Photo courtesy of Mark Barry
Photo courtesy of Mark Barry
It was a snowy Saturday morning in February—the kind that you’d want to spend snuggled up in bed. The short route from Penn Station to Legends 33—one of New York’s premier soccer bars—was serenely empty. But the bar was a perfect pandemonium. It was only half past seven, but nearly sixty of Manchester United’s New York-based fans, packed like sardines in the basement, were chanting with unabashed zeal. There was an intoxicating rhythm to the chants; the lyrics were both vulgar and amusing at once: “In the Liverpool slums, They knock on the door when they want something to eat, They find a dead rat and they think it's a treat,” supporters sang in reference to the massive unemployment that struck Liverpool inthe 1980s.
When Manchester United’s talismanic striker, Wayne Rooney gave the club the lead early in the second half, the bar sprung to life: fans were almost on top of each other in elation; beer bottles and glasses were seemingly flying everywhere; it was a joyful bedlam. In the middle of the pack, high-fiving and embracing everyone around him, was Mark Barry, 33, a short, muscularly built man with sharp features, closely cropped blond hair and light-green eyes. Barry was taken to his first Manchester United game when he was just four years old.
“It was the 1983 F.A. Cup final against Brighton at Wembley,” Barry said, recounting his first experience of watching Man United, with a glint in his eyes. “I have very vague recollections of the game. I remember being up on my cousin’s shoulders.”
A green card holder—thanks to his father who relocated to the U.S. to start a business in 1990—Barry had been a frequent visitor to the country before moving permanently in the beginning of 2006. Just two years before that, though, he was inthe Strangeways prison in Manchester, serving six months for a football violence offense.
Born in Limerick, Ireland, Barry comes from a family of rugby fans, but after his first experience at a soccer game, and subsequent visits to away fixtures at Vicarage Road in Watford, with his uncle who lived in St. Albans, his love for United was firmly entrenched. “Since then there’s been no looking back,” he said.
“The incident occurred in Elland Road [Leeds United’s home ground], in January 2004,” said Barry almost matter-of-factly. “At the end of the game they usually try and keep the away fans in, for a while, but about 200 or 300 of usrushed the turnstiles and went looking for trouble.”
Soon, Barry and the group were clashing with Leeds fans, who were at the top of an embankment, practically waiting for Manchester United's fans to come out of the stadium. It was violence for the sake of violence. There was little the police could do but watch and tape the incident. “This one guy came down the hill at me, and I was a boxer in high school,” Barry said. “I am a little guy, but I know how to handle myself, so this big lump of a fella comes and takes a swing at me, I get carried away, and I hit him, he goes down, and then I just start kicking him.
Hooliganism in soccer is almost as old as the sport itself. It’s a culture that pervaded England with venomous consequences, especially in the 70s to the early 90s, and continues to date. “I could have stayed out of it if I wanted,” said Barry. “But I was young, I was impressionable. I was drunk and coked up or whatever. There are drugs flying about. That’s the culture. With the away fans, especially, it’s a gang.”
When Barry was studying for his B.A. in English, Philosophy and Media, from the University of Dublin, he had a fixed routine on weekends. Every Friday night he would set off for England to watch Manchester United play. "I'd go home after class, take my clothes and go to the Dublin port to take the overnight slow-ferry to Holyhead, and would then take the train that would get into Manchester at 6 in the morning," he said. He would then hit the off-licenses, until the pubs opened and then go to the game, before returning to Ireland. For away games, he'd go to Wexford, take the ferry to Fishgarden and then a train to London. It was these away games which were most often the sourceof trouble.
"The home support is fine, because it's 76,000,” he said. “It’s a lot of them, and you’ll never see most of them again. The away fans are a group of 3,000 to 5,000 that you see at every single away game. If you’re a regular away match goer, your face gets recognized real quick and you know, you're in the same pub. The cops take you to the same places."
Spending time in prison, however, was the “wake-up call” that Barry needed. “Once I came out, I cleaned myself up,” he said. “It told me, you know what, I loveUnited, but it’s not worth throwing my life away for. I was 24 then. I’m 33 next month. So, there just comes a time when you grow up.
“It massively changed my perspective on life. Now, I still enjoy football just as much. I still enjoy the singing and the banter. But I recognize the violence, and all that for what it was. If you’re part of the creed, you go to every game; it’s the prevailing culture. I still wear the same kind ofclothes that the hooligans wear, dressed in black, and stuff, but since coming over here, I’ve gone away from the violencepart—that’s been a symptom of just maturity in general.”
Barry plans to study for a double masters in Philosophy of Science and Evolutionary Biology at NYU starting this fall. His girlfriend of five years, Lissa Gilmore, is now with him at every Man United game. Gilmore, 35, born and raised in Seattle, moved to New York after college, and has lived in the city since. She took her time to warm to the culture, but she now finds watching United an utterly exhilarating experience.
"It was a little shocking, one day, when we were sitting and looking at YouTube, and [Barry] showed me this video of United fans at Glasgow, and it was a huge deal," Gilmore said. "You can see him marching down the street. He pointed himself out. He had shaved his head, and wearing all black, and marching with all these guys. He showed me a couple of films, Football Factory, and one other, and I just couldn’t understand the violence, and why it was such a big part. I still can’t."
Barry attributes much of his change to Gilmore. It's a relationship, he said, that he wouldn’t jeopardize for football. "Being with Lissa has helped immensely,” he said. “I had gotten out of all the violence and stuff, before I met her. But she's played a big role in helping me get a better perspective of life."
He admits that not being at the stadium supporting United makes him feel a little less part of it, but he says the mood at Legends is the closest that one can get to a match-day atmosphere. “We all love the same thing,” he said. “Lot of us may have nothing else in common, but when it’s kick-off time, we are all rooting for one cause, and that makes you feel amazing.”
Even with this newfound maturity, because Barry has devoted much of his life to Manchester United, when the team loses it affects him at a profound level. The agony is unmistakable—you can see it in his eyes.
“You’d think somebody died in the family,” said Gilmore, describing Barry’s mood on days when United loses. “You wouldn’t be able to have a conversation with him. He’d completely shut down, close himself of, and kind of go into this deep, dark place in his mind. Now over the last couple of years, he’s gotten a different attitude. The results still affect him, but he tends to look forward more to the next game, instead of dwelling on the lost game.”
That, as I mentioned in my earlier article on Newcastle United’s supporters club, in many ways typifies the beauty of fandom. Your team may have just lost its second game in a row, the league title may be slipping away from its grasp, but there is still next Saturday to look forward to.