Like most of us, I grew up following teams that were bequeathed to me by accident of birth or geography. My father raised me as a Chicago Bears fan, which I accepted as my fate given the fact that I was born in the Windy City, though I drew the line when he tried to interest me in the Cleveland Indians. For the most part I cheered for Chicago professional teams while growing up in North Carolina, because we just didn’t have any back in the old days.
But the biggest choice all North Carolina boys had to make in the 1970s was which ACC team you planned to follow. One could select between the University of North Carolina, N.C. State, Wake Forest and Duke, and not only did the choice reflect and shape your personality, it was also permanent.
Since my family was not from North Carolina, I was — unlike many of my friends — completely free to pick my own path. So I took my time in elementary school, considered every angle, and chose extremely well. Not only did I wind up graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill, the man I am today is largely a product of everything that went into that choice, combining everything from Mike O’Koren‘s hairstyle to the grandiloquent but occasionally kitschy sentiments of Charles Kuralt. I shudder when I pause to consider that there was once a moment in my life when I could have — in my youthful innocence — become a Duke Blue Devil.
So when it comes to picking an English football club to support in my middle age, I can’t help but proceed with caution. I became a Portland Timbers fan through accident of my friendship with my college roommate, Robert Huffman. I became a Charleston Battery fan through accident of the fact that I had to stay on here in Charleston 15 years ago. But now that we get all the Barclay’s Premier League matches via NBC Sports, I am fated to be a fan of that league. Which means I have to pick a team. And it will likely be the last team I ever pick.
I’ve been watching EPL football for about three years, picking up a scattering of matches on ESPN and occasionally heading up to Madra Rua for big derbies. But despite having a team I casually supported, nothing really stuck. So I entered August and the beginning of the new NBC Sports contract with a quest: Spend the 2013-14 season deliberately trying on each team in the league, in hopes of finding “my team.”
Since we are now at the midpoint of that campaign, I thought I’d review my progress so far.
First, the rules:
1. I cannot consider one of the two teams already selected by my former Appalachian State roommates (Robert Huffman and John Sloop) who are my long-distance partners and rivals in this whole mid-life football madness;
2. Any team that has an association with the Seattle Sounders is right out;
3. No douchebag owners (with degree of douchebaggery rated by what I call the “Ownership Creepiness Factor,” or “OCF”;
4. In a perfect world, the team I pick should be located in a place I’d like to visit someday (hence, the Location Interest Index, or “LII”), if I ever have money again. I also give special bonus points for a cool stadium (or “SB,” for “stadium bonus”);
5. No yo-yo teams, or teams that look like they’re likely to be relegation road kill in the near future (see “RRF” or “Relegation Risk Factor”).
6. Extra points for mid-table teams that play attractive soccer, have some outstanding attributes, feature American players, etc. I call this the “Mid-Table Fun Factor,” or “MFF.” Don’t judge me.
But the main thing is, I’m looking for a team that will be fun to follow in my Golden Years and that won’t embarrass me, like that whole Chicago Cubs disaster.
Here’s how it stands as we head into 2014…
Not in consideration
Current Dan Ranking: NA
Nickname(s): The Citizens
Stadium: City of Manchester Stadium
Ownership: Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan
OCF: 4. I hate petro-oligarchs
MFF: NA. Clearly part of the elite now.
U.S. president in office when club was founded: Rutherford B. Hayes (1880)
Silverware: League Champions, 2011-12, FA Cup 2011
Local Supporters Group: None, although some guys in blue shirts show up at Madra Rua on derby day.
Pros: They’ve been up and down, but they rose from the ashes to become a power both in the league and in Europe… Won the league in 2012 at the death in that memorable last-day finish. Their colors look similar to UNC’s… They annoy Manchester United fans, which can be fun to watch… Recently invested in MLS… Probably the best team in the League, and my friend John Sloop‘s pick to finish atop the table… Kicked the ever-living shit out of Tottenham recently and basically gave AVB his walking papers.
Cons: Did I mention I really can’t stand billionaires who buy championships? Particularly petro-billionaires? Particularly petro-billionaires who carry the title “Sheik” and could be spending their vast wealth on building a future for their people once the oil runs out, rather than jetting around to football matches? Yeah, that… Also, while I appreciate any team that comes back from humiliation to win championships, there’s something about rich guys beating on poor kids that I just don’t like. Manchester City is No. 9 on the Forbes List of the Most Valuable Football Clubs for 2013, making it the fourth-most valuable club in the Premier League… Their MLS investment called itself “NYCFC,” which is frankly just a bit too euro-weenie for a team from the Big Apple… Their nickname (“The Citizens”) sounds a bit too much like a dark punchline from a BBC series written by the ghost of George Orwell.
Summary: I might have given these guys a run if it weren’t for the fact that they visited Portland a few years ago, and my Portland friend Robert Huffman figured “Well, I guess I’ll cheer for those guys.” So they were off the table from the beginning.
Current DR: NA
Nickname(s): The Blues; The Pensioners
Location: East London
Stadium: Stamford Bridge
Ownership: Roman Abramovich
OCF: 4. See entry for Manchester City, except, instead of being a petro-oligarch, he’s just sort of a scary Russian mobster. Which is kinda cool, in a frighteningly wrong way.
U.S. President in office when club was founded: Theodore Roosevelt (1905)
Promoted: Founding member
Relegated: Never relegated
Silverware: Four league titles, seven FA Cups, four League Cups and four FA Community Shields, while in continental competitions they have won two UEFA Cup Winners’ Cups, one UEFA Super Cup, one UEFA Europa League and one UEFA Champions League. Chelsea are the only London club to win the UEFA Champions League, one of four clubs, and the only British club, to have won all three main UEFA club competitions, and also the first club to hold two major European titles simultaneously. So, basically, a bunch of show-offs.
LSG: None, but there are lots of local soccer fans who will come out in Chelsea shirts to watch matches, including Mikey Buytas, president of The Regiment and the American Outlaws.
Pros: Great colors. Great badge. Great stadium. Great tradition. They have this thing about celery, which makes no sense, not even to their supporters, yet all of them sing loudly about celery and occasionally toss it at people. Additionally, the whole celery thing is wildly inappropriate… Chelsea fans appear to be having more fun than most of the fans I observe… Their win in the UEFA club championship over Bayern Munchen was dramatic, unexpected, and awesome… Their entire fan base is apparently ready and willing to give themselves personally to manager Jose Mourinho if he ever suggests, even in passing, that he’d like to have sex with them… Also, defender Branislov Ivanovich is, by all accounts, irresistibly delicious… Vinnie Jones, a.k.a. Bullet-Tooth Tony from the Guy Ritchie film Snatch, played for The Pensioners in 1991-92.
Cons: They’re beautiful, trendy and cool, and therefore bear no resemblance to me or my personality.
Summary: This is an excellent team with a lot going for it, but I’ve never seriously considered supporting them, because — having watched them convert my former roommate and long-time friend John Sloop from a brilliant professor of rhetoric into a blue drooling idiot — I’m convinced they reproduce by planting pods in the basements of unsuspecting Americans.
Current DR: NA
Nickname(s): The Red Devils
Stadium: Old Trafford
Ownership: The Glazer family, a bunch of New Yorkers who also own the Tampa Bay Bucs. Malcom Glazer’s hostile takeover of a beloved English club via a leveraged buyout is classic American 1 percenter douchebaggery, but it did succeed in turning the already-legendary English side into a massive global brand. Man United is the most valuable club in the UK, and No. 2 on the Forbes list of most valuable football franchises for 2013, dropping below Real Madrid.
OCF: 4. Seriously. This is Wall Street’s team.
MFF: 0. This club translates the term “mid-table” into “loser.”
U.S. President in office when club was founded: Rutherford B. Hayes (1878)
Promoted: Founding member.
RRF: 0. The world will end before Manchester United is relegated to the League Championship.
Silverware: Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah. Yes, yes, yes, we all know you’ve won everything. At least twice. So shut up.
LSG: Kinda sorta. While there’s no formal structure to the local Man U supporters’ group, there’s no shortage of them, and they’re big, burly and very very British. Reportedly they congregate at the Triangle Bar in Avondale.
Pros: Year in, year out, the class of the EPL. Have been known to defeat mid-table teams simply by glaring at them unkindly during pre-match ceremonies. They wear red, drink beer, and despite finishing the calendar year just eight points off the top spot, their fans are already planning an armed insurrection to remove David Moyes as manager, burn his house down, and salt his backyard flower garden. Sometimes I think that’s a con, but they’re so brutally consistent in their gut-level drive to hegemony that it’s kinda cute. They’re having a down year after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, which almost sorta kinda makes them look human and vulnerable, but still doesn’t. Here’s the bottom line: This franchise is valued at roughly $3.2 billion, and its annual revenues ($502 million) alone are worth almost as much as the total valuation of the team in the 11th spot n the Forbes list, Tottenham Hotspur ($520 million). The payroll for their starting XI was bigger than the entire payroll of MLS in 2012.
Cons: OK, so they’re really good and dominant. You know who else was really good and dominant? The Romans. The Wehrmacht. Darth Vader.
Summary: I love watching these guys play, and I respect them for their greatness, and their fans for their spirit. But if I start cheering for the Red Devils, I might as well just go out and buy myself a bunch of New York Yankees gear and go all-in on the whole smug American jerk thing. Plus, if you’re having an aneurysm because your team isn’t at the top of the table at any given moment, it’s time to switch to decaf.
I don’t think so
Current DR: 17
Nickname(s): The Glaziers
Location: South London
Stadium: Selhurst Park
Ownership: An ownership group formed by four wealthy fans brought the club out of administration in 2010 after its former douchebag owner ran it into the ground.
MFF: 0. Palace show no evidence of making a run at mid-table relevance.
U.S. president in office when club was founded: Theodore Roosevelt (1905)
Relegated: The year after they were promoted… five times in a row.
Silverware: Well, they finished first in the second level of the UK pyramid once. Twenty-three years ago.
LSG: If so, they meet in a broom closet.
Pros: The original Crystal Palace was the site of the Great Exposition of 1851, which is cool. Their nickname, “The Glaziers,” refers to people who install window panes.
Cons: The original Crystal Palace burned down in 1936. The club changed its nickname from “The Glaziers” to “The Eagles” in the 1970s. Also, the nickname “Glaziers” reminds me of the owners of Manchester United. Red and Blue colors are too primary.
Summary: Have fun in the League Championship next fall.
Current DR: 16
Nickname(s): The Bluebirds
Location: Cardiff, Wales
Stadium: Cardiff City Stadium
Ownership: Vincent Tan
OCF: 5. Oh boy.
MFF: Uh. No.
U.S. president in office when club was founded: William McKinley (1899)
Silverware: 1927 FA Cup; 2012-13 League Championship title
LSG: None, although I’m told that the Hanahan Game of Thrones Fan Club is planning to adopt them… if they can avoid relegation.
Pros: That Welsh dragon is pretty damned cool. The bluebird is, too. Wales is someplace I’d like to go. I love underdogs. The BBC series Torchwood is set in Cardiff, and it has some kind of space-time vortex thing going on…
Cons: So, have you ever heard of Kevin Kwan‘s debut novel Crazy Rich Asians? It’s about expat Chinese nouveau riche and their bizarre schemes, enormous egos and conspicuous consumption. It sounds like it could have been written about Cardiff owner Vincent Tan, an ethnic Chinese who built his Malaysian fortune via political connections and McDonald’s franchises. Anyway, Tan appears to have purchased Cardiff City as a vanity project, backing them through their first promotion to the Premier League last spring. But Tan’s money came at a price: Part of the deal was that he got to change the club’s colors from blue and white to red and black, dumping the bluebird mascot in exchange for the Welsh dragon. Imagine how the people of Boston would feel if Far East billionaires flashing a bunch of bling showed up in Beantown, bought the Red Sox, put some Russian teenagers in charge of contracts and scouting, changed the team’s colors to green and gold and then fired the popular manager. Also, the dude wears a Cardiff City jersey over a long-sleeve shirt, and then tucks them both into his pants, which makes him look like the world’s creepiest uncle. Then, after the Bluebirds/Dragons/Whatevers gave up two late goals to cellar-dwelling Sunderland on Saturday, the guy booed his own team.
Summary: Bye-bye, bluebirds.
Current DR: 15
Nickname(s): The Magpies, The Toon, The Geordies
Stadium: St. James’ Stadium
Ownership: Mike Ashley
OCF: 2 (4, given the photo below)
U.S. president in office when club was founded: Benjamin Harrison (1892)
LSG: Battery fan Joey Benton likes them, and I like Joey.
Pros: Is heavily associated with a beer that I really like… St. James’ Stadium is built on something called “the town moor,” and its bizarre architecture is the result of its long and contentious history. The southern end of the stadium is referred to as “the Gallowgate end,” in reference to the location of the old site of public hangings in Newcastle… It’s one of the classic mid-table clubs, usually finishing in the top half of the league though seldom contending for the top spot… Newcastle is a Premier League stalwart, spending just two season below the top flight… I dig the black-and-white stripes, and back when Demba Ba was on a tear for the Magpies last season before trundling off to Chelsea to ride the pine, they were a lot of fun to watch… The Geordies are a classic mid-table team, with a high MFF, and they occasionally contend for a title or punch a ticket to Europe.
Cons: They are better at making money than they are at winning. Newcastle is ranked 20th on the Forbes list of most valuable clubs in world football… What’s with the sea horses?… Though not truly thuggish, there’s still something of a shin-kicking image surrounding the club… They’re from the Northeast, which just reminds me of the bizarre, screetchy “‘EYE, YE BUGGER O’ HELL!” accents my old British friend Dave Baron tried to teach me back in the 1980s… Mike Ashley, a reclusive owner once described as the Howard Hughes of England, runs a sports betting service and has been vowing to sell the club ever since fans protested his personnel moves in 2008, but it keeps not happening. But the No. 1 black mark against the black-and-white is this: The club reportedly wanted to start charging newspapers for exclusive interviews, part of a campaign of vengeful douchebaggery directed at the — admitted awful, spiteful, sensational — English sports media. Newcastle has denied those reports as categorically untrue, but they follow in the wake of petty retribution against local papers that covered fan dissent against management.
Summary: Whatever is going on between Ashley’s management team and the media, it’s part of a rapidly souring relationship between the team and its fans, and I want nothing to do with it. Also, there haven’t been this many Frenchmen so closely packed together on English soil since 1066. Not judging, just observing.
Give me a reason
West Bromwich Albion
Current DR: 14
Nickname(s): The Baggies, The Throstles, Albion (originally “The Strollers”)
Location: West Bromwich, the West Midlands
Stadium: The Hawthorns
Ownership: West Bromwich Albion Limited
U.S. president in the year the club was founded: Grover Cleveland (1888)
Silverware: FA Cup, 1968
LSG: None. I’ve never even met a person who advertised himself (or herself, for that matter) as a Baggies supporter.
Pros: A classic old-school club from the industrial West Midlands, The Baggies have played a lot of football with very little to show for it. Nevertheless WBA’s fans are considered knowledgeable and creative. Their current grounds is called The Hawthorns, and it’s actually the sixth stadium the club has called home. They’ve been there for 113 consecutive years.
Cons: They are, by some measures, only the third-most popular team in the Birmingham metro area. Their fans may be long on football knowledge, but they don’t always show up for matches. This has got to be the most anonymous roster in the league.
Summary: WBA might just be the archetypal modern yo-yo club. The Baggies have been, to borrow a phrase from Eric Idle‘s Mr. Cheeky in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, “up and down like the Assyrian Empire.” They’re currently in their fourth stint in the Premier League since 2002, and their longest stay has been four seasons. If you look at them closely, it’s easy to think, “Well, they seem perfectly nice,” but then the next thing you likely think is “Zzzzz.” So it’s not that I have a bad opinion of them. I’m just struggling to form an opinion on them.