My co-worker Doug has become Football-Curious. Between me talking about Liverpool every week (lately: moaning about Liverpool most every week) and an article he read about Clive Owen talking about being a Liverpool supporter, he has taken an interest in the Reds. He asks me tons of questions whenever we work together, everything from “What’s a Scouser?” to “What’s the offside trap?” He catches what matches and highlights he can on TV (limited to what’s on CSN since he doesn’t have Fox or Setanta). And he pores over every football book he can find at Barnes and Noble as well as FourFourTwo and the Premier League highlights in The Irish Emigrant.
And he wants to ask everybody he meets with an English accent which club they support.
I was in a similar place when I first fell for the English Premier League and for Liverpool. But I work in restaurants in America. I live off tips. I’ve learned to add football to my list of things I don’t bring up with customers (the other big ones are politics and religion).
The first time I made the mistake wasn’t totally disastrous. There was a regular named James at the pub where I worked in New Hampshire. I was never adept at pinpointing the geography of an English accent. I knew James was from the North but I didn’t know where. But at the time I was living among New Hampshirites who typically responded to the statement I watch a lot of soccer with why on earth? and so I was ready to ask any Brit (or Spaniard, or German, or Italian… well, any non-American, really) if they followed football, hoping for some good sporting banter.
“I used to,” said James, the day I finally breeched the subject. “Not so much lately.” Did I detect a sullen undertone in his voice?
“Who did you follow,” I persisted.
“Leeds United,” said James. It was a Leeds accent. James was from Leeds. He’d supported the former giants Leeds United whose financial disaster saw them fall from the upper echelon into the Coca-Cola Championship. The conversation about football died right there.
That season Leeds nearly came back up to the Premier League. I was quietly hoping for their promotion. Then maybe James would take a renewed interest and I could talk football with him for at least a year. But Leeds didn’t come up. And at the next season’s end they went down another division.
I finally learned the lesson later on with a family from Manchester. A father, a mother and a son. The kid was already talking football when I came up to the table. Where are you folks from? Manchester, they said. City or United? I asked lightly. Neither, they said. They were Everton supporters.
I wasn’t going to mention my love for Liverpool FC, but the father had seen some glimmer in my eye. “Who do you support?” he asked.
“Oh, I’d rather not say,” I said. Apparently, I didn’t need to. They guessed. After some seemingly friendly verbal abuse from them toward me, I thought we laughed it off enough and I switched to talking about the state of football in America (they seemed impressed I called it football), but when I collected the bill, they’d stiffed me on the tip. And that’s when I learned to stop bringing up football with customers (unless they were wearing a Liverpool jersey or had a Liverbird tattoo). And I warned Doug, telling him these two stories.
But Doug came up to me the other day and nodded over toward two of our customers (we were sharing a section and thus sharing the tips). “Their team is Newcastle United,” he said eagerly. I cringed, remembering James. “Don’t worry,” he said quickly. “I was tactful. I told them I was learning about English football and asked if they followed it at all.” The couple were watching us and they were smiling and nodding. Doug had told them I followed English football too.
I went over.
I won points at the start by using the word Geordie in a sentence: “My friend Ed’s wife is a Geordie.”
“At least he knows what a Geordie is,” said the man to his wife. I admitted Ed was a Liverpool supporter (surely giving myself away if Doug hadn’t already) and told how we’d joked in previous seasons that Ed slept on the couch whenever Newcastle lost a match. So since their relegation he was sleeping on the couch for a year. They smirked. (Was I endearing myself with this anecdote or digging the hole deeper? Crap! It’s my only Geordie story!) I quickly said I felt sure Newcastle would come back up. And I meant this. They seemed to believe me. We talked about sports in New England (the two of them have lived here for years) and how it had been easy for them to fall in love with the pre-2003 Red Sox whose annual habits were then similar to the Magpies’: starting each season with tons of promise and then blowing it by the end. I politely restated my certainty that Newcastle would be promoted again and I returned to my other tables.
Doug collected the tip from the Geordies. I never asked if it was decent. But it couldn’t have been too bad because the next day he was at it again. He discovered one of the regulars was a Charlton Athletic supporter. He immediately started talking football with him. (At least this guy sat at the bar and didn’t affect our income.) Doug wasn’t struck down by lighting. The Charlton supporter was still grinning and laughing in the end.
Maybe Doug’s got the charm to pull it off. Maybe that gleam in my eye gives me away and they can smell I can’t fake neutrality. Either way I’m resuming my football silence with customers. It’s just too risky to bring it up. I’ve been burned once. I won’t let it happen again. At work I’ll stick to far less controversial topics like euthanasia, prostitution and dogfighting. I know where to draw the line.