I’ve been a Manchester United fan for just under 30 years now, but my first game wasn’t until 4th February 2003. I managed to get a ticket thanks to a friend of mine who was a Birmingham City season ticket holder along with his Dad and Cousin.
Me and my mate were at University at the time and spent a portion of our student loans going to random matches – like you do! However, for this particular match where United travelled to St Andrews on a cold February evening, my friend’s cousin couldn’t go, so he offered his season ticket to me.
Result I thought – it would be amongst the home support, but as long as I kept my nose clean what a great opportunity this was to see United finally!
I had once gone to an Arsenal game at Highbury back in the early 90s against Leeds. I saw three visiting supporters in raptures amongst the Arsenal faithful each time the Yorkshiremen scored in their 3-1 win. I was amazed that they weren’t ejected for their efforts and despite the uproar from supporters around us, they made it to the end of the game without any trouble. What brave Northern souls!!
I on the other hand was not feeling so brave or stupid enough to reveal my allegiance at St Andrews that night and by the time I arrived at my seat, that was probably a decision well-made.
We arrived at the ground around half an hour before kick-off. My mate handed me his cousin’s season ticket and said “There you go mate, enjoy the game and meet me here after ok?” Slightly bewildered by what he had just said, I replied “What do you mean? Are we not sitting together then?” My mate almost gleefully responded “No mate, me and my old man’s seats are down this end and my cousin’s is down there (pointing in the opposite direction!)”
Bloody cosmic! Not only was this my first United match, but I would be experiencing it amongst fans of the opposition on my own! Looking back, I don’t think the seats could honestly have been any further apart! Still, could be worse…
I tentatively buried my head in the night’s match programme until the team’s emerged for the start of the game. This was my first chance to see van Nistelrooy, Keane, Beckham and Scholes et al in the flesh for the first time.
My memories of the match itself are a little sketchy to say the least. Strangely I remember Stern John playing for the Blues that night – not necessarily because he was any good, but more as I have always had a tendency to recall random/forgotten players from the Premier League era.
The clearest recollections I have from what was a pretty dull first half was the Blues supporters around me – in particular one chap sitting next to me on my left. He arrived a minute or so before kick-off and throughout the entire opening 45 minutes he was smoking like a trooper and berating virtually every player and decision that went against his team.
To be honest, he appeared to be watching a very different game to the one I was, but as a “wet behind the ears” student on foreign territory, I wasn’t exactly contemplating correcting him in the error of his ways!
Half-time arrived and it was goalless. The aforementioned vociferous “Blue-noser” turns to me and asks “Haven’t seen you at a game before?” “No, I’m borrowing a mate’s season ticket” I replied nervously. “I thought you were quiet in the first half.” he said. This was quickly followed by “You are not a United fan are you!?” in a blunt and abrupt manner.
Judging by his demeanour and colourful language that went above and beyond any passion and desire being shown by his team on the pitch in the first half, it probably wouldn’t have been my greatest triumph in life had I let the cat out of the bag on that one!
Thinking swiftly on my feet, I said I was a fan of a lower league club. That wasn’t strictly a lie either as I had followed said club’s fortunes a few years previous as it was only a short train ride away from home. This seemed to break the ice as he mentioned that he’d seen that club in a cup game a few years ago too.
Having talked my way out of a potentially awkward situation, this chap actually turned out to be quite a nice bloke and talking further he was pretty honest about Birmingham’s strengths and shortcomings at the time. I’m sure looking back in hindsight with the woes they’ve had since, he’d give anything for a return to the heady days of Dugarry & Co (remember him?) back in the bright lights of the Premier League.
United nicked the three points in the second half without being at their best thanks to a well-taken goal by Ruud van Nistelrooy. I have to admit I found it very difficult to stay seated and reserved when he found the bottom right hand corner with a classy finish on the turn – I just about managed though!
The only other thing I can remember from my first United game was the travelling support at the other end of the ground. Home United fans get a lot of stick for not being the most partisan of crowds at Old Trafford, but the away fans were different class. They were in full voice all night and the roar when the only goal went in was something else.
So there you have it, a winning United debut for me, more memorable for what happened off the pitch rather than on it!