'I emailed the club and asked if I could be a ballboy' – How Manchester United diehards will cope with Premier League matches behind closed doors

The English top-flight is restarting, but without fans at the games due to the coronavirus crisis. For those that follow their club home and away, it is a bitter pill to swallow

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England's Premier League resumes this week, with no fans at matches. For those used to going to every single game, that's a hard one to stomach. The National spoke to four diehard Manchester United supporters to find out their reactions.

Peter Bolton

Peter Bolton is a familiar face at Manchester United matches, his ‘One Love’ flag often adorning the away section. He’s seen his team play in 41 countries and has missed only two European away games this century: in Athens after the 9/11 attacks and in Rostov, Russia, in 2017 after he was unable to get a visa in time when his application was rejected.

Bolton hasn't missed a home game since Leyton Orient in 1974 (he was shopping with a girlfriend) and hasn’t missed a domestic away game so far this century. He attends 120 United matches per season.

“First team, youth team, reserve team and under 18s, I do them all unless there’s a clash of fixtures,” says the 63-year-old retired taxi driver from Timperley, six miles from Old Trafford.

“It’s good fun, I enjoy it. I’d been to 91 games this season before the lockdown – it’s only United games that I go to. I’d booked and paid for the trip to LASK, the final game before the lockdown, but the situation became unclear and we were worried that we wouldn’t be able to get back from Austria. The club generously refunded our travel costs, which was fantastic.”

“My wife and I have been stuck at home in the lockdown. She had a stroke five years ago so we can’t really go out. It hasn't been easy.

“Going to United for me is about more than the 90 minutes of the match. It’s the planning, the journey, your friends, the socialising. My favourite games are pre-season tours or European away where you travel for longer. I visit cathedrals and tour the places I go to.

"People ask me how I can afford it but these trips are my holidays. I miss my friends from the match, the camaraderie. We travel on a bus and I usually drive. We took the train to Bruges in February and it was great to see fans along the way.

“I don’t usually watch football on television because I’m at the games. I don’t have some of the TV channel subscriptions.

“I’m not going to sit at home and watch the game by myself. I wouldn’t know where to go for things like Amazon and Netflix. I’ve thought about going to London for the Spurs game this Friday or going to Old Trafford for the Sheffield United game next week. But I don’t want to stand outside the ground and not watch it; I’d rather be with fellow United fans and watch it.

"I’ll go to Old Trafford on Tuesday because [former United player] Tony Dunne’s funeral cortege will pass the stadium. He taught my dad to play golf, but I’ve resigned myself to not being able to sit in my seat for a game this season. I’d like fans to be allowed in soon, even if the whole stadium is not full.”

Peter Bolton in the Majestic Hotel, Belgrade, when Man Utd played there in Oct 2019. 

Jon Berry

The Salfordian, who grew up in Ordsall just across the Manchester Ship Canal from Old Trafford, has been to 1,126 consecutive Manchester United home games.

“I went to my first game when I was nine and haven't missed one since,” explains Berry, 51. “That was against Spurs in 1979 and I stood on on the Stretford End. I moved to the United Road terrace in the 80s and K Stand (a seated section behind the goal) in 1989. I’ve been there ever since, quite close to the away fans.

“I’m from a big United area and my mum and dad met on a coach going to see United in the European Cup final in 1968 so they understand. Dad was a head steward on the Stretford End for years. My kids come to games with me too and I took my grandchild to their first game aged two.

“There have been a few times when I’ve come close to missing matches. My ex-wife was about to give birth to our twins and was moved from hospital in Salford to Wythenshawe, where they did multiple births.

"I nipped home and grabbed my season ticket as United were playing and then disappeared to watch the game. My wife held on and the twins were born a few days later.

“Another time, I went to get a newspaper on a Monday morning but disappeared to Montpellier away for the rest of the week. That’s probably why she’s my ex-wife.

“I had a bad accident a few years ago when I fell out of the back of a van and badly damaged my elbow. I needed my elbow replacing and couldn’t work.

"I went to hospital and told the doctors that if they were going to operate then they needed to do it that night as there was a game the following day. They operated a week later.

“I’m gutted about games behind closed doors but understand the reason why – it’s a global pandemic. My record will have an asterisk against it – a bit like Liverpool’s league title.

"I emailed United asking if I could get into the game next week [against Sheffield United] and explaining my record. I offered to take a covid test, to be a ballboy. I’d do anything and I’d be Fred the Red [the club mascot] if needed. United replied: ‘Under the current circumstances it is not something that we can consider.

“I’ve accepted that there’s nothing I can do about it but I’d like to go to Old Trafford and watch the game on my phone outside the stadium if the police allow it.

"I feel that I need to be there but know I can’t be. I just want to see United and the sooner fans can watch games, the better.”

Jon Berry, from Salford, has been has been to 1,126 consecutive United home games.

Fergus Burke

The 42-year old from Manchester travels to games home and away with his wife Nyree and their two boys, Jon, 13 and Ciaran, 11.

“I’ve not missed a home game since Southampton in 1989,” says the senior estimator who works in Trafford Park by Old Trafford. “And I’ve missed five games in England since 1993. People dying, the birth of out youngest lad who was in an incubator and my wife who wasn’t well. And a kids football match [Burke trains Wythenshawe Town Mavericks under 14s] were reasons why.

“The four of us go to games together and see the world together. We’ll visit the tourist sights when United play in London and see cathedrals or ancient ruins when United play in Europe.

"We usually travel by train on the family railcards. Friends come with us, it’s a great community and far more than just the match. I work hard and play hard with all the travel.

“I can’t get my head around not being able to go to see United when the football restarts. I thought about going to Spurs on Friday, but what’s the point? And I booked a hotel for Norwich away next weekend because it had a view of the Carrow Road pitch.

"I reserved three rooms thinking that one of them must have a view. The hotel cancelled on me and explained that it was being used for key workers, which I understand. I suppose my FergusMUFC email address gave the game away. Even if we wanted to go, the away games are all midweek and at awkward times. The pubs are closed, there are no trains back and we can’t get in the grounds.

“I just want to see United again. We’ve walked around Old Trafford a few times during lockdown, but I want to see the team and my friends from football.

"One good mate, Nigel Shields from Strabane in Northern Ireland, also goes to all the games and he came to Manchester to see games before the lockdown.

"He stayed with us … and kept on staying with us as he couldn’t get home. He’s been trying to book flights back but they keep being cancelled. So he’s been working from home – our home – ever since.”

Fergus Burke with his family, in Ann Arbor, Michigin, pre-season with United in the US.

Phil Williams

The 54-year-old civil servant from North Wales has watched United play in more than 40 countries on six continents. He saw every single United game Alex Ferguson managed and didn’t miss any game from November 1985, until Cardiff City at home a year ago.

“I missed Cardiff because of an accident in a public house in Manchester on the way home from Huddersfield the week before. I fell down some stairs and landed on my head. A policewoman resuscitated me and I was put into an induced coma. I’m lucky to be alive.

“Before that, the last game I missed was for my sister’s wedding when I was 19. Family pressure meant that I missed it – otherwise I would have gone to the game.

“I struggle to watch football on television. There’s so much of it that it washes over me. I watched one of the German games recently and switched off after ten minutes. No interest. I’ve enjoyed watching re-runs of United games from the 1970s or 80s more because I can relate to them or because I was there.

“I went to LASK in Austria for the last game before the lockdown and saw the first 15 minutes of the match though a fence behind one goal. One of our mates climbed over a shed and through back gardens to see the pitch. He was caught and fined.

"I gave up after a while. You could see individual players and hear them shout but couldn’t follow the match. I’d hoped for a better vantage point and got there early to scout the ground out. There wasn’t much we could do and police were everywhere.

“I work flexi-time so that I can watch United and it’s a huge part of my life. There was another game I nearly missed – Galatasaray away in 1993, the crazy game where fans were deported and Eric Cantona was fighting with Turkish police.

"We arrived early and it was chaos, with police batoning the fans. We got into the home section with ten minutes to play – and were lucky to get out of there alive and were chased out of the ground.

“Other fans have asked if I’m going to Spurs on Friday – a show of force of United fans if you like. But in the cold light of day you’d spend £150, take a day off work, have no train home, no pub to watch the game in and no other options.

"If the pubs re-open in July and people are allowed to gather again, I could see myself meeting my friends close to Old Trafford.

"Football has always had a big social element for me but I think fans have accepted that they’re not going to be able to go to games this season. I just want it back as soon as possible.”

Phil Williams in Singapore during United’s 2019 pre-season.