Boston Gooners: A football fan club in a soccer nation

Our writer went to a pub in Boston on a Sunday, expecting the television to be screening the Arsenal vs Man United game. He opened the door to find 200 Arsenal fans dressed in home colors chanting at the top of their voice.
Arsenal
Art by Revant Dasgupta

On December 2nd 2017, the island bar at the LIR looked more like a rowboat floundering in the middle of a red-and-white sea. I pulled my oversized brown jacket close around me, and despite not wearing anything that would give away my loyalty, I felt unsafe. My friend had asked me to join her there to watch the Arsenal-Manchester Utd game. What I wasn’t expecting was over two hundred people packed into the bar for the game. There was barely enough space for me to stand, and I was surrounded by rabid Arsenal fans. I regretted my decision to take her up on the offer almost as soon as I set foot inside. You see, I am a fan of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, also known as the greatest club the world has ever seen. My club has had a long-standing rivalry with Arsenal, stemming from when Arsenal moved from Woolwich to North London in 1913, usurping “our” territory. It’s one of the largest rivalries in the English Premier League, and we do not get along.

The match that day went badly for Arsenal. They were losing 1-3, and the boisterous energy the bar had before the game slowly started to ebb away over the next two hours. The crowd booed and groaned at every mistake that was made, and admonished the referee for every decision (or non-decision) made against Arsenal. Seeing how low everyone’s spirits were, a small group of Arsenal fans tried to cheer them up by taking up one of their favourite chants: “What do we think of Tottenham?” they yelled, prompting the crowd to yell back the appropriate response: “SHIT!” Class acts, these Arsenal fans.

The whole “song,” proudly posted on the Boston Gooners website, goes:

What do you think of Tottenham? (Sh*t!)

What do you think of sh*t? (Tottenham!)

Thank you! (That’s alright!)

We hate Tottenham and we hate Tottenham,

We hate Tottenham and we hate Tottenham,

We hate Tottenham and we hate Tottenham,

We are the Tottenham haters

Pure poetry.

I trembled each time they sang this, because there I was, a naive little Tottenham fan who, if outed, could be the perfect target to take their frustrations out on. Arsenal fans can be. a nightmare. I didn’t expect to ever revisit the Lir after that day.

But there I was again in June, sitting at a table and waiting for the man who ran the group that seemingly hated my very existence. Jeffrey Werner, the chairman of the Boston Gooners, wore a button-down shirt over brown khakis, and was an inch or so shorter than me, at five-nine, with dark brown hair that resembled water pulling away from shore before a tsunami hits. He had biked over to meet me at the bar, and the effort it took was visible as he panted while wiping the sweat off his brow with a napkin. I had wanted to talk to him, to get a feel for this man who had made Arsenal, of all things, his life’s obsession.

****

Football fandom is a funny thing for us international fans. We swear our undying loyalty to a team that plays continents away from us, and we carry the grudges and resentments of the team’s local fanbase for their local rivals, despite having nothing to do with the source of the rivalry itself. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never been to North London—if you support Arsenal, you have to hate Tottenham, and if you support Tottenham, you have to hate Arsenal. Above all, whoever you support, you have to hate Chelsea.

I was anxious while waiting at the bar, and I had been anxious when I asked my friend Anu Nande, a football writer and Arsenal superfan, to put me in touch with Jeffrey—what did he think of Tottenham? Would he be yet another one of the insufferable Arsenal fans I have to deal with? I’ve had to deal with the ones who won’t shut up about Arsenal, even when the conversation is about something unrelated, like movies. “Oh, did you know that that actor is an Arsenal fan? Speaking of Arsenal …” Then there were the ones who’d goad and annoy me in the name of “banter,” discarding all the wittiness of proper banter in this pursuit. I was dreading that Jeffrey would be one of those types.

Very quickly, I realized that my fears were unfounded. Jeffrey knew I was a Tottenham fan, but that didn’t matter to him, as long as I wasn’t obnoxious about it. Which is a sentiment I can relate to. We spent a few minutes bonding over our hate for Piers Morgan—an Arsenal fan whom most of the fanbase (and the world in general) despise—before we got to talking about Jeffrey.

He was first exposed to the world of football when playing FIFA 97 with some friends. They would meet up at one person’s house to play it on a console. He grew interested in the sport because he felt like it made him part of this massive community in the larger world, but because it was still unpopular in the U.S., it was also an exclusive club that he felt privileged to be a part of.

This time in his life coincided with the 1998 FIFA World Cup, which featured Robert Pires, Patrick Viera,  and Thierry Henry—who would go on to become Arsenal legends—in the winning French squad. It also featured “that” goal from Netherlands’ and Arsenal’s Dennis Bergkamp, something Jeffrey told me with reverence in his voice. In the final minute of the quarter-final against Argentina, Bergkamp had received a long pass, bringing it down with the smoothest of touches, and sailed past two defenders to score his side’s winner. It was a goal that could make you fall in love with the man.

Like most international fans, Jeffrey didn’t have much reason for latching on to Arsenal at first, other than that he liked the club’s name, and its crest—a cannon. It also helped that Arsenal was one of the best teams in the world at the time.

For me, I fell in love with Tottenham while watching the North London Derby on November 20th 2010 with a group of friends—all Arsenal fans. I hadn’t really followed the English league before then, but after Spurs came back from 2-0 down to win the game 2-3 at Arsenal’s stadium, I was hooked. I didn’t think there could possibly be anything as exhilarating as watching Tottenham play—Gareth Bale tear defenders to shreds, or the effortless ease with which Rafael van der Vaart scored goals, or those exquisite trivela passes by Luka Modric. Of course, like with most fans, that faith has taken a battering over the years, as the team goes through its ups-and-downs, carrying us poor fans along for the tumultuous rollercoaster ride.

Just take Jeffrey for example—With Arsenal’s difficulty in the EPL over the last few years (they’ve finished fifth and sixth in the league in the last two seasons.) I didn’t even have to prompt him into saying that “I view Arsenal as family, but it’s been a dysfunctional family for the past couple of years.” Self-deprecating humour is the Arsenal fan’s only comfort in these dark days.

****

When I met with Jeffrey, the bar was practically empty. It was the World Cup, but there were no big games happening. It was a stark contrast to the next time I visited it (if it wasn’t already clear, I’m something of a masochist,) during the regular football season. I’d left the Spurs bar after a particularly disappointing game—we lost 1-2 to Liverpool, and I was bitter because the referee hadn’t given us a last-minute penalty that would have drawn us level in a game we were never in—and took the T to Hynes Convention Center and walked down to the Lir to meet my friend. I was wearing my Spurs jersey this time, and fully expected to get ridiculed, and/or abused. The pinnacle of my masochistic journey, it was supposed to be—but instead, I received commiserations and empathy from most of the people I spoke to.

This group, it seemed, weren’t nearly as bad as most of the fans I’ve had to deal with back home. Several of them seemed to think of Spurs (and Spurs fans) as misguided kin rather than avowed enemies. Certainly the stick we give our teams when they’re underperforming is almost identical. “Now pass it all the way back to Cech!” someone sarcastically called out during a passage of play where Arsenal were passing the ball without purpose in their opposition’s half. When inevitable back pass did come, the hundred-strong audience voiced a groan as one. It was a mirror image of the Kinsale two hours earlier, where we had moaned each aimless sideways and backwards pass. Attacking flair is what both teams are known for, and both sets of fans are quick to criticize anything that doesn’t fit into the teams’ ideals.

One fan at the Lir declared that his hatred was reserved for Manchester United, rather than Tottenham.“I’m not from North London, why should I care about the rivalry?” he said, while gushing about one Spurs player—Son Heung-Min. The sentiment is shared—while Arsenal may be the old enemy, the vast majority of my hatred is devoted to Chelsea Football Club. Please wait while I wash myself off to get rid of the stench of those words. It’s why I’m fine with entering the Lir—I don’t mind Arsenal. I’d never even think of setting foot inside a [name redacted] bar.

Something Jeffrey had said when I had met him echoed in my head while I was at the bar this time: “We’re an open group, wear whatever jersey you want [and we won’t care,] but if you’re going to be obnoxious, we’re going to throw you out.” It was true, they weren’t exactly the monsters I’d felt they were the first time around. Still, the caveat he added to his declaration was there for a reason.

Who would be obnoxious when surrounded by hundreds of rival fans? Why, Manchester United fans, of course. Or more specifically, Man United fans hailing from India. There had been one of these specimens at the first game I’d seen at the Lir, where Arsenal had lost to Utd—he’d heckled and taunted the Arsenal fans, until they told him to “shut the fuck up, or get the fuck out of the bar.” This wasn’t limited just to opposition fans, however. When I told Jeffrey about the group of Arsenal fans from that same game—the ones who were singing about Tottenham—he lost his composure briefly  “We played them two months ago! Get over it.” He said, adding a few other choice words for that set of fans.

Jeffrey and the Boston Gooners are just one group of this growing football subculture in Boston. Liverpool fans meet at the Phoenix Landing, Manchester United fans meet at McGann’s, Chelsea fans at The Banshee, and the fans of my Spurs at The Kinsale near the Government Center T stop. Jeffrey tells me Man City fans have a bar in Dorchester, but, like any true fan of the English game, he can barely get the words “Man City fans” out of his mouth without scoffing. Perhaps it’s because of Boston’s love for sports, or it’s the number of international students living here—but football has really taken root in Boston. It may not draw crowds as large as those for NFL or MLB  games, but big matches certainly draw large numbers. The Arsenal-Man Utd match I watched at the Lir in December had over two hundred spectators, and the Tottenham-Man City game in April drew a crowd of over three hundred to The Kinsale. Those are massive numbers in a country where football otherwise seemingly only exists when it’s World Cup time. Groups like these, and men like Jeffrey Werner, are slowly breaking through America’s firm resolve not to enjoy the world’s most popular sport. Football is finally finding a foothold in the United States of America.

When we finish talking and I get ready to leave the bar, Jeffrey hands me two cards: the first is his official card; the second is a red Boston Gooners card that it pains me to accept. I swallow my disgust and pocket the card, determined to forget that I have it.