Sports fandom is an unaccountable thing, an act of extreme tribalism that is in some cases preordained destiny, inherited along with male pattern baldness and a lumpy plaid living-room set, and in others adopted on a whim, for reasons as arbitrary as an eye-catching logo or a particular player’s panache.
For Tom Hoffman, a 49-year-old Port Richmond man I meet at the Black Sheep Pub at the unreasonable hour of 9 a.m. Sunday, the trigger was something even more basic: “I just like drinking in the morning.”
But, he adds, “I would never drink early in the morning unless there was live sports on.”
So it was kismet when he discovered Manchester United, a Premier League soccer team that’s among the most popular in the world, with fan groups around the globe, including in Philadelphia. Sure, they’ve bought themselves such an expensive, talented roster that they’re almost the Yankees of soccer. Still, to Hoffman and his Carlsberg-swilling, red-clad pals crammed into the Center City bar, it’s just as plausible a Sunday morning show of faith as, say, church.
They are not the only ones. All across Philadelphia, English-football enthusiasts have persuaded bleary-eyed bartenders to accommodate them for games played as early as 12:30 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time. (That’s 7:30 a.m. to you.) But the Black Sheep and Manchester United were a particularly fitting match because managing partner James Stephens is a fan. He’s from Belfast, Ireland, but he grew up rooting for the team. “When I was a kid they were terrible,” he says — but they had a lot of Irish players.
Stephens began working in the Philadelphia restaurant scene in the ’90s and opened Black Sheep in 1999. The space had previously housed the 247 Bar, a “gay go-go bar,” its windows entombed in concrete. So Stephens and partner Gene LeFevre got the building’s old architectural drawings and painstakingly recreated its vintage interior, using architectural salvage and custom embellishments, like stained glass of Guinness pints and Celtic knots, and intricately stenciled wooden beams.
“I think of us being like one of the original gastropubs in Philly,” Stephens says. It’s a scratch kitchen, on game days serving up enormous plates of English breakfast and heart-stopping bangers and mash, all with sausages made by Czerw’s, the old-school Port Richmond kielbasy shop.
It didn’t officially become a Manchester United bar until 2015, when Mike Formento, 28, of Graduate Hospital, happened to come in wearing his Manchester United jersey. He and Stephens bonded over their shared allegiance.
I visit for a match against Chelsea, a big game that draws more than 50 fans. There are expatriates from India, Caribbean countries, and also South Jersey. Some got up at 6:30 a.m. to drive in from far suburbs; others, by all appearances, never went to bed.
I skip the day-wrecking $4 Fireball special, opting for a Guinness, and settle in for the game.
The screens aren’t huge, and the sound’s an unintelligible susurrus echoing between tinny speakers. But the community is what counts, Formento said. These fans are invested, face-palming over every botched play, high-fiving gleefully when their team finally scores. It’s a crew with the decidedly un-American patience to consider a 2-1 game a high-scoring barn burner, and a readiness to sing an ironically very American fight song (to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”) once Man. U. finally brings home the win.
“Having people around who care as much as you do,” Formento said, “it definitely brings you closer to the team.”
The Black Sheep Pub
When to go: It aims to open for every Manchester game. Otherwise, it’s 11 a.m to 2 a.m. daily. Happy hour runs 4-7 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Bring: Your friend who cannot seem to stop with the Eagles chant. Maybe it’s time to channel that enthusiasm into something else for a while.
What to order: The match-day specials are $4 Fireball shots and $4 pints of Carlsberg. The latter comes with a raffle ticket to win an authentic Manchester United jersey.
Bathroom situation: A clean-enough, spacious single-stall room with, inexplicably, part of a staircase built into it.
Sounds like: About 90 decibels of fan chatter and broadcast stadium noise if Manchester is losing; significantly louder when it looks like they might win.