You don't need to join the club to get a seat at Old Trafford. Kate Simon tried a football package weekend, ending 30 years of hurt

It's 1 May 1976, Manchester United have just lost the FA Cup to Southampton after a jammy goal by Bobby Stokes. I am distraught. My brothers are at Wembley, watching the match. I wasn't allowed to go. These are the dark days of football hooliganism which, along with an unhealthy sexist attitude, means my parents won't countenance sending their daughter to the terraces.

It's 2006 and I'm watching my first match at Old Trafford (my interest having waned in the intervening 30 years). More importantly, it's my son's first time at a professional football game. At the tender age of six he is already a diehard Man Utd fan - his Londoner dad recruited him to the regiments of non-Manchester- based fans.

We've travelled from London to experience one of Travelcare's Dream Packages, which bundle a match ticket with a night's accommodation and other extras, including a programme and discounts in the formidable megastore. The days when my brothers would roll up and pay 35p to go through the turnstiles are long gone. Today you have to become a member to be eligible to enter a raffle that could win you the chance to... buy a ticket, price £29 to £37. For occasional visitors like us, the Dream Package offers an easier route to the terraces, if an expensive one. But then you can justify paying out to see a game by describing it to yourself as a weekend away.

And that is what it can become if you choose your hotel well. Travelcare offers several, across the star rating. Our choice was the Radisson Edwardian Manchester on Peter Street. I last entered its doors around the time Stokes scored that goal, when it was still the Free Trade Hall, a venue since Victorian times for all sorts of gatherings, from political meetings to religious services, boxing matches to classical concerts.

Only the hall's Italianate entrance has survived this latest transformation, beyond it lies a very modern hotel block connected by a glass atrium. But reminders of the past remain. The statues depicting the activities that once drew the crowds here have been cleaned up and displayed on a wall. A painting of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, which took place on the land on which the hall was built, hangs on another. In the basement, the old barrel vaults have been preserved and now house the hotel's spa, Sienna, the cosy cubby holes providing tranquil spaces for massages and beauty treatments.

The other advantage of buying a football package is the potential to make it a family weekend. This doesn't have to be a tale of women in the spa and men on the terraces, but that is a possibility. Plus Radisson's proximity to Manchester's main shopping streets adds another dimension. But we're all off to the footy. Our first visit to Old Trafford is for a tour of the ground on the eve of the match. Guided tours are in parties of about 20 and take about an hour and a quarter. We learn about the under-soil heating and take a look at the changing rooms, where pictures of the stars hang from their pegs so you might place your posterior on the spot used by your favourite player.

But the best bit is the tunnel, where a touch of theatre is added as we're split into two "teams" and encouraged to run down its slope to the recorded cheers of 76,000 fans (though my partner and son were equally wowed by the chance to be snapped against one of the advertising boards used for post-match interviews).

Our second visit was, of course, to see the match, the centrepiece of our weekend. And what a cracking game. United beating Newcastle 2-0, both goals by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, returning to form after two years out injured. He had had a long wait but, Ole, try waiting 30 years.

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HOW TO GET THERE

Kate Simon was a guest of Travelcare (0870-909 5999; travelcaresports.com) which offers a Dream Break at the Radisson Edwardian Manchester from £185 per person, based on two sharing including one night's b&b, a match ticket, match-day programme and discounts at the megastore, Red Café and venues. Other Dream Breaks are available from £99. A stadium tour (manutd.com) costs £9.50 per adult, £6.50 for children over five years of age.

Virgin Trains (08457 222333; virgin.com) offers single fares from London to Manchester from £12.50.

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