Journey to the Theatre of Dreams
Akshay Iyer goes on a journey of his lifetime to a place of his dreams and encounters the experience millions will never forget from the closest seat possible
Being a Manchester United fan for close to 14 years, my dream had been to watch at least one match at Old Trafford – also known quite aptly as the ‘Theatre of Dreams’.
The Manchester United Restaurant and Bar (MURB) in Bengaluru in southern India was organising a trip for fans to fly out to Manchester and watch the Red Devils take on Arsenal at Old Trafford. I was not aware of this initially but when I came to know about it through my sister, I just had to go to MURB and get more details of this trip. My plan for 2012 was to watch at least one match at Old Trafford, but when I chanced upon this unexpected opportunity, the decision to make the trip was a no-brainer.
I was part of a group of six who flew to Manchester from Bengaluru in the early hours of August 25, 2011. We reached Manchester the next afternoon, and the remainder of that day was largely spent going around the town centre.
The real action started on August 27, when we were scheduled to tour the home of Manchester United. There haven’t been too many occasions when I have had goose bumps, but as we approached Old Trafford and walked down the Sir Matt Busby Way, I felt a myriad of emotions including excitement, happiness and unabashed pride.
Among the first sights one sees at the magnificent stadium is the clock which depicts the time of the Munich air crash as well as a mural honouring the players and officials who lost their lives in the tragic event. There are also two statues outside the stadium – one is of the United Trinity of Sir Bobby Charlton, Dennis Law and George Best, while the other is of the legendary Manchester United manager, the late Sir Matt Busby.
It was then time to take the tour of the stadium and the museum, which is housed inside Old Trafford itself. Apart from one of the veteran guides to take us around, we also had the pleasure of having the company of Bryan Robson, a former Manchester United captain and now a global ambassador of the club.
The first stop on the tour was the North Stand, which is now called the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand, as we were given a quick walk through of the history of the stadium and the stand itself, from where one had a panoramic view of the ground. We also went to the lower tier of the East Stand, a part of which has been marked for the physically disabled and provides them easy access on match days.
Our experienced guide shared many interesting facts with us as we went around, and I also used the opportunity to pick Robson’s brain about his playing days, the current Manchester United squad as well as his role as the global ambassador of the club. ‘Captain Marvel’ Robson said Phil Jones has a bright future, but was unsure if Tom Cleverley had it in him to take over the mantle from United legend Paul Scholes. Robson, though was optimistic that United would win their 20th league title this season, and said: “(Manchester) City certainly have a strong squad, but our experience of winning trophies and Sir Alex’s ability to nurture youngsters and give them the confidence to do well, makes me feel we will be successful in defending the BPL title.” Robson also touched upon his tenure as Thailand’s manager and said, though the players and people of that country are passionate about football, the lack of infrastructure has hindered their progress on the Asian and world stage.
Robson said the game has become faster and more competitive now than in his playing days, but the basics of skill are still central to a footballer’s success. He also mentioned that being at the receiving end of Ferguson’s ‘hairdryer’ ire isn’t a pleasant experience; however, he was all praise for his former manager and the winning mentality he has instilled in the club.
The tour also included a visit to the dressing rooms and I felt an adrenalin rush as we entered the home team’s dressing room and saw the playing gear of United’s squad as well as the screen that Ferguson uses for match tactics. I could feel the sense of history as we walked around different areas of the stadium, and this was one of those moments when I would have been glad had the walls of the hallowed stadium shared their experiences as well!
It was then time to take a walk down the Munich Tunnel and get a glimpse of the tragic days in the club’s history. The tunnel had self-explanatory images that depicted the tragic event, its aftermath and effect on the city of Manchester, and finally the rise of United from the ashes. While these were nostalgic and emotional moments, I was also proud of being the fan of a club that overcame adversity of the worst kind with flying colours. The legacy of Sir Matt Busby and the determination of the players who survived the horrific event, including Sir Bobby Charlton, to make Manchester United a club to be reckoned with were nothing short of inspirational.
We then took advantage of the fact that Robson was with us and managed to take a walk down the tunnel that is used by the home and away players to enter Old Trafford’s green field. While we obviously couldn’t step on the playing surface as it was the day before the match against Arsenal, we went as close to the hallowed turf as possible. It was also an amazing feeling to sit in the home team’s dugout and soak in the vast expanse of Old Trafford from that point.
We bid adieu to Robson and our guide before embarking on a shopping spree at the Manchester United Megastore. The day didn’t end there though as we were joined for lunch by former Manchester United captain Gary Neville at the Red Cafe. Once Neville came, eating was the last thing on our mind and we spent close to half an hour in his company. Neville was also confident that United would successfully defend their Premier League title this season and his respect and admiration for Ferguson was evident each time he mentioned his former manager’s name. Talking about the time when his brother Phil moved on from Manchester United, Gary said it was part and parcel of the football business. When asked about his snubbing of former United teammate Peter Schmeichel’s offer for a handshake in the tunnel before the 2002 Manchester derby, Neville just offered a wry smile. Schmeichel left Manchester United in 1999 and after stints at Sporting CP and Aston Villa, the Danish goalkeeper joined City in 2002 and that earned him Neville’s ire.
The next day – August 28, 2011 – was all about the big match between Manchester United and Arsenal. One could feel excitement in the air on the tram from our hotel to the stadium, which had a mix of fans from both the clubs, but as could be expected, there were certainly a lot more Red Devils supporters than the Gunners. The excitement and expectations only grew as we walked from the Old Trafford Station to the Theatre of Dreams among a sea of people as well as the merchandise and food stalls. And, despite the large number of spectators in the different stands, there was no pushing or shoving to enter the stadium.
As we made our way to our seats in the top tier of the East Stand, which is the one opposite Stretford End, players from both clubs were warming up. I had always expected the atmosphere inside Old Trafford on a match day to be magical and electrifying, but to actually experience and be in the midst of it as United fans chanted and sang songs is a feeling that can’t be put into words but suffice to say it’s one of those moments that one can live over and over.
Manchester United would go on to subject Arsenal to a humiliating 8-2 defeat, which was the Gunners’ worst loss since 1896. Six of the ten goals scored in the match were in front of the East Stand – five of those by Manchester United, which made the experience all the more memorable. The save that David de Gea made off Robin Van Persie’s penalty kick was also in front of the East Stand as were the five goals that Manchester United scored in the second half.
The stadium celebrated each of the United goals and De Gea’s penalty save in unison; while the two Arsenal goals were met with deathly silence. It was a festive atmosphere inside the stadium and Arsenal as well as their fans were taunted as the goals went in and whenever they lost the ball, with songs and chants.
All eight United goals were a joy to watch, but the pick of the lot were Rooney’s two goals from free kicks and Ashley Young’s curling finishes to the top corner. The picture of the match though was Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny going down on his haunches after Young had scored his second and Manchester United’s eighth goal; and that was an apt reflection of the Red Devils’ dominance in this match from start to finish.
We lingered outside Old Trafford for a while after the match and soaked in all that was possible of the post-match celebrations. Those two days were by far the most memorable of my life, and these are experiences that money just can’t buy. I’ll cherish these moments and experiences for the rest of my life and this trip to Manchester has only increased my resolve to watch as many live matches at Old Trafford that I possibly can.