Cover photo

Manchester United vs Aston Villa

A write up of my experience during the 2023 Boxing Day Premier League fixture

It is fair to say that it has been a pretty volatile season for Manchester United in the UK Premier League over the last couple of years. Being a supporter has been quite emotional. They've sat dead last for a week, they've been up and down the middle of the table. This is not ideal. But, it is in keeping with their results since the last time they won the league in 2012/2013. It seems that we just can't break through 2nd place and instead have been exploring every number between 2nd and 7th. Lovely.

For the last few years, I've made a pilgrimage to Old Trafford on Boxing Day to catch our home fixture. Last year we played freshly promoted Nottingham Forest. An easy win, 3-0. This year we faced Aston Villa. Aston Villa are having a pretty insane season. Their history in the Premier League is varied, having finished mostly between 15th and 20th, interspersed with a couple of years of finishing between 5th and 7th. This year, they are sitting in 3rd place and having a pretty great season, it is fair to say! They managed to bag Emiliano Martínez, the Argentine goal keeper who won the world cup, and he's doing a pretty great job for them. I had a mixed bag of emotions - excitement to see my team play, and the nerves of facing the team that are currently 3rd in the league, knowing they would be 2nd only on goal difference if they won. Here's how the evening went.

It started with a drive through the moors, down the notorious Snake Pass between Sheffield and Manchester. Shortly before making the trip, I found out it was once voted the third most treacherous drive in the world. Interesting. There were three of us in the car, and on the way we were eagerly discussing the game. This drive reflected my feelings about the game. Pretty scary winding down from the moors, feeling pretty sick from the constant change of direction that the turns provided, and excited when the city of Manchester came into view. Onward!

The Theatre of Dreams

We arrived at the stadium about 3 hours before the game started. I love arriving early, as there are only a few crowds outside the stadium, and it's easy to walk around and see things like the Munich Air Disaster Clock. We headed down the Sir Matt Busby Way to a fella who has been selling the teams merch for longer than I can remember. He has the first stand you come to as you head away from Old Trafford. I don't know his name but he always has a smile on his face and a crowd around the stand. I decided to grab a David Beckham scarf, owing to the documentary released this year, and him being one of my favourite United players, and a Sir Bobby Charlton scarf, as a homage to one of the greatest and most dedicated Manchester United players of all time, who unfortunately passed away this year. Here's a touching video of the silence observed, and reef being laid, shortly after his passing was made public. Here's a pretty accurate comment that sums up Sir Bobby.

He survived Munich. He saw close friends die at Munich. He brought Manchester United back to the top after Munich. Then, he won European Cup for United. He won the World Cup for England, too. Dignified, respected, legendary. He’s England’s finest. RIP Sir Bobby Charlton.

Bobby Charlton: Manchester United great and England World Cup winner | CNN

As 8pm crept closer, we joined the pilgrimage from the Cricket Ground to Old Trafford and the magic feeling started to creep in. The pubs started to empty out, and the chants began. Outside the stadium was a mixture of a low hum, and excitedly nervous atmosphere. Nobody really knew what to expect. The last couple of games United played at home, we got a spanking. Both ending 3-0, one to Manchester City and another to Bournemouth. This game could go any way - score predictions were all over the place, I was pretty set on it being 2-1 to Aston Villa.

Beckham + Sir Bobby Scarves

Queues outside the main stalls were forming. There were a lot of grim looking faces, but the Manchester spirit shone through and people were starting chants left right and centre. As I got up to the security and was being searched, I held my hand out over the railing and had it promptly high fived by a passing supporter. I turned around and the cheeky chappy gave me a smile. Which in turn caused me to smile - smiles are infectious, hey?!

3 minutes prior to kick-off inside The Theatre of Dreams

We hustled in to the stadium without a hitch and headed up the concrete staircase. I love this part of the evening. From inside the stand, you can't hear the sounds of Old Trafford (unless there's a goal, or a chant). So it's possible to stand at the bar and be completely unaware that you're stood in the largest capacity stadium in the Premier League. We got into the foyer, and after a short toilet break, headed straight up to our seats. Again, I love this part. As we headed up, the sounds of the stadium were slowly increasing in volume. At the top of the stairs, there's a small door, about the size of a fire exit. No bigger than my bedroom door. This is the part of the evening that feels like stepping through the wardrobe to Narnia. Like transcending from one dimension to another dimension. I cannot describe the feeling of climbing that staircase, with the sounds of excited Manchester United supporters slowly getting louder. Stepping through that doorway, suddenly 74,000 fans are on the other side, every single person facing the pitch, and every single person chanting. Incredible. Like nothing else on earth. We were all wide-eyed, quiet, and stunned. This happens every time. It never gets old.

10 seconds to go

The game begins, and Aston Villa are off to a pretty good start. They were all over United. They were working the ball well, showing energy, teamwork and spirit. All the while United were looking pretty lethargic and tired....Uniteds forward, Rashford was left in heaps of space and no one ever played him the ball, resulting in him looking increasingly annoyed. About twenty minutes passed, and Villa are awarded a free kick. Quite far out, doesn't look too threatening. The mood in the stadium went quiet, and Villa lined up to take the free kick. McGinn lined up to take it, the United penalty box was filled with light blue...McGinn took a couple steps back, ran up to the ball and punted it over the wall. The ball curved round, hit the ground, made a bounce, there was a bit of a scuffle and.... 1-0. Dead silence from United fans. We all sat with jaws dropped. But, we are Manchester United! A one goal deficit? A walk in park, not a problem for the reds. We're used to being down a goal and coming back. 90 minutes is a long, long time!

5 minutes after play was resumed, Villa were awarded a corner. I got a sinking feeling in my stomach...Villa looked quite strong on their set pieces. Again, the stadium went quiet as Villa stepped up to take their corner kick. Players gathered in the penalty area again, McGinn stepped up to take the corner. He took a few steps back, then punted the ball over the players in the box. It hit a player on the outside who punted it square back in, Dendoncker got a back heel to it...2-0. Dead silence. Dead, dead silence. 26 minutes in and we're 2-0 down. It's fair to say at this point, we were all a bit upset. We all sat in our seats, looking at the pitch with glum faces. The Villa fans were having an absolute party - two goals at Old Trafford! They all looked like they'd had a few too many red bulls and were in a club. Their chants filled the stadium. This was a pretty heinous feeling.

At this point, I'd like to introduce the concept of a 'Manchester United Classic'. We have a habit of making a comeback. This is why we're never too worried about losing. We always come back. Below are a couple of my favourite comebacks in Manchester United history.

So, we're sat there in Old Trafford. Manchester United are 2-0 down, the stadium is full of gleeful Aston Villa fans chanting away. Seriously, the couple of thousand supporters were filling the stadium with their chants. It was cute. What do we do in the light of this? We start singing - first 'Glory Glory Man United' and then 'United United United'. The whole stadium, singing in unison. Pretty special.

Half time comes around, we head inside to get some hot chocolates and chocolate buttons, as it's getting quite cold. We took our time, the highlights were on the TV's and we were huddled around chatting about the first half. There was a bit of consolation going on, but the mood was definitely not dampened. People were cracking jokes and chatting, and spirits were quite high. It got close to the second half and people started heading back to their seats. We hung back and decided to wait in the warmth.

The second half started, and given the drop in the crowds I decided to head to the toilet. Not 30 seconds passed and I heard a massive roar from the crowd. What on earth...I ran out front, dumped my hot chocolate in the bin and made a mad scramble for the door back into the stadium, to discover we'd scored a goal! Not sure what Eric Ten Haag (ETH) did at half time but suddenly we were on form, attacking left right and centre and pushing Villa back. I reckon it's because we were shooting towards the Stretford End at this point, where the die hard United supporters stand. This, combined with the magic ETH performed during half time, meant we were in for an incredible second half. The goal was checked by the VAR and eventually disallowed, but it was enough to lift all of our spirits. We were back on.

20 minutes to go

Suddenly, we had our swagger. We were attacking, we had form, we had style, we were communicating. Players were creating opportunities left right and centre. The left and right wings were a flurry of activity with players receiving the ball and running it forward. The centre field was cracking apart Villa's defence. It was a dream to watch. Around the 58th minute, Bruno Fernandes made a short run with the ball. At the same time, Rashford made a run forward too. Fernandes played him the ball, and Rashford ran into the box. He had Højlund and Garnacho running into space to the right of him. The Villa defence were focused on Højlund and both running to him. Garnacho was left with heaps of space, running to the far side of the goal. Rashford looked to the right, and released the ball. Højlund didn't quite make the touch, and the ball rolled out to Garnacho, who was there and ready to receive. He punted it, aimed at the goal, and took his shot! Goal! Manchester United 1, Aston Villa 2. Højlund knew exactly what to do and while Garnacho celebrated, he grabbed the ball and ran back to the centre of the pitch. The stadium exploded with cheers of joy and celebration! We were on!

Clearly, Garnacho gained a lot of adrenaline from this. Suddenly, his energy levels peaked and he was creating opportunities, and closing them. The true energy and spirit of this 19-year-old Argentine man shone through. The 70th minute closed in and Garnacho won the ball in the centre field. Again, he found himself in bags of space and quickly ran the ball forward. The stadium was going nuts. Complete and utter ecstasy. He made a decent run and found Fernandes on the wing, passed the ball to him and ran in to the box. Fernandes ran forward, and made a cross. Villa deflected the cross. Straight into the line of Garnacho, who was again in heaps of space. He took his time, and punted the ball towards the goal. It hit a Villa defender, and bounced right around the outside of Martínez. Another goal! We were level! At this point, my scarf had obscured my face due to me jumping up and down, screaming and I was deafened by the screaming echoing around the stadium. In just 12 minutes we had gone from being 2-0 down to drawing level. Even if the game ended then, I would remember this for the rest of my life. Stood in Old Trafford for a Manchester United classic comeback. Wow.

But, with 70 minutes of play, there were still 20 minutes left. And we knew it. Oh we knew it. Every Manchester United chant under the sun was being belted out, and every single person in the stadium was stood singing, dancing, and throwing their arms in the air. Just like the Quidditch World Cup in Harry Potter.

I was vibing. I was riding the best wave in the set. I was driving along the smoothest road ever built. In my gut, I had a feeling we would get another. Everything was just perfect - the fans, the score, the mood inside the stadium, the energy levels of the players on the field. We were going to get another goal. I could feel it.

Villa tried another attack, working the ball around the box, finding their strikers in space and creating opportunities. Around the 82nd minute, they managed to find their forward in space, who punted the ball towards the United goal, only to be met with Jonny Evans' left leg and a deflection, placing the ball back into play.

Queue up the 85th minute. United won a corner. A jubilant Stretford End was there to lift up the taker; chanting, cheering and clapping. Fernandes stepped up to take it, and crossed the ball in to the box. There was a scuffle, and the ball met a Villa player's foot, deflected right into the path of Højlund. He had bags of space, enough to watch the ball coming towards him. He lined up, he lifted is leg, he saw the open goal to the right of the Martinez and punted the ball right into the back corner of the net. Everyone. Lost. Their. Mind. 3-2 to United. Højlund's first Premier League goal.

Outside Old Trafford just before the game

I have to explain why this moment was so special, and why I have written so extensively about it. I have been a Manchester United fan for my entire life now. I am not in the UK that much nowadays, so enjoy going to the Boxing Day fixtures when I can. This means I watch highlights on YouTube, and watch historic videos about the club - the building of Old Trafford, the Busby Babes, the Class of '92, the journey to the treble in 1999, Rooneys debut hat trick, the loss of the Premier league in 2012 to City, the 2023 FA cup final against City. Manchester United are a comeback club. As a supporter, this means that the game is never truly over until the final whistle is blown. To be in Old Trafford, during a game where we were 2-0 down and to then come back and win 3-2, is a moment that every supporter lives for. During the drive back, we all had grins from ear to ear. We went to bed with grins from ear to ear, we woke up the next day with grins from ear to ear.

In the words of Gary Neville...

This is Manchester United. This is Manchester United. This is Manchester United!

Thank you for reading, and Happy New Year!

Collect this post to permanently own it.
henrypye logo
Subscribe to henrypye and never miss a post.
#football#christmas#manchester united#boxing day trip#england
  • Loading comments...