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Sunday, October 24, 2021

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Super League rage, Ronaldo mania and the fight for the soul of Manchester United

6:59 PM IST

Wright ThompsonSenior Writer


Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN and is executive producer of TrueSouth and co-executive producer of Backstory. He is the author of New York Times bestselling The Cost of These Dreams.ON THE MORNING of Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester, a small crowd filtered into an enormous stone and marble cathedral for Mass. Most were old. A few still spoke with a faded Irish lilt. The priest read from the gospel about the folly of building on a foundation of sand. Once there were enough sinners in this parish, as many as 50,000, to need all six of the confessionals. Now only a few thousand remain. Few things feel more melancholy than a huge beautiful church left without worshipers, a dying parish hanging on after the neighborhood it was built to serve has vanished.

The neighborhood is Collyhurst, a name which evokes for Mancunians a black-and-white movie reel of a bygone way of life. Two players on Manchester United’s 1968 European Cup-winning team went to church here, Brian Kidd and Nobby Stiles. The mailing address for the church is 2 Nobby Stiles Drive. Stiles also won the 1966 World Cup with England. His teammate, Sir Bobby Charlton, called him “a dog of war,” by which he meant a fierce, often brutal defender whose tenacity and violence made possible the beauty of Charlton, Denis Law and George Best. He’s my favorite old United player, and after Mass, his boyhood friend and teammate Brian Kidd met me for tea.

Kidd told me a story about being 15 and a youth player for Man United, assigned the job of cleaning the boots of the main squad players. All these muddy spikes would get tossed in a wicker basket and Kidd would drag it out the tunnel at Old Trafford to the maroon wooden benches, and he’d sit there and clean and look around at the towering empty stands and terraces, dreaming of when his time would come. He laughs a bit at how silly all this sounds.

“I’m not being melodramatic,” he insists.

He can still see the green grass and the rising tide of concrete seats, and he remembers imagining his own feet on that field, swelling with longing, with respect but most of all, with reverence.

“I’d be cleaning George Best’s boots,” he says. “Nobby Stiles’ boots.”

Nobby’s father ran the Catholic funeral home around the corner from St. Patrick’s Church. Whenever somebody would get shot on the screen down at the local theater, someone would call out from the seats in the dark, “Send for Charlie Stiles!”

Sometimes as a young boy Nobby would accompany his father to funerals and wakes. Once they walked into a house and Nobby realized he’d come face to face with the family of the great Jimmy Delaney, whose signing in 1946 made the city ripple in much the way Ronaldo’s signing has in 2021. One of Jimmy’s United jerseys hung on the wall. Nobby stared in awe. His father quietly asked Jimmy’s niece if his son might, for just a moment, be able to wear it. The woman smiled, took the shirt off the wall and slipped it on young Nobby Stiles. He later said he could feel himself changing, a Bushido handshake, or as he put it, “a passage of the warrior robes of my tribe.”

I LANDED IN Manchester on Thursday morning for Ronaldo’s first match with United, here to document a new celebrity arrival in a booming, modern city, which is also a city that always feels old and unable to escape its history. I love Manchester. A visit to this place might mean a late-night club with post-punk on parade, or a pint of bitter at a dying pub, soaring glass architecture in the Northern Quarter or a barren lot in Collyhurst. There are dozens of cranes in the air. There are ground-level fields of blight. One of those cities has to be real, I often think, and one has to be an illusion, but both are on display when the place cracks open to welcome the arrival of the world’s most famous athlete.

Digital road signs that normally update drivers about traffic and commute times said, “Welcome home CR7.” The club sold $60 million worth of his jerseys in the 36 hours after his signing was announced, according to a rough estimate by a consumer website. Those sales came from more than 100 different countries, from Greenland to Fiji, according to Fanatics. The top five were England, America, Australia, China and Germany. Only Manchester’s slums celebrated Jimmy Delaney. Only locals could point you to 2 Nobby Stiles Drive. The whole world knows Ronaldo. At the stadium on Thursday afternoon, as fans gathered to buy Ronaldo scarves and jerseys and pose for pictures, at least three different languages were being spoken.

One of the scarf vendors grinned at his own quick industry.

“We don’t mess about,” he joked. “I got me granny up all night.”

It’s been a wild six months for Manchester United supporters. In April, the owning Glazer family joined other elite clubs from England, Spain and Italy to form a so-called “Super League,” patterned after the American franchise model. JP Morgan stage-managed the debacle, which died only two days after it was announced. The reason it only lasted two days was in part because fans, particularly blue-collar fans already angry at the changes brought to their lives by globalization, exploded in protest. Anything that diminishes the local in favor of wealthy internationals is the perceived enemy of the British working class, whether that is the European Union or a football league, and no supporters reacted with more anger or purpose than Man United supporters. A group of them stormed the gates of Old Trafford and forced a match against Liverpool to be postponed. One of those protesting fans carried a sign that read, “Football: created by the poor, stolen by the rich.”

With all this roiling, Ronaldo came onto the market.

He first became a star at Man United nearly two decades ago, and has always professed his unending love and gratitude towards former manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Just weeks ago, Manchester City looked like the favorites to sign the Portuguese star from Italian club Juventus, but neither United supporters nor the Glazer family could abide the idea of the superstar coming home to play for the other team in town. There was no choice. Manchester United outmuscled its cross-town rivals. Ronaldo credited Ferguson with convincing him to return to the Reds, the past forever prelude here.

Ronaldo might be from the insular island of Madeira, famous for its fortified wine and now for one native son, but he lives in a world defined by economies more than maps. All his mansions are the same, whether they’re in a toney suburb outside Madrid, or Turin, or Manchester. He is his own nation state, borders merely invisible lines rushing beneath the white wings of his Gulfstream G200. More people follow him on Instagram than live in the United States. His life represents a perfect evolution of the new globalist class of humans who aren’t tethered to antiquated things like countries. Even his love for Manchester, and the way he articulates that love — such as calling Ferguson his “football father” — feels not quite of Manchester — which is so defined by its sense of place — but shallowly adjacent to it, referencing not the unique history or power of the city or the club but his own sporting experience in both.

And yet he is completely a creation of Manchester. The global economy that makes his weird, extravagant life possible was born here. As the pop culture critic Luke Bainbridge has said, Manchester is where Marx met Engels, and is also where Rolls met Royce. Communism and socialism were born here, yes, but so were globalization and free trade. Ronaldo endorses high-end companies like Tag Heuer, Coca-Cola and Nike. Savvy investors own shares in his image. He’s as much corporation as person. It’s quite surreal and yet somehow inevitable that a man like Ronaldo would arrive as the savior of a city like Manchester, because the forces that created him have also been battering his new, old home for as long as locals can remember.

On Thursday afternoon, two days before match day, a drizzle fell on Sir Matt Busby Way, which runs in front of Old Trafford. At the pub on the corner, a worker drilled holes in the smooth, old bricks, really leaning into his work, so they could hang a banner welcoming Ronaldo back home. Inside the stadium itself, the Manchester United Megastore had sold out of all its Ronaldo jerseys.

“Are you getting any tomorrow?” an elderly man asked.

“Hopefully,” the man behind the counter said, in a voice that suggested he already knew the odds didn’t look good. I stood in line behind him and when my turn came to buy a jersey, I told him I wanted number six on the back with the name Stiles. The elderly man approved.

THERE’S A FANCY restaurant in the city center called The Ivy, where a group of club dignitaries gathered for a fancy lunch on that Thursday. Sir Alex Ferguson, the hero of the moment after his role in landing Ronaldo, arrived and smiled at fans. Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looked relaxed. Even Ed Woodward made an appearance. He’s the Glazers’ head bean counter and the current focus of fan anger. His home has been attacked twice, and he hasn’t attended a match at Old Trafford since the Super League debacle. He clearly still feels skittish. All the other famous men entered through the front door. The local paper reported that Woodward snuck in a service entrance around the side.

So it’s important to note that the Ronaldo mania remained tempered by lingering feelings of alienation. For the past 16 years, since the Glazer family bought the team, there has been a growing rift that plays out in little and small ways in Manchester, almost daily. Dislike of the Glazers started when the family saddled the team with debt to get the deal done. That’s acceptable, even smart, in the asset and wealth management game, but the fans immediately (and correctly) understood that with debt service, and the dividend checks the family would certainly draw, there wouldn’t be the money needed to keep Man United at the top of the football food chain. All those fears came true. Today a teenager living in Manchester has no memory of a time when Man City wasn’t the most successful and dominant team in the city. Ronaldo is intended to reverse that trend.

I met a lifelong United fan named David Hawkes, who said the Ronaldo signing has him spinning “like a washing machine,” as he hopes all this optimism turns into wins. He described for me the conflicting emotions he’s feeling about the way his club has been decoupling from local supporters and reaching toward the seemingly limitless pool of international consumers.

“The Super League thing hit me like a train,” he says. “It really hurt me.”

All this is old and personal. His family moved from the industrial slums north of the city, a place named Miles Platting, down to the coal yards of Trafford. His grandparents’ house got hit in the same German bombing run that damaged Old Trafford. His wife said she thought he was grieving over the Super League.

“I think she was correct,” he says. “United and my family histories are so woven into me that it was a grim feeling indeed. It’s also partly mutated into anger, anger at the Glazers, the nation-state owners, the whole entitled globalization theme of the mega-rich who wish to become richer. Anger as well, if I’m honest, at myself. It’s taken me far too long to really confront the truth of what is happening to United and to football.”

Hawkes remembers exactly when he first loved United. It was February 6, 1958. He was coming home from school. The war had been over for 13 years and wrecking balls were finishing what German bombers had started. Entire streets were being moved away, miles of vibrant neighborhoods turned into abandoned, grassy fields. The national rationing had only ended in 1954. People were just starting to reset their horizons.

“Make do and mend was so ingrained into them,” Hawkes says.

Hawkes came home from school and even now he can barely describe the scene that greeted him when he walked through the door. He saw the coal fireplace in the small dining room and the easy chairs. The Bakelite radio his father built himself sat on the table and played the news.

His mother was “folded up” on the floor, weeping.

He asked what was wrong.

She told him.

An airplane carrying journalists, supporters and the Manchester United team, led by the great manager Matt Busby, had crashed while attempting to take off from the airport in Munich. Twenty-one people survived. Twenty-three died. They brought the bodies back in the rain and they stayed all night at Old Trafford. Thirty-thousand people stood outside, soaking wet, a working-class honor guard who just couldn’t bear the thought of those beautiful boys in there all alone. Busby Babes, they called them. Something young and beautiful had been taken, and their death reopened the wounds of war.

The stoic Mancunians who kept so much inside attached two decades of fear, loss and privation onto these beloved angels in red. For weeks it seemed like all people did was attend funerals. Charlie Stiles, Nobby’s dad, buried several of them. The dead men weren’t strangers to his son. As an academy player at United, Nobby did all the dirty work expected of the up-and-comers. He loved it. His hero was Tommy Taylor, and he used to carefully clean his spikes after every practice and game.

“He got the Babes their bacon sandwiches when they played snooker,” his son, John Stiles, says. “And when they died, he could never talk about it. Ever.”

Busby survived. Charlton survived. They promised to rebuild, and this team rising from the ashes is when modern Manchester United was born. People invested their whole selves in the team. “Because of what happened to the team and to the city of Manchester,” Hawkes says, “it was a spark. It became a cause. We are going to drag this team back to where it should be.”

Hawkes voice cracks as he’s telling the story. It’s only been 63 years.

“I still feel it emotionally even now,” he says.

IT’S STUNNING HOW many locals of a certain age and social class, especially those with geographic roots in the north of the city, still get emotional talking about Munich. On Friday, I met my friend and poet Mike Duff at a pub on Oldham Road. He brought one of his mates, a fellow writer named Tony Flynn, and as a way of welcoming me to town, Tony sat down and started handing me gifts. An old boxing program from the 1930s. An antique hat pin from Old Trafford. But the biggest gift was a tribute to the players who died in Munich, listing their names and showing them as people here remember: strong, hard jawed and on the pitch. His mother and his older brother, just 11, were two of the many who stood watch in the rain when the bodies returned to Old Trafford.

“I saw grown men crying in the streets,” Flynn says. “When you see grown men crying and you don’t know why…”, his voice fades.

Flynn calls Ronaldo “the prodigal son,” and said his own son, Sean, still a true believer in things like loyalty, refused all along to believe he’d ever sign with City. Flynn can’t afford to go to Old Trafford any longer, but he can’t stop loving the club.

“I couldn’t sever that umbilical cord,” he says.

“It’s like leukemia,” Duff says. “It gets in your blood.”

We’re sitting around talking about the next day’s match, and they’re telling stories about the old neighborhoods, all factory and mill workers, all Irish, all Catholic.

A few pints in and they start cracking on each other. I love hearing Duff’s stories about the time he did in Strangeways jail, or his former career as a shoplifter. Duff’s work is all set in “the Heartlands,” as he calls it, that area of northern industrial Manchester where he was born and raised. Once he visited Tupelo, Mississippi, and when he saw the childhood poverty of Elvis Presley, he immediately understood him as a brother, a comrade. The Super League didn’t surprise him one bit.

“It’s capitalism, isn’t it?” Duff says. “Capitalism doesn’t care. It’s a Ponzi scheme that will one day fail. I’ll be dead when it fails, but it will fail. My kids are angry and my grandkids will grow up angry. So sooner or later the Ponzi scheme fails but enough people have to get angry. And those United fans got angry. When they got angry they showed what people can do. They can storm the Winter Palace. They can storm the Bastille.”

He grew up in one of the many Catholic parishes in the Heartlands. His was called Corpus Christi, a neighbor of the more powerful neighboring church and school St. Patrick’s, where I went to Mass.

For generations the club dispatched scouts into the churches and schools. Nearly every single person who lived in this part of the city was Catholic, and nearly all of them were Irish. They were two and three generations into a new home, and they were caught between the island of their past and the city of their future, no longer Irish but not really English, families all intermarried and stripped of the sturdy markings of home, and about the only thing that bound people together was their love of the Reds.

“Everybody was educated through Catholicism into believing in Manchester United as well as our Lord Jesus Christ,” Duff says. “I can remember teachers praying for Man United in European Cups.”

He laughs and smiles.

“Never mind the poor and starving,” he says. “Let’s have three Hail Marys for Nobby Stiles.”

I WOKE UP on Saturday, put on my Stiles shirt and went to meet my friends for the match, United vs. Newcastle. Two of my favorite people in the world live in Manchester, Richard and Carmel, and they’ve been to Mississippi where I live many times. Whenever I am here, I spend whatever free time I have with them. They’re family. Richard’s grandson, Reece, is 15 and a Ronaldo and United obsessive, so I wanted to get them tickets. These were, without question, the hardest tickets I’ve ever tried to procure, but walking up to meet them, I had them in hand.

Richard wore his signed Eric Cantona jersey, the most beloved United number seven after George Best but before Cristiano Ronaldo.

“I’ve never been allowed to touch it,” Carmel said.

Now we were all laughing at the grown man wearing an autograph.

“Did he tell Cantona you were 7?” their friend Phil cracked.

Phil’s stepson, Max, pulled up a chair. I love big game days. This constant adding of people, everyone full of joy, looking at watches, the coming storm so powerful that not even this calm is truly calm. Reece, a teenaged boy, said nothing. Maybe a mumble. He’s a good-looking kid, scored two goals in his last football match, and a mumble is about all you’re gonna get.

Max works on houses and was recently involved in a gut job where they found, abandoned in the attic in seven or so boxes, a collection of Man United memorabilia. There were newspapers from the days after the Munich crash. There were old games on VHS. And the real prize: a collection of every game program from the 1930s to around 2010. He took them home.

Carmel’s dad kept a similar collection. He loved United. When she started dating Richard, the first football fan she’d brought home, her mother took to him immediately. The second time Carmel brought Richard to visit, her mom disappeared into the basement and returned with her late husband’s entire United collection, all his programs and even his treasured framed photograph of the 1968 European Cup team. That photo now hangs in a place of honor in their home.

Our half pints of bitter and lager arrived.

I caught Carmel smiling and shaking her head in wonder and joy, at this family moment, at this gathering of friends old and new, worlds colliding, the coming football match the excuse rather than the thing. She’s as kind and funny a person as I’ve ever known, and I’ve come to see her as my platonic ideal of a Mancunian. She’s working class. The city she’s called home her whole life, turning down transfers to London at work, has always been defined by its contradictions, by an impulse to feel both love and alienation, often at the same time, and to not worry much if outsiders can’t put together a coherent list of local values. The compromises are the culture. I like it when she describes the polyglot immigrant tangle of her family, complete with the disownings and religious feuds, with Italians marrying Irish, and Catholics marrying Protestants, living in and around the slums and housing estates of a big, gray industrial engine, unified by one thing.

“They were all Reds,” she told me.

Her mother now has dementia. It’s getting worse but for now she lives in the warm and happy past. She remembers all the music she and Carmel’s father heard. Once she went to see Nat King Cole at a circus, and the air stank of elephants. She remembers her husband going to see United, and teaching Carmel to memorize the results and the team’s starting lineup, taking her and her party trick down to the local curry house to impress the owners with her knowledge: Law … Charlton … Best … Kidd … Stiles …

So when Carmel sees that poster in their house, the 1968 Cup Champions, she doesn’t think about football, or trophies, but of her mom and of her dad. She sees the poster and thinks of home. For a long time, 30 years or more, she didn’t go to Old Trafford. Before she met Richard, the last time she went was with her father. She was a nine-year-old girl. And when she returned all those years later, and rose out of the tunnel to see the pitch, she found herself emotional, because in some way she couldn’t articulate, that father and that nine-year-old girl had been there waiting all these years for her to return.

ACROSS TOWN IN working-class north Manchester, at this exact moment, a fierce crowd of several thousand awaited the start of another football match. The F.C. United of Manchester is a small, local club who play in the seventh division of English football, a splinter cell, founded by alienated Man United supporters who were willing to trade size and prestige for a feeling they’d lost along the way. Their new club is often abbreviated as FCUM.

Club president Adrian Seddon laughed.

“It’s not a coincidence,” he said.

“The major event for us was Malcolm Glazer,” Seddon says. “For a lot of fans it was a line in the sand. There was a lot of people who weren’t happy with the way football was going. Local Mancunians were often priced out of going to football. This is one of the deprived areas of Manchester.”

The Super League brought them attention and new members.

“I had my line in the sand 16 years ago,” Seddon says. “Some people had it this year. I don’t think it matters … if you get to your line in the sand, we’re here.”

They have a standing-room terrace in their stadium. There’s a sign that reads “Making Friends Not Millionaires,” and a banner of the famous Munich memorial clock that hangs on the side of Old Trafford.

“This is a club that appeals to Manchester United supporters,” Seddon says. “But we are Manchester United fans who don’t feel like we have a place at Old Trafford anymore. For us it’s not a new team. It’s a continuation of Manchester United — but the good bits we like from Manchester United.”

They have a member’s bar where normal folks can afford to drink. Every one of their players, and their manager, have other jobs. The supporters rented an old steam train to travel to an away match. They wear the same colors as United and they sing all the same songs. Their stadium, which they paid for themselves, is like a minor league baseball park and is located two miles from the spot where Manchester United was founded in 1878. Originally created as a kind of company softball team for the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railroad, Man United was by and for industrial workers. The team took the railroad’s yellow and green colors before later changing to red, and more than a century later, when Mancunians protested the Super League, they lit flares that spewed yellow and green smoke.

The Reds used to be deeply rooted in this part of the city, and the FCUM’s location is no accident. Nor was their decision to place Nobby Stiles at the center of their own nascent mythology. Stiles has a banner honoring him hanging from the owner’s box at midfield, and the best youth player is given the Nobby Stiles Shield. His widow, Kay, and his children show up to present the trophy. In a lot of ways, Stiles is their patron saint.

“Nobby Stiles is probably the most famous son of this area,” Seddon says. “He’s from Collyhurst. This is his territory.”

STILES WAS BORN in a makeshift air raid shelter during a German bombing attack of Manchester and grew up in Collyhurst. He didn’t like his fame. He never talked about football at home. There were no pictures on the wall. He even sold his World Cup medal. “If you walked into the house you wouldn’t even know he’d been a footballer,” his son John says.

Only when they went to their grandmother’s house in Collyhurst and found the scrapbooks carefully preserved in the attic did John and his siblings really understand the legend.

“She saved everything,” he says.

Brian Kidd said that Stiles was as gentle off the pitch as he was ferocious on it. “He had a lovely family he thought the world of, and that was his world,” Kidd says. “The rest would be a sideshow.”

Kidd sometimes finds himself driving past the Collyhurst street named after Stiles, to remember the past, to conjure images of the families who lived in these empty urban fields.

“It was the slums of Manchester,” Kidd says.

These slums are where Man United were born and where its first fans lived. The whole of northern Manchester was once filled with some of the first factories ever built in the world. The loud, belching brick cauldrons shaped everything about the city, and much of the world we know today.

Those factories, most of them cotton mills, were rife with oppressive conditions for local workers. According to historians, child labor made the economy turn. Long after slavery had been officially outlawed in Britain, Manchester mill owners purchased kids from London orphanages and got a discount if one per dozen was mentally handicapped. Working mothers were encouraged by doctors to give their children opium and leave them home while they worked long shifts. Only 57 percent of kids lived until their fifth birthday. Friedrich Engels — who called Manchester “hell upon earth” — described “children deformed, men enfeebled, limbs crushed, whole generations wrecked, afflicted with disease and infirmity.”

Over time, the world’s first factory workers moved north and east into the rolling hills outside the city. Once known as Irish Town, it’s now a beautiful park called Angel’s Meadow. The trendiest neighborhoods are just next door. “They’re bringing in IT people from London and they want nice places to live,” Duff says.

The descendants of Irish Town — “blood of the Meadow,” as Duff calls them — are now in the way of progress, which comes in the form of new condos and urban professionals to live in them.

“They don’t want to live next to people drinking cans of cider on the street,” Duff says. “Even though it’s them people’s area. They shift you out bit by bit.”

As many as 70,000 people once lived here, in 1,000 houses, many alongside livestock like pigs and cows. Nobody had running water or toilets. The basements flooded so often that they were filled with dirt and condemned, but new arrivals with no place else to go often slept atop the dirt. This part of Manchester slopes downhill to the river, so every bit of human and animal waste passed through the meadow. The papers reported on all the toxic and tainted food. Tests revealed dirt in the tea, chemicals in the beer, sawdust in the bread.

Cholera outbreaks, called the Irish Fever by the local papers, ravaged the homes. After the second major cholera outbreak, just a few years after the Irish potato famine flooded the city with another rush of immigrants, the city tore down the slums — starting a pattern that continues today. They buried them right where they died, as many as 40,000, right where the slums had stood. The park got its current name because residents reported seeing angels standing guard at the entrance, watching over all the dead children. Generations of boys and girls flocked to the mass grave turned park, the only open green space in their lives, and that’s where they learned to play football.

One of those kids was Nobby Stiles.

MIKE DUFF KEEPS a framed picture of Angel’s Meadow above his bed. That’s where his mother was born and raised. He believes we are all like coins passing through the world over and over again. That there’s no such thing as time. The packed slums of Angel Meadow are still there in some multi-verse. He holds a hand-rolled cigarette.

“They have to be there, don’t they?” he says. “Because they were there. And they have to be there forever. And the packed slums of tomorrow are there in the past … They’ve already been built.”

Here’s what I think he means. There’s a man who rides a bicycle around the old cotton mill neighborhoods with a boombox strapped to his side. The music pouring from the speakers the few times he rode past me was weird space age atmospheric post-industrial, like something you might hear while getting a deep-tissue massage from an alien robot. It’s very, very weird. He’s dressed like a street priest, a prophet, a shaman. These musical orbits feel divine. The man wears sunglasses. You cannot see his eyes. His given name is Barrington. His music is loud. Real loud. Boom Box Barry, they call him. He’s cranked the volume up so high that when he passes close to you there’s nothing but distortion. Just noise. Most people listen and maybe smile at him then go on about their day, so it’s as if the music is coming from the city itself, an endless, eternal soundtrack that’s only unmuted briefly by his presence. Like he’s not playing music himself so much as he is allowing us to hear the music the city is already playing. I came to think that the noise was some kind of an ancient horn summoning the dead of Angel Meadow, who briefly walk amongst us until the boombox finally travels too far away. Bodies are suits for the soul, and cities are houses. Manchester is a city of souls. They sing, and they dance, and they ride a bike with a boombox.

“All the Manchesters are here,” Duff says.

AFTER THE PUB, we were walking to Old Trafford through neighborhoods passing people of all ages wearing Ronaldo jerseys. The United academy administrators used to place youth players like Paul Pogba with local families. Richard and Carmel hosted several. The team liked the players to make this walk, to see the city they represented, to understand who would be pressed up against the glass once they got rich and famous.

I had a nagging feeling I couldn’t shake. The people with me are long-time Reds, with Irish Mancunian roots, and yet it was near impossible for them to get tickets to go and watch their local club welcome its newest star. That felt broken, as if the local supporters were defending something from their opponents and also from their fellow fans. Carmel and Richard have always been generous with the parts of their city they love, hoping for nothing more than for me to love them, too.

We saw the lights to the cricket ground, and then we got to the quadrant, a wide square with a tunnel of trees in the middle, which is home to The Quadrant, a pub where locals meet up before heading to the grounds. Everyone wore their new Ronaldo shirts.

“All the number 7s,” Carmel says.

Finally the white tubular superstructure of Old Trafford peaked up between the trees. The shortcut was coming up on the right, through the parking lot of the cricket stadium. From there it was just a few more minutes to Sir Matt Busby Way. It’s one of the great streets in sports, a battalion of red, singing fans, the traditional vendors selling burgers and bacon sandwiches and full English breakfasts. There was a chill in the air, and grey industrial skies, which felt perfect.

We got to the shortcut, and across the street, we saw a blue historical plaque on a modest house. Richard had never noticed it before, and we both squinted to read the small print. It took our breath away. This was where Tommy Taylor was living when he died with his teammates in Munich. He got dressed here and went to the airport and never came back. His protegee, Nobby Stiles, made a solemn ask after the crash.

“Can I have Tommy Taylor’s boots?”

His request was granted.

STILES WAS THE last king of Collyhurst, a man who outlived his homeland. Now the neighborhood exists mostly in imagination and memory. Displaced residents connect in message boards and social media groups. Nobby’s son used to watch closely when Stiles would speak to people whose childhood neighborhoods had been erased. John came to believe that when they listened to his dad’s stories, their long-lost homeland returned. Nobby would get raucous, standing ovations.

“Son,” he’d say, “I don’t know why.”

“They love you,” John would tell him. “That’s why.”

Stiles remains one of only three Englishmen to win a World Cup and a European Cup, but he didn’t make a lot of money in his career. He took coaching jobs where he could get them, feeling guilty that his wife needed to work in a local department store so they could pay their bills. He spiraled. “When I didn’t feel suicidal,” he wrote, “I felt tired. Bone tired.”

One morning, mid-1980s, he went to fill up his car with gas. The ATM coldly reported insufficient funds. In shame he went back home to scrape together enough change. That shame festered. A breakdown was coming, and one day it finally happened on the M6. After all his battles, Stiles didn’t care if he lived or died. He closed his eyes and sped down the road.

When he opened them again, he saw a row of cones blocking his lane. He swerved at 70 miles per hour and hit a truck. Somehow they both came to a stop. The lorry driver got out. When he saw one of the nation’s great working-class heroes in the other car, any anger dissolved. Kindness and concern entered his voice. Nobby never forgot that.

“I’m sorry, mate,” Stiles said.

The truck driver responded with love. Stiles wasn’t them. He was us.

“Don’t worry, Nobby,” he said. “How are you feeling?”

At home Stiles finally told his wife how worthless he felt. She pulled him close and asked him to take a walk. He told her everything. They laughed and smiled and opened a bottle of brandy, and the next morning, he wrote in his memoir, the telephone rang at his house.

It was Alex Ferguson.

He wanted Nobby to come back to Manchester United, to join Brian Kidd in coaching their youth team. For three years, from 1989 to 1991, two men from St. Patrick’s coached Man United’s famed Class of ’92. Players like David Beckham and Gary Neville learned not just how to play the game but how to carry the spirit of places like Collyhurst. Every day the future stars listened to someone who’d gotten bacon sandwiches for the Busby Babes. Nobby connected them to the past and they carried that past out on the pitch.

“If they were gonna go out on a horrible, horrible night in Bradford,” John Stiles says, “when it’s pissing rain, and it’s starting to get naughty, they’d f—ing love it. Gary Neville spoke about it. Me dad told ’em what it meant to be a Man United player.”

A LOW, HOWLING noise hit us just as we first saw Sir Matt Busby Way. Chanting fans lined up for a table at the Bishop Blaze, a cocaine lager pub of track suits on parade. A dad leaned down to his young son and pointed up at the statue of Best, Law and Charlton on the plaza at the end of the street. He whispered something I couldn’t hear and, after I took a picture of them together for him, he told me this was the boy’s first game. He wore a Ronaldo jersey. Everyone was wearing a Ronaldo jersey. The crowd sang, thousands of voices together:

“Viva Ro-nal-do … Viva Ronaldo

Running down the wing

Hear United sing

Viva Ronaldo”

The last “o” in Ronaldo created that low, howl, like somebody blowing down the barrel of a gun. We all moved slowly down the long tunnel, lined with exhibits, tributes and old photographs of the men who died in the Munich crash, and of the men who lived and rebuilt the team. None of that is ancient history. Nobby Stiles knew them, and he and Brian Kidd were part of the 1968 team whose victory symbolized the club’s rebirth. Together they coached the Class of 1992, who played with Ronaldo at the beginning of his career and instilled the love that made today possible.

Reece and I were sitting together in Section 120, so we made our way out of the tunnel through the narrow turnstile corrals and then down the steps to our seats. We were really close to the pitch. Row EE, just five up. A familiar smell floated in the air which I couldn’t quite place. Then it hit me. I smelled grass.

I asked Reece a question.

He just nodded.

The starting lineups were announced and with them the words everyone here had been waiting to hear: “Number 7 — and welcome home — Cristiano Ronaldo.”

IT TOOK THREE days in Manchester to see fans forced in public to reckon with Ronaldo’s history. That moment arrived when a small single-engine airplane circled the sky above Old Trafford, carrying a banner that read:

“#Believe Kathryn Mayorga.”

Mayorga is a Las Vegas woman who alleges that Ronaldo raped her in 2009. She went to the police shortly after the alleged assault but did not identify her attacker, and the police closed the investigation. In 2010, she agreed to a $375,000 settlement with Ronaldo and signed a non-disclosure agreement, but later went public with her allegations in 2018. After the Clark County district attorney declined to press charges in 2019, stating that the allegations “cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” Mayorga filed a civil lawsuit. Ronaldo has maintained the encounter between them was consensual.

The first time the plane appeared, the crowd started singing “Viva Ronaldo.”

Three more times the airplane appeared above the stadium, as the skies changed from gray to blue, and then it was gone. A few fans sitting around me pointed up, and that’s the only reaction I saw or heard at the stadium. I didn’t struggle to understand why corporations wouldn’t really care about allegations, because shareholder value is capitalism’s only ethic, an idea first put to use in Manchester. The desperate need in the city for nobody to bring up anything that might tarnish their new trophy was harder to understand, but only a little. Fandom has always been most of all an act of tribalism. Things can be explained away, or ignored, or used as fodder.

On the other side of the stadium, visiting Newcastle fans mocked the striker.

“Geordie boys, we’re on a bender.

Cristiano’s a sex offender.”

For 45 minutes, the game remained 0-0 until the first half stoppage time when Ronaldo fielded the ball close to the goal and scored. I couldn’t see it from my seat, but I heard two explosions of noise, a loud eruption when the ball hit the back of the net, and then an even louder collective “boom” when Ronaldo did his iconic goal celebration.

The crowd kept singing, and chanting, and cheering. The noise was a catharsis as much as anything, part celebration of the rebirth offered by a newly signed star, part prayer that this rebirth might be one that lasts. Our seats were near the Stretford End, traditionally the home of working-class United fans, and I kept looking at the faces around me. The past 16 years slipped from their shoulders. Alienation and decline were held at bay. Self-awareness and empathy were held at bay, too.

Loving something as deeply as the people in this stadium love United requires a lot of remembering, remembering Nobby Stiles and Busby’s Babes, but it also requires a lot of forgetting, too. Forgetting Kathryn Mayorga. Forgetting that the Super League concept will almost certainly return. Forgetting all the times you swore you were finally done with a club that took your love and made you pay for the privilege.

For today the fans only live in a world they’re creating, a world of imagination and hope, and in this world, the future is bright, the past is glorious, their hero was righteous and their rivals were vile.

ONE HALF TO go. While Reece and I walk up to the tight concourse to get a steak pie and some snacks, hit pause on the madness and consider this contradiction and beauty. This stadium is packed. Some of the people, like me and many of the folks sitting around me, are from other countries. We are here for a lot of reasons, as are the millions watching all over the world. There is a planet full of human beings looking for community where they can find it. People everywhere feel alienated. Study after study shows that. In a world where fewer and fewer people go to church, they are also looking for communion where they can find it. Many people are finding both in an aspirational love for big football clubs like Man United.

Think about that for a second. Globalization crushed the working class of Manchester, which imperils the localism of this rooting community, and which is also a central driver of a reach to be part of the community offered by Manchester United. Now take it a step further. This tribe has always been supported by two load-bearing spiritual columns: longing for what is lost and hungering for what is to come. In the past six months, the city has roiled with anxiety over one during the Super League protests, and shouted in ecstasy over the other during the days leading up to Ronaldo’s Old Trafford return.

That contradiction, so essential to truly seeing the city of Manchester, feels especially poignant in Section 120, Row EE, overlooking the same piece of earth where Brian Kidd once daydreamed while cleaning the boots of beautiful comets like George Best and dogs of war like Nobby Stiles. Because some of the people here, like the well-dressed elderly woman sitting directly to my left, are from that vanishing Manchester. She laughed in delight when she saw my Stiles jersey. Just as his life represented the rise of working north Manchester, so, too, has his death represented the fall. Nobby passed 11 months ago and some people were surprised he was still living. The last two decades of his life got lost in dementia. His family protected him. The man afraid of nobody was afraid all the time. He’d get fixated on a fear. His boiler was going to explode. Somebody was trying to break in. His memories were cruelly stripped away.

“When my dad’s brain was examined,” John says, “it was riddled with CTE. It was sad. And it is sad. There’s hundreds and hundreds and hundreds more that are gonna come.”

His family have become unlikely advocates, working to make football take care of the damaged men left in its wake. John wonders how a sport so rich could just abandon men like his father, who gave his whole heart to United and never even met one of the Glazers.

“This is a fight for the little man against big business,” he says. “There is nothing more important.”

There’s a myth that everyone in Old Trafford is connected to that big business, and that those little men are all shut out. That’s not true. Mancunians love United and the stadium remains swollen with those who figure out how to pay to get in. That’s comforting. The fight between Mancunian supporters and the forces of globalization pushing them out and replacing them with rootless strangers hasn’t been decided. It is happening in real time. The most important fights aren’t won by great generals on decisive days, like in the movies, but slowly over time, a few grains of sand at a time until a world is washed away. Like so many places, Manchester is engaged in a mostly hidden war over what it means to be from here. Everyone can feel it happening, but almost nobody can name it, except of course for a rare occasion when we can compare Nobby Stiles’ Man United and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Man United. Then this complex thing is made small enough to hold in your mind, to touch and to name, to mourn, to turn away from, to celebrate, to love.

RONALDO SCORED AGAIN in the 68th minute, and he ran to the corner right by our seats. Reece cheered and screamed and jumped up and down, free and full of joy, as Ronaldo leapt into the air not ten feet away. We ended up all over the television broadcast during this celebration. The Mancunian woman by me turned to smile, and I grinned back. Strangers were hugging and jumping. United scored two more times, and each time Reece jumped up and screamed. The whole grandstand shook. Each song left an echo, which kept on ringing after the next song had started, so it all piled up on itself into a twisted tangle of noise.

Reece and I were laughing and joking on the walk back up the stairs and down the long tunnel filled with reminders of a cold snowy day in Munich. Everyone met back at the statue of Best, Law and Charlton. Sir Matt Busby Way was a joyous parade. We got back to the quadrant and The Quadrant was packed. The whole square sparked with activity, folks lined up at the chicken place, and at the pub. I heard Reece quietly humming and singing “Viva Ronaldo” to himself. We walked through the quiet arbor of trees, in the shade, and then found a place to sit down and order food and a pint. Reece and his granddad Richard parked next to each other and looked at highlights of the game. They were both smiling. Reece squinted at the screen.

“You looking for yourself?” Richard asked.

I looked over at Carmel. She was glowing.

“It’s so cute, isn’t it?”

She smiled at Reece.

“He’s the apple of my eye,” she said. “I could eat him up.”

That’s how we ended the day when Manchester once again became the center of the football world. With friends, and laughter, and a basket of fried chicken and chips on a street alive with something old and hard to understand. A passerby complimented my Nobby Stiles jersey. Cars honked. A man hung out an opening window and sang, “Viva Ronaldo!” We waved back and the sun slipped slowly out of sight.

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