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Overpriced Wings

Gina Etlinger pens an essay on life, Manchester United fandom, and expensive bar food...

Crystal Palace v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

I moved to Philly in March 2012, five months after my Dad died.

To say I was scatterbrained is putting it very kindly. I flew away from grief and into everything else that came my way with as much speed, if not more. But despite the ups and downs of my 20s, the one constant was always Manchester United. The club I’ve loved since around 2004, when I turned on Fox Soccer Channel for the first time.

All the “cool kids’’ played soccer. There is something about the Tri-State Area and soccer that works very well together, and to me created a very intimidating atmosphere. Now I know it’s because all the cool kids were actually just the rich kids, and the rich kids hung out with all the beautiful girls. And I was very, very gay and maybe jealous of that. But I think I really wanted to understand why soccer felt so inaccessible to me. Not just because of financial realities, but the sport itself. The way coordination met creativity is still so amazing to me. It was a dance I wished I could do with ease.

With hindsight and living alone during a pandemic, I’ve become dangerously good at self-analyzing myself, so I think it was also just a basic need for me to fit in as a middle schooler. So I moved to educate myself on all things soccer, and luckily for me, it was a weekend kickoff at Old Trafford when I turned the TV on. I had a vague understanding of Manchester United and European soccer because me and my older brother played FIFA, and I knew every word to Bend It like Beckham. (Did I mention I’m GAY?)

I genuinely cannot remember who United were playing, but all I can remember is Wayne Rooney skiing past people as elegantly as he could. He struck fear in the opponents, but he was having fun. I know I was smiling the whole time. Fear has stopped me from doing almost everything I’ve wanted to do in my life, and it has also fueled overconfident mistakes. But when I was with Manchester United, it was life that could be fueled with limitless hope. To be fair, it was perfect timing because United were four years away from a Champions League final win, and a ton of incredible moments of magic and success sandwiched in between. But when you do your research, and you understand the history of the club, I think you take on the pain too. What’s love if not embracing the good and the bad?

Admittedly, I have permanently blacked out the “Messi Finals” and will one day unpack them in therapy. (Maybe.)

The first jersey I ever bought was a knockoff Alan Smith home kit. My favorite one that I own is David Beckham 1998/99 home, obviously. But the first time I went to a Philly bar alone to watch an afternoon kickoff, I wore my too-small, United 2008 home kit. It was around six years of living in the city, and I was really anxious about going to a bar. It felt insane to me. I was a pretty seasoned lightweight at that point. But as I took my jacket off and sat down as close to the bigger TV as possible, I was suddenly worried some dude would comment on my chest. I have been blessed with the ability to be hit on by straight men despite looking as uninterested as possible. Like clockwork, some dude sat a few spots down, and I braced myself.

You really do expect the worst when it comes to men and sports and those kinds of spaces. But I had just ordered wings, and there was no going back now!

“2008! Love that jersey. Why United?”

Okay, did this man just ask me a very reasonable, warm question? From that point, he was my watching buddy of sorts for the rest of the match. Some suburban, new dad who Mare-of-Eastowned his U’s and O’s.

The bar filled up around us, and we awaited the inevitable sludge of a draw against Crystal Palace. It ended up being a chaotic match with Matic scoring a last-gasp, 25-yard hit that felt like it was smashed in, but also floating at the same time. I lost my head, hugging everyone around me, and high-fiving Suburb Guy. It was amazing, and since then I try to watch with strangers as much as I can. The wings suddenly felt worth the $12 price tag.

I often think about that afternoon as a moment where I first started to make changes in my life. I’m very proud to be queer in the soccer community. I know it’s not perfect, but there seems to be a turn in who can speak and be listened to now. I’m sure Football Avi twitter will have much to say about that, but you just have to walk in and sit down anyway.