Philly, Rocky and a painful tattoo

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I’m on an eight-hour journey on the Pennsylvanian train between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Manchester United played against the Philadelphia Union MLS team in America’s fifth biggest city last night, a single Gabriel Obertan goal the decider.

The crowd of 44,000 was 6,000 down on when United met Celtic at the same Lincoln Field Stadium in 2004, 24,000 down on when United beat Barca in Philadelphia in 2003. High ticket costs (between £30 and £150 for a friendly game) and the absence of some of United’s biggest stars may have hit sales, with United making virtually all their players available for interview to US media in a last-minute sales drive.

Or, with a more positive spin, just two weeks after the World Cup, United can still attract 44,000 paying top dollar for a friendly against a team who didn’t exist two years ago.

Union boast a new purpose-built 18,500 capacity home, which they fill each week and have a 2,000-seat section for their ‘Sons of Ben’ vocal and hardcore fans – named after Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States and iconic figure locally. Named for the union of America’s 13 original colonies and wearing navy-and-gold kits in the Unionist colours of the American Civil War, they put up a good fight, giving United a good game.

The Reds were front-page news in the Philadelphia Inquirer under the headline ‘Man U brings big brand to town.’ Inside, the paper gushed about United’s global popularity under a headline claiming ‘World’s biggest team is here’.

There is justification for the hype. Forbes business magazine recently listed United as the most valuable sports franchise in the world, worth $1.87 billion and ahead of Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and New York Yankees. Such talk of figures and franchises would be met with cynicism on the streets of Stretford, but the numbers impress mightily in America.

While the United players ventured out of the Four Seasons hotel and onto the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum made famous in the film Rocky, the few fans who had crossed the Atlantic acquainted themselves with Philadephia’s pubs, including one called Fergie’s.

You see the same fans wherever United play in the world: Phil Holt, Nige, Barmy Kev and Webby. John Taylor, Ravi, JP, Zyg, Dutch Erik, Mick Groom and Jim from Sheffield. There are others who keep themselves to themselves. Most wear no colours, though Mike Groom is famous for having ‘MUFC’ tattooed on his penis.

Occupations vary and some have been very successful. Phil Holt received a call from American Express a few years ago asking him when he was going to use up his staggering number of Air Miles. Only Noel Gallagher, they told him, had amassed more. And that wasn’t watching City.

The travelling die-hards get where water wouldn’t, like a friendly in Saudi Arabia in 2008. “How on earth did you get visas?” asked one baffled club official. “I think you’ll find that we’re engineers on an invited visit, not football fans,” came the reply. 

They encounter people who proclaim loudly that they are the biggest United fans in the world and don’t even let on why they have travelled across the Atlantic. They take their holidays to watch United and create some administrative nightmares because of their devotion. Nobody at Old Trafford thought any fans would travel to see a friendly game in Mexico, where United play Chivas of Guadalajara in Mexico’s second city next week, so no tickets were requested.

It’s part of the deal which saw ‘the little pea’ (aka Javier Hernandez) join United. But fans are going. Chivas are repaying their efforts with the magnanimous gesture of charging £91 for a ticket, again for a meaningless match – meaningless, of course, unless you are one of the faithful for whom ‘Guadalajara away’ is compulsory.

The players have other duties. They were up for talking in the mixed zone where the press await hoping to bag an exclusive after the game. One American journalist in front of me managed to speak to an earnest Edwin van der Sar for four or five minutes.

“Who was that?” asked her colleague.

“I’ve no idea,” she replied.

I’m making a couple of seven minute video diaries from each of the cities where United play. Here’s the second one from Philadelphia. The password is ‘UWS.’ To see more you need to sign up for the website.

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