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As English football finds a home on U.S. televisions, fan culture grows in bars



The English Premier League season began last Saturday with unprecedented fanfare, and the rain that came with it locally was fitting. For the increasing number of fervent fans of English football, water and mud are commingled with joy and sorrow.

Part and parcel of watching the play is the drinking, chanting and singing—not only in English stadiums but in urban areas around the United States, where fans have taken to gathering in pubs on Saturday mornings.

Now there's a new group of raucous regulars at Durham's Bull McCabes: the Triangle Gooners. On Saturday, 25 supporters clad in red and white jerseys, vintage and new, stood outside in a North London-style drizzle waiting for the bar's 10 a.m. opening and the start of a match between their side, London's storied Arsenal Football Club, against Aston Villa.

Among them were Chris Skelly and Brett Stein, two men who revived the club in 2012 after it was "kind of run out of a guy's apartment" since its 2008 founding.

"We want to grow the supporters club to the point where we can rival all the big clubs," says Skelly, who counted 60 fellow fans by kickoff. "We're finding there's enough supporters down here where we could make it happen." Arsenal's followers are dubbed the Gooners after the squad's unofficial Gunners nickname. The local supporters club is one of 28 that are officially recognized by Arsenal America, including Gooners branches in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Dallas and Charlotte.

Skelly and Stein both came to the Triangle from New York City, where attending matches at the local pub alongside fellow supporters is something of an established culture adapted from the English Saturday afternoon ritual.

In England, attending football games is a tribal experience. Unlike in the United States, rival fans are kept apart in the stadium, and every ground has pubs nearby for the home fans. At its worst, this culture gives rise to violent hooliganism. More typically, however, the experience of watching games together with like-minded fans—in pubs or in stadiums—is an intense experience of emotional bonding.

On Saturday at Bull McCabes, the Triangle Gooners experienced emotions ranging from elation to despair, defiance and disillusion.

"You are bringing together a family," Stein said. "Above all it's about Arsenal and this crest on your chest."

Old faces met each other over warm smiles and cold beers, thrilled to reunite after three long months in between English Premier League seasons. Stein's wife, Candice, and son Jack frolicked among the followers.

The 16-month-old blond-haired boy was adorned in the jersey of his namesake, Arsenal's 21-year-old maestro, Jack Wilshere. "Soccer" is one of the few words in young Jack's vocabulary.

"Jack was a Gooner before he was born," his proud father says. "Hopefully, he wins us the Champions League someday."

Fans erupted when Arsenal's Olivier Giroud slotted home to grab the lead six minutes into the game. The bar rang with the spirited singing of the Frenchman's name.

It proved to be the day's highlight. A half-hour later, the Gooners went from arms up in delight, to up in arms with dismay. The perennially mediocre—if also evocatively named—Aston Villa were proving more than a match for Arsenal, and they leveled the score, 1-1.

The clock doesn't stop in soccer, and the game ground on, to the escalating despair of the Gooners gathered in Bull McCabes.

Soccer fandom in the United States has progressed immensely since the days when Skelly caught odd matches on pay-per-view. This season may prove to be a watershed: It marks the first year of NBC bringing the Barclays Premier League—the world's NFL—to American viewers. NBC paid $250 million for the rights to broadcast three seasons. The agreement brings more soccer matches to American viewers than ever before, airing all 380 contests on TV or online and 30 hours of original studio programming per week. Most Saturdays, NBC will even broadcast a 12:30 p.m. game over the air, directly confronting the beast of college football.

Bull McCabes owner Malachy Noone, originally of Sligo, Ireland, sees the contract as a response to the growth of the game, "leaps and bounds in the last 10 years."

"Fans are more knowledgeable now," said Noone, a Manchester United fan who welcomes the Gooners' takeover of his establishment.

Bull McCabes is the new home of the Triangle Gooners, a shift from London Bridge Pub in Raleigh where local Liverpool loyalists regularly hold court. Thus far, they are the only two local English supporter groups in the area.

Noone envisions making his pub even more soccer-friendly. He bought the adjacent lawn, a quarter acre, a year and a half ago and plans to build a covered deck, add big screens and host up to 400 people, come FIFA World Cup time next summer.

The local Gooners come from all over the Triangle, and even Greensboro. Jeff Gredlein, a UNC School of the Arts professor, carpooled with two others to make the match.

"We just don't have a 10 a.m. bar in Greensboro," he said. "These guys are good. We come and yell and have a good time."

Danny Clemens, a UNC graduate, has a tattoo of the Arsenal cannon logo on the inside of his right bicep, and he owns seven Arsenal jerseys. He was pleasantly surprised to find so many fellow supporters in the Triangle, too.

"They were smart. They were loud," he said. "I would have liked a little more singing for my flavor, but it was good."

As it happened, no amount of singing "I'm Arsenal till I die/ I know I am/ I'm sure I am/ I'm Arsenal till I die" could save the Gunners. As the game wore on, the fans at Bull McCabes transformed from a supporters group to a support group.

Sixty-two minutes into the game, Aston Villa took a stunning 2-1 lead. Frustration fizzled into fury five minutes later when an Arsenal defender was sent off the field.

Scarves covered some faces, others contorted with anger when Aston Villa (the "Villans") put Arsenal to the sword, 3-1. The Gooners raged with blame: for the coach, for the ownership, for the players. The questions came fast, the outlook looked dire. The season was only one day old.

Suman Ganoham, a British business school student who moved here three weeks ago, was surprised and heartened to find a community he thought he'd left in London.

"If you're committed enough to come out to a soccer match at 10 am, my assumption is you really care about your team a lot," he said. "I kind of feel at home.

"I'm upset we lost, but I'm so happy people are here to share that loss with me."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Gooner 'til I die."

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