Man United-mad author recounts how he fed a soccer-starved soul in 1990s Detroit

Larry O'Connor
The Detroit News

Before the advent of NBCSN, ESPN and Fox Soccer, an extremely dedicated group of the English Premier League followers would congregate at a British social club in Warren on Saturday mornings where a satellite feed of varying technical quality nourished their souls.

Author and former Dearborn resident Gary B. France has written "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of United," which chronicles 40 years of being a diehard Manchester United supporter as a transplanted Brit living in the U.S.

Gary B. France, a native of Lancashire, England, was chief among them.

Those early morning sessions at the Dequindre Road meeting place became a lifeline to his beloved Manchester United. He made numerous friends, including those who align themselves with United’s archrival Liverpool.

France, a physiotherapist who emigrated to Detroit in the mid-1990s, rekindles those bonds as well as the zany lengths a soccer-starved Brit went through during those times in “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of United” (Fish Out of Water Books).

“It was the characters I was bumping into and the lengths they were going to and I just thought to myself, 'There's something in this,'” said France, who lives in Alpena. “So, I would just come back and would observe."

He will do a reading from the 416-page vivid, humorous, character-rich account from 7-9 p.m. Friday at Nicola’s Books, 2513 Jackson Ave., Ann Arbor, the night before Manchester United meets Liverpool in an International Champions Cup match at Michigan Stadium.

The book ascends beyond self-indulgent diary or derivative tribute-to-my-team narrative. France’s taps into the genuine warmth and friendship soccer, when shared in a community, can blossom.

One of the more endearing relationships in “Pursuit of United” is one that develops with Alfred “Regal Fred" Montague, another British expat. The gent, who is now in his mid-80s, offers wisdom during post-match medicinal sessions over pints of Guinness at Conor O’Neill’s in Ann Arbor, which also serves as a meeting hall for English football telecasts.

His frequent transatlantic phone calls home to “Des” after every United encounter also speak to the unbreakable father-son bond.

Author Gary B. France, who lives in Alpena, makes a trek to Old Trafford, the beloved home of Manchester United.

Liverpool fans will undoubtedly relate to Chinny, Jacob and Carl, who are among the handful of the Merseyside supporting contingent France befriends along the way.

"There was a ton of banter, trust me,” France said of the rivalry, which is only separated by 35 miles. “We wanted to get that across. We were very deep in our own passions and followings for our teams, but we were also a community that was so grateful that we could watch these matches. That kind of pulled us together as well.

“Don't get me wrong. There were some moments."

France, whose writing appears effortless, struggled mightily to get his labor of love published. He was stuck in the first-time author paradox: No agent, no publisher interest.

He recalls going to the then 24-hour U.S. Post Office at Metro Airport one late night mailing reams of synopses to potential publishers only to receive 30-some rejection letters.

About four years ago, Jon Wilson, a friend whom he met at the Commonwealth Club, started Fish Out of Water Books in Ann Arbor.

France resurrected the manuscript from a hard drive on an old computer and then he and Wilson “banged our heads together.”

The book published March 10 when United defeated Liverpool, 2-1, at Old Trafford.

His first match seeing United win the FA Cup was a 2-1 victory over Liverpool in the 1977 and first match at the Commonwealth Club was a 2-2 draw versus the Anfield side in October 1995.

“I’m just loving that symmetry,” France said.

With that inspiration, France and wife, Julie, and daughter, Maggy, 2½, flew to Manchester to coincide with the launch of “Pursuit of United.”

France didn’t have a ticket to the Premier League encounter, but as luck would have it a friend from California phoned the night before to say a contact in Ireland procured a coveted ducat.

On match day, the author spotted United legend Gary Neville walking outside Old Trafford, so he handed him a postcard promoting the book. “He looked at it and put it in his jacket pocket,” France said.

On the following Monday, France was invited to a radio show that included former Man United player Mickey Thomas and Man City’s Gary Owen as panelists.

To promote the book, France has been on SiriusXM FC’s “The Grumpy Pundits” with Tommy Smyth and Rodney Marsh and “The Football Show” with Charlie Stillitano and Ray Hudson.

France said he received an email from a guy in Toronto who was born in South Africa and became a United fan while going to boarding school in Ireland.

“He said he was blown away by it; He’s never read 400 pages so quickly,” France said. “It’s what makes it all worthwhile.”

Book reading

What: Gary B. France reads excerpts from “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of United”

When: 7-9 p.m. Friday, July 27

Where: Nicola’s Books, 2513 Jackson Ave., Ann Arbor