Survival kit contents check. In them you’ll find: one forty-five caliber automatic; two boxes of ammunition; four days’ concentrated emergency rations; one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills; one miniature combination Russian phrase book and Bible; one hundred dollars in rubles; one hundred dollars in gold; nine packs of chewing gum; one issue of prophylactics; three lipsticks; three pair of nylon stockings. Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff. – Major “King Kong”, Dr. Strangelove
You’ve met them before. They’re the Friday night fan type, the ones who think the hat is cool to wear to the college bars as they hover around the juke playing bad hip hop. The hat makes them “original”, they think, as they fist pump to O.A.R. amidst the fratastic throngs. Wearing the jersey is rare, a customized jersey rarer. It’s a fashion faux-pas, they’ll tell you. Why wear the team’s shirt when you can wear your Lacoste polo and your team hat, the one with “character” that looks like they ran it over in the parking lot and rubbed it in some Georgia red clay right before they walked into the party.
Oh yes, you’ve met them before. What they lack in passion they make up for in predictability. They studied abroad, didn’t you hear? That’s when they fell in love with the game. That was years ago, they’ll say, even if it wasn’t. This is because devotion is always more genuine with a lengthy time-stamp. They studied abroad and that’s when they swore allegiance. Damn the geographical nonsensical nature of that allegiance, they’ve no time for your arguments about logistics. They spent a year in London studying art and that’s why cheering a team from the industrial northwest with all its attendant mill town culture, brutish and Thatcher politics was the only real option. The teams in London simply aren’t compelling narrative, not when they can align themselves with an old-world Pittsburgh. They don’t like the Steelers too, or at least most of them don’t, but that’s because they’re from Tampa, Indianapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, not that they are inconsistent or insincere.
You’ve met them before. You tried to have a discussion about the game and it ended with a sheepish grin, a finger wag, a premature pounding of the remainder of a pint and a bellow of the team name as they walked away. What they lack in intensity they make up for in number. What they lack in insight, pride and understanding they make up for in well-timed Facebook statuses and final score recitations.
Not that this is all bad. The more intense a fan base, the more prone to conflict and confrontation. The testosterone inherent to loving anything that much guarantees the line between revelry and riot is always paper-thin. In this respect, you’ve met them before, and they are a breath of fresh air, the guy you deal with on a Friday night because he’s buying the shots Saturday during the football game, and in that moment, you’re on the same side.
You’ve met them before. You see them get on the subway at Chambers and Park Place on a Saturday afternoon, skinny jeans and satchel, crisp new hat and blue and white Adidas shoes, headed to Central Park to play softball, or hope to the village to see a buddy’s band. Practicing that New Yorker art form, the one that takes years to perfect, you stare right through them. You roll your eyes, and waste a few precious moments of life on self-justification. Maybe they’re from there, you think, or they have a charming story to tell, one you’ll never hear and never ask about. The never asking and never knowing is the good part. It means you can make the story up yourself and you don’t have to start it with “I spent this epic year studying abroad in London.” No, your version is better than that—it’s charming and quaint, honest and endearing. It makes it all that much easier to swallow.
Yes, you’ve met them before. They are the fans of Manchester United. And I hate them. I hate their club too, but that hatred is more impotent rage, the kind an Orioles fan feels towards the Yankees, the kind a Red Sox fan felt before 80 years of misery ended and birthed a sea of pink hats, ushering in a renaissance of Irish pride. Who knew so many people were from Massachusetts? The Mayflower must have been one hopping boat. I digress, but it’s hard not too when one thinks of United. The bitterness and the jealousy, the lack of a fighting chance in the grand scheme of things, your hopelessness in the sea of their success demands tangential discourses to nowhere. You can’t fight them out there. They won’t make it worth it and the team will probably beat you anyway. Out there, it’s about survival. It’s about loathing because it is pure to loathe: clean, honest, old-fashioned. There’s no point in not being invested either—you can’t match them, apathy for apathy. You already care too much. So grab your survival kits, and understand you know the type. You know the Manchester United fan. Bloody Red Devils.
One other thing, one that needs to be said. They aren’t going away. All you can do is loathe, seethe to survive, even if they don’t care. This approach has worked for me, allowed me to weather all manner of beatings, disappointments, inevitabilities. In a way, my unrequited loathing has replaced resignation with a sullen contentment. And that, my friends, is how I stopped worrying.
General “Buck” Turgidson: Doctor, you mentioned the ratio of ten women to each man. Now, wouldn’t that necessitate the abandonment of the so-called monogamous sexual relationship, I mean, as far as men were concerned?
Dr. Strangelove: Regrettably, yes. But it is, you know, a sacrifice required for the future of the human race. I hasten to add that since each man will be required to do prodigious… service along these lines, the women will have to be selected for their sexual characteristics which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature.
Ambassador de Sadesky: I must confess, you have an astonishingly good idea there, Doctor.
As to what I learned to love, this was far more difficult. I myself have my romanticized sporting loyalties. The Atlanta Braves drive me mad. Their current fade towards another playoff-less campaign is heart-wrenching.
With regard to my alma mater, the University of Florida, the deployment of the classic loyalist fan drug metaphor is not altogether uncommon. I am “hooked,” “addicted”, and suffer “withdrawal” when seasons end too soon or a brutal loss leaves me feeling empty. On occasion, this anger even “brings out the worst in me”, as anyone near me in the wake of last year’s SEC Championship game defeat to Alabama will sadly remember (Sorry, Sam).
Everton nearly drives me to similar levels of attachment. Rick Parry, CEO of the Premier League in the 1990s, once stated as if it were fact the loyalist, one-club-till-death sentiment: “You can change your job, you can change your wife, but you can’t change your soccer ream….You can move from one end of the country to another, but you never, ever lose your allegiance to your first team. That’s what English soccer is all about. It’s about fierce loyalty, dedication.”
Perhaps. And yet, we’re living at a time where the Hornbyesque monogamy to any particular squad is antiquated and romantic, if not wholly gone forever. I’ve written above about post-championship Red Sox flight, and that’s the tip of the iceberg. One only need look at table-topper defending champion Chelsea to see a similar dynamic. Many of you will dispute this claim. That’s fair. It’s even endearing. We all admire the fanatic, the man with roots. It’s a longing for a different time, for roots. It’s the same urge that drives the narrative about the United fan on the subway train. But it’s not reality anymore. Fans jump from side to side, ship to ship. There’s a reason there are so many United fans. I’ll never be one. But I’ve learn to stop worrying. I’ll always love the game, and that’s enough.
Every now and then, acceptance that the game itself, the wonder of it, the brilliance of competition, is enough even absent monogamous loyalty, provides ample reward. The first such moment for me happened in 1999, on a too hot for golf summer Saturday afternoon in central Florida. Bill Clinton was busy finishing his Bridge to the 21st Century, and satellite televisions were one of the early gifts the technological boom that made this a fine looking bridge issued to the public at-large. A neighbor had a satellite, and we tuned in to watch his new favorite team, “Manchester United”, play an FA Cup match against rival Arsenal.
Manchester United were down to ten men. Arsenal was taking the game to their opponent, and a pair of college freshman watching an ocean away were ready to hop on the Arsenal bus. It had been, in a word or two, an exercise in midfield domination. In an eyelash, all this changed. Patrick Viera took the ball and moved left to right through the Manchester center. Spotting a run from a right back, he fired a pass towards the sideline. The pass was errant, and in a moment’s time the Manchester United winger who intercepted it began weaving his way through the Arsenal defense.
One defender was outrun. Another slid in late, coming up with nothing but air. A head fake and a shoulder turn, a small pause. Another defender bested. Two centerbacks, sensing the danger, began to close. The midfielder had support, a late overlapping run towards the penalty area. He ignored it, instead choosing a stepover and a late burst of pace that seemingly came from nowhere. It worked. He split the centerbacks, but there was a side back charging from the left, and a goalkeeper, none other than England legend David Seaman, wholly on his line. His help in the center of the box had disappeared, trailing too far to threaten. No matter. With not even an eyelash of indecision, the midfielder fired a shot high, moments before the left back arrived. Seaman lunged upward, but missed by a fingertip. The ball was in the net, and United, dominated throughout, were on their way to the FA Cup Final, and the treble that year too. In that moment, Manchester United didn’t matter. The game was enough.
Ryan Giggs has given me so many of those moments. I could write on and on about his personal characteristics, all the reasons he’s so imminently likeable regardless of the ugly crest on his jersey. Team loyalty: the consummate company man, he’s been United through and through since he signed his schoolboy paperwork. He’s Derek Jeter, but older with more championships. Consistency: he’s scored in every Premier League season ever. Ground-breaking and stereotype-defining, without the brash arrogance that might attend to such achievement: after all, this is the half-black son of a Caribbean father—wasn’t it true that black players didn’t have the “Bottle-power” to have long, massively successful careers in the world’s finest league? Yes, yes…it was. But he looks so white. He must be. That’s why, they said.
Heartthrob, darling of the league’s imagination: yep—did that too: Giggs’ had no less a footballer than Bobby Charlton call him his favorite player ever. George Best went a step further, saying “One day I hope they think of me as another Ryan Giggs.” Winner? He’s won every trophy there is to win ever, team or individual. He won Premier League player of the year a pair of seasons ago as a super substitute. Typically, giving such an honor to a substitute would have driven the media to outrage. The award would be a farce, they’d say. There was some backlash, to be sure, but this was Ryan Giggs. It made sense, and it was heroic, given that his career had been declared over a couple years earlier. He was too old now, they’d said. A legend who had played too long. They…we…were happily wrong.
Human decency? Check. Giggs is charitable and his work teaching the game and emphasizing schooling with young, underprivileged kids is nearly unparalleled, save perhaps by his old rival Thierry Henry, or Jeter, his in-so-many-ways American sporting equivalent and soulmate.
Teammate? The greatest, so they say. Infinitely coachable, even now, when he’s earned the right to be a little less open to criticism and suggestion. As mentioned above, a couple of years ago, many thought Giggs was finished. He’d lost some of his patented pace. He wasn’t as capable of influencing a game from his original spot on the wing, and United had too many young faces to stick with the old guard too long. Sir Alex Ferguson, his legendary manager, and one who is attached forever in history to the name Ryan Giggs (not that the two of them would have it any other way), knew better. Ferguson asked Giggs to slot back into the United center. He’d play deeper, be used as a sub from time to time, given a chance to rest his legs. Giggs responded with fire, as he always does. He put his head down and got to work, adapting exceptionally to his new role, choosing his runs more selectively, saving energy so his pace could still be devastating when he chose to use it. Still marvelous on free kicks and crosses, he would slot out wide only when asked, use his head and mind for the game to make up with smarts what he lacked now in youth. The EPL player of the year award followed. There might not be second acts in American lives or politics, but I’ve always found F. Scott Fitzgerald to be a bit off on that question. Bill Clinton comes to mind, or common-sense. Greatness is always re-inventing itself. Either way, we know Fitzgerald wasn’t talking about England.
Ageless? Of course, if you hadn’t figured that out already by reading. Timeless? Of course. How many versions of “the next great winger” have passed through the halls of Manchester United, only to see them flail in critical matches, bailed out by none other than Ryan Giggs? The list of “next big things” reads like a sad love letter to the dearly departed: Andrei Kanchelskis, Lee Sharpe, Nani, Anderson, and many more. All the next great thing. All not Ryan Giggs.
Leadership? Of course. The man rues draws in week two. That’s what leadership is. When Giggs gives a youngster the stamp of approval, they know they are doing something right. Not only do they know, global media outlets know, as we recently learned with Mexico’s starlet Chicharito. That’s what leadership is. And that’s Ryan Giggs. And those are just some of the reasons I’ve learned to stop worrying about the Damn United, and why I’ll always love the Last King of Wales.
Neil W. Blackmon is the co-founder and Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or found on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.