Our roving reporter in the UK, Nitish, gets a prize scalp this time- the big Manchester United vs. Arsenal derby. Few of you might have joined his live coverage of the match last week; here is the complete match report sharing of experiences of a visit to the “Theatre of Dreams”
The Master Plan
The plans for the big game were hatched about a month ago, when my enthusiastic spree of visiting stadiums inspired my room-mate and he wanted to see one himself. The trouble, except his Analyst ego, was his bosses who were Arsenal or Man Utd season ticket holders and would not allow him to visit the lowly Upton Park or Craven Cottage. Forget that, he was not even ready to watch a match outside the top 4. These analysts, and their egos.
So for the big match, part of the reason that helped us get tickets was that it was being played on Monday at 8 PM. This made it difficult for London supporters to get there without taking a leave or two. This very reason that helped us soon became one of the hindrances as the next big hurdle was to convince our bosses to allow a day off. My room-mate left 3-4 messages to his boss on the Blackberry Messenger, and I guess his boss must have been impressed by two things:
- His boss was an Arsenal supporter
- He checked his BB on a weekend, thus foregoing his regular excuse of not checking it over weekends.
The sacrifices did not end here. Stay and travel were both expensive and we compromised on comfort and privacy to keep the budget within limits after buying the expensive match tickets.
Take me home United Road
Well aware of my previous travel record, I decided to stay awake all night and dutifully completed the West Ham- Man C match report (kind of explains the diminished ‘likes’) before leaving London at 6 AM. We reached our hostel in Manchester around 11 AM, meeting a lot of supporters en route. Having read a bit of football literature, and meeting people it became quite obvious why Away fans prefer to travel in a group. For this same reason, we disclosed our alliances only after the people who asked had disclosed theirs.
We took the tram from Manchester Piccadilly, and quite visibly it was full of fans on their way to the match. The tram made my friend reminisce about the ones back in his hometown Kolkata, and fondly remarked how it was often faster to get down from the tram and walk than travel in it. Fate, it seems, had plans of making him relive those memories; for the tram stopped right then. The readers may afford a chuckle – the doors were stuck and there was no way out. Till then, I wasn’t interested in the happenings around me, and was diligently updating CoveritLive for this site. This mishap gave me an opportunity to crack my cheesy jokes and I remarked how only Chilean miners can save us from here. This was the sort of ice-breaker, and an old man beside me suggested that he would prefer getting stuck and then get a similar hero like reception at the stadium, and the other old-timers seemed to agree gladly. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case; much to the respite of the organizers and dismay of the old folks.
The High Point of our careers
We finally reached the Old Trafford stop, a common stop for both the cricket stadium (home of Lancashire County) and the football one. Reaching the stadium is damn easy; you just have to follow the sea of fans. The massive structure of the stadium struck me, easily the biggest I have ever seen. Roaming around, soaking in the atmosphere, we met some Man Utd fans from Norway, who were pretty beered up. They held up the message (see pic) for American owners showing their dissent, on scarves that been knitted personally by one of their spouses.
Our next stop was the Man Utd mega store, and both the number of people inside and products on offer amazed me to no end; catering to 1 month to 100 year old fan. No wonder there were three rows of cash counter with 5 cashiers in each row. Not to miss out on this opportunity, and carrying a wish list of friends and their long lost cousins (no offences, but all of them are likely to be Man Utd fans) we bought something or the other for everybody.
We headed to the North Stand to locate our seats, and on showing our tickets to the volunteer he nonchalantly pointed skywards and said “Up this way, gentlemen”. We climbed one, climbed three, climbed five (counting only odds not to make it boring); with each level comprising 40 stairs. One more and we reached our seats. We were just 20 seats from the highest point on the “Theatre of Dreams”, and a bit of Googling revealed that it was around 200 ft high, comparable to a 15-20 storey skyscraper. This meant that I was at the high point of my football career as a spectator – both literally and figuratively.
We still had 60 minutes before the kick-off, and entertained ourselves with the team news and the team practice sessions. The warm ups were a study in contrast; Man Utd played an intense 5 on 5 while Arsenal was restricted to the leisurely playing ‘man in the circle’ drill. The thing that impressed me most was the fact that the referee outran any of the players, by a comfortable factor of 2, during the warm ups.
After 25-30 minutes of warm up, the teams went back to the dressing and the moment all of us had been waiting for (specially my mining friend) finally arrived. An announcement about the special guests from Chile, 26 of the 33 miners who had been trapped for 2 months was made. They made a grand entry, much to the delight of my friend who had predicted such a thing, as the land opened up and water pipes showered to welcome them.
“Take me home, United Road,
To the place, I belong;
To Old Trafford, to see United;
Take me home, United Road.”
Soon enough, the teams came out on the tunes of “this is the one, this is the one, this is the one”
Arsenal fans were located diagonally opposite to us while United fans occupied the Stretford stand on my right. It wasn’t late before the fans around me started chanting
“Oh it’s a grand old team to play for,
Oh it’s a grand old team to see;
And if, you know your history,
It’s enough to make your heart go woh, oh, oh..”
United started piling pressure early on and Rooney went off-side to a Nani ball. The height on which we were perched held one advantage – it made off-side very clear to make out and explain. The sole move by Arshavin for Arsenal was foiled by a poor touch from Song. A few fouls from Arsenal resulted in a few free-kicks for Nani and a lot of chants from the supporter, “Always cheating shame on Arsenal”.
The only memorable moment of the first half was the goal by Park, which literally proved his flexibility as a player. Full marks to Nani, who crossed from right after beating Clichy.
First half ended and we hoped for a much better second half, which started with close to 70,000 fans singing “Glory Glory Man United” in unison, an overwhelming experience. Arsenal saw off some early pressure by United a showed a comparatively better performance, but were not able to put the ball in the pressure zone. United counter attacked, best chance going to Nani who shot a Clichy mis-clearance over the bar.
It was an eventful half, with Arsenal fans singing “Grow up, Never ever grow up” following the Rio hard tackle which tore Sagna’s shirt off. For a group of 3000, the Arsenal fans were a noisy lot.
Late in the half Rooney had his Beckham moment, with his horrendous shot over the bar. The 6 participants in the half-time penalty contest between United and Barca fans had taken a better penalty than Rooney.
Minutes later Arsenal made a change bringing Walcott on for Arshavin. Walcott’s only contribution was a glory hunting dive. Arsenal’s play was like Barca, only with the sublime final touches missing, which make Barca what they are. Fabregas, Persie were missed badly initially and Nasri was a shadow of his former self, cutting a lonely figure in the right corner. It all ended with Wenger sitting in a contemplative mood in his marked zone, wondering what went wrong.
United got their points, and were satisfied but not me. I was not going before I had seen the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ from up close. I decided to stay one more day and went for a guided tour of the stadium going all around including the dressing room, players’ tunnel. Some interesting facts I picked up:
- Due to high cantilever roofs, stadium gets very little sun light. They use the artificial light for grass to grow, which was also used by Ronaldo to get this tanned look for 12 months. (According to the guide)
- United fans drink 325,000 litres of beer in one season. Considering 30 home matches that is around 11,000 litres of beer per match.
- United dressing room has order of players sitting. Here Berbatov sits between the Goal keeper and defenders, most distant from Rooney.
- United have a dedicated zone for disabled fans including the blind who get free tickets. Blind people have access to running commentary during the match.
- Guide told that united has one press box, studio for MUTV and asked how many of us watched the channel. 3-4 Malaysians answered in yes, to which the guide said few people in Manchester also watch it.
- The player dug out seats are seats taken out from a car.