As regular readers of World Soccer Talk know, there is an absolute glut of soccer available to fans every week on television and the Internet. It has never been easier to watch your favorite club or catch a match when you have some free time. It was not too long ago, however, that seeing ANY soccer in the U.S. required major sacrifice. For those who may not remember or have experienced those days, Gary France’s memoir of his early years in the U.S. is a history lesson for you.
The author is from northern England and fell in love with Manchester United at a young age. When his soccer career ended at 18, he became a physiotherapist in England. In search of a more rewarding job – both spiritually and financially – he accepted a physical therapy job in Michigan and left the U.K. for the States. Like any relocated Englishman, he struggled with the usual differences for ex-pats such as adjusting to a different English, learning to love the driving culture, and in the case of Michigan adjusting to quickly changing weather.
There was one other adjustment that the author soon realized could be tougher – adjusting to not having the Manchester United matches available on television or radio. Thus begins his journey to experience as many matches as possible at a time in the late 1990s when the Red Devils were ascendant. The United supporter caught matches on shortwave radio and at two different bars. Along the way, we see how he created in Michigan a community of English soccer fans from around the world, brought together by love of the game.
As someone who really began to get into soccer when it was available on television, this was an eye-opening book for me. Some of the names were familiar of course – Tommy Smyth is a legend for a reason – but many of the references who covered the game were unknown to me. You can tell France had planned for a while to write this book; in an interview on the book site he mentions he wanted to write about his experience mere months upon arriving in Michigan. That foresight allowed him to really chat with members of his soccer community in the moment and write about the people with whom he experienced the matches.
The book is far from perfect. Some of the non-soccer material could be eliminated or shortened, and at times the writing is rather amateurish. From an emotional perspective, however, you do find yourself relating to France and his experiences, even if (like me) you are not a Manchester United fan or know the outcome of the matches. The crescendo when Manchester United won the historic treble in 1999 was not nearly as annoying as I thought it would be, and likely that is the author ensuring he mentions how tracking United despite the distance allowed him to bond with his father.