just outside the box, we all knew what he wanted to do. My colleague Sam Carney filmed on his phone for footage on our app and website. He had a feeling. You always do with Bruno. No one else stepped up at the free-kick and it was of a quality where no distractions were necessary; Pickford beaten for the third time in half an hour. The love for Fernandes at this stadium is amazing and it's worth remembering that he played in front of full crowds for only the first two months of his United career. Has he truly felt the adulation of a crowd utterly obsessed by him yet? He will over the next month, the next season, the next few years even.

Bruno's stunning free-kick against the Toffees Video

Bruno's stunning free-kick against the Toffees

MUTV viewers were treated to something special by Bruno Fernandes, as he unleashed this stunning free-kick...

While Sam filmed the goal, I just sat back and took in the moment. Again, it's only a friendly, but you see 55,000 people all reacting to that one kick, and it's special. Each one has their own celebration, their own feeling, their own companion next to them - son, daughter, parent, grandparent, family friend, uncle or aunt - and all with their own personal United story. Football is brilliant like that.

As a flurry of substitutions were made in the second half, the game settled into a slower pace as friendlies often do. Solskjaer will be pleased to have been able to change his whole outfield line-up by full-time, with the exception of Mason Greenwood, and give the vast majority of his squad some valuable minutes to build rhythm.

Fans seated in J Stand's new rail seating section.
These games are about fitness, of course, but that can be achieved on the training ground to a certain degree. More important is finding a rhythm, your touch and your confidence. United did that on Saturday afternoon and in a brilliant atmosphere to boot. The wait for next Saturday will be a long one for us all, but there's little to beat the week-long building of excitement ahead of a big game.