In 2013 Kevin O’Donnell, of When Saturday Comes and the Guardian but no relation to which our esteemed Stretty News editor is willing to confess, wrote the following when discussing why he switched loyalties from one club to another late in life:
Boys in my school typically supported teams their dads supported, or chose one of the big clubs from TV. Let’s face it, when your nearest League side is over two hours away by car, everywhere is far away. You may as well choose Liverpool, Manchester United or table-topping Swansea City (yes, it was the early 1980s).
His reasons for “ditching” his unnamed club were the distasteful behavior of its entrenched manager and club talisman, the proverbial last straws foisted on a camel apparently long saddled with a burden of petty, low-class boorishness. On a certain level I can sympathize. As is inevitable in the modern game there have been times when I’ve been disappointed, even disgusted, with each of the three clubs (in different sports) I now support.
Yes I used the word now. Although I’ve always been attached to two of those teams, hockey’s Toronto Maple Leafs and baseball’s New York Yankees, my choice of Manchester United was a secondary one. In my defense I had no other option but to choose a new club. I didn’t move on because the team I once loved became incorrigible, descended into mediocrity, or relocated, but because they and their entire league were relegated right out of existence.
I originally followed the now defunct North American Soccer League’s New York Cosmos. Although I grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, I was born on the outskirts of New York City and visited family every few years. On a summer trip in 1978, when I was fourteen, my uncle took me to the Meadowlands to see the Cosmos. Although I was a year too late for Pelé the experience threw open a door that led to completely new possibilities.
For anyone who grew up in United’s Ferguson era a collection of world-class players wearing the same kit is old hat. For a boy new to the game it’s a different story. Seeing a club with stars like Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, and Giorgio Chinaglia inspired, especially in the company of an uncle who, amazingly for an American of the time, was familiar with each of their legendary careers. The side also featured Red Star Belgrade’s legendary playmaker Vladislav Bogićević and Man City striker Dennis Tueart. I loved the way Beckenbauer and Bogićević seamlessly combined to build the attack. In the league final that year, Tueart scored twice to earn man of the match honors and, watching on ABC’s iconic Wide World of Sports, I couldn’t have been happier. Apologies but at the time I had no idea who City were. Or United for that matter.
Back then Wide World of Sports was perhaps the only program on Canadian or American television which broadcast something other than the traditional North American competitions. With ice hockey’s 1972 Super Series between the Soviets and Canada’s best NHLers I had begun to be aware of the outside world. The OPEC Oil Embargo and the subsequent influx of fuel efficient compact cars from Japan meant everyone on the continent was being forced to acknowledge the rest of the planet’s existence. I was one of the few who didn’t wish it would just go away and leave us alone. When I saw the Cosmos for the first time six years later—I’d see them live once more in 1980 with Panamanian winger Roberto Cabanas and Dutchman Johan Neeskens added to the squad—I knew I wanted that door to the wider world to stay open.
Sadly it didn’t. By 1984 NASL had folded, the victim of overspending and poor marketing in a culture as yet unready to make room for the world’s game. For more than a decade, until both technology and North American sporting interests evolved to the point where I could actively follow a club, I was cast adrift on an empty sea.
Other than World Cup coverage every four years, I was limited to a scant inch or two of weekly results and tables in the back of the sports pages. Cable television didn’t begin to flex its muscle until the 90s. Even then foreign content wasn’t considered desirable. Aussie Rules represented ESPN’s first experiment in that regard, a brand of football more in keeping with American sensibilities than the European variety. Still footy had gotten in my blood and I stubbornly clung to the few lifelines available.
From the beginning of my forced exile the team I looked for in the fixture lists was United. I’m not entirely sure why.
In NASL’s last years Toronto Blizzard, just down the road, became a power in the league. They featured former United defender Jimmy Nicholl, the Northern Irelander who, like Owen Hargreaves, was actually born in Canada. Although I didn’t support the club, local coverage was all the media provided. I scoured the few Blizzard articles hoping for scraps about the Cosmos. Maybe reading about Nicholl planted a seed in my mind.
It certainly wasn’t that United were bossing the First Division. The early 80s were Liverpool’s era, with Everton, Villa, and Forest also winning titles. I’m not sure why Mr O’Donnell lumped the Swans in there as well. They’ve never been a force in the top flight. Perhaps he meant So’ton. Regardless the best United could manage was the odd third place finish.
When people nowadays hear I support United and the Yankees they tend to assume I’m a bandwagon fan. Forty-five years of following the hapless Maple Leafs, hoping against hope only to be crushed time after time, puts the lie to that however. Although the current generation of Red Devils faithful had known nothing else until David Moyes reeducated them, my early affinity with Manchester red was anything but worship at the feet of conquering heroes.
My family ties were never what you would call strong. My mother has emotional issues which have led her to isolate herself from the rest of her family. By her choice we haven’t spoken for over thirty years. My sister, seven years the younger, hasn’t spoken with her in something like twenty. We’ve both put over a thousand miles between us and the woman who brought us into the world. In the mid-80s my mother and I still talked occasionally but the wedge had been sledgehammered in and was relentlessly driving us apart. Although I don’t know what originally captured my attention, lack of family is why I think United ultimately appealed to me. It may have just been the name itself. United. You always want you can’t have, right?
By the time the late 90s rolled around, the door to my family had closed but the one to the world had reopened. A World Cup had been played on American soil and MLS had been born. I could have adopted a new American club. New York had one but it wasn’t the Cosmos. DC had a United but it wasn’t the United. I was still at sea, too, albeit literally rather than figuratively now. I had embarked on a career in the yachting industry, traveling as crew and working with Brits, Irish, Aussies, Saffers, and Kiwis, not to mention other nationalities. Matches were available on the satellite and there was sufficient talk about football and rugby to make up for my long isolation. Moreover Alex Ferguson was building a more than quarter-century long dynasty with an unending procession of stars. Schmeichel, Staam, and Cantona gave way to Keane, Van der Sar and Fergie’s Fledglings. Then a Scouser crewmate began crowing about how some bulletheaded 17-year-old streetballer was going to raise Everton back to their rightful place and put United in theirs. Funny how that turned out. The important thing, though, is my mate still swears by the Toffees and I live and die with the Red Devils. Loyalties to the side each of us will admit the other really isn’t too bad.
I said I can sympathize with Mr O’Donnell. I don’t know that I can understand him though. If you look at the game from top to bottom, from Sepp Blatter on down to beer leagues in Brazil, corruption and amorality are everywhere. It’s highly improbable you can find a club with an unimpeachable reputation and United is certainly no exception. Roy Keane and Eric Cantona’s brutality, Fergie’s treatment of match officials, and even Wayne Rooney’s hair transplant, a crime against nature, have all sullied the club’s good name. Forget finding another club. If you walk away from the game entirely you still won’t escape the negatives. Such people exist in every aspect of society. You have to live with them and their actions, accepting they have marred the beauty of that you hold dear, but then hold on, continuing to recognize what is right and good in what you love.
That is the enduring bond which makes Manchester United. However they come to it, supporters of West Ham, Sheffield, Newcastle, and all the other Uniteds (including DC) feel it as well. So do the faithful of clubs who may not be united in name but are in spirit. There is a warm comfort in being wrapped in history and tradition, regardless of trophies and results, and in spite of changing personnel, styles of play, and racial demographics. It doesn’t matter that Fergie couldn’t go on forever, or whether Moyes disappointed me, Ed Woodward is a buffoon, and Louis van Gaal always seems to be the pride before the fall. As with every other supporter who loves United, the club is in my hands, not theirs. Speaking for myself and unlike Kevin O’Donnell, no one is going to chase me away.