Picking an English Premier League team is like picking a new car: If you don’t throw yourself into it and assimilate as much information as possible, you could end up getting stuck with a lemon. That’s why I spent the past seven days sifting through more than 4,000 reader suggestions, downloading YouTube clips, surfing goofy European sites, checking out every team’s sponsors and jerseys, Googling every team’s name along with the phrase “celebrity fans,” TiVo-ing old EPL games on DirecTV’s Channel 613, reading up on team histories and everything else.
And you know what? Much like buying a car, the whole process was more enjoyable than I thought it would be (as evidenced by the fact that this column is in two parts and more than 6,000 words). Honestly, I haven’t liked soccer since the New England Tea Men were thriving back in the mid-’70s, and I’m making the leap based on the fact that it’s serviceable TV fodder in the mornings when I’m answering e-mails and reading various Web sites. But soccer does have the one thing that drew me to sports in the first place: Great crowds. There’s nothing like following a sport with fans who know how to make a big game feel even bigger.
|The EPL Decision: Box Set|
|From the fans to the Sports Guy, here’s all you need to know to pick your own EPL team:|
You know how Red makes the comment that, after a life spent in Shawshank, he can’t even squeeze a drop of pee without asking for permission first? I feel like that’s happening to us. American sports have been ravaged by TV timeouts, ticket price hikes and Jumbotrons that pretty much order fans how to act. Just look at what happened in the NBA playoffs. Miami fans were urged to wear all white like a bunch of outpatients from a psych ward; the Detroit announcer screamed, “Let’s give it up!” and “Lemme HEAR YOU!” as the crowd responded like a bunch of trained seals; Clippers fans weren’t able to stand and cheer after an outrageous Shaun Livingston dunk in the Denver series because disco music was blaring at deafening levels. And it’s not just basketball. During Angels games in baseball, the crowd waits to make noise until a monkey appears on the scoreboard. You can’t attend an NHL game without hearing the opening to “Welcome to the Jungle” 90 times. Even our NFL games have slipped — you cheer when the players run out, cheer on third downs, cheer on scores and sit the rest of the time. It’s a crying shame.
Not to pull a Madonna on you, but European soccer stands out because of the superhuman energy of its fans — the chants and songs, the nonstop cheering, the utter jubilation whenever anything good happens, how the games seem to double as life-or-death experiences — and I can’t help but wonder if that same trait has been sucked out of our own sports for reasons beyond our control. And no, that same energy hasn’t completely disappeared; you can see a similar energy on display at Fenway, Yankee Stadium, Lambeau, MSG (if the Knicks and/or Rangers are good, a big “if” these days) and any other city with enough history and passion to override the evils of the Jumbotron Era. Still, these are aberrations. By pricing out most of the common fans and overwhelming the ones who remained, professional sports leagues in this country made a conscious decision: We’d rather hear artificially created noise than genuine noise. That’s the biggest problem with sports in America right now. And there’s no real way to solve it.
One more note on this: I watch old Celtics games from time to time and always think how the Bird Era could never be recreated — not the team itself, but its connection with the Boston Garden and the passion of the fans attending those games. We didn’t need a Jumbotron or musical prompts to tell us what to do. When the Celts were introduced, we screamed for every starter and saved one extra decibel level for Bird. When we needed a defensive stop, we stood and shouted at the top of our lungs. When Bird found a wide-open cutter for one of his gorgeous no-looks, we were cheering even as the pass was being delivered — that’s how attuned we were to his passing skills and how they spilled over to everyone else on the team. The best moments happened when the C’s would blow someone off the floor and force a timeout, and the roof would practically come off, and we’d keep cheering and cheering — all the way through the timeout, no organ music, no other noise, nothing. That’s how we judged the level of excellence, by how long everyone felt obligated to cheer. If we made it all the way through the timeout, the horn would sound, which only made us cheer louder because we had lasted so long. I’m telling you, there was nothing quite like it. And this happened all the time.
The World Cup fans reminded me of those days. I wanted to find out more. And as I delved into the English Premier League — starting from scratch, really — three things struck me over everything else. First, English soccer goes way back to the 19th century (The Football League was founded in 1888). Second, picking a team really IS like picking a car — every team offers something unique (good and bad). And third, the passionate arguments from hundreds upon hundreds of readers (we’re talking about e-mails in the range of 1,000-1,500 words) convinced me even more that I was doing the right thing. I’m going to find a team and follow them for a year. Maybe two. Maybe 10. Maybe for the rest of my life. Who knows? Consider me curious. And if it doesn’t work out, no hard feelings.
I kept six goals in mind throughout the screening process:
Goal No. 1: Avoid the whole “jumping on the bandwagon” thing. I didn’t want to be like those losers in the mid-’70s who started rooting for the Cowboys or Steelers just because they were winning.
Goal No. 2: Avoid a team that’s too tortured. Already went down that road with the Sox. Once was enough.
Goal No. 3: If possible, gravitate toward a city that could double as a potential vacation spot. (Translation: London.)
Goal No. 4: Put it this way: I’d rather have less hooligans in my life than more hooligans. I don’t even like when my dogs get rowdy.
Goal No. 5: Pay careful attention to the list of celebrity fans attached to each team. For instance, one of the EPL teams (we’ll reveal which later in the column) counts John Gotti and Osama bin Laden among its fans. I’m not a celebrity, but just in case somebody mistook me for one, that’s not a list I’d want to be on.
Goal No. 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. And by the way, that can happen. At the end of every season, the bottom three teams are relegated to the second division, with the top three teams from the second division getting called up. (Imagine if baseball did this?) You don’t want to be stuck with a team that gets relegated. So that factored in more than anything else.
There are 20 EPL teams in all. I ruled out nine immediately because of relegation dangers and other factors (in no particular order):
Sheffield United — A reader described them like this: “Ladies and gentlemen your 2005 Atlanta Hawks! It’s gonna be ugly.” Besides, I could never root for a team named after a Yankee.
Watford — They used to be owned by Elton John. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Charlton — From a reader: “Do you like the Detroit Lions? Good, this is your team.”
Aston Villa — By all accounts, they have the most miserable, self-loathing fan base in the EPL. That’s what happens when you support a team that sounds like a Cadillac model.
Fulham — On the bright side, they feature American star Brian McBride. On the flip side, one of their celebrity fans is Hugh Grant. And they’re owned by Mohamed Al Fayed, the Harrods owner whose son was in the limo with Princess Di. Too many bad vibes.
Middlesbrough — One of their fans ran on the field last year and ripped up his season tickets right in front of their coach. True story. I wish my dad had thought of this during the Rick Pitino Era in Boston.
Portsmouth — Reader comments included, “Blue-collar fans, blue-collar team, there are no executive boxes at their ground which means it’s very rowdy and the club has no money” and “this place is down on the South coast for a reason — it’s a hell-hole and no matter how much money the team spends, it still stinks.” I think that fails my vacation test.
Bolton — Nobody had much to say about these guys other than “a trendy pick recently” and “decent uniforms.” I’m not looking for apathy with my EPL team.
Wigan — Last season’s Cinderella story. Also, their manager, Paul Jewell, always wears a leather trench coat on the sidelines. Ten more tidibits like that and I may have been intrigued.
Down to 11 teams. The next five warranted an extra-close look, but ultimately I just wasn’t hooked by any of them.
Blackburn — Everyone agrees this is the dirtiest team in the EPL — they even take a fair amount of pride in this fact. So that was appealing. They also have an American goalie (Brad Friedel, the stud from the 2002 USA team). And they’re a small budget/small town club that was founded in 1875 and an original member of The Football League in 1888. More than one reader dropped the Green Bay Packers comparison here. Unfortunately, they’re rarely shown on channel 613 and I couldn’t gamble on the whole relegation thing. But I’m keeping an eye on them.
Everton — Not only are they Liverpool’s biggest rival, but multiple readers compared them to the Oakland A’s — they keep unearthing prized young stars (like Wayne Rooney, the England star who stomped someone in the nuts during the World Cup) and selling them off to one of the big teams. They also have an American keeper (Tim Howard) and one of the most famous celeb fans (Paul McCartney). Here’s the catch: I like everything I read/heard about Liverpool (more on this in a bit) and don’t want to have them as my rival. Sorry, Everton.
Reading — The ultimate Cinderella story: They were recently elevated to EPL status for the first time in 135 years. Unfortunately, they have no fans — I probably got three e-mails making their case. I don’t want to be stuck with the EPL version of the Arizona Cardinals.
West Ham — Demoted in 2003 but climbed back up to the EPL and finished in ninth place in 2005-06 — so they’ve had some recent suffering, as well as a reputation of finding young studs who end up leaving in their primes for bigger teams. I have to say, I loved their jerseys. They have a cool nickname (“The Hammers”). They’re even based in London. But there were two major drawbacks. First, one of my readers described them as “Good for people who like ’80s music and make references to George Michaels.” Whether he was referring to the former Wham! singer or the guy who hosts “The George Michael Sports Machine,” I’m not sure, but either way I was a little turned off. And second, West Ham was prominently featured in the Elijah Wood movie about hooliganism (“Green Street Hooligans”). Again, I want to minimize the role of hooligans in my life — it’s been a productive three and a half decades without them and I’d like to keep the streak going.
Manchester United — 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. Financially, they blow almost everyone out of the water and purchase as many up-and-coming young stars as possible; they’re almost like a European All-Star team. That’s no fun. (Although I will say that I love Rooney’s work and wish he was on another team — he reminds me of a drunken Derrick on “Fresh Meat.”). Anyway, can you imagine knowing a foreigner in their mid-30s who was looking for a baseball team and announced, “I’m going with the Yankees!” Wouldn’t you hate that person? I don’t want to be that guy.
Six legitimate contenders remain. For dramatic purposes, let’s continue this on a second page.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His new book “Now I Can Die In Peace is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.