Long-Distance Love: The American Fans Falling for England’s Underdogs

 [First published at Paste Magazine, 19 May 2015]

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Surrounded by the silence of the city’s hangover, nestled between the dive bars and classic cinemas of Portland Oregon’s Hawthorne Boulevard, the 4-4-2 Soccer Bar is the only place within walking distance that’s open right now. It’s 7am on a Saturday and the bar is packed, standing room only, all five of its TVs lit up.

This is Soccer City USA’s spiritual epicentre and it’s 3pm in England. Kick-off.

Front and centre, a group of Liverpool fans shouts at a screen in Pan-American accents, firing across a couple of United fans next to them. The bar staff jump between pulling pints, offering considered opinions on a team’s form this season back at customers, and fixating on whichever game their team is involved in. This is no place for the neutral and the staff are no exception.

This is happening across America, pockets of the New World syncing their clocks and sleep schedules with the Old for a couple hours.

And across America in bars like this one, small groups of people are caught in this crossfire of early-morning, beer-fuelled conversation. They are the disparate and desperate, the brave people that turn up without the familiar red or blue uniforms of United and Chelsea, Liverpool and Man City, clad instead in borrowed colours from England’s less-revered outposts. A Californian in a Wigan shirt talks to an Ohioan draped in a Norwich scarf, a local Villa fan joins a couple of Evertonians at a table in the corner.

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Mary Zibilic, who tends bar for the Saturday morning rush at the 4-4-2, hears the reasoning of these brave, unfortunate fans every week. Between the stories of British friends and ex-patriated parents, there’s a sense of chaos to their team selection process.

She says a Hull City supporter came in recently who, when questioned, explained that “he wanted to find a team outside of London and outside of the big names.

“So he started looking at teams and their local papers. The number of weird crimes that happened in Hull [ranging in this instance from defecation in church to random acts of violence] was what won him over.”

Choices like these are representative of a broader move against the current in America..A new wave of supporters groups have formed in the past decade not just to pay homage to the traditional big clubs like Man United and Chelsea, the Holy Grail of Premier League dominance, but to worship the losers of the modern game, the teams staving off relegation from the EPL or languishing in the second and third tiers of the English league pyramid. These supporters are predominantly American by birth, they are fully committed to the cause, despite some clubs not having done anything of note for years, even decades. But none are so zealous as the newly converted.

Robert Beiderman is one such unfortunate, a man whose timing couldn’t have been worse. A New Yorker, he missed out on a chance to experience a Premier League match during a semester in the UK in the mid-90s, but was determined to right that wrong on his first trip back London last year.

“The only team I knew anything about was Manchester United,” he says “and I figured it would be tough to score Arsenal or Chelsea tickets.” Beiderman decided to look elsewhere for his first EPL experience. A friend who had lived in the UK mentioned that Fulham might be worth looking into.

“The more I read about them the more I liked. They had Clint Dempsey, they had a fan-friendly reputation and the Cottage seemed like a wonderful historic place.”

But the real key to his affection lay elsewhere. Even from a distance, with no prior knowledge of the game, he had a sense of what was to come: “They were going to be fighting for their lives by the time of my visit in April.”

Sure enough, when Beiderman made his way to Craven Cottage for his first Fulham game, the team was in dire straits. That day, with the trap door of relegation creaking beneath them, they overcame fellow strugglers Norwich City to ignite some hope in a faltering league campaign.

He wasn’t prepared for what was to come, though. The team failed to pick up a victory in any of their remaining four EPL games that year and were relegated to the Championship.

Beiderman says he watched the closing minutes of the team’s last game of the season “in horror” whilst at the Woodwork in Brooklyn, his local sports bar. But by then he was hooked, in spite of his better judgment.

“I’m starting to understand that these losses could become the norm,” he says, acknowledging a disastrous season in the second tier. “But then again I’ve watched the New York Islanders and New York Jets stink for 30 years… so maybe I’ve got it in me after all.”

Beiderman’s story is a familiar one in the context of New York’s ever-growing British supporter’s groups: the long-distance links, the inability to cut ties with the team after a dismal run.

Jimmy Quartuccio and Jay Manning-Laisne, members of the NY-based Blackburn Supporter’s Group, had similarly tangential journeys to their club.

Quartuccio chose Rovers because they were playing his history teacher’s beloved Newcastle the week he decided to pick a team. His enemy’s enemy became his friend immediately.

Manning-Laisne, like many Americans, fell in love with the game after the 2002 World Cup while supporting the USA and, inevitably became a fan of goalkeeper Brad Friedel in the process.

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When he couldn’t find a USMNT jersey with Friedel’s name on the back, he figured he’d buy a Blackburn shirt and get it personalised himself. He hadn’t considered, though, that Friedel would wear a specific keeper’s jersey, so he now owns what’s likely the world’s only Blackburn outfield jersey with Friedel’s name emblazoned on it.

With that jersey in his wardrobe, he couldn’t give up. He read up more and more on the team’s fortunes: “The reputation that the mainstream press gave them of a hard-nosed, tough team appealed to my American ideals of what athletes should be.” He says he knew this reputation for the physical was frowned upon in the UK, but that only spurred his love on. “I took it as a badge of honor,” he says.

In amongst all this passion and attachment were refreshing stories of these fans being welcomed by both their clubs’ management and fellow fans in the UK.

When Albany resident and Middlesbrough fan Matt Green got in touch with his club’s supporter’s group HQ in 2005, he was invited to a tour of the stadium and an opportunity to meet the team at their Player of the Year ceremony- a relatively exclusive event. The Blackburn boys travelled to Bournemouth last year to see Rovers away and found themselves embraced by their fellow fans, many of whom were interested to hear about their unlikely journeys to fandom.

All of which reflects a small club ideal. While elite clubs at the top of the league may be inclined to see overseas fans as merely an untapped source of commercial revenue, smaller, less fortunate teams seem more likely to marvel at the devotion that they can inspire beyond their shores.

Most importantly however, these clubs have become a way for fans to identify with the classic, and sometimes perpetual, underdog. Despite being American, for example, Manning-Laisne has managed to absorb the Northern English sensibility of regarding urban Southern England with suspicion, blaming the “largely London-based media” for that Blackburn team’s tag as brutes.

Why would Americans an ocean removed from the European game choose to support smaller, struggling clubs? Tom Mullen, another Fulham fan, offers a compelling answer. He says that he is so accustomed to the US pro league system, with no relegation and an “Everyone gets an A” mentality, that he revels in his soccer team’s plight, finding honor in the struggle.

“I’m ok with them having to fight back,” he says. “Life isn’t easy.”

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