Churchgoers in Manchester and a section of regular Manchester United match-goers were surprised to see Fr Michael Cleary when they tuned into a recent episode of BBC’s Match of the Day 2.
The football-mad priest starred on the football highlights show in the ‘My Club’ feature on Sunday, 17th April, in which cameras followed him for the day in the lead up to Manchester United’s home game with now-relegated Aston Villa.
Fr Cleary has been a priest for over 32 years and a Manchester United fan for over 50. His ‘job’ did cause him a problem or two, he admitted to the TV show, as there were sometimes difficulties being a priest and a season ticket holder at Old Trafford when weddings and baptisms were being booked.
The parish priest of St Hugh of Lincoln in Stretford, Manchester, along with his beloved dog, Baz, met up with The Universe, following his appearance on the show. He said that many parishioners were surprised to tune in and see him, with some of his fellow United season ticket holders only discovering his role as a priest through the show. They quizzed him about his role at United’s next home game, against Crystal Palace only three days later, on Wednesday, 20th April.
“They were surprised, those who’d seen it,” he said. “I hadn’t told them so there were a few who didn’t know I was a priest. I’d chatted to them, but we’d never talked about what we do.”
His fame reached Nazareth House in Preswich, Manchester, where he celebrates Mass on a Monday. “They said, ‘We fell asleep Sunday night and woke up, the television was on, and you were there,’ which was great.”
Members of his congregation also received phone calls on Sunday night. “The people were there for midday Mass and one of the women on the front, Joyce, told me her grandchildren rang her on Sunday and said, ‘We’ve seen you on Match of the Day’.”
Fr Cleary said the opportunity to appear on the show came about after a Match of the Day producer attended St Hugh of Lincoln’s Church at Christmas and spotted Fr Harry, a mannequin of a priest dressed in a United scarf, at the entrance of his church. His TV appearance had prompted lots of positive feedback, despite one or two remarks about attendance at the Mass.
“The cameras filmed during Saturday lunchtime and very few people go to Saturday lunchtime Mass, so those who aren’t Catholic or Churchgoers noticed how empty it was and they said, ‘oh it’s like the Etihad [home of rivals Manchester City],’ which I thought was quite funny.
“But the shame is if they filmed here on Sunday morning we’re packed out and on Saturday night we’re full; we’re a very lively, packed church that seats 700.”
Despite his love of Manchester United, Fr Cleary says his parish is welcoming to fans of all teams. “We have a lot of City fans as well and the rivalry is quite good really, especially with the altar servers. One of the things the bishop commented on when he was here was our 40 altar servers. We have a lot and they’re a mixed bunch; City and United, a few Barcelona, a few Madrid, one Chelsea, who is a brilliant altar server; his dad’s the deputy head of the school, they’re Chelsea people. With it being an Irish parish you get people turning up in Irish shirts, too.”
Often in August the parish celebrates a first weekend-of-the-season Mass, where the congregation are encouraged to wear their team colours. The Mass has seen shirts from all over the world, as far as Australia. “It’s a nice August thing we do, it’s been quite colourful and with people from different parts of the world people ask, ‘Where are you from? What shirt is that?’
“We’ve had Liverpool shirts as well,” laughed Fr Cleary. “I always end the Mass on a Saturday night speaking about Match of the Day. I always say ‘It’s going to be good tonight’ if we’ve won, or if City have won and United have lost, then I say, ‘It’s going to be rubbish tonight,’ and the City fans are like…” Fr Cleary laughed as he shook his head from side to side. “…‘It’s going to be good’.”
However, as Fr Cleary opened the doors to St Hugh’s of Lincoln, there is no doubt that his love for his parish is on level terms with his love for Manchester United, as he proudly spoke about the church’s mesmerising stained glass windows and confirmed an appointment to help out at the school during the week with a teacher who was passing by.
He explained how the stunning windows, which were designed by a Benedictine monk, had recently had a write-up by the Manchester Modernist Society. “It’s the style of the glass in Buckfast Abbey,” explained Fr Cleary. “The monk, Dom Charles Norris, has done a few churches and somebody was writing a thesis. A professor from Bath turned up and he heard about the church and wanted to have a look. On the outside it doesn’t look anything but on the inside it is stunning.
“It’s a 1964 piece so they’re all male saints because they chose names of priests and people that had something to do with the parish when they built the church. The parish was formed in 1938 and the hall next door was the original parish church. Then the current church was built and there’s nothing else like it in the diocese.”
Interestingly, the BBC had been a regular visitor because of the windows. They had filmed there six times, noting that once people witness the windows they fall in love with them. “According to the architect from the Modernist Society, the monk who designed the windows deliberately always puts blue glass into the sun and the red glass in the shade,” Fr Cleary pointed out, explaining why the stained glass on the left hand side of the church was blue, while the right hand side was red. He also revealed that many people brought up the football theme with red versus blue when talking about the windows. “They cause big divisions at weddings especially, with people saying they want to sit on the red side or the blue side.”
Fr Cleary takes a great deal of care to put the parish at the heart of its community, in a number of ways. He has created a personalised prayer card and banner for the parish, including the surnames of his congregation in the shape of a church, and every year his dog Baz stars in his own parish calendar.
The priest also hosted a local band, called The Buffalo Skinners, who are currently touring America and “on the verge of making it big”, he says, in an incredible open-air concert for parishioners last September. “They’re they’re like Mumford and Sons. They grew up around here, went to school here, they’re a local Manchester band. It was great, we got a local Irish contractor to give us a massive lorry that we floodlit, took the back off and that was the stage. It was a great night.”
Fr Cleary said his priestly duties means he misses out on various matches and has to leave Saturday games early to open up the church for evening Mass. “I have to leave early to get ahead of the traffic. I’m quite lucky if the game is on a Sunday night as I don’t have Sunday evening Mass. You also never know when they’re going to play, you might have a baptism or a wedding arranged and that is a problem when they move it about.”
He did not travel to Wembley for United’s FA Cup semi-final win against Everton last weekend, due to First Communion arrangements. However, Fr Cleary, who was in attendance for United’s treble-winning Champion’s League comeback against Bayern Munich in 1999, is looking forward to watching his beloved Manchester United face Crystal Palace and seeing them lift their first FA Cup in 12 years.
Fr Cleary says Ruud Van Nistelrooy is his favourite player, and he was quite a football star himself, playing in a successful team while he was at his seminary.
As far as the Premier League goes, “I think Leicester will win it now,” he said. “I hope they do. I like the way they play and I like Kasper Schmeichel.”
Today, Leicester City travel to Old Trafford to face Manchester United, where a win will see the Foxes claim the 2015/16 Premier League title.