Saturday, November 29, 2008

Being A Fan


When we were in London two years ago we took the Tube up to the north of London and walked up to White Hart Lane to watch Tottenham Hotspur play Portsmouth. Spurs were under the big Dutchman Martin Jol at the time and in the middle of the nice run with him that saw them qualify for Europe and finish near the top of the league for a few years running. Their keeper was Paul Robinson, their defence anchored by Ledley King and up front they had just acquired a Bulgarian striker, Berbatov, to go with Robbie Keane and Defoe. A young and exciting club on the rise, Spurs were off to a slow start that season, just as they started the previous season and would start the following season and this season. Last year's poor start cost Jol his job and while his replacement led Spurs to the League Cup title in February, their first honours in years, he moved Defoe before that and then this summer Robinson, Keane and Berbatov followed, along with numerous other players.

This fall the club struggled mightily and the end result was that the Spaniard Ramos was sacked, replaced by an old hand Harry Redknapp, and under his guidance Spurs have taken off, shaken off the lethargy that threatened their season and look like the club that has held such promise for a few years now.

That Sunday afternoon in London was a sunny and glorious one and of course none would guess that Jol would be gone in a year and that less then two years later Keane would be at Liverpool and Berbatov at Manchester United. Spurs had ground to make up and Portsmouth, who may have actually been under Redknapp at the time if I recall, were one of the teams they had to catch.

Even if you don't like soccer watching a game live is probably something for your list if you are a sports fan. The lush green of the field, the chants and songs of the fans of both clubs, the roar when Spurs scored less then a minute in and then again later in the first half when Defoe calmly slotted in a penalty. The crowd smug and satisfied, then stunned as Pompey drew within one before the end of the half, the probing run down the wing and a harmless ball drifting in, a man unmarked, the ball behind Robinson and the sudden cacophony from the opposite corner of the stadium where the Portsmouth fans, encircled by riot police, hopped about gleefully.

The second half began and Keane came on soon after to the crowd's delight and as the game shifted back and forth the tension within the stadium became palpable. Soccer is an odd game. Anyone who watched the European Championships this past summer will remember how suddenly a game can turn, how ninety minutes of complete disaster can suddenly be redeemed in a moment. So the fans of Spurs became less and less raucus as the game continued, fearing the dagger's blade to come.

Immediately in front of us was a very well turned out guy in his thirties. Nice haircut, expensive clothing, probably a businessman or professional of some sort. As the second half wore on his body clenched with the tension and his face reflected anger and pain. A Spurs' mistake or Pompey sortie was regarded with muttered cursing and bitter snarls until I believe he was actually feeling physical distress from the game on the pitch below. With ten minutes left he sprang up, unable to take it any more, and rushed for the exit.

Spurs held on and the crowd exhaled and began to sing joyously. As we wandered back to the station, around mounted police in full riot gear, we passed pubs full of cheerful supporters, clad in the colours of their club. It was a very satisfying experience, maybe even for the man in the expensive jacket who could not bear to watch its conclusion.

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The idea of being a fan has been something on my mind a lot lately. The Oilers are struggling again and the high expectations of September are swirling down the drain. MacT's job looks to be in danger while Lowe remains bulletproof apparently. All but a handful of players are underperforming and it looks to be another long winter. The goodwill and joy of the spring of 2006 has disappeared into the ether.

And yet there are thousands and thousands of us who watch the Oilers on TV, listen to Rod call their games, read about them in the newspapers or on the web, discuss them either here or out in the real world, go to Rexall, buy their jerseys and other paraphenalia, think about them more then we should ....

A bunch of transient millionaires who we have never met employed by a corporation which asks for our loyalty along with our money, gets same, and then proclaims unpopular moves to be necessary because it is a business after all. And yet I don't resent this (well I do a little), this request for emotional investment, this contract which can be breached when the Oilers decide that they don't want to pay the guy who led me to become a fan of their team. I don't like the fact that the club makes itself out to be bigger then a business, part of the community's fabric when it suits and then turns around when a guy is moved and says 'well it is a business after all'.

I was a fan of the Chicago Blackhawks forever until I could no longer take the incompetence, the losing, the bullying. The hope of the eighties culminated in Keenan taking a hard driving club to the Finals and then Pulford, protecting his power, as always, slit Iron Mike's throat. Player after player from those clubs was moved out as soon as it came time to pay them - the mercurial Belfour, the flashy Roenick, the warrior Chelios - but the beginning of the end for me was when they moved the ultimate professional hockey player, Steve Larmer, a terrific winger who came to play every night and did every single thing well. If he had been an Oiler instead of a Hawk he would be in the Hall of Fame I believe. What a player. The single best thing about the Rangers winning was that Larmer got to hoist the Cup.

So Wirtz poisoned my heart and one night I was watching the Oilers and Hawks play and I realized that I was actually hoping that the Oilers won. Simple as that.

I'd always liked the Oilers back in the 80s and I liked their persona in the later 90s, the energetic hard driving underdogs. And Smyth had replaced Larmer who had replaced Stan Mikita as my favourite player.

So what makes a guy in Toronto cheer for a team thousands of miles away? Nick Hornby talks about being a fan in Fever Pitch and of course he does a far better job then I ever could. If I were in Edmonton then the answer would be quite simple - it would be my town team and likely most of my friends and family would be Oiler fans. I would be able to attend games and in 2006 I would have been able to take part in the celebrations when even casual fans of the game got caught up in the excitement.

But there isn't really a community of fans here in Toronto. I have met a lot of Edmonton folk here and of course have been out for pints with Mike and Chris and Alana and Tyler and Hugh (when he lived here) but we don't all live on a little street with Oiler flags flying on flagpoles in our tiny yards.

And while there is a community here online which includes those folks and Andy and Colby and Mr. Debakey (who I have all met) and Dennis and Vic and Lowetide and Loxy and Heather (who I have not) the community of Oiler fans, both online and in the real world, also includes plenty of people who I would probably not like, people who I would avoid, people who I would detest. I have had drinks with Matt Fenwick and I would enjoy doing that again. I would leave a bar if some of the clowns who post on the web ever came in and introduced themselves.

Then again they would probably do the same to me.

The reality of it is that we are fans for various reasons but I think in the end there is little like the experience of it. Hornby describes being at a big game and the victory being unlike anything he had ever experienced. Years and years of following his club (Arsenal in this case), of frustrations and near misses, wiped away in a sudden moment, like ten thousand orgasms but far better, far different for sex results in the orgasm and then, soon after, can again. Or if you are older not so soon after ;) but you get the point. The sporting orgasm, as it were, results from a buildup of hours or days or even years of tension. When Joe Sakic scored in 2002 in Salt Lake City I wept from relief and ecstasy. If Fernando Pisani had buried that chance on June 19th and then the Oilers had scored another to finish the Canes off I am certain I would have again.

The victory in game six over the Wings when Pisani swooped in to pot the rebound and then dashed through the Wings defence to tie it and then the odd deflection off of Hemsky and then he stickhandles and Samsonov, long gone now, recieves the pass and then Hemsky is all alone and the puck flicked by Legace and the crowd roars. Roloson's save on Cheechoo and Smyth spitting out teeth and Horcoff dashing up ice in celebration. And game six against the Canes, the shutout, the domination and Smyth's rush ending with the backhand in the net and then everything seemed possible and all of our doubts were erased for a time as we poured out of the bar and into the warm June night to celebrate. The anthem roared and Joey Moss and Bryzgalov smirking in wonder at the noise tumbling down from the rafters and Oilers throwing themselves in front of shots with abandon and Torres knocking Michelek out and Pronger scoring on the penalty shot and Samsonov with the drop to Staios who drove it and Smith of all people sneaking in from the point and making the first and last deke of his career. These memories are etched in my mind and sometimes I will play a Youtube video of the run's highlights or will replay them in my mind's eye and shivers will run through me as I construct a different reality where Pisani ties the game and then Smyth scores in overtime and the Oilers raise the Cup. Pronger would have still left but we would not have cared a whit. We would have carried him to California on our shoulders, I have no doubt about it, if we had won that Cup.

These memories, these experiences, are what make the broken promise of the last two seasons worth it, what make Lowe's bullying and LaForge's smirk bearable. Many of us will watch today's game, a meaningless one in many ways (though not for MacTavish), and if Horcoff buries a Hemsky feed or Smid drifts one in from the point or Cole deflects a Gilbert wrist shot we will celebrate, at least for a moment, because this is our team and while we know that these guys aren't as cool as our Tuesday night club that we kid with and go out for beers with after another skate, we certainly wish that this might be the case. Most of all though we hope for another June 19th but one in which they make our dreams, however silly, come true.

16 comments:

HBomb said...

Steve Larmer. Even though I was only nine at the time, I watched the guy play in the 91 Canada Cup and thought "damn, this guy's good". Longshot for the hall, but like Kevin Lowe, I think the day will come where there's a weak list of nominees and he'll find his way in there.

As for being a fan, my sister has put it best: she likens the Oilers to an abusive boyfriend. They break your heart time after time, and just when you're ready to give up on them, they suck you back in somehow, even though you know better.

With that in mind, I'm expecting "flowers and chocolate" today. 6-1 or something like that. Gagner with a pair, Cole with a goal, everything goes well.

And then, right back to dirty laundry everywhere and another black eye tomorrow with a 4-0 loss in Dallas.

Because that's how this team rolls.

spOILer said...

Pat,

I can't think of a single post of yours that I haven't enjoyed reading, thanks yet again.

Larmer was one of my perennial picks in playoff pools. A go-to guy for playoff points like a Brind Amour and a Nieuwendyk.

Spurs suck, BTW. ;o)

My favorite memory of the FA is watching my beloved Wanderers play at Anfield. There's a nice park next to the stadium, and you can play footie with all sorts of kids almost right up to the turnstiles, and no one cared in those moments whose colours you were wearing... It was my first away match, and I had had some concerns. That day helped erase the memories of seeing the Wanderers play the Black Cats Xmas 1975, a fine crisp night standing on the terraces at old Burnden Park ruined at match's end by a frenzy of hooliganism and Black Marias hauling "fans" away by the vanload.

Matt said...

Really good stuff Pat. Though I should point out that meeting you once is plenty. ;)

Swabbubba said...

Who are these people dressed in Oiler unis... what the heck was that I only caught the 3rd. There were hits, Horcoff a Gordie Howe Hat trick, the kid line was skating. Does this wash away the last 2 weeks hmmm. Down side Vish left the game

Mr DeBakey said...

For me
Its easier in some ways to be an EPL fan than NHL

That's because I don't follow it day-to-day.
All the BS doesn't exist, just the game.
Just Saturday.

Of course, these past few EPL seasons have been somewhat dificult,
My long-time favourite, Southampton
[I loved their old Stadium, the Dell, a hovel that looked great on TV]
fell back to the English League a few years ago.
They were joined in short order by my emergency back-up favourite - Charlton Athletic.
Those 30,000 seat EPL clubs are on such a knife edge.
One season they're competing for Euriope,
the next
a few things go wrong and its relegation time.

How about those Oilers eh?
Kicked St Loo's butt!
Whoo-Hooo!
I gonna hafta get me a sun hat for the parade.

My word verification is
Ovencra
I think he's the Addicks new striker

Marc said...

For my sins, I'm a Newcastle supporter and I highly recommend catching a game a St James Park. It's a great stadium and Geordie fans are in a league of their own.

I was there for Michael Owen's first match stepped out of the tunnel leading to my seat just as he stepped onto the pitch for the first time. The wall of joyous noise that greeted me is something I will never forget.

Scott said...

How true it is. During the Oilers' run I was on tour with my choir and another from Africa on the West coast of Canada. A bunch of us watched the games in hotel rooms or on tape delay after concerts. We incorporated Oilers cheers into our songs, and a buddy wrote a barbershop song about playoff beards (we all had them) helping the Oilers win games. It was a beautiful time.

The Africans all thought the whole thing (including Whyte) was pretty tame compared to a Namibian national team football win, but it sure didn't stop them from partying. It reallly was a beautiful time.

Thanks again for your wonderful writing BDHS.

Black Dog said...

Thanks for the kind words guys, glad you enjoyed.

I was just trying to be nice, Matt, to be honest. ;)

Lord Bob said...

While we're on the topic of soccer fandom, you may ask 'why am I an Oilers fan'?

Because my primary sports love is the Canadian men's soccer team. Compared to cheering for them, rooting for the Oilers is like cheering on a combination of the Yankees and Red Sox.

Black Dog said...

Oh my God, L.B.

So the wisecracking happy go lucky persona is just a mask that hides the horrible pain?

The guy who writes in the Globe, I think his name is Knight, wrote some pretty scathing stuff on his blog about the people who "run" soccer in this country. Its an embarassment really.

Black Dog said...

Wanted to add again my thanks for the stories, especially about experiences in the EPL. I presume everyone has read Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, if not I would highly recommend it whether or not you are a soccer fan.

I crack it open every year and it never gets old.

Garret said...

Long time reader, first time poster. Love your blog man. Love it. Thanks for a great read always.

Garret

theMasturbatingJesusCreep said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Marc said...

I'm not sure how you all follow the Premiership, but the Guardian's website is pretty much the best thing out there.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/football

It's funny, informative, irreverent and argumentative. And it's MSM. They liveblog most big matches (though they call it minute-by-minute) and have weekly updates of all the other European leagues as well. If you love football, it's a site worth checking every day.

The BBC is good for information and they liveblog most matches as well, though it's never as amusing as the Guardian. They also have Match of the Day on their site on Saturday and Sunday. I'm not sure if you can watch it outside the UK, but it's a brilliant highlight show of all the day's matches, edited so it feels like you're watching a game rather than just a collection of clips.

Dennis said...

HB: pass along your sister's phone number if you don't mind...;)

Pat: Ty said you'd been knocking it out of the park and he wasn't lying.

After the end of G7 in Car in '06 I went out on my front step and drank a beer and smoked a cigarette and I can't begin to tell you just how empty and exhausted I felt. When Moreau made it 3-0 early in G1 it was the first time I allowed myself to believe that we would win the Cup - an image of Smyth lifting the mug came into my mind and I welled up to the point of embarrassment. 94 may never have been my favourite Oiler but I always loved the guy and appreciated his hard work and he was the guy that I wanted to enjoy it the most.

Players come and go and you cheer for laundry and the older I get the more I realize that maybe I'm still hanging on because I remember cheering this laundry when I was a kid and what it meant to me back then; it's escapism now, not just from what per-occupies your mind currently but back to the time when literally nothing else mattered.

Black Dog said...

Thanks for the info Marc.

Dennis - thanks for that

the worst moment in '06 for me may have been G1 - they blew the game and Roli was done and the sudden turnaround there was so cruel it just ripped the heart out of me

when it got to G7 I knew it was a crapshoot and while it was tough for me G1 will always be the heartbreaker

but after the SLC gold medal game I think my favourite hockey memories all revolve around '06 - G6 against the Wings, G5 and G6 against Carolina and those crazy games against the California teams where they just rode the wave and scored all those outrageous goals

as Ty says, good times