Catching the Football Bug

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Nothing compares to the innocence and joy of a child when they fall in love with football. I can’t remember vast chunks of my own early years, but there’s moments in football I remember vividly. My earliest football memory is of Lee Martin with the FA Cup trophy in 1990; the unlikely goal scorer who I think – because memory is a funny thing – is responsible for indoctrinating me into the church of Sir Alex Ferguson at the tender age of 6.

Other prominent memories include Mark Hughes scoring the emphatic winner in the Cup Winner’s Cup final in Rotterdam in 1991; the stinging pain of losing the 1991 Rumbelows Cup Final to Sheffield Wednesday the same season, when John Sheridan fired one in off the post past Les Sealey, and the sheer disbelief at how these minnows could possibly have lifted the Cup that day; screaming in the car until all of the air had left my lungs in May 1993 on a family day trip when it was announced on the radio that Aston Villa had lost away at Oldham, and Manchester United had won their first league title in 26 years; checking Ceefax page 302 for the ‘latest’ football news; and my first time seeing some of my idols in the flesh at Belfast’s Windsor Park at the end of that season.

It’s hard to describe how it felt to watch the team live for the first time. In hindsight, it was a low-key friendly between Manchester United, and their main title rivals from that season, Ron Atkinson’s Aston Villa. The players probably didn’t want to be there, judging by the fact that most of them didn’t make the trip. An adult would not get unduly excited at the prospect of watching two depleted sides fielding a mixture of youth team players and squad-fillers, but this was the first time I had seen Ryan Giggs, Brian McClair and Lee Sharpe in the flesh. I also saw a very young Nicky Butt deployed at centre back, and Dion Dublin making his return from a broken leg. There is a blissful innocence to that youthful naivety and enthusiasm. Moments from the game have remained in my mind, but the main memories are the experience of match day. There were a few weeks build up to going, counting down the days until the ‘big match’. My dad took me along with my older brother. I got a match day burger – the type that only tastes good watching football or after the pub; there was more swearing and abuse than I was expecting; and at some point in the first half I tripped over a step and fell all the way on to my arse, which was more embarrassing than it was painful. I also remember staying tight to my dad, and being absolutely delighted to be at that match, which in retrospect was probably as tepid a game as you’ll see, ending 1-1 with no need for penalties.

That enthusiasm, though, came from the fact that football dominated my childhood. None of the other distractions that occur in life register in the mind of a child. At that age, you quite literally live in the moment, and football could literally dictate my mood, with no rationality, tolerance for long-term re-building projects or realistic expectations.

Fast forward 30 years, and I’m now a father myself to two young boys who have ‘caught the bug’. During a global pandemic, I’m taking every precaution to protect my family against catching anything else, but I must admit that the football bug is one exception. So much of their new obsession reminds me of my own childhood, and those memories which sit so prominently in my recollection of those simpler, sometimes joyous times. The world has dampened my enthusiasm and passion somewhat over time, particularly in the past six or seven years when watching United has seemed like more of a duty than a privilege. It gets harder to connect emotionally with players who earn obscene amounts of money, live criminally abundant lifestyles, and in many cases care about their team’s results and performances less than the fans. However, seeing my kids obsess over the same things I used to reignites the old fire.

They have inherited most of my old traits. It might be something to do with my constant talk of all things Manchester United, buying them the latest kits, encouraging a fascination with collecting needless scores of football cards, and showering of praise for watching games with me; but mainly I think it’s hereditary.

They already have incredible recall, at very tender ages (5 and 6), of match results and goal scorers. They have posters all over their bedroom walls and bunkbeds, and loose pages everywhere with dream teams and Top 10’s scattered over the house. I’m not thrilled about the scattered pages but at least they have learned to spell names like Tahith, Nemanja and Marouane so every cloud…

It was a significant priority, therefore, both in terms of time and finances, to organise their first visit to Old Trafford this season. It would be cruel to hamper their childhood development by denying an educational field trip to watch their heroes in action. In contrast to an end of season friendly in Northern Ireland, we were to go to Old Trafford for the Manchester derby in March 2020. Anticipation had built up throughout this generally disappointing campaign and was reaching fever pitch as the weeks to our trip grew ever closer.

The season has been a roller-coaster. It has been difficult job to explain to young children the complexities of how this great club has been so badly mis-managed in the recent past. The only thing that makes it easier is having full creative control over the narrative. The worst of the results can be kept a closely guarded secret, the best victories can be over-emphasised. Jose Mourinho is nasty. Ole Solskjaer is nice. Liverpool win because VAR is biased. Man United will win everything once their young players have time to develop. I also tell them some white lies.

Naturally, as the date of this encounter approached, it seemed like a huge risk. In the first leg of the League Cup semi-final, City absolutely massacred their supposed local rivals. Phil Jones provided plenty of meme material, and in the first half the manner of the defeat was so comprehensive, the humane thing to do would have been to blow it up early. The two sides were poles apart, and Solskjaer looked to have taken a dysfunctional squad of broken players backwards. Was subjecting children to that sort of a display irresponsible? Would it be a sobering, deflating experience? Will the enduring childhood memory of Old Trafford be of a Manchester United side that were meekly swept aside by Guardiola’s all-stars?

Thankfully, within a week of the fixture, form appeared to have turned, and a measure of swagger and confidence had been restored, largely through the arrival of Bruno Fernandes. There was definite reason for optimism ahead of the big trip, and whilst there was always the looming threat of catastrophe, there was some quiet cause for optimism.

Two days before the trip, the airline Flybe went into liquidation. Our travel plans were cancelled, and all alternative flights to the North-West of England were snapped up within minutes. If not for the thought of the disappointment, the trip would have been cancelled. However, a day of researching alternatives led to an 8-hour ferry to Liverpool, a hire car, a flight home to the other side of the province, and a day off school. Then the day finally arrived.

Taking two dependants to Old Trafford certainly added significantly to the stress of what was a very important league encounter for United. Walking through the large crowds gripping their hands tightly whilst heading towards the famed stadium is an experience I wouldn’t rush to repeat. However, they were experiencing all of this for the first time – the vast sea of humanity on Sir Matt Busby Way, food stalls, police on horseback, the noise and chanting, the drunks, and the merchandise. With burger and chip in hand, they were wide-eyed and absorbing everything.

We negotiated the turnstile and gate and headed for our seats close to pitch side in the South stand. Those initial moments taking our seats as the players warmed up were worth the trip on their own. The scale of the stadium was like nothing they had seen, television doesn’t prepare you for your first visit. They were awestruck, and I found myself hoping these were childhood memories that they won’t lose, apart from the colourful chanting from the away support. The players warmed up right in front of us, and we enjoyed shouting some good-natured abuse at the City players. It will never be proven that this is what threw them off their stride, but Joao Cancelo looked a broken man heading back to the changing room.

The game doesn’t need re-capped. United looked focussed and motivated from the start, and after Martial’s well-executed opener, it actually always felt like United would hold out. Of course, it wasn’t plain sailing in the stands. One of my sons insisted on sitting on my knee throughout and didn’t appreciate my celebrations jumping up for the opening goal. The other son was standing on his seat, until he managed to fall though it and become hopelessly stuck. There were some tears from both, but that comes with the territory – nothing a family-size bag of Fruit Pastilles couldn’t fix.

The magic was saved until the last kick of the game. The stadium was filled with noise. It was genuinely the best atmosphere I have ever experienced – the danger is that they now think it’s always like that, it is a high bar! It had the feel of a significant result in the progression of this period of transition. My thoughts were still of relief at not subjecting my boys to one of the abject or limp displays Manchester United had regularly served up in the first half of the season, when Ederson threw the ball towards Scott McTominay 40 yards from goal. The rain had started to fall heavily, as he steered the ball magnificently into the vacated Manchester City goal. Everyone around us was jubilant, the roar was deafening, and the home crowd emanated pure joy. If the memories of screaming for that goal don’t live on with my children, they will always stay with me. The perfect way to cap off a trip which was anything but smooth sailing.

That was the last moment of football at Old Trafford that has been played, and it looks increasingly unlikely there will be any more this season. In the days that followed, Covid-19 had begun to spread to the extent that all fixtures were cancelled. At times like this, it could not be clearer that football, ultimately, is not important. The population of the UK has had plenty of time to reflect whilst living in isolation. The health and well-being of our loved ones will always be what matters.

At this precarious time, though, living in social isolation is a reminder that our relationships are so important. It is difficult to have our usual friendships, routines and events taken away. It is in the absence of the things we take for granted that we can appreciate their worth. For many of us, football is so prominent in our lives. It is a sport we love, and a sport we will appreciate more than ever when it eventually returns. Relationships, though, are a huge part of that sport. Football dominates so many conversations with friends, in work, and even with total strangers. Football is a social leveller, allowing us to connect with people who, otherwise, we might have nothing in common with. We get emotionally invested in it, but without other people to share it with, what would it matter? The matches we saw played in empty stadiums were completely soulless – totally lacking passion and genuine excitement. There is little else in life that gives a sense of community and belonging among 76,000 strangers. However long football must wait, we will survive just fine without it. Like all other social activities, it will be on hold for as long as it takes. Amid a truly worldwide crisis though, football is a global language that can bond people, and has forged unforgettable memories. I am grateful that we got our moment of magic before this hiatus, and I know that football is something that I will always be able to share with my kids – and that’s how it really does matter.

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