U.S. memories and a return home
MANCHESTER -- I left you while en-route to Detroit, the Motor City, which has fallen on hard times. Manchester United were staying there for their preseason game in nearby Ann Arbor, where they beat Real Madrid in front of 109,318 -- the largest crowd to see a soccer game in the United States.
Detroit fascinated me. A city famed for industry, post-industrial decline and music, it had much in common with Manchester. My hometown was all I knew as a kid, but it was experiencing setbacks of its own in the 1970s and '80s. Only last night, a Manchester United fan from South Africa, who first visited in 1982 to watch his fellow Johannesburg resident Gary Bailey, said, "Manchester was an unattractive, desolate place for a visitor back then."
There wasn't much for tourists, but Manchester, as the South African admitted, has changed for the better. I saw a big improvement ahead of the 2002 Commonwealth Games, yet the following year, I was told of Real Madrid players looking out of the coach window on the way to Old Trafford for a Champions League tie and turning up their noses.
Rainy Manchester can be cited as a negative when United or City go for a player against clubs from cities like Monaco, Madrid, Munich or Barcelona, but I've met plenty of players from far and wide who ended liking the city.
For example, in an upcoming United We Stand interview, former club captain Nemanja Vidic told us:
"The first 1 1/2 years in Manchester were hard. We found it hard because we came from a different culture. I'd lived in Belgrade and Moscow. The change wasn't big. Then I came to England, where everything was different. I found it hard.
"I started to enjoy Manchester, especially when my three kids arrived. All our three boys were born in Manchester. We lived in Wilmslow, Cheshire, which was great for families. I had peace in Cheshire and really enjoyed it. Sometimes the weather could be hard, I wouldn't have stayed for nine years if I didn't like it. I made some good friends and found the people to be friendly."
Detroit is down on its luck, but it feels like it has a soul, attitude and identity. I hope it bounces back.
I wanted to leave there for Miami and the final of the preseason tournament, which saw United take on Liverpool, but I needed to get back to Europe on flights I'd long reserved.
August is a busy month for any football journalist, and a magazine wanted a 5,000-word cover story on Real Madrid and Barcelona. That meant a lot of research, but, fortunately, I saw plenty to write about from the Madrid perspective in Michigan and even managed to speak to their president, Florentino Perez. I also conversed with their assistant manager, the erudite Englishman Paul Clement. I'll meet up with him again later in the season.
After researching and writing for a week in Barcelona, I flew to Manchester for the start of the Premier League season and some interviews I had lined up with with Ryan Giggs and a couple of players.
Giggs was friendly and on good form at the Carrington training complex. I first met him when we were both 13, he grew up close by, and we played football against each other.
Having retired after playing nearly 1,000 competitive games for United, he's now getting stuck into his new job as assistant manager. I asked him to talk about going to meet Louis van Gaal for the first time and his initial impressions. He said the one thing that surprised him was the Dutchman's charisma and sense of humour, which doesn't always come across in the media.
Relationships between senior staff at Old Trafford weren't always the best last season, and it will be interesting to see how it all works out under the new manager.
There have been numerous changes in United's staff in recent years, but one permanent fixture has been Kath, the club receptionist for over 40 years. She's great. She calls the players "her boys," and they adore her.
United is an institution, but Sir Alex Ferguson always kept a family heart beating at the core. I tell Kath of any former players I've caught up with, and she loves to hear the stories. Diego Forlan was one of her favourites and, upon learning that he's now in Japan, she tried to speak Japanese.
Kath told me off for not having a son yet, for "with a name like yours, he could be a footballer." My wife would have disagreed and is happy with our two daughters, the eldest of whom I took to her first United game on Tuesday, a friendly against Valencia.
It was a joy to see how a 3-year-old viewed events. She made a beeline for two police horses, which she was allowed to stroke, and was mesmerised by the mascot, "Fred The Red." As the game started, she started singing, "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands," before hollering "United! United! United!" I loved it. And so did she, for at least 15 minutes, before she asked to go home. I never did hear fans allegedly boo substitute Marouane Fellaini.
Before the match, I spent an hour catching up with friends and acquaintances outside Old Trafford who I'd not seen since last season -- United fans, street workers and even a policeman who gives me feedback on articles.
You realise it's a community when you're away from it and also when you lose a member. A Warrington man and United fan, known as "Ox," who sold scarves for decades on Sir Matt Busby Way, tragically died in a car accident two weeks ago.
He was a fixture in his usual spot on the busiest part of the busiest thoroughfare approaching Old Trafford, and he will be missed. Fans had attached flowers to the spot where he used to stand.
Speaking to the other souvenir sellers, it annoyed me that I learned more about Ox now that he's died than I did when he was alive. Regular football fans will know that their match-going experience is full of people you say hello to and have two-minute conversations with, but you never really get to know. I'll miss my little chats with Ox.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter @AndyMitten.