We Happy Few: Finding Manchester in Midlife

It’s coming up on four a.m. I’m on a nearly-empty freeway, driving through the dark toward Santa Ana—a city you’re not supposed to visit at four a.m. It’s the Saturday after Super Bowl XLVI. Alabama has been reigning BCS champs for more than a month. Football fans will soon wake to the pointlessness of a February weekend; it’s time for lawn care and rain-gutter maintenance.

But where I’m heading, football is still going full throttle—only it’s the English kind. Liverpool is playing Manchester United, and I’m headed to the Olde Ship on 17th Street at this ungodly hour because I can’t believe anyone will show up for a live soccer match set to start before the morning paper hits the driveway. This game is on ESPN, which means that anyone who wants to see it can do it sensibly—in bed. 

I tell myself I am going out of a writerly curiosity—an anthropologist who will study the natives—but deep down I know I’m also going because of my growing midlife suspicion that I’m Missing Out on Something. When I get to the pub, the dark lot is packed with SUVs and pickups. I’ve been coming to this pub for years—to hear live jazz or to play the pub quiz—but I’ve never seen the parking lot this crowded. I come in the back door and feel immediately conspicuous because I’m wearing Dockers and a cardigan, and I’m at least a couple of decades north of this crowd’s median age. A lot of the patrons wear Premiere League jerseys and long dangling scarves. The rest are in Nike and Adidas, like they might have reported directly from a beer-league softball practice.

There are a dozen televisions in the bar, all tuned to the same station. Every chair that has a view of a set is filled. There must be 50 or 60 people here, but exactly three of them are women. (One Asian woman in a red Man U jersey is sitting on the restaurant side, trying to sooth a crying baby.) The only empty seat I see is a barstool directly under one of the televisions. I try it out but can’t see anything, so I start a long circuit of the bar, bumping and apologizing, until I find an unmanned oak captain’s chair in the back corner, so far from the nearest television I might have been passing on the sidewalk out front.

I thought there would be more people like me here: Brit-born American’s in middle age motivated by a vague nostalgia. But I don’t hear a single accent that hints of anywhere east of Albuquerque.

It turns out I have chosen a good game to attend. I soon gather that Liverpool and Manchester are bitter rivals. Bad blood abounds. When the players take the field everyone gasps knowingly when one player refuses to shake another’s hand. I settle in. This might be more interesting than I’d expected.

In California, liquor can’t be sold between two and six a.m., so no one is behind the bar. The waitress brings me the black coffee I asked for, and I take a sip as the game begins. The camaraderie in the room is upbeat and palpable. It’s a less macho vibe than with US football fans; less Ken Burns-erudite than with baseball fans; and less urban-hip than a basketball crowd. It feels like a backyard barbecue to kick off a three-day weekend. Everyone is in good spirits and ready to have fun and waiting for the beer to arrive.

Unlike the AYSO games I witnessed as a father, the players on television don’t zigzag the field in a clump, chasing the ball and tripping over one another. They have clear roles and regions, and I begin to see a kind of beauty and synergy and breathtaking precision. Ten minutes in, I’m buoyed up by a rhythm of tension and release that comes in waves.

It’s riveting to watch, even though no one actually scores. So, yeah, it’s like they say: nothing happens. But for some reason all the building up and almost-happening keeps me mesmerized. There’s no downtime and no commercial breaks, so the tension doesn’t dissipate, and I’m surprised when halftime arrives because it didn’t feel like 45 minutes of play.

During the break, I try to be a good journalist; I try to find out who these people are and why they’ve come. I test out the theory that they grew up in the youth-soccer era—maybe even went on to play in college—but I can find only one guy who will admit to ever having played the sport. No one can plausibly explain why they are here; they just want to be.

One of the bar’s three couples is at the next table. He is wearing a Man U jersey, but she tells me she is a Chelsea fan. Everyone close enough to hear gasps—so I know this is a Bad Thing. She reassures us all that they are going to make the relationship work, despite such grave differences, and I’m tempted to ask in which faith they will raise their children.

The second half starts with a flurry of action—two Man U goals in the first four minutes, both scored by Wayne Rooney. He’s the only player on the field I actually recognize. (I know him from the 2006 World Cup, and only because he crotch-stomped a Portuguese player and got ejected.) Roony is a pugnacious garden-gnome of a man, sans beard.  He’s that scrappy runt you might see at the end of a bar who greets everyone by name and grins a lot—but you sense he’s going to take a swing at somebody before last call.

With the score two-nil, everyone leans back a little. At six o’clock the bartender announces that drinks are legal, so people around me order Smithwick’s and Guinness, and the Chelsea woman asks for a cider. I stick to black coffee. I’m here as a reporter, and I have to keep my wits about me.

With ten minutes left in the game, Liverpool scores (I think it’s the guy who wouldn’t shake hands, but I can’t be sure) and a fairly large, heretofore silent, Liverpudlian contingent roars to life at the tables to my left.

The game is within reach again, and everyone is on edge. The energy and tension is delicious, and the beer-for-breakfast crowd is getting vocal. It dawns on me that I’m on the edge of my seat and grinning. These fans’ passion is infectious, and I’m feeling a weird elation—but then I’m hit with a pang of envy: I can think of nothing that gives me the pure joy these men get from watching a game they have never played, in a land they may never visit. And I wonder what unholy inertia makes me choose to sleep in rather than rouse myself and seek some passion of my own.

The game ends (Liverpool 1/Man United 2), and I pay my tab. I slip out the back door and have to edge through a crowd of smokers to get to my car. As if it were written in the script, it’s slate-gray and raining now, but this fraternity of smokers—like a happy band of Englishmen—seems to take no notice.

PAUL BUCHANAN got his master's of professional writing from the University of Southern California. His piece about Annie Edson Taylor, the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, is forthcoming in History Magazine.