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Monday 21 January 2013

POV-FS On The Road – England (Again) & Scotland – Days One & Two: Travel & Preparations

    It’s that time of year again.

    Hello and welcome to the introductory installment of the second annual POV-FS ‘On the Road’ World Football Tour. Yes, “World” is a little grand for another trip to the United Kingdom, but hey, you never know where these travels may take us in the future, so may as well think big.

    For now, while I dust up on my comprehension of other languages, these English speaking – more-or-less - nations will have to suffice.

    With the MLS season stretching further into the winter months and MLS Cup scheduled for the first of December, I decided it was wise to wait until the Christmas season – and its subsequent fixture pile-up – to plan this year’s tour.

    Last year’s voyage was immense fun, but the backlog of missed matches, a bulging PVR, and piles upon piles of reading that awaited my return is still being dealt with to this day, and so, the choice to travel when most other leagues went on their winter hiatus, and MLS entered its post-season torpor, made the most sense.

    Departing on the twenty-seventh of December and set to return on the eighth of January, we here at POV-FS began our journey.

    Six matches in five cities spread over a seven-day period from Saturday afternoon to Saturday afternoon – slightly more than a week; that is the challenge - throw in a day or two for travel on each end of the twelve-day stretch and you’re in for one hell of a vacation; if you can call it that.

    I’ve taken to describing it as a whirlwind tour of British football. I assume when most folks go abroad they leave some time to take in the sights each location has to offer: A lazy afternoon walking aimless around a city to gain one’s bearings and discover some neat little spot off the beaten path; perhaps a visit to a gallery or museum, a tour, and a leisurely dinner some place a touch more fancy than one would regularly indulge in at home. But not us, we’ve come exclusively for the football

    Sure, there was some food, much of which I will not bother with recounting to any great extent, less it be pertinent to the discussion at hand, and there was even a bit of time for a museum, true, it was footballing in nature, but it was a museum nonetheless.

    Even the officers at the customs desks, both incoming and outgoing, seemed perplexed at the immensity of our itinerary and the lack of the usual vacationers paraphernalia that accompanied our return – be they duffle coats or mini-Big Bens; I can’t think of other things one may bring back from England (Mustard and Tea? Check) or Scotland (Whiskey?). And those who asked about the trip seemed unsettled by the blind-focus of the journey.

    For a voyage such as this, it is important to begin on the right foot; with that aspiration in mind, our initial flight was dutifully delayed by an hour making the chances of catching the connecting flight nigh impossible.

    It was a trifle clichéd, but upon landing in Philadelphia, and waiting for a bus to transfer us from Terminal A to Terminal B – or F, I can’t be bogged down in such details at the moment - we were forced into a compressed sprint as the final boarding call for departure was announced just as the gate came into view some miles ahead.

    Fortunately, we were not the only ones in such a predicament, and when faced with several Canadians breathlessly explaining their cause, the good people manning the gangway relented, unlocked the doors, and allowed us all to board our flight bound for Manchester.

    The Philadelphia airport, aside from the understanding of those employed, did not leave a good impression on the weary traveler; this first spot of bother was hardly the last, but I will leave that story for another time.

    Boarding the Airbus, disheveled and ill-braced for a seven-hour flight, in full view of a plane packed with the glimpses of those curious for whom their departure had been held up; I was comforted by the view of several supporter’s scarves dotted around the compartment. I could not tell you which teams – I suspect it was simply the usual cabal – but they embodied the subtle message that all this travelling fuss would be worth it in the end.

    The flight was as millions before it had been.

    I passed the time catching up on a back-issue of The Blizzard. I am woefully behind on that regiment, something I hope to address with a new resolution, but each time I delve in I am amazed by the sheer quality of the content.

    Between that, a few Scottish football highlight programs loaded onto my phone, and a movie or two, the flight was over soon enough.

    Ultimately, our good fortune in arriving ahead of schedule was rewarded with a disqualifying wait for a gate at which to disembark; such are the laws of travel; that is to be expected.

    But what was unexpected was the intriguing conversation that pervaded the long line as myself and our fellow passengers snaked through the cordoned off pathway through customs.

    Here I was a Canadian, surrounded by Americans, most of whom – or so it seemed at the time – had come over to watch some soccer.

    Two young Chelsea fans struck up a conversation with a Manchester United fan from the Washington DC area.

    The Chelsea boys were off for a tour of Old Trafford that afternoon – I’ve no idea why - before making the short trip to Liverpool to see their Blues take on the Blues of Everton.

    The United fan was headed to Old Trafford herself, taking in the match against West Brom on Saturday, before embarking to visit some friends in Bristol. Here was another United fan that piped in as they spoke of Wayne Rooney’s illness and of the magnificence of Robin Van Persie.

    Over here, a Liverpool fan, that like myself, simply enjoyed overhearing the conversation. And don’t worry, nobody liked City.

    It seems that even superficial loyalty, the kind that lies beyond the ocean, cannot be bought with petro dollars, no matter how lavishly they are squandered.

    The conversation took a sharp turn towards MLS, which interested me greatly.

    I mean, here, captured in that velvet prison-maze, was an opportunity to overhear what actual soccer-loving fans thought of their own domestic league in a hidden camera type scenario.

    The DC-area United (Manchester) fan spoke of greatly enjoying attending live matches, even name-checking the Barra Brava as an insanely fun bunch of partying fools – meant in the kindest of manners – but mentioned never watching on television.

    The Chelsea fans mentioned the madness that was Seattle as an impressive situation, but they too could not be bothered to watch on TV; and apparently hadn’t been to a game in person, though to be fair, I have no idea from whence they came or if there was a team local to them.

    I should have joined in the back-and-forth, but felt that even these uninitiated would know enough to ridicule the poor Toronto FC fan, and besides I was rather spent by this time in the morning - or was it night – either way.

    It is a particular hurdle that MLS must overcome, though not unique to their plight; the need – engorged by our sporting traditions in North America – to declare ourselves fans of only the best.

    Terms such as “World Champions”; “The World Series” – true, that may have been after a newspaper, but the point stands. We have been engrained to think over here that only the best is worth our attention, and that simply isn’t true.

    There is something extremely edifying in supporting locally.

    I’m reminded of a common refrain I’ve heard often during the hockey lockout from disgruntled fans, who took the time to go see their local junior club, only to find a pleasure in the quaintness of the event.

    This did not carry with it the glitz and glamour of the highest echelon, but there was genuine entertainment to be found in a game played well. No TV timeouts, no cynical defensive traps, no egos – well, surely there were, but nothing enveloping – and affordable.

    Who needs millionaire prima-athletes when all we really want is some earnest endeavour?

    For now that is where MLS resides; niche, but growing. Perhaps that is why it has been so successful in the Pacific Northwest, where micro-brews and Indie labels have thrived so well for some time.

    We all love that thing, be it music, or cuisine, or manner of speaking that reminds us of home.

    Note to self: remember to enunciate when announcing from whence I come; people get confused as to the location of Turanna.

    Those are the things that we can truly call our own. As the world continues to shrink, those objects of local pride, of collective appreciation, will serve to maintain the distinctions that make the world endlessly interesting.

    I fear that this Hollywood mentality has begun to pervade the European game – not that it did not before, see: Ireland – and that the pool of clubs and league will shrink as eyes gravitate towards a few big clubs, rather than get out and support the local side.

    I came to the conclusion, based on a bit of the easy ribbing that was dabbled throughout the conversation, that one of the factors that differentiate the American game from the European was the lack of animosity between clubs in MLS.

    Rivalries are growing, and the league is doing its utmost to encourage these passions – Rivalry Week, would be announced shortly – but that innate hatred of the opposition is something that stands out on the sporting landscape.

    Sure, there are many teams that dislike each other over here, regardless of sport, but seldom does that distaste so pervade the conscious of the respective fan groups, as it does in Europe. That novelty, and the slight hint of danger that accompanies, hyped by the type of hooli-porn that leaks beyond the borders, is intoxicating to those separated by a safe distance.

    But I digress - through customs, easy-peasy, though the lady at the desk was concerned about the cost of attending so many matches.

    Arsenal’s ticket prices – sixty-two pounds for away fans?!?! - would be debated and condemned repeatedly throughout our time in England, but the average admittance to a ground is very little compared to the exorbitant prices of Toronto Maple Leaf games; and Toronto FC is not all that far behind.

    The run through the Philadelphia airport was long behind, but its kick came back to haunt at the realization that, unlike our persons, the luggage was not able to make the connecting flight and its current whereabouts could not be confirmed.

    Oh well; such trivial matters would not dampen the spirit.

    An unsteady walk along one of those unsettling people-movers, a light train ride into town, and a short while later Manchester’s familiar Piccadilly station welcomed us back and the anxiety of the unknown melted away – I’d been here before.

    The wonder and the shame of England lie in its character. As the train pulled into the station a wonderful old brick warehouse lay to one side. Blackened with soot, in a state of disrepair, its courtyard housed rows of unused buses; perhaps it was a head office or a repair centre or merely a fancy garage.

    Either way, the majesty of the construction was not appreciated for what it was. Sure, they have their fair share of old buildings, far more than we have here at least. But if this structure was to be found in Toronto, it would have been transitioned into a happening night spot – hip – or luxurious lofts – actually in Toronto they would likely have torn it down to build another condo, but that is beside the point.

    In some ways it reminded me of Detroit. Old, well constructed, but abandoned. Unlike Detroit however, they were signs that things were turning. New construction was limited, but there was a sense of revitalization. Manchester may lie behind other cities in that regard, as we’ll see later on, but modernity will come, slowly if it must.

    Metrolink to the hotel; elevator to the room; from the door to the bed -  a few hours of napping, before absconding down an alley way for a pint and some fish and chips – nothing says England, like mushy peas.

    That’s another thing to lament about home, nowhere that I’ve been – which isn’t saying much – makes such fine use of its alleyways.

    Travel now done, the adventure lay before. Weary, but ready; packed, but unprepared, with only the clothes on our backs and the contents of a carry-on.

    There was a winter carnival of some sort lining a street on one side of the Arndale shopping centre; it was mostly just preposterous rides as sale-hunters loaded down with bags ducked between onlookers in the post-holiday anarchy that is a mall.

    Post-meal, a good night’s sleep, after a passing thought of the luggage, lay ahead.

    Tomorrow was Saturday and Match Day One of the excursion – to Old Trafford as Manchester United hosted West Bromwich Albion.

The next installment of POV-FS’ On the Road will be post in the coming days, stay tuned.

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