We all follow United, over land and sea...

I write this on a ship leaving Goa for Bombay, or Mumbai as it’s now called.

We’re getting close to pirate waters, but there’s a large navy presence in the area. HMS Portland is starboard and the captain has just dropped the ensign in respect. Portland was the vessel which intercepted four tonnes of cocaine in the Caribbean two years ago.

I’m turning into a bit of a ship geek and recently, when I’d made sure I was alone, bought a massive book called ‘Ships’. Maybe it comes with growing up by the Manchester Ship Canal.

When dad played at Flixton, ships would pass right by the pitch. My brother and I would run out of the ground and towards the canal to wave at the passing sailors. We were 29 and 26 at the time.

January 1990: United take on Hereford 

My mate Wilky is a United fan who has spent most of his life at sea in the Royal Navy. He grew up in Bury and his neighbour and playmate was Gareth Southgate. They had no ship canal in Bury so they played football instead.

Wilky is full of stories about rushing from bases to watch United play. In 1990, while working at a base in Huntingdon, he raised the sunrise flag before driving a battered Fiesta through flooded roads and paying a tout £50 to watch United play at Hereford. He drove back and pulled the flag down that evening.

He always tries to keep in touch with United while travelling the world. Technology has improved and he now get updates through the internet and satellite phones. Previously, he crowded around a speaker to hear the crackly BBC World Service commentary which was regularly interrupted by the electric beep of the radar. 

He told me that The British Forces Broadcasting Service has improved and if you’re on a bigger ship you get live matches. He was in the Omani desert on exercise while listening to commentary of United’s 5-3 comeback against Spurs in 2001. And to see the 1999 European Cup final, he left the ship on the Suez Canal to watch the game in the Cairo Hilton.

He had been sailing to the Persian Gulf and had seen United win the league that year in Malta and the FA Cup in Crete at a USAF Base - which took some explaining to the Yanks.

Wilky was on the mighty Ark Royal when it came into Barcelona a few years ago. He did a deal. His boss would show me around the ship and the flight deck… and I had to show the Navy lads a good night out.

All went well, but in hindsight it would have been easier smuggling 60 giant elephants into the Royal Box at Wembley. Dressed as a pantomime cow. That mixture of beer, pent up testosterone and girls was a potent one.

"Oi, wait for me!" 

There were lots of football rivalries onboard. The ship was like a mini town, only populated by people (and football fans) from everywhere. 

Wilky said: “Some of my best mates are City, Leeds or Scousers. I’ll stick wind-up pictures from the fanzines on their lockers, but it never gets too nasty as they could be rescuing you the next day. There are many Reds in the navy which makes the petrol money cheaper getting to games from Plymouth or Portsmouth.”

“While abroad, people often ask where I’m from. I always say Manchester, never England. The reply has been the same for 21 years: “United, Bobby Charlton, George Best, Ryan Giggs…”


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