Author’s Note: In Part I of the EPL primer, we tackled (but not with two feet or without getting a good bit of the ball first) the basics of the English Premier League. Now’s the time to settle on a club to support and gear up for the end of the season.
The V.I.T. (Very Important Teams)
Importance is admittedly different than greatness. Notre Dame football matters, even when they’re down. Same with Indiana basketball or the Dallas Cowboys. In English football (get used to hearing that word to describe this game), these six clubs matter. Some of them have mattered for as long as anyone can remember (Liverpool), and some of them have been so desperate to sit at the V.I.T. table that they built a chair out of money and pulled it right on up (Manchester City). The point is, every August when the Premier League kicks off, these are the teams that the league looks to as the most consistently strong competition. All of these clubs might not have a shot at winning the league title year in and year out, but they’re almost always the clubs making noise near the top of the table (since the ’97-’98 campaign, only two teams outside of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United have even placed in the top three, and only three clubs – Arsenal, Chelsea, and United – have won the league title).
Nickname: The Gunners
Stadium: The Emirates (North London)
Biggest Rival: Tottenham Hotspur
Best Player: Robin Van Persie, currently leading the Prem in goals scored. RVP looks kind of like an Abercrombie and Fitch model, in that he always seems to be glaring at something, and his hair hasn’t laid flat since time immemorial.
The Rub: It says something about Arsenal’s luck with injuries and poor spending over the past few seasons that their greatest player historically, Thierry Henry, who currently plays for MLS’ New York Red Bulls, was signed on a brief loan by his old club, and the 34 year-old (In football, 34 is ancient; it’s like being a 34 year-old gymnast.) was actually relied upon to win games. Also, Arsenal’s manager is name Arsene, but nobody ever points out how amazing that is. Still, they’ve managed to maintain a place in the Champions League range this campaign despite a shaky defense and the loss of half their first XI to Manchester City.
U.S. Sports Team Equivalent: The St. Louis Cardinals – They’ve got a rich history, but they’re stingy spenders, and even when they do succeed, it seems like their doing it with spit and scotch tape.
Miscellaneous: Arsenal are the subject of the best sports book I’ve ever read (Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, which was later “adapted” into a deplorable movie about the curse-breaking Red Sox).
Nickname: The Blues
Stadium: Stamford Bridge (West London)
Biggest Rival: Weirdly, they don’t really have one. Geographically, it should be Fulham, but Fulham’s been in the Second Division for most of its history, so they haven’t played each other enough to develop that nice frothing hatred marking the great rivalries.
Best Player: Fernando Torres. Wait, what? Four goals in 40 appearances? That can’t be right. He was the fastest player in Liverpool history to 50 goals and Chelsea payed 50 million pounds for him. If you say so. It’s probably Juan Mata, then, fictional goals and all.
The Rub: Chelsea are owned by the Mark Cuban of soccer owners (actually, one in three soccer owners are “the Mark Cuban of soccer owners,” it’s just that Roman Abramovich is especially insane/demanding/meddlesome), and this makes them incredibly fun to follow, because with the addition of each coach’s scalp to Abramovich’s collection, Chelsea reinvents itself again and again, usually to tremendous success.
U.S. Sports Team Equivalent: The Dallas Cowboys – Chelsea have an unquestionable collection of talent, but the hands-on ownership and infighting have made them a roller coaster ride (albeit a pretty successful one) for the last half-dozen years. Unlike the Cowboys, Chelsea have won at least one important game since Fight Club came out.
Miscellaneous: Our own Curtis Rogers supports Chelsea. In fact, he told me I had to say good things about them or else face a hot tub ban. The problem is that the nicest thing I can think to say about Chelsea is that Curt supports them.
Nickname: The Reds (you might quickly guess that English football clubs don’t have very creative monikers)
Biggest Rival: Manchester United – Liverpool and Man. U are rivals in the same way that Kentucky and North Carolina are in basketball, except that they are much closer geographically than UK and UNC. Basically, they are the two most successful teams in the history of England’s top flight (Liverpool has 18 titles and Man U has 19), and every time they play, it’s as if the game will determine not just who had the best side that day or during that campaign, but which is the most significant club in the history of the game. It’s always heated, and both teams bring their A-games to every meeting.
Best Player: Steven Gerrard. Stevie is often described as “talismanic” because he’s from Liverpool, came up with their club team, and has led Liverpool to its greatest recent successes: the 2005 Champions League title in which LFC came back from three goals down – roughly equivalent to overcoming a 35-0 halftime deficit in the NFL – to beat AC Milan, and their 2006 FA Cup Final win in which Gerrard struck one of the greatest goals in English football history to steal victory for Liverpool at the death.
The Rub: Liverpool have fallen on rough times for a V.I.T. This year’s Carling Cup title (like winning the Maui Invitational – nice, but not really supposed to be the high point of your season) is the first piece of silverware they’ve won since that 2006 F.A. Cup, and their dismal run in the league has only been buoyed by their appearance in this year’s F.A. Cup final. New ownership has given supporters some hope, but the results have been far below expectation.
U.S. Sports Team Equivalent: Notre Dame Football. I’m tempted to say the Red Sox, partly because I support both teams and both clubs are owned by the same guys, but the better answer is the Fighting Irish. Liverpool has been hugely successful in the past, but their last title was in the late eighties under an iconic, blindly loyal coach. They routinely disappoint their rabid fans by falling short of expectations, and are fighting for large-scale relevance. Excuse me while I go drink myself into oblivion.
Miscellaneous: The club’s anthem and motto, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” has been covered by everyone from Ray Charles to Johnny Cash to Aaron Neville. The whole crowd sings it before every game, the romance of which is almost too much for me to bear.
Nickname: The Citizens (I’ve never heard them called this); The Sky Blues
Stadium: City of Manchester Stadium
Biggest Rival: Manchester United, but this is a rivalry as one sided as the Red Sox-Yankees prior to 2004. Until City shows that they can sustain a title chase (with one game to go, they’re level on points with United, but lead on goal differential, so this year’s title is theirs for the taking), the red side of Manchester will keep thumbing their noses (or, you know, flipping off and throwing beer on) the blue side.
Best Player: David Silva has been a dynamic force in a sea of them this season. Unfortunately, City’s dynamism often takes the form of rabidly unpredictable superstars (Balotelli, Tevez) rather than the sort of versatile execution that marks the world’s best clubs. When City is at their best, Silva is usually slipping through the midfield, cause havoc and racking up completed passes. When City is at their worst, someone is usually setting a new low for conduct on a pro sports team, regardless of Silva’s best efforts.
The Rub: Manchester City is a really difficult club to love. Between the maniacal exploits of their troubled, talented strikers, the Billionaire oil tycoon owners, and their seeming certainty that money can indeed buy happiness, almost everything about them is off-putting. They may have finally put together enough skill and sanity to capture a title. Maybe now they’ll quit with the bratty little brother routine.
U.S. Sports Team Equivalent: The New York Mets – City routinely spends insane amounts of money on big-name transfers courtesy of their Saudi owners’ bottomless pockets, they share a city with a far more popular, successful club, and they rarely win anything.
Miscellaneous: Liam and Noel Gallagher, Oasis’ founders and famous Mancunians, are huge supporters of the club. Curiously, Oasis’ history plots frighteningly well with City’s. Both will always be compared to the incomparable (United and The Beatles), both have gone a long time without a true measure of sustained success, and both threaten constantly to fall apart (sometimes for years) before actually collapsing.
Nickname: The Red Devils
Stadium: Old Trafford (also known as The Theater of Dreams… which is unfairly cool)
Biggest Rival: Liverpool. It seems like it should be Man City, but as with Liverpool and Everton, prestige trumps proximity. Since the early nineties, when the Red Devils began their ascent to the top of English Football history, Liverpool has grown exponentially more bitter and hate-filled towards their Northwestern neighbors, a growth United has done nothing to halt. The chase for glory has intensified an already testy rivalry to a boiling point.
Best Player: Wayne Rooney. Yes, Rooney has a bad habit of swooning for weeks at a time and failing to factor in matches he should theoretically dominate, but when he’s on (especially in big matches), he might be the most frightening striker in the world not named Messi or Ronaldo. Rifle shots from 30 yards, crisp give-and-gos, or charging into the box, Rooney is a force (who looks like a garden gnome with a potato for its head).
The Rub: By any measure, United are the most successful, important English club of the past 20 years. They have the most iconic manager in the game (Sir Alex Ferguson), and almost every American who decides to start watching English football arbitrarily latches onto them. They’re easy to hate for these reasons, but it’s really difficult not to respect the stranglehold that the Red Devils have had on the game for nearly two decades.
U.S. Sports Team Equivalent: Duke Basketball – It’s easy to say the Yankees (doubly so since Manchester City so perfectly mirrors the Mets), but Manchester United’s total history is not as rich as the Bronx Bombers, even if their mid-nineties / early-aughts heydays scarily parallel each other. No, Duke it is. Their nicknames for one, their transcend-the-game coaches who toy with officials and the media better than any others and who are seen as unimpeachable by their sport’s establishment, plus the smug sense of superiority that pervades their every movement.
Miscellaneous: Man U are owned an American family named the Glazers, who also own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. United fans hate Joel and Avram Glazer, despite the massive success the club has enjoyed under them, and sometimes wear green and yellow (the club’s original colors) in protest. I love the idea that there’s always at least one thing pissing off Man U supporters.
Stadium: White Hart Lane (North London)
Biggest Rival: Arsenal. Although Spurs haven’t enjoyed the level of success achieved by their North London neighbors, their proximity has kept the blood bad for years, and now that Tottenham is consistently butting heads with Arsenal in the upper fifth of the table, things look to stay that way. A vicious one, this.
Best Player: Gareth Bale. Bale tends to save his best moments for the bright lights of European club competition, bombing down the pitch and getting himself on the ends of long passes, using his imposing stature to muscle himself goal-ward. If you only watch the World Cup, though, you probably don’t recognize Gareth’s name; he has suffered the unkind fate of being Welsh.
The Rub: Tottenham have crashed the Very Important Party by consistently competing for places in Europe over the past couple of seasons and attracting a couple of big name signings. They have an electric midfield of Bale, Luka Modric, Scott Parker (England’s captain), Aaron Lennon, and Rafael Van Der Vaart, but they’ll need to shore up their injury woes and find a little more success in Europe before they can feel comfortable being called one of the “Big Clubs.”
U.S. Sports Team Equivalent: Los Angeles Clippers – This is actually unfair to Tottenham (Wouldn’t any comparison to the Clippers be unfair to anyone?), but both clubs play in big, distracted sports cities with a lot of other teams that people care more about, and both have made a few recent moves to generate excitement. Both have set themselves up for much greater success in the future as well.
Miscellaneous: While researching Tottenham, I found out that they have a women’s team (the only one of the V.I.T.s that does, as far as I can tell) who play in something called the South East Combination Women’s Football League (the women’s league’s third tier).