It was only around 300 people stood in the middle of the road on Chapel Street in Salford, but it would become the most significant use of direct action carried out by supporters of a Premier League club in recent memory, one that would ultimately lead to the postponement of the biggest fixture in English football.
The X41 to Accrington was at the head of the line of traffic backed up towards Salford Central station because of these fans, but the fans themselves were only there to stop two other buses from reaching their destination: namely, the ones that would carry the Manchester United players and staff from the Lowry Hotel to Old Trafford to play Liverpool.
The United squad meets at the Lowry before practically every game, where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his players enjoy a pre-match meal before making the short trip to Old Trafford. On Sunday, they were shut-ins, unable to leave the building and there for six hours longer than usual.
Some like Marcus Rashford and Brandon Williams passed the time by looking out of the hotel’s long, large windows, observing the remarkable scenes below.
There, they could see a smaller group of fans cut off from the main protest, stood around the team coaches and penned in by police officers, yet still loudly demonstrating against the 16 years of the Glazer family’s ownership and, more recently, their attempt to join the breakaway Super League.
Further up the road, where Quay Street meets Chapel Street, hundreds more blocked the only exit route for two coaches the size of those that carry United to and from matches, preventing the players from leaving the Lowry complex. These fans were engaged in a tense but non-violent stand-off with the police, who stood between them and the hotel.
There was drinking, there was chanting, flares were set off. The atmosphere was peaceful and even jovial but it was also defiant. Police tried to persuade the supporters to disperse by warning them that they could cause the game to be postponed. That could be described as ill-judged, at best. It was exactly why many, if not all of them, were here.
The pitch invasion at Old Trafford made that all the more likely. When the first videos of the invasion emerged, a chant of “United, on the pitch! United, United, on the pitch!” started up. Tales of stolen match balls and corner flags began to fly around but while the invasion came and went, the Lowry blockade persisted and made any chance of the game being played impossible.
Meanwhile at Old Trafford, as well as the large demonstration on the forecourt on Sir Matt Busby Way that led to the invasion, a smaller group of fans patrolled the staff entrance on the other side of the ground, assembling themselves at the security gate that the team buses would come through should they ever arrive.
On the gates, they hung a banner reading: “Glazers Out, Woodward Out, Over £1bn Stolen From MUFC”, only now with a red line marked through Woodward’s name. “He’s off anyway”. There was idle talk of blocking the buses here as well, though some of those present freely admitted they were not as militant as those gathered outside the Lowry. Still, they kept a close eye on those coming and going.
The drivers of people carriers with tinted, blacked out windows were stopped and asked for the identity of their passengers. One even opened the automatic sliding door of his vehicle to prove once and for all it was empty, which earned him cheers from the supporters and a telling-off from a security guard.
They made way for vehicles to go through the gates. A St John’s Ambulance was allowed to leave the Old Trafford car park, prompting one fan to shout: “Here’s Phil Jones!” The injury-plagued United defender’s last appearance for the club pre-dates the pandemic.
As the scheduled 4.30pm kick-off time came and went, the fans watched the rolling coverage on Sky Sports and the pundits’ attempts to fill dead air. Graeme Souness’ claims that the fans’ anger against the Glazers was “misdirected” were ridiculed, but the tacit support for the protests from Gary Neville was welcomed, albeit begrudgingly. “It’s only taken him 15 years,” one remarked.
Finally, at around 5.45pm, confirmation that the game had been postponed arrived. Some fans were concerned that the announcement may be a “smokescreen”, that they and the others at the Lowry would disperse only for the buses to leave the hotel and the match to be played anyway. The line from Joel Glazer’s post-Super League apology about “rebuilding trust” came to mind.
For many of the United fans who demonstrated on Sunday, it was never there in the first place.
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