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Sensory Overload: The 21st Century Neutral

Sensory Overload Sensory Overload: The 21st Century NeutralLast week I made my Premier League New Year’s Resolutions. One of which was to watch more of the matches.

So on day one of the new season I trekked down to the pub to catch most of the Saturday fixtures (at least the ones being televised in the States). The Chelsea/Hull match was early and it was aired on ESPN2 so I watched most of the first half at home. I showered and then headed into Cambridge (Massachusetts).

I thought the pub I go to would be packed  on the opening day of the season, but since nobody was sure what channel it would be on until the last minute (the broadcasting rights were still up in the air until the day before), the pub only had a handful of people in. ESPN2 had something like bass fishing scheduled in that time slot and it probably wasn’t corrected in the guide so you really had to know the match was being broadcasted to know where to catch it.

I showed up late in the second half.

When Drogba put his cross/shot into the net in the 92nd minute, the pub gave off a half-hearted eruption: the two or three hardcore Chelsea supporters who where there went wild, and the others – who were apparently cheering on Chelsea all along - faked mild goal-celebration orgasms.

A half hour later, Wolves/West Ham, Villa/Wigan and Blackburn/City were all being shown at the same time. When three matches are on at once in the pub, half the room gets one match (four or five TVs), the other half gets another (four or five TVs) and the third match is relegated to a single TV in the middle. Wolves/West Ham was the one-TV match. I sat myself near that TV so I’d have a good vantage point of all three games.

This was to be a different experience for me. I’m usually a one match guy. As a football writer, I want to take in more matches, but with three going on at once, where do you throw your focus?

I was used to coming down for Liverpool. I’d park myself at my favorite corner of the bar. My friends would all be there and we’d focus on the corner TV. If the goals weren’t going in, we’d get superstitious and turn to watch the TV behind us. Occasionally we’d check the scores of other games, but we wouldn’t watch them outright unless our match was at halftime.

On Saturday though, I had no loyalties to any one team. The Liverpool match wasn’t on until Sunday. I wanted to keep up with all the matches but I knew I’d have to watch one of them more than the others or I’d be lost.

I decided to focus on Blackburn/City. City had spent all that money. We all want to know if it will come to anything. As a writer, this match would surely inspire more material.

Then I noticed something funny. There was a guy sitting at the bar in a West Ham jersey. It had Carlton Cole’s name and number on the back. It looked like an official jersey and not some Thai rip-off stiched by eleven-year-olds in a sweat shop. I mention this because if you are willing to spend the $80-100 on an official West Ham jersey with your favorite player on the back, I assume that you are a serious West Ham fan. Silly me. This dude had his back to the West Ham match. Pretty much for the entire ninety minutes.

I watched more of West Ham’s outing than he did.

He was sitting next to three guys in Arsenal kits (also with players’ names and numbers on the backs, Arshavin, Walcott and someone I’d never heard of… maybe the guy just put his own name on the back) and they were all glued to the City match.

At some point a score update popped up to show that elsewhere Clint Dempsey had scored for Fulham against Pompey. Carlton Cole Guy turned to Arshavin Guy and screams: “Dude, Dempsey scored!” They gave each other such a loud high five you could probably hear it at Fratton Park.

Now, I’m an American. I’m ecstatic when Clint Dempsey scores… for the US Men’s National Team. If he scores for Fulham, I guess I’m happy for the guy, but even if he were on my fantasy team, I don’t think I’d go apesh*t in a pub while wearing a kit for a team that wasn’t Fulham. Maybe the guy was Dempsey’s brother. I don’t know. But I found it strange.

Later, after Mark Noble had scored for West Ham (emphasis on after), Carlton Cole Guy turned to Arshavin Guy and yelled: “Dude, West Ham scored!” Another high five. At least Carlton Cole Guy was paying attention to West Ham now (though the goal had been scored three minutes before he noticed) but now why was Arshavin Guy doling out the high-five for the East-London club?

Maybe these dudes simply embraced all things London. Maybe goals from Dempsey, Drogba, van Persie, Ashton and Keane were all equally worthy of the high-five and the shouting.

Maybe this was the future of the 21st century sports fan. With three games simultaneous on TV and more on the laptop, iPhone and BlackBerry, perhaps I am getting old-fashioned by being a one-team guy. My future children will be shaking their heads: “Our dad only supports Liverpool. He’s so old.”

City ended up winning two-nil. Even though Shay Given is my fantasy goalkeeper I’d really wanted Blackburn come back from their deficit and get at least a point just to prove money isn’t everything. But they didn’t.

The triple-match feast was now over. Arsenal was the only late Premier League fixture on, but Newcastle/Reading was on Setanta at the same time. And since I’d promised myself to take in more Championship football as well, I asked the bartender to put the solo TV on Setanta. I thought I’d be the only guy in the pub keeping up with Newcastle. But the Englishman who’d let me share his table was interested as well and then about 15 minutes into the match this guy Mike - a die-hard Newcastle fan I’d met twice before – came in with a couple of friends and joined us. The Arsenal match ended up a rout and I’m glad I focused more on Newcastle/Reading for this round since it proved to be far more interesting.

There were a bunch of devout Gunners seated at the other side of the pub. I know them and banter with them throughout the year, but since I was nearest Arshavin Guy and his friends, I was mostly getting the We-Just-Started-Watching-Football-And-Want-The-Whole-Room-To-Know-We’re-Into-It kind of forced yelling and cheering. Were we in a pub watching football or were we at Spring Break? It was hard to tell.

I don’t know when I turned into the cranky old man, but the green fans were annoying me Saturday. I found myself trying to remember what I was like when I first discovered English football. Please tell me I wasn’t like Cole Guy and Arshavin Guy. If I was, I openly apologize to anybody who was next to me in a pub that first year I was watching.

Our table tried to ignore them. If I could have teleported to St James Park at that moment would have done it. Newcastle were fighting hard for those three points. Ameobi scored two fine goals from open play then, in the 75th minute, he completed his first Newcastle hat-trick by converting a penalty.

Arshavin Guy turned to catch Ameobi’s third goal. “Ameobi!” he cried, pointing at the screen. He just kept repeating it as if he wasn’t sure if anyone had heard him each time. “Ameobi!”

“Someone’s been drinking all day,” said Mike. I wondered if the Arshavin kit was just Arshavin Guy’s clean shirt for the day. Maybe he had a different football kit for each day of the week. Maybe he’d show up the next day in a Chelsea kit.

I wasn’t used to this atmosphere at my pub. I don’t know if it was because it was opening day and it brought out a funky crowd, or if supporters like Cole Guy and Arshavin Guy are there every week and I’ve missed it because I insulate myself with familiar Liverpool supporters and I am so focused on the match I automatically tune out all the Dude, Dempsey Scored! moments.

And I’m trying to figure out my responsibility here. It might be my job to be patient with Carlton Cole Guy and Arshavin Guy (and not just because a small part of me fears I was more like them than I’d like to admit when I first started following). The thing is if football is going to grow in the US, we need these guys as much as the new supporters who are wise enough to quietly take in the culture, aware that they need to learn a bit about the sport before they start shouting their take on it across a crowded room. I hope that’s more how I was when I first came to English football. And I hope that is more how I am now because there is still plenty to learn…

But next time Torres scores, dude, all bets just might be off. You know how it is.

This is Torres Guy signing off.

(Hey, at least I won’t be wearing an Everton kit when I scream his praise.)


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