United fans wave flags at Wembley during the 2018 FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham

United and Wembley: A special relationship

Saturday 12 January 2019 09:00

If Manchester United have a 'second home', then Wembley surely has as good a claim on that title as any other ground.

Sure, these days it’s most commonly associated with two other football teams - England, obviously, and Tottenham Hotspur, who have used the stadium as an adopted home for almost two seasons now. And plenty of other clubs have special relationships with the ground. Liverpool fans cheekily nicknamed it ‘Anfield South’ during their halcyon days in the 1980s.
But no other English club won its first European Cup at Wembley. No other club has played more major finals there. You might prefer the old Wembley to the new incarnation, or vice versa. You might miss the golden days of semi-finals at Villa Park  - the other outstanding contender to be United’s ‘second home’. But what cannot be denied is that a streak of Wembley’s DNA runs through the soul of Manchester United.
Fortunately, we support a club that is privileged to travel to Wembley regularly. Even in the years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, we've visited eight times. It’s easy to become mildly irritated at having to go there so often. The whole day is always an expensive experience. The atmosphere - particularly for finals - can be flat, as fans find tickets harder to get hold of.
But, on the right day, it still takes the breath away.
Watch some Wembley scenes from last April, when United beat Spurs in the FA Cup semi-final.
As we headed up Wembley Way for last year’s semi, against Spurs, no less – at their ‘home’ ground – the skies were dark, the clouds began to open, and the eyes could see only Tottenham Hotspur's lilywhite colours. The only sound the ears could hear were thousands of voices chorusing in honour of Dele Alli. For any United supporter fearing that the north Londoners might have an advantage in playing a cup semi-final at their adopted base, it was an inauspicious start.
But we needn’t have worried. As we queued to pass through the turnstiles at the west end of Wembley, the songs started. Once inside, the volume went up several notches further. As we reached the stand, the United end was a blaze of retro flags; a rowdy sea of Red exuberance. New Wembley has not always been renowned for its atmosphere, but here it was joyously noisy, with the United songbook’s full breadth utilised. 
When Spurs took a deserved early lead, there was the briefest pause, before the chants resumed with a defiant 'United!' And from the minute Paul Pogba eased Mousa Dembele out of the way on the left wing, before clipping an exquisite cross onto the head of Alexis Sanchez, any claim Spurs might have had on Wembley Stadium was made redundant.

The opposing side of the ground looked shell-shocked for much of the second half: they were not only being robbed of the lead and a place in the final, but drowned out in their own front room by 34,000 giddy Red invaders.
Maybe the experience had become mundane for the Spurs fans. They'd been journeying to Wembley every other week throughout the season. But for us, it was the usual all-day extravaganza trip down south, via bus, train or plane, with thousands of us filling service station concourses down the M6, singing and getting ramped up for the match. When the lads eventually took to the pitch late that afternoon, we’d already been having a laugh, singing and whatever for five or six hours. We'd been discussing the trip for weeks before even that.
After all, it’s not just about Wembley itself. It’s the mythology of the stadium; the songs you sing all season as you ebb closer to that final (or semi-final) destination. For northern football fans, it’s arguably a more exotic, thrilling experience than for Londoners, who merely have to venture a few extra Tube stops down the line. For us, it’s a kind of Mecca-like pilgrimage.
And that special aura holds true even for the players. When I asked Jesse Lingard for his best moment as a United player, late in 2017, he picked out two, both at Wembley. He settled upon the 2016 FA Cup final, where he netted a sizzling volley which turned out to be the winning moment, as his favourite. But the first moment he mentioned was Anthony Martial’s semi-final winner against Everton.
He described it as one of the ‘best’ and ‘maddest’ feelings he had ever had. If you were in that lower tier behind the goal that day - even if you watch the video back - you know exactly what he means. Martial ran to the supporters; they jumped all over him. The other players followed and joined in. The result was one of those great moments of euphoric unity between footballers and football fans. It was special, and the kind of thing only the stress of a semi-final, and the pressure and presence of stadiums like Wembley, can deliver.
It’s inevitably very different for a league game like Sunday’s, where we’ll have a drastically smaller allocation and it will be a de facto home fixture for Tottenham. 
But how can you wipe away the memories of what has gone before? Wembley is special for a United fan, whoever the 'home' team might be. Go there and you can’t help but be reminded of all those finals. The heartbreaks, the joys. Our first European Cup. It’s a right of passage for any Red. Make that journey to the capital for the first time and you join a long lineage of supporters who have ventured down there to support our team and try to show the rest of the country what our club is all about. 
It's a lineage that stretches back to 1948, when we smashed three goals in 16 minutes to come from behind to beat Blackpool and claim Matt Busby’s first trophy, the FA Cup. 
Of all the grounds we’ve played at more than 50 times, only at Maine Road do we boast a better winning percentage than Wembley. And as Maine Road was once our adopted home - as Old Trafford was restored after the Second World War - that leaves only the national stadium as our true home-away-from-home.
But a trip to Wembley with an army of fellow Reds isn't about the match stats - it's all about emotions, traditions and the continuity of an epic story that will outlive us all.

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