It only took us around an hour to get from Cheshire Oaks to Old Trafford and the bus parked about 5 minutes walk from the stadium in an industrial park. It was nearly four hours to kick off and that sounds like an awful lot of time to kill, but in reality this part of the day seems to pass the quickest. Even though it was only a little after 4PM there were plenty of people milling about, including a large number of Real Sociedad fans who were inter mingling with the locals in a warm and friendly manner.
I actually think this is the key to having no trouble at games in general; obviously there are some exceptions with certain domestic rivalries. But at the Leverkusen game, their fans were marched to the stadium in a moving corridor of police which made them behave very differently to their Spanish counterparts. If you treat people like they are hostile, then chances are they will behave accordingly.
Myself and Andy perused the Megastore for about 10 minutes where there seems to be more staff than customers most of the time, before strolling down the road towards the Bishops Blaze. The queue put us off, so we headed for the Tollgate instead. We were lucky enough to get a table to sit at, timing is everything, and we sipped away on our pints of John Smiths. That beer is fucking delicious by the way, it’s kind of like a lager with the texture of Guinness – that doesn’t describe it perfectly, but it’s as close I can make it. We tried our best Manchester accents while ordering:
“Pint of John Smith’s love, nice one”
I’m sure the bar lady humoured us when she smiled like everything was cool, it was probably like an American walking into an Irish bar and saying:
“A pint of the black shtuff begorra, shamrocks, sheleighleighs and dirty priests!!”
The Tollgate had plenty of Sociedad fans inside too and they were happy to exchange scarves and pleasantries with the United contingent which made for a “we are the world” kind of atmosphere, “one love” etc. Some extremely sweaty old geezer was passing around a life-size replica of the Champions League trophy, allowing people to get a photo with the cup if they made a small donation to his charity bucket. We were far too cool to join in, though I think Andy really wanted to but wouldn’t admit it.
At about 6.30PM we decided to try to find the street recently renamed after Sir Alex Ferguson. Admittedly we didn’t try all that hard and after twice passing by the gate we would be entering the stadium through, we decided to just head on in. I have had tickets for pretty much every part of the stadium before at varying distances, heights and viewing angles, but I think our tickets for this game topped them all. Dead centre behind the goal in the East Stand Lower, just four rows from the front. We were positively giddy. Directly above us in the upper section stood the massed ranks of the Sociedad fans and boy did they make a racket. To our left was the new designated singing section for United fans, which was being trialled for the first time that night, and the atmosphere generated as both sets of fans exchanged songs was incredible.
When the Sociedad keeper and his coach came out for their pre-game warm up, they were almost touching distance away. The coach looked at the point of crying several times as he looked up towards his countrymen high the stands, a sea of blue and white euphoria. It’s easy to forget how much the Champions League and visits to stadiums like Old Trafford means to relatively small clubs like Sociedad – they could conceivably never be back. For United fans, it was just another game.
The match itself passed in a flash, the only goal of the game was at our end and United should have won by a more comfortable margin. The final whistle blew around 9.45PM and our itinerary told us that our bus left the industrial park at 10.15PM sharp, so we wasted no time and headed back.
Everybody was back in their seats by about 10PM except for the 3 heavy boozers that sat behind us on the way over. Our Latina heart throb was back in the aisle seat and to our excitement had taken out a banana to have as a snack. We watched as she studied the fruit for a bit, before peeling back the skin carefully. We thought of course that she would do the ladylike thing and break off pieces of the banana to eat it, ruining our fantasies in the process. But hold on…..what’s this? It can’t be. Hot Latina girl lifted her hand towards her luscious lips and ate the mother fucking banana porn style. What a cracking way to cap the Manchester leg of our journey. Sometimes things just work out wonderfully.
At 10.15PM sharp, the trio of booze hounds turned the corner, boarded the bus and slumped into the seats behind us. The crack of cans opening and gargle of spirits being added to mixers told us that they were far from finished for the night. Just as the bus pulled away from the industrial park, a dancy number came on the radio.
“Heeeor, pump that shit will ye?! We found loooovvee in a hopeless place!!! We found looovee in a hopeless case, wha??”
Cue a barrage of laughter from the trio and silence from the rest of us. Two of the three were quick to nod off though, and the last man standing scolded his snoozing mates for being “bleedin’ light weights”. Five minutes later after he had taken off his shoes (don’t ask, the smell was terrifying) and actually sat down, the last action hero was snoring his head off.
At around 11PM we stopped at a 24 hour service station to break the journey up for an hour. The station has a McDonalds, a Costa Coffee and a newsagents inside, pretty fucking cool really. Andy managed to wrangle the deal of century out of the newsagent attendant, who is a bespectacled middle aged woman who scans things through her checkout about as fast as Wayne Rooney does algebra. Therefore as you can imagine, the queue was soon scandalously long.
They had a “buy one, get one half price” offer on books and although the selection was limited, they did have one copy of Fergie’s new book and a couple of copies of Ibrahimovic’s book too. On recognizing Andy from a previous trip or two, here is how the woman approached the transaction:
“This one (the Fergie book) is £25, but it’s the last one so you can have it for £20. The other book (Zlatan’s) is also £25. So that will be £21 in total please.”
Andy didn’t argue and handed over the money. Bargain. After a bag of Discos and a Yorkie it was time to hit the road once again. The journey to the boat was done in relative silence although one of our new friends tried to engage us in conversation through the gap in our seats. We took turns talking to him while the other one pretended to be asleep, tagging in and out when things got a little annoying. We arrived at Holyhead and boarded the ferry, which left around 3AM ish.
By this time the conversation was minimal, eye contact zero and enthusiasm completely drained. You always hope that you are one of the first people to get on deck so that you can find a good place to sit or lie down, but unfortunately after our bus driver tried to park where no bus could ever comfortably fit, we were forced to sit while he reversed for what seemed like half an hour. By the time he parked somewhere more suitable, we knew we were in trouble. This time we followed the magical Latina arse up the Sapphire staircase and we entered a scene not unlike the opening credits of the 80s cartoon Ulysses, where all those people were floating in stasis. There were bodies everywhere and anywhere.
Every inch of seating was covered with stretched out lumps of man flesh and sprawling limbs. The teen demographic were still recording lap times, but they looked a little more zombie like and less human, if that was at all possible. This was going to be tough. We did a couple of re-con laps ourselves, but there was nowhere suitable to lie down. Andy is a bit of a coffee guzzler, so his energy levels were greater than mine. He was happy to sit at an internet station while I went in search of a resting spot.
But there were none. I was starting to get a little upset. Eventually I settled for a spot under a staircase on a cold tiled floor. Andy sat and read Fergie’s book while I rolled my jacket under my head and attempted to get some sweet sweet slumber. After about 20 minutes of limbo, I felt sick as fuck, hot and cold at the same time, just a bit green. I was unable to shut out the noise of teenager’s feet thundering up and down the stairs right over my head. To add to my misery, the arcade games just around the corner were then switched on to help occupy the shitterings (I just invented that word to describe a group of teens) of teens wired on red bull and adventure. The clatter of plastic automatic weapons and digital explosions was melting my brain, I was fighting a losing battle here.
After grabbing a bit of fresh air on a freezing cold top deck, myself and Andy eventually made our way to the dining area, where there were plenty of seats, but for a reason. The chairs are small, plastic and have no room for stretching or slouching and the tables are hard and cold offering no comfort. We were about an hour and a half into the journey, right in the middle and Andy was starting to fade too. I’m pretty sure I looked miserable as fuck since I stepped back on the boat. As I looked around I could see my reflection in the faces of dozens of the other passengers. This was horrible and they all knew it.
I put my head on the table, propped up by folded arms and disappeared into a darkness I thought I would never again see. I woke up about 10 minutes from Dublin a new man – result. We knew we could look forward to having the bus to ourselves for pretty much the entire journey back to Wexford. Two guys who we had picked up in Wicklow on the way up had somehow been unable to find the bus on the lower decks as it left the ferry and we ended up having to pull in on George’s Quay while they got a taxi to meet us. When they arrived they were smashed drunk, so it was time to fake more slumber to avoid interaction, which very quickly turned into actual slumber.
I woke up about 30 minutes from home and the familiar scenery warmed my heart. I got in my front door just after 9.30AM, my face covered in white trails of dry saliva, the kind of trails left by the invisible sleep time snails that visit you on long trips. Journey done. It sounds tough and it certainly is. But would I do it again? Absolutely….but not right away.
by Simon Winter