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England’s third-largest city is its own No. 1 fan.

From the moment I step off the train in Manchester, England, it rains. Not the kind of heavy downpour that accompanies thunderstorms in the United States but a light, pesky rain that insists you take notice of it. Only no one in Manchester does. Today the sun might as well be shining (a rare occurrence here), because, on this Saturday, football is also in the air.

Scheduled to play football (aka soccer) today is Manchester United, the most valuable sports brand in the world, according to Forbes, after the New York Yankees. With its record-breaking play, its star-quality players and its manager, Alex Ferguson (so revered that Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in 1999), the Reds have attracted a global following of football fans. But football in Manchester is more than just Man U. Also playing this weekend is Manchester City, a perennial underachiever with a fervent local fan base. The Blues, however, have recently­ risen to new heights due partly to large cash infusions from their Abu Dhabi–based owner,­ who purchased the team in 2008.
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Manchester United fans celebrate heartily at Sam Platts pub.
Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

Ask a Man U fan and he will say that City has bought its way into football prominence, for the first time in 43 years earning a spot in the prestigious European Champions League. Ask a City fan and he will say Man U isn’t even in Manchester (its 76,000-seat ­stadium is in Trafford, one of the 10 boroughs in the U.K.’s third-most-populous metro area). It’s best to keep these fans apart — particularly on days when they play each other, which is not today.

Because both teams have away games, I consign myself to a pub crawl, seeking football fans and other Mancunians to find out if the nearly insane pride they feel toward their city is based on football, bluster or something else entirely.

Certainly Manchester has a rich heritage, helping give birth to the Industrial Revolution, the free-trade movement, socialism, feminism and vegetarianism. It’s a city of firsts — the first industrial city, the first railway station, the first modern computer, the first place where the atom was split — a city that not only changes with the times but seems to radically reinvent itself to stay ahead of them. And certainly Manchester has exerted considerable influence on the global pop-culture scene. Its celebrated lineage of bands includes Herman’s Hermits and the Hollies and extends to Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses, the Smiths and Oasis. Many of these groups got their start at the Hacienda, which opened in 1982 and became widely heralded as the most famous nightclub in the world.
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Everything Everything onstage at Latitude Festival
Andy Sheppard

Still, I can’t imagine New York or Boston or Dallas setting aside a day to celebrate the city. But Manchester has its own Manchester Day — parade, carnival atmosphere and all. So in the interest of investigative journalism, I seek out a cross section of Mancs, using whatever resources are at my disposal (beer, usually) to gain their confidence and to convince them to reveal the source of their swaggering civic pride.