September 2011

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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.”

I have been neglecting my blog of late. I plan to bring FifthLung up to speed here in the near future. This What Are You Reading Now post is step one. I finished my Moby Dick class and the book itself back in April. (Spoilers follow.) My girlfriend and I broke up at the same time so I know how the crew of the Pequod felt as they and their whaling enterprise sank in the ocean’s whelmings. This post is about the last three chapters of Moby Dick, which cover the Pequod‘s final confrontation with The Great White Whale. Many historic battles of the 19th century took place over several days, and Ahab’s battle with Moby Dick was no different. Before I get to that, I have to recommend a great website: Power Moby-Dick, the Online Annotation. They have the entire text online with helpful notes and tons of other fun Moby Dick-related links.

The last three chapter titles are, “The Chase—First Day,” and “The Chase—Second Day” and “The Chase—Third Day.” The final battle takes place on the third day and some say it’s very abrupt. I agree. In class, we discussed some reasons for it being abrupt, namely that it shows Ahab’s insignificance relative to the whale he was up against. We learned in high school that Moby Dick was a story of good vs. evil. But I’ve always thought it was man vs. nature, and mighty nature makes mincemeat of man.

But let me start in an earlier chapter, I cannot recall which one, where Melville uses a great metaphor. He talks about Death, and Death reaping souls. He says Death goes out “blackberrying,” plucking souls off the earth the way blackberry pickers pluck them off bushes.

Then, on the second day of the chase, Melville says:

The rigging lived. The mast-heads, like the tops of tall palms, were outspreadingly tufted with arms and legs. Clinging to a spar with one hand, some reached forth the other with impatient wavings; others, shading their eyes from the vivid sunlight, sat far out on the rocking yards; all the spars in full bearing of mortals, ready and ripe for their fate. Ah! how they still strove through that infinite blueness to seek out the thing that might destroy them!

“Why sing ye not out for him, if ye see him?” cried Ahab…

The Pequod is just an over-sized blackberry bush and Death is coming. There’s plenty of foreshadowing in the book, the end game won’t come as a shock to any reader. Eventually, the sailors see Moby Dick:

“There she blows—she blows!—she blows!—right ahead!” was now the mast-head cry.

And later:

“There she breaches! there she breaches!” was the cry, as in his immeasureable bravadoes the White Whale tossed himself salmon-like to Heaven. So suddenly seen in the blue plain of the sea, and relieved against the still bluer margin of the sky, the spray that he raised, for the moment, intolerably glittered and glared like a glacier; and stood there gradually fading and fading away from its first sparkling intensity, to the dim mistiness of an advancing shower in a vale.

“Aye, breach your last to the sun, Moby Dick!” cried Ahab, “thy hour and thy harpoon are at hand!—Down! down all of ye, but one man at the fore. The boats!—stand by!”

They do battle with Moby Dick but the outcome is inconclusive — until the Third Day. Starbuck, the First Mate, senses impending doom:

“God keep us, but already my bones feel damp within me, and from the inside wet my flesh. I misdoubt me that I disobey my God in obeying [Ahab]!”

Captain Ahab departs the Pequod for the last time:

“Starbuck!”

“Sir?”

“For the third time my soul’s ship starts upon this voyage, Starbuck.”

“Aye, Sir, thou wilt have it so.”

“Some ships sail from their ports, and ever afterwards are missing, Starbuck!”

“Truth, Sir: saddest truth.”

“Some men die at ebb tide; some at low water; some at the full of the flood;—and I feel now like a billow that’s all one crested comb, Starbuck. I am old;—shake hands with me, man.”

Their hands met; their eyes fastened; Starbuck’s tears the glue.

“Oh, my captain, my captain!—noble heart—go not—go not!—see, it’s a brave man that weeps; how great the agony of the persuasion then!”

“Lower away!”—cried Ahab, tossing the mate’s arm from him. “Stand by the crew!”

Oh, my captain, my captain. Sounds familiar. It’s probably where Walt Whitman got the title of his poem, O Captain! My Captain!, which he wrote 14 years later as a tribute to Abraham Lincoln after the President’s assassination. And Whitman’s phrase later inspired the rousing final moments of the film Dead Poet’s Society.

Ahab has ordered Starbuck to stay on the ship. Ordinarily, he would command one of the harpoon boats. In modern times, Starbuck would say, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Here’s what Melville had him think circa 1850:

For when three days flow together in one continuous intense pursuit; be sure the first is the morning, the second the noon, and the third the evening and the end of that thing—be that end what it may. Oh! my God! what is this that shoots through me, and leaves me so deadly calm, yet expectant,—fixed at the top of a shudder! Future things swim before me, as in empty outlines and skeletons; all the past is somehow grown dim. Mary, girl! thou fadest in pale glories behind me; boy! I seem to see but thy eyes grown wondrous blue. Strangest problems of life seem clearing; but clouds sweep between—Is my journey’s end coming?

As Ahab tries to harpoon Moby Dick, the whale turns on the Pequod, smashing into its hull. Ahab watches as the White Whale destroys his ship. Ahab renews his attack on the whale with this battle cry:

Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.

That may sound familiar too. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in Kahn’s final battle with Captain Kirk, Kahn says, “To the last, I will grapple with thee… from Hell’s heart, I stab at thee! For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee!”

Kahn is Ahab and Captain Kirk is his White Whale.

Back to the book, Ahab’s harpoon finds Moby Dick:

The harpoon was darted; the stricken whale flew forward; with igniting velocity the line ran through the groove;—ran foul. Ahab stooped to clear it; he did clear it; but the flying turn caught him round the neck, and voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim, he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone. Next instant, the heavy eye-splice in the rope’s final end flew out of the stark-empty tub, knocked down an oarsman, and smiting the sea, disappeared in its depths.

Not quite the sanitized version of the Gregory Peck movie version. The sinking ship then creates a whirlpool that sucks down everyone in the ship and in the whaling boats. Only Ishmael survives because, we find out, he had fallen out of one of the harpoon boats early in the battle and was a safe distance away watching the battle unfold.

Great final battle, great book. Although you come to like many of the crew members on board the Pequod, it’s hard not to cheer for the whale, especially after reading through the vivid and detailed descriptions of the whaling industry in action.

No George No!

One of my favorite scenes in the original Star Wars trilogy is when the Emperor is zapping Luke with space lightning while Darth Vader watches. Luke is going to die. Vader silently moves his head back and forth from the Emperor to Luke and back. Vader is distressed. Finally, he’s had enough. Without a word, he achieves redemption by lifting the Emperor up in the air and tossing him down one of those bottomless space wells you often find on Death Stars.

George Lucas, ever the tinkerer, has seen fit to modify this scene. Instead of having Vader silently watch the execution of his son, he has Vader yell, “Noooooooooooooo!” as he spurs himself to action. This is for people who don’t realize throwing someone down a bottomless space well is a way of saying, “No.”

I love this scene, it’s the Everest summit of the trilogy. And Lucas has cheapened it. Why? I think there is a subliminal message here, a cry for help. Lucas (as seen in the second trilogy and his reworking of the first) is the epitome of No-Nos Syndrome. When people become so powerful nobody around them dares edit or criticize them, they usually produce crap. Melville and Tolstoy are exceptions. Maybe too some of the Master Painters and Composers of history. Hardly anyone else. I think Lucas realizes this and he’s crying out for someone, anyone to say, “No!”

No.