There have been many changes in football since I first started becoming interested in it 20 years ago, and even more so since becoming a regular match-goer 14 years ago. The introduction of the Premier League in 1992 heralded the start of the glamorisation of the sport- a new generation of footballers were being looked upon as pin ups, rather than tough, beasts of men. Money started to become king at the expense of morals it could be argued, and matches were more widely accessible to the masses through Sky than ever before. But although more people had access to watching matches on tv, the relationship between matchgoing fan and player started to become more and more detached.
My first experience of meeting players was in May 1997, our final league game of the season at Old Trafford where we would be celebrating our 11th league title (unbelievable to think what our club has achieved since then). In those days, the players used to drive to Old Trafford themselves and stop just before the Munich tunnel underneath the South Stand. Although there would be barriers up, the players would think nothing of going up and down the barriers, signing loads of autographs, having photos taken and talking to fans. I remember to this day the fission of excitement we would all feel when a car pulled up, waiting to see which player it would be who emerged. I waited quite a few times before matches to see the players and it felt like quite a personal experience, despite the crowds. Similarly, before a night match vs Arsenal in February 1999, we saw Sir Alex (or just plain old Alex as he was then!) park up just off the forecourt, and casually stroll along towards the ground with not a barrier or hint of security in sight. He was more than happy to talk to fans and sign autographs then- he felt ‘accessible’ somehow. It is all very different nowadays.
A couple of years later, my in laws, husband and I attended the inaugural United for Unicef charity dinner at the Midland Hotel in Manchester. Once again, we could freely talk to the players with no problems. We were well lubricated with free champagne and wine so I’m sure that helped to loosen our tongues, but many of them seem to actually enjoy being able to talk to fans about football and have a good conversation (for example, we were with Raimond Van der Gouw when Jordi scored for Alaves vs Liverpool in the UEFA Cup Final and we were all cheering like mad!). We spoke to Teddy Sheringham about his impending move away from Old Trafford which had been mooted in the press (we got a knowing smile which clearly gave the game away), Ronny Johnsen about my love for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (I was rather tipsy at that point), Nicky Butt about his toilet habits (see- footballers really are normal people!) and David Beckham about his newly premiered haircut (his mohican, which we had a photo of, 2 days before it hit the papers!) as well as the likes of Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, David May and Wes Brown amongst others. Similarly 2 years later, we attended another charity dinner where we got to talk to Rio Ferdinand (who was trying to teach me how to use my camera- again, I was a little tipsy!), Roy Keane, John O’Shea, Phil Neville, Cristiano Ronaldo (who I walked straight into and nearly fell over in shock) and Ruud van Nistelrooy (who I somewhat embarrassingly clung onto, until he promised to never leave the club!). Now I understand, that the dinner has been moved to Old Trafford and the players are kept very seperate from ‘everyone else’. The opportunity to have chats with the players there are gone, which is a real shame. I will always treasure those chats I had and look back on them with a slightly embarrassed smile on my face. I feel sorry that more people won’t have that same opportunity.
I think there was a major shift in fans-players relations when the club moved from The Cliff to Carrington. Everybody I know who went to The Cliff, always spoke of it as being such a warm and friendly place, in keeping with the image of United being a ‘family club’. The players again, were accessible and always had time for the fans. I have 2 friends in Norway who travelled over to The Cliff to watch United train but didn’t know how to make their way back into Manchester once the session was over. They actually ended up getting a lift back into the city centre from Ronny Johnsen! Can anyone imagine the likes of Nemanja Vidic, Nani or Wayne Rooney doing something like that? Carrington now, has been rightly nicknamed ‘Fortress Carrington’ for its total inaccessibility for fans. It got even worse a couple of years back, when the club banned players from signing autographs for anyone outside Carrington altogether, in case they ended up on Ebay. That is the extent that the club has become paranoid- where normal fans who just want a treasured possession from their idols, are punished because of the minority. I have been inside Carrington once, and it wasn’t the easiest place to get into. There are intercoms and barriers preventing you getting too far into the complex (and that’s if you can find it, as it’s unmarked from the main road and down a country lane) and if they don’t know who you are, you have no chance of getting any further. A real world away from The Cliff.
Now, there are very few chances for fans to see their idols anymore. It’s possible that you can bump into them at random in and around the city (the Trafford Centre is a very popular place to spot players- for example, I saw Ryan Giggs there last Wednesday) but it will be harder for fans to be able to chat on a normal one to one basis anymore. I fear that players are becoming so detached from the fans (and almost from real life) that kids nowadays will never be able to look at their idols on the pitch and be able to relate to them on any level anymore. Gone will be the times where players turn up in the stands with fans for a United match (as Gary Neville and David Beckham once did at Filbert Street, much to our surprise!) or hang around for a while after the match and spend a few minutes talking with fans. To them, it may be an inconvenience but to kids who may have been waiting for hours, it could be a memory which they hold dear forever. Unfortunately, I don’t see this ever changing. The money in football now has put these players on an unreachable pedestal and I don’t think it’s somewhere any fan can ever reach, no matter how hard they try.