What it meant to be back at Old Trafford
Over the last 16 months, there are few things that I have looked forward to more than being back in the Old Trafford stands watching United with thousands of fellow Reds.
Various ventures across that time have had me longing for that first matchday stroll back down Warwick Road, while I’ve had goosebumps thinking about the Reds emerging from the tunnel to a packed OT after the start to The Stone Roses' This is the One has boomed out from my earphones during a run.
We may still be waiting for the latter to become a reality during our much-anticipated Premier League opener against Leeds United on 14 August, but on Wednesday night we took another huge step towards that sense of normality in M16 again, with around 30,000 welcomed back to the Theatre of Dreams for the visit of Brentford, the highest number since before the pandemic started.
And a pre-season friendly with just over a third of the ground's capacity or not, it was brilliant to be back and among that number after the last year or so.
M16 is something of a second home for me as a lifelong Red. I’m from Bury and have lived there all of my life, but Old Trafford remains a stone’s throw away from my grandparents’ house that shares the same postcode, while being the place that generations of my family have enjoyed some of their best memories supporting the Reds, myself included. My matchdays always start and end there.
We’re big cricket fans too and spend most of the summer just down the road before watching on from the OT stands during as many weekends and weeknights as possible from August to May. The area is thus a big part of my identity.
But with recent restrictions on fans at sporting events and visiting other households among other things, the time I’ve spent in M16 has been relatively limited compared to normal over the last year or so. My most recent visit to Old Trafford had come during a 5-0 thumping of Club Brugge last February before I was fortunate enough to end my hiatus, like many, on Wednesday night.
So, when restrictions were temporarily lifted last summer, I jumped at the opportunity to go and see my grandparents from a distance before setting foot back along my matchday trails.
It was a baking hot day, the roads were quiet and one or two passed by in the opposite direction as we reached the forecourt outside Old Trafford. Memorably, on the way, a large digital billboard highlighting the heroic work done by Marcus Rashford in the fight against child food poverty stood out in the Manchester skyline.
Just over a year on, I felt much of that experience rekindle as me and my dad took to the same pathways, during our walk to the ground on Wednesday night.
A lot of things were obviously different from that summer afternoon in June 2020, an early evening deluge of wet weather for one. But our trails also didn’t involve crossing over the roads to distance ourselves from others heading for varied destinations. We were converging and en route back to our one shared journey’s end... the Theatre of Dreams.
My first United game was in pre-season, a 3-0 friendly win against Sevilla at Old Trafford prior to the 2006/07 campaign, and looking around as we made our way into the ground last night, there’s a good chance that was the case for many new budding young Reds on Wednesday, hoping to catch a first glimpse of their idols. It was great to see so many families at the game.
I remember my five-year-old self trying to sleep across two seats in what was then the North Stand at that game against the Spaniards 15 years ago, but there was no chance I was missing a peep this time around against the Bees. I don't think I could have if I'd have tried for that matter, as a result of the entertaining 2-2 spectacle that we were treated to, featuring four tremendous goals and the welcome sight of plenty of minutes for our homegrown players as the Reds continued our pre-season preparations.
The case for the main highlight could be fairly made for several moments across the evening, but it would be hard to go for any other than Andreas Pereira’s stunning volley, to put United 2-1 up in the second half. One that will live long in the memory for many in capping off a poignant night at a place that is renowned for hosting many a special occasion.
Upon the final whistle, like I have often done down the years, I held back to wait for the traffic of supporters filtering out of the stadium to go down. It also gives me the opportunity to look round and take in the special aurora that OT has before the days and weeks to come of being distracted from daily tasks, thinking about when I’ll next be back in M16 watching the Reds. It always seems to make the wait that little bit more manageable.
But last night, despite all the anticipation for that Leeds game in August and seeing our new signings in action for the first time and being part of a full crowd back inside OT, I’ve never felt so assured of that next time being so soon. Because we're back where we're belong. We're home, and fingers crossed, for good.
So, bring on Everton, Leeds and beyond in the weeks and months to come! I, for one, can't wait.
The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.