I have to admit that visiting Manchester was a selfish choice. After all, there wouldn’t be too many females who would want to re-route their world tour for a weekend in dreary old Manchester. But despite it generally playing second fiddle to big brother London – its amazing contribution to music and sport over the last 30 years meant I wasn’t going home without crossing it off the list.
Getting to the United Kingdom from Miami required another almighty transit day. An early start for a 45 minute bus ride from South Beach to the Airport, another lengthy security process, two hour flight to New York, a three hour lay-over in JFK Airport, an eight hour trans-Atlantic flight to Ireland, change of planes to Manchester, train into the city centre, then a taxi to our accommodation. 22 hours in total. We were absolutely exhausted.
Despite the jet-lag, as a music and sporting tragic I couldn’t have been any more excited to finally be wandering the streets of a city that has fascinated me for so long. Manchester was the birth-place of the Industrial Revolution and an economic power-house well into the 20th century. When London took over, times became a bit tougher and the prosperity turned somewhat to wasteland. But the blue-collar beliefs and no-nonsense attitude would almost become a badge of honour for the inhabitants.
This hard-working mentality mixed with a strong cultural element would eventually make Manchester the centre of the musical world through the late 80’s and early 90’s. Bands like Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, The Stone Roses and later Oasis would all leave a global imprint. And with the emergence of the Hacienda – the best nightclub and live music venue in the world during that period – all of a sudden everyone wanted to say they were from Manchester.
Around this time up and coming Scottish football coach Alex Ferguson would take over Manchester United, a reasonably successful club but like everyone else lived in the shadows of Liverpool FC. He would eventually become the most successful club coach in the history of world football, but he is equally famous for developing and giving a start to a young bloke called David Beckham. For a working-class city of less than one million people, it was becoming quite the focal point across the world.
I had carefully curated a weekend at the end of April to tick off all the things that needed to be done – sample the nightlife, eat the amazing Indian food and get to a football match at Old Trafford. Unfortunately I didn’t count on Sky Sports making a late change to the scheduling moving the match from Saturday afternoon to Monday night. Four months of planning and some expensive ticket purchases had essentially been in vain. We already had our accommodation and transfers locked in for London, so there was no way to extend.
With the laptop, credit card and one very late night in Miami I was able to piece together arrival and check-in in London as per our itinerary, train back to Manchester and post-match midnight coach transfer back to London arriving at 5am. It wasn’t pretty – and as you can imagine Karina was very happy with all of this – but just had to be done.
The nightlife element was just how I had envisaged it – dirty, dark and lacking the pretentious feeling of London and other global cities. When we awoke on the Saturday, I was pleasantly surprised to see the sun coming in the window. Dreary old Manchester had turned on a stunning April day for us. The streets were packed with teens and every hotel we walked past seemed to have a large group congregating out the front. Turns out One Direction had been in town the night before. It also happened to be the celebration of Saint George, so there was plenty happening all over the city.
On the Sunday afternoon we shipped out for London, knowing we would be back in 24 hours. We thought a Sunday roast complete with Yorkshire Pudding would be the best possible introduction to London, and it was. Our little studio apartment in Victoria we had rented for the week also turned out to be stunning. A great find on AirBnB.com. Lunch-time Monday we headed straight back to Euston Station for the two hour fast-train journey north.
Lisa Simpson once said that the Chinese use the same word for crisis as they do opportunity. I’m not sure if that is true, but it was extremely fitting for what was happening with our trip to Old Trafford. Our planning had been turned upside with the re-scheduling of the match, but as the weekends Premier League results unfolded something amazing had happened. Manchester United had held a four game lead at the top of the table going into the weekend. Second placed Manchester City had stumbled and lost away from home. With five games to go, victory against struggling Aston Villa would hand United the title (as they don’t play a finals series). With that, our tickets had become the hottest of property and there was every chance we would be part of a historical night at the so-called ‘Theatre of Dreams’.
We arrived late in the afternoon and had a tremendous Chinese feast down-town, and then it was on to the stadium. Cramming onto the tram with the sea of red was an amazing feeling. The skies were gloomy but the rain was holding off. A few of the fans were already a few lagers in and in full voice confident that they would get their trophy back after lending it to Manchester City last year. I wouldn’t proclaim to be a Manchester United fan, but as the most famous sporting team in the world, attendance at one of their games would appear on thousands if not millions of buckets lists. It was certainly on mine.
We wandered with the thousands up to the stadium, grabbing a scarf from one of the street-sellers as a souvenir. We made our way up the steps and out onto an amazing sight of the immaculate Old Trafford turf. Our seats were behind the goal with a view up to the ‘Stretford End’ where all the hard-core supporters sit. Above them is a memorial for the 11 players and staff killed in the Munich Air Disaster of 1958. When the teams walked out the atmosphere went up several notches. The anticipation from the 70,000 fans pulsed around the ground. I suggested to Karina that an early goal would relieve the tension and from there it would be party time.
We didn’t have to wait long. Inside three minutes star signing Robin Van Persie had pounced on some sloppy defending at our end. Old Trafford erupted like nothing I have ever experienced. Ten minutes later and it was on again thanks to some great lead-up work from Wayne Rooney. A sublime goal from Van Persie which rocketed into the net in front of us – one of the best of the season it would later be deemed. I could have thrown our scarf onto the celebrating team we were that close. Before half-time he had a third and the party was in full swing. Aston Villa were not coming back from that. As Van Persie jogged back to half-way the crowd bellowed his name to the tune of The White Stripes ‘Seven Nation Army’. It was absolutely spine-tingling stuff and was imprinted on my brain for days after.
When outlaying for the tickets I’d told Karina that the atmosphere would be amazing even though she didn’t care for the football, but she didn’t quite realise that the chanting and singing goes non-stop for 90 minutes. And after a goal it is deafening. We count about ten different songs during the game that start at the Stretford End and swirl around the stands. By the second half Karina has picked it up and is joining in with the group of lads behind us. Even the 1500 Aston Villa fans who have made the trek (carefully penned inside a ring of 100 security guards) are doing their best to make up for a lacklustre team performance. The locals constantly reminding them of their position on the ladder and singing “you only came to see United play…”
The second half fizzles out as Manchester United sit comfortably on their three goal lead. The minutes are counted down until full-time is blown. The red half of Manchester has won back the title – their 13th of the last 20 years all with Sir Alex Ferguson calling the shots. With that they have also overtaken Liverpool FC as the all-time leader for English Championships. A truly momentous night. The team does a lap of honour with Sir Alex waiting patiently near the tunnel – a snap-shot of a man who likes to step back out of the limelight when the hard work is done.
The party goes on for half an hour before spilling out into the streets. Grown men are cuddling and crying in celebration. It’s the equivalent of Grand Final day back home. As we head back to the train I explain to Karina the magnitude of what we have just witnessed. A story for every casual sports fan we meet for the rest of our lives. For all the effort and costly changes, it turns out to be the best sporting experience of my life – one that I’m confident will never be topped. That is unless Australia make a World Cup final, but that isn’t going to happen anytime soon.