DUBLIN — Thanks to their team’s popularity with network schedule-makers, Patriots fans have been asked twice in December to attend games in prime time, long after the sun has gone down.
I concede that traveling to Foxborough and home again on a cold winter’s night — with the wind chill making it feel like it was in the 20s Sunday night, and the 41-34 loss increasing the shivers — demonstrates an admirable devotion. But it hardly compares with a sports-themed road trip I took with a couple of Irish neighbors a few seasons back.
As such excursions often are, this one was initiated over pints at our local pub. My next-door neighbor mentioned that he might be able to obtain tickets to a Manchester United match. Would Dave and I be interested in going? Frank didn’t have to ask us twice, but we were prepared for disappointment as well, given that the Red Devils are the hottest team in English if not world soccer.
A couple of months later, though, true to his word, Frank delivered. So at 5:30 a.m. on a quiet road in a Dublin suburb, we bundled into Dave’s car and headed for the coast.
Of course, this would be no ordinary road trip. We’d need first to get our vehicle across the Irish Sea.
At certain times of the year, the ferry services between Ireland and Britain are as well-used as the T, but the ships are more like floating carnival arcades, designed to extract as much surplus cash from travelers as possible.
Our vessel, the HSS Explorer, was only coming to life as we pulled out of Dun Laoghaire harbor on the coast of County Dublin — it was 6:30 in the morning, after all — and we successfully resisted any urge to blow our budget. Shortly after 8, we were rolling down the gangway at Holyhead in Wales.
I was a back-seat passenger, so once we hit terra firma I was able to gaze idly at the passing countryside. My first impression was that Wales is a funny place, literally. Along the northern coast we passed through somewhere called Llanfairfechan, with turn-offs for Yr Wyddgrug, Betws-y-Coed, and Abergwyngregan. Every few kilometers we were assured of the availability of gwasanaethau. At least this last word came with a pronounceable translation from the Welsh Gaelic: services.
Despite the language barrier, what I saw from my window — gently rolling hills and a generally tidy and welcoming landscape — was a convincing advertisement for a return visit.
On this trip, though, it was the soccer we were after. In my 20 years in Ireland, I’ve come to value the game as much as I do baseball, and so my thoughts turned in that direction as we approached our destination.
By the time we arrived at a prearranged Manchester hotel — just a stone’s throw from Old Trafford Stadium — we’d been on the road (and sea) for more than six hours. But we still managed to turn up before our tickets did. They were supposed to be dropped at the front desk, and had yet to appear. In the meantime, we enjoyed a quiet drink and had a bite to eat in the hotel lounge, our version of a tailgate party.
Unlike Gillette Stadium, Old Trafford (capacity: 75,811) is about 2 miles from the center of a major city. Though soccer hooliganism has declined significantly in recent years, on game days the yellow-jacketed constabulary of the Greater Manchester Metropolitan force circulates openly in groups of four or five around the stadium and the sparkling business parks nearby.
In another direction, down the end of Sir Matt Busby Lane — named in honor of a legendary team manager — lies a grittier Manchester, which we saw only from our car, of rough-and-ready pubs, functional fish and chip shops, and colorless public housing estates.
As for the match itself, it characterized The Beautiful Game perfectly, with long, languorous buildups leading to hectic scoring chances, and resulted in a comfortable 2-0 Man. U. win against a perennial cellar dweller.
Rather than reverse our journey in its entirety, we bedded down for the night in a Travelodge in Bangor, Wales. Not exactly five-star accommodation, but after such a long day it felt just fine.
So unless the Pats start playing their home games on Nantucket, I reckon my Irish road trip to Old Trafford trumps even a winter’s outing to Foxborough for sheer determination.