The Supper Club

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We went into Angie’s Little Food Shop as strangers for roast Jerusalem artichoke soup, slow cooked venison, almond and orange cake, biscuits, cheese, and chocolate truffles, but left the restaurant together as a community.

I, along with 27 other souls from all over the globe who happened to be in London at the same time, met at the Chiswick restaurant on 28 January for a supper club dinner hosted by Grub Club’s A Little Lusciousness. The supper club trend in the United Kingdom is an interesting social experiment: a chef runs a pop-up restaurant for one night only and provides a full course dinner to a limited number of diners, who all occupy the same table (space permitting) for the night. When you’re sharing the same space for an extended period of time—three to four hours seems is a common window on Grub Club—the diners are forced to interact with one another, despite knowing nothing about each other before walking in.

Think of it like a group blind date.

But the beauty of this set-up is that it’s suitable for both extroverted and introverted individuals. The outgoing person will thrive from the thrill of meeting and entertaining new people, while the intimate environment of the pop-up restaurant will help a reserved person open up to the new individuals surrounding him or her.

I somehow made it to Angie’s Little Food Shop 10 minutes before the official start of the dinner. Traffic from the Madejski Stadium to the Reading train station almost caused me to miss the 1740 train to London—I hopped in the train as the doors were about to close. After the hour-long train ride into Paddington, I had to make a quick detour to a grocery store to do something new: wine shopping. Belated welcome to adulthood, me!

Grub Club dinners are Bring Your Own Bottle; the bottles of wine are shared by the diners. The chef recommended a bottle of Chianti to pair with the main course’s venison. It took me 15 minutes to Google how a bottle of Chianti would look like, get lost in the wine shelves looking for the red wines, find a cheap Chianti, then run to the back of the store to pick up a bottle of water and bottle of Lucozade Sport for myself, and pay.

I arrived at the restaurant at the same time as a middle-aged couple and a woman who looked like she was also in her late 20s. Four people were already seated in the square wooden table at the back for eight, so my quartet sat in the main table at the center of the restaurant. This table, which eventually sat 17 people, was a long wooden table across from the main counter, with the silverware, white saucers, and white napkins set at each seat.

Richard and Judy, the middle-aged couple, sat to my left. Richard is a former British journalist, while Judy is an American who was also born and raised in the Chicago suburbs. The couple and I had a lot more in common than Chicago, despite the age gap. They traveled to Florida a week before the dinner to buy a home in the Gulf Coast. (Florida: my gateway to talking to anyone with ease.) Their daughter got married in my Connecticut town; she lived in New York, but now lives in Los Angeles, which is nearly the reverse order of how I’ve moved around the country.

Claire, the woman about my age, took the seat across from me. She is a PhD holder from Australia who has spent the last five years in London conducting research on diseases. But the coolest thing about her is that when she travels, she likes learning about a place by grocery shopping.

Finally, I learn I’m not the only nerd who loves grocery shopping away from home. The fact that she has a PhD further validates this travel hobby of ours.

Ben and Sarah, a couple in their 30s, joined us a few minutes later and took the seats to my right. They live in Croydon, just minutes from the lovely Selhurst Park, but they’re northerners at heart. Ben is the first Manchester-born Manchester United supporter I’ve met and Sarah hails from Sheffield. Ben was so fascinated by me traveling all the way to England to watch soccer matches from Brentford to Palace that he gave me a quiz.

“What are the two clubs in Sheffield?” Ben asked.

I shot him a confused look. “Is this a trick question?”

“No, no! I’m curious.”

“Wednesday and United.”

“Wow, haven’t met anyone from another country who knew this much,” Ben said. He then turned to the Sheffield native, Sarah. “What are the two clubs in Sheffield?”

Sarah found the question incredulous, but told him Wednesday and United.

Seated to Ben’s right was Sonya; as an African-American, she was the only other person of color besides me at the table. She’s a Texas native—we exchanged Hook ‘Em Horns in what must have been an odd sight for the others—who lived in New York before her job sent her on a temporary two year assignment to London. Her tenure in London ends in the summer, so she’s trying to soak up as much of the city as possible before returning home. I asked her if that meant she was moving to Texas or New York.

“Texas will always be home because of my roots, but I’m moving back to New York,” she said. “Especially with the election results, Texas won’t be as welcoming now. I’m culturally more at home in New York.”

Across from Sonya and to Sarah’s left sat Annika, a Dutch national living in London. When she spoke, though, she sounded American. It turned out that she lived in California for a period of time before moving to London, which explained the slight, but noticeable, Southern California twang to her voice. She’s also the first person who ever greeted me with the European double kiss, which I thought I butchered at the time because for each cheek, my cheek bumped her cheek and I gave an air kiss. Two YouTube videos after the dinner told I had no need to be embarrassed about myself at the table.

At the head of the table, to my left, was Michael, who spoke with me as the four people between us (including Richard and Judy) cycled in and out of the bathroom. He was a native of Johannesburg who now called London home for the past seven years because of his work as a counselor.

Our varied backgrounds and the tense political climate created by the US Presidential Election and the Brexit made politics an inevitable topic in the table. (The wine also facilitated the chatter. Yes, Claire even talked subborn me into a glass of wine.) There was a general agreement that the isolation isn’t a good move for either country and we sifted through the reasons why the US and UK veered in that direction.

This was a calm and composed discussion on politics and immigration that felt poignant because of the occupants of the table and the timing of the dinner. Our dinner was on the day that the Executive Office of the US signed the first attempt at a travel ban, which was protested all over the globe before the US courts halted the Executive Order. And here we were—three Brits, three Americans, an Australian, a Netherlander, and a South African—in a tiny restaurant in one of the world’s financial capitals, sharing a meal and the incredible professional accomplishments that they’ve all made because they were able to leave their faraway homes and settle in London.

People can accomplish amazing feats if they have the opportunity.

Just as amazing as their professional accomplishments was the part where no one took out their phones (except to show pet photos). Everyone engaged with each other in conversation—the tiny restaurant had the noise level of a high school cafeteria—and made a sincere effort to listen, contribute, and get to know each other. It felt like all the folks seated near me and spoke to were friends of mine by the time we left, which always make it a tad tough to accept that you’ll never see them again. There was a lot of levity mined out of Richard and Judy’s life in the US before moving to London, Claire’s love for The Shins (I appreciate Richard’s wingman efforts to set me up as Claire’s plus-one for the two tickets she has for the band’s show in London, but alas, the show is in two weeks) and travels around the world, Ben and Sarah’s search for a home so they can adopt a dog, and my soccer trek through London and Leicester.

The food was excellent—can we get more restaurants in the US to serve venison?—but the people made the dinner an experience worth having. After all, the bonds we have or make with others are why we share meals.

The Super Bowl with Ranieri and Mourinho

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My first Premier League match in the King Power Stadium turned out to be the last Premier League fixture at home for Leicester City with Claudio Ranieri as the manager.

That fixture pitted the reigning Premier League champions against the reawakened giant of Manchester United, led by Jose Mourinho. That the TV execs scheduled them to play on Super Bowl Sunday felt appropriate for the stature of both teams. But game fell flat inside the first half as United tamed the Foxes in what became a leisurely stroll to a 3-0 win over the champs.

In light of Ranieri’s sacking on Thursday, there’s a layer of irony to United being the last Premier League opponent he’d face at home. Ranieri’s last job in England, as manager of Chelsea from 2000 to 2004, ended when Roman Abramovich sacked him and hired Mourinho as his successor. Thursday’s news also allowed Ranieri to join Mourinho as the second member in the exclusive club of managers who have won the Premier League and then got sacked in the following season.

But the thought of the Leicester hierarchy sacking Ranieri was far from my mind (and probably many others’ at the King Power Stadium) in the pregame build-up. My mind zipped all over the place as soon as I arrived in Filbert Way; the Premier League at the summit of the English pyramid is overwhelming compared to the Premier League I experience at humble Selhurst Park.

The King Power Stadium is a massive modern arena with every inch of the exterior and inside the concourse covered in blue and white. The size of the stadium is accentuated by having a power station, a few car dealerships, and short brick buildings as neighbors. Banners and signs scattered throughout the ground mark Leicester’s title-winning 2015-16 season, including a navy wall scroll of a championship banner taking up most of a wall in the stadium. The individual program(me) sellers outside the turnstiles have their own blue kiosks—each kiosk looks like a short and plump TARDIS—that protect the employees from the elements. Even the program(mes) come sealed in a plastic bag to protect your £3.50 investment.

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Inside the vast bowl of the King Power, the club ratcheted up the noise ahead of kickoff with the Andrea Bocelli performance of Nessun Dorma from when Leicester lifted the Premier League trophy. When the recording of Bocelli ended, the supporters carried the load with the help of those infamous clappers.

Those clappers are annoying.

The clappers, which are basically paper fans, do too good of a job in generating noise. My ears started to hurt from the increased volume that came when the supposed used the clappers to applaud the player introductions. But from an outside observer’s perspective, those clappers are the perfect tool against opposition: they’re loud, the Leicester supporters love them, and they get under the skin of the traveling support.

Thank God for the kickoff whistle, which ended the continuous stream of clapper-supported applause.

The managers emerged mere moments before the whistle blew. Ranieri and Mourinho both looked like they dressed for a funeral with their long black coats and dark dress slacks, grim contrasts to the vibrant red and blue that would be running all over the pristine green pitch.

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Both men expressed their personalities in their in-game management; neither spent long periods on the bench all match, instead opting to stand and watch everything from the touchline. Mourinho took on the subdued version of his hyperfocused self, jotting down observations in a notepad, walking around in a circle during breaks in the action, and using gentle gestures to his players to get them to reorganize their shape. He only became animated when he chirped at the referees for missing a call.

On the other hand, Ranieri was more active in the box. After applauding the home supporters for signing his name at the beginning of the match, Ranieri often provided instructions to his players while the ball was in play. His fingers pointed at players and spots for positioning; his arms moved back and forth to encourage aggression; his voice reached his players despite the noise in the stadium. In the moments when Ranieri just watched the action, he stood still and had his hands behind his back, like a professor proctoring his students in an exam.

Leicester almost had the breakthrough in the 18th minute, when United cleared a header off the line. The attack encouraged the home support, who then began chanting

“Your city is blue

Your city is blue

Just like Leicester,

Your city is blue.”

United grew into the game from that point on, with Marcus Rashford hitting a half volley high in the 22nd minute and Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel saving a low drive from 10 yards out in the 34th minute. Schmeichel was as expressive as Ranieri in the match, applauding Leicester attacks that sputtered out and raising his fists up to pump up his defensive corps after a good stop.

Seven minutes later, Leicester could no longer contain the pressure from United.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan took the ball, burst past an out-of-position Robert Huth at the center circle, and started a race with Wes Morgan in a sprint to the box. A moment before Morgan slid to try and block Mkhitaryan’s shooting lane, the Armenian midfielder took aim at Schmeichel, and the ball bounced off the keeper and into the net. As United celebrated, Schmeichel reacted in disgust to the unlucky deflection he caused.

Two minutes later, United doubled their lead after Leicester’s back four collapsed again.

Antonio Valencia took the ball into the right edge of the box without any challenge from his marker, Christian Fuchs. Valencia used the space between him and Fuchs to send a low, driven pass into the center of the box. The ball rolled just out of the reach of Huth and Morgan, even though the pair were ball-watching. Because Leicester’s heart of defense was tracking the ball, neither one of them bothered to track any United players in the area.

Among the United players lurking around: one Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Even though Ibrahimovic was the most imposing figure in the United starting XI, Morgan left the Swede unmarked from 12 yards out. That gave the Swede just enough space to meet the ball behind the penalty spot and one-time it into the net.

This time, Schmeichel laid into his defenders for neglecting to mark the most dangerous goalscorer on United. Rightfully calling out his teammates wasn’t enough to soothe Schmeichel, so he continued his shouting and redirected it toward the blue sky above.

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Halftime came with United up 2-0 and their supporters signing “Going Down” to the Foxes faithful. That’s rich coming from supporters of a club with the financial muscle and international recognition to make that awful season outcome an impossibility for them.

As bad as Leicester’s defense was in the first half, their attack let them down just as much. Too many cheap giveaways and a lack of inventiveness limited the number of opportunities they had; the strikers were not clincical enough in the few real scoring chances they had. Ranieri did indeed have a couple ideas in the dressing room to retool the toothless attack: Demari Gray replaced Shinji Okazaki and Andy King came on for Ahmed Musa before the second half kickoff.

Juan Mata extinguished any hope of a comeback for the Foxes within three minutes of that kickoff.

Once again, United ran down their right to exploit the struggling Fuchs. Mata took the ball to the same spot along the right edge of the box before passing it to Mkhitaryan in the box. Fuchs, watching the ball while trying to put Mata offside—a teammate marking Ibrahimovic kept Mata onside—let the Spanish midfielder get behind him as Mkhitaryan passed the ball into open space on the right. Mata met the ball at the six-yard box and knocked it past the helpless Schmeichel.

At this low moment in the match, Leicester’s supporters rallied for one last surge of positive energy to try to lift up their players. The words “LEICESTER! LEICESTER! LEICESTER!” roared through the King Power. Schmeichel raised and shook both his fists toward his teammates to get them to fight.

By the 53rd minute, United already began to play to kill the clock with possession. Yet, Leicester finally found some attacking rhythm. In the 56th minute, Leicester had their first real chance of the game since that cleared header, when a Rihyad Mahrez free kick struck the side netting. Gray took charge of the next attack, running down the left before cutting the ball back outside the box to Danny Drinkwater, who could only shoot it high. Gray kept going, though, and later gave the ball to Mahrez, who could only send a cross too high for Jamie Vardy to reach.

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That was it for the Leicester attack, though. Fans nearby me got flustered at the rest of their play—sideways and backward passes and generous giveaways to United—to the point that one of them yelled “This is rubbish” to no one in particular.

The seconds continued to climb toward 90 minutes—and everyone knew the game was winding down when Mourinho brought in the fro of Marouane Fellaini in the 76th minute to shore up the defense. By the 82nd minute, the United supporters once again starting singing “Cheerio, you’re going down” to the Foxes faithful. Boring.

The full time whistle blew and Ranieri and Mourinho gave each other a sincere good game before Ranieri disappeared from sight. Mourinho remained on the pitch to congratulate and shake hands with each of his players walking off the pitch. United had conquered Leicester and for one night, the Midlands city was red instead of blue.

Tigers Tamed in the Cottage

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It felt like I returned to America when I dropped by Craven Cottage to see Fulham’s 4-1 thrashing of Hull City in their FA Cup Fourth Round tie on 29 January.

The words “Visit Florida,” printed in blue above ocean waves, are splashed across the chest of Fulham’s white shirts. (I’ll never escape you, Florida.) US Men’s National Team stalwarts Carlos Bocanegra, Brian McBride, Kasey Keller, and Clint Dempsey have all played for the Cottagers; McBride has a restaurant named after him in the stadium. The American contingency on the pitch continues today with Tim Ream. Off the pitch, Shad Khan, a Pakistani immigrant to the United States who went from Illinois engineering grad to businessman billionaire to owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, now owns Fulham.

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And in the crowd, an eclectic set of American sports teams headgear was scattered through the Riverside Stand: a Penn State cap, an Anaheim Mighty Ducks beanie, your standard fare Yankees cap, a Cincinnati Bengals beanie, and a San Francisco Giants cap.

But I didn’t go to the quaint Craven Cottage to feel like I was at home. I was here to take in an historic ground, one I wouldn’t have had access to without the extra fixtures created by the FA Cup.

The atmosphere in Craven Cottage itself was tame—almost polite—for the first 20 minutes of the match, with neither side controlling the action on the pitch or in the stands. The home supporters on the Hammersmith End on the north side of the stadium and the away supporters at the Putney End on the south side took turns singing about their team. When it fell quiet in the stadium, one of the stands would start singing. The opposing supporters waited until they finished before responding.

Meanwhile, a ball was put out of play to allow Hull to bring on Harry Maguire for the injured Curtis Davies in the 10th minute. The tall and stocky Maguire looked like he would fit in better in a rugby game; his build made him the most imposing figure playing in this Cup tie.

The game finally sprung to life in the 24th minute, when Sone Aluko scored against his former employers to put Fulham up 1-0. Stefan Johansen curled a free kick that glided toward the far post, where Fulham defender/Chelsea loanee Tomas Kalas headed the ball across the face of goal for Aluko to slam home. Aluko celebrated against his old club, as it should be.

As the rain began to fall in the 30th minute, both teams had opportunities they should have scored on. Aluko had a run on his own to the net before Hull goalkeeper Eldin Jakupovic smothered the ball to safety. Hull had the ball in the box and caught Fulham goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli out of position, but they could only slam the ball against the crossbar as the refs whistled for an infraction committed by the Tigers.

Fulham went into halftime up 1-0, largely thanks to the composed play at the back by Ream and Kalas, whose partnership ensured goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli had little to do. It was good to finally see the tradition of an American doing well in a Fulham shirt for myself.

After the halftime whistle, I returned to the concourse of the Riverside Stand, shuffling through the tiny gaps of space left by the fans standing in line for concessions and the ones already eating the burgers and chips they bought. The gorgeous view of the Thames from the concourse is one reason why I chose to have my seat in the Riverside Stand for this match.

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Staring at the Thames drowned out the crowds chatting and chomping behind me and the sound of former Fulham and Palace defender Brede Hangeland’s center circle interview that was broadcast through the PA. The river had a sense of tranquility as it flowed by the stadium quietly and without any other visible life—save for the one rowing team that just had to pass through and force this aside—loitering in the water. If it was allowed, I would pay to just hang out at the concourse for the day, eat lunch, and watch the river.

Despite Fulham going into halftime with the lead and the momentum, Hull equalized through a diving header by Evandro in the 50th minute. No one in a white shirt was marking Evandro when Andrew Robertson’s cross met the Hull midfielder’s forehead.

The equal footing was brief, though, when Chris Martin gave Fulham a 2-1 lead in the 54th minute in the best attack of the game. Aluko, from just behind the center line, sent an incisive pass that sliced through the gap on the right side of Hull’s defense. Fulham left back Ryan Sessegnon, the club’s 16-year-old academy graduate, made a run down his left and cut inside to beat Jakupovic to the ball in the box. Sessegnon then sent a one-touch pass across the face of the net for the unmarked Chris Martin to one-time it into an empty net.

To reach the quota for the obligatory cliché: scenes.

Martin and Sessegnon immediately ran to each other, then Sessegnon leaped into Martin’s arms for the bear hug. After the hug, Martin and Sessegnon walked toward their teammates, with arms clasped around each others’ shoulders. As they walked together, Martin pointed at the teenager to get everyone to acknowledge Sessegnon’s superb run and pass in the build-up to the goal.

The floodgates opened for Fulham after that, with Sessegnon capping off another fine display of passing to give the Whites a 3-1 lead in the 66th minute. This time, Martin repaid the favor to Sessegnon with a one-touch pass into open space in the box. Sessegnon, who outran his marker in the space, just had to tap the ball through Jakupovic’s five-hole for the goal.

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Sessegnon’s goal sealed the tie for Fulham, but Hull’s shoddy defending continued and gifted Fulham their fourth of the match in the 78th minute. Tom Cairney, Fulham’s captain for the match, received the ball in space in the right side of the box. Cairney shook off two defenders—Cariney beat the second defender with a 180 degree twirl—then slid the ball, while falling down, toward the penalty spot. No one in an amber and orange shirt was there, but Johansen in white marauded to the ball and launched it into the net.

Those poor Hull fans who made the trip south for this mess. Little did they know that it was only going to get worse.

A foul in the box in the 86th minute gifted Hull a penalty kick. Abel Hernandez stepped up to the kick… and Bettinelli dove to his left and denied Hernandez! But then Bettinelli also brought down Hernandez in the box as they scrambled for the loose ball, so Hull had a second opportunity from the spot for a second consolation goal.

The men seated behind me predicted that Hernandez would again aim at Bettinelli’s left.

Hernandez stepped up… and Bettinelli dove to his left and denied Hernandez! Again! But the ball was cleared this time! They may have had four goals to celebrate earlier, but Craven Cottage hit peak euphoria at the double penalty saves by Bettinelli. So much so, the Hammersmith end poked a little self-deprecating fun at Hull.

“Are you Fulham in disguise?” the Hammersmith End serenaded to Hull and the Tigers’ supporters. (Finally: some vocal hostility between the supporters, even if it’s of lighthearted kind. Reading and Cardiff spoiled me.)

Fulham has been abject with penalties in the Championship this season, earning eight penalty kicks and scoring only two goals off them. Of those eight penalty kicks, three have been against QPR’s Alex Smithies—and none of them have gone in for Fulham. Hell, Fulham missed a last-minute penalty in the game that preceded this FA Cup tie, and it resulted in a 1-0 win for Reading.

But for one rainy Sunday afternoon, Fulham supporters had the joy of seeing another team suffer through the penalty woes that have plagued their club. It was the icing on the cake of an excellent team effort that pushed the Cottagers onto the next round of the FA Cup.

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The Hammersmith End

A Cold, Rainy Tuesday in Brentford

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We still don’t know whether or not Leo Messi can do it on a cold, rainy Tuesday night in Stoke, but on 31 January, I spent a cold, rainy Tuesday night in Griffin Park watching Brentford defeat Aston Villa 3-0 in a Championship match.

Yeah, finally. I have something on Messi other than my height.

My path from the United States to Griffin Park—a stadium best known for having a pub outside each of its corners; perfect for a near-teetotal like me—is a convoluted one. It started with a high school crush on Natalie Sawyer, a supporter of Brentford and anchor for Sky Sports News, the highlights show I watched when Fox Soccer Channel existed. While I was at UF, I found out Sawyer supported Brentford, so I started keeping tabs on them in League One.

In 2015, I learned that Brentford would eventually move to a new stadium that’s closer to Kew Bridge. Now I wanted to see a game at Griffin Park, which turned 111 years old in 2015, before club left its historic ground for a new, larger sleek, modern home.

That game should have happened in January 2016, when I had tickets to see Brentford host Leeds United in a Championship match. However, Leeds’ progression in the FA Cup forced them to reschedule their match against Brentford. The clubs moved the match from its original date on a Saturday to the Tuesday that preceded it.

That Tuesday was the day before I left the US for London.

This year, the Championship scheduled Brentford and Aston Villa to face each other at Griffin Park on the Tuesday after a weekend of FA Cup fixtures, so there was no chance the league would reschedule this game. Furthermore, my club, Crystal Palace, had a home game scheduled for the Saturday after the Brentford-Villa match, so I could still have my cake and eat it. Villa’s visit would also be my chance to see Mile Jedinak, the former Palace captain who moved to Villa in August 2016, play again and to maybe randomly bump into Sawyer, who still regularly attends matches at Griffin Park.


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I arrived at Griffin Park about 1.5 hours before the 7:45 pm kickoff. Obviously, Sawyer and I never ran into each other. (It was nice to dream, though.) Twitter later told me that Jedinak suffered a thigh injury a couple weeks before the Brentford match and couldn’t make the trip from Birmingham to London.

The irony that Jedinak was ruled out of the only chance I’d get to see him play was appreciated.

I took my seat in the Paddock, the lower tier of the Braemar Road Stand, just as the rainfall began to intensify. The heavy rain took a slow descent from the sky to the ground, combining with the illumination from the floodlights to make an oddly soothing scene of water flowing from darkness to light. A steady breeze into the ground kept things chilly, but there were no strong gusts of wind to make the cold unbearable.

The cozy confines of Griffin Park—the capacity of 13000 makes it the third smallest venue in the Championship—added to the sense of calm created by the rain and the light. Griffin Park’s location in a residential area, the small crowd, and simple design of the stands bring out a neighborly air to the stadium. It recalls a simpler time when you could support a team without the carrot of Premier League treasure dangling over the lower tiers, a tantalizing object of desire. The feeling that you traveled back in time inside Griffin Park is enhanced by the old-school technology: the two scoreboards only display text in red and green against a black background, the clock can’t count seconds, and substitutions are relayed in the form of text that scrolls across the board. The only other place I’ve seen outdated technology like this live past its expiration date is the Nassau Coliseum.

The noise created by the arriving Villa and Brentford supporters jolted Griffin Park from its pre-game slumber in the rain. As “Hey Jude” blared before the players came on to the pitch, the Villa supporters seated in the Brook Road Stand, located on the opposite end of the venue from from me, occasionally got loud enough to drown out the Beatles hit. The Brentford home supporters to my right on the Ealing Road Stand showed they could compete with the away support by singing along their own songs to drown out “Hey Jude.” This battle for the atmosphere was aided by how small the stadium is.


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Taking a page from the vocal pregame show by their supporters in the Brooks Road Stand, Villa got off to a fast start from kickoff. In the 8th minute, Villa striker Albert Adomah found himself alone against Brentford goalkeeper Daniel Bentley, but Adomah slid the ball past the wrong side of the post. A minute later, a close range effort by Villa forced a smart save from Bentley—the wet pitch gave the ball a hop that caused the ball to bounce off the head of Bentley as he went down to the ground. The home fans in the Ealing Road Stand voiced their approval with a rendition of “He saves with his head.”

In the 10th minute, the oldest absurdity for an old stadium happened: the lights went out in the Brook Road and Ealing Road Stands. The Villa fans immediately went to work poking fun at their odd viewing circumstances with a new song.

“We’ll sing in the dark

We’ll sing in the dark

We’re Aston Villa

We’ll sing in the dark”

As they reached the end of the song, a number of the away fans took out their mobiles, turned on the flashlight function, and held their phones up above their heads like this was the slow jam of an outdoor concert.

The power outage also marked the beginning of Brentford taking control of the game. The Bees began to dominate possession and pin back Villa by their own goal. This swarming of the Villains in their own end led to the Bees’ breakthrough in the 24th minute. Brentford midfielder Nico Yennaris slid the ball through the Villa defense to striker Lasse Vibe (the surname is pronounced “Vee-bay,” not like Cisco Ramon’s metahuman name), who put the ball into the net in a breakaway against Villa keeper Sam Johnstone.

Vibe’s goal to put Brentford up 1-0 deflated the away end and the home fans called them out on it with a song.

“You ain’t singing anymore… We’ll sing on our own,” the Ealing Road end chanted.

Villa struggled to climb out the pitfall it stepped on when they fell behind. Their strikers were isolated from the rest of the team, while Brentford had a field day running up through the space given to them on the flanks. The Bees repaid Villa’s generosity along the wings by going up 2-0 in the 37th minute. Brentford ran down the right hand side without much challenge before the ball was driven into the box. An unmarked Yennaris slid and stabbed the ball into the net to deservedly double Brentford’s lead.

The Bees took a 2-0 lead into the dressing room at halftime, but more importantly, the lights finally came back on in the Brooks Road and Ealing Road Stands. All the excitement and joy from the supporters must have powered the electricity back on.

The victory of working lightbulbs over darkness had a short victory, though. By the 49th minute, the lights went out in all the stands; the floodlights over the pitch remained illuminated, our shield against the darkness and a postponement or abandoning of the current result.

Vibe put Brentford up 3-0 and the game to bed in the 65th minute, though, with his second goal of the match. Brentford’s midfield maestro for the night, Josh McEachran, picked out Vibe with a pinpoint pass to kickstart a counterattack. Vibe dribbled through his defender, running into a more central position in the box before shooting the ball past Johnstone.

The celebration by Vibe was an adult rediscovering unbridled childhood joy. As the rain pelted him, Vibe ran toward the home supporters at Ealing Room with arms spread wide like wings, then slid headfirst toward the club’s adulating fans. Vibe’s teammates swallowed him in a pile of smiles as he laid on the ground before they all jogged back to the center circle together.

Sure, I didn’t see Natalie Sawyer, or Mile Jedinak, or Aston Villa after the first 20 minutes of the match, but the cozy atmosphere of Griffin Park and the crowd feeding off of an assured performance by Brentford made it one of the most fun sporting events I’ve attended. You can’t go wrong spending a cold, rainy Tuesday night shivering in an old English stadium just to watch a game of lower-division football.

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Royalty in Berkshire

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The United Center in Chicago apparently has a second home in the United Kingdom.

At the Madjeski Stadium in Reading, Berkshire, United Kingdom, the PA for Reading F.C. played “Chelsea Dagger” during the warm-up and then “Sirius” before the players took to the pitch for the 28 January Championship contest between the home side Royals and Cardiff City F.C.

Then it turned into Fenway Park when “Sweet Caroline” blared moments before kickoff.

But after that, the unified voices of chanting supporters quickly made that feeling of being in an American stadium disappear.

The Madejski Stadium has a unique set-up that’s unheard of in the other stadiums I’ve visited. In most cases, the vocal home supporters and the traveling away support are placed in opposite ends of a stadium. Reading burns that concept to the ground by seating its liveliest supporters in the southern half of the East Stand and the away supporters taking their spot in the South End of the Madejski.

Yes, the boisterous home support and traveling fans are perpendicular to each other. And I was seated right in between the two on the East Stand.

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The proximity between the two groups is a pressure cooker. Instead of a long-distance aerial battle between the two sets of supporters found at most stadiums, the battle for control of the atmosphere is one of close combat. Supporters directly jawing at one another is inevitable. The dissing in the stands is a second front for the action on the pitch.

Oh, yeah, that’s right. We’re here for a game. And hey, look! There’s a football match on the pitch down there!

For about the first 20 minutes of the Reading-Cardiff match, the atmosphere was the most exciting thing in the stadium. Plenty of wanking gestures and middle fingers were exchanged between the two sets of supporters, but the England-Wales rivalry added an extra bite to the songs. The Reading supporters had a fondness for trotting out “England, England, England!”

Reading had the first real chance of the match in the 19th minute, when winger Gareth McCleary—cover boy for the matchday program—ran into the box from the right and sent a precise, low center to American Danny Williams, whose touch was too heavy to capitalize on the pass. A minute later, Cardiff hit the post after the Royals struggled to clear a set piece. The ref then missed a few legitimate fouls committed by Cardiff, but other than that, the action died down again for another 20 minutes.

Part of the reason why the first half dragged was that the build-up to Reading’s attacks were too slow and deliberate; Cardiff were happy to congest from the midfield to the goal and then counterattack. In the 42nd minute, Reading finally decided to play quickly and lo and behold, the home side took a 1-0 lead.

The goal came from Williams taking the ball and unleashing a low drive from outside the box. Cardiff goalkeeper Allan McGregor saved the shot, but the ball rebounded off him and started to roll toward the goal line to be out-of-play for a corner. However, McCleary ran after the ball and backheeled it just to keep it in play, and Reading midfield John Swift was in the right place at the right time to sweep the ball into the net.

Cardiff responded right before halftime, with Joe Ralls scoring a penalty that further stoked the grievances that the Reading supporters nearby me held against the ref. As the home support complained, bedlam ensued at the away end. Cardiff Fans rushed to their right, toppling over themselves and the chairs to taunt the neighboring home sections. More wanking gestures and middle figures made an appearance before the halftime whistle dispersed people back to the concourses.

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The second half began much like the first, with Reading not doing much with possession and Cardiff getting in one good chance off a counter. But in the 59th minute, Reading striker Yann Kermogant broke the deadlock with a beautiful free kick from 18 yards out that curled into the net at the far post.

Once again, both sets of neighbo(u)ring supporters had a go at one another. The gestures were now joined by the sarcastic applause of the traveling fans and a serenading of Kermogant’s name by Berkshire loyalists.

Reading and Cardiff probably each should have had one more goal, but they both squandered a couple opportunities inside the box. Whatever. The true entertainment was always in the stands in this game. Reading captain Paul McShane was treated to a rendition of “Paul McShane, My Love” after he hustled back to tackle the ball away for a throw-in. The home support also directed more barbs at the Bluebirds’ supporters with chants of “You shag your sister” and “You support a pile of [crap].”

Yeah, those last two songs aren’t that creative. The home support saved their most cheeky one for the 81st minute: their singing of the last lyrics to “God Save the Queen.” A smattering of Cardiff supporters greeted the end of the anthem with boos.

After the ref—who had a terrible day himself with so many missed calls—blew the full time whistle, both sets of supporters turned to one another to get their final punches in. A barrage of taunts and middle fingers landed on both clubs’ fans. The stewards formed a human tunnel around the main staircase of the South End to keep a steady flow of Cardiff supporters headed toward the exits. The home support got the last three words in, though.

“England, England, England.”

It’s a Privilege to Be Here

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I waited eight months to make my annual trek across the Atlantic to Selhurst Park and got to see Crystal Palace go down 0-4 to Sunderland by halftime and lose by that scoreline when the ref blew the full time whistle.

At least Palace kept a clean sheet in the second half.

After the match, much of the team walked straight into the tunnel. A forlorn Joel Ward lingered by the center circle, then walked toward the Arthur Wait, softly clapping the home support. He then turned to his right and gave the same gentle applause to the Holmesdale before trudging to the tunnel. The pained expression on Ward’s face on Saturday was nearly identical to the sorrow that overcame him nine months earlier, when Palace lost the FA Cup Final against Manchester United in extra time.

Ward’s dejection thawed me from the numbness that set in stoppage time of the first half. The sadness and hurt I tried to prevent by going stoic crept in and took over.

The resignation to defeat came when Defoe had the ball in the box before he scored Sunderland’s third goal. It was all too predictable: with only one defender to shake off and that short of a distance between him and the net, there was no way Defoe would fluff the opportunity. For the sake of sample size, Defoe repeated the same scoring procedure a minute later, but from the other side of the box.

Selhurst remained loud after Palace went down 0-4, but for all the wrong reasons. “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” rained down from the stands to the feeble eleven in red and blue on the pitch, then the chorus of booing stalked the wounded Eagles when they trudged to the dressing room for halftime.

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A shortened stay in the dressing room failed to catalyze a number of sustained, dangerous attacks from Palace in the second half. Despite the valiant commitment of Wilf Zaha (in the few times he was given the ball) and Andros Townsend, both of whom put balls into the box, the fear that strangled the team in the first half retained its grip on much of the team in the second half. Too many passes still traveled backward or sideways despite the massive deficit.

Although he only played the second half, Townsend—someone I’ve singled out with skepticism about his commitment—showed the sense of urgency that his starting teammates should have had through all 90 minutes. When the ball went out into the Arthur Wait for a Palace throw, Townsend, eyes wide in anticipation, yelled “Come on! Come on!” to the supporters to get the ball to him quickly at the touchline. When he didn’t have the ball, Townsend directed his teammates on where to move the ball, where he would make a run, and where his teammates should be standing to receive a pass.

The display by Townsend is the type of vocal leadership you expect out of someone like captain Scott Dann or goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, that latter of which is the personification of the lack of character in the Crystal Palace dressing room. After being named Player of the Month in December 2015, the Welsh international has never recovered from his gaffe that gifted Aston Villa all three points in January 2016. Hennessey’s reaction to that dreadful visit to Villa Park has been the fearful playing style and poor decision making—despite being blessed with the right physical tools, a la Jay Cutler—that continues to make him less than the sum of all his individual qualities. That’s set the tone for the 10 Palace players in front of him and has been a major role in the club’s underachievement for the past year.

Someone needs to step up and provoke the right reaction to adversity—unity, team spirit, pride—from the squad. Not seeing that for the past year is starting to hurt more than the losing.

It’s a privilege for me as a supporter to come to Selhurst Park, even if it’s only once a season. Those 90 minutes at the home ground each year allow me to build a personal visceral narrative with the club that the locals make stories out of. This story began in 2015, with the chills and near-tears of seeing and singing along to the Glad All Over march before the 0-1 loss to Everton. It continued in 2016, when Zaha scored the first ever Palace goal with me in attendance in the 1-0 win over Stoke in the FA Cup, then Scott Dann following it up three nights later with one of his own in the 1-2 defeat to Bournemouth in the league. Even in the losses, I could take something positive from the effort on the pitch or in the stands.

On Saturday, all we got was capitulation.

After the debacle against Sunderland, Steve Parish’s speech, and the video breakdown on Sunday, I hope the individuals that make up Crystal Palace F.C. rediscovered—or finally grasped—the privilege that they have as players to come to Selhurst Park 19 times a season, slip on that red and blue shirt, and not just write their career C.V. and the club’s history, but the stories that the supporters take with them for life after allocating a chunk of their weekend to cheer the Eagles on.

But because that collective spirit still seems lost, the forlorn figure of Joel Ward will be my lasting image of Selhurst Park for the foreseeable future.

Dusting off the Place

Where is that light switch…? Ah, here we go.

Whoa. There are a lot of cobwebs scattered throughout and quite a few cockroaches running around here.

It’s been more than a month since I last wrote something and even then, it turned out to be a eulogy for our dearly departed shih tzu, Biscuit. That’s not the note I want to end the year on here, so I’m back for a little bit.

The year 2016 had a lot of crappy things happen: the results of a UK referendum and US presidential election, Zika virus, a rise in displays of hatred in person and online, and a world grappling with violence of all types. On a lesser scale, the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl on a last-second interception and Crystal Palace lost my second Premier League match at Selhurst Park, then lost the FA Cup to Manchester United three months later.

But all of the terribleness of 2016 was redeemed by the Chicago Cubs finally winning the World Series in October. (I only had to wait about three decades!) I can finally be a baseball fan without keeping that stupid drought in the back of my mind through an excessively long regular season and torturous and tortuous postseason.

Leicester City won the Premier League to make the most captivating title race since the 2011-12 season, when Manchester City won it with a goal in the dying minutes of the final game of the season to pip Manchester United for the title.

And, of course, I met a lot of great people (and dogs) and reunited with family and friends enough times to keep me going through the relative isolation I’m saddled with in Connecticut. Thanks, folks.

I’m taking on more projects for myself, but I’ll write with more frequency here come 2017. Yes, that is a tease for you and for me. Writing once a month here is not enough when you’re writing about the same defensive issues Palace have had every week of the season.

Party hearty and safely into 2017, folks. See you in January.