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I’ve written about the English Premier League in the past, here and here. Today I want to talk about picking my adopted EPL team. I wish I could be in the stands for my team singing ribald and (sometimes) witty songs. As I’ve said before, we need to incorporate singing into the NFL stadium experience because I’d love to sing ribald songs at Denver Broncos games too. When Chelsea played Stoke City recently, the Stoke fans sang, “John Terry is shagging the ref.” (John Terry is a Chelsea defender.) I wish I’d been at Corporate Sponsor at Mile High Stadium last night for the Broncos home opener singing “Stanford Routt is shagging the ref.” (Routt is a Raiders cornerback who was allowed to assault Bronco wide receivers before the ball got anywhere near them.)

To continue on this tangent for a moment, six years ago Bill Simmons the Sports Guy asked for reader opinions on which EPL team he should adopt. On the subject of singing fans, one of his readers said of attending an EPL game:

Once I got someone to translate the cockney accents of the people singing around me, I discovered some fun and clever (and yes, quite obscene) songs. Most clubs have songs for most of their players, with melodies stolen from a wide collection of music (e.g. Go West by Pet Shop Boys, Volare, She’ll be Comin Round the Mountain When She Comes). They also have songs taunting the other team’s players (and managers). Much more fun than the sing-song chants in the U.S.

Another Simmons reader said:

[O]nce in our seats, the entire two hours was spent surrounded by happy (tipsy, but not sloppy drunk) and singing fans. Trust me, you’ve never experienced ANYTHING like English soccer fans singing. The songs are incredibly catchy and the lyrics are such that it is easy to follow along.

I know there are employees of the NFL and the various teams who sit around all day trying to think up ways to improve the fan experience. Which makes it all the more amazing that the best they have come up with in the last ten years is “blast rock anthems” and “have fans chant IN-COM-PLETE.” So get on it NFL, get on it teams, we can make this happen with an ice tub or two of effort and determination.

But I digress. I want to explain how and why I chose my Premiership team. My guide is Simmons, based on his 2006 adoption process, and he ended up choosing the Tottenham Hotspur. This was not a rash decision. I thought of picking a team at the beginning of last year, my first year watching the Premiership, but instead I decided to just be a fan of the league and let my adopted team find me. All the while I was mulling over this very important decision in the back of my mind.

Simmons had six goals as he made his decision.

1. “Avoid the whole ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ thing.” I agree with Bill. You can’t become a fan of the teams currently dominating the league. That’s just not cricket.

2. “Avoid a team that’s too tortured.” The team I chose has been tortured of late but they are not too tortured.

3. “If possible, gravitate toward a city that could double as a potential vacation spot. (Translation: London.)” This was a factor for me too. For a long time, I’ve dreamed of spending a month in London. I spent about two months of 2010 in Holland so I can’t complain but London is still on my list.

4. “Put it this way: I’d rather have less hooligans in my life than more hooligans.” Hooliganism is not the issue it once was so this was not a factor for me.

5. “Pay careful attention to the list of celebrity fans attached to each team.” I don’t care about celebrity fans.

6. “Pick a team that’s successful enough to crack Channel 613 from time to time and will avoid the ignominy of getting kicked out of the EPL.” This is really two factors, TV coverage and avoiding relegation. The former is not an issue because today, five years after Bill’s column, I can watch all EPL games live. (This usually means Saturday and Sunday mornings Denver time.) Relegation, however, is still an issue. Three teams go down to the minor leagues (so to speak) every year. And three teams are in turn promoted to The Show. (As Simmons has pointed out. This is a GREAT system. If only we could implement it here in all our major sports.)

After following the EPL last year and the beginning of this year (we just finished week 4 out of 38), I’ve come up with some other rules to keep in mind while picking my Premiership team:

A. Don’t choose a team because of their players. Sounds strange but players change teams so much you cannot get attached. I thought about jumping on the Newcastle fan bus last year because I liked Andy Carroll. But mid-year, he was transferred to Liverpool. And when Simmons wrote his column, Dimitar Berbatov played for Tottenham and now he plays for Manchester United. Back then Peter Crouch played for Liverpool, last year he played for Tottenham and a couple weeks ago he transferred to Stoke City.

B. Don’t choose a team based on their gaffer (manager) because their jobs are also far from secure. A Simmons reader pointed out: “For the longest time, Arsenal were defensive and boring. ‘Boring boring Arsenal’ was the chant. But under Wenger, they have become one of the most exciting, attacking sides in England. Fun to watch.” Arsenal have become fun to watch. But can anyone guarantee Wenger will be there in a few years, especially given Arsenal’s recent troubles? And will their next coach be defensively minded?

C. Ignore any comparisons to American teams. Many of Bill’s readers said this or that team is like the Yankees, the Red Sox or the Celtics. They said Newcastle is like the Raiders. I don’t buy any of it. I’m trying to look at these Premiership teams without American blinders.

I began making this decision last year and eliminated a few teams right away based on both relegation fears and the fact that they did not grab me. So I crossed off these teams: Manchester City, Stoke City, Birmingham*, Fulham, Everton, Bolton Wanderers, West Ham United*, Wolverhampton Wanderers (Wolves), West Bromwich Albion (West Brom) & Wigan Athletic. (*West Ham and Birmingham were relegated so it’s a good thing I did not choose one of them.) Manchester City is the best of these teams. Last year they were very defensive-minded and that was a turn-off. However, this year their offense has been explosive. A word about Fulham — one of their best players is American international team star Clint Dempsey. That made them tempting but I could not let it sway me. (See Rule A.)

Chelsea won the league two years ago and Manchester United won last year. They were both too good. As Simmons said in his piece, “Estimated number of ‘I don’t care who you pick, just don’t pick Manchester United’ e-mails: At least 700-750. By all accounts, they’re the New York Yankees of the EPL — they outspend everyone else, everyone hates them, and even their own fans don’t enjoy rooting for them that much.” This was amusing from Simmons because all but the last apply to the Red Sox. (Nobody can say Red Sox fans don’t enjoy rooting for them.)

I liked Chelsea because they had Didier Drogba and more than any other player I followed him from the World Cup to the EPL. I had barely heard of Wayne Rooney a year ago and only had a vague idea the EPL existed. So it might have made sense to become a Chelsea fan because I am such a Drogba fan. But they were just too good. I could not bring myself to jump on the bandwagon. And it’s just as well. Drogba has fallen out of favor at Chelsea. (Proving my rule A.)

The EPL is currently dominated by six teams: Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham. To avoid adopting a team with relegation risk, it is tempting to stick with one of the Top Six. But I was not yet ready to concede I had to pick one of the Top Six. How dominant are the Top Six? When you look at the list of past league leaders for the last 20 years, the Big Six look more like the Big Four (Man U, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool), with brash challengers appearing here and there. Since the 92-93 season, when the current incarnation of the English top flight league (the EPL) was founded, Man United has won the league 12 times. Arsenal 3 times, Chelsea 3 times and back in 94-95, the Blackburn Rovers once. As you get into second and third place, and the years prior to 92-93, you see a few more unusual winners. Tottenham has not won the league since 60-61, and they not placed in the top three since 89-90. Man City placed third last year but before that, they last placed in the top three in 76-77 when they were second. But they are looking ripe for second place again this year, or maybe even first.

Back to the adoption process. I next eliminated Liverpool, Blackburn, Blackpool and Sunderland. Liverpool was appealing but as I was watching last year and choosing my team, nobody at Liverpool jumped out at me. Later in the year they got the aforementioned Carroll and Suarez and dumped their dud Torres. But by then I was already moving past them. So while you cannot choose based on players, it does help to have a few you like. In a way, I felt like I should pick a team with the most players I liked. Surely a few would stick around? Sunderland, Blackburn and Blackpool had cool names and each had a player I liked, Bent the Sunderland forward, Samba the Blackburn defender and Adam the Blackpool midfielder. Bent was transferred to Aston Villa last year and Adam moved to Liverpool in the off-season, providing more evidence for my Rule A. And good thing I passed on Blackpool. They were relegated. Samba is still at Blackburn (surprisingly) but Blackburn are early favorites for relegation this year.

Last year, one team name did grab me: the Queen’s Park Rangers. This was weird because they were not in the Premier League. They were in the Championship, one league down. I looked them up and it turned out they were on top of the Championship, meaning they were likely going to be promoted to the Premiership. I feared they would just get relegated back down though this year (plus there were some issues that might have prevented them from being admitted to the Premiership), so I passed on QPR. It was a tempting wildcard choice but I was not sure I could maintain interest in them if they went back down. If I ever become a tycoon, I might buy QPR.

Thus proceeded my awkward and haphazard journey of elimination that left me with my last four teams: Arsenal, Aston Villa, Newcastle and Tottenham.

I liked Aston Villa because the name is cool and I liked their uniforms. But I could add another rule here: don’t get too excited about the uniforms. Every team seems to have a wide variety of uniform styles and colors such that any team could trot out in kits of purple and yellow stripes and I would not be surprised. I would just think, “That must be the alternate alternate away jersey.” When Aston Villa got Bent, I liked them even more but they were terrible and no fun to watch. I had to pass.

Newcastle I liked for a funny reason. My Dad often used the expression, “Don’t carry coals to Newcastle.” As a strange by-product of this, I have always had a fondness for Newcastle. One hurdle for me is that Newcastle’s black and white striped uniforms reminded me too much of the uniform worn by NFL referees. Then Newcastle transferred Andy Carroll to Liverpool. That was discouraging. The owner is notorious and hated by the team’s fans. It seems like all the best players for the lower table teams end up at one of the Big Six. It’s not quite that bad — but it is bad. It makes it hard for a new fan to get excited about a team outside the Big Six. To make it worse, Newcastle seems intent on getting rid of its best players. Between this year and last, they’ve lost Carrol, Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton and Jose Enrique. And finally, Newcastle was only just promoted to last season’s Premiership after spending the previous year in the Championship. To be fair, they are looking pretty good so far this year, at least defensively.

I passed on Aston Villa and Newcastle and that led me to Tottenham Hotspur. The Spurs are a London club and they had two players I liked, Gareth Bale and Rafael Van der Vaart. Gareth Bale was a skilled Welshman and some of my ancestors came from Wales. And Van der Vaart was Dutch and thanks to my time in Holland I had become something of a Holland fan. But I kept in mind my Rule A. Also, The Sports Guy chose Tottenham. I did not want to just copy him.

It became clear to me that all signs were pointing to one team for me. But before I explain, let me just note that with Birmingham, Blackpool and West Ham relegated last year, three new teams were promoted: Norwich City, Swansea City and the previously discussed Queen’s Park Rangers. This introduced a new challenge for me, because although I did not want to choose a team likely to be relegated, Swansea City is the first team based in Wales to be play in the top flight English football league in decades. Wales, the land of (some of) my people! But truthfully, it was too late. I chose my EPL team last year and I can tell you the day: Saturday 5 February 2011.

On that day, Arsenal went ahead of Newcastle 4-0 in the first half but then Newcastle had a miraculous comeback in the second half and tied the game 4-4. It ended in a draw but the draw was considered a great victory for Newcastle and a great defeat for Arsenal. On that day, I decided I was an Arsenal fan. The most basic reason: with their attacking style, they are fun to watch. But it was fandom forged in defeat. That seemed appropriate. Better to become a fan on a dark day than on a day they won a big game or a trophy.

Arsenal has a military theme. Their logo is a cannon and they are called the Gunners. Wikipedia tells me, “Arsenal Football Club started out as Dial Square in 1886 by workers at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, south-east London, and was renamed Royal Arsenal shortly afterwards.” With my interest in military history over the years, it was a no-brainer to sign on with the Gunners. But that was too easy. I did not want to become an Arsenal fan just because of my interest in military history. That’s not a good reason to choose a football club.

Arsenal also appealed to me because they play an exciting brand of football thanks to their gaffer, Arsene Wenger. And he has a policy of bringing up stars from within rather than just buying them. I feel like this is the best way to build any professional sports team. (Just be sure to pay them, not sell them, when they get big.) And I liked several players, especially the Dutchman Robin Van Persie. Over the course of the year, I also grew fond of Theo Walcott and Johann Djourou. Granted, I cannot be too attached to these players (Rule A) and I cannot count on Wenger staying on (Rule B). I can only hope they do not go back to their boring days when Wenger is gone (which hopefully will not be soon).

I tried not to care about who owned the teams but with Arsenal, there was an added connection. Arsenal is majority-owned by Stan Kroenke, who also owns the Denver Nuggets, the Colorado Avalanche and the Colorado Rapids. I grew up in Denver and still live here so I’m a lifelong Nuggets fan. And I’ve been an Avalanche fan since they moved here. I have trouble getting excited about the Colorado Rapids but they are my MLS team. Now, I’m not saying I love Stan Kroenke. He has a policy of treating sports ownership like a business, which is about the worst policy you can ask for in your favorite team’s owner. Sports ownership should be a passion, not a business. Make your money elsewhere, Tycoons, and make owning these teams a labor of love. But for better or worse, I am stuck with Stan Kroenke. I may as well extend that dependence to the Premiership. I could never stop being a Nuggets, Avalanche or Rapids fan anymore than I could ever stop being a Denver Broncos fan. (I have to say I’m glad Stan Kroenke does not own the Broncos. Would we have ever won those Super Bowls? Thanks for being you Pat Bowlen. To be fair, though, Stan Kroenke does own the St. Louis Rams and they seem to be a rising star in the NFL. So there’s hope, my fellow fans of Kroenke teams.)

The ownership of Arsenal is a bit different too. Fans can own shares of the team, much like the Green Bay Packers are owned by shareholders. No other teams in the Premiership or the NFL allow this. I think if I were a fan new to the NFL, I would become a Packer fan for this reason alone, regardless of the bandwagon jumping that would entail.

Another factoid buttressing my decision. One of the Sports Guy’s readers said of Arsenal: “They play in Islington which is the cool part of town.” This reader said Islington is like Greenwich Village. I’ll take his word for it.

So I’m an Arsenal fan now, a Gunner Gooner. Our two biggest rivals are Manchester United and Tottenham. Easy to hate Manchester United. (Although they are fun to watch and I have Rooney and Young on my fantasy team). Not so easy to hate Tottenham. I’ll need to work on that.

It’s been a rough year for Arsenal. I came to the EPL last year, when Cesc Fabregas was always injured and not really in form. But I saw enough flashes of brilliance from him to be sorry he was leaving. And Nasri showed flashes too — we (oh yes, I will now be using “we” when I talk about Arsenal) might end up wishing we’d kept him. It was hard to see him star in week 3 for Manchester City. I’m trying to get excited about our new lanky German center half, Per Mertesacker. But really I’m distressed we did not get Juan Mata, the midfielder who went to Chelsea. I think he could have made us forget about Nasri and Fabregas in a heartbeat. The word is that Arsenal was not willing to shell out the cash needed to get Mata or keep Nasri. Bad tidings, my friends. But I’ll keep my chin up and hope Arteta can stay healthy and find new life flitting clever passes to my man Robin Van Persie. And I like our new summer signing, Gervinho. He’s back next week. This week we beat Swansea 1-0. Not outstanding but it was a win. Maybe we were just getting our sea legs after the humiliation at Old Trafford against Manchester United and after welcoming all these new signings. Things are trending upward for Arsenal, the Official Premiership Team of FifthLung. One could say they have nowhere to go but up. I would say in response, “we’ll see you on the pitch.”

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been giving myself an immersion crash course in soccer for the past few months, particularly the English game since I’m playing fantasy English Premier League.

Here are a few terms I had to learn:

Clean sheet
This is what we would call a shut out.

Fixture
Game or match. This one had me really confused for a while.

Gaffer
The head coach/manager of the football club.

Silverware
The trophy or trophies. And there are a number of different trophies to play for in football. The word is so overused it has left the realm of clever and concreted into permanency as with us calling the football the “pigskin.”

Stick
Harassment given by the fans at the stadium to opposing players. As in, “He always gets stick when he comes back and quite rightly so.”

Then there are the multiple nicknames for each team and sometimes more than one name for the home stadiums. I’ve barely scratched the surface.

But the EPL appeals to me. I like its international flavor and I like the passion of its fans. Since I’ve been dating Courtney, my interest in Europe has been on the increase so that is a factor, too. More accurately, my interest in international affairs and Europe has been reawakened. In college, I majored in International Relations and studied in Berlin.

Getting back to soccer, though, the sport appeals to me for another reason. The passion of the fans reminds me of the fun I used to have at Mile High Stadium in Denver. The new Mile High Stadium (I can’t bring myself to say its name) is just not the same. The new stadium is very nice but it’s different. Too nice maybe. And the higher income bracket crowd is definitely too soft. Nobody should be yelling, “Down in front!” at a football game. You’re not at the symphony people!

I was already thinking the above when I read this quote in Bloody Confused:

The away side at [Fulham’s] Craven Cottage began to shudder utterly, which freaked me out slightly and promoted two disparate thoughts. It made me think of the 6.1. earthquake I’d felt in Los Angeles on October 1, 1987…. And it made me think of old Mile High Stadium in Denver, before it yielded to a new stadium across the way. Occupying the Mountain Time Zone, the least populous of the American mainland’s four time zones, the fans of the NFL Denver Broncos don’t get a ton of national credit for their passion, but passion they possess, as one of the few professional-fan groups with passion to match England’s. Normally, for anything to rival English zeal, one must visit a college stadium or coliseum, even as a neutral fan. The old Mile High Stadium in Denver, though, remains the only American stadium to cause wavelets in my press-box coffee, and when I think of Denver set against the stunning Rocky Mountains, I think of those wavelets.

Old Mile High Stadium used to be provide a tremendous home field advantage. The new stadium, not as much. I think the stadium itself is not as loud but mostly I think it’s the gentrified crowd. More revenue for the team (club seats, etc.) but a less engaged and less loyal crowd (in bad weather, for instance) means fewer home wins. It does not help to get rid of your two best and most exciting players either but that is another story.

But the corporatization of American football is happening to English football too. Sponsoring brands are splashed across the front of all English football jerseys, for example. And the old hallowed grounds are giving way to modern stadiums with more amenities but less character.

From Fever Pitch:

Even sadder, though, is the way that Arsenal have chosen to redevelop the stadium…..[I]t is inconceivable that football at Highbury will ever be the same again.

The big clubs seem to have tired of their fan-base, and in a way who can blame them? Young working-class and lower-middle-class males bring with them a complicated and occasionally distressing set of problems; directors and chairmen might argue that they had their chance and blew it, and that middle-class families — the new target audience — will not only behave themselves, but pay much more to do so.

This argument ignores central questions about responsibility, fairness, and whether football clubs have a role to play in the local community. But even without these problems, it seems to me that there is a fatal flaw in the reasoning. Part of the pleasure to be had in large football stadia is a mixture of the vicarious and the parasitical, because unless one stands on the North Bank, or the Kop, or the Stretford End, then one is relying on others to provide the atmosphere; and atmosphere is one of the crucial ingredients of the football experience. These huge ends are as vital to the clubs as their players, not only because their inhabitants are vocal in their support, not just because they provide the clubs with large sums of money (although these are not unimportant factors) but because without them nobody else would bother coming. [Italics in original.]

Fever Pitch was published in 1992. Since then Arsenal has built a new stadium called Emirates Stadium or “the Emirates” for short. The stadium is named after Emirates Airlines, the major sponsor of Arsenal. Highbury is being converted into housing.

But the English crowds still seem more passionate, even with some of the grand old stadiums giving way to modern specimens. The major contributor in my estimation: the English crowds sing. Funny songs, lewd songs, all kinds of songs. If we could get Bronco crowds to sing at the new Mile High, I think we could go a long way toward recovering the Mile High Magic. So turn off the rock music that is blasted throughout the stadium and let’s start a new American sports tradition.

As I mentioned last month, WAYRN is a new regular feature here on FifthLung. The idea is that each month, on the first of the month or thereabouts, I’ll tell you what I’m reading. If what I’m reading is not interesting, I might instead answer the question, “What Are You Watching Now?” And then, hopefully, you will tell me what you are reading or watching that you find interesting.

I am still on my soccer — football — kick. My football knowledge remains meager but relative to a month ago, it’s vast. Right now, I’m reading Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, thought by many to be the number one book about football. It is good and much of it applies to fans of all sport. Here’s a riff of Hornby’s that cracked me up about the burden of fandom:

I had discovered…that loyalty, at least in football terms, was not a moral choice like bravery or kindness; it was more like a wart or a hump, something you were stuck with. Marriages are nowhere near as rigid — you won’t catch any Arsenal fans slipping off to Tottenham for a bit of extra-marital slap and tickle, and though divorce is a possibility (you can just stop going if things get too bad), getting hitched again is out of the question. There have been many times over the last twenty-three years when I have pored over the small print of my contract looking for a way out, but there isn’t one.

Is there a fan of any team in any sport who doesn’t know exactly what he’s talking about?

I just got another book in the mail today that I’m excited to read. I might even take a break from Fever Pitch for this new one: Ajax, the Dutch, the War: Football in Europe During the Second World War by Simon Kuper. Ajax is still the best or near the best team in the Holland football league and is based in Amsterdam. A full report on this will have to wait until next month.

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