Living large at Old Trafford a rare yet pensive enjoyment
Fabulous three-course banquet at United's home couldn't stop thoughts from turning to the disquieting state of the beautiful game
The food was better than the Wednesday night football at Old Trafford this week.
There, in the fabled Theatre of Dreams, the pre-Manchester United v Southampton supper menu offered "confit chicken and red onion chutney terrine with toasted brioche" or "cream of cauliflower soup with herb croute" to start. That is followed by "21-day dry-aged striploin of prime English beef with Yorkshire pudding" or "coriander marinated hake" and a smorgasbord of delicate desserts and fine cheeses for pudding.
The three-course banquet lasted the two hours before kick-off and there was much football to discuss - as well as stars to be spotted. "Executive Club: Get Close to Greatness" read the signs in the hospitality suites and this proved so. Alex Stepney, Bryan Robson and Paul Scholes were just a few of the United legends seen strolling to their dining tables or to their prime stadium seats behind the dugout.
From the walls of the ridiculously expensive hospitality boxes hung pictures of George Best, Bobby Charlton, et al - an entire galaxy of talent to dazzle first-time visitors and regulars. Black-and-white photos of the fans - hordes of smiling, cheering men and boys in flat caps from the 1920s to the 1960s - stared down upon us.
The spectre of Roy Keane and his dislike for the seafood sandwich brigade prevented an extravagant order of the Lanson Gold Label Vintage champagne at HK$1,000 a pop.
Instead, modest pints of local ale were ordered and we supped, soaking up the critical corporate mass and predicting the final score until the food started to arrive in the hands of our very own and attentive waitress, Clementine - a far cry from the burger van vendors outside St Mary's.
Working the plate of terrine, it was noted that the standard of the EPL might be on the wane. Last weekend's FA Cup thrillers saw several top sides knocked out by lowly opposition. We chomped and nodded in greement that the mega-rich golden boys were being upstaged by the leagues' wage slaves.
As beer and beef was sipped and chewed, the Stretord End, visible through the vast floor-to-ceiling picture window, began to fill along with the other 75,000-plus seats. The "warm chocolate pecan pie with pistachio Anglaise" was the pudding of choice to help digest the next burning topic - the radical proposal by the British government to overhaul with tough legislation the way English football is run.
A "withering parliamentary report" was released this week and criticised the failure by those who run English football to introduce new financial controls and increase the influence of fans over how their clubs are governed. The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee threatened to legislate the game unless there was "clear progress" by the 150-year-old Football Association to clean up the game within 12 months.
"If football does not deliver then we will look at bringing forward legislation," Hugh Robertson, the sports minister warned.
Will this mean the FA will be thrown out of the game by Fifa for contravening its non-governmental interference rule, we queried as we stirred our coffee cups.
The expanding, gaping wealth gap between the leading clubs and the rest is a delicate meal-time subject at Old Trafford. This week it was revealed that United are, cording to Forbes, worth a whooping US$3 billion.
Of course, United fans know all about hostile takeovers and thousands protested the debt-funded model of their owners. There is universal consensus that it is we supporters who sustain the game economically - whether through tickets or television subscriptions - and who have the long-term interests of the game at heart.
A fairer distribution of wealth in the game and the removal of barriers to collective fan ownership of clubs can only be applauded.
But would English football go the way of Nigeria's and other nations where governments meddle in football, and be expelled from the global football family?
"Unthinkable, surely," we said as we made our way to the stands and watched a battling Southampton pepper United's goal, only for Wayne Rooney's brace to save face and ensure Ferguson's men brought home the bacon.
Down the Munich Tunnel we wandered after the game, past the flickering flame that burns in tribute to fallen heroes. We observed Reds fans clamouring behind railings, begging and pleading with the departing stars to sign an autograph before they hopped into their marquee cars. The stewards looked on with menacing stares, pouncing on those who dared lean too far over the barrier. Most of the players hurried past and roared away, their lucrative 90-minute shift over.
Two veteran United fans, both in their mid-sixties, brought alive the old photos of fans in the hospitality suites as we walked out of the ground. They regaled us with stories of how players such as George Best would play with fans on the streets around the ground back in the day, and how French star Eric Cantona preferred to live in a modest semi-detached house in the city and not in some country mansion, far removed from those who paid his wages.
"And now you have this gluttony swirling around these vain young men who, when you look it from the stands, just kick a ball about on pitch. But do we really need politicians telling us how to run the game? They're just as bad," lamented one fan, with a sweeping hand back at the players who had left their fan base for dust.
Dining corporate style at Old Trafford is a fabulous once-in-a-blue-moon treat. But it is best not to read the menu with rose-tinted glasses. To do so leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.