And that is precisely where I was, one cold, nippy April morning to witness an important English Premier League match between home favorites Man U and Everton. It was my first time in Manchester city, and more so at the football match and the excitement was unmistakably raw. The stage was big, Man U was in tight contention for the title, and this critical match with Everton was to possibly decide whether they would clinch the title or not later on (given their neck to neck race with local neighbors Manchester City). The local verdict was as clear as the icy morning Manchester air. And the pundits unabashedly said it was Man U who were clear favorites today….
The box seats that I was lucky enough to occupy had a brilliant ring side view of the field. The stadium with a capacity of appx 76,000 was soon filled to over 75,000 – a clear majority draped in red, shouting and chanting and singing for the home team. Away to my far right was a blob of blue – one large section of Everton fans who were hoping that every (under)dog has its day and that day could be today! There was equal amount of cheer for the players trooping in as for Sir Alex (Fergie) walking in hurriedly just as the game was about to begin. And soon the kickoff happened. Man U began sluggishly, struggling to dominate and appearing rather defensive in their approach. As per fans, unfortunately that is how they usually start off. And listless they were, till Everton shocked them (and 70,000 fans in the stadium) by heading in a goal through Jelavic in the 33rd minute. Man U quickly got the tonic they needed, and counter attacked hard, and Wayne Rooney headed in a Nani cross just before half time to soothe the hyperactive nerves in the stadium. At 1-1, it was a relieved bunch of fans that went in drinks and food in the interval.
What was in store for me (and for everyone actually) in the second half, was beyond imagination. And it all happened in whirlwind fashion. Man U came in for the offensive from the start, and played like a side possessed. Welbeck and Nani hammered in two beautiful goals within 3 minutes to take the home team 3-1 up. And the stadium went wild, roaring at every goal and chanting the Man U anthem in the interim. More drama unfolded as Everton pulled one back through Fellaini in the 67th minute, but Man U responded in with an almost ruthless rebuttal, with Rooney netting in his second goal in the next 2 minutes. And with 20 minutes to go, Man U stood pretty at 4-2 and the delirious fans joyously cheering on their beloved team. Another 10 minutes later, and the match all but seemed over and everyone on the field including Sir Alex on the sideline were pretty much thinking about the victory lap, and the fans were busy piling on the beer as the high scoring match drew to an end. But, to the chagrin of the capacity crowd, and to the ecstatic gratification of the tiny blue section cooped up in just one stand, Everton came back and how ! It was nothing short of a blinding blitzkrieg that saw them pump in 2 goals within a span of 2 minutes (Jelavic getting his second and spoiling Rooney’s party and Pienaar netting in the critical one) and leaving the huge red brigade speechlessly shattered. The complacent Man U defense that had looked suspect and shaky all throughout had been caught napping yet again, as they stared in utter disbelief at the score line. The team fought back with renewed vigor in the dying minutes of the game and came close too – it took a one handed desperate save from the Everton keeper to keep out a firm left footer from Ferdinand, and keep at bay a nail biting and crucial Man U victory. As the dreaded final whistle sounded through the silent stadium, most of Old Trafford was in a state of shock, as was Sir Alex, as per his own admittance later on. I couldn’t help but wonder at the stark similarity with a cricket match in India – a crazy, fanatic fan following, a packed to capacity stadium and the decibel levels. And of course, the familiar sight of fans at the end – the visible grief of the heartbreaking loss, the despair, the dejection and the disbelief all around…. Football is certainly a religion in England, and today the local Gods had Manchester down.
Given that I am not a die-hard Man U fan, I wasn’t as shattered as the thousands around me, stunned into silent disbelief. It certainly was a fantastic match and I took heart from the fact that I came all the way to see this, rather than a repeat of the 0-0 draw between Chelsea and Arsenal that had happened the previous day. Yet it was sad to see this glorious team unable to secure the title this year (which with a victory here would have been almost a certainty) due to some complacent mid field play and indifferent defending. A display that would eventually come back to haunt them, taunt them and deny them of the victory they were so frenziedly seeking. Folklore has it that whenever the team plays at Old Trafford, they meet up together for lunch at a local pub three hours prior to the match and have a hearty pasta meal. They eat together because it fosters team bonding. They have Pasta because it gives them energy to play hard. And its three hours prior to the match to give the players adequate time to digest. Unfortunately today the combination didn’t work for the world beaters and EPL favorites. The bonding fell apart, the energy came only in spurts, and they were just a little too late to digest what Everton was capable of doing. Sadly, for the mighty home team, today their dreams got a rude jolt of reality at the mighty theatre of dreams.