Behind Enemy Lines

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Dr Joel Rookwood

This will sound strange, but I’ve always had this perverse ambition to stand on the Stretford End – to see United away reframed as Liverpool at home. There is both an experiential and an initiation component to this abnormal urge. Not in the sense of ‘Those were the days, my friend…’ but to learn what they’re really like up close, and to see if I could get away with it.

I nearly had a comparable experience three weeks ago, when walking down Wembley Way without a ticket, contemplating the cheaper option of going to the Chelsea end for the League Cup final. I was rescued by the last-minute emergence of a hero with a ticket – and ended up sitting next to Sue Johnston.

The prospect of going behind enemy lines still lingered three days later, when Liverpool drew Man United away in the FA Cup quarterfinal. Despite the excitement of the draw and the 9,200 allocation, tickets seemed more elusive than ever. Following the initial rounds of sales, thousands of season ticket holders subjected themselves to the largely futile pursuit of tickets that remained, and the pointless process of the online queue. Cue the cruelly quantified statement of inaccessibility: I got closer than most, with a mere 1,953 ahead of me when the ‘This event has sold out’ message confirmed the inevitable disappointment.

A fortnight of dead ends followed, as my warped aspiration grew, and drew closer. Still intrigued by the prospect, I bit the bullet and bought a ticket to the United End. The seat was closer to the away section than the Stretford End – not quite the authentic experience I envisioned – but it was in the ground, and that’s what mattered.

Looking at the seat on paper, the distance from our end seemed sufficient enough to ensure I would not be recognised and inadvertently exposed by travelling Kopites. It was also close enough to guarantee our fans would provide some of the soundtrack, to accompany the live horror show I was set to experience at the Theatre of Dreams.

Tickets were not my only complication. Getting there would not prove simple either. Living in Dublin these days means every home game requires a return flight. This season of European Thursday nights has made weekend schedules easier to predict, and affordable flights easier to come by. However, by the time the date was set for the FA Cup showdown at Old Trafford, return flights to the northwest averaged £500. A 50 quid ferry to Wales beckoned.

Wrexham hosted Tranmere in the derby on Saturday, so I caught up with some Wrexham mates there, en route to Manchester. The unlikely Disneyfication of Wrexham has made tickets hard to come by there too, but I managed to secure one just before kick-off, as another hero emerged.

I arrived at Old Trafford early on Sunday afternoon to face a problem of my own creation, and to encounter an inevitable challenge, encapsulated by one of my favourite Scouse verbs: to blend. Having negotiated the train and the tram, the turnstile was to be the next obstacle.

This age of electronic tickets has its drawbacks, whilst stunting the growth of ticket stub collections. It also has some advantages, in this case, the process and anonymity of exchange. It requires getting your phone out at crowded turnstiles, which emphasises the importance of screensavers. I temporarily replaced a picture of Endo and McAllister with one of my kids – and felt the awkward resonance of that ‘Utd Kids Wife – in that order’ banner.

Some form of club (i.e., Man United) image would have been theoretically preferable – the approach I typically adopt in Europe. Last season I saw title deciders in Naples and Lisbon and went to four derbies in one weekend across Belgium, Czechia, Austria and Sweden. For each game I saved photos in advance, ready to set as screensavers. A simple but consistently effective tactic, helping evade unwanted attention in potentially hostile environments.

But not there. Not them. I would have to trust myself instead to give nothing away – and that lot can often sense the presence of a Scouser. Mancs are more generic and less distinct. On one level, they’re also just Wools to us, lumped into the general category of differentiation along with the rest of England. (Before you contest that, or even take offence, the label can signify mindset, not just place of origin). A Manc could stand on the Kop and no one would batter an eyelid if they heard him speak. But I knew on Sunday that I was one spoken word of Scouse away from having more than a battered eyelid.

I am not averse to risk. At times I even revel in it. My long list of countries visited includes some of the least hospitable places on earth. If you can handle North Korea, the South stand at Old Trafford should not be an issue. But we’ve all seen away fans set upon and then ejected after being caught in the home end. For a Liverpudlian, avoiding detection or even arousing suspicion without compromising a sense of identity in that broadly Mancunian setting requires a delicate balance and a surprising amount of concentration.

Back to blending in – and the compromise I negotiated with myself – I bought a fanzine. United We Stand is on issue 345, which is impressive in itself. It was an insightful read, notably the interview with Gareth Roberts, where he gave good answers to good questions. “Who do you think will win the league this year? …Liverpool.”

The issue’s highlights were the twin articles on the opening pages, featuring Andy Mitten’s editorial on American ownership and investment, and a piece on the realisation of disaster remembrance (my word, not theirs). Although Liverpool wasn’t mentioned in either context, the parallels were easily drawn when read through our lens. The tone of the latter was reassuringly Mancunian, epitomised by this complaint which requires no contextualisation: “The fact I can’t go out of my way to find opinions I disagree with from people I hate initially left me at a loss.” He also conveyed some more universal experiences, describing a London commute as “hurtling through the earth’s crust, crammed into a tin can full of stinking strangers on my way to work unnecessarily hard to make someone else rich.”

Reading that fanzine killed time and helped limit pre-match small talk with United fans. However, I was asked to take photos of four individuals who each held souvenir matchday scarves dedicated equally to both clubs. An increasingly common yet easily preventable disease. Conversations were otherwise kept to a minimum and I tried to stay in character, hoping no one would test the limits of the hybrid Wool-Manc accent I opted to employ.
I got to my seat early, only because I was paranoid about the legitimacy of my ticket. If it was fake, I wanted as much time as possible to get another one. I admit to being slightly scarred by the memory of inadvertently trying to get into a Boca Juniors game twenty years ago on Dama Jube (girls/kids) tickets, with four other young but definitely adult male Scousers, two of whom ended up getting chased around the infamous La Doce end.

My United ticket was real, so I found myself in the ground a full hour before kick-off, watching warm-ups and consuming Mancunian media. As a probable nod to Paddy’s Day, The Pogues inadvisably played through stadium speakers. Dirty Old Town was immediately adapted and overwhelmed by the Liverpool end’s version in tribute to our captain, and with that, the atmosphere was up and running. A rendition of the more traditional Poor Scouser Tommy followed, as my mind began to recall previous away days, stood in that corner of a foreign field that is forever Liverpool, at least for a few hours a season.

My first FA Cup game at Old Trafford was 25 years ago. A lad in school offered me a ticket and four of us went. I think the youngest was 13. You know the outcome of the game. We led for an eternity after an early Owen opener, but two late goals saw United progress, en route to winning the Treble. Now their neighbours hold that treble (going one better by winning the Super Cup as well as the Club World Cup). United’s only hope this season was to deny us a quadruple, and then prevent City from winning another triple crown and their pursuit of becoming the first English club to win four consecutive league titles. Every United fan I know would want City to win the league over Liverpool, a clear context in which Liverpool and United fans are poles apart. If roles were reversed and it was Everton in City’s position…

The first half was a reversal of that tie in 1999. United scored early and Liverpool replied with two quick goals just before the whistle. I was situated by the corner flag adjacent to a bouncing end but sat in silence instead of joining in. It was like being in the Main Stand at Anfield.

At half time you could hear the away concourse from my seat. I felt a longing to be there, but being anywhere in the ground beats watching from your front room. I found myself reminiscing again, this time of 2016 and the Europa League tie – Coutinho’s dink that ignited the interval; the Scousers who unveiled a Liverpool banner in the United end at the front of the tier directly above us, before inviting and repelling the predictable onslaught.
The sound of the referee’s whistle brought me back to 2024. After an indifferent first half, Liverpool improved after the break. The result could and should have been secured during a prolonged period of possession and pressure, but the finishing lacked composure and precision.
Harvey Elliott was industrious and influential, which are becoming his calling cards, particularly from the bench. As Josh Williams pointed out on a recent podcast, the twenty-year-old seems to read a game, sense what it needs, and then work tirelessly to provide it. United equalised late, but it was fitting that Elliott scored the goal to restore Liverpool’s lead in extra time.

Liverpool’s substitutions offered limited impact otherwise. United brought on their own replacements, two of whom scored, first to deny us a victory in normal time, and then to secure the win at the end of extra time. 

If this ordeal was supposed to offer insight into what many United fans are really like, then it certainly delivered. Their goals were not celebrated beyond reference to us. The immediacy of ‘You Scouse bastards’ and worse still, ‘You’re not singing anymore’ (the Mexican Wave of football chants) was telling. 

During breaks in play conversations could be overheard from a diverse selection of United fans. My section perhaps represented a microcosm of United, which is more a comment than a criticism. There were London Reds who were clueless about football, but desperate to demonstrate their knowledge of lyrics to lesser-known chants emanating from the Stretford End. These were performative types, keen to showcase their accumulated cultural capital through conversation. But when every sentence starts with ‘Bruv’ and ends in ‘Fam’, the words in between are invariably pointless.

All around me, I saw United fans fixated on Liverpool’s players and away end. They fought the urge to outwardly compliment van Dijk and Salah, but their body language could not conceal their respect. Many repeatedly glanced with envy at the Liverpool fans, clearly yet begrudgingly impressed by their array of upbeat songs. The practice pre-exists Klopp but it has also come to define the soundtrack to his reign. By comparison, the tone of United songs usually reflects the grey monotony of Mancunian skies.

On the pitch though, United played to their potential and surprised their own fans in doing so. Three goals were conceded but four were scored. These were the moments when my identity was most likely to be exposed. When I bought the ticket I did not envisage enduring a pendulum swing for two hours. I sat silent and motionless after Liverpool’s goals, wearing a blank and perhaps slightly despondent expression. I stood when United scored, but offered no applause or reaction. I was grateful not to be in a space from which annoying social media accounts would post videos captioned ‘limbs’.

I left for the tram at the final whistle, only to be squeezed into a tin can for a final round of punishment. More performative celebrations followed. A predictable repertoire of songs was screeched by jubilant and inebriated fans with assorted accents. Every chant and conversation referenced Scousers. Jokes were endless, desperate and humourless. A man reflected on the match declaring he had “never seen anything like it in 48 years.” It was an overreaction, a performance, and a statement of longevity and loyalty intended to put his audience in their place.

There was far more pleasure taken in what the result denied Liverpool than what it afforded United. I was still on the tram when news of the semifinal draw brought cheers to the carriage and a first mention of Wembley. Coventry City will likely be next, as United marches on to the final. Manager Mark Robins played for United in the 1990 final, which an under-fire Alex Ferguson famously won to keep his job. The man currently occupying United’s hot seat will be hoping history repeats itself.

Before Sunday’s game, as I looked around the ground at the banners which celebrate what Ferguson went on to achieve, I realised that the pain caused by United’s period of domestic superiority which he oversaw is now far less pervasive. This is partly because my 1980s childhood was defined by Liverpool’s dominance, and partly because United have resumed their position of irrelevance in the decade since Ferguson left. Old Trafford is a decaying museum in tribute to Glory’s past.

As Klopp said before the game, there has been no opportunity for a bitter rivalry with Man United while he has fought other clubs for silverware. Liverpool’s domestic rivals can be clearly categorised. City on a sporting level, Arsenal likewise but to a far lesser extent, Everton on a local level, and Chelsea on a more philosophical and political level. Aside from points of civic identity, United are Liverpool’s closest institutional rival. In many ways, we are more like United than any other club in English football. Perhaps that is why the eyes of so many of their fans were fixed on the away end for 120 minutes on Sunday.

I was relieved to have survived my own personal version of the experiment, one I would neither repeat nor recommend. To have avoided detection, saying the wrong thing in the wrong accent, was to pass an initiation test, undertaken for no other reason than to see if I could endure and survive it.
There are a few worse ways to get knocked out of the FA Cup away from home, but I walked out of Old Trafford disappointed, but not entirely dejected. In a season of relentless fixture congestion and ongoing injury crises, perhaps Liverpool have been ‘spared’ two more trips to Wembley, and one final showdown between Klopp and Guardiola. That is not the way it is, but it is the way it must be seen, shifting the focus towards favourable European draws, and the certain matter of a league title charge. These are the days, my friend.

Views are those of the author not necessarily RMTV. 

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