Premier League: Through supporters' eyes - NBC Sports

Premier League: Through supporters' eyes
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August 15, 2013, 3:15 pm

LONDON -- Premier League through the eyes of a kid working in a shop:

Not so long ago, when I was in London, I wanted to buy a Premier League soccer shirt, it seemed the tourist thing to do, and so I wandered into a small sports store inside Kings Cross Railway Station in Central London. As it turned out, they were having a blowout sale on jerseys and shirts.

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Premier League jerseys are not like jerseys of American sports teams. The featured words are not the city where the team plays or the nickname of the team or even the logo. It is, instead, the team’s primary sponsor. So, for instance, Arsenal’s jersey says “Fly Emirates” across the chest and Chelsea’s says “Samsung.” Manchester United’s iconic jersey (the second-most purchased jersey in the world) has a Nike swoosh, a small Man-U crest just above the heart and “AON” -- an enormous risk management company based in London -- is by far most visible word on the front.

So, I sort of blundered around from jersey to jersey to try and figure out where each one was from and which one I wanted to buy. I had very little knowledge of the Premier League at the time. I don’t have that much now, but it was very little then. Basically, I’d heard of Manchester United. The kid who worked there watched on amused. “Can I give you some help there, mate?” he asked, and I shook my head -- I could do this.

In the end, there were two jerseys that were 75% off and so I decided, hey, I’d buy both of them. One was Arsenal -- I could see the shield on it. I knew about Arsenal. I had read Nick Hornby’s amazing Arsenal fan book “Fever Pitch” numerous times, and even though the names or events in the book were unfamiliar, the FEELING was familiar. Hornby loved Arsenal as a young man the way I loved the Cleveland Browns. So I picked up the Arsenal jersey. The other jersey was white and kind of interesting looking and so I picked that one too, even though I wasn’t sure what team it was.

“Here you go,” I said to the kid, handing him the two jerseys.

“Um,” he said, “sorry mate, I can’t let you buy both of these.”

“Excuse me?”

“Arsenal and Tottenham?” he asked. “No. Can’t do it.”

“So, I’m guessing they’re rivals?” I asked back.

He looked at me very sadly. “Sorry mate,” he said. “I can only sell you one.”

* * *

Premier League through the eyes of a seemingly insignificant controversy.

Kingston Upon Hull -- a city generally known as Hull -- is way up in Northwest England on the River Hull. The city was devastated by the Hull Blitz during World War II; it is estimated that 19 out of every 20 houses in the entire city were damaged or destroyed by the bombing. Rebuilding was a massive effort.

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And Hull City AFC has been the city’s soccer team from more than 100 years. Hull City has not been an especially successful or well-known team, at least not on a national scale. They have spent almost all their time playing in the second or third or fourth division. There have been a few nice moments – a nice run in the F.A. Cup, England’s biggest tournament, a promotion here and there. There have also been moments when the team seemed close to bankruptcy and liquidation.

Hull City fans are taking the club's name change in anything but stride. (Getty Images))Hull, though, had a near magical run in the early 2000s. They were in the fourth division of English soccer -- call it Class A ball if you want -- and moved up one level in 2005, another level in 2006 and then in 2008 made it all the way up to the Premier League. They only lasted a couple of years, but it was an extraordinary achievement. And then, this year, they earned their way back.

What’s the point? Well, the point is that this year the team’s owner, Assem Allam,     announced that he intends to change the team’s name from Hull City AFC (Association Football Club) to Hull City Tigers (Tigers is the team’s nickname). And internationally he wants them to be called “Hull Tigers” -- he’s ready to get rid of the word “City” altogether. He doesn’t like the word “City.” He thinks it’s common and a lousy identifier.

It seems a small thing -- a relatively small club wants to make what to an outsider seems a minor change to its name -- but there is no small thing in the Premier League. Hull City fans are up in arms about it; you might have expected that.

But what might surprise you is: This is kind of a national situation. Every London newspaper I pick up has a commentary about it, some of them have two or three commentaries. Columnists rip Allem for turning his back on history. They mock him for his dismissal of the proper word “City.” On television, commentators talk about the gravity of this situation. It is a discussion topic in a pub around the corner and in the cab ride across town. Why would a London cab driver who has lived in North London all his life care what the Hull City soccer team calls itself?

“Hull Tigers, it’s a farce,” the driver says over the little loudspeaker, as he begins a surprisingly passionate three-minute rant.

Point is: Yeah, he does care.

* * *

Premier League through the eyes of the Michael Jackson statue.

The statue comes up on you all at once. Craven Cottage, the stadium (or grounds, as people call them here) where Fulham plays its home matches, is perfect in every way. It is historic and intimate and beautiful. It is the only stadium built along the Thames. It is said that Anne Boleyn used to hunt in this area when it was open land. A Baron William Craven had a cottage built here and it burned to the ground in 1888. Eight years later, the Craven Cottage grounds opened.

Just about everything in the East Stands -- named from Fulham’s greatest player, Johnny Haynes -- is original. At Craven Cottage, if you say, “I sit in the same seats where my grandfather and great grandfather sat,” you mean that literally -- these are the same wooden seats that were put into the stadium in 1905. The stadium is historically listed, meaning the club is literally not allowed to change anything. When Craven Cottage needed a new roof, they had to build it PRECISELY as it had been built before, piece by piece.

So, as you walk around this ancient place, and you look on the wall at the black and white photographs of Craven Cottage through the years (it is amazing how thick a fog the cigarette smoking fans could produce), and you smell the grass, and look out over the river -- it feels like you are in another time. This is one of the true wonders of the Premier League. The teams are so old, they have so much history and tradition, everything feels -- as John Updike once wrote about Fenway Park -- in curiously sharp focus.

And then: You come to the Michael Jackson statue.

The statue is colorized and looks a bit like something you would see at a wax museum. The club’s former chairman Mohammed Al-Fayed commissioned the statue -- Al-Fayed was friends with The King of Pop (and once brought him to a game at Craven Cottage). A statue of Michael Jackson looks so absurdly out of place here that the mind strains to come up with a comparison. Maybe if you had a statue of all the Spice Girls outside Lambeau Field or the Venus de Milo outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, that would match the strangeness.

As you might imagine -- just based just on the uproar over Hull City wanting to slightly change its name -- the statue created a huge clamor, especially at first. People were outraged, and they threatened all kinds of action. But Al-Fayed was chairman and he didn’t care. He responded: “If some stupid fans don’t understand and appreciate such a gift this guy gave to the world they can go to hell."

Now, though, the club chairman is American Shahid Khan, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and he isn’t really sure what to do. He told reporters he had no idea how big a controversy this would be when he bought the club. He said he’s doing yoga now to come up with a decision that will serve everything.

Al-Fayed, meanwhile, has been pretty blunt about his stance:

“If he dares move it, he will be in big trouble,” Al-Fayed told Khan through reporters. “You listening to me? You promise now -- otherwise I will come out in front of all the fans and with a big razor and I will take your moustache off.”

Nobody seems entirely sure what will happen. On the one hand, it still seems ridiculously out of time and place for what is best described as England’s Wrigley Field. On the other hand, the statue has been up for two years now -- fewer and fewer people think of it as strange. This is the odd thing -- sooner or later, time makes ANYTHING a tradition.

On the base of the statue are lyrics from a Michael Jackson song. The song? “Man in the Mirror.”

* * *

Premier League through the eyes of perhaps America’s greatest ever player.

Landon Donovan is the all-time leader for the U.S. Men’s National team in both goals and assists, and he has been named national player of the year more times than any other man. He’s unquestionably one of the best, perhaps the best, American soccer player ever.

At times through the years he has found soccer difficult and frustrating. He went to play in Germany when he was just 17 years old, and it was a trying and draining experience.  Donovan is, at heart, something of an artist. He does not just want to play well, does not only want to win, he wants to create beautiful moments. This, it seems, is how some of the great players in the world feel. And, at different times in his brilliant and turbulent career, he has felt stifled. He admits that he considered quitting soccer.

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Then in 2010 he played for Premier League’s Everton on loan. And it was wonderful. I asked him to describe what it was like to play in the Premier League.

“The main thing that surprised me about playing in England was the constant pace of the game.  I had watched from afar and had always appreciated that the league had many talented players but I never realized just how fast the game was from the first minute on.

“The players respect the game and each other and try to play attractive soccer and the FA encourages the players and the referees to keep the game moving so there's constant action.  Too often around the world, you see games that are painfully slow because the players make the game ‘ugly’ or the referee doesn't understand how to keep the flow of the game going.

“In my opinion, sports (and life in general) are often about expectations.  In the Premier League, teams set out realistic (the key term) goals at the beginning of their season based on finances, personnel, etc.  The beauty of relegation, Champions League, Europa League, etc., is that virtually every game has significant meaning, no matter what place you are at in the standings. There are very few games throughout the season that have no real meaning for either team and that produces consistently competitive games.  I think all sports could learn some great lessons from this model.

“I think like is relatively similar (to life in the U.S.) but the English are more passionate about soccer and the country is smaller so you tend to run into fans more often.  The fans were very respectful towards me during my time there and I really felt a sense of togetherness with the fans while I was there ... just like I do when I'm in L.A.”

* * *

Premier League through the sounds of a song.

Every team has its chants, its songs, its cheers. These get extraordinarily specific, often built around specific players or the team’s history. For instance, supporters of Arsenal -- which now plays a more open style but was once known for low scoring and deathly boring matches -- will still at times break out in a verse of “One Nil to the Arsenal” sung to the tune of the Village People’s “Go West.”

After Manchester United beat Wigan 2-0 in the Community Shield match on Sunday at Wembley, the fans broke out in perhaps their most famous song: “Glory, Glory Man United,” sung to the tune of “Glory, Glory Hallelujah.” This song is apparently the scourge of the Premier League because supporters will sing it after every victory, and Manchester United wins all the time.

“I hear this bloody song in my nightmares,” one decidedly non-Manchester United fan told me.

There are hundreds and hundreds of songs around the League -- “Ten Men Went to Mow” for Chelsea, “Oh When The Spurs Go Marching In” for Tottenham, “Here We Go” for Everton, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” for West Ham, on and on and on, each club has a dozen songs it seems. But perhaps the best known is Liverpool fans at their famous Anfield home grounds singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Everyone seems certain that the tradition began around 1963, when the band Gerry and the Pacemakers covered the song. The lead singer, Gerry Marsden, grew up in Liverpool and was a huge fan of the Reds. The way Marsden remembers it, the music director at Anfield would play snippets of the top 10 hits in England before games – only fans would keep singing “You'll Never Walk Alone” even after the music had stopped. And then, when the song dropped out of the Top 10, fans would just sing it.

This sort of thing does happen in America -- Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” is a big thing at Fenway Park, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” tends to overtake stadiums, fans in Kansas City will sing along to Garth Brooks’ “Friends In Low Places.”

But, well, there does seems something different about “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at Anfield -- something that even comes through on YouTube.

* * *

Premier League through the eyes of a community.

Tottenham Hotspur has a beautiful ground in a working class part of North London. Every team has outreach into its community, of course, but this is especially true for Tottenham. Just two years ago, riots broke out here causing massive damage and a deep sense of division. Like in America, like almost everywhere around the world, it is the sports team that bridges many of those gaps.

There is a story that sums this up: When the riots were going on, one shop they hit hard was 89-year-old Aaron Biber’s barber shop not far from White Hart Lane, the Tottenham grounds. Rioters smashed up everything. They stole what there was to steal. And only one item was left behind, unbroken: A framed and autographed photograph of former Tottenham star Peter Crouch.

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Spurs fans helped rebuild the barber shop and Crouch came back to have his hair cut.

“Local kids are looking for something exciting, aren’t they?” says Ledley King, a longtime Spurs star and now someone who helps the team reach out into the community. He is the team ambassador for a program called “Skills,” which is a local center that offers all sorts of sports opportunities -- not just soccer but boxing and tennis and dance and others -- to kids in the community. There are many other educational programs, coaching programs and health programs from people in the area.

And while all that might sound familiar, there is something else that King talks about that is somewhat unique. King joined the Tottenham youth program when he was 15 -- and he said that what drew him to Tottenham was the exciting way they played. “They always had an attractive type of player, a skillful player, an attacking kind of player,” he says. “They were entertaining. That was something that stood out for me. They played a finer football. It was the way I liked to play the game.”

See, in addition to all the ways to reach into the community, Tottenham insists that they owe the community exciting and beautiful soccer -- a finer football. Tottenham has not won a top league championship since 1961 (when they became the first English team in the century to win league and FA Cup in the same year) and nobody believes Spurs will win one this year, either. They do have a reputation for being a bit flimsy in the big moments. But it is not only winning and losing. They believe they represent something: Attacking, exciting, artistic soccer. Their motto is Audere est Facere: To dare is to do. Throughout White Hart Lane they have “The game is about glory” written on huge signs.

“You need that X-Factor,” King says. “That’s what gets people off their seat.”

* * *

Premier League through the eyes of my wife.

Margo: I think I’m going to be a Liverpool fan.

Me: OK. Why’s that?

Margo: Daniel Craig is a fan.

* * *

Premier League through the eyes of a Manchester City fan in Charlotte, N.C.

When a friend, Richard Pollard, hears that I’m going to England to learn about the Premier League, he takes me downstairs to his bar area. He is a doctor in Charlotte, but he grew up in Manchester and maintains the connection. He is thrilled, he says, because he will show me something that I can really appreciate.

He then stops by the bar. There on the wall is painting of a blue moon. It’s a cool painting -- you can see a copy of it here -- and he says, “There it is.” I nod blankly. He says: “Well, I guess that tells you what team I support.” When I shrug, he tells the story:

When abstract artist Danny Cawley was watching Manchester City pummel Manchester United 6-1 in October 2011, he made a bet with a friend. He said that if Man City actually won the Premier League -- Man City was a team that had been in the third division only a dozen years earlier -- he would make him a cool painting of a blue moon. The Man City fans sing “Blue Moon” the way Liverpool fans sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Well, Man City did win the Premier League -- and they won it on the last day, in almost miraculous style, with two goals in stoppage time. Cawley painted the blue moon. And Richard had to have a print for himself.

Knowing the story, I did look at the painting with a bit more interest. But the thing that struck me about it though was the way Richard kept looking at that blue moon -- just kept looking at it. It was like he went inside himself. I suspect he was remembering all the struggles, the ups and downs, the singing, the traditions, the hard feelings, the dashed hopes and then, finally, the triumph.

It’s a remarkable thing about English soccer -- it is, for many, all encompassing. Cricket, rugby, tennis, golf, other sports have very passionate fans … but they are levels below soccer in numbers. The Premier League is the NFL and the NBA and baseball combined into one. It takes up entire sports sections and overpowers television weekends. Soccer is how so many mark their lives.

“That’s great,” I said, and begin to walk back upstairs, but Richard continued to look at the painting. Then, finally he broke eye contact and said, “I need to look at that more often."

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski