Henrikh Mkhitaryan is set to become the first Armenian to wear the famous red of Manchester United following his £26 million transfer from Borussia Dortmund, but he’s not the first Armenian to make England’s north west his home.
By Matt Ford
The 27-year-old attacking midfielder, who scored an impressive 23 goals in 51 games for the German club last season, and set up 32 more, will join an established Armenian community which has lived in Manchester for generations.
And Artur Bobikyan, head of the Holy Trinity Armenian Church on Upper Brook Street which forms the centre of Manchester’s Armenian community, says that Armenians in the city are looking forward to welcoming their compatriot.
“We’re really proud of Henrikh and he is such a humble guy,” says Artur, speaking to MM at the Armenian Taverna restaurant on Albert Square.
“He’s a brilliant player and we hope he’s going to score a lot of goals for United.”
The first Armenians to arrive in Manchester were textile merchants in the first half of the 19th century and by 1862 there were around 30 Armenian firms operating in “Cottonopolis.”
The Holy Trinity church opened its doors on Easter Sunday 1873 by which time there were over 2,000 Armenians living in the north west of England.
Manchester’s Armenian community today numbers around 400 people, many of whom gathered on 3 July to celebrate Vardavar, the annual festival during which Armenians drench each other with water.
“We invited Mkhitaryan to our Vardavar celebration at the church,” says Artur, who is also a concert pianist and composer.
“We said to him: ‘Come here and we’ll wet you properly!’ We’re sure he will turn up at church at some point.
“Media interest in Armenia is huge and I’ve already had requests from friends of mine at home asking for reports, so it’s going to be big.
“Everyone in Armenia is talking about him.”
Football is the most popular sport in Armenia and Mkhitaryan is the top scorer in the history of the national team with 19 goals in 59 appearances.
His father, Hamlet Mkhitaryan, played for Armenian side Ararat Yerevan in the 1980s, scoring 46 goals in 170 games in the former Soviet Top League, before dying of a brain tumour in 1996 when Henrikh was just seven.
“I believe playing for such a great club honours my father’s memory, and the inspiration and drive he gave to me when I was young,” reads Henrikh’s statement on the club’s website.
Artur, who played football on the pitches behind the seminary with the other priests when he was studying to join the clergy, recalls how everyone remembers when Ararat won the Soviet championship in 1973.
“Sport was very important and especially football. The Soviet Union contained over a dozen different countries so it was a very big deal back then.”
Football faces competition from another of Armenia’s favourite pastimes – chess.
Armenia has more chess grandmasters per capita than any other country in the world and chess lessons have formed a compulsory part of the school curriculum since 2011.
“The President of Armenia is a great chess player and he supports it, so they encourage chess from a young age,” explains Artur.
“It’s great to exercise the mind. If you walk around the back streets of Yerevan, you will see men playing chess in the shade – and kids playing football, obviously.
“Football is still really big now. Perhaps not compared to the Spanish or Latin countries as we are a very small nation – it’s about quality rather than quantity!”
Armenia might be a pawn in the world of professional football, but in Henrikh Mkhitaryan, United hope to have found their own grandmaster to keep their rivals in check.
And despite missing the Vandavar festival this year, he probably won’t have to wait too long to get drenched in Manchester either.