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Bill Connelly | September 8, 2014

Premier League road trip, Part 1

Nerds and Ian Darke

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.

I. Nerd out

To me, nerd is a trait, a tendency. When you find something you enjoy, you want to inhale all of it at once. You go through phases, obsessions. I went through a lengthy Beatles phase in high school, followed by a Hendrix phase, a Dylan phase, another Dylan phase, etc. I went through a Garfield phase (my first one), a Nick Hornby phase. I went through a baseball cards phase, a concerts phase, a long "downloading every concert anybody has ever performed and burning it to CD" phase. It is a compulsive "I like this, therefore I want all of it immediately" tendency that not everybody has. I don't say this like it’s a good thing, mind you; I just say it like it’s a thing.

I was a sports nerd long before I was a sports numbers nerd. Over the course of three and a half decades, I've gone through short phases and phases long enough to be called lifestyles. College football bit me early and never let go, and tennis has long been No. 2 on my list (in part because it's the only sport I could play better than others), but other sports have been up and down my list.

I went through a horse racing phase around the time of Alysheba and Easy Goer and Oklahoma City getting a racetrack. I went through a boxing phase around the time of Buster Douglas and Meldrick Taylor and the incredible realization that I could purchase KO Magazine and The Ring at a local convenience store. I went through a hockey phase around the time of Gretzky to the Kings and Messier to the Rangers and, most importantly, making Gretzky's head bleed on NHL '93. I went through a couple of different wrestling phases.

Hell, I went through a rugby phase after visiting England during the Rugby World Cup in the mid-1990s. (I was the only person to ever rent the EA Rugby game from the video game rental place in Weatherford, Okla. They should have just let me keep it.)

Club soccer, especially in Europe, is the closest thing another sport can come to college football. premier league (Getty Images)

I predictably got heavily interested in international soccer around the time the World Cup came to the U.S., and I have followed it religiously ever since. But as you see, most of these phases have been tied to availability.

Club soccer remained foreign to me because I couldn't ever watch club soccer on my television. And that was a damn shame. Club soccer, especially in Europe (where the countries are small, and attending road matches is between conceivable and required, and the overlap of fanbases is, in some places, rather heavy), is the closest thing another sport can come to college football. Listen to Everton and Liverpool fans yell at each other, and it seems like Missouri-Kansas with an accent. Club soccer gives us each us the "bickering neighbors" aspect that pro sports in America -- a very large country -- cannot.

Until about 2010, my knowledge of club soccer was minimal. I knew which teams were typically good, and I knew most club names. Each four years in the World Cup, I'd get a general impression of which great players played where. But I had no historical context, no geographical understanding of where clubs actually were, and no easy way to keep tabs on rosters, fixtures, etc.

But then ESPN got Premier League TV rights. Finally getting an opportunity to follow the Premier League each week, live and in HD, was a revelation. It gave me a chance to get to know clubs and players and stadiums. And it provided an opportunity to do something I hadn't done in a long time: go through a phase.

Through the last few years, the Premier League has given me the rare opportunity to nerd out again, to dive into the deep end and swim around without already knowing where everything is. And the Premier League's deep end is the deepest.

It's like thinking you've gotten to know all the great bands, then discovering Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. Or (when in Rome…) the Stone Roses.

Over the last four years or so, I've gone through what are, to me, rather predictable, familiar stages of New Obsession. I stuck all league finishes going back about 100 years into a spreadsheet, so I could easily reference who was good and when. I read some of the classic soccer books (and some less-than-classic ones). I dove into the existing stats and tinkered with my own.

And last month, I came to England to do some writing.

Walsh came along with me. Walsh is my soccer enabler. He mentions that he's discovered this writer named Iain Macintosh (or the Premier League Owl, or the folks at Every Day Is Zlatan Day, or about 20 others), and I follow them on Twitter without hesitation. He mentions that he's found this game called Football Manager. I immediately download the only mobile game I will play for the next four years (and counting).

I headed east with questions. How does one become a fan of a certain club in London, where there’s a club every 20 blocks? Has Tottenham recovered from the riots from a few years ago? What the hell happened to Leeds United? And what the hell happened to every other club in the nation's midsection, too, for that matter? How does the Kop at Anfield compare to a college football student section? What's it like to be a Sheffield Wednesday fan, attending weekly matches at your beloved home stadium, one that everybody else uses as a noun for "sports tragedy"? Is Nottingham as strange/awesome as it seems in the travel guide (like Boston married to a Disney cartoon instead of the American Revolution)? Is Birmingham as much like the Big Ten of the Football League as it seems?

Black pudding: yay or nay?

So on a mid-August Wednesday, we were off. And on Thursday, we had a meeting in London.

***

premier leagueIan Darke (USA Today Images)

II. The most famous Portsmouthian boxing announcer in the world

My primary goal when meeting Ian Darke: become the first American in four years to interview him and not mention "Go, go, USA." Mention John Brooks, mention Abby Wambach, maybe mention the fact that his contract is expiring soon ... don't mention Landon Donovan. There would be no harm in doing so, obviously; I just want to see if it can be done.

Technically, I didn't ask him about it. Instead, I told him I wouldn't be asking about it, and we proceeded to talk about it. That doesn't count, right?

Darke's career path has been incredibly unique. A successful announcer for a number of years, he did both soccer and boxing for BBC radio ("I did a lot of big fights; I had been to Vegas quite a few times before I ever picked up a microphone for ESPN."), then Sky Sports. He joined ESPN's World Cup coverage in 2010, where he quickly became immensely popular for his mix of enthusiasm, accuracy, and adverbs.

"I was hired to do the 2010 World Cup, and I was No. 2 commentator to Martin Tyler. He wanted to do the England matches; that was part of his contract. So I did the USA games after the England match, and then the Landon Donovan goal thing happened, and all that drama. And it so happened that they had secondary rights to the Premier League that season, and I was out of a contract with Sky, and they made me a great offer, so I said yeah. And I've been involved with them ever since. But since they lost the Premier League, I've only had the USA games."

Is he apprehensive about ESPN's future with soccer? "As a commentator, you're only as good as the rights for whoever wants to hire you. That makes it a rather insecure profession. But you're delighted as a broadcaster that people have enjoyed what we've done. They couldn't have tried any harder to give the sport the respect it deserves." And my goodness, has ESPN done well with soccer. (So has NBC, of course.) When you get as big as the Worldwide Leader, you're going to do plenty of things well and plenty of things poorly. The Internet has certainly documented the latter, but there's no denying that soccer coverage has been a large part of the former.

"They would only want me to do about 50 seconds of an American football game, and then they would change their minds."

"You'd like to think that somewhere down the road ... I don't think ESPN is out of the game. In fact, quite the contrary with the World Cup ratings. They will be very competitive in the bidding in the future. When the Premier League rights come up for negotiation again, I would expect ESPN to give the competition a run for their money."

Darke seems optimistic about ESPN's soccer future, and he seems to be enjoying his gig with BT Sport (which has an affiliation with ESPN -- outside of BT Centre, there are logos for both). This is very good news for American fans hoping he will remain with the network when his contract is indeed up.

As the American soccer audience grows, there is still no mistaking it in the hierarchy. Keep an eye on Twitter during a soccer match Darke is calling, and you're bound to see an array of "Ian Darke is so great! He should do football!" sentiment. That is at once a compliment and an insult. Regardless, he's fine with the sports he has; "They would only want me to do about 50 seconds of an American football game, and then they would change their minds."

Darke is as charming as you would expect. A man of average size and stature, he is a confident conversation, and he bought our drinks, which didn't feel right. We owed him something more than he owed us.

Darke was around for the genesis of the Football League's first division becoming the Premier League, the most ridiculously lucrative soccer league in the world. It started, as so many things do, with Rupert Murdoch wanting to make a splash.

"Sky Sports blew the competition out of the water [20 years ago] with this huge bid, and that has changed the whole face of English soccer. The amount of money around the game ... that's why the clubs could afford to purchase Thierry Henry, Eric Cantona. So the whole growth of English soccer as a huge cosmopolitan product, which sells around the world, is from that point."

"Cosmopolitan" is an interesting word for him to use, as our first day in England began with a trip to the new and old universe of Arsenal Football Club.

The facade of Arsenal's former home, the built-into-the-neighborhood Highbury Stadium, is still built into the neighborhood. You can iron your work clothes on your balcony while looking out at what was once Arsenal's venerable pitch and is now a garden square. (That's such an American idea that it's rather disgusting that America didn't do it first. Just keep this in mind if Fenway Park, or Wrigley Field, or Lambeau Field ever get vacated.)

A few blocks away stands the glorious, cosmopolitan monstrosity known as Emirates Stadium. It is immense and gorgeous, replete with statues and aesthetics on the outside and all of the legroom and capacity Highbury lacked on the inside. As Nick Hornby mentioned in the revered Fever Pitch, Highbury was both his second home and something in need of replacement (like all of the other crammed, increasingly decrepit neighborhood stadiums). Highbury was the first division; Emirates is the Premier League.

Highbury Square (Bill Connelly)

"It was the same product, but with glossier wrapping," Darke says about the Premier League. "But most of all, the new kid on the block, which was Sky Sports, walking in, run by Rupert Murdoch, with a very fat check." Sky Sports launched in April 1991 and aimed for an immediate splash. "Suddenly the lives of these clubs were transformed overnight. That's why they went for the deal. When it happened, everybody was saying, 'What are they doing? They're putting the national game on this satellite channel that none of us have got?' Well, everybody went and bought the channel."

Imagine ESPN overbidding for the NFL in about 1981. That's more or less what Sky Sports attempted, and the gambit was successful.

"Everybody said, 'Well, what do they know about the sport? The coverage will be terrible!' says Darke, who was one of Sky's soccer announcers from the establishment of the Premier League. "The coverage was like, 'Wow.' They had so many more cameras. It quite quickly became a bit of a sensation.

"It's been very well-marketed as a product," he says of the League. "And the global interest in it has mushroomed spectacularly. It draws record ratings all around the world. They're sitting on a goldmine. More and more people want to buy it. Every bidding war, the figure goes higher."

In August 1999, Arsenal paid Juventus what was then a rather impressive £11 million for the 21-year old Henry, already a five-year veteran who had scored 23 goals. When the first Premier League season began in August 1992, the highest fee in English soccer was the £5.5 million Lazio had paid Tottenham Hotspur for Paul Gascoigne. By 1995, however, the skyrocketing began. Manchester United paid £7 million for Andy Cole, then Arsenal paid £7.5 million for Dennis Bergkamp, then Liverpool paid £8.5 million for Stan Collymore. In the summer of 1996, Newcastle paid a staggering £15 million for Alan Shearer, and the league was off and running.

"It's been treated at times like 1992 was a Year Zero, like there was no game before. They carried out a very successful repackaging."

Of course, life obviously isn't perfect in England. "My own personal bee in the bonnet: This country, with such a lucrative league, cannot for the life of it produce a decent national team. All of English football should be embarrassed about ... how is it that we have everything, and why should we be year after year worse than Germany, a country of a similar size?

"The inconvenient part of the argument is, we need to have more English players in our league. Now it's probably up to 65 or 75 percent of the players coming from out of the country. In the last World Cup, Roy Hodgson was probably picking his 23 from 60, realistically."

***

"It's quite a boring thought, really, that until the end of time we'll be talking about these same teams contesting the title every year. That isn't good for the Premier League."

In every sport, in every era, we fall into the trap of assuming that the current balance of power will forever remain the balance of power. But when you're in the middle of an era, it's difficult to figure out how or when things might change.

In club soccer, there's a goals gap. In the Premier League, there are basically six positions of achievement -- the top three teams in the league reach the UEFA Champions League, the fourth-place team gets to play in a playoff to try to get there, and the fifth- and sixth-place teams get (have) to play in the Europa League, the NIT of European Soccer.

There are six spots, and the Premier League's ruling class currently features, by some definition, seven teams: the Manchester teams (United, City), the Liverpool teams (Liverpool, Everton), and the London teams (Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs). There are positions within that group -- we'll say that Everton and Spurs are only junior members -- but we know that those seven clubs are going to be going to Europe most of the time. In fact, in the last four seasons, only once has a team from outside of this ruling class finished in the top seven: Newcastle in 2012 (when Liverpool finished eighth).

Darke feels the biggest difference the influx of Premier League money has made is in terms of depth. "Although the teams at the top of the Bundesliga or in Spain might be better than the top teams in England, the teams who are 10th in England are much better than the teams who are 10th in the Bundesliga or Spain. You could be quite easily beaten 3-1 at Stoke. All of those teams -- West Ham, they're a tough team to play with they're in their right mind. It's not a formality.

There are too many cases of Barca and Real beating teams 6-0. And the Bundesliga, as good as it is, it isn't good if Bayern Munich are the champions by March."

Deep or not, however, the top teams are still a few steps ahead of the pack. Nobody's going to suddenly have the historical draw of Manchester United, Liverpool, or Arsenal. And while there are rich owners everywhere, few are italicized RICH OWNERS, with free-spending ways, like Chelsea's Roman Abramovich or Manchester City's Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

"This Financial Fair Play thing to me seems like, all it does is allow the rich clubs to stay richer." premier league Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich (Getty Images)

Combined with Financial Fair Play rules, it seems that whether we're talking about a big five or big seven in the ruling class, it's going to take a lot to change the overall hierarchy of English soccer. Manchester United's "total collapse" in 2013-14 took them all the way down to ... seventh, still at least eight points clear of the peasants. And then they went out and spent a bazillion pounds in the offseason to (attempt to) fix their roster.

"This Financial Fair Play thing to me seems like, all it does is allow the rich clubs to stay richer," Darke says. "They have to take some care [to avoid penalty], but say a multi-billionaire, like an Abramovich, wanted to take over Sheffield United. Can you do that anymore? You can only spend what you're making. And they're still only making whatever revenue they're making playing in League 1. There's another side here that they didn't think of [in creating these rules], that they need to think of."

Even with a staid ruling class, there are always clubs threatening to move into (or out of) the group. Aston Villa were at least a top-six club not too long ago. So who does Darke think of as sleeping giants? (We asked just about everybody on this trip the same question, and they basically all gave the same answer.)

"Villa are really a latent big club. Villa could certainly mushroom if they had the right kind of investment and tactics. Newcastle? Similar story. They could sell 50,000 tickets if they were playing the cleaners. But I fear that the era [of teams making smart personnel decisions and winning the league], the days where Derby, Nottingham Forest, Villa, even Blackburn can win this league are gone."

And really, that's good for the bottom line. If a Hull City and QPR were to make 100 straight perfect personnel and tactical decisions, craft an incredible rivalry, and break off a long string of league titles, the odds are still pretty good that Manchester United v. Liverpool would be a bigger draw because of history, name recognition, et cetera. "It is what it is, the marquee value of each club. That isn't to say that teams like Hull wouldn't be a great story. But Manchester United v. Liverpool is always going to be a bigger draw than Manchester United v. QPR."

Hey, speaking of Liverpool...

"I think there was a feeling last year, only from a journalistic point of view, that it would have been a great story had they gone on and won the title. It would have been a new name on the Premier League trophy. But I'd say the same if it was Everton or someone else coming to crash the party. A lot of us media guys got accused of being biased toward Liverpool. That very definitely was not the case; you report the league as it is, and they happened to be a great story. They were playing some fabulous football and making a surprising bid to win the title. Anybody who did that would have gotten the coverage they were getting.

"It was a horrible way for it to happen [Liverpool falling at the end of the season]. But is there a good way? What's the good way when you're that close?"

***

In England, everybody knows your team. (It's a lot like SB Nation in that regard.) Darke is a Portsmouth guy. NBC's Arlo White is a Leicester guy. The Guardian's Danny Taylor is a Nottingham Forest guy. Et cetera.

Darke continued to write a column for the Portsmouth News until just a couple of years ago. He had a (figurative) front-row seat for one of English soccer's most impressive collapses. Promotion and relegation are a focus of this series, especially Part 2 (in which we traveled to Nottingham and Leeds). But nobody can hold a candle to the heights and depths Portsmouth achieved in the last decade. Pompey have twice won first-division titles and twice won the FA Cup, but after decades outside of the top tier (they spent just one season in the first division between 1959 and 2003), they surged with young talent like Jermain Defoe, Glen Johnson, and Peter Crouch. They finished ninth in the Premier League in 2007, then eighth in 2008 with an FA Cup win. They played in Europe for the first time in 2009 and narrowly missed moving on to the knockout stage. And then they encountered fiscal armageddon. They ran out of money, encountered administration penalties, and completely fell apart: 14th in the Premier League in 2009, then 20th in 2010. They were relegated in 2010, then again in 2012, then again in 2013. Five seasons after playing in Europe, they were in England's fourth division (League 2), and for a while, it looked like they might be relegated again, right out of the Football League. But they rallied and finished 13th last season.

With the Pompey Supporters' Trust completing a deal to purchase the club, it appears Pompey are finally on solid fiscal ground; that's good, because it's an incredibly long road back.

"Dodgy, shady owners and living above their means," Darke says. "Everything that's happened to Portsmouth, and I say this as a guy who loves the club, they've deserved.

"They've paid their dues. They've been relegated and lost lots of points and been fined lots of points and nearly lost their place in the Football League.

"But there's something about the spirit of that club, where the fans are at their best in adversity. To me, it almost felt like they were turning up to the sick bed of somebody in the intensive care unit, turning up knowing that they weren't going to get good news about the patient. But we're coming anyway. We're going to be there for you anyway.

"And it was a great day when the supporter's trust won the right to take over the club. You go down there now, and there's quite a bit of care and love and attention from that place. Bit by bit, I have the feeling that they're starting to turn it around. We can actually as supporters of that club feel a little bit proud of the club again."

Ian Darke: Boxing guy, English national team cynic, fan of the home team.

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.

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