2 November 2008
I indulged in my first ever visit to Old Trafford at the weekend. The game was exceptional, as were Hull City, and a 4-3 defeat to the reigning European champions was as far away from a disgrace as it is possible to be in defeat.
Beyond the actual football, I was looking forward to the whole Manchester United experience, as was everyone else who had journeyed from Hull that day. I'm not one of those doltish football snobs who hates everyone and everything about other clubs through a blend of local rivalry, regional snobbery or general jealousy, and I supported English football on that (oh dear, sorry in advance for this) "balmy night in Barcelona" in 1999 when United completed allegedly the most ridiculous comeback in club football history (actually, Scarborough got a 3-3 draw at Crewe about 15 years ago from 3-0 down in injury time, but that one seems to have been mysteriously forgotten). A club steeped in so much history, with so many iconic names passing through its doors, and lest we forget with a good chunk of tragedy and drama thrown in, deserves to shout about itself in the way that it does.
Unfortunately, Manchester United also represents everything that's currently wrong with football. This is not on the pitch, but off it. On the pitch they are fine - blessed with some of the world's most tongue-hangingly awesome footballers while still maintaining, remarkably, an element of (almost) localness thanks to the longevity (and brilliance) of figures like Giggs (from Wales), Neville (from Bury) and Scholes (from Oldham). Cristiano Ronaldo is a posing, effete ham actor when a defender dares approach him, and Wayne Rooney a sheared piece of Liverpudlian thuggery who wouldn't be out of place chucking pebbles at a pensioner's window on Mischief Night were he not handy with a ball on his toes, but they are worth the entrance money (£41 for this away fan) and more.
No, the issue is the way that Manchester United have been the leading proponents of the removal of football from its rightful status as a sport and lurching it, for maximum financial gain, towards its current status as a product. Football should never be a product. A chap who works as a labourer on a building site can love the game as much as the chap who happens to be able to play it, really play it, yet neither can now treat it as a sport. To the labourer it's a luxury, with ever-increasing ticket prices (and heaven forfend if he has a family interested in the game) and to the player it's a career, not even one they can always enjoy.
Football as a product means that you can extend and extend your stadium until it becomes almost Babel-like in its height, but the reason for such extensions is to accommodate people with no local pride in Manchester United. Or general pride in football. Their attraction to the club comes either because of the corporate glamour of paying silly money to be served a three-course meal while listening to anecdotes from Stuart Pearson, a fabulous striker of the 1970s whom they have never heard of and never really want to; or because they are of another nation, one not steeped in footballing heritage, so they look for a glamorous foreign club to 'support' and decide that the one featuring that nice Mr Giggs and his smouldering looks is the one for you. Mike Edwards is the best looking footballer in the English game (the Natural Blonde says so - he usurps even that Beckham chap, apparently) but you try getting football-hungry Koreans to fly halfway across the world to watch Notts County lose 1-0 at home to Bury. Our own Michael Turner has a burgeoning fan club of willowy mature women, I'm told, but his boyish features and crunching tackles aren't sending mad Canadians to the airport in a frenzied attempt to book a place on a nippy trans-Atlantic flight and a room at the Premier Inn in Kingswood in time for our game with Bolton next week.
I'm fortunate in that I know of one, just one, Manchester United fan who ticks the supporting box that I tick myself - there is only one, and that is geography. He is proper local - born in Manchester and raised in Eccles, making United his closest club. Mark Chapman, the redoubtable Chappers of the BBC, is United through and through and comes from Rochdale. I suspect he could have supported Rochdale FC from boyhood if he'd really tried but no, he was drawn in (presumably) by the joys of Steve Coppell and Gordon Hill in the 1970s, and their ilk. Gary Neville, the greatest Englishman ever to play at right back, bangs on about being a local lad made good, playing for the club he worshipped as a child. Yet he was born and raised in Bury - his dad even worked for Bury FC - and yet somehow he forgot about them when picking his favourite team.
These guys at least have the north west in their systems (though having worked in Stockport, I saw first hand the number of United window-lickers from Bramhall and Poynton who'd eschew Macclesfield Town and Stockport County and physically drive past their grounds in order to be part of the Old Trafford experience). The fabled Surrey (Surrey is a form of shorthand for the whole south of England, really) branch of the Manchester United supporters club, official or otherwise, make up some chunk of the 75,000 or thereabouts capacity. The Stretford Enders who are actually from Stretford must hate it as much as the rest of us laugh at it and despair of it.
The interloping football fan, the one who clears the club shop of every conceivable bit of official tat and then still buys all the dodgy merchandise on the street stalls outside ("oooh, must get a scarf with Patrice Evra on it!"), is not there for the experience of supporting. They don't know what supporting is. They don't know the game, the division, the opposition, in some cases even the rules of football. They scour the fixture list and only notice the Champions League fixtures, wondering why a club like Manchester United need participate in the FA Cup or Carling Cup. Most pertinently of all to the visiting away fan, they don't sing. This is why Old Trafford, for all its architectural splendour and ferocious sense of history and occasion, is easily the most atmosphere-free ground I have ever visited. If the away support don't sing up (which they always do, and Hull City's supporters don't need any invitation so to do) then you do feel genuinely like you are watching football in a huge soundproof booth.
Goodness, it was a vacuous experience. Were it not for the immense entertainment from both teams on show, then I would have felt more short-changed from this alleged footballing utopia than I was when I travelled on an official club coach all the way to Brighton on a Friday night to see us lose 2-1 and play with the tenacity, confidence and skill of a burst verruca. Before the game, I travelled into Stockport to park the car (I was due there later to do the club gig) and caught the same train as people clad in Manchester United hats with accents that suggested that Exeter City had lost out in the marketing department again. On the Mancunian tram later, there were people who were not only not English, but not able to speak English. Football tourism, they call it. Apt and frightening an expression, so it is. I was both amused and unsettled by the number of cameras which flashed whenever Cristiano Ronaldo got close to a touchline. This isn't football supporting, it's sightseeing. These people choose to go to a football match with the same intentions as people who go to the Tower of London or Sydney Opera House. That's not what football is for.
My friend from Eccles despairs of these faux-fans as much as football in general does. Manchester United represents next to nothing for the city of Manchester any more, or specifically the part of the city which it geographically holds rights to. I haven't looked, but I suspect that the Football In The Community officer at Old Trafford (if there is one) goes on fact-finding missions abroad more often than his 19 contemporaries in the Premier League put together. The word 'community' is anathema now, unless talking about a sickening global community which encourages people to spend vast sums of money on overpriced tickets and tat, not to mention the cost of getting there.
Back in the 1970s, manager Tommy Docherty used to dissociate himself publicly with a section of Manchester United fans. These fans were Mancunian scallies who were renowned as the worst football hooligans in the country, at a time when all clubs had such an element. Now it's time for the children of these same locals, the ones who have grown up and have never thrown a punch in their lives, to re-acquire their club. It'll never happen for as long as their club courts the overseas supporter ahead of the local fan, especially as they have an arrogant assumption that the next breed of Eccles kids will blindly support Manchester United anyway. But being a football fan is very different to being a football tourist, and the last interest football tourists have is football.
I'm glad I went yesterday, but purely for the joy of seeing my team compete with the greatest footballers this country currently showcases. And it was a ground tick. But there was so much about the day that made me feel sad for the way football has deserted the people who used to maintain it, while embracing, nay manipulating the gullible and emotionless who have ample money but no understanding of what they are spending it on.