I’m not really a replica jersey type of person, and yet I’ve still somehow come to own two of them.
The first is a blue jersey with a silver and gold chevron in the middle and a badge over the heart that says “Support.” The back has “Denver” running down beside the number nine. I bought it at the Street Soccer USA Cup, because that Denver squad (which I wrote about starting here) was the only one I ever covered or followed that made an impression on me to the point where I actually coveted one of their jerseys on a level greater than a “Well, that may be nice to have.”
The other is a Newcastle circa 2008-2009, a Christmas present from my oldest brother, who was stationed in England during their collapse into the Championship. He immediately latched onto them, bypassing Everton, West Ham and the other clubs Americans tend to support when they feel like rooting for the underdog and going straight for the cellar (Sorry, West Ham fans). He’s not exactly kept up with them since moving back here, but then again, he has a life.
I, on the other hand, was left holding the proverbial kitbag, which remained unopened for the time being. Receiving the shirt was no life-changing moment for me; I didn’t immediately pledge allegiance to the Toon or anything of the kind. In fact, I didn’t really wear it that much during the year they spent in the Championship. I knew very little about them, and I didn’t go out of my way to find out more.
The best thing Newcastle had going for them was that I was primed for fandom. Their restoration to the top division coincided with a realization of/growing annoyance at the fact that I don’t watch sports right.
The only team I root for passionately, consistently and constantly, is the U.S. men’s national team. No MLS team, NBA team, NFL team, college team. I suppose I’d root for Atlanta if I ever got around to caring about baseball again — my interest has waned not in the team but the sport, which I can only bear to watch live and with friends — but it’s tough to envision a scenario in which that could happen.
That’s not to say I have no rooting interest; just that those rooting interests are in constant flux. I root for teams I like to watch, teams who are fun to watch — the mid-2000′s Phoenix Suns are the most obvious example. Admittedly, those teams are often winning teams — they tend to fit the “fun to watch” criteria better than non-winning teams — which technically makes me a fair weather fan, though if confronted with that fact directly I’d deny it (even after just admitting it).
I root against teams much more fervently than I root for them. I’ll happily oppose anyone with a long history of success, whose fans treat winning as a divine right: the Lakers, the Yankees, Manchester United. But schadenfreude is a poor substitute for actual joy. My friends who are real fans tell stories of their favorite moments following their teams — Christmas-morning-type feelings are mentioned, as is cheering under blankets and feeling that the borders between humanity and divinity have become porous for favorite athletes.
Personally, I know that my happiest memory as a sports fan has to be when the Braves won the World Series in 1995. That was my first summer as a baseball fan, as a sports fan, and I must have watched more than half of that team’s games — every time Maddux, Glavine, or Smoltz was pitching. I was a good baseball player then; I still had potential (I was also seven). I genuinely enjoyed the sport and the team.
But I can’t remember what it felt like when Mark Wohlers made Carlos Baerga fly out to Marquis Grissom for the Series’ final out, only that I must have been happy. I remember that Grissom is running to his right and that he catches the ball backhanded in his glove somewhere in deep left-center field, but I can’t remember how it felt when that happened, which is kind of depressing. I’m a sports fan; sports are a relatively significant portion of my life, and I can’t remember how they made me feel the time they made me happiest.
This all weighed on my mind as my level of soccer interest grew. This was a sport I could get behind generally, not just specific concepts or modes of it (though some more than others). You’ll notice I don’t have a basketball or a(n American) football blog. Surely I could find a team that I could root for.
But at the same time, I didn’t want my fandom to be forced. Simply choosing a team was never an option. I wouldn’t be able to stick with it. There had to be some kind of emotional attachment, something to pique my curiosity and to sustain the relationship while it developed. I needed a reason to watch, a reason to root for them. With Newcastle, I found that reason, and it wasn’t the shirt I already owned.
I’m not sure when I first heard of Andy Carroll. It was definitely before his hat trick against Villa, though the feat itself and the explosion of media attention afterwards probably represented the turning point when I, like the rest of the world, realized he was worth paying attention to.
My attraction to Carroll — and there’s really no better term for it, though you’ll have to take my word for it that I mean it strictly in the sporting sense — stems from my identification with the way he plays the game. Basically, I see a lot of myself in Carroll. As I’ve said before on this site, playing pickup I tend to position myself either up top as a target forward or out on the wings feeding crosses in. There aren’t very many 6’3” wingers out there to serve as role models, but Carroll on his day provides a master class in using one’s size in that position, something that I could appreciate. My other favorite players — Xavi, Zidane, Bergkamp, Cruyff — did things I could never dream of. But Carroll I could emulate; Carroll was like me.
Plus his team was respectfully mediocre-to-bad, someone respectable to ally myself with. They didn’t seem to me like they were on their way back down, indeed, they might be on the rise. I could get behind them. I could start caring about the difference between 15th and 12th and between 12th and 10th.
It wasn’t an immediate thing though; I had to grow into the relationship. My fellow contributor Wes Pickard would refer to them as “you guys” in conversation and I would correct him. I wasn’t ready for that kind of a commitment. But I followed their results, watched some of the games, liked what I was seeing. When I bought my first Football Manager, my initial go-around through the game was with Newcastle (your 2013 European Cup winners, thank you very much). The shirt my brother bought me got more use in the last four months of 2010 than in the year and half before that.
You know what happens next, of course. I can’t blame Newcastle for taking the money — Carroll is good, but not £35 million good. That said, I don’t have to forgive them for it right away either. It’s not that Carroll was the heart of that team; that’s Kevin Nolan. It’s that he was their distinguishing factor, the cornerstone around which a team could be built, the thing that set them apart from all the others. Without him, I didn’t know who I was rooting for. I couldn’t describe what was left of the team. It seemed as though their identity had been ripped away. My fandom didn’t survive the sale. I was too entrenched in my ways; I couldn’t find any enthusiasm for rooting for a team that wasn’t distinctive in some way.
I’d like to think I’m not bitter though. There’s always a chance, once the team finds a direction again, that the jersey could come back out from the bottom of my drawer. Until then, I’ll stick with Denver.
And maybe, finally, I’ll go pick out a Nats jersey.
1. If it helps, I am getting married next weekend.
2. That phrasing probably isn’t helping you take my word for it.