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This statue next to Old Trafford features the 'United Trinity' of George Best, Denis Law, and Sir Bobby Charlton, who all won the Ballon d’Or as the world’s top soccer player in the 1960’s.Lucas Aykroyd/The Globe and Mail

A soccer match on a misty English afternoon feels magical, especially if it’s your first live Premier League match in Manchester. The floodlights cast an unforgettable glow across the pitch. As a Canadian who’s attended hundreds of NHL hockey games, it’s exciting to soak up a sport that’s even more globally beloved.

At my Level 2 seat behind the Fulham net, I feel the energy surge when Manchester City’s Erling Haaland smashes home the 95th-minute penalty winner. The Norwegian leaps and whirls his blue jersey overhead. Pandemonium reigns among the 52,395 fans at Etihad Stadium. It’s another big victory for the top English club of the past decade.

For me, sampling the hot, beefy, ultra-British goodness of Bovril, gaping at the Smurf-like mascots Moonchester and Moonbeam, and hearing the crowd sing Man City’s Blue Moon fight song – a Blur-like cover of the 1934 Richard Rodgers ballad – number among the match’s other memorable moments. Not to mention the unprintable insults fans hurl at the referee between shouts of “Come on, City!” in broad Mancunian accents.

However, in this northwest British city with a metro population of 2.8 million, marvelling at a Belgian superstar like Kevin De Bruyne at the UAE-sponsored stadium is just one way to enjoy a soccer-themed getaway. From restaurants and shopping to museums and galleries, you can immerse yourself in the sport’s culture in what’s arguably the soccer capital of the world.

Manchester United fans would back that claim, quickly pointing to United’s Premier League-record 13 titles to City’s six, and its worldwide reach of 1.1 billion fans and followers. Regardless, if you love soccer and didn’t visit Qatar for the FIFA World Cup, it’s worth making it to Manchester.

Having spotted a mural of legendary Man City manager Pep Guardiola en route to the match, I indulge afterward with Catalan tapas at Tast. Guardiola owns this intimately lit, centrally located restaurant. Sipping a gin cocktail with dill-infused Manzanilla sherry and nibbling on jamón Ibérico croquettes, I muse about how cosmopolitan Manchester has become.

Yes, this red-brick city of railways and canals remains gritty, graffiti-strewn, and packed with construction sites. Its Industrial Revolution history as a cotton production hub forged an indelible image. Still, modern Manchester is a far cry from the grim smokestacks behind the soccer players in Christopher R.W. Nevinson’s Any Wintry Afternoon in England, a 1930 Cubist-style painting at the Manchester Art Gallery.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola’s Tast restaurant features an upscale bar and Catalan tapas in downtown Manchester.Lucas Aykroyd/The Globe and Mail

Eager to explore the rich local soccer heritage, I take a walking tour with guide Emma Fox. The native Mancunian shows me the 1844-built Manchester Victoria train station, whose upper façade reads: “Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway.”

“In 1878, the railway company founded Newton Heath, Man United’s forerunner,” Fox says. “They struggled on the pitch and financially. Team captain Harry Stafford’s dog ran away in 1901, and brewery owner John Henry Davies found it and wanted it for his daughter. He bargained with Stafford to keep the dog in return for investing in the club. Essentially, that’s how Man United was born.”

I’m tempted to reply that this anecdote is barking mad. However, Fox provides even more jaw-dropping tales at neighbouring Angel Meadow. The city centre park, awash in melancholy autumn leaves, slopes down to the River Irk.

“From the 1780s to the 1820s, this was a paupers’ graveyard in one of England’s worst slums, with 40,000-odd people buried here. Bodies lay in mass graves a foot below the surface, and kids played football with skulls. Later, a football pitch was created. Nobby Stiles, one of our 1966 World Cup heroes, honed his skills here.”

Fox keeps the quirky history flowing as we amble to The Marble Arch. I polish off a pomegranate sour beer at the cozy, 1888-built public house, ever-popular among Man City fans. Reputedly, that club was female-founded circa 1880. Fox tells me how Anna Connell, a vicar’s daughter, identified football as a better outlet for young men than “scuttling” (brawling).

More recently, the underappreciated women’s game got a boost when Chloe Kelly – a City women’s team member – scored to lift England over Germany in the Euro 2022 final. Women’s soccer is on my mind when I head to the six-storey National Football Museum, marking its 10th anniversary in Manchester in 2022.

Sculptor Hannah Stewart’s 2019 bronze statue of soccer pioneer Lily Parr poised to kick a ball catches my eye. It’s Britain’s first statue of a female player. Parr achieved stardom with Dick, Kerr Ladies F.C. just as the Football Association in 1921 imposed a ban on women playing in stadiums, claiming that “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged.” That exclusion lasted until 1971.

The Ashton canal, built in the late 19th century to transport coal, reflects the city’s industrial heritage.Lucas Aykroyd/The Globe and Mail

The National Football Museum unsurprisingly showcases prizes such as the replica 1966 Jules Rimet World Cup trophy, but doesn’t ignore the beautiful game’s dark side. Switchblades and knuckle dusters that police confiscated from soccer hooligans in the 1970s and 1980s are on display. United ace George Best’s shiny BMW Mini Cooper juxtaposes poignantly with the alcoholism that ended his life at age 59 in 2005.

The nearby People’s History Museum offers an intriguing soccer exhibition with a progressive socialist lens. For instance, it documents the 1907 founding of the Professional Footballers’ Association and features the jersey of Viv Anderson, who in 1978 became the first Black player to represent England internationally.

While I also relish browsing through the Central Library’s 200-plus Manchester soccer books and the two-storey Classic Football Shirts store with a 1994 TECMO World Cup arcade cabinet, nothing tops an Old Trafford guided tour for Manchester soccer history.

Even though United may be for sale and recently split unceremoniously with Cristiano Ronaldo, the club’s pride is a thing to behold. Hong Kong fans in David Beckham shirts join Americans and Germans on the hour-long tour. When the Reds Go Marching In blares as we enter the 112-year-old, 74,140-capacity stadium through the players’ tunnel. The quippy guides laud ex-managers such as Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson, and show off the mood lighting that Jose Mourinho installed in the dressing room.

The Old Trafford museum includes everything from the stuffed head of Union the goat, the mascot circa 1909, to a shrine to the 1958 Munich air disaster that killed eight United players. The sprawling gift shop is a license to print money, with keepsakes like a United teddy bear for £15 ($24) or an 1878-style brown soccer ball for £30 ($48).

Manchester soccer has come a long way since those early days of stray dogs and skulls for balls, but the magic lives on.

Manchester soccer has come a long way since those early days of stray dogs and skulls for balls, but the magic lives on.Lucas Aykroyd/The Globe and Mail

If you go

Travel: The Avanti West Coast high-speed train runs from London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly in about two hours.

Tickets: Getting Premier League tickets in Manchester is challenging, so plan ahead. For priority access, obtain a Manchester City Cityzens Matchday membership or Manchester United Official Membership. Hospitality packages are also available. See the official club websites.

Hotels: Just a 20-minute walk from Etihad Stadium, the 2022-opened Leonardo Hotel Manchester Piccadilly has Jenga-style architecture with sleek minimalist rooms and a 24-hour gym. Hotel Football overlooks Old Trafford, greeting guests with chocolate soccer candies, framed jerseys of United legends like Gary Neville, and dishes like “The Scholesy” (steak pudding) at Cafe Football.

The writer was a guest of Visit Britain and Visit Manchester, which did not review or approve this story before publication.

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