I walk into the pub to wait for the coach to take us from Manchester to Stoke. Having just had a little bread for breakfast, I opted for some more breakfast and coffee instead, and sat down at a table, opposite an elder man, Peter, who was already on his second pint.
Although he lived in one of the houses closest to the ground, he hadn’t been going to matches since 1968. When United won the European cup, he had seen it all. I asked him what it was like to live so close to the ground on matchdays. There were no problems, although when I asked him about the seventies, he told about the massive fights and smashing of windows. I asked him when the players had stopped living in the neighbourhood. “George Best lived just up the road!” he said. “And Sammy McIroy lived just round the corner”.
A man-mountain skinhead walks by and says hello. “Don’t stand next to him, if you will stay out of trouble. That is my neighbour Fred. He keeps asking me, why the police always pick on him. I tell him to look into the mirror.” And I can see what he means.
Just past 12, the coach arrives, and gradually people drift from the pub. I take a window seat upstairs in the double-decker, and one of only two women sits down next to me. Annika is 37 and has been a season-ticket holder for 10 years, brought up in a United family with four brothers.
When I mention that there are not many women going, she becomes upset with the ones who actually do go to homematches. All the wives that just come along, not knowing a thing about football, taking up seats for proper fans. They should have their credentials tested before being allowed in.
The last few miles to the ground, a couple of policemen on motorbikes escort our coach. The Britannia is just off the motorway, and the rest of the traffic is held back, as we are escorted into a fenced-in carpack for away fans, just off the entrances to the away end. It is only 10 minutes to kick-off as we arrive. The security guy who searches me spots my camera and my microphone. I tell him that I am doing research into football fans – and he takes me along to head of security. “This guy says he is doing some feature on football fans. He has a camera and microphone”. Fortunately, head of security says it is allright, and allows me in.
I head straigth for the stands instead of buying some much needed lunch. The Crewe fan, I had met Wednesday had told me that the Britannia as a stadium is an accident waiting to happen. It is so badly designed. Steep stands with very few exits and too narrow aisles. My seat was at the top of the stand, and in the sea of standing United supporters (United’s away support is always stading) I couldn’t even see where the aisle was supposed to be. But I just managed to get to the top before the game started.
A fat Stoke supporter standing out in a white shirt with a little boy sitting next to him, was gesticulating angrily and therefore singled out for a song about his fatness. He duly obliged by pulling up his shirt and showing his big belly. That was followed by chants asking him,if he had ever seen his feet. It sounds good-humoured, but there definetely was an edge to it, at least as far as the Stoke fans were concerned. After about 10 minutes, United taunted them “Where is your famous atmosphere?” and starting with handsclapping all around the ground, the Stoke fans suddenly found their voice – seemingly from the entire ground (they had also done “Delilah” straight after kick-off). With chanting on both sides intensifying, Stoke’s players started to play more aggressively, but not creating much.
At half-time, I opted for staying in my place rather than trying to find the aisle to the exit below, so no lunch today. Although the United section carried on singing in the singing half, it was not quite as intense as in the first, with a feeling of anxiety with the score only 1-0 perhaps creeping in. There was an erruption of trouble in the main stand by the executive boxes, where at least one Stoke fan was fairly aggresive towards somebody inside. And after United finally added a second from a penalty, a number of Stoke fans from the section next to us was being escorted away by the police. But from now on, United fans were going through the repertoire of songs, whereas the despondent Stoke fans started to leave.
Michael Owen came on as substitute for Stoke, at first applauced for his time in United, but then greeted with a lot of anti-scouse songs and chants. One fan tried to one stating that that was one thing Margaret Thatcher got right, but he was immediately confronted by those standing around him.
At the final whistle, the United players came up to applaud the support. It took quite a while to get out because of the lack of exits. The Stoke players had come out for their warm-down, by the time I finally got out.
I headed straight for our coach – the away coach section was crammed with police and security, with frustrated Stoke fans outside gesticulating angrily. Finally, the police decided it was time for us to leave, and escorted us through the traffic out to the motorway. Maybe it was exhaustion after the match or the loud music that was still banging out the PA, but there was not much talking on the way back to Manchester. Just satisfaction that we are only 7 points away from Championship number 20 now.
As a ground, it is surprising to think that the Britannia was created after the Taylor report. It was the most claustrophic ground, I have visited so far. How come that they could get the number of exits and width of passages so horribly wrong? Two of the stands are connected – but the remaining two stand stangely disconnected to the rest, with huge open spaces in the corners, allowing the wind to swirl across the ground. I didn’t have much time to look at the facilities inside the ground, but did go to the toilet on my way in, which was just as inadequately equipped with entrance/exit spaces as the ground. And the room for standing underneath felt very tight compared with the open spaces at Goodison,
The stadium is conveniently placed just off the motorway, so we were back in Manchester an hour and a half after the final whistle. And credit to the home supporters for being much more vocal than Liverpool and Everton supporters, even though their team was trailing the entire match.