In the Wee Small Hours: One Writer’s Peek at Football Fandom in Orange County

Illustration by Faye Rogers

As working parents of a toddler, my husband and I don’t do much that doesn’t involve Paw Patrol and juice boxes. I have my Wednesday night writing group, and Edgar has weekend soccer matches. I’ve often watched his silhouette slide out of bed at 3 in the morning, slip on a kit (jersey), and head to the pub to watch a 4 a.m. match. Santa Ana’s Olde Ship, along with a handful of other British pubs in Orange County, often open early on match days so “footie” supporters can watch clubs play live.

After years of protest, I agreed to join Edgar one Saturday. He wanted to share the experience with me, and while I dearly love my sleep, I love him more. We sent our daughter to stay with her grandparents for the night. I prepared myself for an early wake-up call and prepared my husband for the mood I would surely be in once I succumbed to the alarm.

The Olde Ship reminded me of pubs I’ve been to in England. Thick, chipped, black doors opening to dark wood, low lights, and floral-print rugs in scarlet and gold. Fans separated themselves by club, easily identified by kit. Edgar is part of the OC Tottenham Hotspur Supporters group, and that day was a Tottenham vs. Manchester United match, so the bar was filled with navy (Tottenham) and red (Man U), with pockets of other clubs’ fans milling in the aisle and spreading into the restaurant. The match would affect the standings, so everyone had a favorite to win.

I wasn’t excited to be there. Mostly because of the hour, but also because I was just not into sports. But almost immediately after we walked into the pub, I understood that I didn’t have to be a hard-core fan to enjoy the spectacle. I watched as Man U enthusiasts draped a club banner against a shelved wall in their half of the bar. Crimson corners were tucked under a decorative pewter teapot and a beer stein in the shape of the Tower of London. Two large-screen TVs that showed smartly dressed announcers discussing the implications of the match were mounted over the bar. Smaller screens running highlights from a previous match were sprinkled throughout the restaurant. It was packed, and there was a feeling of camaraderie even among opposing sides.

Edgar warned me things could get heated, so I was curious whether the smiles and light teasing would hold. He told me to snag a seat in the bar for the full experience. I was a proper bandwagoner, so I did. I’d even borrowed one of his Tottenham shirts: a navy V-neck with white piping and the Tottenham cockerel crest stitched in white over the left breast. It hung baggy on me, which worked out because I ordered “The Full English”—baked beans, a fried egg, ham slices, wedges of fried toast, and a grilled tomato on a plate so large it took up a third of our small bar table. I also ordered coffee. Edgar ordered tea. Pretty much everyone else ordered pints of Guinness or Fuller’s London Pride.

The match started and the singing along with it. Watch any English Premier League match and you’ll find yourself listening to an almost endless cacophony of club-inspired chanting from the stands. I’d seen this on TV when Edgar watched matches at home, but witnessing it live was infinitely better. It’s an unofficial rule that if one of your fellow supporters starts a song, everyone joins in. You’re expected to come knowing the songs. As the Man U fans started with “Oh Manchester / Oh Manchester / Is Wonderful,” the Tottenham folks didn’t miss a beat and began their own rendition: “Oh Manchester / Oh Manchester / Is full of s*&%.” Each side got louder as the fans tried to drown out their adversaries. Under the table, my fingers stealthily Googled lyrics so I could join in the next round.

Tottenham won, 3-0, and I knew in my heart it was because of me. The plates were cleared, the pints drained. Tottenham and Man U enthusiasts shook hands. The conversation turned to players and rankings. It was difficult to believe it was only 7 a.m. It seemed to me real fans came for the match and returned for the experience, the people, and the beer. I’m about as un-sporty as you can get, so it made sense that I took things in reverse, coming only out of spousal obligation and begrudging the hour. But once the match began and the caffeine kicked in, it was inescapably fun. I ate the food, sang the songs, sneered when told to sneer, and felt the surge of victory. I could see why Edgar loved coming here.

I vowed to go again, but it was tough to find an early-morning babysitter. Before long, I noticed Edgar watching more matches at home. Deflated, he told me things had changed at The Olde Ship. Noise complaints and slow sales led to no matches before 6 a.m. and a $10 door charge. People stopped coming. I needed to see this for myself.

The next early match wasn’t Tottenham, so Edgar didn’t want to go; he stayed home with our daughter. I wasn’t prepared for how much things had changed. I paid my $10 at the door and got my wristband, asking the nice but imposing security guard if it was really busy. He gave me a sad, knowing smile and shook his head. I was already feeling defeated. It was a 9 a.m. match and there were four people there. My breakfast and coffee were delivered depressingly quickly.

“Where’d everyone go?” I asked the bartender. She told me most fans had found their own pubs. Arsenal and Chelsea supporters still come to The Olde Ship. Manchester United fans now frequent Killarney’s in Huntington Beach. Liverpool can be found at the Auld Dubliner in Tustin. I already knew that Tottenham folks had moved on to Gallagher’s in Long Beach because Edgar was one of them, though he has missed more matches this season than in the past five years combined. I only stayed long enough to finish my breakfast.

I’m disappointed for Edgar because he has lost a piece of this culture he loves, and I’m mad at myself for not making more effort to join him when I had the chance. The fans are still around, but the experience is different. There’s an intensity with a crowd that shares love and hate that you don’t get when you’re all cheering in the same direction.

This year’s World Cup runs June through July. It’s sure to bring hordes of supporters. Hopefully it brings resurgence to The Olde Ship when the English Premier League season returns. Walking with Edgar through the heavy black doors on opening day, to the melodious sound of a hundred out-of-tune and inebriated fans, will be our surest victory.

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