LOS ANGELES -- In the summer of 2006, I placed an ad in a magazine in Barcelona looking for players for an amateur football team I intended to start up. All nationalities were welcome, and the responses flew in. The players who described themselves in glowing terms were usually anything but, while two former professionals came along, too -- they'd become mainstays of the team. Several African players who'd been told bizarre stories about being able to play for FC Barcelona also joined us. Like the rest, they had to pay to play in the name of fun.
A month after the side started coming together, two Italian boys on a year's internship came to training. They immediately impressed and were good enough to earn a starting place for the side's next friendly.
Before they took to the field, I insisted that they should sing their country's national anthem in the dressing room prematch. They stood up proudly and did so without hesitation. It was an impressive sight -- and not just because the Italian anthem sounds so rousing. Andre and Gio left after a year. Gio is now an actor in Italy, Andre lives in Beverly Hills, and he's always said that if I'm in L.A. then I'm welcome to stay.
So I'm writing this from his famous, moneyed, Los Angeles neighbourhood. I may as well get the most glamorous location out of the way for the first Football Writer column of the season, and I'll try not to think too hard about where I wrote this when I'm sending a column from rainy Southampton in December.
Manchester United stayed close by in the Beverly Wilshire hotel (think "Pretty Woman"), and Real Madrid are encamped just a few blocks away. The immediate blocks around where I write came to a standstill on Wednesday as President Barack Obama was in town.
I'm here to follow United's preseason tour through L.A., Denver and Michigan. I'll also meet some United fans in Chicago and see former United players in Denver and Indianapolis. I've already stayed with one, Billy Garton, in San Diego. He's a Salford guy who grew up on the working-class Ordsall estate less than a mile from Old Trafford. He came through a great United youth team with Norman Whiteside, Mark Hughes, Clayton Blackmore and Graeme Hogg.
Garton played 51 times for the first team in the 1980s, but his career was hampered by illness and injury. He was forced to quit professional football at 25 and went through some very dark moments in his life.
"I was depressed and seriously sad that my time at United was up," he explained. "My first thought was 'How am I going to survive?' I had a mortgage and a daughter. I needed to run a car, yet I was still sick and unable to do a proper day's work.
"Did suicide cross my mind? Yes. There were a couple of times when I was driving when I thought about it. I thought of my options and suicide was one of them. Then I started to think of how I would do it. I was so desperately sad, yet I'm not the type of person who would take his own life and that's why I didn't do anything. I felt that suicide was the selfish way out. I know that some people do it because they are not thinking rationally, but you leave everybody else with the hurt, pain and financial worry. It might have been the selfish answer for me, but it wasn't the answer for my daughter, mum, dad or other people close to me."
Thankfully, Garton's fortunes improved drastically. His illness (M.E. or chronic fatigue syndrome) subsided, and he was able to retrain as a physical education teacher in Manchester while still playing semi-professional football and doing some modeling. His former teammate Arthur Albiston tells a story about Garton from that time.
"I was on the Metrolink back from Manchester when I overheard two posh ladies talking about the new deputy head at their kids' school," recalls Albiston. "They were all excited, saying that he was really good-looking and that he used to play for Manchester United in the 1980s." Albiston leaned forward to listen into their conversation, but no name was mentioned. Vexed, he spent the rest of the journey thinking of who it could be before concluding that someone must be telling a few lies.
"I couldn't think of anyone who played in the '80s who was capable of being a deputy headmaster and was good-looking too," said Albiston. Yet the story was true. "A month later my wife told me that Billy Garton had been made deputy head of a primary school in Altrincham. Then the penny dropped."
Garton has been in San Diego coaching youngsters since 2001, where he's worked hard to have a great life in the California sun. His son, also called Billy, is a 15-year-old footballer who has been to England for trials with Fulham.
The Garton family drove up to Pasadena, California, to watch the United game, Louis van Gaal's first as boss. And what a game it was.
I asked my host Andre if he wanted to come to see United in the Pasadena Rose Bowl, which staged the 1994 World Cup final, too.
"I have a film premiere to attend," he said nonchalantly. "'Hercules.' I've got you a ticket to come to the after-show party in Hollywood. My friend is the producer."
Not being a regular at such occasions, I intended to join him after the match, which United won 7-0, but my intentions were thwarted by the Los Angeles traffic -- described by Van Gaal as "horrendous" after he was late for a news conference the day before the match. It took me 2 hours and 20 minutes to drive 16 miles from United's hotel to the stadium (the team shaved an hour off that time travelling under police escort) and 90 minutes to return around midnight. I was exhausted, jet-lagged and went to bed.
The following morning, Andre told me about the party I'd missed. He went back to the producer's house with Eddie Murphy, Miley Cyrus and Mariah Carey. Cristiano Ronaldo's girlfriend, Irina Shayk, was also there. She has a small part in the film. Oh, well. I got to see Ander Herrera's debut instead.
United flew to Denver on Thursday, and I'll do the same today ahead of the second tour game against AS Roma there. Preseason tours can be good for football journalists, a chance to sit down and talk to people who may not have time during the season. I've arranged to interview several players over the next week and I'll report back.