July 25, 2014
By Brad Rudner
They say good things come to those who wait. If that's true, then longtime Manchester United fans Earl Lindford and Edward "Alan" Gardner need the next eight days to go by real quick.
On Friday (July 25), the two men and their families met for an early dinner at Main Street Crossing in Brighton under the pretense of attending a veterans celebration in the town later in the day. But when University of Michigan men's soccer players Tyler Arnone, James Murphy and William Mellors-Blair appeared from around the street corner and entered the otherwise empty restaurant decked in Michigan apparel, they had to have known something was up.
Surrounded by two generations of family members, friends and other members of the media, Lindford and Gardner received from the players four complimentary tickets courtesy of Relevant Sports to next Saturday's International Champions Cup match between their beloved club and fellow international powerhouse Real Madrid at Michigan Stadium. For these two diehards, it was a surprise of a lifetime, one they were not expecting.
There are few things that outlast their friendship, but one of them is their love for the club. Growing up in England, Lindford and Gardner -- though never meeting until 1952 in Montreal -- adored Manchester United. The passion was so deep that not even service to England during World War II could stop it.
Gardner, now 85, has seen Manchester United in person only once. That was six years ago during his yearly trip to England. It's been quite a bit longer for Lindford. Try 50 years.
In just eight days, the two men, along with their grandsons, ex-U.S. Marines Duncan deBruin and David Vaisleff, will fulfill a lifelong dream of seeing their favorite club, in person, together.
"I'm just happy they're coming here," Lindford said. "In this day and age, all the great teams are coming here. It's going to be fantastic, really."
For nearly 20 minutes, those five men, some sixty-plus years apart in age, sat around the table talking about the game they all universally love. They spoke about their favorite players and teams, the upcoming soccer season and even discussed their predicted outcomes of the big match (hint: good things coming for Man U!). To the players involved in the surprise, seeing the general happiness (and shock) on the faces of both Lindford and Gardner were priceless.
"This was easily one of the coolest things I've done in my years here at Michigan," Arnone said. "Community service is a huge part of what we do here. You can see how much this meant to them. That's a great feeling."
"It's great to know that even such a small thing like that can have a huge impact on these guys' lives," added Murphy. "They've been football fans for a long time that haven't been able to see their team. To give them the opportunity was brilliant."
The experience was a little bit different for Mellors-Blair. A transfer from Georgia State, Mellors-Blair grew up in Nottingham and spent three years training in Manchester United's Academy. He knows what it means to play for an elite program, one that started at the top with Sir Alex Ferguson, the famous manager of the club who retired in 2013 after winning close to 40 trophies, including 13 English Premier League titles. He's considered one of the best managers in the history of the game.
"He set the tone for the whole place," Mellors-Blair said. "He was looked at as a god, literally a god. It's a program known around the world. Everyone there is elite."
Now, Mellors-Blair wears a different jersey with different colors. What doesn't change is his pride.
"Wearing that jersey with the Manchester United crest, it made me smile every day," he said. "Now when I look at my jersey, I see the block M. To see that gives me the same feeling."
Gardner, Lindford, Mellors-Blair and Murphy come from a place where the sport is the biggest thing around. As Gardner suggests, it's a part of life.
"Following Saturday games, all that was talked about for the following three days was that game, and for the three days after that, all you would talk about is the game that was coming up," Gardner said. "Football is all anyone talked about. To us, it's not soccer. It's football."
While the United States has never rivaled England or any of the other soccer-hungry countries in terms of excitement and passion, interest in soccer is growing more rapidly than ever before, thanks largely to an improbable run to the knockout stage by the United States at this summer's FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
The numbers tell the story. The Associated Press reported that an average of 24.7 million people tuned into ESPN and Univision to watch the United States' group stage match with Portugal, making it the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history. Going even further, nearly 27 million Americans watched the final match between Germany and Argentina. Across the Cup's 64 matches, ESPN drew nearly 4.5 million viewers per match.
Next Saturday's match is just another step for an upwardly trending sport. An estimated crowd of more than 104,000 people will file into Michigan Stadium to watch two of the world's premier clubs in what is sure to be one of the highest-attended matches in history. Some of the world's best players are slated to be in attendance, from Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid/Portugal) to Wayne Rooney (Manchester United/England) to James Rodríguez (Real Madrid/Colombia), who won the Golden Boot at the World Cup for scoring the most goals. The Michigan players hope that the recent boost of popularity filters down to their own matches at U-M Soccer Stadium.
"You'd like to think so, wouldn't you?" Murphy said. "As the sport of soccer grows, college soccer grows, too. Everyone saw how big the World Cup was here in the U.S. and it's growing very quickly. At the end of the day, if you put in good performances and have good matches, people will come and watch you play and your support will grow. I know both our men's and women's teams would love to see more people come to our matches."
It helps that both programs are on the rise. The men enter their third season under head coach Chaka Daley with high expectations, while the women's team looks to build on the most successful two-year stretch in the history of the program. But there was a time when fans didn't show up. Arnone remembers.
As a freshman, he recalls walking around campus and bumping into people who didn't even know the university had a men's soccer team. And that was coming off one of the program's most successful seasons ever that concluded with an appearance at the NCAA College Cup.
"Back then, people either didn't know or they knew and didn't care," Arnone said. "Now, if I'm wearing a Michigan soccer shirt, they're coming up to me wanting to know when our next game is."
Consider Lindford and Gardner among that group. Thanks to this act of charity, the men's soccer team has adopted two new fans while erasing the nearly five-decade long wait to see their favorite team.
As the two groups said their goodbyes and thank-yous, Lindford and Gardner could not seem to wipe the smiles off their faces. Who could blame them? For these two men and surely thousands of others, August 2 will be a dream.
And it can't come soon enough.