On March 25, as part of mine and my nerd lobster’s cancerversary trip, I’m going to the Manchester Derby at Old Trafford. It’ll be by some distance the biggest soccer game I’ve attended. I’ve seen Manchester United play both Juventus and A.C. Milan, but those were exhibition games in New Jersey and, one incredible Diego Forlan miss aside, inconsequential to any of the clubs’ histories. But the Derby’s different; the Derby matters, no matter how the two teams are playing, and that’s good because United’s currently producing football that’s watchable in only the broadest sense of the word.
You have to understand: if I didn’t support United I think I’d despise them, along with every other so-called “big club” and everything they represent. Instead I’d support a “real” club like Southampton–or better yet, Salisbury City–and congratulate myself on my superior morality. Alas, it’s not that simple. In the 1960s my dad divided his time at the University of Manchester between the Barnes Wallis Building and the terraces of Old Trafford, where Sir Matt Busby was re-building Manchester United after the Munich air disaster and turning them into eventual European champions. It’s debatable where he spent more of his time. Old Trafford never asked him to leave; UMIST very much did, which speaks to where his priorities lay. But can you blame him? Who among us, given easy access to the genius of George Best, wouldn’t have done the same? Dad saw his earliest soccer games at the old Dell in Southampton (the same place, coincidentally, where I saw my first game) and was later a regular visitor to Goodison and Upton Park, among other grounds. But Old Trafford was his heaven.
For me, then, the decision to support United was made on my behalf long before I knew of their existence. My earliest United-related memory was hearing Graham Leggat, then the host of TSN’s Soccer Saturday, proclaim: “Relegation worries are over for Old Trafford” (1989, perhaps?). The next two are from the two 1990 F.A. Cup Finals; for the second I came home from school, turned on the TV, and heard exclaimed, “Manchester United have won the F.A. Cup!” Back then live games were as rare as hen’s teeth; now it’s unusual if United matches aren’t televised, provided of course they aren’t League Cup matches. Following the English Premier League from Canada’s become as easy as following, say, the NHL; indeed, if you don’t live in your favourite hockey team’s broadcast region it’s actually cheaper subscribing to Sportsnet World than something like NHL Game Center. I used to feel obliged to defend my love for Manchester United; I’ve thankfully gotten past that phase and realized that supporting a club because my father supports them is actually incredibly typical. The English have an antediluvian obsession with “supporting your local team.” Otherwise, the feeling goes, it’s not so much that you’re an inferior supporter as you don’t have a right to support the team at all. But with soccer (and sport in general, for that matter) becoming increasingly globalized that accusation’s as archaic as the back pass. Geography, not to mention finances, may prevent me from seeing my favourite team very often, but that doesn’t diminish the intensity of my feelings towards it. Not even David Moyes could accomplish that.
I haven’t been to Old Trafford since that fateful final day of the 2009/10 season (United needed to beat Stoke City, which they did, then hope for Chelsea to drop points at home to Wigan Athletic; in the event, Chelsea won 8-0). I’m glad to be going back, even if it’s unlikely United will retain their unbeaten record in games I’ve attended. City should win easily. For me, for once, that’s almost beside the point.