New Yorker James Connelly went to watch his first British football match during a recent visit, choosing Birmingham City v Barnsley as the occasion. This is the article he wrote for his local paper back home, The Examiner News, in Westchester county. As James explains: "I thought perhaps your readers might enjoy a view of their game from the eyes of an American soccer fan (yes, we do exist). I’ve altered the language in this version a bit, excluding explanations obviously not needed for a British audience."
* Surviving an English Soccer Match
A recent family trip brought me to the countryside of the English Midlands. I was visiting there with my wife, Julie and her parents on a long awaiting trip that enjoyed quaint villages and sweltering British summer weather (which meant rain and temperatures in the high 50s).
On our last full day, Julie suggested: “Why don’t you get tickets to a soccer match?”
Initially I protested this idea. My mind flooded with inconvenient and unfamiliar train routes and of course, the intimidating prospect of being surrounded by thousands of English footie fans whom I was convinced harbored cannibalistic intensions.
But bear in mind – I love soccer. There’s been a void in my life brought on by baseball’s steroid scandals, the comic book personas of the NFL and the existential malaise brought on by our New York Knicks basketball team. I’ve discovered soccer late in life and it is a beautiful and inherently simple game capable of expansive creativity.
Moreover, in its worldwide passion, I’ve found a kinship and a new harbor for my own indomitable sports neurosis.
But to actually attend a match? Was I really this crazy?
Julie eventually convinced me that this was a lifetime opportunity I couldn’t miss. Soon we were off to St Andrew's ground to see Birmingham City FC versus Barnsley. Much to my surprise Julie actually wanted to join me. What a trooper!
But this added to my anxiety. Its one thing to take your life in your own hands, but quite another to endanger the one you love most on planet earth. I’d read Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs wherein certain passages could make your toes curl.
Our trip into Birmingham’s city center brought us to an England I’d never seen before. This was not the England of Evelyn Waugh or Kingsley Amis.
This was a part of England that bore the shell of its hard industrial age, whose streets of weathered brick bore the smoky dark sheen of time. This was the England that brought the world Black Sabbath.
St. Andrew's ground wasn’t hard to find. We’d lucked out with a sunny day and our journey to the game was easy walk from the city’s main train terminal. I marveled at how the police cordoned off an entire corner for visiting supporters.
In America, visiting supporters generally don’t visit. I assured the ticket vendor that we’d be supporting the home side, and when asked where we wished to sit, I actually uttered the words, “Where do you suppose we might be best received?”
As we took our seats and the game got underway, all my fears were vanquished and I quickly got immersed in my first live professional soccer match and the fascinating responses of 30,000 fans hypnotized by each and every tidbit of action.
I’d never experienced anything like this – fans who’d collectively vocalize joy, agony and relief in such unison. An endless stream of songs came forth, team songs whose words I’m certain were taught alongside childhood’s first ABC’s.
There was a palatable sense of unity in that stadium and I was jealous not knowing how to be a part of it. It was the first time in my adult life I wished I could be singing in public.
By half-time the Blues were up two-nil. Julie and I enjoyed a lager in the tunnels and there was a decidedly upbeat tenor among the supporters.
I started to get a warm feeling that I’d conquered my fear of the English footie fan and that deep down, all sports fans were really the same. I quickly came back to earth when a chap with a freshly shaved head walked by. The back of his skull bore the tattoo, ‘1875’, the year Birmingham City FC wer founded. No…this was something entirely different.
When we left St. Andrew's, I felt the way I normally feel upon leaving a sports venue: empty, drained yet wholly satisfied. We’d experienced something extraordinarily special in the raw, communal joy that the Birmingham City Football Club brought out of their supporters.
I’m not sure we could have experienced this had we gone to see the Premiership’s Chelsea or Manchester United, whose outsized salaries and egos replicate all that disillusions me in America’s sports scene.
Ultimately, I’m enormously grateful to the city of Birmingham for letting us be one of them for one day. Perhaps further fears could be conquered should we visit again – I am very curious what a meat pie tastes like.
* James Connelly is a U-6 soccer coach in Pleasantville. Though he is now a Birmingham City FC supporter, he does not have a tattoo of ‘1875’ or any other tattoos on his body.