This is what it's like to be a Reading fan these days: On Sunday, while watching the Czech Republic battle Turkey for a spot in the Euro 2008 quarterfinals, I was enjoying the play of Marek Matejovsky, the talented Czech midfielder who scored this awesome goal for the Royals at Liverpool in March toward the end of their two-year run in the English Premier League.
Matejovsky is one of the players who might soon get raided by other Premier League teams now that the Royals have been relegated, and there he was upholding the reeling club's honor on Europe's grandest stage. Then, late in the first half, Matejovsky went down hard and stayed down. Several yellow-vested medics brought out a stretcher and carried him off the field with torn ankle ligaments, meaning he would watch helplessly as the Turks made the incredible comeback (three goals in the final 15 minutes) that eliminated his team.
It's unclear how long Matejovsky will be out. If he returns to play for the Royals, it will be in the Championship division.
Life sucks for the Royals these days, even though Steve Coppell is staying on as manager, which gives Reading a fighting chance of getting back to the big show in 2009-10. Then again, that's what every fan of a team that gets relegated tells him/herself, and history tells us that such a mentality is borderline delusional.
Or so I'm told. This is all very new to me, of course. As a proud Cal alum, I know all about heartbreak and prolonged suffering, but the whole relegation concept has caused me to do some soul-searching. When I adopted the Royals last October after watching them defeat Newcastle United at Madejski Stadium, my buddy Dan and I joining in a late-game celebration that sounded something like this, I figured I'd latched on to an up-and-coming team that would take me on a ride through the Premier League for years to come.
The concept that relegation could foul up that plan didn't really hit me until the final week of the season, and when the bad news came I wasn't sure how to react. I floated the idea of retaining my allegiance to the Royals while temporarily adopting a Premier League team to get me through the hopefully short stretch that Reading was below. My caveat was that no frontrunners would be considered, but beyond that I was open to suggestion.
To your credit, you filled the cyber-suggestion box with some very persuasive proposals. I'm going to list a bunch of them here, after which I'll come to a decision – and several yellow-vested medics will come and take me away on a stretcher.
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"Hey Mike, Too bad about Reading going down. Regarding an adopted team, though, I think that you should consider Fulham even though by avoiding the drop they sent your boys down. They're loaded with Americans: Dempsey, Bocanegra, Johnson, Keller, and the classiest player from the U.S. in McBride. Basically they're America's team in England. Also, despite being at the bottom of the table, they showed their class and determination by winning four out of their last five games to stay up and show promise for next season. Obviously won't be accused of bandwagoning by supporting Fulham instead of Chelsea/ManUtd/Liverpool/Arsenal. Be patriotic and show the Cottagers (yeah I know) some love."
I admire Fulham's grit in staying up, and I've been told that its training ground is next to Motspur Park (where "Chariots of Fire" was filmed) and that it is the oldest club in London. But as far as the patriotism, if my primary goal was to support a bunch of American soccer players, I'd adopt an MLS team.
"Michael, I enjoy watching the big dogs play in the Premiership, but your temporary team should be Fulham. The Craven Cottage team sports five Americans currently. Kasey Keller, Brian McBride, Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra and Eddie Johnson. McBride is actually the club's captain and is universally respected by the English for his work ethic and toughness. Dempsey is a flashier 'on the ball' player who performed very well in his first year overseas. I know it will be a tough pill to swallow since Fulham kept Reading from avoiding relegation, but you have to root for the Yanks."
A tougher pill to swallow would be having my SURROGATE team get relegated. That scares me.
"Michael: I have some suggstions for an EPL club to follow next year. You might consider the London team the Fulham Cottagers. They have five Americans on their roster and play at a stadium with the picturesque name of 'Craven Cottage' (only the English …). Factoid of note: they are owned by Mohamed Al-Fayed, the noted conspiracy theorist and royal hater."
Corner Brook, Newfoundland, Canada
What's not to love? OK, on to our next candidate …
"Stupid Reading hey, they played so poorly the last few weeks of the year. I'm giving you a team to adopt for this next Premier League. I'm a Chelsea fan but they're too good for you to start cheering for so I'm going to pick a team that is always underachieving but is in the running for Ronaldinho next year. Manchester City, hey you get to root for a team in Manchester who is not United, a team who has great fans (they always travel well) and a team who has some European action next year. Why not start rooting for Manchester City???? I hope you pick this one."
Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada
Well, here's one reason why not to adopt Man City: My friend Sara already beat me to it, and I'm not sure I'm sold on her reasoning …
"YES YES YES. now, you can make it interesting b/c adopting Man City is not necessarily bringing any relief to your football woes, as man city is the ultimate Red Sox pre-2004. But that said, they have serious heart. And their nemesis is Manchester United, the ultimate sports mammoth that brings in the highest revenue of ANY sports team in the world. they represent money and hooligans and condescending ass(expletive)ess that just asks to be hated by true sports fans who hang on to their team no matter how they struggle or how long its been since a big win ('60s and '70s for Man City). True hardworking, passed through the family love of sport. And the most beautiful sky blue jersey with the most magnificent songs … Blue Moon … You will get your heartbroken, but at least it will be done with flair and, just like golf, they will give you that one beautiful shot that makes you feel as though God's bright light is shining right down on you and you are destined to taste victory at ANY moment … despite the whiffs and the divets and the bunkers and the pulls and hooks. Beating Manchester United TWICE in one season … pulling out an amazing win over Newcastle early on … having a home-field winning streak that makes you drunk with delight … all to be crushed by loses near season's end to teams up for regulation. But those wins. Those moments. It's like sinking the 20-foot putt on the 18th hole after the worst game of your life … because all you remember is that putt and you can't wait to tee up the next morning. This all coming from a girl who decided to adopt a team upon realizing the ratio of drunk foreign men to women at 10 a.m. in a bar on my corner … God bless the Premier League. And now I'm totally addicted (to football, not the drunk foreign men. though that's a tough habit to break as well)."
New York City
One option, I'm thinking, is simply to let Sara riff on Man City (and drunk foreign men) each week …
"Michael, in response to your request for suggestions for a short-term replacement for your Reading football team I would like to recommend Manchester City. I feel they are a team that any Cal fan could identify with. They share the same city as the big Man-U, Manchester United, yet they do not have quite the star power, they have extremely loyal fans, and they are good but not great. This is the same as Cal football. Cal plays in the Pac-10 and are good but not great, USC equals great, USC seems to always get the ever so slightly better players (see the connection? Cal gets only really good players). Cal fans are loyal even to a team that always finds a way to break their hearts. I think it is a great fit … Manchester City's colors are blue which would complement Cal's gold. Have a beer and think about it."
Walnut Creek, Calif.
I had a beer, and all I can think about is how much I hate SC.
"In the EPL, follow Everton. Based in Liverpool, they play second fiddle to the other club in town. They also have an American keeper – Tim Howard – who despite having Tourette's, performs at high level week-in week-out. You get the added bonus of being able to follow their progress in four competitions – EPL, Carling Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup (they finished 5th in the EPL)."
Hey, Reading is also competing for the Carling Cup! The Royals open at League Two's Dagenham and Redbridge in August. As for Howard, I know Tourette's is a very serious condition and I'm sympathetic to all those affected by it. But I can't help but think about that hilarious restaurant-opening scene in one of the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" season finales.
"Dear Mr Silver, Type II diabetic here – thanks for the article. As to whom you should support in the Barclays Premier League while Reading toils in the Championship, may I suggest Everton? As Merseyside's other team (besides Big Four Liverpool), the Toffees share with Reading a common dominant color (blue). They have contested more seasons in the top division of English football than any other team, and have remained continuously in the top division (called the First Division before the advent of the Premier League) since the 1954-55 season. Known since 1928 as the School of Science for their attractive play and almost always within striking distance of the Big Four, Everton can be counted on to remain in the Premier League at least until Reading's triumphant return – thereby ensuring that you won't suffer the indignity of seeing two favored teams relegated and seeking a third team to support so as to have dog in the Premier League fight. Holding a special animus for Wayne Rooney after he spurned them to join Manchester United, Everton are also the traditional rivals of Liverpool, from whom they are separated by only a mile and against whom they contest the Merseyside Derby. In supporting Everton, you will not only avoid the bandwagon-jumping that support for a Big Four team would entail, you will have special reason to be excited when Everton confront at least two of the Big Four and will revel in the deep, emotional significance of victories earned over them. For all these reasons, you, sir, ought to be an Everton man (at least until Reading gain promotion). With all good wishes,"
I wonder what would happen if the School of Science took on the School of Rock?
Yes, I know I said I wouldn't consider any frontrunners, but this is from my friend and fellow Cal alum Ajay, whose sports instincts I trust as much as anyone's (even when sober) …
" 'Football' is not a matter of life and death … it's much more important than that.' – Ex-Liverpool manager Bill Shankly.
Here's my case for Liverpool:
1. Best folklore in English soccer – there's 1,000 more quotes like above epitomizing this first argument for Liverpool.
2. Best fans – undoubtedly the most fervent and least fair-weather.
3. Greatest, most emotional history overall though Man United may have a case here.
The Good: Despite a lack of recent success, Liverpool still has an unmatched record including being five-time champion of Europe (Man U have three and Chelsea and Arsenal have zero by comparison).
The Bad: Eighteen years since the last Premier League title starting to become Cal-esque.
The Ugly: Involved in some of the worst tragedies in history including Heysel (39 innocent Italians dead) and Hillsborough (90 Liverpool fans stampeded to death). Moments of shame that placed the club in the limelight of world history and which must never be repeated.
4. Best song: 'You'll never walk alone' as sung by the fans is the most hardcore moment in sports and is captured on Pink Floyd's album Meddle.
5. The Players: Fernando Torres and Dirk Kuyt tearing it up as we speak for Spain and Holland at Euro 2008. Steven Gerrard, England's driving force. A cast of historical characters including the sublime (Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush), the colorful (David Fairclough, Bruce Grobelaar and Robbie Fowler), and the ridiculous (David 'Calamity' James).
6. The owners – recently acquired and mismanaged by two of Dubya's bickering buddies, both hated by the fans, it's time for us Yanks to give back to them.
7. The Games: Involvement in some of history's great matches, most recently recovering from 3-0 down to AC Milan to win in 2005's Champions League final."
Wow, that is one hell of a case. One thing that stopped me, though: Eighteen years without a league title? Yes, that certainly would be Cal-esque … if this were 1976.
"Premiership Surrogate I can certainly recommend Spurs (Tottenham Hotspur) as a team to follow. They specialise in a unique kind of 'next season for sure!' mid-table mediocrity that is pure torture for the fans. They do score a lot of goals though! Of course, they also let a load in. Your other option is to look at one of the teams coming up from the Championship this year. Stoke, in particular, are going to need all the help they can get. If you bump into Robbie Williams, he'll be able to get you tickets. Probably. Re: Reading – it's a shame they went, for the most part of their two-year stint they've played the game how it should be played. Good luck to 'em next year. Anyway, keep up the good work."
The two-way goalfest sounds promising, and any American has to appreciate a team called Spurs that is actually exciting. As for Stoke and the others recently promoted, I don't think I have it in me to start freaking out about relegation from Game 1.
"It's disappointing that the Royals were relegated, but that's life in football. Their manager, Steve Coppell, did not improve their squad last season, and they paid the price. Reading is the favourite to win the Championship next season (or at least win promotion back to the Premier League), but many teams struggle after the drop and fail to recover. And it's probable that most of their better players (ie. Kevin Doyle, Marcus Hahnnemann, and Nickey Shorey) will leave for bigger clubs. I don't know if you were captivated with Reading because of their attacking style, their fans (compared to Toon's during that game you attended), or the Americans on their team. But if you were captivated by their style, I would recommend that you follow Aston Villa. They are owned by Randy Lerner and play flowing, yet gritty soccer. They are a young, mostly home-grown team that is on the rise; in my opinion, they could compete for Champions League soccer next season. You should still keep an eye on Reading though. It's unfortunate that we in the U.S. get little TV exposure to the second tier of English football, but the games played in the Championship are actually better than the games played in the Premiership. In the Premier League, you have the haves (Man Utd and the other three irrelevant teams) and the have-nots (every other team). Thus, the bottom teams play defensively attempting to ensure their survival in the league (the money earned by survival is outrageous, in the range of $120M USD). In the Championship, though, every team has a decent chance of being promoted, so pretty much every team plays decent soccer. Next season, Reading will be a very exciting team to watch."
A young, mostly homegrown team on the rise? Sounds like a preseason promo for Lerner's other football team, which probably isn't a bad thing …
"You were wondering if you should pick another Premier League team to root for while Reading is relegated. I suggest West Ham United. They aren't really the best team (still an underdog) but they have an awesome name (Hammers) and a great team song. Plus they have had a few movies made about their football hooligans which were pretty sweet. Anyway, love your column, keep up the good work."
West Ham? Hmmm. Back in my less mature days, I was a big fan of Pressed Ham …
"As a thought, you could support Chelsea – not because they're frontrunners, but just in case you bring bad luck to the team you support … If you get them relegated, you'll be a hero in England, but if not, they'll probably be near to winning the league again next year so you'll have an interesting last day again. And since they play in the Royal Borough of Kensington Chelsea, you could keep the sub-heading! For a serious suggestion, West Ham and Tottenham have always been teams that have tried to play football the right way."
I'm giving you major points for creativity – and, from now on, referring to myself as Schleprock. I'd also like to acknowledge Scott from Dallas for suggesting I simply support any team that is playing Chelsea; Matt from York, Pa., who is partial to Sunderland because, he says, they have the loudest fans in the Premiership; Simon from Gosford, Australia, who made a case for Arsenal (tiny transfer budget, extremely young team, the acumen of manager Arsene Wagner); and the many others who took the time to weigh in.
Before I make my selection, however, there is one other option to consider.
"Good luck with your Royals winning back promotion. The chances of immediate promotion aren't great. The Premiership has been running under its current heading since 1994/95. In that time 26 teams have taken up 39 total relegations, of those 39 relegations only four teams have gone down to come straight back up and stay in the Premiership (they were all much bigger clubs than Reading too). Looks like you might have some heartache to come. Don't pick another team, a true blue fan has only one team."
Auckland, New Zealand
Dude, thanks for the grim statistics. Maybe I should call YOU Schleprock. No, seriously, that true-blue line hits home on more than one level …
"'As I root for the Royals to fight their way back to the Premier League next season, should I adopt a temporary favorite among the big dogs to pass the time?' Are you nuts, the beauty of relegation and promotion is the possibilities of next season – why support an also-ran that you don't care for when Reading are likely to be a frontrunner in 2008/2009. You have just experienced the bitter taste of relegation why not hang on and enjoy the euphoria of promotion, being a fan of Reading means you get to live and die by their results, not abandon ship at the first sign of trouble, or when your American goalkeeper leaves/retires. You picked them and unlike a marrage there is no divorce, don't make everyone of your UK-based readers roll their eyes at your plastic fandom. Other than that thank you as always for the enteraining read any spelling errors in this email are due to my nationality and should not be corrected. Kind regards, Matt the Gooner."
Ouch. I am starting to get quite ashamed of myself …
"After following your Premiership football coverage for a while now (and very commendable it is too – not a single mention of a 'goalbag' or 'penalty zone' in sight) your newest column horrified me. Switch teams? If you came to the UK and habitually switched teams whenever they dropped into the Championship, you would be slapped silly by hooligans and supporters alike. Be defiant and stick with Reading, and cheer on the Royals. Good news? The Championship is one of the most competitive leagues in the world, and is a real purist's league. Bad news? It's probably also the hardest to get promoted from … "
South Wales, UK
Slapped silly by hooligans? I'm no expert, but I suspect that's not a good thing.
"Love everything you write but you support your team through the good days and also the bad days. You picked Reading and if you are a true sports fan that means you stick with your team even if they are rubbish. We all know what college you went to but you still would support them even if they became rubbish at every sport wouldn't you? Or would you be a glory hunter and run off to Texas or Man Utd etc etc? Point made I think! Also, when you are in London for the next NFL game I'll send you a list of the pubs/bars you have to visit whilst you are here."
I believe it is well-documented that I will support Cal when the Golden Bears are rubbish, as those who saw me and 50 of my friends (including Liverpool-loving Ajay) in blue-and-gold bathrobes watching our heroes get flagged for eight false-start penalties at Stanford Stadium in November of 1999 can attest. As for my next potential London visit, I see that the Royals have a home game (against Queens Park Rangers) the day before that Chargers-Saints showdown at Wembley in late October, so I may take you up on that pub list.
"Despite living a scant 20 miles away from Reading, I was most overjoyed with happiness at their relegation having never forgiven them for knocking my beloved Slough Town (currently plying their trade a massive eight divisions below the Premiership) out of the FA Cup in 1990. However, it is the accepted rule that you may not change which soccer team you support more than once, and that you may only make this change before you reach the age of 13. As you are obviously older due to drawing a salary writing for this website, you are now stuck with Reading for the rest of your natural life. And besides, tickets are much easier to procure in the Championship than the Premiership."
I'm guessing tickets are even less in demand when your team is eight divisions below the Premiership. But I hope I don't find out anytime soon …
"I've written a few times before and I always enjoy your column. I am answering the important question of whether you should adopt a top-flight football (soccer) team whilst Reading spend next year in the Championship. The answer is an emphatic no, see as I'm sure you know, once a fan, always a fan!!! I don't know a whole lot about college football, but you're not going to go and support LSU just because Cal were poor this year are you!? The same applies for Reading, who will in time, be a regular top 12 finisher in the Premier League providing the key components (John Madejeski, Steve Coppell) stay in place! Trust me, don't be that guy! Stay loyal to Reading!"
That does it: I won't be that guy! Reading till I die! I'm Reading till I die! I know I am, I'm sure I am, I'm Reading till I die! That's right, comrades: Count me as a permanent infantryman in the Blue Army, and prepare to start Rollin' With the Royals once more come August. You won't find my once and future love immortalized on a Pink Floyd album. But I can now proclaim that my heart remains with Reading, and that's music to my ears.
- Premier League