Today was honestly one of the best I can ever remember. It was full of emotion. This morning, as I hopped out of bed, I couldn't help but smile and laugh, because the excitement was more than I could bear. I was going to drive to Chicago, see my sister, and watch Manchester United train up close and in person with some old friends who I haven't seen in over a year. I took off around 9 30, in Chad, my friend Mary's white Toyota covered in Wisconsin Volleyball stickers. It was a little over 2 hours to make it to Anna's office, it still sounds weird saying that. We went to Portillo's for lunch, sooo good, and I was on my way.
I arrived at the stadium around 2, to find my friends Tyler White, Corey Fundenberger, Brandon Kim, and Kris Dolinsky waiting for me in the VIP lot. They had been there since 12 30... they were bored to say the least. We patiently waited outside the stadium, I was giddy and could hardly sit still for the better part of two and a half hours. The team pulled up in two buses around 4 45, and I was ready to ambush. They pulled into the parking lot and I sprinted after them, but was yelled at by a security guard to stop when they went behind an authorized access only gate. We quickly got into the stadium and got settled behind the rowdiest bunch of fans we could find. Just as we sat in the second row, it hit me. I was seriously going to get to watch my heroes, the guys who I've spent the better part of the last 6 years watching from afar, pretending like I was in the stadium with the team all along.
I was emotional to say the least.
And of course, to set it all off, the first two players to emerge from the tunnel across the field were the two I was most excited to see, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. Both of these guys are living legends. Giggs, aged 38, is the most decorated soccer player of all time having won 11 English League Titles and a multitude of trophies and personal accolades. While Scholes, a graduate of the same class as David Beckham, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt etc., is the only one to still be paying world class ball, and will probably retire at the end of this season.
The guys around me, a particularly rambunctious group of British guys from Milwaukee began singing songs of "He'll win it twelve times." and "He scores goals galore," and I jumped in instantaneously. The two began the way every kid across the world does, they snagged a ball, and began just passing back and forth. They looked just like two little kids having fun like the good old days. I was amazed that after 30 plus years of playing soccer literally every day of their lives that they looked like they were enjoying it. It wasn't just another day at the office, it was a chance to play, just like they did when they were kids.
The rest of the team slowly meandered out onto the pitch after a while, van der Sar, Berbatov, John O'Shea, all my idols came out, and especially waved at my section. Our rendition of "When Johnny goes marching down the wing" gave the big Irishman an ear to ear grin as he stopped to thank us.
I was on cloud nine. The goalkeepers jogged right past our seats a few times as they were warming up. Edwin van der Sar, the 6 foot 5 Dutchman laughed and waved as I screamed his name like a little girl at an N'sync concert.
The team completed their warm ups right in front of our seats and their stretching too, with Scholes repeatedly pinging balls around the field trying to peg unsuspecting coaches as they set up cones for drills, and hitting his target more often than not.
They completed drills as I chatted up the British guys around me and just sat there in awe that this was all really happening. Then they played a full-sided 10 on 10 match amongst themselves. The way they played and the enthusiasm they played with was incredible.
Then came the icing on the cake. After the session was over, All of the players started slowly migrating to the walls of the stadium to meet their adoring fans. Not surprisingly, most players started with my section, because we were obviously the most excited. John O'Shea came first, then Wesley Brown, then Chris Smalling. I shook all their hands and thanked them for coming. I screamed "KIKO!" from the stands to get Federico Macheda ,the Italian 19 year old's, attention. He walked over to me and shook my hand and smiled. I told him I cried when he scored his goal against Aston Villa in 09 and he laughed and thanked me.
Then, I almost lost it. Edwin Van Der Sar, the 40 year old keeper who I spent the last 8 years of my playing career doing my damn best to emulate, walked past. He looked up at me and saw my mouth kind of hanging open and my eyes wide open, and he reached up to shake my hand. The only words I could muster as i grabbed his massive hand, was "Sooooo freakin' cool." He laughed and walked away. Why I didn't ask him to take a picture with me I have no idea.
And finally, the legend, Ryan Giggs walked up to our section. We burst out in applause and another round of "Ryan Giggs Runnin Down the Wing," which is currently my ringtone. I shook his hand like I shook all the others, and told him to stick around for four more years. He responded with a "We'll see", and he made his way back to the tunnel.
Just like that it was over. Who knows how long it will be before I see the Red Devils playing live again, but one things for sure, I have to go to Manchester, if it kills me. Since my soccer career of about 14 years is officially over, there's been a hole in my life. I miss the game I grew up with. I miss the camaraderie that I always associated with it. I miss celebrating after a hard fought win, and I've been using this team to help ease the pain. I for whatever reason, felt like a member of the team today. Six British guys from Milwaukee and myself seemed to lift the players spirits, play harder, smile wider. Thats 7 guys, and it felt amazing. Today I pictured myself as a member of the 78,000 faithful that pack the stands at Old Trafford every matchday, and it only fueled the fire.
"Oh how I want to be in that number... when the reds go marching in..." The voices of 80,000 pissed off englishmen echoed in my head, the whole 2.5 hour drive home.
And until that day, I have a seat at the bar at the Highbury in Milwaukee. Not sure if I'll be allowed in, but I'm sure gonna try. My friends in Milwaukee assured me that I'd be welcome with open arms on matchday. (Don't worry Mom and Dad, no funny business.) That'll have to do at least until I move back to NY.
Tune in next week as I reminisce on my month at the Old L'Etoile, and probably still blabber on about my day with Manchester United.