“UNITED: My Religion, My Testimony” is a signature series featuring supporters across the United States sharing their personal accounts of how they came to support the greatest club in the world. This installment features Austin Long from Marietta, GA.
Running around the soccer fields in Lexington, Kentucky as a kid, I had no soccer heroes. Kentucky basketball dominated my life and with no North American Soccer League club near me and no access to the World Cup or the European leagues, soccer was just something my family did every fall and spring, with my parents driving all of us around town to a myriad of practices and games. Nothing more.
Italia ’90 was my first World Cup, with games on a combination of Univision (in Spanish, punctuated by calls of “Gooooool!”) and TNT (with commercial breaks). I was introduced to the strange phenomenon of Schillaci. For a while I didn’t even know what a Schillaci was, but in the tournament snippets I would see, a Schillaci would occur. By the end of the tournament, I had discovered that Schillaci was a person, who ended up winning the Golden Boot with six goals.
During one week of the tournament I was at a church youth conference called Christ in Youth (CIY). For a couple of hours in the afternoon, we would skip our afternoon session and go down to the basement of one of the dorms, with a bunch of other truants, to watch soccer, play pool and hang out. (I figure the statute of limitations has run out on this and my youth minister, if he is reading this, is not going to yell at me). Turns out I was trading one religion for another.
It has been said that you don’t find a football club, a football club finds you, and Manchester United found me via my best friend Erik. When we were in high school and college, he would share stories of this great club called Manchester United from England, who had just ended 26 years in the wilderness, and he had all this swag—jerseys, scarves, articles, magazines, trinkets. He would talk about the amazing achievements of Hughes and Kanchelskis and Cantona and Sharpe and Schmeichel and Ince. He won me over, taking me to this hole in the wall bar in Detroit to watch live games, where we would have to play $10, sometimes $20, to watch a game on Pay Per View live from England.
The USA ’94 World Cup festival rolled into America and I was excited but not caught up in World Cup fever. I watched several matches on TV but missed my opportunity to see the tournament in the flesh in my own country. However this interaction was only a prelude to my dedication for the following tournaments.
Speaking of soccer on TV, this was a rarity in the early 90’s, and 1995 produced two moments that I was able to see live and for free. We watched the 1995 UEFA Cup Winners Cup between Arsenal and Real Zaragoza, and I still remember Seaman backpedaling and falling into his own net, unable to stop a ridiculous shot from Nayim. From there it was on to the 1995 Champions League Final, which Patrick Kluivert won for Ajax against AC Milan.
All of this set up the 1995-96 season, which, thanks to a slow internet connection at college and ESPN’s coverage of the Champions League and English Premier League, I was able to follow. What a year that was. Juventus won the Champions League Final, and Euro 96 was epic, with Poborsky’s chip, Gazza’s goal against Scotland, and Bierhoff scoring in extra time. But all of this paled in comparison to the Domestic Double won by Manchester United.
For me Eric Cantona’s goal against Liverpool in the 1996 FA Cup Final changed everything. I had been tracking United’s hunt of Newcastle United in the league but news and games in the FA Cup were harder to find. I did not have live access to the FA Cup Final so had to wait until one of the myriad FOX Regional Channels replayed the match. Not a great game but when David James made a hash of Beckham’s corner, nothing could prepare me for what happened next.
No matter how many times I watch the goal, I still cannot figure out how a) Cantona shaped his body, b) he got that much power on the shot and c) the shot did not hit a single player. Regardless the ball hit the back of the net and I screamed out loud. From that moment on, I was a Red.
Every season thereafter, I saw a little bit more, read a little bit more, learned a little bit more. By the time the Treble occurred, I was all in and the three clinching games against Spurs, Newcastle and Bayern Munich are some of the greatest sporting moments in my life. I bought the Treble VHS tape and wore that out, reliving a magical season over and over and over.
Recently I have re-committed myself even more to Manchester United and now watch almost every game in every competition. This comes at a crucial time as the team moves on from two decades of success under Ferguson and looks to shape its next era. I fear that the team may have to stumble about in the same way after Busby and before Ferguson but I am in for the long haul.
Win or lose or tie, United til I die.
Austin Long lives in Marietta, GA. A supporter of Manchester United for 20 years, he is a member of Terminus Legion, an Atlanta based soccer supporters group that brings fans of the beautiful game together. He also maintains his own blog (http://soccernomad.wordpress.