The text message arrived from Paddy at 5:44pm on Friday the 26th of April 2013.
“You busy at 4pm on Sunday?”
“Was planning to watch football down the pub, you?” I replied.
“Was planning on watching football at the stadium. Fancy joining?”
Did I fancy joining!…It was a good thing there was no-one else nearby to speak to; had there been, my voice would have been hoarse with excitement. I calmed myself down and replied, confirming that, yes, I would love to go with him. “Mate it’ll be the first time I’ve ever seen United live!” I wrote. “Actually quite emotional.”
“What?!” came his instant response. “Bloody hell.”
I know, eh. I’m a thirty-three year old football writer, I’ve supported Manchester United as long as I’ve been aware of the existence of team sport, I write about them three times a week for ESPN, and until we’d clinched the title this year I had never stepped inside the same stadium as them. And now I had a ticket to see them against Arsenal at the Emirates, sitting in the home crowd to witness the return of Robin van Persie. After the initial rush, though, I began to feel curiously hollow. Why had it taken me all this time?
Well, here’s the thing about supporting Manchester United when you’re not actually from Manchester. (Well, one of several, but we’ll get to those in a moment.) Many people compare their love of their club to a religious experience, and I can see much that is satisfying about this analogy. I was raised in the Church myself, a regular attendee of Yiewsley Methodist, so many of the parallels are resonant: the football crowd is the congregation, the manager is the passionate pastor, prowling round the pulpit of his technical area, the players his eager-to-please disciples. But there’s more to it than faith, at least in my case.
You see, as someone who grew up just outside London, telling a certain type of person that you’re a Manchester United fan is like telling a certain type of person that you’re sexually attracted to men. There’s always some explaining to do.
“When did you first realise that you were a Manchester United fan?”
“When did you first have feelings for Manchester United?”
That kind of thing. I’m pretty sure that no-one seriously asks Mancunians why they support Manchester United, the same way that no-one seriously asks heterosexual people why they are heterosexual. It just is.
By contrast, when I first came out of the closet, aged 21, I used to give a series of painful and tortuous explanations of my sexuality. I think I was doing this to put others at ease, but on reflection I was doing it to comfort myself. It must have looked profoundly awkward. It was my way of saying, “yes, I like guys; but hey, I’m still a nice bloke.” Until quite recently, I always went through the same process when revealing my footballing allegiance in particular company. “Yes, I’m a United fan; but I’m not just here for the glory”. But then I saw that if you have to explain who you are then you’re not truly happy with who you are. And so I’m slowly learning to stop.
But, still: I had never seen Manchester United live. And, two days from finally changing all that, I wondered why this was. It wasn’t for lack of passion: even now, whenever Manchester United lose, I refuse to read any match reports (unless I’m writing them) or watch any of the offending game’s highlights ever again. But it was for lack of effort. And I could blame money, or lack of time, or lack of access to tickets, but the truth is this: over the years, after the endless “London Red” jibes, you begin to soak it up, to feel that you’re not truly authentic. At some point I’d started to think that I was a second-class citizen of this great club, that I would only ever deserve to love them fiercely from afar.
Now they were near, though, and they were champions, riding into Emirates for their guard of honour. And I was sitting high up to the top right of the player’s tunnel, from where amid much muttered fury I saw van Persie and his team-mates wander out onto the field. As the jeering against the Dutchman grew, I clenched my gut. How did they dare come against one of our own? However, I remembered quickly that this was their patch, and they could do as they pleased. I watched in firmly-suppressed delight, then, as van Persie thrashed home a first–half penalty, which suddenly smothered the home side’s fire. All game long, I looked across at the heaving far corner of away fans, as they endlessly sang Michael Carrick’s tribute. I wasn’t with them; but, for the very first time, I was representing.
I mentioned feeling hollow earlier, though, and I can’t lie about that now. It’s not as if I was sobbing tears of elation for ninety minutes at finally seeing the team of my childhood. Because that’s not who United were to me anymore. I’d grown up, and so had they: from a frail club unable to make its mark to a corporate juggernaut. Though I had never been so close to the players, I had never felt less connected. They were like the kid who got bullied at school and then came back after one long summer of puberty, three inches taller with the first hint of biceps, scanning the yard eagerly, angrily and a little anxious to renew old hostilities on exciting new terms. They weren’t the United I’d identified with in my youth: the scrawny underdog desperately hoping for better days, homesick for the past because that’s where they’d been happier. No: now United had their swagger, and I didn’t recognise myself in them.
So how is supporting United these days? Well, I no longer laugh off those “London Red” jokes. The other week, after one too many from a very distant Facebook acquaintance, I unfriended him without warning; a few days later, a similar quip from a Spurs-supporting schoolmate met with a pointed silence. Petty? Probably. Childish? Certainly. But it was honest: and that, in the end, is what enjoying support for my club is all about.