The 96-98 Manchester United home shirt is nothing special really, not when compared to the greatest shirts of all time. But it’ll always mean a lot to me as the first shirt I owned.
I’d been a season ticket holder at United since 1992. Before then, I’d been a fan – United indoctrination started from birth in my Salford household – but I hadn’t been to matches. Things changed in 92 when my older brother became a United ball boy for the season. He and my Dad had already bought their usual season tickets so my younger sister and I took turns in accompanying Dad to matches, taking my brother’s usual seat. So it was, that my very first season at Old Trafford saw United win the league title after 26 years; a lucky break for me that was no doubt aided by the arrival of Eric Cantona (thanks Eric). I remember experiencing the most intense feeling of joy and excitement as we lifted the Cup. After that season, we were all hooked and, from August 93, my Mum, Dad, brother, sister and I took our place in the family stand at Old Trafford.
I’ve never been much of a football shirt aficionado (a grave admission to make on a website devoted to them). Before I got my first shirt, I’d gone to matches wearing whatever clothes were clean that day. (And knowing early teenage me, I have a horrible feeling some of it might have been tie-dye). I was so proud to wear the shirt; a physical symbol of my allegiance to the team.
Being the 90s with its love of oversized clothes, and me being a teenager lacking in self-confidence, who looked upon my body as an embarrassing entity that must be hidden away, the shirt was so baggy it lasted way beyond 98 and well into the 00s, despite me wearing it to every home game and cup matches. It saw me through bad times – 2003 League Cup Final, anyone? – and good. And so much of it was good. I saw us win the Premier League seven times before I was 20-years old and witnessed some of the greatest players on earth at the peak of their careers. I’d like to say I didn’t take it all for granted but, looking back, I probably did.
The shirt accompanied a 17-year old me to the Nou Camp on 26th May 1999, the day we won the Champions League – and with it, the Treble – coming back from 1-0 down in injury time to win the match 2-1. With 5 minutes to go, I told myself we’d done brilliantly to get to the final, but it wasn’t to be. Luckily for me, I’d underestimated that United team’s ability to win when victory seemed impossible. Less than 10 minutes later, I was dancing in my seat, cheering, hugging everyone around me, and feeling like nothing else mattered (and it didn’t, at the time).
Just over a year after that night at the Nou Camp, my Mum passed away. In the painful weeks and months that followed, football helped get me through. Watching United and wearing my old shirt somehow brought a sense of normality to abnormal times. It was strange going back to Old Trafford, taking our seats for the first time as a family of four. Something – or someone – was missing but, on the pitch, things felt reassuringly familiar. And being surrounded by thousands of other United fans meant I had a family, of sorts, beyond my immediate family too. It was great to be around them and feel a sense of togetherness, whether we were joyously celebrating or all feeling crushed after a defeat.
At the moment, I’m missing those intense emotions that football brings. Football has got me through a lot over the years – heartbreak, pain, grief, as well as all the great times – and it feels odd it’s not with us now, providing a distraction from the world. You might say football doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but it does. It matters because it makes us part of who we are; it’s in our DNA. It’s 90 minutes where nothing else matters apart from willing your team to put a ball in the back of a net. It’s an emotional thrill ride that’s so addictive you need to keep watching even through the defeats and soul-destroying lows. In football, as in life, the lows are part of the experience; without them, how could we ever take so much joy from the highs?
After the Glazer takeover of United, we made the difficult decision to give up our season tickets. It’s a choice I’ve never regretted but one which took away a huge part of my life. At that point, I decided to retire my United shirt. It would be poetic to say that was something to do with physically letting go of the incredible period in my life when I’d been a season ticket holder. However, I suspect it was more due to the fact the shirt always was too big for me and, as I shed my former teenage loathing of my body, I naturally started to gravitate towards clothes that were a little less voluminous.
Today, I’m still as much a fan of United as ever and regularly watch from my sofa, occasionally (okay, often) swearing loudly at every miskick and bad decision. It’s not quite the same as being at the game but I’m grateful to be able to cheer us on from the sidelines.
When United play again, I’m going to bring my old shirt out of retirement. The heady days of the 90s and 00s may be gone but I have hope that shirt will see plenty of great times again. After all, that’s what football is, isn’t it; hoping and believing great times will come and living for the untouchable highs – those miraculous days that take you out of the world and remind you everything is going to be okay.
Laura Crossley is the Head of Content at National Football Museum