Having a Red Devil of a time

Having a Red Devil of a time

Seemingly unlikely Manchester United fans in Hong Kong tell John Kang why they follow a football team so far away


(Clockwise from front) Gene Richardson, Niall Richardson, Bob Yeung and Nigel Lee are four supporters of Manchester United.
(Clockwise from front) Gene Richardson, Niall Richardson, Bob Yeung and Nigel Lee are four supporters of Manchester United.
Photo: Thomas Yau/SCMP
Manchester United returned to Hong Kong last month for the first time since 2005, to play a friendly against the Hong Kong team. The 18,000 available tickets sold out in 4 and 1/2 hours.

Despite Manchester being more than 9,000 kilometres away, the British city's more famous football team is arguably the best known to Hongkongers. It's also one of the most commonly supported.

There are no obvious reasons for this popularity. While Japanese Man U fans would probably be cheering on player Shinji Kagawa, and Korean's have Park Ji-sung to support, Hong Kong players are rare in overseas teams. Yet few locals choose to wear the home colours of Germany's Hamburger Sport-Verein team, where Hong Kong's own Lam Zhi-gin plays. Even other big clubs, such as Chelsea, Real Madrid or Barcelona don't enjoy the same number of fans. So what is it about Man United?

Bob Yeung, Nigel Lee, and the father-son pair of Niall and Gene Richardson are all members of Hong Kong's Manchester United Supporters Club. They say it's not just any old fan club, but the only local supporters' club actually recognised by the team.

"As our name suggests, it is for people who support Man United, principally who live in Hong Kong, regardless of their race, gender, and age," said Lee, the club secretary. "Which is why we have locals, expats, kids, and old [folks]," Lee joked, pointing at Richardson.

"Anyone who loves Man United and lives in Hong Kong, or even has a Hong Kong origin but lives elsewhere ... are all welcome," said Lee. Their aim? Simply to "gather all the Man United fans in Hong Kong," said Yeung, the club's chairman.

"And share the joy of supporting Man United," Lee added.

One reason for Man U's widespread support is simply that they win, both matches and trophies. Gene says many of his peers jump on the bandwagon, giving in to the temptation of supporting a winning team.

"If Man United is winning, then they'll buy Man United shirts and support Man United. If Chelsea is winning, then they'll do the same. It doesn't matter who wins ... they'll support whoever it is," Gene said. But this seems as good a reason as any to choose which team to support. After all, few Man U fans in Hong Kong have any direct tie to Manchester or even Britain.

Another source of appeal is Man United's emphasis on youth. While other big clubs simply buy the best players they can afford, "the spine of Man United has always been their youth players, from the Busby Babes [of the 1950s] to [Ryan] Giggs, and now [Tom] Cleverley and [Danny] Welbeck," said Richardson. "It's a chance to dream. Gene could dream about getting into the youth team and working his way up like [David] Beckham and [Gary] Neville, who came from very modest backgrounds."

If you've ever watched a school football match, or any other sports competition, you'll know that the air can feel almost electric as students cheer for their school's players. Now imagine multiplying that electricity several thousand times. The atmosphere at Old Trafford, Man United's home stadium, "is indescribable. You'll get goosebumps. It's just fantastic," Richardson said. "The only possible stadium that could create that kind of atmosphere is Barcelona's Camp Nou. Together with its legendary history, I just caught the bug."

As well as being a huge brand, though, the team is made up of highly skilled athletes, who play very entertaining, very clever, very impressive football. As Yeung puts it: "Man United have always played a very attacking style with [plenty of] teamwork."

Man United is well known for fighting up to the very last second of full time, or even forcing a match into extra time.

"For example, in the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich, or the 96th winner against Manchester City, Man United has always been known for its comebacks. I can't imagine [Barcelona players] Messi, Xavi and Iniesta dragging their team to a victory when they're behind," said Lee.

"The aura of Manchester United, their never-say-die attitude is like no other club."

And perhaps this is the main reason Hong Kong football fans are drawn to the team - that never-say-die spirit echoing our city's can-do attitude. It reminds us all that anything is possible if we set our minds to it - and if we have a massive group of fans supporting our every move.

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