Red, blue and buzzing: excitement builds in Manchester for FA Cup final

When Manchester United play Manchester City for the first time in an FA Cup final on Saturday, few fans at Wembley will have travelled as far as Leon Labko to witness the Manc-Manc showdown.

A native of Melbourne, Australia, it took the 78-year-old 25 hours to fly in for the match, undeterred by having experienced heart failure three times on previous flights to watch his beloved United.

In a stagey whisper, he admitted he does not even think his team will win. But he draws hope from the memory of other games thought to be a foregone conclusion. “I remember once watching us against Burnley. We had 41 attempts on goal and it ended in a nil-nil draw. So there’s always hope,” he said, sitting on a wall outside the Manchester United Supporters Trust in Old Trafford, where he has been soaking up the pre-match excitement this week.

Labko flies to the UK four or five times a season but physically recoils at the idea that perhaps it would be easier on his pacemaker just to move to Manchester. “You’ve got to be kidding,” he said. “You guys only get about two days of sunshine a year.”

Also visiting the Theatre of Dreams on Thursday was 15-year-old Bianca O’Brien and her dad, Michael. They had flown from Tipperary to Manchester for a Coldplay gig taking place in enemy territory – the Etihad stadium. “If we are going to City’s ground, we’ve got to wear something United,” said Michael after buying training shirts at the Old Trafford megastore. The club has a special place in the family’s heart: when Bianca was little she had leukaemia and United would send her free tickets to attend matches between treatments.

Drinking a breakfast can of Monster energy drink at the Bishop Blaize, a United pub round the corner, Mike Bennett was also looking forward to Saturday’s match. With multicoloured hair and a suit covered in patches, he looked like someone you ought to recognise – which you would if you are into the Blockheads, as he is their lead singer. He described himself as a “passive fan”, until moving to a flat in nearby Media City and becoming a “massive fan”.

He hoped to squeeze in to the Bishop Blaize on Saturday and predicted a 2-1 win for United. The pub manager plonked down Bennett’s beans on toast and interjected with his own prediction: “Three-nil to City.” Hang on a minute, the manager of the nearest pub to Old Trafford is a blue? Apparently so.

Despite Manchester’s residents being forced to pick a side from birth, and FA officials begging United and City fans to take separate routes to Wembley on Saturday, most of the time the reds and blues are able to subsist in relative harmony. Over at the Townley pub in Beswick, a few minutes’ walk from the Etihad, Pauline Carroll described herself as the landlady of a “City pub with United regulars”, the walls and ceiling plastered with City memorabilia.

Some of her regulars begged to differ, pointing out that United was founded in the 19th century in nearby Newton Heath, while City played at Maine Road in Moss Side until 2003. “This is a United area,” insisted one, pointing out some graffiti at the back of the pub which made an unprintable allegation about City’s manager, Pep Guardiola.

Drinking outside in the sunshine, a group of men ribbed each other about Saturday’s game. One, a City fan, Warren, claimed that his friend Gilly, a red, was off to Wembley. “He’s a bricklayer and he’s going to build a wall around the United goal ’cos that’s the only way they can win,” said Warren. “He’ll take a load of breeze blocks too, in case Haaland [City’s star striker] has a go.”

At the Maine Road Cafe opposite the Etihad, father and son Sal and Bobby Parekh were excited about the final. They planned to watch it while serving chips to Chris Martin fans; Coldplay’s residency over the road lasts until Sunday.

For a while, after City’s move from Maine Road, the Parekhs would receive free tickets. Then, in 2012, Sergio Agüero scored a last-minute goal to win City’s first league title since 1968, and everything changed. “We can’t get tickets now for love nor money,” said Sal.

He doesn’t seem to mind: his first love is Preston North End. “I don’t support City,” he likes to say. “But City supports us.”