Old Trafford awaits derby day as Man United get set to face Man City
MANCHESTER, England -- Old Trafford, 24 hours before the Manchester derby. The sunshine of Thursday has given way to dark, brooding cloud with rain continually threatening.
Looking down over the stadium forecourt towards the "Holy Trinity" statue of Denis Law, George Best and Bobby Charlton are giant images of United players: David De Gea, Paul Pogba, Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Luke Shaw model white hooded sweat tops.
"Everyone is asking how to buy them," explains an assistant in the club's Megastore, where shirts with Ibrahimovic on the back are by far the most popular. Business is brisk, with early arrivals from Ireland and further afield. People come to the city for the weekend, boosting the economy and filling every hotel room.
"We've flown overnight from Johannesburg," explains Chris Georgiou, a member of United's long-standing South African supporters club.
Other fans have travelled from even further. David Feare, 23, is from the Cayman Islands and calls to ask if there is any chance of a ticket for the derby. Feare supports United because he was born in Manchester, Jamaica -- he didn't consider that he could have also supported City.
So, how hard is it to get a ticket?
"A pair in the north and south stand (along the side of Old Trafford) have been making between £800 and £1,000," one tout says. "The figures drop to £600-700 behind the goals. It's definitely the biggest derby for years in terms of demand for tickets, though there was even a really high demand for [United's] first game against Southampton three weeks ago."
Meanwhile, in the shadow of Britain's biggest club stadium, Mancunian grafters, many of them lifelong United fans, sell half and half United and City scarves to football tourists.
"The people who buy these are not locals," says one, who is well aware that they attract the ire of those, who wouldn't be seen wearing a scarf showing the colour of their rivals. "They're people for whom coming to Old Trafford is a dream and they want a memento of that game."
Another version of the scarf has the heads of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola on the red and blue sides respectively. "United's special one welcomes you to a full house. Manchester is red," reads the message on the scarf, a dig at City's perceived inability to sell out their ground. (All 3,000 visiting tickets for the derby sold out in no time, just as they always do.)
Interest is huge, for good reason. The respective squads are the most expensively assembled in British football history, with City's costing £550 million and United's £529 million. Both teams have won their first three league games of the season, while the arrival of Mourinho and Guardiola as managers has further accentuated the global interest.
For Ryan Giggs, this will be the first Manchester derby since 1986, in which he'll have no formal association with either club and he admits that it feels strange to him.
"I think we'll win the league this year," he says, talking like the United fan who used to get the bus from his Salford home to stand on the Stretford End.
Giggs' former teammate Gary Neville is also by Old Trafford to do some television interviews. The interest from English and foreign media is insatiable.
"They're games that you don't want to lose," explains Neville. "I didn't enjoy playing in derbies until I won. You're devastated when you lose, but it's incredible when you win. As a fan, you want both sets of players to go at each other to see who is the best. But the managers won't want damage so early in the season."
Neville has noticed a shift at both United and City, even this early in the new season.
"There's no doubt that the feeling at the two clubs is better this season than last," he says. "With United, it feels like you're watching United again. There's excitement going into the ground. It's similar with City. There's a honeymoon period at both clubs and the reality hasn't yet kicked in that they could struggle."
On Saturday morning at 4 a.m., a bus full of United fans will leave Plymouth in southwest England; the 12:30 p.m. kickoff, a time chosen by the TV companies who pay so much to make the Premier League the richest in the world, doesn't help supporters who have to travel a considerable distance.
But the vast majority of the 75,000 crowd will come from within Greater Manchester, Britain's second biggest conurbation. For them, it's more than "just a game against a very good opponent," which is how Mourinho described the encounter at his pre-match press conference.
In the Trafford Centre, a vast, domed shopping mall built in 1998 on the opposite side of the industrial estate from Old Trafford, the Premier League trophy is on display. Fans can have their pictures taken with the silverware, which United have lifted 13 times compared with City's two.
A presenter with a microphone speaks to fans and asks them questions about United and City, requesting predictions for the game. The mood is light and corporate and the presenter doesn't notice a player from United's first-team squad, who walks past with his girlfriend.
The buildup has been incessant but the talking will stop just after noon on Saturday when reds and blues meet, with the eyes of the football world watching.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.