A football experience like no other
How an American banker became a passionate fan of English soccer club Fulham
U.S. fans generally need to get up very early if they want to see games in Europe
It's a windy Saturday morning in New York City, the kind of day I'd normally spend holed up in my apartment working. Instead I've ventured out of bed to Clancy's, a midtown Manhattan Irish pub, to watch football -- the kind where you can't use your hands.
I forego Clancy's Irish breakfast -- bacon, sausage, pudding, eggs and grilled tomato -- in favor of eggs Benedict and an extra large coffee, which I excitedly suggest we make "Irish" in celebration of my rare Saturday morning emancipation. The bartender, a Dubliner named Rob, is all too happy to fulfill my request.
I am sitting at the bar, talking to Lyle Chastaine, a 30-year-old financial analyst from upstate New York, for whom morning football at Clancy's is something of a ritual, not an extravagance. "Some of the games are on as early as eight in the morning, but I don't consider that too much of a deterrent," he says. When you're a fan of English soccer, I learn, you sometimes have to take unusual and extraordinary steps to follow your team.
Lyle is a fan of Fulham FC. (Actually, he tells me, he is a "supporter," as they're called in the U.K. "For obvious reasons, relating to a common piece of athletic equipment, the term has not caught on here," he says.) Fulham is an inconsistent but loveable club in the English Premier League, and this morning it is playing a heavily favored Manchester United. He likens Fulham to the Chicago Cubs, his other favorite team, in that "neither has won any hardware in decades. But their fans are very passionate. And their stadiums are neighborhood fixtures."
How an American banker becomes a Fulham fan is anyone's guess -- in Lyle's case it was somewhat capricious, if a little embarrassing. "I wanted to follow a team in London so I could travel somewhere good to see them. My idiot friend had a crush on Carlos Bocanegra, so at her urging I went with Fulham." In the interest of full disclosure, I am said "idiot friend."
Indulging my fan fantasy has been a mixed experiment for Lyle, with whom I went to college, as Fulham lives in constant fear of being relegated, or demoted to a lower division. "The first two seasons have been a struggle, but they've also proven pretty exciting," he explains. "There's always that impending doom. This year we're in the middle of the table, and there's still a chance that we'll be fighting for survival."
Fighting for survival is the general position of most football fans living in the states. Fox Soccer Channel, an odd Irish import called Setanta and pay-per-view are the only television options, and they are not inexpensive. In their absence, loyalists must venture out to bars like Clancy's and Nevada Smiths, which regularly fill up to capacity for matches big and small. Spending a few hours a week at your favorite soccer bar isn't much of a sacrifice, of course, but fans of Fulham and other European clubs don't have nearly as much company as they'd like.
"We don't meet a lot of fans," Lyle admits. And though Clancy's has drawn a good-sized crowd for this game, most of the supporters are there to watch Manchester United, once home to the great David Beckham, and current home to the great Cristiano Ronaldo.
Bars like Clancy's are an integral part of the football experience for fans like Lyle. "We're really fortunate to have them, because they show every game that's available in the U.S.," he says. "They'll even record games if I ask, and the bartenders are kind enough to pretend they don't know who's won while I watch." If it sounds like a bizarre existence, it is.
Lyle and our friend Dave Hassan, who we also cajoled into following Fulham, buy their team merchandise online, converting both sizes and currency from British to American in the process. Thanks to the high costs of shipping, they have jointly funneled thousands of U.S. dollars into the British economy in exchange for Fulham shirts, scarves, hats and the like. Dave even bought Lyle and his wife matching jerseys -- as a wedding present.
Twice in the last two years they have flown across the pond to watch their team in action, the first of which was a disaster. Having unknowingly bought fake tickets outside Craven Cottage, they essentially flew more than 3,000 miles to watch Fulham play on television from the Golden Lion pub. In order to ensure against a similar fate the second time, they sought the diplomatic expertise of a U.S.-based Fulham envoy of sorts, who sets up Americans with authentic tickets. They sat right behind the goal and watched a 1-0 win over Everton.
Though Lyle has had to find creative ways to follow Fulham, he has had an arguably easier time following soccer at large. He saw Becks play his first game in New York, with 50,000 other people, and he has any number of Major League Soccer games at his disposal. He plays for a 60-year-old club in Queens called Eintracht, presumably after the German Bundesliga club in Frankfurt. He's played for a Metro Soccer New York team at Pier 40 against Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash, former MLS midfielder Richie Williams and Kyle Martino, a onetime MLS rookie of the year and former teammate of Beckham's at the L.A. Galaxy. And he helped start an intramural team in college called Mundial, which still exists 10 years later.
But watching Fulham at Clancy's has been a recent constant, and a rewarding if uneasy experience in fandom. "Fulham games aren't necessarily enjoyable," Chastaine says. "It's not like going to a baseball game, where you relax in the sun with a beer and wait for something to happen. It's such an intense atmosphere. Even when you're winning, it's stressful. But that's why I'm into it. It feels like there are no meaningless games."
Bocanegra, the handsome Los Angeleno who caught my eye a few years ago, no longer plays for Fulham. I would never suggest that Lyle and Dave switch their allegiances to Stade Rennais of France to watch Boca play on his new team, though I certainly might. "Being a Fulham fan has been fantastic," says Lyle. "I'll be here awhile."
For now, at least, it looks like my impulsive pick may be forgiven. If Fulham is relegated, however, and Lyle has to work even harder to catch the matches, I may not be so lucky.