There was a saying I saw around the city of Manchester — “Manchester is my heaven.” The same phrase is posted on a banner along the walls inside Old Trafford, Manchester United’s home stadium. If United had maybe scored a goal in last Saturday’s painful 0-0 draw against Wolverhampton, that would’ve been even more heavenly.
However, as a football fan — or “soccer fan,” as it’s known in the United States — the experience is often more memorable than the score.
Studying abroad at the John Felice Rome Center this semester has given me countless opportunities to see the world, such as the fantastic and much-appreciated three-day weekends.
For me, this will include quite a few trips to watch European football. This past weekend, I took my first one, flying three hours to Manchester to visit a high school friend and my favorite English team, Manchester United.
The English Premier League, the top league in England, is often said to be the most competitive league in Europe and the world. This, reasonably enough, translates to the fan presence.
Throughout my Saturday wandering the streets of Manchester, more and more United red filtered around me until most people on the crowded sidewalks were wearing some form of United gear. By late afternoon, people were singing in the streets and chanting outside pubs as if they were headed to a world title.
Old Trafford rises out of the hill like a beacon on the 30-minute bus ride from the city center. Even though I arrived about an hour before kick-off — and bought a lovely £8 scarf from a man selling gear with his kids — the outside was already packed with people of all ages taking photos.
The Theatre of Dreams — as it is nicknamed — towers over you but has a welcoming energy to it if you’re a United fan. It’s as if you know you will be among friends and find somewhere you feel at home.
I was in the second-to-last row of Old Trafford Saturday night, but any part of this place would have felt like the front row. Even though United missed easy chances and Wolverhampton kept a strong possession, the chanting and singing never stopped. Whether it was a classic cheer like “Glory Glory Man United” or a more complicated song, the crowd didn’t sit or quiet down.
United isn’t currently the best team in England right now, nor are they very close. But with the noise level in that stadium, you couldn’t have guessed they were fifth place, 33 points behind first place Liverpool.
However, the game itself was painful to watch at times. The Wolves were attempting to fake injuries, the Reds kept losing possession and missing easy passes. The crowd did not hold back its frustrations. The fans were harsher than anything I’d seen in the States, and I’ve seen a few NHL rivalry games.
But after the final whistle blew and the team started to leave the pitch, hundreds of fans around me stopped their exit and began to sing, “We love United, we do. United, we love you.” It was a heart-warming testament to just how committed the fans are to this team.
The Reds are now seventh in the league, almost 40 points away from first place.
When I visited the National Football Museum the morning of the match, I saw a replica of the book in which the English claimed they wrote the first ever rules of football. If I learned anything from my weekend in Manchester, it’s that the English simply don’t mess around with this legacy.
A quote on the museum wall from author J.B. Priestley said a football game “turned you into a member of a new community, all brothers together for an hour and a half … having pushed your way through a turnstile into another and altogether more splendid life.” That night in the back stands of Old Trafford perfectly embodied that for me, no matter the score on the board at the end of the night.
I’ve got a lot more football watching to do in my next three months here. If this is heaven, I’ll take it.