Jack: A search for the toughest ticket in Manchester

Kristian Jack
8/27/2013 10:54:53 PM
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"After a ticket are ya mate? Geezer, you've got no chance bruv. Big money."

Despite being the youngest member of the 'tout gang' it was clear that this was the lad I would have to deal with.

If the kid who played 'Malcolm in the Middle' moved to England, spent the last 10 years in Manchester, bought an entire wardrobe collection of Nike shell suits and New York Yankee caps, with the peak bent upwards, this would be him.

I didn't even bother explaining to him the purpose of my visit to Old Trafford.

That had already happened a couple of minutes earlier when I chatted with one of his lieutenants, a man who I swore lived inside a caravan with Brad Pitt in the movie 'Snatch'.

"Hello mate, I came from Canada and I want to do a story on how hard it is for a fan to just show up to one of the biggest games of the season and get a ticket. Would you do a quick interview?"

I thought it was a pretty polite request but Malcolm's bouncer - we'll call him “Lee” - stared down at me and didn't say a word. I had gotten his message. Loud and clear.

Malcolm was now nervously shifting his eyes everywhere, yet with me still in his presence, knew I was a serious customer here.

I tried my luck with Lee again to see he if he hadn't actually lost his tongue in an illegal fight auditioning for Snatch.

"Is it actually against the law then around here to sell tickets to the public?"

"Sorta," he replied.

I was relieved. Not only had Lee found his tongue but I now had an explanation for Malcolm's out-of-control jitters.

Then they got the better of him. "We've been shopped let's move now... Stay there mate. We'll be back," he shouted on the run.

I was pretty sure he was talking to me although his barbarian of a mate had been chatting up a couple of potential clients from Europe wearing skinny Ronaldo shirts with Rafael Nadal pants on… you know, the ones the Euro's love.

My new mate Malcolm had bolted after seeing two gentlemen in Manchester United official blazers scope the area, but in reality they cared more about who was being let in to the posh car park they were minding. I found that out pretty quickly as I waited and wandered, albeit not too far from the area I was instructed to stand.

And so there I was, stuck on a corner of a road staring at the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand, four hours before kick-off, relying on Malcolm in the middle of a freaking super dodgy ticket ring.

Before I had bumped into these two 'geezers' I had already scoped half of the ground and found little activity. One guy was muttering 'any spare tickets?' under his breath but when I asked him if he had any he told me he was strictly a fan looking for one himself. He cared little for my story but at least had the decency to shake my hand in my pursuit of getting a ticket for less than 200 quid.

It was clear he had been lying about looking to sell tickets, by the way, because I later saw him doing some deal himself. I hadn't visited Old Trafford as a fan for 15 years and I will admit that this side of ticket touting, as it is called in England, surprised me. This was a more seedy underworld than I imagined, however. Weighing up the evidence on show - such as it being the first game of the season, under new manager David Moyes, against Chelsea, and the return of Jose Mourinho, - all certainly pointed towards it being quite possibly Malc's 'cup final'. At this moment, though, it seemed he was bottling his big game, like many of his countrymen have done once a ball has been placed on a penalty spot.

I know some people who have got no time for touts (or scalpers as they are known in North America) but I have never felt that way. As a mad sports fan I have paid my own way into big events such as finals at Wembley, Indy 500's, a Game 7 of a Stanley Cup final and a Super Bowl, but usually these accomplishments are achieved by planning in advance and knowing when tickets go on sale. If people do that for a living then good luck to them, that's my thought.

Usually, however, I am prepared enough to not have to deal with them but this time I had a project to do, so just where had Malcolm gone?

It felt like half-an-hour but it was probably more like 15 minutes when Lee led his reappearance like a prize fighter walking into the ring. Mighty Malc was back, shell suit jacket and cap missing, wearing a red Man United golf polo shirt with a dozen match day programmes in his hand. Confidence restored... Impressive. The bottler had reinvented himself to try and close some deals masquerading as a worker for the club.

His next move was to get on his phone and pretend to be talking to his girlfriend shouting pretend directions to her while walking past me. I got the hint and figured I needed to follow him.

I had obviously gained his trust as the bouncer stayed put but I was soon to realize they were not just a double act. Walking towards us was now an older man in a large brown coat puffing on what looked to be cigarette number 31 of the day.

Malc took control: "Right show it him."

Smokey opened up his wallet and showed me a card with a random name on it. It was the last thing I wanted. I wanted a ticket not some season card, which may or may not be legit, belonging to some lad in Ibiza for the week.

"150 quid and you have to meet us back here after the match ‘cos it's my cousin's pass," he ordered, in between coughs.

The money was within the budget but it didn't feel right. To be honest I think I had made my mind up, not to deal with this group, the moment he turned into a programme seller. I wasn't buying what they were selling and Lee moved in to find out what the problem was.

Malc the Manc was fuming. "He's all nervous and stuff," he told the big man.

Takes one to know one, I thought.

"You are not getting in, then, mate. That's it … Programmes! Who wants programmes?!" his voice getting louder as he walked away. I sensed their desperation in our final minutes together and knew his chances of moving a single season pass were slimmer than me finding another ticket.

It was 5pm and still three hours to kick-off. I walked down Matt Busby Way, where a lot of street vendors stood. It looked like a busy place where tickets would be available. I was right. I saw the Ronaldo-Nadal boys looking at their new found tickets. I asked them who sold them and, after finding out they got the pair for 250 pounds, hunted down a much friendlier fella than Malc and his mates.

My new mate for the minute was Wayne, who even found time to ask about Canada when he found out where I had come from.

"Follow me down here mate."

We were now in an alleyway at the back of houses, shielded by the clean laundry being hung out to dry in the locals' back gardens.

I asked once again about the legality of his work.

"It's ridiculous, mate. If we are seen selling tickets, it's a thousand pound fine. You are technically allowed to sell tickets but just not for a profit. Honestly, it's stupid. People sell drugs up the road and yet we have to do it like this."

I didn't feel much better but Wayne's World was certainly friendlier than the Snatch gang… although a bit pricier.

"I have a single seat. It's 200 quid."

Thirty seconds later I had talked him down, he left with three 50 pound notes and I had a ticket that looked legitimate.

I couldn't wait for 6pm to make sure it was legal, but I had to. Time spent in the club megastore was like being in an airport; different nationalities and accents everywhere and lines bigger than the check-in gate for a five quid Easyjet flight to Paris.

Thousands of people were now outside Old Trafford, with many clearly being there for the first time in a while, identified quite easily by wearing those bizarre match day scarves, half Chelsea, half Man United, that are never bought by regular fans for obvious, common sense reasons.

At 5:54pm the turnstiles unexpectedly opened early. Sixth in line to enter my section in the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand I scanned my ticket, the light flashed from red to green, and I had done it. I had mingled with the 'ticket gangs' and got a seat 11 rows from the pitch. I was in the ground so early I witnessed a stewards meeting where one of the new men in a green vest was getting destroyed for being a City fan.

The next two hours up to kick off proved to be almost as interesting as the two hours following it. Watching a 75,000+ stadium wake up from nothing to full capacity is exhilarating. I cannot recommend it enough.

The rest of the night was very enjoyable. Sure, the game was grim in parts, but hearing both sets of fans chant 'Rooney Rooney' was entertaining as were the topics being discussed at half-time amongst the home supporters as they chomped on their Holland Pies and sipped their Singha beer.

The man on the lips of the entire stadium probably was the game's best player but it was equally enjoyable to watch Chelsea's front four try to execute moves I had watched them do so closely in the warm-up.

The game ended 0-0 but there were very few groans. I certainly left with a smile on my face. After all, I didn't have to go and meet Smokey and his mate Malc.

Who knows what he would have been dressed like by then?

Old Trafford (Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)


(Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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