There is much more to watching Manchester United playing at Old Trafford than just the football, writes Chetan Narula
Manchester: The 2014-15 English Premier League season is almost upon us. The fourth Test at Old Trafford ended in less than three days leaving enough time to pursue a simple task – watch Manchester United play at the Theatre of Dreams, especially with the hallowed football ground just a stone's throw away from the cricket stadium.
Members of the Indian team weren't the only one enticed by this prospect. After all, a match featuring the Red Devils with tickets costing only between £20 and £30 for adults hardly needs a second invitation. Perhaps that was the thinking for a majority of Manchester residents as people converged to watch them turn out in action against Valencia on Tuesday evening.
In fact, it was a highlight of the evening that much of the watching crowd was made up of first-time visitors to the ground. There were serpentine queues with people lining up to collect their Internet-booked tickets, having availed of the unique opportunity. The eager fans lined up three hours before the game, and once they had collected their tickets, went on to regale themselves with the choicest English snack-fare.
The road leading to this world-renowned stadium is lined with pubs and bars, some of them bearing the Manchester United or Red Devils' moniker. Of course many match-day food trailers are parked on all roads leading to the ground, selling the choicest of snacks. You can take a pick from sausage-chips or the double cheeseburger, spiced up with fried onions.
One outlet in particular did brisk business as it sold barbequed burgers, a sure-shot hit with the gathered fans. The other notorious presence on these streets is of merchandise peddlers. You can hear them hollering 'match-day scarves for five pounds' as soon as you jump off the tram or bus from city-centre. This is not authentic Red Devils' merchandise and seems quite the bargain, until you enter the big Manchester United store on the ground level of the stadium.
The entry to the store is regulated by stewards so that each set of fans (read customers) can take their time in choosing what memorabilia they want to own. And it stands for good reason because once you enter the store there is no coming out empty-handed. The vast space of the store has enough goodies for adults and kids, men and women, to entice everyone to come out with a shopping bad.
There is a lot to choose from – new-season jerseys to full-kit ensembles, caps, scarves, jackets, t-shirts, all bearing the United hallmark. Then there are accessories – magnets, key-chains, cufflinks, beer mugs, etc. to choose from. You can also get your initials imprinted on the back of your purchased jersey or indeed get a news-print to showcase that you are the latest high-profile signing of this great club.
But here's the lowdown. The Glazers know how to do business. Only on match-days, select merchandise is available on discounted prices and these hot deals squarely beat the unofficial, low-cost stuff available outside on the streets if you are willing to shell just a couple more bucks.
The festive atmosphere outside doesn't compare an inch to the rousing chants once actually seated inside the stadium. Tuesday night was a special occasion on two counts – it was the first time Manchester United were playing at home this season, finishing their run of friendly matches under the annual Re-united tour at home. As also, this marked the first appearance of new manager Louis van Gaal at Old Trafford.
When the Dutchman walked into the stadium for a first time, he was greeted with the loudest cheer possible, signalling the start of a new era in the club's history. The United fans have already taken a liking to him. He greeted many whilst walking in during half-time, stopping to shake hands with fans, and this drew admiration from those watching from the other end.
Not to mention the small fact that United have looked impressive in their pre-season and prepared for their first game this coming weekend with a 2-1 win over Valencia on the night.
The expectations are not over-bearing though. Hardcore fans want to see their team return to the top-four. More importantly, they want them to play like only Manchester United can, and that is the least expected of van Gaal.