Football’s been long gone from our lives in pandemic 2020. In my twenty two years supporting United, this is the longest I’ve stayed without watching them play. The longing for a United game got me reminiscing about the few instances I’ve watched the Red Devils play live; twice at Old Trafford and once at Wembley.
For some reason, I’ve never sat down to write about the experience. But with football resuming after a long hiatus and Tottenham being our first opp0nent, now seems a good time to write about that Wembley master class by De Gea which got us a win in that last Spurs game at Wembley. But let’s start with my first United game.
On Mashujaa day in 2016, I landed at Heathrow on a cold morning after an overnight flight from Nairobi. It was my first time in the UK and after clearing with immigration, I quickly went about getting tickets for the United vs Fenerbahce game at Old Trafford later that evening. I finished my business for the day at about 4pm. With just 30 minutes to get to the train while having to navigate my way around an unfamiliar London using the Tube, I struggled to find my way to London Euston and just about made it in time for departure.
The two-hour journey to Manchester doubled up as a journey back to the early years supporting United. I remembered those nights in primary school when I’d stay up to 1am watching United play on a school night with the lights off and TV on mute because I was supposed to be asleep (Bless STV and their free-to-air channel that introduced me to English league football). Or those late nights we’d walk back home in the rain from watching United play, afraid of thieves, stray dogs and police all the while angry that United lost or drew the game. (Bouba Diop’s late equalizer vs Fulham comes to mind). Or being chased out of pubs because we were too young or too broke to pay the 200 bob entrance fee for a big EPL match (Kengeles Langata road and Spuds, I see ya). Or the scrap books I collected in primary school with cut outs of United players and school diaries that I’d fill with match reports of United games. After all those years of dreaming, I was finally on my way to Old Trafford to watch the mighty Red Devils play live.
I arrived at Old Trafford about an hour to kick off. That feeling of walking into the floodlit stadium and seeing OT for the first time is one that will long live in memory. I was sat up high in the Sir Alex Ferguson stand with a great vantage point view, but a bit of a distance from the touchline. Part of me wished it was a Champions League game or at least a league game that I’d dreamt of watching for so long. That it was a Europa league game reflected how the mighty had fallen but I wasn’t gonna let that take away from the experience.
The game was pretty one-sided. We beat the Turks 4-1 with a Pogba brace and a goal each from Tony Martial and Lingard. The highlight of the night was getting to see my favorite United player of all time, Mr. Wayne Rooney live as well as a peach of a goal from Pogba. The atmosphere at Old Trafford proved to be an anti-climax. I’d read complaints over the years of the poor atmosphere (including Roy Keane’s infamous ‘prawn sandwich brigade’ rant) but I wasn’t prepared for how dour it would be. Seeing as no one around me was bothered to cheer on the team, I went on a one-man cheering mission, shouting and chanting in Sheng and Swahili while calling out this prawn sandwich brigade around me. The few Turkish fans in the stadium made more noise than the entire United fan base who’d only cheer when we scored. The biggest cheer of the night was reserved for Van Persie’s consolation goal which was a fitting tribute to the best player we’ve had in the last decade.
Having spent the previous night on a flight and the adrenaline of my first United game worn off, I spent the next three hours after the match frantically looking for a place to rest my tired self. It should have occurred to me when booking stadium and train tickets that accommodation would be in high demand in a city that was hosting 75,000 for a midweek European game. It soon dawned on me that I was paddling up shit creek as all hotels were fully booked. I’d have to spend the night outside in the cold temperature of late October in Northern England. That night was one of the longest of my life but take me back and I’d do it all over again for my first chance to watch United live. I’d waited eighteen years for that opportunity since being a young boy and Old Trafford seeming like the furthest place from my world.
My second and third United games came in quick succession. Early 2019, Ole had taken over after the disastrous Jose Mourinho reign. We were riding a wave and this was the most enjoyable few weeks of watching United since Sir Alex retired. I visited Manchester on 5th January, 2019 to watch United play Reading in the 3rd round of the FA Cup. Once again, I almost missed the train from London to Manchester due to my legendary procrastination. I got onto the train just 10 seconds before the doors were shut after sprinting through a crowded London Euston and knocking people along the way. The first 45 minutes of the journey was a nauseous mess from the sprinting and it didn’t help that the missus was sat next to me with judging looks having got to the train in good time.
I’m glad to report that accommodation was sorted out in advance. Match day was a pleasant experience. An early kick off meant we could get to OT in good time and tour the stadium before the game. The match itself was quite boring and United got a scrappy 2-0 win courtesy of goals from ex-Blues Mata and Lukaku. I remember little else from the game though the atmosphere was much improved from the last time out. The Red Army, a loud contingent of United fans, had been given a section of Old Trafford to sit together and try improve the atmosphere. I ended up joining the group and got a chance to chant with fellow Reds that I’d anticipated for so many years. The highlight of this visit was getting to be at Old Trafford with the missus. We watched the players leave the stadium for the bus and spent the rest of the afternoon taking in the sights and sounds of Manchester.
The United experience had been thrilling thus far but there was an itch I’d yet to scratch; watching United playing a live league match. This was the bread and butter of football fandom and would be better than the Europa or FA Cup games I’d watched. I had a few more days in the UK and United were playing Spurs away in London where I would be that weekend. The opportunity was there but the tricky part was getting an away ticket. The tickets are usually sold in a ballot system and only 3000 would be available for away fans. With the ballot route limited to season ticket holders, the only way out was to get a black market ticket which would be costly and risky as I could be caught and thrown out from Wembley. I decided kama mbaya mbaya and pulled strings to get the tickets.
Wembley is a massive stadium and a whole experience in itself. But the best experience was being among the loud and proud United away fans. Many a times, I’ve sat home watching United away games and wishing I was part of the away following who sing throughout matches, often outsinging thousands of home fans. And the United fans didn’t disappoint. Riding a high from Solskjaer’s brilliant start to his reign, the 3000 Reds outsang the 87,000 Spurs fans to cap a memorable win. I’m a seasoned Red who happens to know most of the chants and I made up for the previous two silent United games by singing at the top of my voice for 90 minutes. United fans were sat on the left side behind De Gea’s goal in the first half and we got a marvelous view of Pogba’s filthy ‘quarterback’ assist for the game’s only goal scored by the imperious Marcus Rashford. We had our hearts in our collective mouths throughout the second half as De Gea went on a one-man mission to stop the relentless Spurs from equalizing. He ended up making a season-high 11 saves in one game to earn us a memorable win. Ole was truly and firmly at the wheel.
After the game, a bunch or Reds huddled up outside the stadium, singing and celebrating joyously after a hard fought win against a tough opponent. I was smack in the middle of this crowd jumping and singing away. We came across the United Stand Fan TV Camera where the celebrations continued. The buggers denied me the chance nitume salamu nyumbani but I made a fool of myself in front of the camera, shouting out my city Nairobi and generally being a nuisance. Nobody was denying me the chance to celebrate my first United away experience and my first United league game.
Spot a negro wildin’ infront of the cameras https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9yULcATynY
Tottenham Hostpurs have always proved an accommodating opponent. We’ve had some memorable wins against them, including the 5-3 comeback in 2001 and the 5-2 comeback in 2008. This Friday provides another opportunity to register a memorable win against the Londoners. All the ingredients for a classic are there; an ex-United manager who wants to get one over his old team, a Champions league spot to fight for, United players keen to get one over Mourinho, the first game where Bruno and Pogba play together, the return of the game we all love after an unprecedented break due to a global pandemic and an indulgent opponent. The excitement is akin to those instances where I got to watch United live and I can’t wait for kick off. Here’s to hoping United qualify for the Champions League and that I soon get the chance to sing the famous CL anthem at Old Trafford. In the famous words of Tonton Patrice Evra, I LOVE THIS GAME!!!