When winning is 17th place

I would never want to be in a group that would have someone like me as a member. 

I consider those words to live by.

But even I have a breaking point. 

I don’t want to leave the English Premier League. 

English football – our “soccer” – is both old-world aristocratic and what-have-you-done-for-me-lately meritocratic. As if by divine right, the “Big 6” rule the top British league. Think Manchester United, Liverpool, and Manchester City. 

But despite an ordered hierarchy atop, the places at the bottom are constantly churning. The Premier League has built-in relegation, with the bottom three teams annually jettisoned for the top three in the lower league. Remember that time the Zephyrs won the AAA World Series? They would’ve replaced the Marlins or some similar club.

Imagine being an Aint’s fan with relegation. The paper bags might’ve survived longer than the team.

After 13 years of fandom, I might be going down. Burnley is in the relegation danger zone. 

How I became a fan of a team in a small, industrial, middle-England town is reducible to one word: ignorance. 

Attending my first (and only) match at Burnley’s Turf Moor Stadium, I didn’t know how poor the club was (its salary scale is minimum wage to ManU’s Maserati) or how poor the club performed (my trip coincided with Burnley’s first season in the top league in 33 years) or how poor the club played (the ol’ grade school kick-it-straight-and-go-chase-after-it strategy). And I haven’t even mentioned its racial-tinged transfer strategy—or racial-soaked banner campaigns.

But it was a city, on the map, hosting a match. It chose me.

During my four years in Rome, I made a habit of attending an annual Roma soccer match, often choosing to see the Eternal City’s team play their geographic rivals, Lazio. It would be as if Metairie played Jefferson Parish—except with Metairie being a cultural treasure in the hypo.

Just walking into Stadio Olimpico, the shared stadium of Roma and Lazio, fans’ eyes would tear up. Primarily this was because the polizia had been shooting tear gas, but tears are tears.

The passion with every kick, the flares shot at every opportunity, the riot gear deployed for every fan skirmish—those derbys had it all. Except they weren’t in English. And my Italian was never stadium-ready. Come si dice…quello che ho sentito…lo stuff con lo handwaving?

Enter Burnley. Its 1883 stadium just appears, dropped down among homes and shops, at only a slightly higher profile. It was charming, just like its fans. “Who woulda ever thought we could compete with Aston Villa!?” I heard as we left the 1-1 draw.

But that was back in 2009. Thursday afternoon Burnley get Villa again. This time on the road. This time needing more than a one-point draw.

With two matches to play, Burnley sit in 18th position, on the wrong side of the relegation safety zone. Thursday afternoon and Sunday morning combine to seal their 2022-23 fate—and possibly the club’s fate period. You see, an American consortium took them over last year (stop me if you’ve heard this in, like, any area of business), cutting the margins, taking more profits, and shackling the club with debt (which accelerates if they drop out of the Premier League because…of course).

Burnley can be tough enough to watch—more because of their lack of offensive polish than their pronounced defensive toughness (no matter Liverpool’s whining). But tuning into the team against fellow industrial town no-names and, worse yet, on ESPN+? Try explaining that to your wife—or any other sentient being. That would be tough.

But so is Burnley.

So root for Burnley—or Leeds United or Everton, their competitors in the relegation race from dubiousness. It’s good to pick a side. Despite it all, for another matchday, I’m with Burnley.

The yelling you hear at Finn McCool’s Sunday morning may be enough to drown out another round of soccer tears—the international language of soccer fandom.


I didn’t convince you? Watch some of my mates. Can you imagine a cheer that would translate “we will finish 17th, we will finish 17th”? Sports are amazing.

And then there’s Roma. Go pull out the scarf and put on the softrock. Che bella!

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