Andy Mitten, George Caulkin and more
Manchester United’s game against Luton Town this weekend will be their 2,500th at Old Trafford. The club first played there in 1910 and since then the stadium has been the scene of title wins, heartbreak, remarkable comebacks, protests and much, much more.
To mark the milestone, The Athletic asked ex-players and our writers to share the memories and moments (both good and bad) that resonate with them most from United’s matches at a venue dubbed The Theatre of Dreams.
Nemanja Vidic (played for Manchester United from 2006 to 2014 and won 15 trophies)
My best moment at Old Trafford was a game that United lost and that I didn’t even play in. It was against West Ham United in the final league match of the 2006-07 season, and I was an unused substitute.
We had already won the Premier League — my first league title in England and United’s first in four years. It seemed like a long wait then!
I just felt so much relief and happiness that day. My family were with me and came onto the pitch at the end. There was excitement too — partly because of the celebration and partly because we had such an exciting young team containing players such as Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.
I’ve been in noisier stadiums than Old Trafford, but you just really feel the support of the United fans. There is no abuse towards the players, the fans are educated and it is just a special place. You can feel the tradition and the history when you walk through the corridors. It was always a “Wow” moment for me when we were in the tunnel and heard “Take me home United Road…”.
When I first lost a game at Old Trafford I thought, “This is a disaster”, but the fans still screamed “United!” when we left the field. I felt they would always be there (for us) and it started to feel like home. I wanted to be there, I looked forward to games and I felt supported.
If you give your best, they support you. It helped that we had some great players, but all fans asked was that the players gave their best. That is different to other clubs I’ve been at.
Defeat to Bayern Munich in 2010 was the worst moment. We played well but Arjen Robben’s goal killed us. We were good enough to win the Champions League that year and were in the final three years out of four (2008, 2009 and 2011). We played well against Bayern but it wasn’t enough.
Brian McClair (played for United from 1987 to 1998 and won 14 trophies)
My greatest Old Trafford moment was my first visit, on October 8, 1980. I was a 16-year-old apprentice at Aston Villa and I asked to travel with the first team and help the kit man. There was only one substitute per team in those days, and I secretly hoped a player would get ill and that I would be on the bench. I felt I was ready, having played against the first team in training.
In reality, Villa were on the way to winning the league and then the European Cup and I was nowhere near ready. But I watched a great game from the main stand — what a view. It ended 3-3 on a wet Manchester night, a tough, end-to-end game.
Old Trafford was so loud on all four sides — all terraced — and I just wanted to play there, to realise my dream of being a footballer. I had started supporting United in 1974 — you were allowed an English team too in Scotland — and they were great to watch.
I have so many good memories at Old Trafford from my time as a United player, but as for my worst — it came at the start of the 1992-93 season, when we lost 0-3 to Everton in our first home game.
The Stretford End terrace had gone and had been replaced by an all-seater stand. The atmosphere felt soulless. We had come close to winning the league the previous season and after we fell short, (TV pundit) Alan Hansen said: “That’s the closest United will get, their chance has gone.”
We improved after the poor start and when we faced Sheffield Wednesday in the spring, Old Trafford was bouncing as the club closed in on its first top-flight title since 1966-67.
Only scoring at Old Trafford was a better feeling than hearing the stadium sing my song: “He’s here, he’s there, he’s every-f**king-where, Brian McClair.” It was wonderful. Though Sir Alex Ferguson once said to me in front of the other players: “He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere except where he’s supposed to be.”
United’s milestone games at Old Trafford
3-4 v Liverpool
1-1 v Preston
2-0 v Gornik Zabrze
3-2 v Oxford United
4-0 v Wigan
Andy Mitten (founder of United We Stand fanzine and contributing writer for The Athletic)
You never forget your first time. It was 1984 and, aged 10, I was invited to see United play Ipswich Town for a friend’s birthday party. My dad, a footballer, didn’t take me, since he played every Saturday.
We went into the wooden Stretford Paddock terrace, a dark, corner segment between the main stand and the Stretford End. And there it was. Wow. A verdant green oasis amid the billowing, smoky, grey industry of Trafford Park.
I was mesmerised just staring at the pitch and it remains one of the greatest moments of my life. As kick-off approached, the noise built as tens of thousands of fans sang and swayed in harmony. It was visceral. Ipswich won but it barely mattered to me and I ached to go again. (Editor’s note: This match in 1984 remains the last time United lost a league game at Old Trafford that they were winning at half-time).
I’ve experienced so many great Old Trafford moments since then. Playing Blackburn Rovers in May 1993 stands out because it was a day-long party celebrating a first title in 26 years.
Any win against Liverpool or Manchester City is special. Games against Barcelona in 1994, 1998, 2008 and 2023 were all stunning and had the noise to match.
My worst memory at Old Trafford? Any defeat. It ruins your day. I should add that, in my view, going all-seater and the rising ticket prices and commercialisation of the mid-1990s ruined the atmosphere, despite the team being the best around. On top of this, (United’s owners) the Glazers have not invested enough in the stadium in recent years.
Yet I still love the fact that Old Trafford is a giant bowl of redness, with its name unsullied by a title sponsor and that it sells out every week and remains the biggest ground in English club football.
Alan Shearer (played against Manchester United at Old Trafford 18 times; columnist for The Athletic)
I never minded playing at Old Trafford, not that my teams ever got very much there.
It wasn’t intimidating, not in a physical way like Highbury was — where stitches or bruises, courtesy of Arsenal’s horrible back four were pretty much guaranteed. I always got stick from Manchester United supporters, particularly after joining Newcastle United ahead of them, but that was something I relished as a challenge and a compliment.
No, the main problem was just how bloody good Manchester United were — a very different proposition to what they are now. They were in their pomp, competing for every trophy going with teams that had a bit of everything and with the managerial might of Sir Alex Ferguson behind them.
My best and worst memories there probably came in the same match.
It was when Newcastle finished third in 2002-03. We were challenging near the top for a while but suffered two big defeats to Fergie’s team, the first of which was a 5-3 loss at Old Trafford in November. To encapsulate the experience in a pithy sentence, I scored my 100th Premier League goal for Newcastle but we got f**king pumped.
My goal was a rocket of a free kick from 30 yards out. After a little touch from Gary Speed, I put my head down, picked my spot and fired the ball into the top corner beyond Fabien Barthez.
That was a sweet moment — and I’m still the only person to have scored a century of Premier League goals with two clubs — but it was also isolated. There was a hat-trick for Ruud van Nistelrooy that day and a very familiar feeling of dismay.
Manchester United were heartbreakers back then.
George Caulkin (Senior football writer)
Old Trafford has been a horrific venue for Newcastle United throughout my lifetime, so what happened there on November 1 this year was startling and very special.
Yes, this was the Carabao Cup; yes, this is a wizened version of Manchester United and yes, Eddie Howe rotated his team to the point of dizziness, but just a second victory there since 1972 was also Newcastle’s biggest since 1930. It was historic in its rarity.
It will take a lot more than that to smooth over old scars, though. Kevin Keegan’s team of the 1990s will always be my blueprint for what Newcastle can be, but Manchester United were so good and so relentless at that time. There was heartache at St James’ Park and Wembley back then, with the latter a sensation that was renewed in last season’s Carabao Cup final.
So what played out at the start of this month, in front of an away end featuring 7,300 Geordies, was a small, sweet gulp of redemption.
Carl Anka (Manchester United correspondent)
Football is increasingly focused on a need for control and quantifying the unknowns, but every now and then, something happens where you have to shrug your shoulders and admit magic is real. The second half against Barcelona on February 23, 2023 was one of those occasions.
A scattergun series of events landed Erik ten Hag’s men in the Europa League knockout round play-offs, to decide who would go on to the round of 16, against Xavi’s Barcelona. What transpired were two of the best games of the 2022-23 season.
The first leg at the Camp Nou finished 2-2 and in the return a penalty from Robert Lewandowski meant United went in at half-time a goal down and desperately in need of something.
The Old Trafford crowd was more than happy to oblige, whipping itself into such high spirits that you could see United’s players getting better and better as the game wore on. Ten Hag’s team scored twice in the second half to go through 4-3 on aggregate.
Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, there have been precious few matches where United have gone toe-to-toe with one of the elite clubs in Europe and won. The celebrations at full time at Old Trafford that night will live long in the memory. A play-off game that felt like a semi-final.
Amy Lawrence (Arsenal correspondent)
My first impressions of Old Trafford came in 1989, in the days before the Premier League. This was old football, the click of the iron turnstile and being crammed into the away terrace behind the goal.
United had a spanking new chairman, Michael Knighton, who did keepy-uppies on the pitch as a full-kit backer of the club. It was extremely weird.
But the game I remember better came the following season, and saw full-on hostility both on and off the pitch.
‘The Old Trafford brawl’ as it became known, involved 21 of the players (only David Seaman abstained), several punches thrown, some sly kicks delivered, two points deducted for Arsenal (who had previous for this sort of thing) and one for United, and an infamous 1-0 away win.
According to the stories of the day, the Arsenal team went into the players’ lounge afterwards with heads held high and chests puffed out, looking after each other at all times like a band of brothers — Sir Alex Ferguson took note. He admired that siege mentality and team spirit and made sure to instil those qualities in his own players.
Maybe it is the fable of The Theatre of Dreams — particularly once United began their period of dominance, but for some reason, upsets there stick in the mind.
Paulo Wanchope for Derby County in 1997 felt like one for the ages. I remember sitting in the stands, trying hard to find an introduction to my match piece that would be good enough to reflect this footballing fairytale for the long-limbed striker from Costa Rica (who had scored in a 3-2 win for Derby).
Elvir Bolic is another one, a Bosnian playing for Turkish side Fenerbahce who upset Ferguson’s 10th anniversary in charge of United by inflicting the club’s first home defeat in Europe, a record that had stretched back 40 years.
United have many, many, many wonderful memories of their own to look back on, but for those from the outside who come and make their own, Old Trafford still carries its own special resonance.
Daniel Taylor (Senior football writer)
My best Old Trafford moment is my first visit. I was in the away end for Nottingham Forest’s FA Cup sixth-round tie against United in 1989, in the era when it felt like that competition mattered as much as anything in football.
I still vividly remember going into the terracing at the old Scoreboard End and being hit by this wall of noise from the banks of home fans on the right. For a boy who was still at school, it was exciting and invigorating — everything a football stadium should be.
Since then, I’ve had more than 20 years sitting in the press box.
The loudest I’ve ever heard Old Trafford was the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona in 2008, when Paul Scholes put a screamer in the top corner and a backs-to-the-wall operation kept out Lionel Messi and company. Equally memorable was the 7-1 against Roma in the 2007 quarter-finals. But it’s a tough selection process.
Wayne Rooney’s hat-trick on his debut was something special. And so was Old Trafford’s first glimpse of a teenage Cristiano Ronaldo in 2003 when he came on as a substitute against Bolton Wanderers and it took just a few minutes to know we were watching a superstar-in-the-making.
As for the worst moment, you might have to forgive me for not remembering the opposition. Presumably it was some way through the 2014-15 season. Louis van Gaal was the manager and, looking around the stadium that day, I detected something I had never felt before at one of United’s home games: boredom. Nobody should ever feel that way at Old Trafford.
In happier times, matches there could make you quicken your step on the walk to the game. Every game was an occasion — or at least it used to feel that way before Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. At that point, though, it felt different and much for the worse.
Van Gaal, despite his portfolio, just never properly got it. He was too stubborn, too entrenched in his own tactics, playing a different pace of football and plodding through games with only occasional moments of enjoyment.
It wasn’t as shocking as the beatings from Manchester City, Liverpool, or all those occasions in the post-Ferguson years when various teams — Burnley, Sunderland, Swansea City, Sheffield United, Cardiff City, West Bromwich Albion and so on — chalked up their first wins at Old Trafford for 30, 40, 50, 60 years, sometimes ever. But it was shocking, nonetheless, to realise that some of the old magic had gone.
Mark Critchley (Manchester-based football writer)
I’ve attended 137 games at Old Trafford covering United over the past seven years. That sounds like a lot, but really it is not many in the context of 2,500 and a reminder that my first-hand experiences barely touch the sides of the club’s rich history.
From a journalistic perspective, the most noteworthy of those games is one that didn’t happen — the abandoned behind-closed-doors fixture against Liverpool in May 2021, after fans broke into the place in protest against both the proposed European Super League and the Glazers’ very real ownership.
Without condoning everything that happened that day, it was extraordinary to witness the supporters both there and those blocking the team bus outside the city’s Lowry Hotel actually achieve their stated aim and force English football’s most historic fixture to be postponed.
As for the games where a ball was actually kicked, the noise that met Scott McTominay sealing a 2-0 win from 40 yards out in the Manchester derby in March 2020 has stayed with me because it was the last that I and many others heard for a long time at a football match, that being Old Trafford’s final fixture before lockdown and then behind-closed-doors football.
Equally, the cheer from the first supporters to return upon kick-off against Fulham more than a year later was a welcome sign that things were finally getting back to normal.
As for my worst memory… being able to leave the house to watch football during the pandemic was a privilege, but even if you were lucky enough to be there, most of those games in an empty Old Trafford merged into one soulless, homogenous blob.
Even the one that stands out — the horrendous 1-6 loss to Tottenham Hotspur in October 2020, with a 10-man United 4-1 down after just 37 minutes — almost does not seem real in retrospect, the type of result that could only happen behind closed doors.
Except it wasn’t.
The 0-5 defeat to Liverpool a year later followed a very similar pattern but, for my money, was significantly worse —specifically when United went in four down at half-time, after playing so poorly that a record defeat did not only feel possible but almost inevitable.
In the end it was only five, although that was more down to Liverpool showing mercy, satisfied they had already taken Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign as manager apart at the seams. There have been many lows during the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era but that day — that first half, in particular — was the nadir.
Matt Woosnam (Crystal Palace correspondent)
Nobody expected Crystal Palace, then in the Championship, to beat Manchester United in the League Cup at Old Trafford in November 2011. Not even with a second-string United team on the pitch.
But 15 months after Palace had come out of administration, a teenage Wilfried Zaha caused United no end of problems in a coming-of-age performance on an evening that also saw Darren Ambrose score one of the best goals Old Trafford has ever seen.
On the 65-minute mark, 40 yards from goal, Ambrose received a pass and took a couple of touches before rifling a shot into the top corner of Ben Amos’ goal. A team managed by club legend Dougie Freedman and assembled on a shoestring budget (with three academy graduates in the starting XI) had the lead.
United equalised but a Glenn Murray header in extra time won the match and left the 3,000 fans in the away end overjoyed.
As fond a memory as that victory is, it is a celebration that resonates most. As Ambrose’s strike hit the back of the net the TV cameras focused on one fan in particular — a man clutching two young boys tightly in either arm, his mouth wide open in wonder.
That supporter was Mark Wealleans, and the two boys were his sons Dominic, then nine, and Nathan, then six. Their father passed away in 2017, aged 49, five months after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.
The Palace family who relive their iconic Ambrose goal celebration with extra resonance – 10 years on
Ten years on, they discussed with The Athletic that moment they shared with their dad and their memories of going to games with him.
“The best bit for me is looking at the comments on that video — so many people have the same memory and the same feeling just by watching it,” Dominic said. “It usually makes me cry, but that’s OK.”
Nathan said: “It’s having the best moments in your life with the people you love the most,” Nathan said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
(Design: Sam Richardson, photos: Getty Images)
Editor’s note: The 1939-40 season was abandoned in September because of the outbreak of the Second World War and all matches, appearances and goals were effectively scrapped. Therefore, United’s one game at Old Trafford in that campaign is not part of the official list. Wartime matches, which took place during the conflict, are also excluded as they were not classed as competitive fixtures.