For me, choosing an English Premier League club to support was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve made since arriving in Europe this semester.  In hindsight of the lengthy and thorough process I went through to pick a side, I realize I take for granted the luxury of being raised in a state that is large enough to hand you teams in all major American sports leagues.

The problem in France, of course, is that there lacks a passionate following for the big four American leagues.  As a fan of the NBA, MLB, NFL, and NHL, it didn’t take me long to recognize my sports affections were not shared on the global stage.  Not everyone loves basketball, baseball, football, and hockey.  In fact, as I just learned on a journey to Dublin, the four major sport leagues in Ireland feature Gaelic football, hurling, rugby, and soccer.

Wanting to become more in touch with the rest of the world, I decided I had to begin following the world’s most watched sports league.  That was the Barclay’s Premier League, England’s top soccer (football, to most of you 7 billion humans) offering.  The only problem was that no league is fun to watch if you don’t have a horse in the race, and I didn’t have a club to follow.

As an American, I needed a squad that played in a city that could play host to a pan-Atlantic trip when I came for a match.  That eliminated quite a few, because, let’s be honest, a destination vacation to a place like Wigan has the allure of a weekend getaway to Gary, Indiana.

I eventually zoned in on London, a tourist friendly location with an offering of six premier league clubs to choose from.  Now that I had my shortlist, I decided the final cut had to be done in person.  And, not just in person, but in one day.  I often suffer from my own recency bias, and so having a taste of all six clubs in one day would help me make the best decision.  Thus, armed with a notepad, camera, and six NutriGrain bars, I departed my west London hotel for Osterley Underground Station at 7 AM on May 4th with an open mind and a full day ahead.

(Note: British people refer to clubs as though they were using the pronoun “they” ex. Chelsea have a lot of money.  The red underlines drove me up the wall, so American English it is!)

FIRST DESTINATION: Scope out the Boleyn Ground, Home of West Ham United FC

7:30: (Underground) Piccadilly Line from Osterley to Green Park, Jubilee Line from Green Park to West Ham, and District Line from West Ham to Upton Park.  Total Duration: 1 hr 15 min

8:45: I approached the Boleyn Ground thinking I’d arrived at a 5 year old’s birthday party.  With two castle towers forming the façade, the entrance to the stadium looks like it might be one more fit for a moon bounce than premier league soccer.  Nevertheless, time was of the essence, and I quickly asked a couple passing by if they’d snap a picture of me.  To my surprise, neither of them spoke English, but thrusting a camera in their face seemed to communicate my desire.  With that, I hastened back to the underground station.

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WEST HAM UNITED FC

PROS: As far as success goes, West Ham stands in the middle of the Premier League Table, a respectable 10th out of 20 clubs.  Up and coming American Sebastian Lletget recently signed a two year deal to play for the senior club.  The 20 year old San Francisco native looks to be a staple in the club’s midfield for seasons to come.

Off the field (or the pitch, for those of you Europeans), the club made headlines when it announced it would be moving to Olympic Stadium starting in 2016.  This is a fantastic move for a club that has lived largely in the shadow of London’s other clubs.

CONS: To an outsider, West Ham supporters seem to border on crazy to potentially insane.  For starters, the song of choice at the Boleyn Ground is “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” which would seem to be some kind of ode to the Powerpuff Girls.  If the title isn’t enough to scare you, imagine Russell Brand belting it at the top of his lungs.  The untamed British comedian and talk show host has made his support for the club well known over the years, having been a season ticket holder in the past.  As if the crazy hasn’t already presented itself, the 2005 film Green Street featured the story of West Ham’s hooligan group, the Inter City Firm.  Of course, hooliganism has had its presence in virtually every English club, but bets are they chose this one for a reason.

OVERALL GRADE: C+

SECOND DESTINATION: Tour Stamford Bridge, Home of Chelsea FC

9:00: District Line from Upton Park to West Ham, Jubilee Line from West Ham to Westminster, District Line from Westminster to Fulham Broadway.  TOTAL DURATION: 45 min

9:45: The name of the underground stop might be a bit misleading, as Chelsea actually plays in the Fulham borough, despite the presence of a club bearing the borough’s name about two miles away.  We’ll touch more on that fiasco later.  At this moment, I was jogging into Stamford Bridge for a guided tour.  As you’ll notice, some clubs got a bit more love than others on this journey simply because tours aren’t scheduled at all hours.

Getting to see the changing rooms, media center, and having the opportunity to walk up the players’ tunnel was like being a college recruit on an official visit.  The guide did a great job of marketing the club, and I’ll admit that I left the stadium high on “The Blues”.

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CHELSEA FC

PROS: Chelsea’s primary color is royal blue, which provides a sharp, distinct look.  The club has also been successful in recent years, winning the UEFA Champion’s League last year, and vying for the Europa League Title in a couple weeks.  They are supported by their ever loyal goalkeeper, Petr Cech, who has kept 142 clean sheets (shutouts to us Yanks) in the Premier League.

CONS: In 2003, Chelsea was bought by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.  Let’s just say if you think Abramovich has earned every penny fair and square, you probably also think M.J. was framed and O.J. was an innocent bystander.  Consider Abramovich London’s version of Mikhail Prokhorov.  The Russian makes constant personnel changes, and continues to pump money into the club to achieve success, though results don’t always back the investment.

OVERALL GRADE: B

THIRD DESTINATION: “Touch” Craven Cottage, Home of Fulham FC

11:00: Make the roughly 2 mile walk down Fulham Road to Fulham Palace Gardens, and follow the Thames northwest to Craven Cottage.  TOTAL DURATION: 20 min

11:20: All I needed to do was touch the cottage with my hands, and the memories of the day prior came fluttering back into my mind.

The night I arrived in London, I had asked the man working the front desk at my hotel for directions to Craven Cottage, home of Fulham FC.  We had been talking about my adventure to find a Premier League club to support, and the man had made it known that he was a staunch supporter of Chelsea, Fulham’s arch-rival.  I hadn’t put two and two together at the time, and in hindsight, should really have asked someone else.  However, the directions he gave pointed to a destination on a “Stadium Street” that was near the Thames, and required I disembarked at the Fulham Broadway station.  I knew Craven Cottage was near the Thames, and a Fulham Broadway Station and a Stadium Street sounded right, so I didn’t think to check twice.

A day later, with twenty minutes till my tour at Craven Cottage, I was staring at a warehouse in the Chelsea borough near the docks of a fishing wharf.  Not seeing a single indicator of success, I asked a man passing by where Craven Cottage was.

“Oh, mate,” He said, “You’ve got yourself quite a bit of a stroll ahead of ya.”

This was certainly not the answer I needed to hear.  After sprinting down the road, I finally came across a vacant cab with a driver happy to help me out.  I arrived with a minute to spare, and to my relief, the guide was cool about it.  Nevertheless, a Chelsea fan leading me astray left a rough taste in my mouth.  I would not forget it.

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FULHAM FC

PROS: For someone who digs history, Craven Cottage is spouting with it.  The cottage, initially established as a hunting locale for British royals over 300 years ago.  To this day, a large area of green space, Fulham Palace Gardens, sit to the stadium’s north, and fans who actually use the correct underground stop, Putney Bridge, make the roughly one mile walk, known as the Green Mile, through it on match day.  The actual cottage itself is located in the southeast corner of the stadium, and is where the changing rooms, family rooms, and media sheds are located.  I say “sheds” because the area where players give postgame interviews is literally a piece of stationary plastered on the wall beneath the cottage’s deck.

As the cottage was converted to its current state in 1896, there was not a wealth of seating planned for spectators, and the stadium today only holds 25,700.  I’ll be honest, folks.  It’s a cozy 25,700.  I’m about six feet, and my knees would put earmuffs on the unfortunate soul in front of me.  Fulham has talked about plans to extend the stadium into the river, building a stilted shell over the top of the current seats, but plans have yet to come to fruition.

On the field, Fulham gained notoriety for its wave of American players who have come through in recent years, earning the nickname “Fulhamerica”.  However, the name as faded, as the only American left in the club is on the U-18 squad.

CONS: Fulham supporters will tell you than their biggest rival is Chelsea, but I’ll be straight with you.  A Fulham fan saying his squad will oust Chelsea is comparable to Brandon Jennings’ vow to boot the Heat in six.  On the field, Fulham is a mediocre 12th in the Premier League, a result that will need some fixing.  Additionally, while the fan experience can be like a trip to a history museum, fans looking to get a view of the Thames will encounter a statue of Michael Jackson on the stadium’s exterior.  As we’ve discussed, thinking MJ was innocent will put you outside at least a couple standard deviations of the population.  It will, however, put you in company with Fulham owner Mohammed al-Fayed, who befriended the King of Pop, and made the decision to erect the statue.

OVERALL GRADE: A-

FOURTH DESTINATION: Tour Emirates Stadium, Home of Arsenal FC

11:20: Hustle back to Fulham Broadway station, and take the District Line from Fulham Broadway to Earl’s Court, and the Piccadilly Line from Earl’s Court to Holloway Road.  TOTAL DURATION: 1 hr

12:20: As I approached the palatial structure that is Emirates Stadium, there was little left to doubt that this was London’s most widely supported club, and one of the most successful.  Yet, success on the field doesn’t translate to success in the tour office, who had a scheduling conflict on their hands.  The Everton U-15s were playing the Arsenal U-15s, and tours would be abbreviated to seeing the media room and the field only.  They offered past match day programs as a consolation, but a guy headed to see Arsenal’s rival, Tottenham Hotspur, couldn’t show up with one of those.

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ARSENAL FC

PROS: The name “Arsenal” derives from the large munitions factory in the southeast London district of Woolwich.  The club was originally created in 1886 as a club for the workers there, but had to be moved to north London in 1910, as it was impossible to draw large enough crowds in Woolwich.  Family history shows that my great grandfather worked at the Arsenal during the club’s time in Woolwich, and was a recreational soccer player himself.  In the way of family connections, this club is a plus.

As a proponent of rational behavior, Arsenal deserves credit for giving their field (or pitch) a name that offers some kind of indication that an English Premier League club plays there.  The palatial Emirates Stadium is a concise, straightforward name that gives outsiders a good idea of what goes on inside.  This seems pointless, until I realized that Arsenal was not abiding by the norm – they were an exception.  The rest of London is saturated with stadiums whose names could never be paired with their inhabitants.  I’d expect to find White Hart Lane (Tottenham Hotspur), Stamford Bridge (Chelsea), and Loftus Road (QPR) on street signs, while Boleyn Ground (West Ham) and Craven Cottage (Fulham) sound like landmarks in a Robin Hood adventure.

CONS: Arsenal fans affectionately refer to their squad as the “Gunners”, which doesn’t bode well for a foreigner who comes from a nation where tensions on the second amendment have never been higher.  As irony would have it, reports have surfaced that Osama bin Laden was an avid Gunners supporter in his day.  Of course, the club can’t control who chooses to support them, but the idea of Osama and me being on the same side of anything is chilling.  Add Fidel Castro, Spike Lee, and Ian Poulter to the list, and you’ve got yourself quite a motley crew.

That really is the problem with Arsenal.  Everybody likes them.

OVERALL GRADE: A-

FIFTH DESTINATION: Attend a match at White Hart Lane, Home of Tottenham Hotspur FC

1:30: Piccadilly Line from Holloway Road to Finsbury Park, Victoria Line from Finsbury Park to Seven Sisters, and Shuttle Bus from Seven Sisters to White Hart Lane.  TOTAL DURATION: 45 Min

2:15: There’s something about White Hart Lane that makes you feel like you’ve taken a time machine to 1970.  The stadium has a white exterior with brown panel windows shielding sets of bleached curtains, giving a look you might see in The Brady Bunch.

The exterior might be in need of renovation, but the atmosphere on the inside is unreal.  When 23 year old Welsh sensation Gareth Bale netted the tie breaking goal late in the match, the crowd eruption was off the charts.  I was hugged by multiple strangers, and somehow ended up sitting back down three seats from where I stood up.  Yet, when the refs whistle blew, I hustled to a cab.  One club still remained.

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TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR FC

PROS: The “Spurs” have a core of young studs, including Bale and keeper Hugo Lloris, a 26 year old from France, who plays his position for their national team.  Manager Andre Villas-Boas, at 35, is young for a manager and is known for taking a laissez-faire approach, preferring to instill confidence in his team.  This is certainly a team that will have a future.

CONS: Saying you’re a Spurs fan in America is synonymous with supporting a soon-to-be bombed out NBA franchise currently squeezing every ounce of success from good decisions made at the turn of the century.  Saying you’re a Spurs fan in London means you can’t stand Arsenal, which, given family ties, is not in the cards for me.

OVERALL GRADE: B+

SIXTH DESTINATION: Lurk outside a match at Loftus Road, Home of Queen’s Park Rangers FC

5:30: Taxi cab across town to Loftus Road, where the Queen’s Park Rangers are in the middle of a match with Arsenal.  TOTAL DURATION: 45 minutes

6:15: Lurking outside a QPR match is like lurking outside a morgue.  It’s dead as a doornail, and almost sinful to want to see what’s inside.  Queen’s Park Rangers will be relegated after this season, and the atmosphere, or lack thereof, outside Loftus Road could not have made that more evident.

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QUEEN’S PARK RANGERS FC

PROS: Few and far between.  Though small, I guess the stadium looked relatively nice.

CONS: For starters, it’s a bit difficult to pick a Premier League club to support that won’t even be in the Premier League next year.  You can’t even blame the results on lack of financial resources.  QPR’s wage bill ranks in the top seven in the Premier League, and yet, they will finish in the bottom three.  As a finance major, this spending inefficiency is simply inexcusable.

OVERALL GRADE: D-

THE WINNER: Fulham FC

FC-Fulham-Logo

I was incredibly torn between Arsenal and Fulham, but in the end, the lack of support for Fulham inspired a softie like me.  It’s a shame the positives of each club could be merged into one.  It almost happened, back in 1910 when Woolwich Arsenal was looking for a moving spot.  Chairman Sir Henry Norris owned both clubs, and sought to make them into one, but was rejected.  He then tried to arrange a stadium sharing agreement at Craven Cottage, but the proposal was also rejected, forcing the club to move to north London.

No, it won’t be pleasant to see Michael Jackson at matches, but I’ll choose to remember the musical genius of the 70s and 80s, and not the troubled man who showed up to court looking like Captain Hook, talking about problems in Neverland.

Yes, the family ties are with Arsenal, and they will always receive silent support.  However, being misdirected by a fan from across the Fulham borough is a more personal matter.  I know supporting a club currently in a bit of a tailspin might seem self deprecating, but I’m in it for the long haul.   It’s on, Chelsea.

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