Forget the NFL
We’ll have just left the port of New Orleans on the Carnival Dream on Super Bowl Sunday, slowly cruising down the Mississippi River before eventually emerging out into the Gulf of Mexico. But I’ll try to catch some of the ‘big game’ in the RedFrog Bar because my hometown team is in the Super Bowl.
Generally speaking though, if the Philadelphia Eagles once again failed to make it this far, I wouldn’t care less about it, or any other, National Football League game.
That football ship sailed years ago for me.
I will, however, stay updated on Fulham’s home match at Craven Cottage against Forest the day before while attending the Dad 2.0 Summit, all while Southampton undoubtedly fail to hit the back of the net at The Hawthorns (those are two of the best football stadium names in England, coincidentally).
And I’ll have absolutely watched the huge Liverpool v. Tottenham match intently on that Sunday morning before boarding the ship.
I don’t want to miss a minute of those games.
Why I No Longer Care About Super Bowl
There are a few reasons I ditched the NFL so cold turkey after 30 years of fandom. But right around the time I started to fall out of love with football in 2011-ish, I fell madly in love with football. Spanish football. Major League Soccer…er, football. And, above all else, English football.
I’m so head-over-heels in love with English football that I spent 5 days alone, driving all over the country last December, visiting the outside of stadiums, seeing 5 matches, and taking 1 stadium tour. It was the coldest, wettest, geekiest thing I’ve ever done…and it was glorious.
[Some more photos from my trip in 3…2…1…]
English Football Binge
Are English football leagues, players or teams, and the oligarchs who run too much of everything spotless in their character or perfect in their handling of the sport? No, not even close, but despite my English Footy Binge Week Trip, the gazillion English football podcasts I listen to, and articles I read pertaining to all things football, there’s a very obvious physical distance between me here and the nitty gritty of the beautiful game over there so it’s relatively easy to remain pure of heart and to still be madly in love with English football.
Here are six reasons I love English football…and why you should too:
1) The FA Cup
There’s always talk of magic when it comes to the FA Cup but lately, with the massive importance placed on The Champions League instead of this old domestic competition, that talk is often followed by chuckles and ridicule. No matter, it IS magical and wonderful, still and forever.
(This coming weekend is the 4th round of the ’17-’18 iteration of this legendary tournament! Tune in on FS1 and FS2!)
Let me explain.
The Football Association (FA) in England is comprised of 4 divisions, each with 20-22 teams. There’s the Premier League, which you may know. That’s the league with Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, and so on. Then there’s the Championship (2nd tier of English football), League 1 and League 2.
Below those four leagues is the conference, which, I’ll be honest, I don’t know everything about yet. I imagine there are more sub-divisions down there but let’s just call it ‘non-league’ football for the time being, because that’s what it is.
The FA Cup pits ALL of those teams against each other in a massive annual knockout tournament that takes place throughout and in the middle of the regular league seasons of the Premier League, Championship, League 1 and so on.
It is the oldest continuously played football tournament in the world, as a matter of fact.
The ‘big clubs’ (those from the Premier League and the Championship) join in round 3 which means sometimes the biggest sports teams in the world like Manchester United go to tiny Yeovil Town to play a match in a stadium that doesn’t even hold 5000 seated fans!
It is beautiful and strange to an American sports fan. Could you imagine the Cowboys traveling to Lima, OH to play the Lima Lemurs (or whatever) of some 4th tier of American football? Of course not. But in England, it happens every year and it is wonderful to watch. The small clubs get a massive payday for the FA Cup matches (sometimes enough to cover salaries for a whole month) and if there’s a draw (a tie score) the game is replayed in the other team’s stadium a week or so later. In the case of Yeovil Town, that means if they manage a draw against Manchester United at home those Yeovil Town players who have spent an entire career toiling around in the lower leagues would have gotten to play a match in the famed Old Trafford, the ‘Theater of Dreams’, in front of 75,000 people, and earned their club an extra massive payday. This is why you see those tiny clubs sometimes celebrate a draw like they’ve just won the lottery…because in some cases, they have!
2) Away Supporters (Fans)
Sure, I just put on my Red Wings jersey and went to Brooklyn to see ’em play the Islanders and there are a scattered hundred or so of my fellow Red Wings fans in the arena. But imagine if there were thousands of us and we were together in our own section, singing songs about our players, and chanting loudly, antagonistically and in unison at the massive home crowd.
This is what happens in nearly every Premier League match every single week. Each English football stadium has a segregated section for away supporters, with dedicated turnstiles to enter/exit and concessions within that section. There is an allotment of tickets available for away fans, available only for supporters of the away teams, and the league caps ticket prices (sometimes at 1/2 the price of regular tickets) in that section for away fans to make supporting their club on the road more economically feasible. This is a crucial aspect of the English game and what serves to create that famous atmosphere inside football stadiums.
Why does this happen in England? Because football is a provincial sport, tied up in neighborhoods and towns and cities, and because the country is relatively small fans travel to their team’s away matches regularly. The chance of cheering on one of your own after a goal as he slides on muddy knees into the loving embrace of you and your own fans while being the away team is spectacular and one of the reasons I love English football.
3) Relegation (and Promotion)
Let’s pretend Triple-A baseball teams weren’t affiliated with pro teams. In this scenario, if baseball relegated its worst teams each year, the Reds, Phillies and A’s would have played in Triple-A last season.
Going the other direction, the best three teams from Triple-A during the prior season would be promoted to The Big Show.
This is relegation and promotion and it is thrilling.
Relegation forces clubs to not tank their season (ahem, NBA), it makes late season games between terrible teams must watch TV (these matches are often called relegation 6-pointers because you get 3 points for a win in football so when two relegation candidates play late in the season it can be a 6-point swing in the standings should one emerge victorious). These relegation battles are often some of the most entertaining games of the season, because no player wants to suddenly find themselves in a lower league, making a lot less money. And the fans of those clubs are on the edge of a knife, praying their hometown football club doesn’t drop down to a lower league. Oh, and relegation happens all the way down the football league system, meaning the worst three teams in League 2 are out of the Football League entirely! This nearly happened to tiny AFC Bournemouth eight years ago. They needed to win on the final day to stay in League 2. Over the next 7 years they climbed up and up and finally reached the Premier League this season, for the first time in the football club’s 125+ year history. You should have seen that joyous recently, as Bournemouth fans got to experience something they never had before: promotion to the EPL.
Relegation (and promotion) is amazing and it is why I love English football. MLS needs it but probably won’t ever get Pro/Rel.
4) The Narratives
There are no shortages of narratives in English football. One of the great seasonal football narratives is coaches on the hot seat. Now, this may not seem odd when compared to American sports but in football, coaches will routinely be fired just months into a new reason after winning the league the year before, or avoiding relegation the season before, or getting their team promoted from a lower league.
At times it is unmerciful and kind of insane how often football coaches come and go but the narrative drama of English football is just one more reason I love it. Another narrative gem is a team like Leicester City who, just a few season ago, were on their way down to the Championship before fighting back to avoid relegation. Then, in the offseason, they fired the manager who kept them up in the Premier League (ain’t that always the way). 9 months later, they shocked the world and won the Premier League at a canter in the end. It was nothing short of remarkable. The Leicester City 2015-2016 story is the best story in all of sports. Ever. Bar none. It isn’t even close.
5) The Transfer Windows
Starting in August, the 1st of two transfer windows open. This happens before the new season starts and continues into the first few games of the season. It is madness. This summer window is one of only two periods where teams can add new players (the other being in January). There are no trades in English football but pretty much every player in the world has a price tag — even Ronaldo and Messi and Neymar can be bought by Manchester City or Chelsea or Tottenham. If a player is open to a move to a new team and that team can pay the price — both the transfer fee to the player’s existing club which are as high as 50 million British pounds for the best players AND the player’s weekly salary — they can make a transfer bid.
6) The Derby
Pronounced ‘darby’ a derby is when two clubs from the same city, town or geographic area play against each other. The Manchester Derby between United and City is always one of the biggest games of the year in the Premier League, as is the North London Derby of Arsenal v. Tottenham. My favorite may be the Merseyside Derby between Liverpool and Everton because from the sky you can see that these two storied football clubs are only about a mile away from each other in the same city. English football derbies are like Giants v. Jets, Mets v. Yankees, Cubs v. White Sox, Duke v. UNC, but times 1000. There’s nothing else like it.
Other English football derbies of note in the Premier League are the Tyne-Wear Derby of Newcastle and Sunderland, the Midlands Derby which is when Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion play, and for a year the Welsh derby was when Swansea and Cardiff were both in the Premier League. There are dozens of meaningful, heated and long standing derbies all the way through the football league. Remember, this is a provincial sport with neighborhood and town pride always on the line and hundreds of years of history worn on tattered team-colored sleeves.
This is why I love English Football and why you should too.
*A dated version of this post was published on Jeff’s site OWTK a couple of English football seasons ago.