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On the road with Man Utd’s hardcore away fans: Flat tyres, broken toilets & last-minute winners

It’s 4.30pm in the centre of Manchester and most of the city dwellers are leaving work and heading home. But on the corner of Chorlton Street, scores of men are waiting for a bus to take them not home, but to Wolverhampton to see Manchester United play.

The coach is operated by the fanzine United We Stand, but to the regulars it is known as the 'Monkey Bus'. And it has been ferrying fans to matches since 1991: it stops at every domestic away match (apart from Manchester City) and the occasional European trip, most notably a 24-hour each way voyage to the 1999 Champions League final in Barcelona.

The majority of passengers live in Manchester, but John Fitzgibbon is from Ireland. His journey to Molineux began at six in the morning, when he boarded a flight from Cork to Manchester, before checking into a hotel near the bus station and passing the time in a snooker hall. He, like a handful of others on the bus who were lucky enough to get tickets, had been to south Wales just four days previously to see United play Newport County in the FA Cup.

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John has been following United from Ireland with his dad since he was a child, but did not go on an away trip until 2018, to see United play Tottenham at Wembley. He had a six-hour coach journey each way, without stops, and the game could hardly have got off to a worse start as Christian Eriksen gave Spurs the lead in the first minute. Phil Jones then scored an own goal as the game ended 2-0.

It was the type of experience that would make many people think twice about doing it again, but Fitzgibbons has been hooked ever since. He goes to about 10 away games per season, plus the majority of European away matches. He also has a season ticket at Old Trafford and has to be super-organised and book flights from Cork as soon as kick-off times are confirmed. Delays in booking can see matchday prices soar from £20 to £200. Late kick-offs mean he often has to stay over, too.

Asked how much he spends following United per season, he estimates between £5,000 and £10,000. “I keep meaning to do a spreadsheet but I don’t want to truly think about how much it costs me,” he says. Would the cost ever make him stop doing it? He shakes his head.