Darren (in green bib) pitch side view
Pitch Side At Man United: A Decade Working At The Theatre Of Dreams
Every other weekend for the last ten years I have been sprinting around the side of the pitch at Old Trafford, imagining I am Ryan Giggs or Cristiano Ronaldo, doing my part time job of match photographer messenger. It started as a job I had to help me through university but I've kept doing it alongside my full-time profession ever since. Why? Because it's the nearest thing you can imagine to playing there yourself.
Based pitch-side behind either of the goals, I assist photographers from the worlds media running their digital photo cards around the pitch to the technician’s room, where the photos will be sent to to publications and websites to be published immediately. On occasions I will also pass on information I have been given about a photo they have taken personally and want to be sent over, such as an ex player in the crowd or a players reaction to something. Having knowledge about football is key because I will get asked on occasions which photo shows the goal the best or who a certain player is. After this I then return pitch side to watch the rest of the action, until I get the nod again.
The amount of runs I do each game varies; it all depends on what happens during the game, if it's a goal, sending off or return of a former player coming on then I will have to do one because these photos need to be uploaded right away. My fitness was certainly tested in 2007 when United beat Roma 7-1.
Of all the pitch-side staff I probably have the most freedom, so I position myself so I'm near the photographers, out of site of the TV Cameras and most importantly get to see the game from the best seat in the house. The benches I sit on are right against the sponsor boards, so when a player scores you can hear that lovely sound of the net being hit. This close allows me to see goalkeeper’s reactions and players marking each other for a corner as well as the banter they have during it. I was too close a couple of seasons back when Phil Jones kept his momentum chasing down a ball and nearly came over the hoardings into the crowd. Fortunately I was there to stop him.
I enjoy pointing myself out on TV, where my celebrations to United goals can be clearly seen, Rooney’s over-head kick against city in 2011 being the most memorable. I completely lost it and ended up sprinting off down the East Stand (Score Board End) celebrating in front of the City fans. The adrenaline I felt from being that close and witnessing something like that is out of this world and if I have eight cards from different photographers at this point, mix ups are bound to happen. As I rotate the end I am at each game with another lad, I also get the experience of being based at the Stretford End, which requires running down the North Stand. We are not allowed to use the South Stand where the dugouts are, for obvious reasons. When I am running it sometimes coincides with one of the players running down the wing with the ball and at times I try to race with them to see if I can over take. Once I tried it with Antonio Valencia but got easily left behind, so orchestrated my sprint into a relaxed jog.
There have been some other embarrassing experiences doing this job. Once I ripped my bib completely off getting it caught on one of the sponsor boards at a Champions League match, which made a really loud noise and warranted the 2000 plus cheers I got from the fans. I even tried to place a nice volley back to Patrice Evra on one occasion, after the ball came my way mid-air which didn’t quite go as planned and I spooned it right past him. He grinned but also shook his head, I was gutted. The ball does come to me regularly, and I tend to throw it to one of the United players taking the corner to hurry things up or even take my time if we are winning, I like to do my bit you know, but at times my passion can overcome the fact I have a job to do. In 2009 United were leading City 3-2, it was the 88th minute and the ball came to me, but it was a City corner. I held onto the ball longer than I should have then threw it back to Edwin Van der Sar instead of Craig Bellamy who wanted to take a quick corner. “F*** you, you p***k”, came his response. To my embarrassment he scored a minute later and stuck his tongue out at me during his celebration, but Manchester United had the last laugh after Michael Owen’s injury time winner.
It can be torture being that close to the hallowed turf but not being able to go on it, but this was all about to change when I was told that I would be needed on the pitch for the presentation of the Premier League trophy in 2011 to collect the cards after the initial lift. I can’t explain how great this was and how emotional I felt, as I walked on I could see the jealousy in my mates eyes who were in the stands. It was a moment where I thought “soak it in it may never happen again”. I spent a good while filming my feet on the grass then thinking about the players who had graced this pitch and some of their memorable moments. I was only allowed to do one run back so made sure that this was done to perfection, the style of run, where I would look during it, when I would add in the Lee Sharpe skip and the route back towards the technician’s room, which is directly underneath where the away fans sit. I made sure I covered the section where Eric Cantona scored that infamous chip against Sunderland. I must have looked like an idiot to onlookers but didn’t care; I even kept a moody face as if I was totally used to this. At the time only one of the two messengers was allowed on the pitch and we had to flip a coin to decide who was going to do it. It was cruel but luckily I won. Both of us are now allowed to go on for a trophy lift and we were there for Sir Alex Ferguson’s final home game when we lifted the trophy against Swansea. It may be a while until I get this opportunity again.
Not only have I done this work for Manchester United games but also did it for England games that were played at Old Trafford before the new Wembley was built and the Soccer Aid matches, which had a concert style atmosphere. To see Maradona, Gazza and Zinedine Zidane play from this level topped it off but then to see the likes of Will Ferrell, Gerard Butler and Ricky Hatton was more confusing. It all added to the money-can’t-buy experiences I have had.
I get paid a fixed rate per game, so the more games there are the more money I earn each season, which results in me having double disappointment when they get knocked out of cup competitions. I like to go to as many away games as I can because I miss out on going to the home games, having a beer with my mates and simply just relaxing and watching the games. This being said, when there is a cup draw though, I do still hope for a home tie.
In my mind I feel like a part of the furniture, getting to know some of the country’s best photographers, CEF security staff and even being recognised by certain fans when I am at an away match. “Hey, you’re that lad that does the running aren’t you?” is what I usually hear. I’m not saying the job has gone to my head but when my mate was playing the FIFA video-game the other day I actually looked to see if they had added me in at Old Trafford where the stewards sit, as the detail on these games nowadays is impeccable, maybe I should contact them.
The way technology is going I don’t know how long this position will be open for me. There are already processes in place for the photographers to send the discs themselves, and the fact that I am in the last year of my twenties is making me start to think that it might be time to call it a day. However, I just can’t bring myself to do it because this is the one time I can say I get paid to do something I love.