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Sunday, September 19, 2021

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Why United v Leeds will be so emotional

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You often hear the phrase “This is the one” if you’re among Manchester United fans, or if you’ve experienced a match-day at Old Trafford.

It is, of course, the title of one of the Stone Roses’ most classic songs; the tune that’s played as the Reds head out onto the field.

When United won the Treble in 1999, the cover of respected fanzine United We Stand featured an image of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer lifting the trophy alongside the words. It crops up endlessly.

So you’ll have to forgive me for dragging it in front of your eyes yet again. But no other line seems appropriate when I think about the subject of this piece: Saturday’s game against Leeds. 

It’s our 2021/22 Premier League opener; the beginning of a season that holds so much promise. But that’s at the back of my mind, to be honest. Because the main reason I’m so, so excited for this mid-August, lunchtime kick-off is because it will be the first time Old Trafford has welcomed a capacity crowd for over 17 months. And the first time I’ve sat in the seat I always sit in for over 17 months.

This really is the one.

And I’m not alone in my excitement. In the last few days, I’ve had conversations with numerous fans who’ve all giddily conveyed similar emotions. Some were friends; some were people I just happened to bump into in town, or interviewed in a working capacity.

One is travelling back from France especially for the match. Another, a well-known Red, is part of the Carryduff branch, who will be taking in five different countries (Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland) in their round trip to Old Trafford.

I ran into one lad in Piccadilly Gardens last week, who told me that this is the first time every single one of his many United-supporting mates will all be attending the same game at Old Trafford for eight years. Since the 2013 Champions League last-16 tie with Real Madrid. Life normally intervenes in these situations; if you’ve a large group of friends who go to the match, then typically one or two will always be drawn away elsewhere with family or work commitments and various obligations.

But not this time. The thirst to step back into the grand old place is unquenchable.

“We’re all going to be down at Old Trafford for half past nine!” chuckled one home-and-away Red I spoke to on Monday. “It’s going to be like Christmas morning!”

The fixture is, of course, an exciting one. I reckon if you had offered fans the chance to have attended just one game at Old Trafford last term, behind closed doors, they’d have plumped for the 6-2 win over Leeds. We hadn’t met them in a league game for 16 years – and then we absolutely binned them.

But when you’ve been going to Old Trafford for so long, it’s the little things you miss. Many of them aren’t even connected to what happens on the pitch between the referee’s first and final whistle.

I’ve been fortunate enough to go to a few behind-closed-doors games, but I’ll level with you: it didn’t satisfy my hunger for the match-day experience. Nowhere near.

Why?

Because when I walked up to the stadium it was eerily quiet. I didn’t hear any singing, didn’t hear the fanzine sellers barking: “New issue out today.” I didn’t smell the burgers sizzling away in the snack vans.

Didn’t see the families walking down Warwick Road with wide-eyed grins. The tough lads swaggering out of the pub, feeling 10 feet tall because they’re Man United.

People running to make kick-off. People catching up with old friends. Small acts of kindness: someone helping an elderly fan up the stairs, or across to their seat. The good jokes you overhear; the terrible jokes you overhear. The sense of anticipation.

That roar when United launch their first attack. The eruption of joy when we score. The to and fro between the Scoreboard End and the nearby away supporters.

But this weekend, it will all be there.

Watch all 10 of United’s pre-season goals Video

Watch all 10 of United’s pre-season goals

Watch our pre-season goals by Chong, Pellistri, Lingard, Elanga (2), Andreas, Greenwood, Maguire, Fernandes & Dalot…

When I agreed to buy a house just a stone’s throw from the stadium, I never dreamed it would take 18 months for me to experience a proper match-day feel around it. To sense the buzz slowly enveloping the entire area, the entire city.

Since I last saw United in the flesh, as a fan, I’ve bought that house, become a father and celebrated my son’s first birthday. The lad’s already been through about five kits.

I’ve had enough to be getting on with, as they say. But even if football is the most important of the least important things, as Arrigo Sacchi once said, United and Old Trafford is still really, really important to me and many of the 74,000-odd people who will be inside the ground on Saturday.

It’s our ritual. Our release valve. Our second home. The place where we switch off, but where we’re never more alive. The place where we can forget ourselves and become part of something else, something bigger, something more universal.

And if you can’t be there, fear not. You’ll see us and hear us, loud and clear on your television screens. And if we’re lucky enough to take the lead against Leeds at any point, you’ll hear a noise from M16 that you’ll probably never forget – even if you’re watching from Tucson or Tangier.

But no words could ever really do the sublimity justice. You know what I’m talking about if you’ve been to Old Trafford and, if you don’t, then I hope you’ll get here, someday, somehow, to find out.

And anyway, all this thinking and writing and typing is only getting me more charged up. I’m not really sure how much longer I can wait.

The club have told us to get to the ground early, after all. And I’m only a hundred yards away…

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