A Manchester United merch seller holding a scarf.
All photos: Alex Ingram

Every Football Club's Fans Have Their Match Day Rituals – These Are Manchester United’s

From family mementos and wild superstitions to DIY fanzines and guilt-laden scran, these are the sights, sounds and smells of match day at Old Trafford.

When Benji Mainwaring travels up to Old Trafford, he carries his dad’s shirt with him. It’s the one Manchester United wore following their famous treble-winning season, with “UEFA Champions League winners 1999” printed above the Umbro logo. His dad was at Camp Nou to see United crowned champions of Europe, injury-time goals from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer giving Sir Alex Ferguson’s side an era-defining 2-1 win against Bayern Munich. “I had United wallpaper, bedsheets and a framed photo of the team in my room growing up,” laughs Benji. “We were football mad in my house, all my clan are United fans… I didn’t have a choice!”


Benji’s dad died in 2016. In one of the last photos Benji has of them together at Old Trafford, he’s wearing that same shirt. “The treble was obviously a huge moment for the club and huge for him as a fan,” he says. “I take it up with me when I go, even now… I think the significance in my mind is that I’m still going up with him, you know? Some of my fondest memories are at Old Trafford with my dad, so it’s just a little thing I do to remember him. It’s almost like he’s with me.”

Where once he would get a ride up from Pontypool in South Wales with his dad and his uncle, or hop on the Cardiff and Vale Supporters’ Club coach as it passed through Newport, Benji now makes the journey by himself. While many United fans from outside of Manchester fell in love with the club during the Ferguson era – there’s a persistent myth that United fans are all out-of-towners which, while funny to Manchester City supporters, is untrue – Benji traces his family’s love for the club back to his grandfather, who fell for the Busby Babes in the 50s. Having come of age at the start of the Ferguson boom years, he’s heard it all when it comes to stereotypes of United fans. “With that came the accusations of being a glory supporter because of my age, but there we go.”

Manchester United supporter holding up his dad's shirt at a stadium game

Benji Mainwaring with his dad's Manchester United shirt. Photo: Alex Nash

As he got older, his pre-match ritual evolved into cans on the coach or pints in The Trafford, a United-themed pub a few minutes’ walk from the ground which is packed wall to wall on match days, but one of his clearest memories is still of browsing the merch stalls on Sir Matt Busby Way and Warwick Road as a kid. “I always enjoyed picking up enamel pins, we collected them,” he says. “I’ve got hundreds of them in my house!”

Another fan who has to traverse Britain’s motorways to support United is Howard Borrington, though he, conversely, is from Manchester. Having moved down to London, he often drives up early and spends a few hours catching up with family. As the match approaches, however, he links up with fellow members of Rainbow Devils, United’s official LGBTQ+ supporters’ club. Founded a couple of years ago, they are one of the most recent additions to English football’s burgeoning network of LGBTQ+ fan groups.

Manchester United fans march past a merch stall on Sir Matt Busby Way

Fans march past a merch stall on Sir Matt Busby Way.

One of the main aims of the group is to make United fans who have previously felt marginalised on match days feel welcome. “I think the important thing is for all football fans to feel that they can come to football, be included and not feel threatened in any way,” says Howard.

Carl Nunnerley, another member of the group, temporarily drifted away from United after feeling that he had to hide his sexuality to be accepted by those around him. “Rainbow Devils started and I got back into the fold,” he says. “Honestly, from the bottom of my heart, [the group] has changed things so much. I love my football and it’s nice being part of a group that supports you, where you can just be who you are.”

Carl Nunnerley (left) and Howard Borrington (right) of Rainbow Devils.

Carl Nunnerley (left) and Howard Borrington (right) of Rainbow Devils.

While the pandemic has made it hard for the group to establish a pre-match routine, they are now looking for a regular venue to host them in the hours before kick off. As things stand they often find themselves at the Old Trafford Supporters’ Club, a cavernous basement bar filled with United memorabilia, which lies beneath Hotel Football, just over the road from Old Trafford itself. Fans spill out of the Supporters’ Club onto the side of the Bridgewater Canal, sinking beers from plastic cups in the shadow of the East Stand. By this stage, Carl’s main pre-match ritual is already over and done with: Before he sets off from home, he throws darts as a superstition. “Whatever I throw, depending on how high the score is, tells me the result,” he laughs.

Manchester United supporters queue for pints at the Old Trafford Supporters' Club.

Supporters queue for pints at the Old Trafford Supporters' Club.

Over on the other side of the ground, where Railway Road meets Sir Matt Busby Way, Carly Vandella usually arrives an hour and a half before kick off to sell her fanzine, Deepest Red. While United once had a booming fanzine culture, the scene has shrunk even if, in United We Stand and Red News, they still have two celebrated zines which can trace their roots back to the late 80s. 

“I’ve been a long-time reader and some-time seller of fanzines outside Old Trafford,” says Carly, who lives a stone’s throw from the stadium. “I think one of the big things about fanzines is the culture that builds around them. Even though Deepest Red is quite new, I’m starting to see regulars that come over and have a chat and I get to see friends that I wouldn’t necessarily see if I was nipping in and out of different pubs or just going in and out of the ground.”

Manchester United supporter Carly Vandella, editor of Deepest Red, holds up copies of her fanzine

Carly Vandella, editor of Deepest Red.

As far as she knows, Carly is the only female fanzine seller outside Old Trafford. While that sometimes means “ignoring twatty comments from pissed-up away fans”, it’s also fundamentally changed how she experiences match day. “I had a baby during the pandemic, so my match day ritual had changed quite a lot anyway from going out and drinking ten pints of cider to starting the day with a bit of Mr Tumble and then looking after the baby until a few hours before kick off,” she says. “But it’s just great to be in the middle of everything having a chat with people… it’s about building that community.”

As kick off approaches, the stream of red shirts flowing down Sir Matt Busby Way becomes a flood. While Deepest Red has only had one issue so far, a steady flow of supporters stop to pick up a copy as Carly restocks from a giant plastic tub. With a focus on social history, family stories and personal reminiscences, the zine is full of beautiful, hazy photos taken on film cameras during the 70s, 80s and 90s.

“I think fanzines really enhance the voice that fans have within the club,” Carly says. “They give voice to a lot of people who are excluded from digital worlds as well. We’ve got a lot of people that contribute that are older Reds, giving their recollections of events that were really long ago: of Munich, of the Busby Babes, these stories from our club’s history that really need to be retold and heard.”

Signed photographs of Manchester United footballers on the wall of the United Cafe

Signed photographs on the wall of the United Cafe.

A little further up the road, with its glaring red facade and signs advertising any imaginable combination of chips, beans, mushy peas and gravy, the United Cafe is jammed with fans standing elbow to elbow eating battered delicacies from polystyrene containers. The walls are covered with signed photos of club legends, with David Beckham, Roy Keane and Eric Cantona among those quietly watching on as fans wolf down their pre-match scran. The smell of the deep-fat fryer working overtime fills the air, leaving hungry tummies rumbling in the queue. This is where, having hopped off the tram, James Coatsworth makes his final stop before heading to his seat in the South Stand.

Manchester United fan James Coatsworth standing with a takeaway.

James Coatsworth with his takeaway.

Once upon a time, match day would have started with a Wetherspoons breakfast and ended with a sesh. Since becoming a parent, a portion of battered sausage and chips dripping with curry sauce is his ultimate guilty pleasure. “If I can’t drink, I can at least get some nice fried food,” he grins. “I take it into the ground and, normally, by the time I’ve finished, we’ve either scored or conceded. Then I get into the game itself.” 

A battered sausage and chips dripping with curry sauce in a takeaway box.

A battered sausage and chips with curry sauce.

Despite being a season ticket holder, there’s still something about the chaos before a game that gives him the same buzz as it did when he first started coming to Old Trafford. “It’s still a pleasure. The thing is, you can take it for granted when you’re doing it most weeks but you’ve got to remember that every single game is someone’s first time. I still remember being a little kid and walking down here with thousands of people, being like: ‘Oh my God’. There’s still a little bit of that in me. It’s nice, it’s what we do it for I think.”

Manchester United crowd streams down Sir Matt Busby Way towards Old Trafford

The crowd streams down Sir Matt Busby Way towards Old Trafford.

Come kick-off time, the flood of red shirts – with the intermittent glimmer of a green-and-gold scarf worn as a sign of protest against the Glazer family – United’s unpopular owners – outside the ground ebbs away to a trickle. In The Trafford pub, which is now eerily quiet, staff mop the floors clean of the sticky residue of a thousand spilled beers. If a chance is missed, the sound of collective anguish rolls like thunder over the red-brick streets by the ground and up to the A56, where the last few stragglers skip and run through traffic as the occasional car horn honks in support. Then a goal goes in and, for all the different roads travelled to get there, Old Trafford can be heard in unison.

Kids perform a street dance near the Manchester United ground

Kids perform a street dance near the ground.

A house displays a banner commemorating the Busby Babes, the Munich air disaster and the 1968 European Cup winners

A house displays a banner commemorating the Busby Babes, the Munich air disaster and the 1968 European Cup winners.

A vendor sells match scarves outside the Manchester United ground

A vendor sells match scarves outside the ground.

Manchester United fans cross the Media City Footbridge on the way to the ground

Fans cross the Media City Footbridge on the way to the ground.