Saturday, April 22, 2017

What to do when your favorite teams are too much alike

I like Leeds United. Many of you are soccer fans, and this will elicit one of two responses:

1) "Who?" and
2) "God, I'm sorry."

Both responses are equally understandable. More on that in a minute.

Many of you are passionately not soccer fans. You prefer Concussionball. You don't understand why if a ball is bouncing along the ground, the players don't just fall on it. You hate the game most of the rest of the world plays as fervently as you hate ice dancing, or the way you hate the way your urine smells after you've eaten asparagus. I don't really understand that stance, but I can at least agree that you are certainly entitled to said opinion and we can still be friends. I will point out that watching European soccer passes the time from the end of the World Series to Spring Training, and games for the most part are on Saturday and Sunday mornings. You don't have to wait until 7:10pm for sporting drama.

But let me try to explain how painful it is when the two teams you love (in my case, the Astros and Leeds United) are very similar, and allow me to just sort of process what has happened to the latter over the past six weeks. Because if you love the Astros and hate soccer but love drama and the tragic combination of ambition and failure, I may have just the team for you. Just let this be a counseling session. Or you can head over to FanGraphs and look at the Playoff Odds and let me do my thing. Hot Links will post in the morning. 

Leeds United have been around since 1919. Their glory years really lay in the 1960s and early 1970s under the leadership of legendary manager Don Revie (foil of the great movie The Damned United, a movie that I have tried to watch with my wife so many times she actively hates it. It's a great movie.) and captain Billy Bremner. Bremner and another England great, Kevin Keegan, were kicked out of a charity match for fighting. The story of Revie's replacement, Brian Clough, is told in the movie, and I don't want to spoil it for you. Under Revie, however, Leeds United won two championships, two cup titles, and a European Cup Winners' Cup runner-up. 

Following soccer means you know about promotion and relegation. If you finish in the bottom three of, say, the Premier League, you are relegated to the next level down, the Championship. The top two teams from the Championship get automatic promotion and then 3rd-6th places fight it out over a two-leg playoff for the 3rd promotion spot. The same is also true of the bottom three in the Championship and the top three of League One, and so on with League Two. There are Non-League teams that are fighting to get into League Two. There is such a team in the town where I was born that is a Non-League team and I have a soft spot for them, but they haven't given and taken away from me as much as Leeds United. 

I inherited Leeds United. My dad went to school in England and was a student-missionary, this was just after Revie left Leeds, so they were still good, an exciting-ish team to watch. So as I grew up and, being born in England, liking soccer was something that connected me to my American dad, British mom, and overly-British grandparents. 

1997 was a big year for me. I was 17 in the spring, going into my senior year of high school in the fall (Sam Rayburn where you at!). I hid my social semi-awkwardness by embracing England and BritPop (something I still do. The Wife and I celebrate Dependence Day on July 3, in which we honor the last day of the Colonies' dependence on England. I was also an American History major, and I currently teach AP US History, so I'm just a ball of contradictions). I wore soccer jerseys to school. 

In Spring 1997 I got to go to England - by myself! - and visit my aunt/uncle/cousin and grandparents. It was amazing. My aunt sent me cds on a regular basis. U2 was my favorite band (they still are, but more as a monarchy role - a figure-head position, as there are other bands I listen to with much more fandom nowadays) - and in March, U2 released Pop (maybe my favorite U2 album). 94.5 The Buzz (I think it was The Buzz) played Pop in its entirety the night before its release. I recorded it on a boombox. A couple of months later Radiohead released OK Computer, an album still in my Top 5 of all-time. In August Oasis released Be Here Now, an album so ridiculously bombastic that it's impossible not to love, unless you don't like Oasis, in which case it's one of the worst things you've ever heard. The Verve released Urban Hymns in September. In November I attended my first concert - U2 at The Astrodome. Smashmouth opened, which sucked, especially because the previous show in San Antonio was opened by Rage Against The Machine. 

1997 was also a big year for Leeds United. That was the season they qualified for the UEFA Cup - the forerunner of the Champions League. Manager George Graham jumped to Tottenham, and Leeds promoted assistant manager David O'Leary to the head spot. Under O'Leary, Leeds never finished outside the top five in the Premier League. It wasn't all sunshine and rainbows, however. Lee Bowyer ("He's here! He's there! He wears no underwear, he's Lee Bowyer!" went a chant I once sang at the top of my lungs) and Jonathan Woodgate were charged with assaulting and severely injuring a college student. In the UEFA Cup semi-final in Istanbul, two Leeds fans were stabbed to death. 

I went to college, Leeds were good. Real good. If you've ever played Football Manager, or Football Chairman on iPhone, making it to the Champions League is a lucrative event. You make a lot, *a lot* of money from TV distribution, ticket sales, sponsorship, merchandise, etc. So once Leeds tasted that glory in 1998, they were desperate to retain it. Chairman Peter Ridsdale borrowed £60 million against future income to allow O'Leary to buy the players necessary to make it back to the UEFA Cup/Champions League year after year. They didn't. Mortgaging the future to buy the present...ring any bells? (*Cough* DRAYTON *Cough*). Debts mounted.

But they still kept winning. Though they missed the Champions League in 1999 and 2000, they made it back in the 2000/2001 season. That was my junior year of college. I had been betting on college basketball and doing really well, so my dad and I went to England for Spring Break 2001 to see how many soccer games we could attend in ten days. We saw the Non-League team in the town where I was born. We saw an FA Cup game (Blackburn Rovers v. Bolton Wanderers). We saw Leeds take on Lazio in the Champions League at Elland Road after eating fish & chips at the base of the statue of Billy Bremner. I sang "Ravanelli is a wanker" to the tune of the Hallelujah Chorus. It was great. 

In the 2001/2002 season - my senior year of college, when "showing soccer games on TV" was sort of a thing - Leeds made the UEFA Cup semi-finals. Leeds drew 0-0 in the first leg against the Dutch team PSV Eindhoven on the road. And for the last time the core of Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Lee Bowyer, Ian Harte, and Rio Ferdinand took the field in a European competition. I skipped class to watch the 2nd leg. With 51 seconds left at Elland Road the improbably-and-medievally-named Vennegoor of Hesselink headed a cross over the line. That was it. 

Rio Ferdinand was sold to Manchester United that summer for the equivalent of $30m. That was the beginning of the end. David O'Leary and Peter Ridsdale fell out over his sale (think Gerry Hunsicker's resignation), and O'Leary was fired. That was Pt2 of the end. Leeds were relegated at the end of the 2003-2004 season. In 2007, unable to pay their debts, Leeds was forced into administration and put in the third tier of professional football. Five years had passed since their UEFA Cup loss to PSV. In 2011 the owner - Ken Bates [spits on ground] called the fans "morons."

In 2014 Massimo Cellino, who was president of Italian Serie A club Cagliari Calcio, launched a successful takeover bid. He was problematic. In an interview with the Yorkshire Evening Post's Phil Hay (a hero), he said that Leeds fans were:
...tired of eating shit and shutting their mouths. They accept me with enthusiasm and that gives me a lot of responsibility. I'm the richest man in the world with these fans and I can challenge anyone, everyone.

Seven months after being approved as owner, Cellino was found guilty of tax evasion. Under his reign here is the duration of the following managers:
Brian McDermott: 52 days
Dave Hockaday: 70 days
Darko Milanic: 32 days
Neil Redfearn: 200 days
Uwe Rosler: 152 days
Steve Evans: 226 days

That's six managers in 728 days, less than two years. Garry Monk was appointed manager on June 2, 2016. Ho-hum, right? After 15 years of relegation and ownership changes and managerial chaos, what could you possibly expect? But Leeds came out hot. 

Leeds United started the 2016-2017 season with one win, four losses, and a tie. Same old same old. Marching On Together, All Leeds Aren't We and whatnot. Then three straight wins. Then some mixed results. Then in December marked the beginning of a run in which Leeds won six games, drew one. January marks the transfer window, in which you can buy and sell players - think of it like the trade deadline but without swapping players, just buying and selling players like meat. Cellino did nothing, and at first glance it was excusable - why mess with something that was clearly working? Think, Trade Deadline 2016.

Brighton & Hove Albion and newly-relegated Newcastle (managed by Rafa Benitez) were almost locks for automatic promotion, but Leeds were firmly entrenched in the playoff spots. On Saturday, 18 March Leeds beat Championship leaders Brighton & Hove Albion 2-0. Convincing. Destined for at least the playoff if not automatic promotion with a break here and there. Then the international break - when national teams play World Cup Qualifiers and friendly matches - happened, and Leeds didn't play another league game for two weeks. Players in the Championship rarely get called up to international squads, but defensive leader Pontus Jansson got called up to Sweden's national team. 

Think of this two-week break like it's Leeds' very own Hurricane Ike, without the natural disaster, devastation, and general awfulness so awful that it's wrong to make the comparison. Still, Leeds lost their first two games after the international break, won one, then tied 2nd-place Newcastle. Not bad, yeah? A handful of games to go, and Leeds are sitting firmly entrenched in the playoff to return to the top flight. Nope. Leeds lost to now-15th place Wolverhampton Wanderers 1-0 at home to slip out of the playoff spots. Three games left and they need at least six, probably seven, ideally nine points out of those games. 

Today comes. A road game against Burton Albion, a team that will be lucky to stay in the Championship. No problem for a team looking to return to the Premier League, right? Nope. 2-1 loss in a must-win game.

This is 2003-era Astros right here. Remember that year? The Astros needed to take, ideally, three out of four against the last-place Brewers to make the playoffs? The Astros won the first game of the series, 6-1, thanks to Tim Redding, to tie the division up with the Cubs. In the 2nd game - Friday - Jeriome Robertson laid an egg and the Astros lost 12-5 to fall a half-game behind the Cubs. In the 3rd game, Saturday, a game I attended with my wife of two months, Ron Villone somehow started and gave up 5ER in a 5-2 loss. Milwaukee's Wes Obermueller threw 8IP, 10H/2ER, 2K:0BB to lower his season ERA to 5.07. Obermueller, with a career -0.9 bWAR, only threw one game in his career better than that one: On September 25, 2004 he threw a complete game shutout...against the Astros. The 2003 Astros missed the playoffs.

Is that the same as a 15-year long journey back to respectability? Hell and no it's not. The 2003 Astros enjoyed greater heights the following year, and even greater heights the year after that. But, like Leeds United, the high-water mark was the beginning of a very long struggle. Ownership changes, management changes, years of struggle (thank God there's no relegation in baseball), trying to delude yourself into being a contender, then struggling to contend. I do not believe that the 2017 Astros will follow the path of 2016-2017 Leeds United. But the two teams are linked in my mind.

I teach history, and what lessons do I have to learn next? 

If you're unaffiliated with an English soccer team, join me as we March On Together. All Leeds (Astros) Aren't We?