By Andrew Walsh
Nearly a decade ago, a soccer writer asked his readers which clubs they supported, foreign or domestic, and how they became a fan of those clubs. Since I just stumbled across that article now, I thought I’d write up a post of my own explaining my allegiances and how I developed them. In short, they are:
MLS: FC Cincinnati
National Team: United States
EFL: Sheffield Wednesday
Now for the long story…
I first became fascinated by the English Premier League in 1998 when I was 11. At that time ESPN showed one match a week on Monday afternoons, and I’d have my mom tape it while I was at school so I could watch later. I remember excitedly asking her one afternoon if the game had more or less than five goals, and being disappointed to find out that there were in fact none at all. But as the season progressed, I got more into other aspects of the game–the dribbling, the passing, the hard tackles and physical play–not just the goals.
The most memorable game for me was a Merseyside Derby, with the two sides drawing 1-1 after Paul Ince cancelled out a Duncan Ferguson tally. Around this time I’d also gotten my hands on a Liverpool 1995-96 season review video, and I began to watch it again and again, marveling at the talents of Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman and the rest (it wasn’t until many years later that I’d learn of their derogatory “Spice Boys” designation).
Every week I also taped ESPN’s Worldwide Soccer with Rob Stone and watched highlights from England, Mexico, MLS, and more. The other English team that caught my fancy was Sheffield Wednesday, then featuring the highly entertaining free-scoring Italian duo of Paolo Di Canio and Benito Carbone. This allegiance grew due to my acquisition of the John Harkes autobiography which chronicles his move to Sheffield Wednesday in the early 90s and becoming one of the first Americans to succeed in Europe. (Recent personal revelations have since changed my opinion of the rest of the book, although it’s still on my shelf.)
At that point I suppose I considered myself something of a joint fan of Liverpool and Wednesday, but due to the lack of coverage available my fandom mainly consisted of watching my Liverpool tape over and over along with the others in my quickly growing VHS collection. The concept of watching matches live was pretty foreign to me. Other fan behavior I remember includes writing the first chapter of what would surely have become the worst Liverpool book of all time.
Around this time I cheered for the US national team since I was fond of Harkes and a few other players, but I also remember actually crying after Brazil lost 3-0 in the 1998 World Cup Final. I was nominally interested in the recently-established MLS and favored DC United because my uncle lived in DC and my home state of Wisconsin lacked a team. My uncle was also lucky enough to get the Fox Sports World channel, and he mailed me several tapes of Serie A and Bundesliga games, as well as DC’s triumph over Vasco da Gama in the 1998 Copa Interamericana.
In the following years, my own youth soccer playing increased in intensity, but for some reason my pro fandom didn’t follow proportionally. It may have been that we didn’t get them on regular cable TV anymore, and I have few memories of watching European club matches over the next few seasons, or being excited about the US National Team aside from World Cups. At one point my mom tried to bribe me to join my middle school choir by offering to buy the European soccer channel, and I must have really hated singing then because I didn’t take her up on it.
Then during the later 2000s as Wednesday languished in the lower divisions, I for some reason came to cheer for them again, and certainly more so than Liverpool. I remember being labeled as a Wednesday fan while at college in Grinnell, Iowa, a curious choice in the eyes of my friends. I recall watching Marcus Tudgay score goals, and for some reason getting particularly excited about the signing of Madjid Bougherra. But I still didn’t have a way to watch their matches regularly, so during those years I also got back into the Premier League which I’d watch with my fellow soccer teammates. I also saw Liverpool in person for the first time, a preseason friendly against Olympiakos in Chicago.
In 2013 I moved to Dayton, Ohio, which finally put me in close proximity to an MLS team, the Columbus Crew. I went to a couple of games but didn’t become a real fan, perhaps because I didn’t feel too connected to Columbus (I day-tripped to Cincinnati more), and maybe because of some lingering DC United affinity. But all of that started to change in 2015 when a new team, FC Cincinnati, was announced to be joining the USL, and the appointment of John Harkes as manager brought it all together for me. I read some articles that first season but didn’t make it to a game. The following year, however, I got wrapped up in the club’s magical US Open Cup run. The first match I attended in person was FCC’s fourth round victory over in-state rival Columbus Crew, and I was 100% supporting the home side at Nippert Stadium. I returned for the upset over the Chicago Fire in the next round, then watched at home on my laptop as the run came to an end in the semifinals vs. the New York Red Bulls.
For the 2018 season, I went all-in on FC Cincy. I got wrapped up in the club’s MLS bid and devoured all of the news and rumors, all the while learning more about the players and the burgeoning culture of the club. I watched as many matches as I could, some on ESPN+, others with a just-formed Dayton-based supporters group at a local bar, and an increasing number in person at Nippert, including the club’s first ever playoff victory in a shootout over Nashville SC.
Around this time I also re-upped my commitment to English football, and became a much more active fan in general, wondering why I’d ever stopped voraciously consuming games every week. When it came to what overseas team I supported, I knew I’d never pick anyone outside of Wednesday or Liverpool, because even though those initial bonds were somewhat arbitrary when I was 11, they had solidified over 20 odd years and I could never, say, suddenly fall in love with a new team’s playing style or culture. So I started to follow Liverpool again, gathering with other fans at Dayton’s Yellow Cab Tavern, and traveling to Cincinnati a few times to join up with the larger Queen City Kop supporters group. But I also kept up with my Championship football, watching Wednesday on Youtube and ESPN+, soon ponying up for an iFollow subscription, and staying up on news from online Sheffield newspapers, podcasts, and of course the OwlsTalk forum.
Also during this time I started to encounter concepts that I’d never really considered as an American fan of European soccer: gloryhunting, plastic fans, Eurosnobbery. Essentially, choosing an overseas world power for their success and basking in a feeling of superiority, all the while scoffing at those who support smaller and local teams. I certainly believe that one can choose to support any team, anywhere, without having to justify their reasons. And most American fans of top European clubs are far from snobs, especially the ones I’ve encountered personally. But on the other hand, I did start to feel a little disillusioned with being a Big 6 fan from thousands of miles away without a real personal connection. As a dedicated fan of small-market American sports teams, calling one of the richest soccer clubs in the world “my team,” one that can (these days) simply go out and set world transfer fee records when it needs a positional upgrade, didn’t feel quite right. Other American fans of Liverpool, who might have had their passion grow exponentially over the years–through Istanbul, Gerrard, and even the tough(er) times of the early 2010s–undoubtedly feel quite differently. But my lack of consistency over the years left me with little in the way of real loyalty, and my Wednesday fandom kept calling louder.
There’s much more to English football than the glitz and glamour of the top of the Premier League, and it’s been a blast to watch a club with so much history grind out results week by week with the delight of promotion and the agony of relegation always beckoning. So although I’ll always follow Liverpool news and watch their matches with interest, my first English team to support is Sheffield Wednesday. It’s become something of a Saturday morning tradition to tune into iFollow to watch Rob O’Neill and John Pearson call the match. There’s even an active Owls Americas group that appears to be growing. And the day the club gets back into the top flight for the first time since 2000 will be a special one.
But none of these experiences comes close to the feeling of watching games in person among tens of thousands of like-minded fans, and working to grow the soccer culture of a local city. My experience attending FC Cincinnati games in person over the past two seasons, including the otherworldly MLS home opener; marching to Nippert Stadium from Mecklenburg Gardens; discussing the team in bars and with friends; and immersing myself in the team culture as it takes over our corner of SW Ohio, has irreversibly cemented them as my primary team. Plus, with MLS surging in popularity and on-field quality–with teams signing European stars and young Latin American talent alike as well as developing local youth in their academies–the league is now more exciting to watch than ever. And the dollars I spend on a ticket or a team shirt will get reinvested back into the club and ultimately serve to help US soccer become stronger.
To transition back to national teams, I finally became an official American Outlaws member in 2018, during a point at which the team couldn’t have been much lower. I dutifully returned to the same bar where I watched the World Cup qualifying disaster to watch all of the subsequent friendlies where our next generation has started to show signs of a better future. Aside from the US I like to keep tabs on the countries in my heritage, but I’d never say I support anyone else. Ditto for teams from the Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga, Liga MX, and others.
At the end of the day, I don’t intend to get bogged down with a rational consideration of what type of fan I ought to be; I’m going to enjoy soccer wherever and however I can, whether it’s Liverpool-Man U on TV or USL League Two’s Dayton Dutch Lions at Dayton Outpatient Center Stadium.