A short story by Zachary Hardman

I remember the walk home from school, already filled with the familiar butterflies. It was unseasonably warm, the heat coming up from the pavements, the redolent smell of spring in the air. The nights were getting noticeably longer too, which meant more time playing in the woods and on the street.

I quickly changed out of the grey-school shorts I’d insisted on wearing since late February and ate my tea as quickly as possible. I took a ball from the back garden and kicked it against the wall of the park until my Dad got home from work.

Even from the bottom of the cul-de-sac, I could hear the distinctive sound of his car engine, as his old Volvo rattled its way onto our driveway. It was fondly referred to as an ‘old banger’ and smelt like a pile of musty coats.

I ran home with the ball under my arm; and before I could catch my breath we were on the road and Manchester-bound. My Dad steered with his knees as he juggled a sandwich and turned the radio to 5 Live. The pre-match commentary buzzed intermittently through the speakers. Alan Green’s distinctive brogue did nothing for my butterflies.

I leant against the car door and watched the white lines on the M61 merge into each other. We raced by cars with Utd stickers or scarves draped from the windows; and I counted them one by one as we passed. The motorway arched up and Manchester suddenly came into view in the distance, the evening sunshine gleaming off the reddish concrete and glass.

Into Salford and the pavements, at first deserted, were thronged with red shirts. They walked, as if in procession, drawn by the magnetic pull of the ground. We parked in a familiar spot where a disused railway line ended abruptly.

The space was tight, so I got out and directed my Dad while he manoeuvred between two cars. He stepped out to admire his parking and, still not satisfied, restarted the engine to creep an inch forward and straighten the wheel. It was a good spot and he knew it. It was close enough to the ground, yet far enough from the neighbourhoods of Moss Side and Whalley Range where gangs of young toughs extorted spare change for ‘car-minding’.

I put on my red and white scarf and felt the familiar polyester bristles on the back of my neck. There was still a warmth in the air, so I didn’t need a coat. The setting sun turned the old Salford quays and industrial estates a dusky red.

We passed along empty streets where rows of terraced houses might once have been. Instead there were vast warehouses, loading bays and gravel-strewn matchday car parks. We passed packed pubs, ghosts from a different era, kept alive by nights like this; redbrick orphans among business parks and overgrown verges that sprawled beneath metal fences, lined with cans, needles and broken bottles.

Into Salford and the pavements, at first deserted, were thronged with red shirts. They walked, as if in procession, drawn by the magnetic pull of the ground.

We crossed a rusty wrought-iron bridge over the old ship canals. The water running beneath them was black and silent. On the other side we could see the ground for the first time, rising up above the squatting warehouses. Its floodlights were lit, beaming onto its white carapace, mingling with the deep pink and blue hues of the sky. My first time to Old Trafford I’d walked to the ground terrified that supporters had to balance from those beams like trapeze artists.

Along both sides of the road, the greasy smell of chip vans drifted on the air. Onions, burgers and footlong sausages sizzled obscenely on the blackened grills. Steam rose in swirling eddies behind them. The vans huddled alongside stalls selling scarves, hats, and flags; printed with the faces of players that all looked alike.

Closer to the ground and the smell from the chip vans mingled with horse shit and cigarette smoke. A man in a khaki parka shouted ‘Uni–ted–weestand–owtoday’, gesturing to a tightly-bound bundle of unofficial programmes. For fear of losing him, I gripped tightly onto the back of my Dad’s jacket as we weaved through the crowds towards the turnstiles. There was a nervousness in the air and my butterflies metamorphosed into hornets.

Beyond the turnstiles we climbed winding flights of steps, as if ascending a cathedral. They opened at the top where crowds of supporters were milling around buying beers, meat pies and hotdogs. People crowded expectantly around the TV screens which hung from the corners. Red shirts flashed up on an imaginary field. The radio speculation was true then, David Beckham left on the Utd bench and Steve McManaman to start alongside Zidane and Figo for Madrid.

We climbed another short flight of steps and I could feel the cool evening air drift down onto my face. Emerging onto the second tier of the Stretford End, I glanced over the parapet towards the pitch below, onto the neon-green surface; the sprinklers sparkling under the floodlights. The players were stretching beneath us in their blue tracksuits. A few were hitting long passes widthways with a desultory ease. It was still light and the setting sun bronzed the top of the North Stand.

Many of the seats were still empty, red pastures cut from the crowd; my Dad pointed out the away end in the distance. It had already filled, the Madrid fans a black and white mass from our vantage. They whirled their scarves with Iberian arrogance, exuding a confidence that filled me with dread.

The empty seats quickly filled and the ground hummed with nervous energy. The players ran for the dressing-rooms and, as the PA announced the team, the crowd released salvoes of cheers. Ball-boys and girls waved a football-shaped flag in the centre circle; the Champions League anthem began to play and I felt the hairs on my arms and neck stand on end.

The players emerged from the tunnel to a deafening roar. They exchanged handshakes and crests, tossed coins and posed for the photographers. A few stretched or made short dashes; some waited statuesque, while others crossed themselves, kissed rings or necklaces. Utd were in red shirts with contrasting white shorts; Madrid were imperious, all in black.

And then we waited. A gulf of silence opened around the ground. The referee, Pierluigi Collina, stood astride the halfway line like a column of polished marble under museum lights. With the shrill peep of his whistle the game began.

***

Utd had left themselves a lot to do on the night. They’d conceded three times at the Bernabéu; overcome by Madrid’s overbearing power. But a headed consolation from Ruud van Nistelrooy left ajar a narrow window of opportunity; two unanswered goals would be enough to take them through to the semi-finals. In the opening moments, Utd surged onto Madrid, creating frantic moments of possibility.

The black shirts hunkered down against the early storm; the crowd quietened, and the players settled into a familiar rhythm. Zinedine Zidane began to find space, sweeping across the pitch like a breath of wind. He exchanged precise passes with Figo in midfield and together they ran the red shirts ragged.

The erstwhile Ronaldo waited stoutly with hands on hips for the first minutes of the game, expending little energy. But one quick pass from Figo and he sprang into motion, breaking through the red defence like a sudden wave through a bank of sand. Twenty yards out and he swung his boot, seeming to rise several feet into the air as he did. The ball flashed past Barthez beneath us, too quick for our eyes as it rippled the net. Ronaldo wheeled away in celebration; the distinctive roar of the Madrid fans flowed towards us like the rush of deep water.

As the game resumed, Madrid sought to press their advantage, Zidane once more eluding Roy Keane who loped along his trail like a lame wolf. Utd’s right flank warped and buckled as Roberto Carlos rushed along the left like a streak of lightning. A mistimed hook from Figo nearly dropped beneath the bar. As we watched aghast, we wondered how long the onslaught could last.

The Utd players too seemed stunned, but they quickly regrouped. No Ferguson side ever surrendered so easily and they returned on the attack again. Ryan Giggs, dark and deceivingly quick, slicked a low shot a few inches wide of Casillas’ left post. Van Nistelrooy, ungainly and graceful, thrashed a shot towards the roof of the net.

The crowd roared as the red shirts again forced their way deep into Madrid territory. A hopeful ball dropped once more to Giggs’ feet. This time he clipped a pass into the path Solkskjaer, who in turn cleverly clipped the ball over the tangled, despairing legs of Helguera and Casillas. Van Nistelrooy followed the ball into the unguarded net.

In the final few frantic moments of the half, wave after wave of Utd attacks broke against Madrid’s defence. But as Collina’s whistle sounded, the scores were level.

The sky above us darkened as the players headed down the tunnel and the white-hot floodlights turned the pitch to gleaming emerald. Men around me with meat pies and folded arms traded sage counsel. We wondered how long it’d be before Utd turned to Beckham.

***

The interval suited Madrid better. Figo and Zidane turned the pitch into their own serene oasis. The red shirts harried them, but with each pass they seemed to move further away, like mirages in the desert.

With the flick of his left foot, Zidane slaked the ball into the rushing feet of Roberto Carlos. He squared the ball to the waiting feet of Ronaldo, who rippled the Utd net a second time. The red defence watched transfixed, as if captured in amber.

A silence opened; the blazing red light of the flares seemed to cross the empty space towards us before the accompanying roar from the Madrid fans echoed against the walls of the ground.

The tie seemed over, and with Utd needing four goals, a hush descended on the crowd. But then suddenly, Solksjaer stole into the Madrid box like a thief, opening space to his left for the Argentine, Sebá Verón, who swept the ball hopefully towards goal with his left boot. The legs of Casillas and Helguera tangled again and the ball somehow squirmed beneath Casillas into the net. The goal seemed to restore the crowd’s energy and, encouraged by the fallibility of the Madrid defence, the red shirts began sweeping forward from left and right.

Figo and Zidane turned the pitch into their own serene oasis. The red shirts harried them, but with each pass they seemed to move further away, like mirages in the desert.

But as Utd pressed on, they began to expose themselves to the counter. The ball broke in midfield and Figo strode forwards with it glued to his feet. He stroked it into Ronaldo’s path, then burst towards the Utd goal, cutting open swaths of turf behind him.

The red defence backed away from the ball, beckoning Ronaldo to shoot. He skirted to his left, then back onto his right, then lowered his head to oblige them. Enchanted by the wave of his black boot, the ball winged over Barthez and into the net. It was his third of the night and with outstretched arms he wheeled away towards the flares; Old Trafford was stunned into silence once more.

The game swiftly resumed; Zidane began to make decisive passes, surveying the field like a general sure of victory. Whenever the red shirts retrieved the ball and made up ground, their passes were frantic and rushed.

***

With the tie all but won, Madrid turned to their bench. The numbers flashed red and green on the board and Ronaldo watched them from the centre-circle, hands on hips once more. And then, watching him make his way towards the touchline, all four stands rose up in spontaneous applause.

I didn’t know it then, but as he lifted me onto the seat to get a better look, my Dad must have known we were watching something special; something we would never see again. I’d grown up through the glory years; he’d lived through twenty-five years of missed opportunities. I thought that everything lasted forever; he knew that those precious moments, even in football, were fleeting.

Those were different times, when Utd fans were keenly aware of the measure of greatness. A time when the boy from Madeira was still practicing his tricks and flicks in a far-off field in Lisbon; and surely not even he, in limitless self-belief, could have dreamt that one day he would not only exceed the Brazilian in greatness, but claim as his own the novelty of that famous name.

They swaddled him in a tracksuit and he took his place beneath the crowds of red support, still on their feet in applause. And then as the hush fell once more –– just like that –– he was gone.

Emerging, as if from a trance, the crowd began to call for a substitution of their own. Alex Ferguson, red-faced and glowering from the touchline, quickly indulged them. Even with the distance between us, I could easily make out of the distinctive figure of Beckham; the player everyone on the schoolyard still wanted to be.

As he appeared on the touchline, hair long and coifed with black bandana, ripples of excitement passed through the crowd. The number seven flashed on the board and Old Trafford was on its feet again. David Beckham. The eyebrow long since healed from flying boot wounds, but the ego badly bruised; still left with much to prove.

***

Even with Beckham’s impetus, Utd were still 3-2 down on the night. Yet within seconds of his arrival, he had his chance. Van Nistelrooy was hacked down on the edge of the box. Twenty-five yards from goal; it was Beckham’s moment and we knew it. He placed down the ball and we hastily whispered our prayers.

A visibly anxious Casillas laid out his wall like a stonemason, then took shelter behind it. Beckham waited, hands on hips for the whistle. The wall leapt as Beckham, arcing his body in picturesque pose, bent the ball high, quick and true. Casillas barely moved as the ball shimmered off the soft flesh of his net.

The crowd roared and van Nistelrooy, retrieving the ball, shook his fist with vigour. Suddenly there was a feeling that it might be possible. It might just be possible. Just five years ago they’d needed two in a minute at the Nou Camp. Now they needed three and there was still twenty minutes to go.

And suddenly it seemed like it was happening again. It was happening again. Clive Tyldesley’s famous words raced through my mind: “Can Manchester United score? They always score”. Van Nistelrooy weaved his way into the box, past the despairing legs of Helguera, driving the ball towards goal as the crowd held its breath. The ball ricocheted, lost for a second among the rush of bodies, then at the back post who could it be but Beckham again, forcing his way past Roberto Carlos, forcing the ball over the line. Utd were at last ahead for the first time in the tie. They needed just two goals to take them through to the semi-final. And there was still time.

I was perhaps too young to understand it then, but it’s always your opponents you should watch in those moments. You can see the gathering fear of defeat in their slow and heavy legs; their frantic passes; their retreat towards the 18-yard area. But there was something about Zidane that should have given us all pause. He took his team-mates alongside and never lost his composure for a second. On the ball his passing was slick and precise; off the ball, he glided effortlessly into space. Perhaps then we should have guessed our fate, watching Zizou pick his passes.

The piercing sound of Collina’s whistle was the last of the game and it was all over. No last-minute ecstasies this time round. In the centre of the field, Zidane patted cheeks and consoled the losers, calmly trading his no.5 shirt for Beckham’s no.7. The red shirts applauded the Streford End as they departed the stage. We applauded them as they passed; and knew we’d never see anything quite like it again.

Then the crowd, like a solemn church choir began to recant its hymn of defeat. A chorus of ‘We’ll Never Die’ echoed from all sides of the ground as if in arrangement; a song imbued with black and white pictures of bearded railway workers; and wreckage scattered on icy Munich airfields.

The notes floated over our heads and among the clattering of the seats as we drifted towards the exits. Then continuing as we followed each other down the winding stairs, and still audible under the streetlights of Salford, beneath the dark Manchester sky, as we passed once more in procession towards the waiting docks.