Wednesday, 21 February 2007

The Theatre of Dreams

That's what they call Old Trafford. The Theatre of Dreams. Previously, I thought it a slightly corny, cheesy, hopeful title.

Until 9:07 on Saturday night.

That's when Brynjar Gunnarsson, Icelandic Midfielder, rose above the massed Manchester United team and powered a header against the bar from 15 yards, watching it richochet off the woodwork into the net. 5,000 Readings fans exploded in euphoric relief: an equaliser.

Dad got given a ticket to the game, arguably one of the biggest in Reading Football Club's history, by a season ticket holder who couldn't go. A week later, another season ticket holder offered my grandad two tickets. He gave them to my dad, who decided that me and my brother were ideal recipients. So, as you can imagine, we were all over the moon. Delighted. Astounded. Every good adjective.

The last time Reading and Manchester United played in the FA Cup was in 1996, January, at Reading's old ground, Elm Park. Dad had taken me to that - my brother had been too young - and I had been in the front row of the old, loud, thundering South Bank to watch the superstars of United - Cantona, Keane, Giggs - beat Reading three nil. I was so cold that I cried all the way home. The result didn't matter: we'd played Man United.

I got the train up to Manchester and met my Dad, waving at me on the platform. Excitement was building as we neared Manchester: at every station, new groups of fans, for both sides, climbed aboard, laughing and joking. There was no hostile atmosphere that you'd have associated with British football 5 or 10 years ago. A lesson that could be learned by Lille after last night's events in the Champions League.

We got in the car to go find somewhere to park, and we still had almost two hours before kickoff. Mum had packed us huge amounts of food, typical of her maternal streak: bags of crisps, sandwiches, tubes of biscuits, bottles of drink. The glove compartment was lined with sweets - pear drops, toffees. We were all stupidly excited, and we found a parking spot at a College nearby that opens it's gates to football traffic. There was people everywhere. Every chippy was flooding out people, happy, every pub had queues outside, every road was covered with Man United and the occasional Reading shirt. You turn a corner, and there it is: The East Stand, the famous roof, the famous windows, the famous 'Manchester United' in red letters across the top.

We bought programmes: one for home, one for me, one for each of my cousins who support Reading. Then we walked, with the flood of people, towards the Megastore. It's huge. There are 6 queues outside, full of people. They opened the gates and let us all stream in, and inside you can hardly move. They have sixteen tills, yet the queue snakes down the megastore and back up again. They sell everything you could possibly want in a Manchester United branding - dog bowls, sweets, socks. We decided to come back after the match for our souvenirs. Instead, we took a walk around the stadium, taking in the fantastic atmosphere.

Like on the train, there was no intimidation. It was a unique, special mood that surrounded Old Trafford. Everyone was there to enjoy an occasion. Eventually, we went inside. Our level was quite high up and we had to go up several flights of stares, before emerging onto a concourse, full of TV screens showing MUTV, snack bars and program sellers. And there, tantalising between the legs of Reading fans, red seats across the field of dreams. Dad left us to go to his section, the next one along, and me and my brother went to find our seats.

It's the great leveller among football stadiums: pacing up the stairs that let you into the main arena; the first glimpse.

Old Trafford's is spectacular. Red seats surround the pitch, verdant and green (with a few muddy patches). The buzz of an oncoming match. We sat in awe. Eventually, the Reading Goalkeepers came out to warm up, followed by the Man United team, and the rest of the Reading players, as the stadium slowly filled up. Eventually, it was time to kick off. 70,000 people were in their seats, and we rose to greet the teams as the strode out on to the turf. Truly a historic site: the Royal blue hoops of Reading walking out alongside the historic red of Manchester United.

The first half was a pretty level affair. We couldn't hear much of the United fans' chanting: Reading's resilience and competitiveness had silenced their resolve, and the team couldn't find a way through the Reading defence. We didn't make too many chances, but they couldn't break us down. The team, whilst not as technically gifted as Man United's players, work fantastically together as a team. The wingers, however, weren't breaking through at all. Ulises de la Cruz, playing at right back, was playing fantastically, as was Andre Bikey, at centre back. Much had been made before the game of manager Steve Coppell's team selection: some fringe players, who don't play as much in the league, were starting. Many people will tell you that modern football is a Squad game, and I agree: it's just a shame that the manager got so much abuse when he decided to use his full squad. Any critics would have been answered by Reading's performance.

Michael Carrick scored, for Man United, with literally the last kick of the first half. It was a well taken goal, and there was nothing that Adam Federici could have done about it - he had a brilliant game otherwise, especially tipping a Henrik Larsson effort around the post towards the end of the second half. We saw it from our end of the ground - we had a great view of the whole game - and it really was a phenomenal save. There was about 3 seconds of stunned silence from the Reading fans when United scored, but immediately afterwards the Reading fans started shouting and chanting support for our team. Traditionally, the Reading fans have been given Squad Number 13 in recognition of their role in a match: we really showed it at Old Trafford, I believe.

I said to my Dad and Brother at half time that if there's one team that wouldn't lie down, and would fight back against a Man United one goal lead, it was Reading. We got a drink at half time, and a pie. We normally don't at football, but it's a tradition, so we did. We were glad, too: nice pies. The second half kicked off and Reading weren't getting into the game as much. Eventually, however, we began to make ground again. They were playing towards us in this half, and every time they even touched the ball, we were shouting. A crescendo was reached with every attack, and beaten by another every time we got a corner. We were standing, chanting, singing, and the team were playing better, slowly forcing United into their area and onto the back foot.

United had all 11 of their players in the box when Gunnarsson rose and headed an equaliser. We sung and dance all the way to the final whistle, and all the way out of the ground. We're taking United back to the Madejski Stadium, in Reading, for a replay a week Tuesday. The atmosphere at Old Trafford was unique, and special. My voice was hoarse afterwords. I can only compare it to two matches i've attended before: the 1994/1995 playoff final against Wolverhampton at the Old Wembley Stadium - before we lost the match, of course - and on September 11th, 2001, when Reading played West Ham at home in the League Cup. We took them all the way through extra time and penalties that night. But I think this topped it.

It's one of those things that happens to you in your life, one that you'll never forget. It felt so odd; the players that I usually watch on a TV Screen in the Snooker Hall were there, in front of me, on the pitch. It still doesn't seem real, and i'll never forget the rumble of anticipation and worry in equal measure when Cristiano Ronaldo - the best player in the world, at the moment - picked up the ball. Some of the things he can do with a football beggar belief.

So, like I said, we sung our way out of the stadium and back to the car. It took us 45 minutes to get out of Manchester, but we didn't mind. We had Radio 5 on, and everyone was phoning in to talk about the game and how well Reading had done, and to show their support for Steve Coppell and the players. We stopped at a service station on the way home, and Match of the Day was on, showing the highlights. There was a coachload of Reading fans there, and we all got a Burger King. We arrived home at around half twelve.

I'm sure there's a few details I've forgotten. I bought a keyring, socks and a 'theatre of dreams' mug. It was, really, an experience. Staggering.

I went home for the rest of the weekend, and had a good time with the family. I came back, via a terrible and disrupted train journey, a couple of nights ago. And the weather's been pretty mediocre today. Cloudy and not at all exciting.

My weekend, however, was unbelievable. An unforgettable experience: that's about as well as I can talk about it. Especially since I used all the adjectives up earlier.


Jessi said...

... Did I miss something? Who won? >___>

Sarkins said...

Woo! ^^ Glad ye enjoyed it.