A one million capacity stadium & the death of a legend

From Cape Town, we took five days to drive to East London – the forgettable South African version rather than the one full of chirpy Cockneys.

On the way, we passed by the World Cup stadium in Port Elizabeth, whose downtown is a not a place any visiting football fans wants to find themselves in after dark during the World Cup. 

The same can be said of Durban, which is very moody, though most of its suburbs are completely different. Durban, like any other South African city, is also full of taxi drivers who ignore that they have meters and try and rip off visitors.

“See that stadium,” said one such driver as we passed the splendid arena going up in Durban after agreeing a price, “it will hold one million people when it is finished.”

“What?!”

“One million people. It will be the biggest in the world.”

I went silent and let him have it. Nobody was changing his opinion and if he wants to go round telling people then that’s his shout. I once read a book on Spanish football which had the potential to be superb… except the writer quoted taxi drivers in the cities he visited as reliable sources.

Durban's (ahem) 1million capacity Moses Mabhida stadium

Durban’s World Cup stadium will seat 75,000. There will be a giant white arch right over the pitch and a capsule will take people over the pitch – though I doubt FIFA will allow it during a game.

The stadium had made much progress since my last visit in July, but I also felt sad returning to Durban. I’d arrived in the city last year with Manchester United fan Mike Dobbin.

I gave Mike a lift to the game and we got stuck in traffic for nearly two hours. As kick-off approached and it looked like we might miss the game, Mike was very nervous, for reasons you’ll read. We made the game with minutes to spare.

Mike passed away recently and we dedicated the last issue of United We Stand to him, in which I wrote the following editorial...

“He’d hate to be referred as such, but Manchester United lost its most loyal fan recently. Mike Dobbin, 61, passed away at the end of January, less than a month after finding out that he had pancreatic cancer after feeling unwell in Tokyo.

Mike’s record as a fan was staggering. The last game he missed before his illness was in 1991 when he agreed to be a godfather at a christening on the belief that it wouldn’t clash with a match. It did.

Before that, he’d missed a handful of games since the mid 60s. After ‘91, Mike watched more than 1,000 consecutive matches in all competitions including friendlies. In total, he watched United in 45 countries from Bermuda to Nigeria, Brazil to England.

He saw United at more than 250 different grounds and the last European away game he missed was Milan in 1969. Mike’s penultimate United game was the Club World Club final in Tokyo. I saw him inside the ground.

“Not feeling so good,” he said, “but it’s great to be here seeing United trying to be world champions.”

United crowned Kings of the World in Japan

I last spent quality time with Mike last summer in Cape Town during pre-season. The annoyance of a delayed flight to Durban was compensated by three hours chatting to him about his life as a red, including being the travel secretary of the United London Fan Club, a group he joined months after its inauguration when he moved from Manchester to London in 1965.

Thousands of Reds will be familiar with meeting Mike at the top of the escalators at Euston Station before a trip to see United. Many say he was the London Fan Club.

Mike told me of his plans for the next few days. It pained him that it was impossible to see the final game of the tour in Pretoria and travel to Nigeria for a friendly a day later.

He described it as “unfortunate.” So here’s what he did. He flew back to London, went straight to Oxford to watch a United XI before driving back to Heathrow and flying to Nigeria.

Mike was fortune to have the resources to travel the world, but his diligence as an accountant paid for his great love of watching the Reds.

Born in Manchester, his mother maintains that she took him in a pushchair to see the 1948 FA Cup homecoming parade. His first United memory was watching the 1957 Cup final on television, his first game in 1961 against Spurs.

Mike travelled to matches by train. “I don’t really like driving to matches because of the restrictions it places on drinking,” he told United We Stand when he appeared in ‘They Bleed Red White and Black’ in 2004.

He had to put up with all kinds of acting up from those he handed tickets out to and collected fares from, but those same people in the United family always protected him.

A quietly spoken confirmed pacifist, he read The Guardian (plus all his favourite United fanzines), liked classical music, opera and collected football memorabilia.

He owned most United league programmes going back to 1947, plus a programme from Arsenal away in 1930/31. He liked that one, not that he was one to shout from rooftops. A quiet, considerate man, his seat was on row 11 of the Main Stand, just to the left of the half-way line.

Mike’s idol was Denis Law, with whom he had the privilege of sitting next to at a dinner years after The King had retired. “It was as marvellous to talk to him as it was to see him play,” he said.

Few would argue with Mike’s best XI of Schmeichel, Dunne, Pallister, Buchan, Irwin, Beckham, Robson, Charlton, Best, Law, Hughes, with subs being Bailey, G Neville, Crerand, Keane, Cantona.

The Holy Trinity guard Old Trafford

It’s also important to remember those off the pitch like Mike. His record of matches is unique and deserves celebration. He would admit that he made a lot of sacrifices to watch United, but he never boasted about the number of games he went to, nor cast aspersions on others – unless they were selling a ticket above face value.

We’ll miss Mike and his ginger beard and we dedicate this issue of United We Stand to his memory. Rest In Peace.”

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