The Year I Became Manchester United Member #3627488
It’s 2008 and I’m working for a publishing company based in Oxfordshire. The social life is excellent, and amongst the 600 people on site there are plenty of football fans. That’s not always necessarily a good thing — the familiar whiff of faux Super Sunday-inspired banter surfaces every Monday morning in the usual way — but the smattering of Stoke, Reading, Stockport and Forres Mechanics fans, to name a few, make it as interesting a workplace as you could hope for in football terms.
That’s not to say, however, that I’m the kind of lower league football hipster who bases their criteria for friendship on a person having seen their team at Brisbane Road, in midweek.
No, so long as a person isn’t completely oblivious to life beneath, I’m willing to open up, to share my frustrations about the latest ignominy to befall my club, or to even engage in discussion as to the next round of Champions League games (so long as they remind me who’s playing).
To exemplify, I make a very good mate whose friendship outlasts my time at said company. He also happens to be a Manchester United fan, born and bred in Essex.
As sceptical as I initially am, it becomes clear over time that he’s genuine, a supporter of some 30 years who goes through various inconveniences to get to at least a couple of games a season.
More importantly, he’s interested in my team, Plymouth Argyle. Indeed, we travel to a number of away games together, taking in defeats at Bristol City, Reading and Cheltenham, to name a few. And at no point does he complain about the standard of football; rather, he welcomes the opportunity to pay on the gate, to envelop himself in a different kind of Saturday afternoon routine, to sit in an away end…
So when he asks over the summer whether I want to join him on his next outing to Old Trafford, it seems only fair to agree. Thinking that, at worst, all it’ll require is a hefty one-off ticket price, I go along with the suggestion.
Within a fortnight, however, it’s clear that a quick and dirty debit card transaction won’t suffice. I need to become a member of Manchester United Football Club for the 2012-13 season.
The touts that follow United around suggest that there must be at least more than one way to gain entry to Old Trafford. So perhaps my friend is having me on. Or, worse still, maybe he thinks the sense of belonging that membership can imbue might turn me.
Either way, I’m convinced that this will be in my best interests. That it’ll grease the wheels, ensuring that we can secure tickets for our desired game at a relatively good price.
So I go along with it, handing over my personal details to the Red Devil; overlooking how for years I’ve avoided becoming a member at the club nearest to where I live, Reading, in the name of monogamy, thus ruling myself out of being able to attend numerous games.
The ink’s barely dry on my year long contract when the suggestions start rolling in from the club as to my first act of infidelity. But it’s all done discreetly, with respect. Mainly in the form of text message, which can be disposed of quickly, without any trouble.
I’m content with the relationship, confident that I’m in the driving seat; the one who calls the shots. But then, on my birthday in mid August, Sir Alex and the boys get in touch to personally wish me well.
When barely five or six people — an all time low — have bothered to send their regards this time around, their message holds a strange kind of resonance. Neither Carl Fletcher nor Darren Purse think to get in touch; not so Sir A et al, the considerate bastards. 1-0.
Two weeks later and the season has begun. It’s a Saturday morning and my parents are up visiting; ironically, Dad and I are about to head into Oxford to see Argyle play in the afternoon. MUFC don’t figure in my thought processes; things have been put back in perspective after a period of reflection.
But then it arrives, with a thud.
Knowing that all eyes are on me, I unwrap the embossed parcel with a kind of forced disdain. Revealing the membership pack, I can see immediately that it’s crammed full of freebies that I could only dream about receiving from Argyle. But then there’s the empty statements intended to stir up feelings of inclusion; this isn’t on. How dare they accuse me of 100% commitment, 100% dedication, 100% passion, 100% devotion and 100% united…ness on the morning of my first game of the season. What have I done? And, more importantly, what must the postman be thinking?
I shelf the pack, putting it out of sight and mind. I’d appreciated the birthday message, in a pathetic kind of way, but this… in front of my parents … they’ve gone too far. The one-off Saturday afternoon with my friend aside, I’m out.
For the next few months, the only contact I have with the club — besides receiving a couple of further ‘thinking of you’ texts, usually sent late at night — is channelled through my friend. We decide on a mutually convenient match, QPR on 24th November, and make plans to stay up in Manchester for the weekend.
I spend the week leading up to the game in the north, fitting work around my weekend plans. In between meetings on the Thursday, my friend gets in touch. He goes straight to the point. ‘You have got your membership card, haven’t you?’
Cutting an extensive and tedious story down, and without getting sweary, I don’t. So, on the Thursday night — after having finally reached Manchester by way of Kendal, Lancaster, Preston, Crewe, Chester, Wrexham, Warrington, Liverpool and Ormskirk — I find myself on the phone to the club, rather than where I wanted to be, in the corner of a dingy city centre pub spying on students and old timers at the bar, pretending to be of the same place.
In the end, like Rio Ferdinand recovering from another mistake, it’s pretty easy to sort out as MUFC arrange a duplicate paper ticket at no additional cost. They understand that they’re not for me, but are still trying to stay diplomatic. And I respect that.
So, besides losing time to the phone call, as well as a little self-respect at the way I very nearly come out as an Argyle fan on the phone when asked to give my address (‘I am not a Southern Red!’), I have no complaints in the circumstances, even if they are ridiculous.
Come Saturday, and things begin much better as we kick off at the National Football Museum in Cathedral Gardens, an experience made especially enjoyable through the presence of Stuart Roy Clarke’s The Homes of Football collection, which has been moved down from its former Ambleside home.
Shortly afterwards we manage to find a decent pub near Piccadilly station, The Bull’s Head, but having wandered — almost aimlessly — across a cold and dreary Manchester city centre from the NFM with no plan, I’m surprised at my friend’s lack of routine.
Besides knowing which tram to get on, there doesn’t seem to be a habit, a ritual, any kind of custom that gives structure to his pre-match schedule. A pub that does a great fry up; even a newsagent where he picks up his game pastilles. Of course that’s not at all representative of every match-going United fan, but supporting a club from afar and without local knowledge or friends and family to drop in on, it’s bound to afflict a good number. For all that MUFC do to portray a kind of perfect experience, and as appealing as their marketing seems to make them, the morning walk across the city evidences why I’ll simply never understand their lure.
We leave the pub early in order to collect the ticket and the closer we get to the ground, the more it becomes apparent that we’re on our way to a global gathering. Accusations of United’s fans coming from anywhere and everywhere but Manchester are hackneyed, so I don’t want to labour the point; but when the first thing that hits you on alighting at Old Trafford station is a succession of blokes flogging souvenir matchday scarves, the feeling is that your support is being recast as simple, straightforward custom.
Which, in my case, is exactly what it is. It doesn’t result in me wearing a red and blue, dated (literally), scarf for the day, but on the other hand it does provide the grounds on which to experience the product objectively.
As good as being at Old Trafford feels due to its size, history and centrality to English football — stuff has happened here — there’s no getting away from the associated expense. It’s a minor thrill to eye Wazza and RVP joshing about in the warm up but — at £44 — this is the most I’ve ever forked out for a game of football, even before the cost is combined with the membership fee. And in return for the outlay, we find ourselves perched high up in the North West Stand, so far from the pitch that the QPR fans might as well not be there, so extreme is the distance between our seats and them.
And in fitting so many in, the curvature of overlapping stands means that thousands of fellow supporters are cut from view, reminding me that I’m just one of many, many people in the vicinity. An insignificant pea in a super pod.
Life, for 90 minutes, feels worthless, the combination of our shit view, not caring about the result and the cold manifesting itself in a temporary gloom where my mind slips to domestic tasks that should have been done weeks ago, things that have been annoying me at work, the money that could have gone into my ISA instead of Sir Alex’s January kitty…
But then the atmosphere provides succour; far from the Old Trafford Library that was expected, the Stretford End to our right is giving it welly, encouraging others to follow. ‘This is alright, actually’, I say to myself. Unfortunately, the relief stops there as my friend joins in, adopting a rehearsed Mancunian accent in doing so. There’s no way back now.
And then the game ends. United win 3-1, despite playing poorly and going a goal down at one stage. As hard as people tried to convince themselves there was a game on while QPR were one up, everyone expected the comeback; people don’t support this club without knowing the natural course of events in such games.
On our return journey, we patiently wait for a tram in the cold and wet. Other than a numbness taking hold in my feet, the only feeling I possess is bewilderment. All that fuss, all the expense, for that…
And my thoughts turn to those people around me, many travelling back to other parts of the north west, but an equal number destined for further flung parts of the world. Perhaps, like me, they’re day-trippers, keen to experience just one game. But what of the others, those who’d class themselves as genuine supporters? Was this game, this whole experience, really that much superior to what could be provided elsewhere, at a club whose attachment to you means something more than random selection based, at some point in history, on this team being better than most of the others?
And then I realise I’m back to square one, making the same old pointless accusations, storing up the same unhealthy wrath of what in my mind are glory supporters. It feels like I haven’t learned or gained anything from the experience, and I just want to go home. The first thing I’m going to do is bin the membership pack that remains on the shelf. The affair is over before it began.