• A Red Devil Abroad

    Andy Mitten travels to the US to meet old friends and follow a certain football team on their pre-season travels.

“I’m near your place, near the Miramar air base.”

Andy Mitten

Andy Mitten is the founder of the fanzine ‘United We Stand‘, now in its 25th year.

@andymitten
uwsonline.com

Published

August 15, 2014

I’d been travelling for 20 hours and was badly jetlagged. Europe to San Diego via Philadelphia ahead of Manchester United’s pre-season tour in July 2014. United’s first game under their new manager, Louis van Gaal, was in Los Angeles, but Salford lad and former player Billy Garton now calls San Diego home and he invited me to stay. He couldn’t have been more helpful as he offered to pick me up from the airport; a 30-minute drive from his home. I told him I’d be fine as I was picking up a car and would tap his address into a SatNav. Only I was a digit out on the zip code. So, instead of arriving at his house on an estate where all the streets are named after Bing Crosby films or songs – think Pennies from Heaven Lane and The Road to Rio/Singapore/Bali/Utopia/Morocco/Zanzibar,  which don’t go to any of those places. I was on one near the Miramar air base, setting for Top Gun

“You’re miles away,” said Billy, whose Liverpudlian wife had made a meal for their visitor.

He gave me the correct address and I drove for another 20 minutes.

In 1998 my brother and I drove from San Francisco to Mexico through Yosemite, Los Angeles and San Diego. It would be a last holiday before we settled down, like Sideways but before marriage, me the aspiring/struggling writer and him the good looking actor, well, semi-professional footballer who pretended to be a fireman when he was a plumber. We watched the World Cup along the way and were two mesmerised Mancunians as Liverpool’s Michael Owen scored that goal against Argentina.

Then we hit the road. No SatNavs, no problems. Maps and road signs were consulted and that was enough. SatNavs are brilliant, but they rely on humans. Who make mistakes.

The next zip code after Billy’s house was one I was not going to forget: 90211 Beverly Hills. Like the television series plus one. So, after spending three days with Billy and watching him coach young Americans, I headed north on I-5. News of United’s first game under new boss Louis van Gaal was on one of LA’s many radio stations, with tickets offered in a competition to see ‘the famous Manchester soccer team‘. I drove through Orange County, the Pacific on my left, parched hills and US military areas the right. Before long I was in LA’s urban sprawl. Two hours later I was still in it, passing intersections that made Birmingham’s spaghetti junction seem like a strand of pasta to California’s plateful. Manchester United were staying in the Beverly Hills Wilshire Hotel – made famous in Pretty Woman – and a mate lived nearby and offered the spare room.

United got off to a great start in front of an incredible 86,432 in the Pasadena Rose Bowl – venue of the 1994 World Cup final – beating LA Galaxy 7-0. The Californian United fans were the same breed as my mates, who’d travelled from England to watch their team on tour, but a different species. Garton had travelled up from his home with his kids and looked around before the match as thousands of United supporters listened to a singer known as the Mexican Morrissey. Garton remarked that it was a world away from the United he grew up with over the Trafford Road Bridge from his home in Salford.

The next game of what would become a five-match tour was in Denver. I wanted to drive right over the Rockies and research it, but there wasn’t sufficient time between the two games, not without my brother to share the driving and bring me up to speed over how it ended the night before. The car was left at LAX and I flew to the mile-high city in Colorado.

In 2010, I drove from Pittsburgh to Houston while following United on tour. It took a week and, ideally, I would’ve had longer were it not for games, but it was fascinating getting off the beaten track to see small town Americana and mid-West cities. I stopped at the US Air Force museum in Dayton, Ohio, where the Dayton Agreement was signed that put an end to the 90s Bosnian War; watched major and minor league baseball, saw a college stadium with a capacity of more than 100,000, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and crossed the mighty, mighty Mississippi before arriving in St Louis. The river – with 100 times the water of Manchester’s River Irwell – was swollen in flood; so big it was breathtaking. United played in Kansas City before I turned south and crossed through Tulsa and Oklahoma, where every radio station seemed to carry religious sermons and every field grew wheat. I stayed near Dallas, where the former winger Gordon Hill put me up, and finally arrived in Houston and its never ending suburbs. The US is a great country to drive, with a vast diversity, cheap (by European standards) petrol and largely toll-free roads. Outside the big cities you can go days without seeing a traffic jam.

United are frequent visitors to the United States and will likely return next summer after the success of July 2014, when they played in front of 350,000 across the five matches. AS Roma were beaten in Denver, Inter Milan in Washington DC and Real Madrid in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That game was attended by 109,318, the largest ever crowd to watch a soccer game in the country. By that stage I’d taken the California Zephyr train from Denver to Chicago and a bus to meet the former Brazilian World Cup winner, Kléberson, in Indiana before driving into Detroit.

The Motor City has fallen on hard times of late and, while areas around downtown have decayed into bleak nothingness and would be fit to grow wheat again, there are shoots of economic recovery. I visited the giant Ford Rouge plant, busy with trucks rolling off the modern production line, before driving to Ann Arbor to be part of that huge crowd. United’s win against the European champions meant a final against Liverpool in Miami, which would have taken 22 hours. With just over a day to do it, that would have been impossible for me.

The car was returned to the airport and I headed home as the team beat Liverpool to end a perfect pre-season tour.

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