Football culture in the UK

6 02 2012

Anyone who knows me knows that I am very passionate about sports and have affection for sports all over the globe. It should come as no surprise to any of you then that the following blog post will be focussing primarily on football (or soccer for you North American readers).

The aim of this post however is not to focus on whether Manchester United or Manchester City are going to win the Premiership, but rather it is to tell you a bit more about the culture of the United Kingdom. While on the surface this post will focus on football, the goal (pardon the pun) is to provide a commentary on how significant football has become in Britain. Throughout this post I will attempt to cover contentious issues such as geographical division, race, and the idea that football is “religion” in the UK. This is a topic that fascinates me, and while I don’t intend to write a book, or a PhD thesis, here I feel as though I could.

My first experience with the significance of football culture in Britain dates back to my days as a Year 9 student at Matthew Arnold School in Oxford.  As a new student I was constantly ridiculed by my classmates for my lack of knowledge of the sport and quickly realized that I must learn to love it or suffer through a very tough year. After watching a match on TV with my Dad about one month into the school year, I decided that I would support Chelsea and happily went along to school the next day thinking that this would stop all the comments and I could begin my quest to make friends. Was I ever wrong!

Once you support a football team it then becomes a matter of how knowledgeable you are about said team. You are quickly asked why you chose that particular team, you are asked to name your ideal starting XI and you are expected to know every player on the squad, how they were acquired and how much money they make. Who knew that memorizing the incomes of Dan Petrescu, Dennis Wise and Gustavo Poyet would be the most crucial homework I had throughout my year 9 experiences?!

As I have mentioned in my previous posts, I have now settled into my new home in Highbury/Islington. Those of you that know the football geography of London will be chuckling at the moment as you will know that my new home is smack dab in the centre of Arsenal territory.  While I thoroughly enjoy the area I live in, it can be downright scary as a Chelsea supporter. On one of my first trips to work following my move from the Chelsea friendly suburb of Hammersmith I noticed a young boy, probably about 10 or 11, wearing a Chelsea hat and scarf.  What I saw next was shocking.  As this boy walked into the tube station with his father he was being verbally abused by business men, dressed in suits, on their way to work. Insults I will not repeat in this blog were being shouted at this poor boy and it was drawing laughs from the ever growing crowd of people that were making their way to work. The boy and his father eventually got on their train, physically unharmed but perhaps emotionally scarred.

Now I realize that if I were to wear a Vancouver Canucks jersey in Toronto or a Crusaders shirt in Auckland that I would hear the occasional comment, but having done both in the past I never have had the same fear for my safety as I would walking around the streets in the Arsenal area wearing a Chelsea kit.  This is the fundamental difference I have noticed in the UK. The football club you support has become more significant than your religion, your race, your hair colour, and your gender.  While it is no longer socially acceptable to make a comment about someone’s physical appearance or sexual orientation, it appears to be perfectly fine to judge somebody solely on the football team they support.

The football culture of London as a whole is one that is worth describing as it is quite astonishing how divided the city has become over their football.  Currently, five teams in the twenty team Premier League are located in London and next year that will likely increase to at least six. While I live a stone’s throw from Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, (I can hear the crowd noise from my house) I am only two tube stops from White Hart Lane (Tottenham). Recently I have been teaching in Hackney which is located right between Arsenal and Tottenham.  The other day I tried to use an article about Arsenal winning their recent FA Cup match to teach the students about recounting the past. While this was particularly engaging for half the class it was as upsetting to the other half who were Tottenham supporters. As a supply teacher I have to be conscientious of what part of London I am in when I discuss football.

The schools I supply teach in are exceptionally diverse from a cultural and religious standpoint. Many of the schools embrace this by educating the children about holidays such as EID, Hanukkah, and Christmas.  From my experiences in inner city London schools there are rarely any issues with racism or people poking fun at other people’s religion. While I am not naive enough to think these problems are a thing of the past, it is apparent that the major point of contention amongst kids is what football team they support. Often times as I enter a classroom I am asked instantly what team I support and why I support them. I have to be careful, as in some schools I have said Chelsea and the class will immediately turn on me. I have learned to answer this question now by telling the students I am new to Britain and haven’t picked a team yet. This leads to a day of them trying to convince me to become a supporter of their local team, but it is better than the alternative.

While the people in the suburbs of London are very passionate about their football teams the centre of London is a totally different environment. Central London can only be described as sort of a neutral ground where all fans interact with one another without too many problems. There are no teams located in Central London, and in fact the most common football team paraphernalia you see is Manchester United. This has inspired a famous football chant when London clubs play up north in Manchester: “we’ll race you back to London”. This implies that many of the Manchester United fans are actually living and/or working in London, something that is in all likelihood true. London is the financial hotbed and most of the big companies seem to work out of a “London office”.

The idea of the London business man filling the seats of Old Trafford (Manchester United) not only provides a commentary on the variety of people that work in London, but it also is a good example of the north and south divide that exists in England. The supporters making the trip up to Manchester to support their particular London club are chanting this partly to say to the working class city of Manchester, that unless you work at a “proper” job in an office in London you can’t afford football tickets.  The north/south divide is a very contentious issue in England and will probably be the focus of another blog post somewhere down the line.  I am currently reading a book that focuses primarily on this issue and as someone who has only lived in the south of England, but has a very northern family; it is another issue that interests me greatly.

I had the opportunity to attend my second Premiership match this week and, as I was only 14 when I went to Stamford Bridge, (Chelsea) I was far more observant this time of the crowd and the atmosphere that surrounds a football match. With a few friends I went along to Craven Cottage (Fulham) to watch a midweek match against West Bromwich Albion. Not being a rivalry game and because it was mid week, the crowd was slightly tamer than the typical football match until Fulham put away a goal early in the second half. It was great to hear the crowd chanting in unison “you’re not singing anymore” to the West Brom supporters who had made the journey and had been singing all match.

Listening to the various crowds around the Premiership and even in the lower leagues is actually quite a good way to learn about England. One of the more famous examples occurred back in 2004 back when Wayne Rooney was playing for Everton. Prior to his transfer to Manchester United he was playing a game in Old Trafford and the crowd chanted “He’s fat, He’s Scouse, He’ll probably rob your house, Rooney, Rooney”.  While this was a personal attack on Mr. Rooney, it also poked fun at people from Liverpool (Scousers) and the stereotype that crime is abundant there. The creativity of the football crowd and the rivalry between cities is unlike Canada or New Zealand and creates a very enjoyable atmosphere for watching a match…just don’t get caught on the wrong side!

Football and the culture that surrounds it is a good metaphor of London as a whole. The teams these days are very multi-cultural and primarily owned by foreigners but all that truly matters to the football fan is the badge on the front of the jersey.  While there are still religious divides and racially motivated incidents in Britain the far more common identifier is what football team you support. While in Canada or New Zealand supporting the rival team might result in a joke or two the choice of football team is no joke to many Britons. Some rivalries are based on religion, the most famous being Rangers versus Celtic in Glasgow, while others based on simple geography, but wherever you go in the UK the rivalries are intense and often very heated. It is a major part of the British cultural identity and this is why I felt the need to write about it.



5 02 2012

With my 28th birthday approaching I thought I would take a humorous (at least an attempt to be) look back at some of the more memorable birthdays in my life and try to see where this ranks in the list of birthdays.

February 9th 1984 – The original birthday, I was born and placed in the arms of my excited parents. Had they known that 27 years later I’d still be living in the same house, they may not have been as enthusiastic

February 9th 1992/93 – My birthday was spent at the Pacific Coliseum watching the Harlem Globetrotters play. We returned the following year in the hopes the Washington Generals might pull off the upset, unfortunately this was not the case.

February 9th 1995/96 – Mum and Dad organized a party at Newton Wave Pool with a few of my friends, little did I know at the time but wave pools are places I would visit well into my 20’s working for day camps. Amazingly, they are still as fun as they were back then.

February 9th 1998 – This birthday was spent in the United Kingdom, at school I was made fun of all day for not knowing enough about “football” and having a funny accent. Actually, this might be the closest comparison to my 28th birthday.

February 9th 2001 – I decided to spend this birthday out with my friends. February 10th  2001 may have been the worst day of my life

February 9th 2003 – With Mum and Dad living in New Zealand for a few months I had the not so bright idea of hosting my own birthday party.

February 9th 2005 – I had recently located to Guelph, Ontario for University and with my new group of friends we went for dinner at Jen’s house in Mississauga. The roast we had there was quite possibly the only home cooked meal I had in University.

February 9th 2008 – I arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand just in time to celebrate my birthday with Louise, Andrew and their friends. As we were on the bus into town I met several other Canadians, one of them in particular I remember being gigantic. This giant man would later become one of my closest friends

February 9th 2009 – I worked a 10 hour day of construction followed by a gruelling rugby practice and a hockey game in which my team was blown out. Not exactly the birthday I had envisioned.

February 9th 2010 – The city of Vancouver decided to throw a 17 day long party for me. It was broadcast all around the world and every night medals were awarded. It was capped off with perhaps the greatest celebration of my life – Canada winning the Men’s hockey gold.

February 9th 2011 – I spent my 27th birthday unemployed and still living at home. Having just recently quit construction I was feeling a bit useless and vowed to make some changes by the time I was 28.

So there you have it. There have certainly been some memorable birthdays in my life. A birthday is a good time to reflect on where I am in life and where I am heading. For the first time since my New Zealand birthday I feel as though I am on the right track. Probably a good thing as 30 draws closer!

The Holidays

4 02 2012

Christmas in the United Kingdom this year was unlike any I had ever experienced.  The lead up alone was so different and had its own unique feel to it that it will truly make it a holiday season to remember for a long time.

The build up to Christmas in a world class city such as London is truly something special. The hustle and bustle at that time of year is just a little more bearable as one hears the sound of a busker playing Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree on the way to boarding the tube. Everyone in the rat race that is London seems to have just a little extra bounce in their step and maybe even a little smile on their face as they endure the morning commute.

Throughout the holiday season I had the opportunity to experience many of the Christmas festivities taking place throughout the city. Whether I was seeing the beautiful lights on Oxford Street or listening to carollers in Piccadilly Circus there was always something taking place as I wandered around the city. Near the end of December I had an unscheduled day off (no supply work) and took the opportunity to visit a few of the London markets. While these markets operate year round, the chance to purchase a mulled wine and browse the Christmas sales was something very special.

The true highlight of the Christmas season in London was ice skating at Somerset House. Located just North of the River Thames, the ice rink is just a picturesque outdoor setting to spend a cold winter’s night.  What truly made this night special however, was that I was accompanied by Ben (my cousin), his wife Louise and their two kids. Back in Vancouver I had a long tradition of going ice skating with the Hermansen family on Grouse Mountain and, while I was not home to keep that tradition alive this year, it was nice to be able to go for an outdoor skate during the Christmas season and seeing both Nathan and Hollie improve dramatically as our hour long session progressed.

While the build up to Christmas in London was a fantastic experience, the holidays got even better as I made my second trip out of London since arriving in September. The journey began somewhat slowly, as I missed my coach from London to Manchester, but eventually I endured the five hour journey up north and was met by another cousin, Ed.  Catching up with Ed, his wife Elaine, and their two girls, Megan and Nyah was very special as I had met both girls in 2006 and it was amazing to see how much they had grown, and how the family had settled in to their new home in Wooldale, a small town not far from Wakefield.

Christmas with the Wooldale Wynn’s was one I will remember for a very long time. Being the youngest in my immediate family, seeing kids around Christmas is something I have very little experience with, and seeing the excitement build around the house in the two or three days prior to Father Christmas coming was enough to make me very excited for the big day myself.

The day lived up to expectations and more as the girls did extremely well on the day and Christmas dinner was very delicious. A side theme to Christmas this year in Wooldale became teaching the Canadian cousin a bit about England, so many of the presents I received and the games we played as a family centered around educating me on the UK and in particular the North.  This became particularly useful the next day as I got set to see the rest of my family.

About 2pm on Boxing day we left for my Uncle Ian’s house in the small town of Wentbridge (population of 100 people) where he was hosting his annual Boxing Day family gathering. This was the first chance I had to see all of my Uncle’s side of the family together and what a great day it was! With my upgraded knowledge of the north and my brand new Yorkshire to English translator by my side I spent the afternoon getting to know my family and playing with all my little cousins.

Following my time up north I headed back down to London where I was quickly snapped back into the reality of the big city by arriving at the very busy Victoria coach station and making my way through the masses of people back to Islington. It was during this frantic journey that I concluded that there is London and the UK. They are two very different places and London is a city like no other. While I do love living in London, it is very nice to have the opportunity to leave the big city once in a while and to experience what I like to call “true England”. I hope to do this a few more times in the coming months and to finally get over to Europe.

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