Norwegian fans offer Manchester United a home from home

Endre Steinshamm is a Manchester United fan, who watches every game and travels to Old Trafford a couple of times each season. He lives in the far north of Norway -- close to the Russian border -- in a place called Kirkenes, where the sun doesn't shine between Nov. 27 and Jan.15 and where it's light between May 17 and July 25 every year. There's an option to travel by husky sled from the local airport to a nearby hotel made of snow.

Further along up the Norwegian coast is Honingsvag, the most northerly town in the country. There, Per Roar Nilsen and the Honningsvag Reds watch every United match at the Noden Pub. Then there's Bjornar Johansen from Hamnvik. Bjornar has Scandinavia's -- and possibly the world's -- largest compilation of United matches on video and DVD, which he watches on his island in a town where the population is 469.

From the aforementioned Reds in the north to fans in Kristiansand in the south or Bergen in the west, almost one percent of Norway's rapidly growing population of five million is a paid-up member of the official United supporters' club.

"For the ninth year running we are over 40,000," explained Lars Morten Olsen, who edits the club's slick magazine. "Our all-time high was after the 20th title when we hit 44,600. At present we have 42,406, up for the second time running."

That's not likes on Facebook and followers on Twitter but fully-fledged members of the sixth best team in English football last season.

Thousands of Norwegian United fans travel to games home and away each week, so most are happy that the team are playing a friendly in Oslo on Sunday against local side Valerenga. It's only the second time United have played in Norway in 15 years, though such is the club's popularity, former players are frequent visitors.

A year ago, Bryan Robson, Norman Whiteside, Ben Thornley, Dwight Yorke, David May and Ronny Johnsen were guests as United's Scandinavian Supporters' Club celebrated their 25th anniversary. Former Norwegian international defender Johnsen, together with fellow countrymen Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Henning Berg, was a big reason why membership numbers shot up in 1996.

Solskjaer scoring the winning goal in the European Cup final in 1999, a strike which sealed the Treble, did little to harm United's popularity in Norway either. Solskjaer and his magical extending toe will always have hero status among fans, but English football has long been popular in Norway and Scandinavia.

There are cultural reasons. Britain and Norway were allies in the Second World War and the countries have long been close, with English widely spoken. The BBC's radio broadcasts could regularly be picked up in the western part of Norway but only in daylight in the eastern part of the country.

Fans like Lars Morten Olsen, who was inspired to support United by George Best and has been travelling to games since 1976, used to pray that games would be played in daylight hours so that he stood a chance of finding out what was happening. He also sold his car to buy a ticket for the 1979 FA Cup final.

Live English games were broadcast from the 1960s, with United and Liverpool are by far and away the most popular clubs. They still are, yet even small non-league teams may boast a Norwegian supporters' club. Many Norwegians are Anglophiles; they like the culture that the big British cities can offer and, compared to the ultra-expensive Norway, Great Britain's prices seems cheap.

Norway does have its own established football leagues and the top Eliteserien division has seen crowds and stadiums grow in the last two decades. Rosenborg, from the third biggest city of Trondheim, have been Champions League regulars.

The fan culture is rich, the atmosphere in many Norwegian grounds impressive, with standing areas and noisy sections behind the goals. It's one way of keeping warm in outposts like Tromso, where snow covered the pitch during a late 1997 game against Chelsea.

While some fans will support a Norwegian club and an English club, many only support an English team and even within those fans there are significant groups. In the vast Scotsman pub on Oslo's main Karl Johansgate shopping street, male and female United fans in their 20s and 30s wear shirts and watch games on giant screens. In the nearby Bohemen pub, the fans watching tend to be 40-plus and wearing no colours, with English football fanzines and retro photos adorning the walls.

The internet, a plethora of sport channels and ease of travel have made supporting United far easier from Scandinavia. Whereas Olsen, who lives in Sarpsborg by the southern border with Sweden, used to take a 24-hour ferry from Gothenburg to Felixstowe in eastern England before then travelling onto Manchester in a trip which took 40 hours each way, fans can now fly with an array of budget airlines and the supporters' club also arranges travel.

United were frequent visitors to Norway for preseason tours in the 1980s and 90s. The country is close to England and opponents were fit, played English-style football and were in the middle of their season. Pitches were fine, hosts friendly. The players even had a few nights out, as did the fans who followed the team from England.

One supporter tried to impress a girl by explaining that he was the United and Wales striker Mark Hughes. His ruse worked and all went well for 24 hours, until the girl turned up at the team hotel and tried to locate the man of her affections. The person she asked, Alex Ferguson, was baffled, not least because he'd been with the genuine Hughes the night before.