Gustasp & Jeroo Irani walk the hallowed grounds of Manchester United, recently in the news for Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
Goal! The stands explode in celebration. Fans cheer, wave scarves and flags streaked with the colours of their teams. And a tear rolls down the cheek of a supporter in another section of the stadium. In a football game the spectators are as much a part of the spectacle as the players. And the coaches on the sidelines: cheering, encouraging, shouting instructions, pouting, holding their heads in despair…
It did not matter that we were unable to get tickets for a live game, but we got to live and experience the gamut of emotions, from joy and celebration to agony and despair, that swirl across the grounds on a stadium tour of Old Trafford, the hallowed stomping grounds of one of the world’s most famous and best loved football clubs — Manchester United, aptly nicknamed the Red Devils.
Sir Alex Ferguson was there to receive us at the entrance to the stand named in his honour: a bronze life-sized statue of the manager who retired recently, having steered the legendary club through the most glorious years of its trophy-studded history stands, seems to greet visitors who enter this hallowed ground. On a pedestal facing him, a trinity of Man U’s players — George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton — raise a salute to the never-say-die spirit of a team that hates losing as much as it revels in winning.
We stepped into the stadium and were swamped with images that raked through the history of the club: posters of great players, past and present; videos of winning, and spectacular goals. We felt ourselves being sucked into a vortex of euphoria that fed on the glorious moments of the club’s achievements. Glass showcases brimming with trophies and silverware; passageways lined with the images of famous players — David Beckham, Roy Keane, Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes — smiling big while hoisting the many cups they helped collect for a club that has an insatiable appetite for winning. One wall is dedicated to the names of all the players since 1886 who have proudly donned the colours of Man U.
Suddenly, there was an explosion of light as we walked down the narrow players’ tunnel and stepped into the stadium. Green grass and red stands: this is a modern version of ancient amphitheatres where gladiators, orchestrated by their coaches, fight in front of cheering crowds over possession of a ball — 28 inches in circumference — as though their lives and those of their fans depended on it. These sacred grounds are washed with artificial sunlight — heaters on portable long-armed trolleys — which help the grass grow even in the most inhospitable climatic conditions.
We sat in the dugouts from where substitutes and coaches watch the contest as it unravelled. Unlike most other grounds where these enclosures are at ground level, this one sits snug in front of the club house stands. Ferguson insisted on this modification when the stadium was renovated in 2006 as it gave him a better view of how his troops routed the enemy. Yes, his aura fills the stadium (seating capacity of 75,765) which is the second largest in the United Kingdom after Wembley and the ninth largest in Europe.
Our guide pointed out a small section of the stands reserved for diehard travelling fans of visiting teams. Another section is reserved for the differently abled in wheelchairs. There is even one for the visually impaired. Fans follow the game and their teams with singular passion and there are some who even mortgage their homes to purchase a season ticket that will entitle them to cheer their team as they play 26 home games! Many will tie the knot only after their wives fully understand that they take a backseat when the home team is playing, or so our guide said.
Wives and girlfriends of players, also known as WAGs, have special seating in the stands and it is in front of this section that players often celebrate a goal with a victory jig. Many of the WAGs are celebrities in their own right; others have climbed the social ladder because of their relationship with star players.
Probably the most famous of all football star couples is David Beckham and Victoria Beckham or Posh Spice of the once famous all-girl rock band. According to our guide, the two first met in the players’ post-match lounge where Alex Ferguson allows his team to gorge on junk food laid out on a buffet spread. The big boss deemed that they are entitled to a little indulgence.
The players’ dressing room in contrast is surprisingly bare. Shirts of those included in the starting line-up hang on pegs over slatted wooden benches that edge the walls. On match days, this was where Ferguson issued last-minute instructions before a game, reiterated his strategy that he hoped would decimate the foe, cajoled his team to give their best, and berated them during half-time.
This was the scene of the infamous incident when he kicked a soft drink can in frustration and it flew across the room and struck Beckham on his handsome head! If only the walls could talk!
The eternal flame memorial to the victims of the 1958 Munich airport tragedy (the aircraft crashed during take-off in a bog-covered runway) in which a number of Manchester players died, spoke volumes of the loss the team suffered. But like true champions, the club picked up the pieces and rebuilt a match-winning team once more. Time and trophies helped to ease the pain but the memory of the football-soldiers who died in the incident lingers.
The tour ended at the Man U retail outlet where shelves spilled over with memorabilia: footballs, shirts of star players, mufflers and flags. We considered stopping at the club’s Red Café for a pick-me-up but had to skip the option as we had other commitments to keep. It would have been nice to nurse a beer as we watched magic moments of the club’s glorious past replayed on the large and small TV screens that adorn its walls.
As we trooped out of the stadium under the stern gaze of Ferguson’s statue, we got a hint of what it might have felt like to be in the players’ dressing room before a game. That is when he would thunder: “Giving your best is not good enough. I want you to win!”
Sir Alex Ferguson’s record during his 26-year-tenure as manager of Manchester United
Premier League: 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2013.
FA Cup: 1990, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2004
League Cup: 1992, 2006, 2009, 2010
Champions League: 1999, 2008
Cup Winners Cup: 1991
Fifa Club World Cup: 2008
Uefa Super Cup: 1992
Inter-Continental Cup: 1999
FA Charity/Community Shield: 1990 (shared), 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011