Growing up, two things truly mattered to me.
1. Shotgunning the front seat before my brother did.
2. Manchester United.
Despite being born and raised 17,000 kilometres from Manchester, home of the Red Devils, I was obsessed. Many years of fandom saw me accumulate all sorts of weird Manchester United paraphernalia. I had it all: the jerseys, keyrings, pencil case, toothbrush – anything that could be branded and sold to children.
My bedroom was a shrine to the team, walls covered in posters. So feverish was the enthusiasm I once made a magazine – The Becks Gazette – all about David Beckham. It featured first-person interviews where I played the role of both myself and Beckham and a particularly bizarre "at home" style story.
Looking back, the magazine, which once seemed charming in a child-like way, now appears terrifying. It's amazing no one alerted the authorities. My mum found it recently and sent me a test, asking if she should keep it.
"It's so cute :-) Wow! you really loved David Beckham!"
Burn it mother, and mention my fan fiction to no one.
Once a fan
But while the thought of young Thomas painstakingly gluing together different pictures of David Beckham gives current Thomas anxiety, it reminds me that this team, and sport in general, has delivered some of the most genuine moments of my life.
Over the weekend, I was in Western Australia to watch Manchester United play an exhibition game against Perth Glory. On the way into the stadium, I overheard a dad being grilled by his two kids; they were bombarding him with questions.
"Dad, do you really think Paul Pogba is going to play?"
"Dad, do you reckon it'll 6-0 Dad?"
"Dad, are we actually, really, going to see Manchester United play?"
"Dad, can we please, please get dinner soon?"
While the dad was inevitably stressing out about how much of dent stadium prices were going to make in his wallet – $7.50 for water, how reasonable! – he was happy to play along, their enthusiasm infectious. Even as they walked towards Perth's Optus Stadium, the two boys seemed unable to believe that once inside, the team they love so much would be there too.
Always a fan
But I knew how they felt. Way back in 1999, after Manchester United's record winning treble season, the team visited Australia for a series of exhibition matches. I was 10 years old, at the peak of my fan frothing and getting tickets was all that mattered.
After horribly over-committing to a series of lifelong chores (I'll do the washing up every night for the next ... five hundred nights!), my parents agreed to buy tickets. Off we went, my dad, dressed casually in a blazer-and-shirt combo, me head-to-toe in every single piece of Manchester United gear I owned.
Sitting alongside my old man, that night remains seared in my mind as an extraordinary moment.
On the way home, my dad stopped to buy some unauthorised Manchester United merchandise from an illegal street vendor. As they argued over the price, I can still remember being blown away by the fact these footballers were real, and I had seen them with my own eyes.
A sacred pilgrimage
It's a feeling that doesn't go away, even now, 20 years later. Just last year I travelled to England to watch a game at their home ground, Old Trafford, a pilgrimage of sorts.
Taking my seat next to a couple of local lads, too many pre-game beers had me buzzed, and my excitement proved hard to contain. Talking out loud, to myself mostly, I admitted that it still felt like a strange kind of magic to watch a game in real life.
"Maybe it's because I've travelled so far," I offered, trying to dial it back.
"Unlikely mate, I'm a season ticket holder, I'm here every week and it never changes."
He's not wrong.
This weekend I was lucky enough to watch the team from a box (fancy). While I wouldn't trade the wagyu sliders and free booze for anything, there was a part of me that wanted to see the look on the faces of those two boys at Old Trafford as the game kicked off.
From one fan to another, I know how it feels. Just don't mention that fan fiction.
The writer realised a childhood dream as a guest of Marriott Bonvoy VIP member experiences.