The reason I’m making the journey to Manchester today has very little to do with Fulham Football Club or the rarity of the Whites reaching the last eight of the FA Cup. That might be a surprising statement to read on a website that chronicles the fortunes of the Cottagers, but I hope you’ll read on. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in Manchester in the nearly four decades that have made up my life so far and met many characters. They’ve been opinionated, passionate, eccentric and, mostly, friendly. Nobody has come close to making anything like the impression that Ian Stirling left on me.

I feel guilty that I can’t remember the first time I met Ian, but throughout my time in the supporter movement he’d always been there. In the early days, as I was navigating what seemed a strange world of Supporters Direct and the Football Supporters Federation, following the successful ‘Back to the Cottage’ campaign that returned Fulham to their historic home, this larger than life character had joined what was then known as Shareholders’ United in 2004. One of my best mates at university was a lifelong Manchester United fan and, at a Supporters Direct event in north of England, Ian expressed astonishment that this strange southerner knew the words to most of the United songs that got an airing as the beers flowed. I tried to explain that this was because my friend Andy would sing the latest Stretford End ditty on his way to and from breakfast every morning, but my words might have been lost have been lost in his infectious laughter.

Ian fought the greedy Glazer takeover of Old Trafford with everything he had and I still treasure a note he sent me after a brief article I wrote railing against ruinous leveraged buyouts briefly gained some traction on one of the United message boards. Such was own anger at the way in which the Glazers were able to acquire one of the biggest names in English football – succeeding where even Rupert Murdoch had failed – that I contributed to the phoenix fund set up by the supporters. It is a testament to Ian’s resolve and character that, even after that contentious takeover, he threw himself into advocating for the fans with characteristic gusto. You’d expect nothing less from someone who proudly told you that first Old Trafford experience was watching the reserves in 1973 – when it cost 5p to watch.

Ian was a fixture wherever Manchester United played. A prominent figure in the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association as well as a key figure within the Manchester United Supporters Trust, he’d be there with his MUST colleagues on Sir Matt Busby Way before home matches, discussing the next European away trip, huddled in conversation with a supporter whose met had been banned or sharing the latest about an issue he’d relayed to the club’s officials. He made himself popular with me pretty early on by describing the brilliance of the walk to and from Craven Cottage – even if we quickly disagreed about one of the best United goals he’d ever seen. He rated Ruud van Nistelrooy’s famous dribble from the centre circle against Fulham in 2003 highly – brushing aside the Dutchman’s elbow on Sylvain Legwinski that gave him the space to get going.

He loved the fact that Fulham fans still sung about John Terry slipping up in Moscow and missing a penalty and enjoyed Edwin van der Sar’s heroics that night almost as much as regular followers of the Red Devils. Passionate about his football team, he was also far from tribal. He devoted loads of time to IMUSA and MUST matters, as you’d expect, but he was also a key figure in the moves for collective action amongst the Premier League Trust Group from 2010 onwards – fostering a spirit of co-operation with Spirit of Shankly and the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust that delivered genuine results on ticket pricing, allocations, the treatment of away supporters and, of course, came to crucial in the stopping of the European Super League. He offered helpful advice to me on how to establish relationships with owners who you’d come into the fan movement protesting against – and was always on the end of phone or ready to reply to an email if you needed him.

Ian insisted that he would know when MUST’s work had been successful once the words ‘football club’ had returned to the club crest on United’s shirts. But, as a modest man, he was never going to tell you all about what he had achieved. He quietly tended to the graves of those who had perished so sadly in Munich. He was calling for the return of safe standing long before many others within the game and committed countless hours to discussions with United, the football authorities, politicians, safety advisers, experts all around the world and anyone willing to listen. The cynics said it would never be possible, but Ian kept on battling. It finally happened in a trial against Wolves in January 2022, when as one wag quipped, the United midfield also stood safely in solidarity. The trial was successful and now both home and away fans can stand safely as they did for decades at one of England’s great homes of football.

Ian’s interests and compassionate extended beyond the beautiful game that brought us together. He volunteered at a local women’s refuge, supported several good causes across Salford and Greater Manchester and, as Andy Mitten wrote in this terrific tribute on the Athletic, he was ever so proud to tell people that his daughter Lucy had qualified as a nurse in the NHS. He quickly cottoned onto the fact that, although I was born with cerebral palsy, I didn’t need sympathy or special treatment, I just wanted to be able to enjoy the game. The time we spent together, usually before or after United had handed Fulham another pasting, remains precious.

My favourite memory will forever be a guerrilla ‘Green and Gold’ protest organised in the away end at Old Trafford in August 2012 when the anti-Glazer protests needed some more publicity. A group of Fulham fans smuggled hundreds of scarves into the stadium, battling with the stewards who saw us coming, and then heartily celebrated Martin Jol’s men taking an early lead. I was detained on the concourse whilst a sinister security guard and a very junior police constable warned me of the grave consequences of infiltrating the away end as a Manchester United fan. I told them I’d never been so offended in all my life and eventually returned to the stand just in time to see Robin van Persie volley in his first goal for his new club. Ian was incredulous afterwards that we’d got the green and gold scarves on Match of the Day – and it makes me chuckle even now.

The news that Ian had passed away after a short illness last Sunday rendered Fulham’s forgettable defeat at the hands of Arsenal utterly academic. Manchester United had never before worn black armbands in memory of someone who hadn’t played for the club, but Ian Stirling broke the mould in so many ways. I’d arranged to see Ian for the first time since before the pandemic ahead of Fulham’s next visit to Old Trafford – given that the Whites have gone up and down more frequently than a malfunctioning London Underground lift, it was never easy to predict when they would be. Sadly, he won’t be on Sir Matt Busby Way with his brothers and sisters in arms this afternoon but I know he’ll always be with us. Thanks for everything, mate.