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Bill Connelly | September 12, 2014

Premier League road trip, Part 5

Underdogs, sleeping giants, and a Golden Lion

Bill Connelly spent five days in England to search for the heart of English soccer, compare football crowds to futbol crowds, and figure out why everybody was telling him not to rent a car.

XIII. You got no fear of the underdog

Soccer and college football are incredibly similar. There are haves and have-nots, and the have-nots have to find inefficiencies.

In college football, you know which 10-12 schools are going to land most of the blue-chip recruits. Coaching and development play a role in ultimate success, obviously, but the sport's blue bloods start a leg or two ahead of the field from a pure talent perspective. In English soccer, it's the same thing. You know where the money is, and you know that most of the time the talent and results are going to correlate strongly with the money. And because Liverpool-Manchester United or Chelsea-Arsenal will always be a bigger television draw than, say, Hull-Southampton, just as Alabama-LSU will usually outdo Missouri-Arkansas, there is no institutional motivation for changing this system.

Still, Missouri, Arkansas, Hull, and Southampton have to go about winning games and moving as far up the standings/table as possible. Sometimes they do well at this; others, not so much.

In college football, some teams have figured out slowing the game down as much as possible, offering as few possessions as possible, shrinks your opponent's margin for error. And if the opponent is a lot more talented than you, shrinking the game offers fewer opportunities for them to pull away from you. The closer you can stay, the more likely it is that one or two breaks can put you in position for an upset.

Call it the Stanford Principle, or the Vanderbilt Principle. Or, in a way, the Stoke principle. In Chris Anderson's and David Sally's The Numbers Game, the duo dedicated a chapter, entitled "The Deflation of the Long Ball," to Stoke's unorthodox, downright anti-social tactics under former manager Tony Pulis.

Stoke are happy not to have the ball. In this age where possession is king, they are devout republicans. For [Tony] Pulis, the Pep of the Potteries, less is more. It is as though Stoke believe they are more likely to score, and less likely to concede, if they don't have the ball. And the only possession they really seem to believe in is when Rory Delap is able to cradle the ball in both hands as he gets ready to throw the ball into the box.

Stoke are perfectly happy to play less soccer than anyone else. Not just in the philosophical sense of not being concerned with getting the ball on the floor and keeping it, but in a very literal way. It's simple: the more the ball is in play, and the more Stoke have the ball, the worse they do.

Soccer is a sport steeped in mistakes. You almost always eventually turn the ball over when you have possession of it, and the best opportunity your opponent is going to have to score is if you turn the ball over to your opponent on your end of the field. In the seconds after turnovers are involved, the sport becomes less like football and more like basketball, with sudden steals and fast breaks leading to easy scoring opportunities. Or, to keep the football theme going, it's like a defender trying to return an interception for a score. The defense isn't settled into formation, there's more chaos, and there's more potential for mistakes and breakthroughs toward the goal.

(Coincidentally, Ed Reed, the NFL's all-time leader in interception return yards, would have been an absolutely hellacious defensive midfielder.)

Tony Pulis is an underdog whisperer who failed at Bristol City and Portsmouth before figuring out an unorthodox way of winning games in a decade at Stoke, then led Crystal Palace to its best ever Premier League finish (11th) last season; call him the Todd Berry of English soccer. He took this "sport of failure" and decided that possessing the ball doesn't necessarily matter if bad possessions lead to opponents' opportunities. If you don't have the talent to possess the ball properly, then don't. It is an incredibly commonsense approach, even if it doesn't pack much in the way of aesthetics.

On our last day in England, we met with Chris Anderson at a restaurant near Stamford Bridge in Fulham. He indulged us in a lovely, lengthy conversation about all things stats and soccer (and English soccer).

In discussing Pulis' teams, Anderson said, "You have to figure out as a team, what is it that my playing personnel can execute? Some teams have the luxury of having guys who can do everything, like Chelsea down the street here. The old Pulis teams were not as good with the ball.

As with both football and futbol, pace can play an alternate role as well. epl Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino. (Getty Images)

"You have lots of moments where you have complete control of the ball. When you have a goal kick, when the goalie has the ball in his hands, any sort of set piece situation. You can practice those, there are routes players run. And then there's open play. Some teams, like Pulis' teams, are teams that look for moments when you have complete control, when you have the ball out of play, when you can execute something you've practiced. It's like a play in football. Louis Van Gaal's teams do that, too, actually. Then you have teams that have a higher proportion of time in open play -- Arsenal is a good example of a team that tries to keep the ball in play and do stuff with the ball there."

Pulis teams shrink the game by poking the ball out of bounds and taking the time to properly structure their set pieces in the instances where they have complete control. But as with both football and futbol, pace can play an alternate role as well. Teams like Baylor and Texas A&M are drastically pushing the envelope by running as many plays as they possibly can and assuming they can handle the chaos and fatigue better than you can.

Michael Caley is a burgeoning stat head for SB Nation's Tottenham Hotspur site, Cartilage Free Captain. His Spurs hired Mauricio Pochettino away from Southampton in May after Southampton's brilliant run to eighth in the Premier League. As Caley points out, last year Southampton figured out an interesting way of attacking, one that was a bit prettier to the eye. "They focused on pressing, on preventing completion percentages." They also had a good understanding of how quick conversion from defense to offense and getting attackers up the field as quickly as possible can lead to breakdowns in a defense's shape and create scoring opportunities.

One can see how talent identification methods could be tailored to that.

(Pressing is my go-to Football Manager strategy. Is is a no-brainer to me. I tell you these things because I think you need to know them. I told Anderson; his response: "Well, if you can press and win the ball quickly, it's good. Otherwise you open yourself up to all kinds of problems." Well, fine then.)

There are hundreds of examples of inefficiencies like this, of teams realizing that they don't have the talent to play like the big boys, identifying a specific way of compensating, then identifying affordable players who fit their specific vision.

"The key isn't the £30 million players," Colin Trainor of the incredibly useful Statsbomb told me. "It's how to get the five best players you're going to be able to get for £15 million. Somebody valued at £2 million on the market ... some are going to be worthless to you, and some are going to be worth £5-6 million. And, of course, that's where analytics can help. "The little guy who's half-decent but can be had for £2 million -- you can use numbers to figure out who the smart clubs should be picking."

Numbers might also be able to help you to figure out where you should be picking. In soccer, the locals might be a bit overpriced. From Michael Foster at the essential Premier League Owl:

England is a country obsessed with doing things ‘The English Way,’ and that is particularly true of football. How many times must we suffer pundits and ex-players eulogising about how the English game is the best in the world, for no tangible reason given other than ‘because we say it is.’ It’s true the English style is unique in the sport, but if it was the best they would have won more international honours. These pompous, arrogant beliefs, spurred on by a media that loves whipping people into a rabid frenzy, has convinced people that the problems in the English game are the fault of everyone else but theirs.

There appears to be value within England of looking outside of England for more properly-valued talent. In a country in which 'The English Way' is indeed a thing, and where big-money clubs race to land England's soccer savior, there's an in-house premium that might not exist elsewhere. Trainor: "I would certainly look outside of England. The Austrian League, the Mexican League, the Dutch League. Mining the data, looking at players who come up really well in the numbers in those leagues. Everybody likes recruiting English players, and there's certainly risk mitigation involved -- somebody from Belgium might be less likely to settle [in a given area of England] than somebody from Grimsby. But [when gambling,] I tend to make the most money on the smaller leagues because there tends to be less widely known information available on those."

Soccer and college football are nothing alike. Dealing with relegation threat is a whole different type of risk.

"To me, I've always felt that the MLS should be the laboratory for innovation in soccer," Anderson told us. "It's a league that doesn't have relegation. You can try some unusual stuff and see if it works. If not, oh well, we lose some games. But you don't see that. Maybe the quality of players just isn't where there to do creative things. And the league, for a number of years, tried to be as European, as 'authentic' as it could be. So it was played like that as opposed to 'weird' soccer, which might have given the league a bad name.

"The perverse moral of Moneyball in English football," Anderson says in regard to the Oakland Athletics' famous money-conscious, inefficiency-exploiting tactics for building a good baseball team, "is that the biggest teams do the most of it. They have the most money to do it, they probably have the best management talent to see the value in it, they have owners -- sometimes Americans like John Henry, Stan Kroenke, people like that -- who get it and want to do it. So Moneyball's played at the top end, where it's probably the least needed. My 13-year old can pick out the players who Manchester City should sign next year, playing Football Manager or FIFA '14 or whatever. It's a very odd state of affairs."

if the sport adopted a promotion-and-relegation system tomorrow, I would cheer. There's a dramatic downside, though.

We glorify the idea of promotion and relegation in the states, especially as it pertains to college football. And to be sure, it would clean up a lot of college football's problems. There's too much dead weight at the bottom of the power conferences, and teams' lots in life were determined as much by the teams they grouped with 80 years ago as with anything they've done well on the field of late. It's a glorious idea, and if the sport adopted a promotion-and-relegation system tomorrow, I would cheer.

There's a dramatic downside, though. So much of what we love about college football was derived from a lack of fear when it comes to losing. Kentucky happily hired human air raid siren Hal Mumme in the 1990s, in part because the Wildcats were already finishing at or near the bottom of the SEC standings. There was no harm in trying an experimental offensive style when the downside was basically maintaining status quo. But if the Wildcats had to worry about getting dropped to the Sun Belt, they might have elected to play it safe with an endless selection of Bill Currys, hoping simply to finish eighth and stay in the SEC.

"If you have a bad season, you don't get a better draft pick," Anderson says. "You'll go out of business, essentially. The average revenue for a Premier League team is probably something around £100 million per year, and the average revenue for a Championship team is probably something like £10-15 million. There's no comparison. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bills probably still made a reasonable amount of money last year.

"It totally affects the level of risk when it comes to acquiring talent and everything you do inside the football club. Outside of those top seven teams, for the bottom 13 it becomes about not losing instead of winning." Instead of trying to beat Chelsea, you're trying to make sure you don't lose to Sunderland. "It also affects how innovative you are more generally. Decision making gets harder when the business is on the line. So while Moneyball is an awesome idea, it doesn't apply in the same way. If you try something unconventional, and it goes south..." then you get fired, and your club makes £85-90 million less next year.

"What happens is that the lower 13 then hire coaches that aren't quite as potentially good, staff that aren't quite as innovative, chairmen who are more risk-averse. And the whole thing kind of conspires to become, not an anti-Moneyball, but very conventional ball."

"There's real conservatism in football culture," Michael Caley summarizes. "The downside is worse than the upside with a promotion-and-relegation system. Innovation isn't necessarily rewarded."

Before meeting with Anderson near Chelsea, we began our last full day in England west of Birmingham, in the suburb of West Bromwich. West Bromwich Albion has begun its fifth consecutive season in the Premier League. The Baggies barely survived relegation last year, finishing 17th after a nice run of results (11th in 2011, 10th in 2012, eighth in 2013). They had a rough go of it through the years, slipping from the first division in 1986 and failing to reappear at the top level until 2002. After some yoyoing (up in 2002, down in 2003, up in 2004, down in 2006, up in 2008), they have stabilized, at least for now.

Fifteen miles northwest, in Wolverhampton, there's no such thing as stability.

Wolves yellow is a different yellow. It's deeper, more vivid. Like a deck with a fresh, light stain, it seems to get richer when it rains. (And really, the goal for almost anything in England is to be pretty when it's cloudy.) And Wolves' history is rather vivid in its own way, for reasons good and bad.

Almost no club has proven as upwardly or downwardly mobile as Wolverhampton Wanderers. Wolves made the finals of the first UEFA Cup in 1972, won the League Cup in 1974, got relegated in 1976, and got promoted back to Division 1 in 1977. They were relegated in 1982, promoted in 1983, then relegated for three straight seasons from 1984-86. Their re-ascent was almost as quick: they were promoted twice in two years (1988-89), then settled into life in the second tier for a while. They reached the Premier League in 2003 and were sent down in 2004. They reached the Premier League again in 2009, got sent down to Championship in 2012, then got sent down again in 2013. Naturally, they won League One last year, and they won three of their first four games this year in Championship.

there are two different things at play there, though -- relegation itself is not so bad. The fear of relegation can be paralyzing.

Wolves have been either promoted or relegated 13 times in 32 years. That's a lot of drama, enough to perhaps make you a little bit numb to the anxiety of it all. Sky Sports' Adam Bate, a lifelong Wolves follower, told me, "Personally, the hope outweighs the fear.

"There are fans who welcome relegation as the chance to renew. Wolves could've limped on in the second tier, but as it was, they had to completely rebuild with a new young group of players who won the love of the crowd back. The renewal happened far quicker than it would have if the team had not been relegated. I guess there are two different things at play there, though -- relegation itself is not so bad. The fear of relegation can be paralyzing.

"An occasional drop through the trap door provides the chance to win games, and it’s often surprising how little the prospect of playing at a lower level actually impacts on attendances. It helps that there is a rich tradition with maybe 30 to 40 significantly supported teams in England. For example, Wolves enjoyed their biggest crowd in over 30 years while playing in the third tier earlier this year. It’s about local pride whatever the standard."

But even if relegation isn't that bad in the end, it's sometimes difficult to keep your job if you are in charge of a team in danger of falling down a level or, in Wolves' case, three. And fear can lead you to choose safety over upside.



XIV. Sleeping giants

Birmingham has given us the Football League, Ozzy Osbourne, tennis, UB40, the Cadbury egg, and JRR Tolkien. Birmingham is Chicago, a working-class city, a second city by name and a first city when it comes to sport. It has had as large a historical impact on the world as any British city that doesn't start with "L." At the moment, however, is really isn't giving us very good soccer.

In essence, the city of Birmingham is the Big Ten of the Premier League -- good enough to place multiple clubs in or near the top flight, but too flawed to draw elite talent and have any serious, top-level goals. At least, that's the case with the current set of management. Birmingham F.C. is wobbling in Championship -- after a run of seven Premier League seasons in nine years, BFC won the League Cup while getting relegated in 2011, and nearly got relegated to League One in 2014. West Brom has been stable but is showing signs of shakiness. Most notably, however, Aston Villa has fallen into a funk.

What small or dormant club is most likely to be in the ruling class 10 years from now? Almost everybody's answer began with "Well, Aston Villa..."

Nearly everybody we wanted to meet with on this trip agreed to chat. It was flattering, and it has hopefully made for a strong piece. And in every meeting, chat, and interview we had, I tried to ask the same question: Who is English soccer's sleeping giant? We talk about the Big Five or Big Seven teams in the Premier League, but that list fluctuates. What small or dormant club is most likely to be in the ruling class 10 years from now? Almost everybody's answer began with "Well, Aston Villa..."

Old doesn't automatically equal good, but Aston Villa is really, really old and has been really good for much of its history. Villa Park was one of our favorite stadiums of the trip; built in the 1890s and still sporting a brick facade that screams "built in the 1890s," it has modernities built in here and there, but it's colorful and old. Very old.

Villa were the first dominant member of the Football League, winning the title five times in seven seasons in the 1890s, and while that was one hell of a long time ago, it still counts in a sport so grounded in history.

Since 1975, Villa has spent just one single season below the top level. The 1980s were a time of infinite mobility within the top tier -- Villa won the league in 1981, then finished 22nd six years later, then moved from 17th to second to 17th to seventh to second in five consecutive years from 1989-93 -- but the top tier was a given. It has been ever since, too, but after finishing sixth in the league for three straight years (2008-10), the results have diminished: ninth in 2011, then 15th or worse for three years running. Fear of relegation has been dominant as Villa has tried to maneuver through ownership issues and uncertainty regarding whether it is in a youth movement or a couple of veteran pieces away from the top 10.

"Aston Villa is an interesting story -- American owner, spent a ton of money when he first came in, finished sixth three years in a row, then stopped spending a ton of money. And then it didn't go very well for any number of reasons, including the money and off-the-field things. Villa should be a club that belongs up in that generic top-seven region, but they've made too many bad decisions on the manager side. There are a number of people who are good managers if you are willing to spend lots of money. Martin O'Neill [Villa's manager from 2006-10], his model was to spend high and achieve in line with what you're spending. Spend sixth-most, finish sixth. If you look at the numbers, that's what was happening. Of course, that's better than spending sixth and finishing 12th.

"But then you had Gerard Houllier, that period. Probably not the right person. [Current manager] Paul Lambert is probably not the right guy either."

So who else might belong in the sport's ruling class if not Villa? "We don't know," Anderson admits, "but here's what I'd like to see: I'd like to see an Oakland A's type of club to emerge. I'd like it to be a smaller club, a smaller club, that does some really smart things and beats the big boys. Are those clubs out there? I think there are some clubs who have developed at a really good trajectory. West Brom was on a good path for a while, and so was Swansea. But as so often happens in soccer, that came to a grinding halt. In the case of West Brom, the guy who was sort of the G.M., Billy Beane, equivalent -- Dan Ashworth left for the FA." (He's now the Football Association's Director of Elite Development.) "Swansea has had a consistent playing philosophy for a number of years, going back to [Liverpool manager] Brendan Rogers, [Everton manager] Roberto Martinez, several people. And then that's kind of gone pear-shaped, as they say. But they might be back on track.

"So I would like to see a smaller club do the right thing and get there. Now, structurally speaking, it's harder to do that outside of the football centers.

"If you look at a map of England and just put on the map where the football clubs are, where the football industry is located. Now, Silicon Valley is where all the tech is. When Google is trying to hire people, where are they going to find them? You're probably not going to go to St. Louis, I'm sorry to say. You're probably going to go somewhere in the Valley. People are going to gravitate there. So if I'm a football professional, I'm probably going to be located in the greater London area or the greater Manchester area. There's an infrastructure set up there for professional players to feel comfortable - and if you're Italian, you can live in Manchester or Liverpool and enjoy it. The same's not quite true in other parts of the UK.

"So I always thought it would be another smaller Manchester or London region club. But right now I don't see that one club that's on that path."



XV. A Fulham finale

College football and club soccer have quite a few obvious similarities. The teams with the money go out of their way to make sure they remain the teams with the money; most of the programs that were good (or bad) 20 years ago are good (or bad) now. There is an established oligarchy for each sport.

But at the very least, college football throws teams a socialist bone. It is the sport with the highest capability for adjusting hopes and goals. "Okay, we lost, so we're probably not going to be national champions; we still have a shot at the conference title." "Okay, we're probably not going to win the conference title; we still have a shot at a January 1 bowl." "Okay, we're probably not going to make a January 1 bowl; we still have a shot at the [insert semi-attractive December 29 bowl here]." "Okay, the season's kind of a bust; screw it, just get to 6-6 and go to [Shreveport/Boise/Albuquerque]." You can fail to clear all of those bars, but there are at least different heights to attempt along the way. It's like a high jump competition backwards.

With soccer, however, the only definable goals are finishing in the top six (which is difficult with a seven-club ruling class) or just not getting sent down.

As Anderson points out, the ruling class can change. "What you observe about the top six to seven teams being cast in stone, it's sort of true and sort of not. It seems that way right now, but it's easy to forge that Manchester City was a nothing club not too long ago, and Everton were one of the top four clubs 20 years ago. Everton now is very good, but not quite at the very top, like Man City or Chelsea. So there is some fluidity, there are eras." But when you're in the middle of an era, it's hard to see how and when the end of an era will take shape.

Adam Bate: "The problem is not so much relegation but the ceiling on ambitions that separates the top six from the rest. We’ve all seen what has happened to Portsmouth (finances) and Southampton (cherry-picking of their best players) when they dared fly too close to the sun. It’s a sad state of affairs for big clubs like Leeds United and others who could once dream of returning to the very top."

You could say that about Fulham, too. The Cottagers, located right on the Thames River at the quaint, well-seasoned (read: old and built so much into the neighborhood that expansion is nearly impossible) Craven Cottage, reached the Premier League in 2001 and stayed there for more than a decade. After oscillating mostly beteween about 12th and 17th, they broke through with a seventh-place finish in 2008-09 under Roy Hodgson. They were Europa League runners up in 2010, and the finished eighth and ninth in the Premier League in 2011 and 2012. And then the magic wore off. Fulham finished six games under .500 and finished 12th in 2013, then careened to 19th, with nine wins to 24 losses, in 2014.

Long considered to have one of the best youth systems in the country, Fulham was freed, thanks to relegation, to go with a full-fledged youth movement this fall. The season began with four consecutive losses.

So yeah, the wheels have fallen off. And when Fulham fails, they are endlessly reminded of their inferiority to a club barely a mile away: Chelsea. You're not even failing, you're failing in the shadow of one of Europe's richest, best clubs. Ask a neutral party about the club, and you won't get a summary of what they've done right or wrong recently; you'll only get a sigh and an "Oh, Fulham."

We thought it would be an interesting, entertaining way to end the trip if we went to a Fulham bar -- the old-school Golden Lion -- to watch that Monday night's Chelsea-Burnley match. Accompanied by Ahmad, the purveyor of Every Day Is Zlatan Day and a Mizzou friend Glen (who, when we proposed the Lion, responded with "Oh, you're wanting a dive bar..."), we settled in near the dartboard and traded rounds of Carling, Guinness and Stella.

The Golden Lion is, on Fulham match days, a season-tickets-only bar, and we figured that would create a fun atmosphere for a rival match. We were more or less incorrect. When Burnley scored a cracking goal to ever-so-briefly go up 1-0, we were almost the only ones who yelled. When Chelsea responded, then responded again, then responded again, there were some cheers. Even at the Fulham bar, the crowd was mixed. And the Fulham fans were mostly quiet.

After our trendy stops in Leeds and Manchester, the Golden Lion was perhaps the most English bar we visited in our time there. We were surrounded mostly by retirees, older Norm Petersons who stay there all day because, as Glen joked, "I can't go home. SHE's there." We were going to be smart and leave at halftime to make sure we got some sleep back at the hotel before our 23-hour travel day back to the states. We were still there 30 minutes after the match ended. When you don't want a trip to end, you can make sure it doesn't, at least for a while.

Football is a context where watching BECOMES doing -- not in the aerobic sense, because watching a game, smoking your head off while doing so, drinking after it has finished and eating chips on the way home is unlikely to do you a whole lot of Jane Fonda good, in the way that chuffing up and down a pitch is supposed to. But when there is some kind of triumph, the pleasure does not radiate from the players outwards until it reaches the likes of us at the back of the terraces in a pale and diminished form; our fun is not a watery version of the team's fun, even though they are the ones that get to score the goals and climb the steps at Wembley to meet Princess Diana. The joy we feel on occasions like this is not a celebration of others' good fortune, but a celebration of our own; and when there is a disastrous defeat the sorrow that engulfs us is, in effect, self-pity, and anyone who wishes to understand how football is consumed must realise this above all things. The players are merely our representatives, chosen by the manager rather than elected by us, but our representatives nonetheless, and sometimes if you look hard you can see the little poles that join them together, and the handles at the side that enable us to move them. I am a part of the club, just as the club is a part of me; and I say this fully aware that the club exploits me, disregards my views, and treats me shoddily on occasions, so my feeling of organic connection is not built on a muddle-headed and sentimental misunderstanding of how professional football works. ... The only difference between me and them is that I have put in more hours, more years, more decades than them, and so had a better understanding of the afternoon, a sweeter appreciation of why the sun still shines when I remember it.

-- Fever Pitch

Soccer is college football is basketball is cricket is Aussie Rules is Gaelic football, et cetera. It is a team sport that connects us with a community, brings us a sense of belonging, makes us part of a collective. It is local, and in England, it is played in a tight enough space that you can attend virtually any match your club plays.

It is a team sport that connects us with a community, brings us a sense of belonging, makes us part of a collective.

A year in the life of a college football fan is three or (if you're lucky enough to root for a decent team) four months of chaos and anxiety and tailgating and arguments, followed by eight to nine months of recuperation. The life of an English football fan is the inverse -- nine to 10 months of anxiety (watching the most anxious of sports) followed by two to three months of rest. And you don't even get that in even-numbered years, when the World Cup or European Cup are at stake during the summer.

One of my good friends got married in October 2003. I had pursued her for a number of months/years, and attending a wedding in this situation is the clearest possible "I'm over you, and we get to be friends now!" response, if one is even needed (and it probably wasn't). But I couldn't make it; of course I couldn't. She gave me an "I understand that you probably won't be able to make it" out when the invitation was sent, and in my head, I had to reluctantly RSVP "no." But there was never a moment of serious consideration here. There was no way I was going to attend, not on the day of the Mizzou-Nebraska game.

No regrets. Lingering guilt for being a bad friend versus lifetime regret for missing a seminal moment in your fandom? There was no choice.

This England trip appealed to me for too many reasons to count. Among them was the simple comprehension of what it's like to basically follow a nine-month college football season each year, only in a sport that thrives on almosts and anxiety and in a country where almost no match is more than about four to five hours away and most are much closer. This sport appeals to the worst of a fan's compulsive nature, and it strings you along almost non-stop. It is a beautiful, possessive game. It won me over a while back, and it gave me an excuse to nerd out and binge on a sport in a way I hadn't for probably 20 years. And after just five days in England, my understanding and appreciation of the sport, and my disdain for English highways, had grown exponentially.

Part 1: Nerds and Ian Darke
Part 3: Etihad, odds and ends, and Hi Ho Sheffield Wednesday
Part 4: Liverpool
Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Spencer Hall | Title Photo: Getty Images

About the Author

Bill Connelly grew up a fan of the Miami Dolphins (post-1970s glory), Pittsburgh Pirates (ditto), Portland Trailblazers (ditto again) and Missouri Tigers. That he still enjoys sports at all shows both severe loyalty and a potential personality disorder. He spends his evening playing with excel sheets and watching DVR'd football games from ESPN Classic. See more of his work at Rock M Nation, Football Outsiders and Football Study Hall.