Watching football fans watching the football
American television producer Andy Elrick explains how he grew to love the lesser lights of English football...
I’m not sure what constitutes the average British person’s image of the Super Bowl, but I bet it doesn’t include shampoo or Kidderminster Harriers.
After producing sports programs on US television and radio for close to 15 years, this February I got the chance to cover my first Super Bowl. It turned out to be an important milestone in my career, as well as a reminder of how far I’ve strayed from the obsessed youth who chose to make his living in sports media.
Our show was broadcasting from what is commonly known as “radio row”, which isn’t really a row so much as a giant hotel ballroom where every local sports-talk station in the country worth its salt sets up temporary shop for the week leading up to the big game. They descend on the Super Bowl every year like locusts. On this occasion their host was Indianapolis, where the New England Patriots would face off against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI (that’s 46 to you and me).
You don’t have to know much about American sport to know that the Super Bowl is far and away the most important and closely watched sporting event in the country. That’s why every B list celebrity and American football legend with something to sell was in the room. They moved from table to table, trailed by publicists distributing “one sheets” listing all of the products and events you had to plug if you wanted their client on your show.
Among the many sporting pitchmen that sat down at our table was Clay Matthews, a 6’4” 255 pound linebacker for the legendary Green Bay Packers. He carried with him his god-given coiffure and a plastic bottle of Suave brand shampoo. That was his product, shampoo.
As silly as it might sound this was a highlight of my career. Not getting Clay Matthews to talk about how he manages such a healthy shine mind you, but just getting to be at the Super Bowl. It’s true that it’s become an almost farcical exercise in product placement and an excuse for Madonna to re-ignite her career more than a game, but it remains the mobile Mecca of American sport, bringing to the host city the kind of exposure and civic pride that money just can’t buy.
The 2012 incarnation pulled in 111 million television viewers in America alone. It’s the big time for sure. Which is why I probably should have been more focused on Matthews and his shampoo and less on fiddling with my iPhone, but you see the Wi-Fi in the hotel was spotty and I was only half way done downloading the Non-League Football Show from BBC London.
The Super Bowl - a little more glossy than Conference South, but no better
The story of how I became obsessed with the lower tiers of English football isn’t all that complicated or surprising, when you think about it.
After over a decade living and breathing American sport (and relying on it for a paycheck) I found that my passion faded a bit with every late night in the studio, every surly and entitled athlete and every concession made to a big money sponsor.
Don’t get me wrong, what I do is fun, and I would never be so obtuse as to suggest that watching games for a living is anything but a privilege. Still, my career choice compels me to be interested in every trivial goings on at every franchise across the country. It has dominated my life at times, and that takes a toll on the part of me that’s a fan.
Football on the other hand demands nothing of me. I can engage it almost entirely on my own terms.
I have never received a scathing email about my shows lack of coverage of Shrewsbury’s run at an automatic promotion spot or Leyton Orient’s late season swoon. Thankfully, I’ve never had to ring up the press officer for Port Vale to badger him about their manager giving our camera crew access to a closed practice. I just enjoy watching or reading about it and if I were to make the choice to stop doing so, that would be the end of it.
My obsession began innocently enough as I perused the typically sparse soccer section at my local bookstore, and stumbled on something called The Rough Guide to English Football. It claimed to be an exhaustive guide to all 92 English Premier League and Football Association clubs. By the end of the weekend the book was dog eared, I was hooked, and without the constraint of personal history or geography, I went about choosing a favorite team out of thin air.
That team was Queens Park Rangers, who fulfilled several key criteria.
Firstly they were in London, which meant that I had fairly easy access to them from my home near New York. At the time, flights were cheap and Loftus Road was a relatively reasonable five-hour plane ride away. Getting to Everton, Hull or Portsmouth would have been considerably more expensive and complicated.
Secondly, they had a fun British sounding name that was completely foreign to the ear of any fan of American sport. Preston North End, Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest all had appeal, but lost out due to their aforementioned remoteness and lack of royal prefix. What could be more British than her majesty after all?
Lastly, they seemed to offer the promise of greatness without actually being great. At the time, QPR was a medium sized club from the capital who found themselves in the old Division Two after finishing fifth in the Premier League just a decade earlier. It seemed reasonable to hope for top-flight football at some point, but it was by no means assured.
At a minimum, I would have to live through two seasons in the Football League, which worked for me because I wanted to earn my stripes. Rooting for a Manchester United or an Arsenal would have been too easy. I needed a team that would make me suffer a little bit (or a lot as it happened). That’s how a real fan is forged.
QPR celebrate promotion from League One in 2004
In April of 2005 I traveled to England for the first time, thanks to a discount plane ticket that took me through Detroit and an establishment on Argyle Square near Kings Cross which liberally referred to itself as a ‘hotel’, but seemed to have just forgotten an ‘s’.
I intended to visit all the places any first timer in London would: Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and, of course, Griffin Park. I was there to watch as much football as possible, and that meant the Football League.
Some quick math told me that I could afford one ticket to an Arsenal game or three to see lower league teams, including my Rangers, which had me ending up in the kinds of places not featured prominently in Lonely Planet.
Brentford, for instance, is not a place tourists flock to, but I found it to be charming if only for their ground’s abundance of watering holes. It is in fact, as Brentford fans should be proud to point out, the only stadium in England with a pub at each corner.
I chose to have a few pints at The Griffin before taking my place on the terrace, where I tried my best not to stare at a young man who looked to be no older than 11, sucking down Marlboro Reds like they were being outlawed, which I suspect they were already, for him at least.
Brentford's Michael Turner - just don't ask how he scored...
The crowd was less than imposing as I remember it, though the game was a top of the table clash against Tranmere. The Bees, fighting for an automatic promotion spot, won the game 1-0 on a Michael Turner goal in the 69th minute. I don’t remember any of the specifics of how it was scored. This is going to be a theme.
Two days later I left London altogether, and jumped on a train to Essex where Leyton Orient were to take on Southend United in a League Two clash.
The Shrimpers were in the middle of an automatic promotion push themselves, but didn’t have it on this night falling to the O’s 1-0 on a John Mackie goal. It was cold and rainy. My seat was below pitch level. The club shop was in a temporary trailer. There was a good fish and chips spot on the way from the train station. I have no idea how the goal was scored.
The next day was Saturday and QPR were facing legendary Leeds United at Loftus Road. Both teams were stuck in or around mid-table.
I had a couple of pre-game pints at The Springbok, bought a scarf at the team store, sat next to a man in his 80’s who had been coming to Loftus Road for most of his life. Kevin Gallen scored an equalizer in the 85th minute. Don’t even ask, I have no idea.
It was just hard to concentrate on the games themselves when they were surrounded by so many new and interesting cultural contrasts. I was fascinated by everything - not just what was going on between the white lines. Something as seemingly insignificant as a definite article made me giddy.
An American would support the Queens Park Rangers, while a Brit supports just Queens Park Rangers, no definite article, a part of speech that had never been so enthralling. My team played at the weekend or on the weekend instead of just boring old this weekend. A uniform was a kit. A field was a pitch. A team was a side. There was something so intoxicating about being a complete neophyte after decades playing the expert, or some would say, the savant.
Queens Park Rangers' side take to the pitch in their kits...
In 2007 I moved to mainland Europe, got myself a British girlfriend, and the once beguiling distinctions between British and America grammar began to slowly fade. It had no effect, however, on my interest in League and Non-League football.
Last June I moved back to the States permanently to produce a television show which spends the vast majority of it’s time covering American college sports. Still, while my work-life took me to places like Tuscaloosa and Ann Arbor, my sporting heart was still drawn to Darlington and Torquay.
Six months later I have a subscription to the Football League Paper. My favorite days of the week are Monday and Thursday because that’s when the We Are Going Up! And Npower Football League Podcasts (respectively) are released. I have developed a harmless crush on BBC Non-League Football Show host Caroline Barker.
I know, as a matter of course, that Lincoln City play their home games at Sincil Bank Stadium, Bradford City at Valley Parade and Dagenham and Redbridge at Victoria Road.
I have Football Manager for my iPhone and am currently marching, wait for it….York City towards the Conference title.
A few months ago when the Mega Millions lottery jackpot here soared to $656 million dollars I bought a ticket and dreamed of saving Plymouth from their financial woes.
Spending your lottery winnings on a football team wracked with debt and in danger of dropping out of the Football League must be the definition of insanity, but it’s the kind of insanity I can live with, the kind I’ve missed to be honest.
After largely abandoning the sports of my native land on anything other than a professional basis, I’ve found a game I can be passionate about again. It’s a game I can’t watch on a regular basis, a game that gets zero coverage in my local newspaper, and a game the tactics of which still elude me at times, but that hardly seems the point.
All that matters is that it’s mine, it’s all mine.
Andy Elrick is the producer of the Tim Brando Show, which can be seen from 10AM to 1PM ET, Monday-Friday on CBS Sports Network. Click here to like it on Facebook, and here to follow Tim on Twitter.
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