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The Old Trafford Steward in Section N2403

Old Trafford Manchester United Pano

Being inside an empty football stadium gives me the tingling.

It’s not quite a fetish but it is undeniably a thing for me. I’ve stopped questioning it, I simply reveal in the sensation of coming out of a tunnel to see the lush green pitch and the brightly colored seats for the first time.

Watching a stadium fill up, like a slowed-down time lapse video, or you know, like real life pacing, is equally as thrilling, although in a different way, as the sight of it empty, still, waiting.

On a subfreezing December night in Manchester, I arrived 90 minutes early to enter the hallowed ground of Old Trafford before all but a handful of United supporters, neutrals like me, and visiting fans from the south coast of England who had made the long midweek journey to cheer on their Cherries.

I peeled my right glove off and took a few panoramic photos with my phone.

I stood statue still and thought about the long history of this place, the famous matches that have been played on that perfect pitch, and with mouth agape, looked around at the banners hanging from…everywhere. And I don’t even like this club!

I watched breath after breath escape and rise into the frigid night air like a soul leaving a body of a man who’s died happy.

I tried to take it all in, absolutely all of it, and then I tried to think of what else to do for the next 80 minutes. My god it was so fucking cold.

The steward at the top of my section was standing still in a bright yellow reflective jacket. She was shivering too and also looked as if she was in need of something else to do, to distract from the discomfort of being in an icebox, before a red wave would cascade through her tunnel.

Maybe it was because I’d already lost the ability to move my toes or to even confirm the existence of toes, but I intentionally struck up a conversation with Wendy, the Old Trafford steward responsible for section N2403 on that frigid Wednesday night.

Considering how enjoyable such impromptu conversations with friendly-faced strangers always proves to be, I should probably initiate conversations with friendly-faced strangers more often.

After asking where I was from and what I was getting up to in England, Wendy told me that a holiday in Dubai is upcoming for her. She’d been saving for years since a cruise port day once spent in the playground of man-made islands paid for in barrels of sweet crude, but she wanted me to know, with a Mancurian laugh and a rye working class smile, that she will not be ordering the fancy drink costing the equal of Wayne Rooney’s weekly wage packet.

I can imagine what seeing such a pricey drink would feel like and I can understand that there’s a certain kind of pleasure in telling and retelling the story of it. There’s a lot of mileage in that. I laughed and shook my head at the silliness of the price tag. Wendy smiled again and repeated the Wayne Rooney price punchline.

In the meantime, as she waits for the pages of the calendar to fly away, she’s busy with her full time job, this part time one at Old Trafford, and caring for her father who is battling dementia. Then there’s her son.

Thomas is 15 and needs to be in the pool at 5am daily if he has any hope of qualifying for the 2020 Paralympic games in Tokyo, in the butterfly stroke discipline.

I told Wendy that my family’s travel dream is to be in Tokyo for the Summer Olympic Games. I added that I hoped to see her there, but that either way, we’d be cheering from afar for Thomas, in and out of the pool.

It’s a full schedule for Wendy but her pleasant demeanor never waned while walking me through her routine.

We were both shaking in the cold, smiling, sharing stories.

The crowd slowly filed in, the match happened, and the red & black clad United supporters shuffled back out of Old Trafford happy with the 3 points if not the performance.

What I’ll remember most from that night, as the years pass, will be Wendy and her son Thomas, a determined young man I hope with all I’ve got does indeed become a Paralympian. Whether he does or doesn’t though, I’m fairly certain that Wendy will continue to happily burn her candle at both ends, with nothing but smiles, to give her boy every chance to find happiness and success.

Here’s to hoping she’s one day able to afford that drink in Dubai or at the very least finds more joy in telling strangers about how expensive it is while watching her son swim in Tokyo.

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