I have rarely ventured to the famous parthenons of World football, although I have gradually ticked a number of them off, albeit on a tortoise timescale. Occasional big gigs have been drip fed onto my stadia CV over a forty plus year passage of time! The Azteca in Mexico City and Racing Club’s Il Cilindro in Avellaneda run the Centenario in Montevideo close as my favourite, but It took the first ever Kazakh club side to play in England to get me eager to head to Old Trafford to notch up only my fourth “big” English club stadium after Anfield, Hillsborough and St James Park. I guess it makes me a relative novice in such surroundings! Holker Street, The Shay and the much missed Belle Vue are more my domain, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy my treks to more famous venues, and perhaps not being inured in the big stadium culture makes me view these arenas from a fresh perspective!
Manchester United are arguably the world’s best supported team. The Ferguson era coincided with the explosion of global appreciation with television starting to bring games from around the globe to a wider audience, and being hugely successful at that time doubtlessly added millions to join their fan base. However, given the clubs stark lack of trophies in the post Sir Alex era, the transient nature of a distant fan might have seen their popularity diminish, but they still command a significant support. The nouveau riche from across the city might be the dominant force in Manchester for now, but it would take decades of City at the pinnacle for them to get close to United’s global loyal fans, and the longer the Champions League continues to evade City, the longer it will take. Money ultimately can only account for a portion of success and loyalty, and for a certain generation, the Busby babes who perished in Munich, with the subsequent team of Sir Matt Busby including the likes of George Best et all, it made them fall in love with the Red Devils of Manchester and started the notion that Old Trafford was the theatre of dreams!
Old Trafford has changed beyond recognition from those black and white images of Bobby Charlton, Nobby Stiles and George Best weaving magic on a sodden pitch with what seemed like a white picket fence surrounding before the vast terraces rose skyward. The modern day stadium is flawlessly slick, sat in its own considerable grounds with no buildings in its immediate wake to spoil the view, making it look even more impressive! Outside the stadium in a separate building is the enormous ticket office, giving credence to the sheer scale of ticket organising. This office is just to the right of a walkway that has doubtlessly been constructed to replicate the feeling of Wembley Way! No sooner are you off the walkway than a statue of Sir Alex Ferguson greets you at the back of the stand given over to his name. The great man was so successful, and still in attendance as a fan, but even he must see that he has left an enormous problem for the club, just quite how do you get a team together now that could even come close to his hugely success “golden” generation where Beckham, Giggs, Scholls and the Neville brothers were the backbone that allowed the occasional stardust of Eric Cantona or a young Ronaldo to name but two, sufficient freedom to add that elan to a remarkable, and consistently successful United.
The Munich air disaster is poignantly recalled on a wall near the sizeable club shop housed under the stand opposite the Stretford End. In front of the shop is a statue of Dennis Law, Bobby Charlton and George Best, perhaps capturing the most famous trio of heroes of the club from yesteryear on one large plinth, The United Trinity as it proclaims, and who could argue with that! Catering is available outside the ground, a veritable caravan of different varieties of takeaway munchies ahead of going through the turnstiles. Once inside, beer is for sale, unlike outside, as well as the clubs own catering menu, and then it is out through any given walkway towards your seat and that first sight of the hallowed turf and the full arena. It is a superb stadium with the Sir Alex Ferguson stand in particular an absolute colossus, towering high above the other three sides, and from the very back row you must be able to see out over the main stand towards the Manchester skyline.
With the visit of FC Astana for the opening game of the Europa League group stage, the Kazakhs weren’t the top draw for a classic European Old Trafford night. Swathes of the upper tiers were empty, but a near 50,000 audience was still easily my biggest crowd of the season! The famous Stretford end to my surprise isn’t where the hardcore fans do the cheerleading. They are housed in the corner to the right of the main stand, and if thinking from a TV camera viewing perspective, they are largely out of sight from the cameras and extraordinarily close to the away fans. FC Astana’s enthusiastic 200 or so supporters would pale into insignificance against a Liverpool visit, although I immediately thought the next Euro guests Partizan Belgrade with their formidable Ultras would be a potential flashpoint if they are so close to the singing United core. Thankfully that encountered passed off without any undue incident, although I have to call out one or two naughty songs directed at the Kazakhs the night I was there, which appalled me! I have seen Kazakh clubs and the National side play in Scotland, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, and in none of these countries did I hear blatant racist chants, nor even one slight on the visitors from the East. I was on the point of walking out at Old Trafford, especially because of the sniggering at the songs by people around me in the Sir Alex lower stand, where my perception seemed on the face of it, a section housing fans who should have known better. It seems a topic quick to be called out when visiting other lands but it starts at home and their is a problem. It was over in a few minutes and doubtlessly swept away by those in authority on the night, but it was distressing, especially for the visiting fans, most of whom study here.
This match-up would certainly not sit high on the roster of famous European nights at the old venue, with FC Astana happy to sit in and frustrate an ultimately youthful United side. As a keen scholar of the Kazakh game, and a Kairat Almaty fan at that, going to watch their fiercest rivals would be close to heresy in the grander scheme of fan loyalty! However, the lure of this morsel of Kazakh club football history with a first ever competitive game in England, it acted as the main ambition for my trip, as well as capturing a taste of Old Trafford for Football Weekends of course!
The game stubbornly got stuck in the mould of defence versus attack, with an occasional attempt to break out by the Kazakhs, but just as they had started to look more comfortable, the introduction of a few United A listers with a quarter of an hour to go, Mata and Lingard especially had the desired effect of upping the tempo. It brought almost instant dividends with an exquisite strike from the most impressive youngster on the field, Marcus Greenwood to score the games only goal after some fine build up play.. No one could deny Man Utd weren’t good value for the win, but I am sure having held out until the 77th minute the long flight back to the Kazakh capital would have included discussions about “what if”. The subsequent lose at home to Partizan was enough for Astana to chuck aspirations of progressing in the Europa, fielding weakened sides in both ties with AZ Alkmaar as the need to retain the Kazakh league title became more pressing, winning the vital clash with Kairat and the title by a mere point.
Manchester United are still a club in transition, still searching for the perfect formula to re-establish themselves as a title challenger, and while that looks a little way off presently, knuckling down in the Europa League is the new access to the Champions League by virtue of winning the tournament, just as Jose Mourinho managed amid growing pangs of angst amongst the United faithful that his tactics were too defensive and dull for the Man Utd template of more expansive and exciting ways of playing.
There are accommodations a bit closer to Old Trafford near the Lowry Centre, but driving down from Scotland and uncertain of where would be a sensible place to park, I decided to hole up at a relatively new Holiday Inn Express near the Trafford Centre just off the M60 motorway Manchester ring road. There is just one bus route but that goes from the Trafford Centre to the city via Old Trafford with a stop right outside the Holiday Inn, and it goes past the Kellogg’s factory, a “who knew” moment for me! I had bought a return bus ticket but after the game with the traffic in the vicinity of the stadium slowed by virtue of the volume of people and traffic setting off, so I decided to walk the 2 ½ miles to the hotel with the idea that if I saw a bus coming I would hop on. However I was nearly back at my overnight base when the first bus sped by!
It was an enjoyable experience, a rare chance to dip into one of the great stadiums of world football, albeit on a relatively sedate European evening, but we shouldn’t underestimate the significance for the Kazakhs in going toe to toe with one of the great club sides in their own backyard, The Theatre of Dreams, as they’ve coined it!