My plane landed in Manchester, England and I headed toward the immigration desk.
“What’s your purpose in Manchester?” the uniformed customs officer asked me.
A look of puzzlement and suspicion flickered across her face. “Pleasure? What do you mean?”
“I’m just visiting for the weekend,” I stammered.
“Are you visiting someone?”
“Do you know anyone in Manchester?”
“No.” At this point, I was kicking myself for not saying I was there for business.
“What are your plans?”
I grasped at straws. I didn’t have any real plans yet. “To visit Old Trafford?”
“What do you want to do that for?” the Customs officer at the next desk asked.
Ah. So I’d given the wrong answer. I’d read in my Lonely Planet guide that Mancunians (as Manchester residents are called) are not keen on the Manchester United team. Here was evidence in person, echoed again on my cab ride to the hotel.
“You sure you want to do that?” the cab driver asked me when I inquired as to how far the stadium was from my hotel. I wasn’t sure at all, but it seemed like something I had to do while I was there. After all, I was a big fan of David Beckham’s H&M underwear commercials. And my daughter played soccer at home. So, yes; I wanted to see Old Trafford.
It was pouring rain when I went with my timed group to start the tour. We followed our tour guide to the executive seats below the words ‘Sir Alex Ferguson’ and stared across the green, green pitch to the players’ seats on the other side of the field. The guide took a roll call, asking each of us where we were from.
Vietnam. Venezuela. China. Atlanta, Georgia. Scotland. Canada. Cincinnati.
“So, I didn’t hear Manchester from any of you,” the guide continued. He was right. There was no one local there. It confirmed what I’d read: Manchester United was not beloved by the locals.
“You’re sitting in the executive seats,” he went on. “Notice they’re nicer, padded, and have armrests. A seat in this section would cost you £7,000 for the season. “
£7,000! But I thought Manchester United wasn’t popular! £7,000. Wow.
“I’ve had season tickets for the past 43 years,” our guide told us. He pointed to his seats in the next section. “It cost me about £900 this year.” Ah, a dedicated fan. A few people on the tour asked how they could get tickets. It wouldn’t be easy, we learned. Games were always sold out. Which puzzled me. I thought they were unpopular??
From there we toured the player’s dressing room and ran down the opening where they entered for the games. We took turns sitting in the players’ seats and listened to the guide tell us about the 11 who died in the 1958 airplane crash.
When it was done, we exited through the gift shop. Nearly everyone bought something to remember their visit. Half the men wore their jerseys out of the store. I bought soccer gloves for my daughter and carried my ‘Champions Manutd. Megastore’ bag out into the rain. Then, as I left the enclave of international visitors I’d spent the last hour with and mingled again among the Mancunian crowd, I wondered whether I should hide the bag before someone saw it. Otherwise, I was bound to be questioned about my interest again.