I’d always get to the match early.
Ninety minutes before an FA Cup replay, I’d be walking towards the floodlights as the programme sellers were setting up, the onions sizzling on the griddles of the burger vans and the police-horse dung still steaming on the street. Once through the turnstiles, I’d race up the steps and there it was, that great swathe of technicolour green with its sharp white lines, all there in front of me, just me. I’d stare and stare amazed that such a place was possible, then settle for the wait, slightly bored, but very happy. Slowly the ground would fill with small groups of men (it was almost always men in those days) who would stand peering myopically at their programmes. Occasionally, a man would break from a small group to shake hands with a man whom he has greeted in this way at every home game for 25 years, but never met in any other setting.
Two whole hours before a Test Match, my father, my brothers and I were in situ on the hard benches of Old Trafford unpacking the first of many, many spam sandwiches and unscrewing the flasks. Before us was the enormous field, like a gigantic distorted snooker table. Grass was being mown and assailed our city noses with the folk-memory of harvest aromas. People would arrive and speak in hushed voices, so quiet was the Ground. Later, less timid arrivals would lever the ring off the first of many lagers to be consumed over the day, and behind us, the first of the relays to the bar would return carrying four pints of bitter on a cardboard tray being ribbed by his mates for spilling a drop or two on a journey that would have been rejected by Gennaro and Guido for the Fil Rouge as too tricky. Half an hour before the start, the players would shamble out of the Pavilion for a few desultory catches and then disappear again, before coming out marginally more enthusiastically for the start of play. In those seasons long ago, swamped with seven days a week cricket, nobody seemed to bother with stretches and warm-ups, nor did anyone ever seem to be injured.
Half an hour before the start of a speedway meeting, wiry men in garish leathers would limp towards the pits. A thrum of excitement would rustle through the handful of people in the “crowd”. Bang, an open exhaust engine is fired; and Bang, there’s another. Wrists twist, engines scream, and then would waft the glorious tang of the methanol fuel to your nostrils. Suddenly, you’re a kid again, rushing out to the ice-cream van for a 99 as the smell catapults you back through 30 years.
In the hospitality suites, they spend the run up to an event picking away at their prawn cocktails and supping warm white wine. In the crowd though, nothing and everything is happening.