This is an essay I wrote 7 years ago, which was published in an American newspaper. Yes, things have changed (most notably, the bank account of City), but the meat, marrow and meaning remains the same.
No matter what the sport, I will hand over three hours if the two teams on the field are rivals, the fans in the stands sporting chewed-up knuckles, relishing all the barbarism and carnage to come, along with the hope of bragging rights for at least one night. And when the rivalry is provincial—two teams, home bases only miles apart, supporters born into the faith, house by house, street by street—the game is that much more grand, meaty and rare, tapping into the primal instinct every human is instilled with: the instinct to protect your turf.
It was this type of rivalry that had me drinking a pint of Guinness in an East Village bar at 8 in the morning a few Sundays ago. The thing about a rivalry like this is you can’t simply pick a side. You’re born onto a side. When my daughter came home from school and asked me why we have to like the New York Mets baseball club, I could have placed blame on my grandparents for escaping the Lower East Side and downtown Brooklyn for the pastoral landscape of the Hempstead Plains. That pilgrimage, which ended (at least for me) with two teenagers meeting in the East Meadow High School cafeteria, cast me down the wobbly road to that triumvirate of Long Island’s new kids on the block, the Mets (baseball), the Jets (American football) and the Islanders (ice hockey).
I have always been keenly aware of the second-class citizenship that such loyalty has bestowed upon me and my family. And for close to 20 years, I have been keenly aware of losing. The New York Rangers finally winning the Stanley Cup (and their fans subsequently shoving it down the Islanders fans’ throats). The Yankees destroying the Mets time and time again, culminating with the heart breaking Subway Series in 2000. And of course, the Jets, while not having a rival as sharp as the others, still rip out my heart and show it to me on a season-by-season basis, coming up with new and creative uses for the well-worn phrase “same old Jets,” a motto that might as well be on the team’s crest. In those three sports, these are my teams till I die.
In 2001, I was flipping through Saturday morning cartoons when I stumbled upon an English Premier League soccer game. I had heard stories of English football, the hooligans, the chants, the blood dribbling down the chins of haggard-toothed fans. Rivalry. So even though it was soccer, I watched. The next week, I watched again. Then again. I actually began to enjoy it: the rude-boy chants spilling out from the stands, the eruption when the odd goal was finally netted. But sport is unlike art or music. You can enjoy it–lose yourself in the rhythms and the textures and melodies, but at some point, you must pick a side. I spent hours watching matches and reading soccer-mad websites. I was about two weeks into my search when it hit me: Here was my chance to choose a winner.
I was not born into any of these regions, let alone ever been to them. I knew Leeds from the side streets Morrissey spoke of slipping down; Blackburn, Lancashire from the 4,000 holes Lennon read about in the news.
After a month, I came up with some prime choices and called Colin, the only British fellow I know. “I think I’ve got a team,” I said. “Arsenal.”
“Not very rock star, Arsenal,” Colin said. I didn’t quite know what he meant.
“I don’t quite know what you mean,” I said.
“C’mon,” said Colin. “They won it all last year.”
“Okay,” I said.
He was right. What’s the fun jumping in bed with someone who just won? I want to be part of the build-up.
“How ‘bout Liverpool?”
“What are you doing?” Colin said.
“Why don’t you just give in and support United.”
Manchester United. The most visible squad in the football universe. The world’s richest sports franchise. Fifteen league championships. Their exhibition games have sold out Giants Stadium. You could call them the New York Yankees of the football world.
But where there is a Yankee, there has to be, in the shadows, a Met. A runt. A second-class citizen. I bit my tongue and asked Colin the inevitable.
“Isn’t there another team in Manchester?”
“Yes,” he replied. “Manchester City.”
Years of pain and torment. Forty-seven million pounds in debt. Blowing it at all the wrong times. Last major trophy, 1976. I have never been to Manchester, knowing it only from Smiths lyrics and the Gallagher brothers. “I would rather kick my daughter out of the house than let her support Manchester United,” Noel Gallagher once said.
A few days later, I saw Colin. “Manchester City,” I declared.
He raised an eyebrow. “Well, if that’s the way you want to go…But be prepared for heartache.”
About 10 people are standing outside Nevada Smith’s in the East Village on a cold February morning, shivering under a sign that reads, “Where Football is Religion.” In the vernacular of the natives, it is called a Derby. The Manchester Derby, United vs. City. Most of the crowd is wearing the red of Manchester United. I spot one older guy with a light-blue ski cap of City.
At 7:45, the door opens. The bar is a typical New York railroad number, long and narrow. I follow the man with the ski cap to the back of the bar, pull up a stool next to him and pull off my sweater to reveal the City jersey I picked up on eBay. An older gentleman comes in with his two young sons. I get but one sentence out of my mouth about the upcoming match, something about how good keeper David James played the previous week against Chelsea, when he interrupts me.
“You American?” he says with a bewildered look.
“Yes,” I say.
“Why do you support City?”
“Well, because I’m a Mets fan and a Jets fan,” I say.
He smiles. “The underdogs, huh?”
More City fans enter, giving each other the same sad looks I used to see at Shea Stadium before Jet games in the late ‘70s. United fans, staked out in the front of the bar, outnumber us 4-1. The game, beamed by satellite from City’s home pitch, begins and City is playing hard. A beautiful cross by Shaun Wright-Phillips is headed wide by Steve McManaman. Should have been a goal. City fans hold their heads. Won’t get many chances like that. Then the chants start. They are mostly nursery rhymes, sung in English accents, with naughty words. “Build a bonfire, build a bonfire, put the Scousers right on top/Put the city in the middle and burn the fuckin’ lot.” It goes on like this for the rest of the game. Our chants are a happy “City Till I Die” number and “Blue Moon,” as in “Blue moon, you saw me standing alone.”When 48,000 sing it at City of Manchester Stadium, it sounds quite majestic. When 10 sing it at a bar in the East Village at 8 on a Sunday morning, it sounds like crap.
In the second half, United’s teenage prodigy Wayne Rooney breaks through and rolls the ball under the Man City keeper. One-nil, which is a tantamount to death at this stage. A United fan jumps on top of the bar and the chants get more severe. “City’s going down like a Russian Submarine,” sung to “Yellow Submarine,” along with, “Twenty nine years… F**k all,” which I quickly understand is United’s version of the Yankee fan’s once reliable “1918” (sung to Red Sox fans in reference to their last World Series win).
City’s heart is out of it. One of their defenders tries to stop a cross and inadvertently kicks it into his own net. The red side of the bar erupts with a part cheer/part laugh that is difficult to describe, other than to say that I have been on the receiving end of its torment before at Shea Stadium.
The game ends quickly after that, and most of the City fans exit. I stick around with the last men standing, listening to the chants still being pelted our way. I actually get angry. We need better organization. Better chants. C’mon guys.
After a fourth Guinness, I sidle next to a doughy-faced City supporter at the urinal.
“Ah,” he says, shaking his head in disappointment.
“I know,” I reply. “So many chances early on.”
“Yeah,” he says “Typical City.”
I settle my tab and walk into the chilly mid-morning of the East Village with a smile on my face.
I never had a choice at all. I may have never been to Manchester.
But I was born there.