How do you decide to become a fan of a team?
I’m talking about making an actual decision. A choice. Most of us are born into our fandom. Some of us become new fans of a college once we attend that school. And some of us just pick a team for some other reason and stick with ‘em. Those people are weird, aren’t they?
Well, when I was in elementary school, we all did that. Sure, I really liked the Pirates and Penguins best, but that was such a boring answer. (I honestly didn’t love the Steelers until middle school … I guess I held off for as long as I could before it hit me like a tidal wave.) And so, I had a bunch of “favorite” teams. The Detroit Tigers. The Philadelphia Eagles. The New York Yankees. The Montreal Canadiens. Looking back, it seemed to change every year. None of it ever stuck, because it wasn’t real. It wasn’t honest. I was trying to be different, just like everyone else. It was kid stuff.
But I knew a few kids who picked other teams and stuck with them into adulthood. For instance, a friend of mine was a huge Barry Sanders fan. He’s a Detroit Lions fan to this day. You can question his decision making, but you can’t question his commitment. It would be easier for him to just start supporting his hometown Steelers. It would be more reasonable and rewarding. But he went too far into the Lions den, and that’s where he stayed.
I started following the Premier League last year, and I really liked it. I’ve always loved soccer — played it for years and years, love to watch it — so why not follow what many consider to be the best soccer (yes, OK, football) league in the world? The world is shrinking, after all. It’s not hard to follow leagues overseas. And the Premier League didn’t present any language barriers. It was an easy call.
It was a fun starting point, but I didn’t really have a team. And all the Premier League fans I knew told me it was much more fun when you had a team. I had to pick a team. But how? How could it be natural? I have absolutely no ties to the UK through blood, and I’ve never flown across the ocean, either. Could I just pick a team off the board, as if I was selecting an ice cream flavor? I’m a true blue grown man fan, after all. A sports monogamist. This would have to be an ice cream flavor I could eat for the rest of my life.
I don’t believe in “second favorite” teams in the American pro leagues. People who pick an AL team and an NL team are bad enough. People who pick a second team in other leagues are even worse.
However, it’s different in college sports, where two teams might not play each other for decades. I suspect it’s the same for European soccer. Why couldn’t you support a Premier League team, and, say, a League Two team? Do European fans do this? If “Fever Pitch” is any indication, some certainly do. Anyway, I need answers.
Without going through all 20 teams, I only knew for sure I didn’t want to support Manchester United (too obvious and easy), Manchester City (the top bandwagon team of the moment; the Brits would call new fans of MCFC “glory hunters”), Arsenal (seem like they have enough fans already) and Chelsea (again, glory hunting). These were arguably the four best teams going into the season.
Plenty of other teams didn’t stand out to me for whatever reason. And that was that. Nothing against any of those squads, but I wasn’t going to force it. So who did stand out? Four clubs:
Love the history of the team, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” etc. But considering Liverpool is often referred to as one of the most storied clubs in England — if not THE most storied club, it seemed a bit too easy. Also, I really didn’t want to have to end up hating Everton.
Based in London, which is a plus if I ever want to visit for a game. Cool kits. Very long history (founded 1879). American star Clint Dempsey. But you shouldn’t pick a team for one current player. Especially in club soccer, as he might be gone before the season ends. Fulham was a solid pick, but it just didn’t stick for me.
Everton seemed like the one. Love the kits, the history, the second-sibling rivalry with Liverpool, American Tim Howard (and, at times, Landon Donovan), the nicknames (The Toffees!) and other little things. But even though I gravitated toward Everton the previous year, I couldn’t quite commit. I didn’t know why. Some things can’t be explained.
4. Queens Park Rangers
They were coming back into the Premier League after winning the n-Power Championship (such a bizarre and confusing name for a B-league, by the way), so we’d be coming in together. QPR had a new, exciting owner who was willing to spend. I loved the uniforms, the London location, the charming bandbox home pitch at Loftus Road (with a capacity of 18,439, easily the smallest in the league) and of course, the amazing name. Queens Park Rangers! QPR! How cool is that? Of course, being a promoted team, the downside was a higher probability of relegation next season.
Another team that really stood out to me was Sheffield Wednesday. Love ‘em. Great nickname (The Owls), great history, kits (what’s with me and blue-and-white all of a sudden?), mascots that do this and of course, there’s a DAY OF THE WEEK in the club name. Which is awesome. The Wednesday!
Alas, Sheffield Wednesday started the season in League One, two steps below the Premier League. It’d take at least two years for the team to reach the top level, and I didn’t have the patience. At least I could have a League One team, as well, I thought, for whatever that was worth. (The Wednesday finished second in League One this season, guaranteeing promotion to the Championship. At this point, there’s a chance they’ll be squaring off against my eventual selected team next season. This was unforeseen.)
The season kicked off, and I was still a nomad, unable to commit to QPR or Everton. The two teams met in the second weekend of the season. It ended up being the second game for QPR and the first for Everton. QPR had just been smoked 4-0 to Bolton the week prior. Not making a good case for themselves.
Lucky for me, I got to watch the QPR-Everton tilt on TV. I could let the game decide for me. Since it was being played at Everton, it would have been easy to cheer for the home side, but I found myself rooting for QPR. I couldn’t explain why. Perhaps my heart was guiding me.
It was tied 0-0 in the first half. QPR got a bit of possession near the Everton box. And then this happened. I was all in.
That view from the QPR fans’ section shows Tommy Smith taking a pass and curling a low shot past Tim Howard for the Rs first Premier League goal — and win — since April 1996, when I was 13. (It had been that long? Maybe I didn’t think this through. Ah, but the heart wants what it wants.)
QPR won 1-0 and that was it. I had my club. Queens Park Rangers. The Rs. The Super Hoops. The ride had begun.
What I don’t like about the Premier League:
It’s top heavy. Think of Major League Baseball to the 10th power. A few teams spend the most money, and they’re generally the best teams. Since there’s no playoff system for the league title, the small sample size series that can change the course of the title never happens. Only two teams — Man U and Man City — really had a shot at winning the Premier League this year. This happens all over European soccer to some extent. Those fans might not see it as a problem, but as an American sports fan, the complete disregard for competitive balance is an issue.
No instant replay. Another widespread soccer problem. QPR’s Clint Hill scored a clear goal against Bolton, but the refs didn’t see it that way. A one-minute review could have overturned the call on the field. QPR lost 2-1. I know you don’t want to interrupt the flow of a sport like soccer, but considering you’re already adding minutes of stoppage time … heck, just considering the existence of stoppage time, another minute isn’t a big deal.
Ease of watching games. Yeah, it’s much easier now than it even was a couple years ago, thanks to expanded coverage from ESPN and FOX, and the internet and so on, but I’ve got DirecTV and the Fox Soccer Plus channel is $15 a month. That’s egregious for someone who already pays for NFL Sunday Ticket and NHL Center Ice. Other cable packages make it much easier and cheaper than DirecTV, but that doesn’t help me right now. More of a DirecTV problem than a Premier League problem, really.
What I like about the Premier League:
The announcers. Honest and hilarious, and of course, they’ve got British accents. Why can’t NFL announcers be so brutally honest? Why do they have to constantly “sell the game?” YOU’RE THE NFL. YOU’VE ALREADY GOT US HOOKED. DON’T DUMB IT DOWN. STOP MAKING EXCUSES FOR MILLIONAIRES. BE HONEST. (For instance, I once heard Jon Gruden call John Beck “the best-kept secret in the NFL.” He should be held accountable for such nonsense.) Premier League announcers are, by and large, the best.
Game times and scheduling. Almost always one game a week, sometimes two, played during mornings and afternoons in my time zone, only taking two hours from start to finish. Easy to follow and every game an important one.
Relegation and promotion. A race to escape the bottom can be just as exciting (if not more exciting) than the race to the top. The punishment for the worst teams, rewards for the best, teams switching leagues … everything about it is fantastic.
That being said, many American fans of European soccer won’t shut up about bringing relegation to American sports. It makes otherwise intelligent people sound silly. Please stop it. It could never happen and it will never happen. It’s not built into the sports. The whole system would need a total overhaul. You’d have to create lower leagues to even allow for this. MLB minor league teams are farm teams for MLB teams. And good luck convincing owners.
More importantly, it’s not built into the sporting culture. Could you imagine asking a Royals or Pirates or Astros fan to spend a season watching their teams play Lehigh Valley, Toledo and Pawtucket? No one would go. And why should they? Let some things stay foreign, and enjoy them as they are.
Cups and European Leagues. The FA Cup and Carling Cup allow teams struggling during their seasons a chance to win some hardware, while creating upset possibilities. Then you’ve got the best teams playing great teams from all over Europe in the Champions’ League and, to a lesser extent, the Europa League. The Premier League title isn’t the only one up for grabs.
Distance. Following afar makes it easier to avoid the off-field stuff. The most popular league here, the NFL, is inescapable. I love the NFL, but over time, I’ve gotten tired of all the off-field stuff and manufactured controversy. I know that stuff exists in the Premier League (have you seen English tabloids?), but because I live in the US, I don’t really see any of it. Fine by me. Just give me the games.
No league playoffs. Not saying I like it better, though it is probably more fair. It’s just different. I wouldn’t want it in every league I follow.
QPR was decent for the first third of the season, hanging around mid-table. And then the wheels fell off. They plummeted to the relegation zone. They couldn’t score. They couldn’t defend. They fired their manager, Neil Warnock. And a lot of the flashy “name” players they brought in weren’t pulling their weight, most notably Joey Barton and Shaun Wright-Phillips. They brought in more guys. Taye Taiwo on loan. Federico Macheda. Samba Diakite. Djibril Cisse. Bobby Zamora. Results have been mixed.
(Taiwo’s been solid from what I’ve seen, Diakite OK. Cisse very good when he can stay on the field. The less said about Zamora and Macheda, the better.)
After losing a March 10 game to Bolton Wanderers (the Clint Hill game), I tweeted: “Might be the last QPR game I watch for a very long time. Not quite giving up (though I probably should). Just stating facts. So poor.”
It was bad. They just played so poorly for such a long stretch of time. And they played stupid. So many dumb red cards, game after game. Why was I getting up on weekends to watch an underachieving, undisciplined team play thousands of miles away?
I expressed these frustrations to my youngest brother, who said, “You’re not a true fan.” This coming from a 15-year-old who picked Everton as his team, and strangely, League One side Rochdale, who will be in League Two next year. Why Rochdale? Who knows?
After further examination, QPR was exactly the kind of team I’ve never liked. A bunch of mercenaries, losing their cool, not playing as a team, while fellow promoted teams Norwich City and Swansea City (both teams finished behind QPR in last year’s Championship season) were surprises. Those teams played together. They had heart. They weren’t going back down to the Championship. I didn’t see the same from QPR.
And some of QPR’s top performers during the season were often holdovers from the previous season: Guys like Heidar Helguson and Jamie Mackie, who some thought weren’t Premier League quality.
With QPR in very real danger of dropping back to the Premier League, I had some questions. Did I have to stay a fan? I’m not from London. My only connection to this team started this season. I could chalk it up to a false start and pick a new team next season. What was the point of taking on a lost cause? I’ve already got the Pittsburgh Pirates.
But the fact that I was upset showed that I cared. QPR had me. I couldn’t quit them. My tweet was just another heat-of-the-moment outburst from a fan. That’s what I was. A fan. I don’t know how it happened, but it did. I made myself care about the team, so I really did care about the team. Maybe there’s not much difference.
After that brutal loss, QPR picked themselves up and played … pretty decent, actually. Not great, but they were far from the worst team in the league. Since that Bolton loss, QPR has done this: W, L, W, L, W, L, W, L, W. And some of those wins have come against big boys, like Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. I guess the Hoops have some heart, after all.
Now we’re at the end. If the team’s form follows its current path, they’ll lose tomorrow at Manchester City. If Man City wins, they’ll win the league. QPR has virtually no chance.
Whether or not QPR stays up next year will likely depend on tomorrow’s Bolton-Stoke City game. If Bolton loses or draws, QPR stays up. But if the Wanderers beat Stoke, it’d require that miracle win over Man City to avoid relegation. Dicey stuff.
If QPR does go down, to face off against Sheffield Wednesday in the Championship, what will I do? Pick a new Premier League team for next year? A second team, if you will, that I could follow in the meantime? I’m not going to stop following the Premier League, so maybe I’ll pay close attention to both that and the Championship next year. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I really don’t. I can’t imagine how nervous the longtime QPR fans must be.
I would really rather they didn’t go down, because I don’t want to figure out what comes next. Come on, you Rs. Come on.