July 25, 2014 at 7:51 pm

Pair of longtime Manchester United fans get happy surprise

Edward Gardner, 85, left, and his friend Earl Linford, 88, are surprised with soccer tickets Friday at Main Street Crossing in Brighton. They will get to see Manchester United play Real Madrid at Michigan Stadium on Aug. 2. (Mark Bialek / Special to Detroit News)

Brighton — For more than 60 years, Edward Gardner and Earl Linford have been connected. They came to Michigan in the 1950s, worked at the Ford Rouge Plant and have been soccer fans since before World War II, when they lived in England.

They’ll add to their treasure trove of memories when they get to see Manchester United face Real Madrid at Michigan Stadium on Aug. 2.

The octogenarians got a big surprise on Friday afternoon when they were presented tickets to the sold-out game by three Michigan soccer players at a restaurant in Brighton. Captain Tyler Arnone, James Murphy and William Mellors-Blair presented the tickets and the exciting news, compliments of the event organizer, Relevent Sports.

“It was a big surprise — I never expected anything like this,” Linford said. “I thought it was a family get-together for lunch.”

Linford’s grandson, Duncan deBruin, masterminded the ruse, telling Gardner and Linford that someone was going to receive an award as Brighton was honoring military veterans on Friday.

Even when the Michigan players and a crew of cameras and media entered the restaurant, Linford and Gardner still weren’t sure what was going on.

“Edward said maybe they were coming here for lunch or just football players,” deBruin said. “They had no clue.”

Linford and Gardner are longtime soccer fans and haven’t seen a Man U match together. deBruin just wanted to do something nice for his grandfather and his grandfather’s good friend, but was sad when the tickets were sold out online. When a co-worker was able to get him in contact with Michigan, the wheels to his plan started turning.

“They were able to get in contact with the management company and track down tickets,” deBruin said. “Now, these guys are going to get the opportunity to go see them — that being his favorite team and the team to root for, kind of like their Yankees.”

Gardner said he’s kept up with English soccer and even watched on TV with his wife on Wednesday night when Manchester United beat the L.A. Galaxy in a friendly.

He said he hasn’t seen Man U play since about six years ago, when he was traveling in England. But he’s worked to make sure his grandchildren carry on the soccer tradition, taking them to English pubs to watch matches.

“Years ago, if you wanted to watch English football, you couldn’t get it on television and you had to go to the English pubs,” Gardner said. “On a Saturday morning, for $10, you got to watch the game and a big English breakfast.”

But next week, Gardner will get to see one of his favorite teams — along with Preston North End, whom he grew up admiring — up-close at Michigan Stadium in Section 25, thanks to the surprise tickets.

“I couldn’t believe it — it’s incredible. I really love Man United and for them to play Real Madrid is another great team,” Gardner said. “I haven’t been to the Big House for years — I’ll bet I haven’t been in 30 years.

“To go to the stadium and see them will be so different than watching on television. The atmosphere is going to be fantastic with 107,000 people.”

It’ll also be special to watch it with his lifelong friend, another cherished moment to go in their scrapbook of memories, along with the four tickets stubs. About 15 friends and family were present for the Friday lunch, but it’s more than just a friendship between Gardner and Linford.

“Edward’s children always called me uncle and my children called him uncle but we’re not related — but we’ve always been like family together in this country,” Linford said.

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/detnewsRodBeard

Manchester United vs. Real Madrid

What: Pool A round-robin match of the International Champions Cup, an eight-team competition being contested at North American sites prior to the beginning of the European league seasons.

Kickoff: 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor

TV: Fox