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Switching On To English Football: An American Supporter Awakes… Part 2

 Switching On To English Football: An American Supporter Awakes... Part 2

In Part 1, I described how the 2006 World Cup drew me into football.  With the World Cup finished, I was hungry for more. I turned to the English Premier League to slake my thirst…

Part 2: Inhaling the Premier League…

When the World Cup ended I went into withdrawel. I bought a Playstation2 and a used copy of FIFA 2006. I ordered the Review of the Season DVD 2005/06. I scoured Netflix for any and all football related films (not much to choose from… I think Bend It Like Beckham, the original Fever Pitch and Green Street Hooligans made up their entire football library at the time). And I read Fever Pitch (Nick Hornby’s fine book)… twice. I knew none of this was close to a substitute for the real thing. But it’s what I had.

I was eager to find a Premier League side to follow, but unsure how to choose one as an American. How I wished I had geography or genealogy on my side—was it too late in life to adopt an English grandfather?

Two problems arose in my search for a side…

1)Limited access to the matches:

I didn’t have cable and could only watch the FSC matches at the nearby British soccer pub (see Part 1). And while the Coat of Arms opened early for World Cup matches, by the fall they were back on their normal schedule. I couldn’t catch many of the matches live. I watched some replays there, but lining up my schedule with the pub’s schedule with FSC’s schedule was hit or miss to say the least. And Setanta USA was nowhere to be found. (The Coat got it right after I moved to Boston.)

I felt confident one or two SFMs (Spectacular Footballing Moments) could direct me toward the right club. A call for me to answer. Initially, I felt drawn to Liverpool. Peter Crouch and Steven Gerrard stood out for me in the World Cup (see Part 1). And I’d been a childhoon Beatles fanatic, watching my father’s videos of Help and A Hard Day’s Night until the reels were worn down. Reading everything I could. So I was enthralled with the Scouse accents and the city of Liverpool from a young age.  But in 2006, I wanted some kind of footballing sign to assure me. An awe-inspiring goal. A come-from-behind win. Some moment to capture me on an instinctual level like the countless SFMs that seduced me during the World Cup.

If I’d been in Boston then, I would have had plenty of Irish pubs with all the right channels and been surrounded by loads of supporters. The live feed and the lively atmosphere I craved.

With that kind of access I would have seen Crouch’s 80th min header in the Community Sheild. Daniel Agger’s 25-yard blast against West Ham. Xabi Alonso’s goal-from-his-own-half(!!) against Newcastle. John Arne Riise’s long scorcher against Tottenham. Seeing these shots from distance in match context could have pushed my Liverpool curiosity into a full-blown seduction. (Any shot from outside the box that went in seemed completely earthshattering to this newbie. I still long for a 25-yard+ blast when Gerrard or Alonso run onto the ball in promising spots.)

But then there was my other problem:

2) I overthought the decision too much:

Given little access to the matches, I compromised my desire for spontaneous matchday inspiration by working too much logic into my search. I should follow a London side, I thought. I had friends in London. There’d be places to stay when I travelled over to watch matches. I knew the city. I loved the city. I’d find a London side. The fact the Simmon’s article agreed with this thinking reinforced my attempt at process.

That season London had six clubs in the Premier League. Chelsea, Arsenal, West Ham, Fulham, Charlton and Tottenham Hotspur.

Chelsea was out. I’d read up on Roman Abramovich sinking his own money into the club to buy up the best talent, essentially dropping all business pragmatism for instant success. No thank you.

Arsenal was tempting after reading the brilliant Fever Pitch. But I was seeking a club in the English Premier League after watching England play in the World Cup from an English pub in New Hampshire surrounded by raucaus English folks. While I enjoyed their style of football, Arsenal didn’t appear to have any English starters. Thus, I couldn’t get excited about supporting the Gunners.

West Ham had an allure, but Green Street Hooligans put me off them, as it did for Simmons. I blame Elijah Wood.

Fulham didn’t do anything for me at that point. They didn’t have Clint Dempsey yet. Dempsey was the only American to score during the World Cup and he was a standout player for the New England Revolution, my local side. He would debut for Fulham in late January, but by then I was already falling for Liverpool. Dempsey would thank me by scoring his first Premier League goal against Liverpool. If he’d gone to Fulham in the previous summer, it might have been a different story.

Charlton. Ah, Charlton. A solid mid-table side for years, but in 06/07 they were known to me as the side who are slightly better than Watford. Charlton were relegated in May.

And so, plagued by logic and overthinking the matter, I briefly flirted with Tottenham Hotspur. I didn’t witness any magical moments to draw me to the club. I liked Robbie Keane and they played in London. That was about it. I hadn’t found that SFM. I think I was getting tired of looking. I just wanted a club.

Thankfully, around this time, I got access to just about all the matches on Setanta and Fox. My Irish co-worker Noel (a Manchester United supporter) took pity on me and my co-worker Tim (another American seeking Premier League action) and started taping the Fox matches. An Mancunian regular named George (City supporter) started taping the Setanta fixtures for us. I cleared my head. I could finally watch every match aired in the States.

The tapes weren’t as good as watching live, but it was easy enough to avoid the scorelines in New Hampshire. So on the 2nd of January, I sat down to watch Liverpool v. Bolton Wanderers from the day before. It was scoreless until the 61st minute when Jermaine Pennant ran onto Dirk Kuyt’s pass and lauched in a screaming intercontinental ballistic missile into the box. There was Crouchie. Waiting and hungry—he’d been goalless in 11 league matches.

I’d seen YouTube clips of bicycle kicks. But I didn’t imagine Peter Crouch in all his 6-foot-7-inches of awkward-looking glory could pull one off. (He’d already scored one against Galatasary in September, but I didn’t know about it yet.) Now, he launched himself at Pennant’s ball, which was about to streak behind him. His body twisted in the air like a convulsing stork and he met the ball in mid-air, launching it past Juusi Jääskelainen. One-nil.

In no time at all, Liverpool were on the attack again. Kuyt launched his own cross into the area. As two defenders converged on the ball, Steven Gerrard steamed in, jumped, parted the white sea, and volleyed it home with the side of his foot. I was in heaven. Two SFMs in 60 seconds!

Later, Dirk Kuyt would run onto Luis García’s through-ball and, under pressure, finish from the tightest of angles. Across the face of goal and in. Brilliant.

I said goodbye to the practical reasoning of following a London club and returned to the call of my initial instincts. I watched the next few Liverpool matches with greedy abandon. Sadly, Arsenal knocked Liverpool out of the FA and Carling Cups in succesive matches, but then there were wins against Watford, Chelsea and West Ham with Crouch scoring three more times. My first ninety minutes of Derby Day action was a let-down, with neither Liverpool nor Everton finding the net.

And then I watched the 2-1 loss to Newcastle away…

Strangely enough, it was the Newcastle loss that sealed it for me. That bitter result in the rain. So much Liverpool dominance but not enough finishing. Bellamy’s early goal made me sure Liverpool would have the day, but the Magpies pulled it out with a goal from Martins and a converted penalty from Solano. But I was with Liverpool all the way. I was as mesmerized by their loss as any of the recent wins. It was feeling the true sting of the dissapointing result that made me realize Liverpool were the side for me. I was invested. Watching them grit it out in the rain in the Northeast, squandering chances somehow pushed me over the edge. Right reasons or not. I’d be for Liverpool from then on.

(That was meant to be a 500-700 word piece. Inevitably, it got away from me there. If you’re still with me at the end… thanks for reading! Let me know in the comments how you came to follow your own club. Next week: What Makes A Classic Match?)