Despite football being a national obsession, my personal interest in the game begins and ends with how well Gareth Bale fills a pair of shorts. However, for thousands of people up and down the country, Saturday means getting up at the crack of dawn to travel to the other end of the country for their team’s crucial (it’s always “crucial”) away game.
This always presents a challenge for the railways, who have to cope with an influx of passengers. British Rail – that lumbering, inefficient organisation which, we were told, never responded to passengers’ needs – ran scores of “footex” trains every week, conveying trainloads of scarf-waving football supporters to the four points of the compass.
These days, special trains for football matches are few and far between, and football fans usually travel on regular services, often under the watchful eye of the British Transport Police. If you’re lucky, the train company will stick an extra coach or two on, but that’s about it.
One vestige of the football special does linger on, however. The main line of the Cheshire Lines Committee from Liverpool to Manchester runs right past the south stand of Old Trafford, home of… (Googles) …Manchester United. In 1935, the enterprising CLC built a siding and platform to serve special trains from Manchester city centre. Nearly eighty years later, the platform is still there, and on match days a procession of Northern Rail trains shuttle to and from the station, dropping off the home team’s supporters right next to the stadium.
Of course, being Manchester United supporters, they probably have to get a train from London first (I am assured, by football supporting friends of mine, that that is a funny joke).
Manchester United Football Ground is served only on match days, and as such was definitely on my “must visit” list. However, there was the small issue of my Liverpool origins. I believe there is a minor rivalry betwixt Manchester United and Liverpool FC. Can you imagine me being cooped up on a train with a few hundred Manchester United fans? If they detected the slightest hint of a Scouse accent, I would be exiting the train sans teeth.
I had seen the station many times from trains on the adjacent main line, tantalisingly close, yet seemingly out of reach. However, an opportunity finally presented itself on Saturday, when the Super League Grand Final was held at Old Trafford. A post from someone “in the know” at Railforums suggested that Northern would be running services, and sure enough, a few days later, one of their endlessly cheerful Twitter team posted this:
— Northern Rail (@northernrailorg) October 2, 2013
My knowledge of rugby comes entirely from the Dieux du Stade calendar, but a bit of research revealed that the final was between two local teams, Warrington and Wigan. I suspected (hoped) that they would be more forgiving of an interloper from Liverpool than the typical Manchester United fan. Even so, I was pleased to have award-nominated blogger Scott Willison along for the ride – both for company, and as a human shield should trouble break out.
The journey from Liverpool was uneventful enough, and we arrived at Manchester Piccadilly with half an hour to spare before the train to the ground. This gave us more than enough time to buy our tickets – through tickets to the ground are only sold from a handful of stations in the GMPTE area, and day rangers etc are not valid. Oddly, Northern Rail’s ticket machines didn’t acknowledge the existence of the station, whereas Virgin’s did, and happily sold us a ticket.
We headed back down to platform 14 to join the throng. Everton had played Manchester City earlier that day, so homeward bound football fans, awaiting their train back to Liverpool, mingled with the rugby people on the platform. I had never seen the place so crowded. The Everton mob were dejected, as their team had lost. The rugby fans, on the other hand, were energised, talking excitedly and waving their scarves.
“What happens if they start singing?” asked Scott nervously. “Should we join in?”
I considered that the best option would be to mouth along, like that Tory minister who didn’t know the Welsh National Anthem. As I was explaining this, however, I got my names mixed up – instead of John Redwood, I said Michael Portillo.
And no sooner had I invoked his name, then who should appear but…
…PORTILLO. He breezed past us, wearing a bright purple jacket which, frankly, made him look like a game show host. Disappointingly, he did not have a Great British Railway Journeys camera crew in tow. For a second, I thought he was going to join us on our trip to Old Trafford. However, I suspect he was actually waiting for the Edinburgh train which was due a few minutes later.
Scott was amazed that Portillo had appeared in front of us, seconds after his name had been spoken. He implored me to say “Russell Tovey”, but sadly this had no effect.
The train rolled in. It had three coaches, but helpfully one of them was locked out of use due to faulty doors. We found ourselves in a bit of a rugby scrum as we struggled to get on board one of the serviceable coaches. We fought our way to a seat, and settled down, surrounded by burly men in red and white striped shirts. This was going to be a cramped ride.
The journey to Manchester United Football Ground (with a single stop at Oxford Road) is timetabled to take 17 minutes. It seemed longer, thanks to a boorish man in a Wigan Warriors shirt. He loudly told anyone who would listen exactly what violence-and-urine-based indignities he would like to visit on Warrington Wolves supporters, and every other word that came out of his mouth seemed to be “fuck”. Also, he offered some of his lager to his son – who was 12 years old at most.
Scott confided in me that the crowds were stressing him out slightly. I decided not to mention to him my big concern about this journey – namely, whether we’d actually be able to exit the station. The station plan on the National Rail web site shows turnstiles, but is unclear as to where they lead to. Would the “exit” leave us outside the ground, or does it go directly inside the stadium (in which case we would need to show a match ticket, which we didn’t have)?
Part of me was reassuring myself that we’d be fine. The other half was psyching myself up to explain our situation sheepishly to a stony-faced security guard. Such are the lengths I go to for this blog – and I’m not even in the running for an award.
We passed through Deansgate and headed out onto the Liverpool line. On the adjacent line, we passed Metrolink trams which were full to bursting. I suddenly felt very grateful for this train – it may have been standing room only, but at least there was space to breathe.
A few minutes later, the train slowed, and we left the main line onto the siding track, before slowing to a halt at the platform. Made it!
The fans spilled out of the train and headed straight for the turnstiles. Scott and I were the only people, aside from the Northern Rail staff, to linger on the platform. First order of business – the sign photo. There is no sign at the entrance, so I posed in front of a platform name board.
Although my interest in this place is purely railway-based, I do still feel the need to apologise to my Dad. He’s fine with me being gay, but hanging around Manchester United’s ground? That takes us into “I HAVE NO SON!” territory.
As you might expect, the station is a fairly basic affair. There are no shelters and no benches on which to sit. One nice touch is that the lamp-posts are painted red and white, rather than Northern Rail’s corporate purple.
There are several exits, spaced out along the length of the station. We wandered up and down the now deserted platform, unsure which exit to use. The train driver, who was in the process of changing ends, gave me a pitying look as I passed him, but I’m used to that.
We eventually went for the turnstile at the eastern end of the platform.
Thankfully, the turnstiles do not exit directly into the stadium, but rather just outside. This was the sight that greeted us as we emerged from the station – Old Trafford, otherwise known as (it says here) The Theatre of Dreams. Scott told me off for using that phrase. He was right to do so.
There were still 90 minutes to go until kick off, but already there was a carnival atmosphere, with both teams’ fans making their way into the stadium as noisily as possible. Burger vans and souvenir stalls plied for trade. Mounted police stood guard over the crowds, but there was no sign of any trouble.
We felt sorely out of place amongst the sports enthusiasts, so did not stay for long. Scott wanted to kill two birds with one stone by ticking off nearby Trafford Park station, so we walked away from the stadium and into the surrounding residential streets. We saw two classy women emerge from a patch of waste ground, seemingly having just answered a call of nature. I did feel sorry for the people who live in these houses. It can’t be fun, having to put up with this sort of thing on match days.
It’s not all bad news for the locals, however – they can, of course, milk the fans for some cash. Near the ground is a Tesco superstore, which was charging £10 (ker-ching!) for match day parking. Across the road, someone was selling supporters scarves to passers-by. He had laid his wares out neatly on the grass verge. As Scott pointed out, from a distance it just looked like a memorial to someone who had been run over at the road crossing.
There’s more to the area than Old Trafford football ground, of course. As we strolled along the main road, we saw posters advertising “The Beatles in Urmston” (which we had unfortunately missed) and this intriguing Post-It note inviting us to “Belle Vue Vinyl Night”. Scott was fairly sure that the vinyl in this case was referring to LPs and this was not some sort of specialist fetish night (despite the “Entrance at Rear” tagline).
As we wound our way through the Manchester suburbs, I felt pleased with myself. Manchester United Football Ground was always going to be a tough station to get, and I grabbed the opportunity when it arose. Another day, another station ticked off the list. Hurray!
I think Scott was happy too. Even the prospect of a Pacer on an all-stations journey back to Liverpool couldn’t upset him too much.
Oh, and congratulations to… (Googles) …Wigan on their victory.