An otherworldly experience at Old Trafford
Visiting Old Trafford is usually something that never fails to stir the senses but it was always going to be a different experience on this occasion, even if the match was an absolute cracker.
Whenever I drive towards work, and the stadium comes into view like a giant citadel or cathedral, it never ceases to lift my mood.
The scene of so many glorious moments as a Manchester United fan, afternoons and nights that could never be repeated anywhere else in the world.
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Sometimes, due to logistical issues, there would be a need to remain in our nearby office while the game was played out and, as you could hear the shouts rising from the stadium, it was pure agony. Having had to endure a rather long commute on each occasion, I felt like Michael Collins must have done on the successful Apollo mission to the Moon in 1969 (he was the guy who had to wait in orbit while his colleagues were able to bounce around on the uncharted planet - I appreciate it was 51 years ago now).
This time, having the sheer privilege of seeing a game in the flesh when so few people are allowed into grounds, maybe I was more like Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin. Probably the latter in fact, as my colleague Gemma Thompson attended the first game back here, the 3-0 win over Sheffield United.
The entrance to the stadium in current circumstances was like being in another world. All the usual friendly smiles and acknowledgements were hidden behind masks and the whole environment was so safe and understandably cautious that it was unnerving. The protocols have to be in place, of course, but you yearn for the day supporters return here and make the matchday occasion so special.
Playing Bournemouth, I remembered one of my very first games here - the FA Cup replay in 1989. I think it's probably safe to admit I had to skip school for the afternoon to make the long journey with my father, but it was a rare treat to be allowed to see a home match at the time. Any concerns my dad had were probably amplified when Brian McClair's goal caused us to be swept off our feet and carried many rows away in the celebration.
Cup fever had gripped the Reds, and the attendance was around 54,000 if I recall rightly, but we'd have to wait another season before lifting the trophy.
Before kick-off today, I thought about some of my other special moments inside the ground. Some as a supporter in the Stretford End or elsewhere, such as witnessing Wayne Rooney's debut hat-trick or Robin van Persie's amazing volley against Aston Villa, and some as an employee.
When we beat Chelsea to virtually clinch the 2010/11 title, shaking, alongside the whole stadium, as the supporters pleaded for the final whistle while trying to get our match report live. You see, I wouldn't put the result into the headline until any game was over for fear of jinxing it, even if we needed it live as quickly as possible. Crazy, I know, but the stress of the whole situation was part of what we all feel following United.
The last time I was sat at Old Trafford, it was impossible not to get carried away when Scott McTominay swept in that long-range clincher in the Manchester derby. I'm sure everybody would understand, it's not as if we have to be impartial.
Such allowances were a relief again this afternoon as it became a little embarrassing when I realised my natural reactions to the goals would echo around the empty Theatre of Dreams. I was almost expecting to be shushed like in a real theatre.
Yet that feeling of togetherness from the derby was always going to be missing in a game played behind closed doors. I feel for all the fans who are desperate to return to normality, the matchday routine and the sheer thrill of watching live football. It really isn't the same without them.
So it's wonderful to see live football again and, particularly, Ole's boys turning on the style. But there was still not the same buzz for me, despite the incredibly privileged position I find myself in. As I've mentioned, Buzz Aldrin maybe, as the second of our team to be back beside the hallowed turf. But I reckon every single Red back at Old Trafford will view it as one giant leap when fans are permitted to return. With pubs now open, I hope that day is not too far away.
This team deserves to hear all the accolades at the moment.
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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