Stars shine in new era of “Friday Night Lights” in Premier League

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MANCHESTER — Zlatan Ibrahimovic towered above Jose Fonte as Wayne Rooney‘s sublime cross hung in the Manchester air. The ball dazzled like a jewel as it was illuminated by the floodlights.

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Over 70,000 fans held their breath. Then Ibra headed home and wheeled away in celebration as the stars had combined for United in front of a prime-time audience on Friday night.

Liftoff.

To quote Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights: “Odessa is the setting for this book, but it could be anyplace in this vast land where, on a Friday night, a set of spindly stadium lights rises to the heavens to so powerfully, and so briefly, ignite the darkness.”

This setting was Manchester. And there was nothing but light at Old Trafford on Friday as a true cathedral of world soccer came to life at the center of English soccer’s newest experiment.

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The first of 10 scheduled Friday night games in the Premier League this season — the first-time in league history they’ve been a regular feature — took place as Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United beat Claude Puel‘s Southampton 2-0 with Ibrahimovic bagging both goals.

Under the bright lights on a mild late August evening in Manchester, Mourinho made his bow and so too did world-record signing Paul Pogba who started the game. The kick off of a new era of Friday night games in the PL couldn’t have been timed better.

It was box office from start to finish.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 19: Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United celebrates scoring the opening goal during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Southampton at Old Trafford on August 19, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

During the day in Manchester, fans streamed in from all over the country on trains, planes and buses. As the drizzle drifted in off the Pennines nearby, the spirits in the city center and nearer to Old Trafford weren’t dampened.

A hotel receptionist told me everywhere was fully booked in central Manchester, which isn’t usually the case on Friday’s. Fans from the USA were in town for the “big game” and there was a huge sense of anticipation about the match.

With Mourinho, Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic all under the lights, there was a special feel and intrigue about how this would go and even Manchester City’s stadium store was buzzing throughout the day ahead of Pep Guardiola‘s press conference. The entire city of Manchester was transfixed by soccer. In the past there have been few Friday games. Manchester United played in one last season at Aston Villa due to policing issues in Birmingham not allowing the game to take place on the weekend.

Apart from that, the odd Boxing Day or festive and Easter fixture date would fall on a Friday. The Enligsh Football League Championship, England’s second-tier, has had Friday night games live on TV for some time. The jury is still out on how successful they were but the PL games will undoubtedly generate plenty of interest and kick the weekend off with everyone focused on the league. On Sky Sports in the UK they launched an entire new show and line up of presenters for the games, promoting the event by making a 800 square meters mosaic of Zlatan Ibrahimovic out of United shirts.

With the Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and even La Liga trying out Friday night games for quite some time to varying degrees of success, the PL decided to give it a crack this season. Why not?

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 19: Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United celebrates scoring his team's second goal from the penalty spot during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Southampton at Old Trafford on August 19, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

There are ups and downs about having a game on a Friday. Manchester United fans Conrad and Matthew Davies stood on United Way eating a kebab and fries before the game. They told me they were concerned about the Southampton fans having to travel across the country to get to Old Trafford in time for kick off and even though they lived nearby, it took them twice as long as usual to get to the stadium. The Davies’ want to keep the Friday night games regional in the future.

For those of you in the U.S. — the majority of whom will be reading this and watching our coverage across NBC Sports’ platforms — the experience will be slightly different.

The 3 p.m. ET kick off on a Friday provides U.S. fans with plenty of options. Finish work early on a Friday and get to the bar to watch the game in NYC, Boston, Washington D.C. and elsewhere? Still have those reports to file for the weekend? Damn. It’s okay though, you can stream the games live on your phone, tablet or desktop. All is not lost.

For fans in the UK, being able to relax on your sofa and watch your team play on a Friday night on TV after a hard week at work will resonate strongly with many. Having a pint in the pub on a Friday night will also be livelier when the local team is playing on TV.

Fans who want to get to the games have had to get creative.

Harold Barbour, a Manchester United fan, got up at 4:45 a.m. on Friday and flew from Belfast’s George Best International airport. He expects the pubs in Northern Ireland to be packed on Friday.

“Everybody will be going out to watch the games, the pub will be packed out on a Friday to watch the game back home,” Barbour said. “It’s great to have it on a Friday night because you have all your work done and you can go out and celebrate.”

For Southampton’s traveling fans, the journey was made a little easier than it could have been.

Over 2,700 of them were at Old Trafford, selling out the allocation given to them. There were no planes or trains available to Southampton’s supporters after the game, with the last train back to London leaving Manchester at 9:15 p.m. local time. So, 15 minutes into the second half.

Saints fans Chris Shaw and his son Charlie traveled up on the train from Southampton on Friday  and stayed overnight in Manchester. Speaking before the game outside Old Trafford, Chris was all for the extra day of action.

“I think it is actually quite good, it breaks up the football for the week. Midweek football, Friday night football, weekend football, it gives you more football through the week which is good for everybody,” Shaw said.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 19: Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United celebrates scoring the opening goal during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Southampton at Old Trafford on August 19, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Their sponsors Virgin Media must be applauded for putting on buses for Southampton’s fans to travel up and back to Manchester (roughly a four to five hour drive) on the same day. Virgin Media have also capped away ticket prices for away fans visiting Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium at £20 (approximately $26) which is lower than the £30 agreed by all PL clubs over the summer.

Despite the long distance, expenses and everything else, Saints’ fans believed they could have sold over 8,000 tickets for this game. The interest will always be there for the PL.

“Southampton could have sold treble this number of tickets, easily,” Shaw said. “I think most people will find a way. It’s a good way to start the weekend. We are staying up here and it has been a good excuse to leave early and enjoy it.”

Measures are being put in place to make these Friday trips easier to make, but with Liverpool’s fans heading down to Chelsea for the next installment of Friday Night Football, then Crystal Palace’s fans facing a similar trip up to Everton after that, logistics are proving an issue. But then again, this is no different to a Monday night game and many believe Friday games work better than extending the PL week into a Monday.

Outside the stadium, the bustling streets of Manchester on a Friday night awaited both sets of fans. Plans were being made to continue the party elsewhere.

After a promising debut, this Friday Night Football thing could catch on…

“More Friday night games work for me,” Shaw said. “It just gives us a chance to see more football… which is our passion.”

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 19: Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United looks on prior to the Premier League match between Manchester United and Southampton at Old Trafford on August 19, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)