When I was a young warthog, in the ancient days following the 2010 World Cup, I emerged from the tournament with a conviction to start watching soccer again. At the time, that meant the odd televised MLS match or Saturday mornings with the English Premier League. I was quickly entranced by the skill and pace of the Premier League. The lack of commercial breaks certainly helped. Since then I’ve continued following football, moved to England, and been to (nearly) every professional football ground in London. If you’ve just finished watching the 2022 World Cup and you’re looking for a league or a club to follow, let me introduce you to the Premier League.
First up: you know about relegation, right? The bottom three clubs from the Premier League get relegated to the next division down (charmingly called the Championship) while the best three clubs from the Championship are promoted to the Premier League (technically the best two clubs with the third coming up as the winner of a playoff between teams in third through sixth). While there’s certainly good football played in the Championship, it’s the money that’s the big difference. Premier League clubs make 10x the television revenue (or more) than clubs in the Championship, which can be life-changing for a smaller club that joins the top division, or devastating for a Premier League club that is relegated and suddenly loses most of its revenue.
Fun facts: London-based Arsenal moved from Woolwich in the southeastern part of the city to north London in 1913, to the intense frustration of the existing clubs in the region. After a backroom deal saw Arsenal promoted to the new First Division (despite only finishing fifth in the old Second Division) at the expense of neighboring Tottenham Hotspur, a 100+ year rivalry was fully cemented. Arsenal saw a leap in popularity in the early 2000s with their French coach Arsene Wenger bringing an attacking style of football that caught the eye, proved immensely successful, and captured the imaginations of the kind of people who think a knock-off handbag with a continental designer’s name on it means you’re posh.
Cheer for Arsenal if: you think Benedict Arnold was a good lad and you like a bit of peace and quiet at your football matches
Fun Facts: Villa is based in the midlands (the hollowed-out former industrial region of England that’s basically English Ohio) city of Birmingham (basically Cleveland). Argentina’s penalty shootout hero and all-around madman, Emi Martinez, is Villa’s keeper, so while the football may be stodgy, the penalties will be entertaining.
Cheer for Villa if: you’re from Birmingham.
Fun facts: The beach in Bournemouth has sand, which is not true of most beaches in this country. Bournemouth, as a football club, are almost certainly playing in a division too difficult for them, which means they’ll end up relegated, but only after beating your favorite club. That relegation will likely be confirmed with a few games to spare, which will be convenient because the players will be able to nip out early for the nearby beaches. (jk jk. They’ll be off to Marbella and Mallorca.)
Cheer for Bournemouth if: you follow the Championship and have a way to watch Bournemouth in it next season
Fun facts: Despite being founded in 1889, Brentford Football Club are named after me. The club’s owner is a childhood Brentford supporter who bought the club after making a moderate-sized fortune in the gambling industry. He brought his data analysis background to the club and has helped them achieve promotion from League One to the Championship and from the Championship to the Premier League. The club have found their recent success by being cleverer than most of the clubs around them. Unfortunately, after gambling and analytics carried them to success, they are about to lose their star striker, Ivan Toney, for a year+ due to… gambling on football. (Bit of a double-standard, innit?)
Cheer for Brentford if: you play Football Manager or FIFA Career mode and you want to support the real-life moneyball team of the Premier League and aren’t secretly worried about them being relegated after they lose Toney
Fun facts: Remember how in the Brentford section I mentioned that their owner made his money in gambling? He got his start in the industry by working for Brighton’s owner, and their parting of ways left a certain amount of bad blood between them. The city of Brighton is on the south coast, but the pebble beaches are categorically inferior to those at Bournemouth. As a football club, Brighton are unobjectionable. Canny ownership, a good manager, good football. Basically Brentford, but harder for me to personally reach.
Cheer for Brighton if: you want an underdog who plays good football and is probably safe from relegation
Fun facts: Chelsea aren’t even based in the village of Chelsea; they’re in Fulham but couldn’t use the name because Fulham FC got there first. Previously owned by a Russian oligarch, Chelsea blazed the trail for the sportswashing we just saw at the World Cup. Their owner used the wealth of the Russian people to buy some of the best players in the world and win multiple Premier League and Champions League titles. To make it worse, the club have America’s best player, Cristian Pulisic, on the books, but have been criminally underutilizing him and are likely to sell him in the summer.
Cheer for Chelsea if: you like kicking puppies
Fun facts: Crystal Palace are based in the south London village of Crystal Palace, which is named after a structure originally erected in Hyde Park (further north) for the Great Exhibition of 1851. The cast iron and glass edifice was moved in 1854 where it stood until it burned to the ground in 1936. The football club’s mascot is an eagle, and for a while, a local wildlife foundation would bring a living bald eagle to matches and let it fly around the stadium pre-match. Sadly, that ended in 2020 when the eagle had a heart attack and passed. 2020 was a rough year, okay.
Cheer for Crystal Palace if: you’ve ever lived in Croydon
Fun facts: Carissa’s cousin married an Irishman, and he’s a massive Everton supporter. That poor man. Everton are a middling Premier League club who have long been overshadowed by Stanley Park neighbors Liverpool FC. I’d feel bad for them, but I’d probably get punched in the teeth for saying it.
Cheer for Everton if: you’re willing to suffer
Fun facts: Fulham are in southwest London in the village of Fulham, which wouldn’t be notable, except Chelsea FC are just down the way and their owner backed the club with a billion pounds of blood money, and Fulham’s owner built a statue of–checks notes–Michael Jackson out front. On the plus side, Fulham have historically given us Yanks a place to ply our trade, and their current squad includes Missouri native and US National Team central defender Tim Ream plus surprisingly-good-for-a-Yank leftback Antonee Robinson.
Cheer for Fulham if: you don’t mind bouncing between the Premier League and the Championship, you want to support good-but-not-amazing Yanks, and you fancy a trip to one of the nicest parts of London to watch your football
Fun facts: The English have a phrase: “doing a Leeds” to describe gross financial mismanagement, poor squad building, successive relegations, and the near-destruction of a once-proud football club. After a decade in the lower leagues, Leeds returned to the Championship and managed to hire another Argentinian madman–Marcelo Bielsa–who helped them back to the Premier League. These days they’re managed by American Jesse Marsch and sport a midfield including Americans Tyler Adams and Brendan Aaronson. I don’t have the multi-generational knowledge of English football that the locals do, but Leeds were historically one of the universally-hated clubs in the country, though that seems to have mellowed after their near-destruction.
Cheer for Leeds if: you want to support the largest concentration of Americans in the Premier League
Fun facts: Leicester City won the Premier League in 2016 and it was such a surprise that not even a screenwriter could have written the script and had it be believable. Several of the players from that title-winning side promptly left the club, but ownership has done a good job of spending the money and solidified them as a top-half (but still mid-table) side. If you want a wild story that encapsulates modern England, read the Wagatha Christie saga sometime; one of the main characters is married to a Leicester City player.
Cheer for Leicester: if you want to be 7 years late in cheering for the underdog, but also don’t want the stress of annual relegation battles
Fun facts: Liverpool are a historic powerhouse of English football, but had a rough time out of the spotlight through the 90s and 2000s. They returned in the teens after their American owners (who also own the Red Sox) quietly embraced analytics and had the money to buy Very Good players, including Mohammed “Mo” Salah. A study in 2019 found that Mo’s presence in the Champions League-winning Liverpool side contributed to an 18.9% reduction in Islamophobia in the Liverpool area. Liverpool’s 2020 Premier League win was their first in nearly 30 years and cemented their place as one of the top English teams of the last decade.
Cheer for Liverpool if: you want to jump on a massive bandwagon, but don’t want to support Manchester City
Fun facts: The club were massively overshadowed by Manchester United for most of their existence until Abu Dhabi decided that the Chelsea sportswashing experiment could be done bigger and better and conclusively proved that money can buy championships.
Cheer for Manchester City if: you want to win at any cost and don’t mind blood on your hands
Fun facts: Manchester United were THE team of the 90s and early 00s until the (American) Glazer family purchased the club in a leveraged buy-out and drove it into the ground with poor management and a decade+ of wealth extraction. It would be sad if it weren’t so funny (as an outsider). Bloody Americans, amirite. (More like “bloody capitalism,” tbf.)
Cheer for Manchester United if: you care about The Brand more than actual success on the pitch.
Fun facts: I was at the pub a couple of months ago with some local friends. One of the guys there was “Geordie Bryan.” (A Geordie is someone from Newcastle.) He was wearing a black and white Newcastle top. One of the other guys said, “Bryan, show the Yank your badge,” and Geordie Bryan lifted his top to show me the Newcastle badge tattooed on his left tit exactly where the badge was on his shirt. Geordie Bryan is the Ur-Geordie. Possibly the Ur-Englishman. In other news, the Saudis bought the club last year to see if they can pull off another sportswashing “miracle.”
Cheer for Newcastle if: you’re from Newcastle OR you want a healthy dollop of fossil-fuel-driven global warming with your inevitable on-the-pitch success
Fun facts: Carissa and I saw them play an FA Cup match at Arsenal a couple of years ago. Their mascot, a cartoonish Sheriff of Nottingham, took the lead in a pre-match penalty shootout against Goonersaurus and still managed to lose. That’s how you know he’s English. Their owner is a Greek shipping magnate who totally wasn’t match-fixing or drug trafficking, I promise, guys.
Cheer for Nottingham Forest if: you totally didn’t threaten to murder that referee and the FA totally ignored it and let you buy a football club, anyway
Fun facts: Southampton are another south coast city with a moderately successful football club. They’ve historically had a great academy (for youth player development) and been a club who have recruited well, turned decent players into good players, and sold them on to larger clubs for a profit. If I lived in Southampton, I’d be a satisfied season ticket holder. I do not, however, live anywhere near Southampton, so whatever.
Cheer for Southampton if: you want to see your favorite players get sold to one of the top 6 clubs for tens of millions of pounds
Fun facts: After that 2010 World Cup, I spent a season watching the Premier League before choosing a club to follow more closely. At the time, I didn’t want to cheer for the English Yankees (Manchester United) or the Obviously Funded by Blood Money Club (Chelsea), but I did want to follow a team who played exciting football and would keep me entertained without feeling guilty about their off-pitch activities. It really came down to a choice between fierce rivals Arsenal and Tottenham. At the time, Tottenham had Luca Modric and Gareth Bale, who were both young, massively talented players. They both quickly forced their way out of the club to join Real Madrid and win multiple La Liga and Champions League trophies. Spurs re-invested the money poorly and limped on until Harry Kane emerged from their academy and powered them to a title challenge where the club somehow came third in a two-horse race in the season when Leicester City won the league. The last twelve years have been objectively good years for the club as they’ve established themselves firmly in the top 6 places of the Premier League, have played in European cup competitions year after year, built a magnificent stadium, and generally punched well above their (financial) weight class. And still won nothing.
Cheer for Tottenham if: you don’t mind being the bridesmaid and never the bride, don’t want to support a sportswashing empire, but still want a puncher’s chance of winning something every season (and yet always fall short)
Fun facts: the Hammers play in east London in the Olympic Stadium that hosted the 2012 Olympics. It is the worst football ground I’ve ever been to, mostly because of the huge track that runs around the pitch and separates the fans from the action. The West Ham supporters think that Tottenham are their rivals, and the Tottenham supporters mostly forget that West Ham exists.
Cheer for West Ham if: your dad and granddad would be bitterly disappointed if you didn’t
Fun facts: In Football Manager the club have a philosophy–based on real life–that you should sign Portuguese players. I’m not sure the exact relationship between the owners and the player agents that drives this, but there’s something fishy going on here. You might expect someone to investigate, but that would assume that FIFA weren’t making money on the whole enterprise somehow. I don’t actually have anything against Wolves, but I don’t think the good times can last.
Cheer for Wolves if: you’re from Wolverhampton (or Portugal) and want to see roleplayers for the Portuguese national team ply their trade.
If you don’t have any prior allegiances, watch the rest of this season and pick a club to follow who catches your eye (and hopefully aren’t built on an empire of human rights abuses). The above list will give you a tongue-in-cheek idea about each club, but there’s also a germ of truth in most of the descriptions.
Or, and bear with me here, you can follow Spurs and learn the true meaning of pathos, the essence of human frailty, where you have the talent, you have the opportunity, but you reach for success only to fail at the last moment, falling on your own sword over and over again.
Sounds a lot like my marathon experience, actually.