The sun, metaphorically as well as literally, hasn’t shone much at Manchester United this season but it made an appearance on Sunday.
As the sunshine beamed down on Old Trafford gravely disappointing Premier League campaign was coming to an end and with Champions League football still a distant possibility, and the tantalising prospect of Wembley attractively lingering on the horizon, I let myself feel hopeful as I wandered down a sunlit Sir Matt Busby Way.
Such a feeling was short lived.
The first strange moment of the afternoon came as I was watching the Man United side warm up from my usual vantage point in the upper east stand. It was 14:40 and the starting XI were about to go through their attacking drills.
I watched on closely, noticing that Wayne Rooney was set to line up alongside Michael Carrick in defensive midfield, with Juan Mata filling the No.10 role and Jesse Lingard out wide. I sighed at the prospect.
But then, rather than going through this mandatory drill, both teams went quickly back into the tunnel. As a season ticket holder I know that United always warm up until about 15 minutes before kick off, so I was bemused to see them head in early. Nevertheless, I thought little of it, and promptly went to my seat.
The tannoy then piped up saying that an evacuation of the Stretford End and Sir Alex Ferguson stand was to take place after both areas were put on what was labelled as a ‘code red alert’. Within minutes, both stands – glazed by thousands of supporters and the Manchester sun just moments before – were completely empty.
Somewhat annoyed at *another* delayed kick-off, I remained in my seat (as incessantly ordered by the woman on the tannoy) and begun to read about a ‘suspicious package’ being discovered in one of the stadium toilets. It dawned on me that this was no security mishap or administrative failure, this was real, and such a feeling was compounded by the sudden emergence of security dogs, accompanied by swathes of stewards.
My phone had lost signal (as it always does at the top of E36), meaning I couldn’t keep updated on what was going on and I begun to speak with two supporters, a middle aged man and his son, who had come all the way from Devon for the game. As I was telling them about what was going on, I noticed a sudden exodus developing in both the East stand and Sir Bobby Charlton stand. I couldn’t understand why. Then came a tap on my shoulder.
“Abandoned,” said the animated looking bloke to my left.
“What?,” I responded with a befuddled look.
“The game,” he went on bluntly. “It’s been abandoned. Announced on BBC sport.”
Use your imagination for what I said in response because I definitely can’t write it here.
As I shuffled down the steep steps of the East stand I paused at the bottom, observing a growing number of supporters irritably making their way to the exit as the news percolated through to those inside the ground. Then came the official announcement from the tannoy, evincing a groan from those still in the ground – a groan that quickly made way for a cacophony of half angry, half dejected boos.
I decided to remain inside the ground for a little while longer. Despite my disappointment at what was a disastrous season, a part of me wanted to stare at the hallow turf for one last time until August and reflect on the last nine months. My musings were cut short as the staff inside the ground suddenly turned more militant, resolutely ordering the small number left in ground to make for the exit immediately.
Coming out of the stadium, still not completely aware of what was going on, I turned right to make my usual trip to the tram station, only to be met with a wall of police officers.
“That way, please,” one of them shouted, “everybody to the left.”
Perhaps a bit cheekily, I asked why I couldn’t head to the tram station.
“Just go that way, mate, we know what we’re doing,” he barked back.
Fair enough, I thought. And, along with thousands of other perplexed United fans, I went uneasily towards Wharfside Way.
Getting onto a muggy tram after a lengthy detour, I felt dejected at the anti-climactic nature of it all. A day that started with hope and excitement ended in strange and gloomy circumstances. It was, funnily enough, a day befitting of United’s season in general.
But, football aside, massive plaudits must go to the stewards and extended members of security, who acted efficiently and professionally to ensure the safety of every single supporter.