Lir: A part of Boston where football holds a different meaning

A stone’s throw away from Hynes Convention Center sits Lir. Just one of the many Irish pubs in Boston’s Back Bay neighbourhood, it’s the type of place that blends into the scenery – a modern-day bar that inadvertently feels a lot like a speakeasy..  On weekend mornings however, this pub on Boylston Street comes alive and gets noticed. The large red flag that is hoisted at the entrance beckons bleary-eyed fans making their way to the pub for the 7am kickoff. With the promise of cold beer and the warmth of fellow fans, on most weekend mornings, Lir is at full capacity.

It’s an oddly spaced pub; the centrally situated bar that runs the length of the floor, with barstools and tables scattered around like an afterthought. Lir is deceptively large and unapologetically old school. The mahogany decor and spiral staircase are in  complete contrast with the LED screens spread across the walls. The type of place where you’d go more to smoke a cigar and discuss politics than to drink Guinness and watch football. It is also understatedly classy; a pub trying to hold on to tradition in today’s fast-paced world. That’s why it’s fitting that Lir is the spiritual home for the Arsenal supporters group, the Boston Gooners. 

For close to eight years now, the Boston Gooners have been hosting screenings of Arsenal games that draw fans from all across the city. The group, which started in founder Nick Lellenberg’s college apartment, has become one of the biggest members of Arsenal America, the official supporters club in the US. As of today, Arsenal America has 74 branches spread across 81 locations in the country.           

Boston Gooners quickly outgrew Lellenberg’s college apartment and moved to the Blackthorn Bar in South Boston before they eventually brought the party to Lir in February 2012. 

“When we first moved here, the pub very reasonably made it clear that they didn’t want to turn their pub into a clubhouse,” said long term Boston Gooners Chairman, Jeffrey Werner. So, a compromise was reached. An hour before kickoff, a few of the group’s board members put up the flags and banners are taken down soon after the final whistle. To create that feeling of permanence and familiarity, Werner has made it a point to put up the flags and banners in the same  places. 

Doors open to fans 30 minutes before kickoff, and depending on the time and opponent, it’s either a slow trickle or a barrage of supporters into the pub. If you’re early enough, you can nab one of the handful of tables that line the walls, but more often than not, you have to make do with standing for the ninety. 

Art by Revant Dasgupta

“We’ve always wanted to promote that this is an English club and we’ve always tried to make sure that isn’t forgotten and maintain those traditions,” said Werner. Like every supporters group, there is singing and chanting, but unlike other groups it isn’t forced upon the fans. The furthest they go is list the songs on their website with the audio. Werner says the organic atmosphere is the hallmark of the Boston Gooners experience. 

Arsenal’s current form hasn’t given fans much to sing about either. With the Gunners languishing in ninth place, the decibel levels at Lir have fallen this season. “I think that is the sort of flip side of not forcing atmosphere, we’re not interested in being raw raw cheerleaders. We’re interested in letting people be how they feel,” said Werner. 

The Leicester City game in November towards the end of Unai Emery’s reign is  particularly tense. The Gunners haven’t won a league match in close to a month and are coming off a disappointing showing in the midweek Europa League clash against Vitoria. With kickoff set favorably at 11:30 am, Lir is packed to the hilt for this clash against a quality Leicester side that is challenging for the title. There is the usual pre-match buzz, with the lineups getting dissected and predictions being made. There is a do or die feel to the game. As the game kicks off in a rainy King Power Stadium in Leicester, halfhearted chants of “ Arsenal, Arsenal, Arsenal!” go up in the Back Bay pub. The nerves are tangible.  

Arsenal seems a shadow of itself and a somber mood falls over the pub. A neat passage of play towards the end of the first half brings a smatter of applause and cries of ‘ C’mon Arsenal’, but it died down quickly. When the inevitable Leicester goal arrives, the groans that had been building up all afternoon transforms into a cacophony of angry swearing and hollering at the screen. Here we go again, you feel them say. 

With the team losing, the relative quiet in the pub makes it easier to pick up on the fan conversations. “ I think plucking my hair out would be less painful,” one fan says glumly to his friend after another Arsenal attack prematurely breaks down. “ Would taking up crack make this easier?” I overhear another supporter say. 

When Vardy scores Leicester’s second, a Foxes’ fan appears out of nowhere and starts shouting to no one in particular, “ 5000/1, let’s fucking go! Premier League champions”. Barring the isolatedl ‘fuck offs’, his inflammatory celebrations are met with disdainful silence. Such incidents aren’t uncommon and opposition fans are tolerated as long as they aren’t obnoxious. 

Arsenal eventually goes on to lose 2-0, and the pub empties out before the players have even left the field. It’s been a tough watch. The previous weekend, after the disappointing draw at home to Wolves, the widespread booing in Lir was akin to that of the crowd at the Emirates for the game. The passion transcends the distance. 

.  . .

In their nine years together, the bond between Lir and Boston Gooners has deepened and certain exhibits have been made permanent. On the walls of the pub are three framed official jerseys from the recent FA Cup triumphs, gifts from Arsenal. And that’s not where the Arsenalization stops; on match days now, pub staff are kitted out in club gear and there is a special match day menu with items like the Highbury Tots and the Mesut Ozil –  a turkey wrap advertised as an ‘assist for your appetite’.

The relationship between bars and Premier League supporters’ groups is a symbiotic one. There’s a clear reason why Lir and other pubs in the US have been so receptive – an added revenue stream. 

For this sports obsessed country, having a six-hour void between 7am and 11am on weekend mornings is criminally profligate. With NFL and college football starting only between 12-1pm, the Premier League naturally monopolizes the morning slot. 

Founded in 2005, Liverpool was the first Premier League club to have an official fan group in Boston, followed by the likes of Everton, Tottenham, Arsenal and the Manchester clubs in subsequent years. Fan groups aren’t new; what’s new is the number of fans attending these screenings. 

“Big games down in Southie, we’d get 90 to 100 people but now big games it will be 400 people,” said Michael Salmon, a member of Boston Gooners since 2012.  “Even a shitty kickoff against Burnley on a Sunday morning, we get 30-40 in here.” 

It’s these ‘shitty kickoffs’ where the real crux of the fandom lies. Morning games kickoff at either 7am or 9am. The beer is replaced by black coffee and there’s a continuous flow of breakfast burritos and scrambled eggs. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Arsenal takes on Norwich in a 9am kickoff. There is a snowstorm scheduled in Boston later that afternoon, but that doesn’t stop the Boston Gooners faithful from making their weekly pilgrimage. There are approximately 10 people in the pub when the game kicks off, but the crowd gradually grows as the game progresses. The Norwich game is Arsenal legend Freddie Ljungberg’s first game as manager, and there’s renewed optimism amongst the fans.  But, it’s a false dawn and Arsenal is lucky to come away with a point at a team that plied its trade in the 2nd division a year ago. As the game winds down and Arsenal attacks in search for a winner, Salmon bellows, “ Come on the Arsenal!”, taking everyone around him by surprise. They don’t chant along, rather turn a sympathetic eye toward him. 

Having grown up watching the legendary Arsenal sides in the 70s and 80s, this performance is a far cry from the level of performance Salmon is used to from his team. He has been a member of Boston Gooners since he moved to the city from London in 2012. Salmon sees himself as the grandfather of the group and is the proud founder of one of its unofficial traditions. 

At a screening, a couple of years ago, he heard two fans behind him complain about how they won’t be able to watch the North London Derby the following week sober. With kickoff slated for 7am and Boston law permitting alcohol be served only after 10 am, Salmon’s mind began to tick. “Maybe everyone needs a couple of drinks inside them before kickoff,” he said. “So, (I) decided to hold a little pre-game with breakfast, with a few little breakfast cocktails.” And hence, the tradition of the 5am pre-games was born. 

They’ve brought varied luck so far, with Arsenal having won one, lost one and drawn one in the three that have been held so far, but according to the fan that overheard our conversation, these pre games are ” wild and crazy”. 

Supporting the Gunners across the ocean has been an eye-opening experience for Salmon. He says the passion hasn’t waned but in fact it’s given him more appreciation for the whole experience of being a fan.

“I was born into it, so I didn’t have a choice, so this made me aware that people have made choices and [have] good reasons for becoming Arsenal fans,” Salmon said. 

The relationship between a fan and his/her club is a pure kind of love. For an international fan, this love is a deeper shade, as it isn’t born out of any geographic connection to the club. Take Boston Gooners Chairman Jeff Werner’s story, for instance. Werner was indifferent towards football his entire childhood, but it was the popular video game FIFA that he said was his “gateway drug to world soccer” at the time. On FIFA 97, he inexplicably started playing with Arsenal a lot and the name Bergkamp stuck with him. So, by the time the 1998 World Cup rolled around, Werner was enough of a fan to watch the games. In the end, all it took was three touches from Bergkamp’s boot in the quarterfinal for the love affair to start. The first to bring down Frank De Boer’s raking ball, the second to turn the defender inside out, and the third to smash it into the top corner with his outer foot. “That was it, I was an Arsenal fan,” Werner said emphatically of the Dutchman’s iconic goal against Argentina. 

The days of Bergkamp are long in the past for Arsenal. Now, falling in love with the club isn’t as easy as it used to be. For a club that has always been associated with glory, beauty and class, the fall from grace hasn’t been pretty.  The tail end of Wenger’s era and Emery’s subsequent reign have taken their toll on the fanbase. Arsenal fans are a lot of things, but a glory hunter isn’t one of them. All they really crave is a team they can be proud of. 

“We have a line we’ve used a number of times in recent years, that this is a support group as much as it is a supporters group,” said Werner. The community aspect of the group is just as, if not more important than the football. Regardless of the result, a culture of hanging around after the match is encouraged. “This is a nexus of a lot of people’s network and friendships. There is the notion that is more than just this place you come to watch the match and you leave,” said Werner. 

When Emerson grad student Anu Nande attended her first screening in 2017, she knew just two people. “Everyone is willing to talk and everyone is willing to be friendly. There’s a lot of new members that start to become regulars, and I think the integration is very good,” she said. Within a year, the Mumbai native was elected as one of the three directors at large, a position she still holds. 

Boston Gooners promotes itself as a community that is family friendly. Nande recalls how each time this one particular supporter would bring his two daughters to the screening, the lyrics for the songs would be changed. So for example, when, ‘Who’s that team we call the Arsenal’ is sung, horse would replace the word wh*re. 

With such a strong communal viewing experience, a similarity creeps into fans’ memories. There is unanimous agreement amongst the fans that the 2014 FA Cup triumph was their best memory at Lir. The pub was filled with 450 people across the three floors, and Werner says it was the loudest he’s heard the place in his eight years. “We have videos of stopping traffic, we did all kinds of crazy stuff, singing across the street,” he said. “Suffice to say, many things were drunk that day.” 

“It’s a fun place to watch, we take it seriously but not so seriously. We support each other and we make a lot of friends. It’s across class, age, sex and culture,” said Salmon, fondly, of his group. 

In a sports-crazy city like Boston, soccer will always be the fifth sport. But, on weekend mornings inside Lir, football ditches its traditional Patriot blue for the red and white of the Arsenal.

Shubhankar Arun

Shubi is a writer from Bangalore who has a strong passion for storytelling at the intersection of sport and culture. He has been married to Arsenal Football Club for the past 14 years