By Matt Ginn
My first season as a (European) football follower was 2011-2012. I always enjoyed watching World Cup matches at 2:30AM, or whatever time they happened to air because they were being held in some far off locale, but never followed a league other than the occasional glance at my San Jose Earthquakes standing in the MLS.
One weekend morning in the fall of 2011 that all changed. While laying on my couch at 9AM drinking a Newcastle Brown Ale I flipped over to the Fox Soccer Channel that had recently been added to my cable package and saw, as luck would have it, Newcastle United Football Club facing off against Fulham in the Premier League. The fortuitous happening (my beer, their club name) blew my mostly-hungover, slightly-buzzed mind. The simple black and white kit the Toons sport wasn’t garish or offputting and eased my booze addled brain. At that moment I decided to be a Newcastle supporter for life. The Magpies went on to win that match 2-1, and to secure points in their first 11 matches of the Premier League season, competing for a Champions League spot atop the table until a rough stretch in their last few fixtures left them just outside the top 4. Confused yet? I was too, and that was before this year, when what I had previously thought to be the best feature of the Premier League became a horrifying reality. Relegation is a scary word.
Beginning to follow a new sport can be an intimidating experience as an adult. So much of being a male sports fan is tied into machismo and knowing more than your friends (and colleagues), so starting from scratch seems pointless. If I’m never going to know more about it than him, goes the thinking, why bother following it at all. Short answer, because it’s fucking amazing, but there’s more to it than that. All of the words in the above paragraph that don’t make sense to you and didn’t make sense to me a year and a half ago, are second nature to me now, and only part of using and understanding that language is enjoying the pretentiousness of them. I could explain the phrases that don’t make sense above, but you’ll be a lot happier if you start watching a few matches and figure them out for yourself. Instead of complaining about the slow pace of soccer you’ll start to notice the patient build up of a possession side, or the quick strike of an overmatched counter-attacking club. Instead of whining about ties, you’ll relish the point gained from playing to a draw at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, White Hart Lane or Anfield. Instead of bemoaning all the diving and fake injuries, you’ll.. well you’ll still hate the diving and fake injuries, shit drives me nuts and I love pretty much the rest of the game. The English blame it on the mainland Europeans, but it really is everywhere, all the Americans do it too. What do you want from me, no sport is perfect.
The one word that I will explain is “Relegation”. English professional football has a bunch of different levels. Think A, AA, AAA and the bigs in major league baseball, even though there are really more levels inside of those designations, it’s typically accepted that professional baseball has four different levels in America. The Premier League is the majors of English soccer, the top 20 clubs in England play 38 matches each to determine the best of the best. Now imagine that if a team finished in the bottom 15% of the standings (think Astros, Cubs, Rockies and Twins last year) they got moved down to AAA ball and the top 15% of clubs in AAA moved up to the majors to take their place. The AAA club would play in their own stadium, but would share in league wide revenue streams like national and international broadcast rights. The financial ramifications alone can be huge. Every year this is the dream for three teams in the Championship (AAA) and the nightmare for the bottom feeders of the Premier League. Thankfully Newcastle’s recent run of play has kept them just ahead of the bottom three, but another mini slump can drop them right into the relegation zone, and with two-thirds of the season already over, that’s a place they’d like to avoid at all costs.
I wake up at 5:15 every day for work. Because my body has an incredible internal alarm clock I also wake up at 5:15 on the weekends. Unless you’re the world’s biggest Sham Wow (TM) fan there isn’t a whole lot of watchable television on at that time. So next time you can’t sleep or come home from the bars waaaaayyyyyyy past closing, tune into ESPN 2 or Fox Soccer and check it out.By Matt Ginn Follow Matt on twitter at @mattginn EMail Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org