Introducing her nephew to Old Trafford left Joyce Woolridge wondering whether live games can satisfy the tastes of the new generation of fans
It was what the football memoirs have taught us to regard as a rite of passage. My nephew Sam was going to his first football match, and I was taking him. I felt I was reliving my own debut and waited eagerly for him to be dropped off so we could catch the bus to the Monday night reserve game.
There was an early departure from the script. When my brother rang to say he'd drive us there. The traditional bus ride to the game and the crucial walk along Warwick Road through the litter, anticipation mounting to unbearable levels, had gone. We'd get there with minutes to spare, with no opportunity to savour the preliminary atmosphere and entertainment. When they arrived I'd been pacing the room for 15 minutes.
Sam is a polite child. But wasn't his whole demeanour rather too restrained for a boy in his situation? "This is great, isn't it?" I announced, gripped by that familiar, irrational, joy-of-football buzz. Father and son eyed each other.
"It's a reserve match, our kid," the elder observed. "That makes no difference, does it, Sam?" I continued blithely. There was no answer. Both males, in Calvin Klein, were underdressed for a night match. "He won't be warm enough without a coat," I fussed. "You try making him wear one then."
We reached the ground at kick-off. My membership card got me in free; Sam clutched his pound. "Your little boy doesn't have to pay," the turnstile operator smiled. "You can keep that, little lad." But Sam wasn't having it. "She's not my mummy and I want to pay my pound," he muttered, stubbornly holding it out, determined to spend. Never before have I wanted Manchester United plc to take my cash. I pushed him through as the scattered applause from the pitch became audible.
"It's started!" I gasped, dramatically. The men shambled after me as I dashed for the seats. Six minutes had elapsed when the moaning started. "I’m starving! I want a burger." Sam announced he was hungry too, so they both sought sustenance. Burgers were off the menu. Sam returned with a Manchester United™ chocolate bar and Dave with a Manchester United™ pie and a logo-free tea. The pie went down in two bites ("I've had better"); the tea followed ("Christ, that's terrible").
"Dad, I'm still hungry," went unanswered, as Dad had gone missing. He returned a couple of minutes later with an identical meat and potato.
"Why've you bought another?" I asked, mystified. "To take the taste of the tea away," came the reply. Out on the pitch a football match was being played. I was trying to concentrate on it. It wasn't as though there were no stars playing. United's reserves boasted Phil Neville, Wes Brown, Andy Cole. Cole's face stares sullenly down from Sam's bedroom wall as his current favourite.
"That was a great shot from Colely, wasn't it, Sam?" I enthused. "No." Cole had just scuffed the ball past an open net. Sam wanted to go to the toilet. When he was barely out of sight of the pitch United conceded a goal. "Have United scored?" he demanded, retaking his seat. Did I detect the first faint flicker of excitement in his voice? "Er, no..." I had to tell him the truth, expecting him to burst into tears, just like I'd done years before. He remained unmoved, busy looking around him.
"What do you want, Sam?" "To see the goal on the replay." I chuckled indulgently. I'd once amused the adults around me by saying we could watch the goal again on the action replay. "You don't have replays at a match, Sam, it's live." "I know that," he said wearily, "I’m looking for the jumbo screens. Spurs and Arsenal have them." Dad grinned.
We changed ends in the stand at half-time, a thrill as I'd never done that at Old Trafford. Sam celebrated by going to the toilet, for a very long time. Meanwhile Cole equalised. My view of the unspectacular goal was obscured by my brother who had slumped against me, clutching his chest. "Have you got anything for indigestion?" he groaned. Fearing that Sam had been abducted, I ordered his unconcerned parent into the gents. Another lengthy gap followed before they rejoined me.
"Is he OK?" I worried. "He says it's warmer in the toilets." "Andy Cole equalised, Sam!" I still hadn't given up. Sam said he had a pain and went back to the toilet. My brother decided to call a few people up on his mobile and ask them to guess where he was phoning from. The final whistle blew, and two of our party rushed for the car with its heater and stereo.
As a little girl I learnt to love Manchester United from occasional black-and-white footage. Football always appeared to be played in a snowstorm because we had an indoor aerial. The only splash of colour in that monochrome diet was the player portraits in Shoot!. Old Trafford, by contrast, was a riot of technicolour glamour. Sam was used to something very different. Still, I pointed out, television was surely no substitute for the trembling excitement of seeing your idols in the flesh.
"Sam's attended two soccer schools at Old Trafford and had his photo taken with Becks and Giggsy, Joyce. A dinky Colely running about in the distance on a damp evening hardly matches up, does it?" Sam nodded.
Much agonising has gone on about how we risk losing the spectators of the future by making it too expensive for children to attend regularly, but isn't it true that the new generation of football watchers (whoever they are) won't necessarily want the same experience that we revelled in?
These new spectators are already here. If they have satellite they are watching far more technically sophisticated world football coverage than we ever did and are busy consuming the game happily despite our derision. Will they become increasingly impatient with patronising, ageing fans who claim to know and own exclusively the real football, with real buses, real urine, real terraces, real discomfort? I think they might, especially when they actually go to a match and are disappointed by the gulf between their expectations and reality.
At home, Sam gave his verdict on his first match. He couldn't tell a lie. "It was a bit boring." I could have cried. Sam, though, felt the need to elaborate. "It's not as good as Sky, is it Dad?" The players are too small and the seats were cold..." "And there's no music and interviews," Dad chipped in, helpfully. Joyce Woolridge
Images by Tony Davis/WSC Photos: Inside and outside Old Trafford in the late 1990s