Chelsea

My First United Game

I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t. How could I possibly get any sleep at all the night before visiting the Theatre of Dreams for the first time?

November 2nd, 1996; I was a ten year-old boy, about to see the Premiership and FA Cup champions in the flesh.

The night before I’d drawn a football pitch on a sheet of A3 paper, and then coloured in what I thought the starting 11 might be, drawing every player’s shirt with their number, even copying their signatures from a scarf my parents had bought me in lieu of the big day. I was certainly enthusiastic; I think the formation I settled on was 3-2-5, and I’d also crammed in as many substitute shirts around the touchline as I could.

When it was finally time to go, I took one last look at my handiwork before running outside, dressed in full replica shirt, shorts and socks (over jeans and a sweater, it was a cold day!) Needless to say, my hair was styled in an impressive set of Beckham curtains!

I don’t remember much of the journey to the stadium, probably because my feet never once touched the ground; I was carried along in a sea of red by the hordes of United fans, who were chanting and singing such strange songs. I didn’t ask exactly what it was they were singing, as the odd word I did catch and the pained look on my Mum’s face told me that my 8 year-old brother and I would have to wait a few more years and learn the words ourselves!

I couldn’t see where we were going over the heads of the crowd, but then suddenly the red sea parted, and saw it. Old Trafford. Huge, terrifying, and just magnificent. We walked along Sir Matt Busby Way, and my first real sight of the stadium was actually the away stand, and the sobering Munich Clock on the south-east corner.

However, our destination was the newly-completed giant north stand, half-way up, right in the centre. I remember my friends at school being SO jealous that we’d got tickets to sit here, as I was the first one lucky enough to score the best seat in the house.

And what a sight it was. Stepping out onto the terrace for the first time, I didn’t want to appear overly-dramatic, and so I resisted the urge to pause at the top of the steps and take in the atmosphere for a few minutes, but I was certainly tempted. The players were already warming up, and we’d brought a pair of binoculars so that my brother and I could see our heroes close-up. That was them, really them! Unbelievable! The week before I’d bought another model player to add to my collection – some bloke called Paul Scholes, and I very proudly demonstrated my knowledge to the others, who didn’t know very much about him. Dad didn’t rate him much.

This was a United team bursting with young talent; Beckham, Scholes, Neville, Solskjaer, Butt were all there today, their precocious talents supported by the three pillars of United’s success, Schmeichel, Keane and Cantona. Eric. Le God. Whatever the supporters had on their shirts!

But we were playing a Chelsea not short on talent themselves, and their starting line-up contained many players who would go on to coach at top-level clubs: Mark Hughes, Roberto Di Matteo, Gianluca Vialli, Dennis Wise and Steve Clarke. Their manager for today, however, was Ruud Gullit or, to my young mind, “Rudd Guilt”!

Of the game itself, all I remember is noise. Noise and smoke, and it always makes me smile to be reminded of my Old Trafford debut every single time I smell smoke in the open air. Over the 90 minutes, I know United were second best, and I know we were 2-0 down for what seemed like an eternity before Karel Poborsky, who had tormented Chelsea since his introduction, unleashed a fearsome drive from outside the area, which David May deflected into the net. United did ultimately lose the game 2-1, but I really don’t remember being that disappointed, the whole experience had been so impressive, almost surreal.

Anyway, I’d seen Poborksy knock the ball to one side of the defender, and then run round the other side of him to get past. I couldn’t wait to use that one on the playground on Monday!

As we drifted home, we were unfortunate to be caught up in a group of delirious Chelsea fans on the Metro. Again, I didn’t understand all they were singing (I got the gist of something about Poborsky being a girl!) but it didn’t matter, I wasn’t listening, my mind was elsewhere. I was staring through the steamed-up windows at the receding stadium lights, just one thought playing in my head, over and over again:

“Ooh-ahh, Eric Cantona…” I’d bought a new scarf; it said “Eric, the King”. I still take that scarf with me to every game, 14 years later. And I haven’t washed it once!

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