Key Points:

This is a dream come true. I'm walking down the tunnel towards the hallowed playing surface at Old Trafford and the crowd is going mad.

The noise is deafening and as we approach the end it gets even louder as the fans break into a chant: "Uni-ted, Uni-ted."

Suddenly I'm out of the tunnel and standing beside the legendary green playing area of what they call the Theatre of Dreams.

The chant changes into the grand old Manchester United song, "Hello, hello, we are the Busby Babes" and I look up to see ... row upon row of empty seats.

Sadly, I haven't suddenly become a member of the most famous football team in the world, this is just the grand finale of a tour of their museum and stadium.

The noise is only a recording and there's a metal barrier between me and the pitch where the ground staff are manicuring the perfect surface. But just being there is the realisation of a dream.

Although I'm a rugby fanatic, I've been a Man U fan for nearly 40 years, since I was on my OE in Britain and watched the television coverage of their fabulous 1968 European Cup victory over Benfica.

Since then I've followed results, occasionally seen games on television, and acquired a Ryan Giggs shirt and a Man U cap, but I've never been to Old Trafford, let alone to a game.

So when I knew I was going be near Manchester around Christmas, it was a fantastic opportunity to catch up with my team for the first time.

Looking around Old Trafford is easy enough to do. They run tours of the stadium and museum every day, except when there's a game.

The museum covers three floors and is packed with gleaming trophies, photos of great players, signed jerseys, displays covering the greatest moments in the club's history and clips of the team in action.

And then you get to check out the directors' box, the dugout with heated flooring where the substitutes sit, the team dressing room and finally the tunnel to the pitch and the chanting fans.

But getting into an actual game is much more challenging. This is one of the most successful clubs in the world and they have a waiting list for tickets.

Visit Britain, the British tourist organisation, and Manchester Tourism, the city's promotional body, approached the club on my behalf for tickets to the Boxing Day clash between Man U and Wigan.


I sent emails explaining that I was a lifelong fan who wanted to come to a game to write a story about it.

No reply.

In desperation I turned to the internet. The prices were fairly steep but this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a chance to see the best in the world in action and that is priceless.

So I sold the car and bought two tickets.

On Boxing Day we headed to Manchester, checked into our hotel and set out to walk to the ground.

As we got closer we found ourselves part of a trickle of other fans, then a stream, then a river and finally a vast torrent.

Down Sir Matt Busby Way we poured and there it was: Old Trafford, with a statue of Sir Matt outside, a giant picture of Wayne Rooney over the entrance, souvenir hawkers and touts on all side and mounted police keeping an eye on proceedings.

The vast stadium filled incredibly smoothly - a record crowd of 76,018, they announced - the singing and chanting rose in volume and the teams took the field.

What followed was a fantastic experience. The football, to my untutored eye, was superb, far better than the World Cup matches I had watched on television.

And the atmosphere was marvellous. There seemed to be songs for every player and every occasion.

When Rooney created several chances the fans burst into "walking in a Rooney wonderland ...".

When Ronaldo scored twice just after halftime they sang, "he plays on the left, he plays on the right, oh Christiano Ronaldo ...".

In between were songs about United's past glories, greats of yesteryear like Eric Cantona and, of course, "the Busby Babes ...".

The Wigan fans were even more impressive noise wise. At 3-0 down they came up with a song about how that sort of score didn't bother them and, anyway, Man U's players might be good but their supporters were ... um ... inadequate.

And so it went, back and forth, on the field and in the stands, until the game was over and United had won 3-1.

As we left we were still on a high.

If you have even the slightest interest in sport and you're going to Europe, then you should sell the car, mortgage the house, pawn the family silver and get tickets to a big game.

You won't regret it.

Jim Eagles visited Manchester as guest of Visit Britain and Emirates.