On Jan. 26, 2015, Peter Bolton felt as if his world was falling apart. His wife of nearly four decades, Frances, had been rushed to Salford Royal Hospital in Manchester early that morning after suffering a stroke and was left fighting for her life. The doctors warned him that there was a chance she wouldn't survive the week.
"I was helpless really, stayed with her all day there," Bolton recalled. "And after I'd been at her bedside in intensive care for 12 hours, the staff basically said, 'Look, there's nothing you can do here now. You should go home now and get some sleep.'"
Except he didn't. Instead, even when at his lowest point and in utter torment, he did what he always did. He went to watch the other love of his life at play -- Manchester United Football Club.
"I know, I know," he said, when it was suggested that it sounds a bit mad that he should have disappeared off to nearby Leigh to watch a Manchester United under-21 match while Frances might have been at death's door.
"But it got my head straight. I found solace in going to see United that night. It gave me a bit of a break from the pressure, as it often has down the years," he mused. "Because you see, for me, watching United has been a way of life for over half a century."
And what a way of life. Frances knew it better than anyone. Her Peter was renowned for being perhaps United's most obsessively devoted fan, the chirpy character who, at soccer stadiums in 40 countries on five continents for 40 years, had unfurled a celebrated flag bearing the simple legend: ONE LOVE, MUFC.
"Oh, no wonder she's never liked that flag, but 'three loves' just wouldn't really work on the flag," chuckled Bolton, recalling that dreadful day when he was reminded again who his true loves really were -- Frances and their daughter, Ann-Marie, who has severe developmental and physical disabilities resulting from a rare genetic disorder, Rett syndrome.
So when United's youngsters beat their fiercest rivals, Liverpool, 2-1 that night two years ago -- normally a reason for Bolton to be in absolute raptures -- he sat alone in silence at the game, fearing for the future if Frances lost her battle.
Mercifully, she didn't. She survived, but the stroke left her paralysed down her right side and with serious speech and mobility limitations. It was going to be a long road to recovery, and though she has improved slowly, Bolton's life was transformed too that day.
"I was a taxi driver, had been for 30 years, but that was the day I gave up work, then sold my taxi and had the house adapted. I'm now officially her carer," he explained.
Except one thing could never change for this irrepressible 60-year-old. His devotion to arguably the biggest football club in the world -- actually, he'd argue there's no "arguably" about it -- has only become, if possible, ever more reverential.
For this is the man who simply cannot bear to miss a single United game. It makes no difference if it's their youth team playing in front of just a few dozen fans in a preseason kickabout or it's a massive showdown like Wednesday's Europa League final with Jose Mourinho's team facing Ajax Amsterdam in Stockholm.
So whenever the Reds are in action, the little fella with the moustache, the MUFC anorak, the flag and the cheerful demeanour is always there too, leaving Frances to be looked after by other family and friends.
Right, consider this. This season-ticket holder has not missed a first-team home match at Old Trafford since December 1974 against Leyton Orient, when United were still in the old second division. That's 1,190 consecutive home games.
Beyond that, wherever United teams play in England, he'll hire a minibus and drive a dozen or so of the club's other staunchest fans to every match. In United's 2016-17 campaign alone, from their first preseason friendly last July at Wigan through the Europa League final and including the club's under-18s, under-23s and first team, he will have attended 118 games in 313 days.
Then there's his globetrotting. Be it on preseason tours in Beijing or big European nights in Moscow, Peter will use the savings from his old taxi business to make sure he and his famous flag get there. After this week's game in Stockholm, he'll have travelled over 8,100 miles this month alone to support the Reds at 11 games, including a trip to Celta Vigo in Spain for a Europa League semifinal leg and three visits to London.
One day, he ponders, the money may run out. "Until then, I'll never stop," he said, smiling. "I just love it too much."
So you can only imagine how he felt in March when, having not missed a single competitive United first-team match anywhere for 16 years, including 145 consecutive European ties, he made a mess of his visa application for Russia and failed to get to the Europa League quarterfinal first leg in Rostov.
Aaagh! This was the end of his iron-man streak, fandom's equivalent to if Cal Ripken Jr. had to sit out a game because of a little bureaucratic flub. "I'd been lucky, really, down the years," Bolton mused. "Never been in an accident or been too ill to get to the game."
Even when his brother Alan got married, Peter made his apologies and explained he had to go to Old Trafford that day. "I made up for it by going to the evening do later," Bolton said. "He wasn't upset about it -- we laugh about it now. Anyway, that marriage never lasted and he got married again. This time it was in the offseason in June, so I went to that one!"
But wasn't he crushed by missing Rostov? "Well, I was a bit gutted," he said with a shrug. "I had to go and find a friend with a telly, and it felt weird because I don't remember the last time I watched United on the TV."
His fellow United fans wouldn't let him forget it, though. Some of the 21,800 followers who hang on his every tweet couldn't resist teasing him about how he had become a part-timer.
The fact is, United, as befits a global institution which boasts that it's followed by 659 million worldwide, has such a hard core of amazingly loyal supporters that even Bolton would not dare have the temerity to call himself their "No. 1 fan" or "the top Red."
He says he once watched a programme on the club's MUTV channel about "some Bulgarian bloke who had the MUFC crest tattooed on his head and changed his name by deed poll to Mr. Manchester United." Well, some United die-hards will tell you that title belongs to Bolton.
"There's a lot of fanatics. I'm a fanatic myself who's not missed a United Cup final since 1963, but I think Peter's unique," reckoned Peter Hargreaves, who has known Bolton for 40 years.
"He wouldn't admit it, but I've never known anyone who's got the dedication that Peter has to the club. I think it's all he does. It costs an awful lot of time and money, but I think it's his one passion that he spends his money on -- I don't know, maybe seven, eight thousand pounds a year."
Hargreaves was talking in a London pub on a Monday afternoon in May after Bolton had transported him as part of a group of 10 elderly fans known with wry affection as the Sad Reds -- because of their hopeless devotion to United -- to watch an under-23 game against Arsenal in London.
Only the previous day, Bolton had made exactly the same 400-mile-round drive with a different bunch of pals to see United's first-team match at the same Emirates Stadium venue. "That's an example of what a good lad Peter is," Hargreaves said. "We're all getting old now, and it would be difficult to get to games anymore if not for him. He does all the driving for us, thousands of miles every year. That's a massive thing for us."
Only a couple of months ago, Bolton was scheduled for a knee operation and was told he would not be able to drive for 10 days afterwards, meaning he would miss a couple of key away games. "So I asked if I could change the date, and the NHS very kindly fitted in my cartilage op around the international break," he said, smiling.
He knows people will think him mad, and he admitted with a grin that, well, maybe he was a bit. "But I don't go to the games just to say I've done it," he explained. "I want to go to the games because I enjoy it. I love United."
Perhaps it is just in the blood for the born and bred Mancunian. Bolton's grandfather and dad had both been season-ticket holders at Old Trafford when they started taking Peter as a 6-year-old to matches in the early 1960s, that glorious period of promise when the great Matt Busby was rebuilding the club in the aftermath of the 1958 Munich air disaster.
"I remember going to the 1963 FA Cup final (when United beat Leicester 3-1) at Wembley, but only my dad and granddad could get in because we only had two tickets, and I had to stand outside with my mum and brother," Bolton reminisced. Still, he hasn't missed any United final in the past 41 years.
As a wide-eyed kid, his mum would take him to the strange, futuristic home of United's young Northern Irish wizard George Best in Bramhall, where, along with a host of other fans who would bring along picnics, he would camp outside in the boy wonder's garden, just hoping for a glimpse.
Half a century later, having seen all United's greats -- such as Bobby Charlton, Denis Law, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney -- he still reckons none could ever compare with the Belfast genius.
Never quite good enough to get into his school team himself, Bolton became addicted to the spectating, not the playing. Nothing, he swore, could beat the thrilling crush of standing amid the swaying, seething 20,000-strong Stretford End terrace in the days before Old Trafford became an all-seater.
Then, in 1976, he found Frances. "I took her to the pictures on a Monday, and she asked if I was going to take her back to the disco on Saturday," he recalled. "I said, 'Oh no, it's Tottenham away that day.' So right from the start, she knew what she was letting herself in for.
"She went to one game, but United lost and she never came back. If they were playing in the back garden now, she'd watch the TV instead. She only looks at the results to see what sort of mood I'll been in when I get home!"
He and Frances, who have been married for 39 years, also have dedicated their lives to looking after their Ann-Marie, who is 30 and has moved into a nearby residential home for assisted living. "We love her with all our heart and spend a lot of time with her," Bolton said.
The one job, he discovered, that would give him the time and money to both follow United while also funding Ann-Marie's care was as a cabbie. "I would ask my boss if I could have a day off to watch United, and as I was my boss, I'd always say yes -- and I still drove my cab 48 hours a week, sometimes doing 15-hour shifts."
It paid for priceless memories and still does, like the day United achieved the ultimate, becoming world club champions in Yokohama in 2008. Peter recalled how he and his mates "came out of the stadium singing 'Bring on the Martians' because United had beaten everyone on Earth."
It sometimes has been hellishly expensive, often a pain in the neck to organise trips and invariably a logistical nightmare just to get hold of tickets, but has it all been worth it? "Oh yes, every single day of it," the happiest of the Sad Reds said with a smile." Next stop: Stockholm.