I park in the same spot I’ve parked in for years, a couple of miles away from the ground, to avoid the post-match traffic. The walk to Old Trafford has always been the same. Except it isn’t the same anymore. Not because of the new buildings, or the new billboards, or the new stand with its new ‘Manchester United’ sign that was built years ago, during the good times, so isn’t new anymore.
And not because I no longer walk this walk with my dad, who gets the tram these days, who I meet under the Quicks clock these days, over the road from the chippy where we’ve always got our lucky pre-match chips. It’s not the same because Manchester United are not the same. Not even Manchester United, really. Manchester United in name alone.
Old Trafford in the distance, shrouded in fog tonight. That sign, that replaced the way-too-small, faded-to-pink one that used to adorn the East Stand, lit up in the fog, a swirl of red in the dank night sky, like a drop of blood in a murky lake. Yes, that’s changed.
But the walk goes on, and it’s the same walk as it’s always been. Only it’s not. Crossing the road, into the crowds, the crowds that stream from all directions, joining the river of fans, swept along by the throng. That’s the same as it ever was. Only it’s not.
Reaching the corner, outside The Trafford, the same as it ever was. Only not so crowded, not so boisterous, just a few fans in the windows, quietly drinking their beer. Over the road a noisy bunch turn on to Sir Matt Busby Way, marching past the Quicks clock, past my dad. They’re punching the air as they sing their songs, an angry marching-band, a furious choir. They have always been there. But not like this.
I cross the road, as I’ve always done, and hug my dad hello. Like I always do. Only the hug is tense, fraught. We forgo our chips, for we’ve both eaten and, besides, our lucky traditions stopped being lucky long ago.
The sounds and the smells, the sizzling of fat and the stench of cheap meat, the cries from the fanzine sellers, collars turned up high against the cold and the damp, the hum in the air that has always been there. Only the sounds are less sure and the smells are somehow stale and the cries from the fanzine sellers are tinged with the same anger and weariness we all feel as we trudge down that same old road, and traipse past those same old statues. Sir Matt, and the Trinity, and further on, Sir Alex, all standing tall and proud in the cloying fog. Where they’ve always been. Only now they are different. Relics from a bygone age, standing tall and proud in the rubble of this faded club, like gods hewn from our memories, reminders of our fallen empire.
For that’s it. That’s what’s changed. The glory’s gone. But it’s not just that. That, after all, is football. Glory comes and glory goes. Any functioning adult, while not liking it, can accept it. What’s difficult to accept is the vanishing of hope, the vanishing of everything you knew and loved about your club as it sinks out of sight, a desperate, clawing hand reaching up from the dark depths, that you know you cannot reach.
“We want United back,” we lamented, as the match drew to a close, as Burnley beat us without having to really try.
Prior to that, without the small singing section, the Red Army, Old Trafford would have been near-silent, save the groans when Anthony Martial missed, and the groans when Burnley didn’t. Stony and still and seething we sat. All hope drained. All energy is gone.
“Love United, hate Glazers,” sang the Red Army, the futility of it all as their voices faded into the fog.
“Stand up if you hate Glazers,” they cried. And we did. Because we do.
“Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole.” Pointless really, for he will now surely go the same way as the others, a sacrificial lamb on the alter of all this waste.
Boos at full-time. Not me. Not my dad. For these players don’t need that. These young players, physically exhausted, mentally drained, longing for leaders that can guide them through this mire. Some will surely be crushed by all this, like so many of us fans, not recognising our club, morbidly curious to see how far we can fall under this sick stewardship.
Then the walk back to the car. Past the Munich clock. Always there. Always stopped. A punch of perspective on a painful night. A glimmer of hope that we’ve faced disasters worse than this and risen again. The chatter the same as it ever was. Only different. Not the chatter of hope for a brighter future, but talk of further drift and despair.
Driving home. The same drive as always. Only more despondent than I’ve ever felt after a defeat. For you can take defeat. Defeat is part of football. But this is not the defeat of one match. This is the defeat of a fanbase who no longer recognise their club. Who no longer see a way back other than seeing the club sold to the Saudis, or some other nation-state. Who know that Ole Gunnar Solskjær, a good man hung out to dry, will probably be replaced soon, by whatever madman believes he won’t go the same way further down the line.
Thirty years of doing this. The same drive. The same parking spot. The same walk. None of it’s changed. But, then again, all of it has.
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