Darren Richman is a freelance journalist and Manchester United season-ticket holder. His work has been featured in the Guardian and he co-writes a weekly column for the Independent. Darren took part in bwin’s ‘Become a Red Devil’ event, part of the ‘Club of Champions’ series which offers bwin competition winners the chance to go behind-the-scenes at the world’s biggest clubs.
I have had plenty of recurring dreams throughout my life. Opening the batting at Lord’s features from time to time, as does an Oscar acceptance speech. Sometimes I’m the lead singer of a band headlining Glastonbury, at others I’m out to lunch with Larry David. For all this, the dream I have had most frequently and with the most clarity is the one in which I play on the pitch at Old Trafford. Last week, without any sense of hyperbole whatsoever, my dream came true.
I have been a Manchester United supporter since 1988 and been attending matches at the Theatre of Dreams for nearly as long. So when presented with the chance to write about an event organised by bwin which would involve playing on the hallowed Old Trafford turf alongside Gary Neville, Denis Irwin, Andrew Cole and Dion Dublin, it was hard not to think of the classic Woody Allen line:
“I have a job helping the girls dress and undress at the Folies Bergere for two dollars a week. It’s not much but it’s all I can afford.”
Unlike Woody, I didn’t pay a penny. Nice work if you can get it.
I arrived – along with a host of competition winners – in Manchester on Wednesday morning and immediately boarded a bus to Salford City Stadium. We were presented with training kits and informed that, for the next three hours, we would be treated like United’s Soccer Schools players. I was nervous. Just because you dream about something doesn’t mean you’re actually any good at it, as many a lonely virgin will attest.
The competition winners were gathered from all over the globe and one poor soul had flown in from Denmark that morning only to go over his ankle within a minute of training. The opportunity of a lifetime dashed by a cruel twist of fate. He still made sure to attend the game the next day in full kit and took part in the post-game festivities. He was very much the David May du jour.
Training was tough. Nobody wanted to join our Danish colleague in hospital but, somewhat typically, the Englishmen couldn’t help but go in hard. Despite being unable to rein in our competitive instincts (perhaps in a bid to show our continental cousins we’re not quite as bad as the national team might suggest), we survived unscathed. Tired and stiff but relatively intact, we headed back to the hotel.
What struck me most about the coaches was the lack of criticism. We were informed that we would be treated exactly the same way as the young players at the club but there was none of the no-nonsense authoritarian intimidation you might expect from British coaching staff. The words we heard most often over the two days were “enjoy it”. We didn’t need a second invitation.
That evening we were taken to a wonderful Chinese restaurant frequented by the players and run by the jovial Mr Wing. The walls were adorned with hundreds of plates signed by a variety of football luminaries from Sir Alex Ferguson to Diego Maradona. The players celebrated their 20th league title in this establishment and our host had the photographs to prove it. We enjoyed an outstanding meal in the company of Cole and Dublin. We discussed all things United before they announced the teams for the following day’s big game. Then it was home to bed. You can’t go out the night before a massive match, particularly if your player manager is named Irwin.
Breakfast was tense the next morning. I felt anxious, as though the closer my dream came to a reality the more I feared it would turn out to be a nightmare. Also, with 90 minutes of sport scheduled in for the morning, in this one instance, waffles with banana and Nutella were a bad choice.
We were taken to a private box and treated to tea and croissants. I couldn’t eat by this point though Irwin, Cole, Dublin and Neville seemed singularly unaffected by such anxiety.
We were in the home dressing room and I was immediately struck by the prominent television screen and tactics board. One of the coaches reliably informed me I was sat in the corner normally occupied by Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes. The clock on the wall was shaped like an enormous wristwatch, presumably a fitting tribute to the departing manager. Irwin reiterated the fact that our enjoyment was the most important thing. I felt that if I could avoid making a total fool of myself then that would be enough. I’m not sure Roy Keane felt this way pre-match.
We made our way down the tunnel as the Champions League music blared. Alan Keegan, the stadium announcer, introduced the teams just as I’ve heard him do hundreds of times before. The difference this time being that I was in one of them.
We posed for team photographs and shook hands with the opposition. Then, just as the game was about to kick off, I was summoned to the sidelines to interview our glorious leader (Irwin). You wait your whole life to meet your heroes and play on your team’s football pitch and suddenly, in true London bus fashion, both happen at once. We raced through the conversation and entered the field of play.
It is impossible to convey how big the stadium feels for the first few minutes. Although the pitch is no bigger than any other, it feels that way at first due to the imposing surroundings. I started off at right-back with one simple aim – a touch of the ball. I managed this surprisingly quickly and even managed to find a pass. Not exactly an 80-yard Beckham cross-field floater but a pass nevertheless.
I recalculated my aims and decided I wanted to link up with Irwin. “Denis!” I called when he was in possession. He passed the ball firmly towards me, and then, much to his surprise, I passed it straight back to him. I had just played a one-two with one of United’s finest ever defenders on the pitch at Old Trafford. This man was in the 1999 treble-winning team. I could die happy.
We received nothing by way of tactical instruction but Neville, the opposing team’s skipper, seemed determined to win. When our Finnish midfielder, seemingly a novice, took what was quite clearly a foul throw, Nev was in the referee’s ear appealing. When he was told it was just a bit of fun, he shot back, “It’s not worth playing if we’re not gonna do it properly” in that inimitable Mancunian drawl. The defender, as you might expect, spent 90 minutes moaning. At the referee, at the linesmen, at anyone who would listen. It was the authentic Neville experience.
As the game progressed, I moved further up the pitch in a bid to go one better and actually score a goal. Clearly I wasn’t the only one with this idea and our Denis ended up performing admirably as the sole constituent of a one-man defence. Our goalkeeper was Mr Wing, the restaurant proprietor, who had got wind of the fact that nobody fancied keeping the night before. He might have conceded a few but he produced some stunning saves for a man who hadn’t played football for 15 years, particularly given he was taunted by the Neviller throughout:
“Wing read that like a book. Well, a menu.”
“He started well. You could say it was a good starter”
“Wing, what went wrong?”
It was incessant. Things were further complicated by the fact that their striker was on the books at Hoffenheim. Irwin was good but he needed some assistance. It wasn’t forthcoming.
I was down the other end linking up with Goal King Cole. On the hour mark we managed a neat one-two (to complete my set) and I was one-on-one with the keeper. The keeper in this instance being former Premier League striker Dublin. Their goalie had gone off injured and he was the only one who fancied the job. Someone behind me shouted, “Lob him” but that didn’t seem the greatest ploy. I assumed I had less time than I had, panicked, and blasted it straight at him. Richman misses a golden opportunity at Old Trafford. I’ve waited 28 years to see words like that in print.
The game ended in an 11-7 defeat for our boys but nobody seemed to care (apart from Gary Neville, obviously). United provided an exquisite buffet lunch, I interviewed the rest of the players and the stadium announcer hosted a Q and A before the four former professionals bid their farewells. I was struck by the fact that Dublin, a player who played for the club just 12 times, repeatedly referred to United as “we”. Irwin, the most well-adjusted footballer alive, said he doesn’t miss playing one bit. After our experience, you had to wonder why not.
The day concluded with a tour of the stadium followed by a trip to an excellent steak restaurant for dinner. Alcohol flowed and memories were shared. I normally struggle to smile in photographs but, in each and every one taken over the two days, I have the inane grin of a giddy schoolboy.
The life of a freelance writer is a strange one. It can get incredibly demoralising and I have thought of packing it in more than once. A series of near misses and close calls can wreck your confidence. But then, on occasion, there’ll be something like this: A job so rewarding and fulfilling that you can’t imagine why you ever lost faith.
On Friday morning, Eric Cantona’s birthday and the day after I played on the same pitch he used to, I travelled directly from Manchester to a school in West Ham. It was ‘Futures Day’, in which the children are told about various jobs by adults in those professions. For months I had wondered what I would say to these kids and whether I even deserved to address them.
Moments after setting up my stall, a small boy wandered over and asked me what I do. My eyes lit up and I told him.
To find out about the next Club of Champions event, click here http://gobw.in/lzKNi