x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

History, nice kit? Check. Reviled? Count me in

With no familial, regional or tribal affinities with England's football clubs laid out before me like shiny new cars in a showroom, which should I choose?

Happy days, such as William Gallas, second from the right, celebrating a goal with teammates in December 2008 was not the big reason Paul Oberjuerge picked Arsenal as his team.
Happy days, such as William Gallas, second from the right, celebrating a goal with teammates in December 2008 was not the big reason Paul Oberjuerge picked Arsenal as his team.

While in Hong Kong, writer Paul Oberjuerge decided he would pick a Premier League team to root for. His process was unscientific

I was working in Hong Kong in the waning days of 2008, and the Premier League was as unavoidable there as traffic snarls and typhoons. English football seemed to be playing and replaying round the clock on every network. It was the Orient, but it felt like I was living in West Astoncastlepool Spurhammer City.

As an American kid, I'd had no interest in that "other" football. But I had succumbed to the international allure of the game in 1990 while reporting on the World Cup in Italy. (Though, looking back, I may have confused enthusiasm for Italy with rapture for "soccer".)

Nearly two decades later, while staring at a small TV in a tiny Hong Kong apartment, I still had no club preference, and as match after match played out before my glazed eyes it seemed as if a rooting interest might help provide context and intellectual mooring for this endless procession of English games.

Which took me to a curious place: with no familial, regional or tribal affinities, with England's football clubs laid out before me like shiny new cars in a showroom, which should I choose? The flashy model? The expensive one? The sturdy one? So many choices.

I decided my methods would be a mixture of science and impulse. Sensible, except when I didn't want them to be.

First off: the Big Four (circa 2008) were out. Linking myself with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester United showed no imagination and violated a basic American preference for the underdog.

Then I found myself trying on names for size, looking for the catchy or evocative. Queens Park Rangers had always sounded dashing, Nottingham Forest did, too; Robin Hood, merry men, all that. Crystal Palace. But none of them were in the Premier League.

I set them aside.

Nicknames disqualified several clubs. No Cottagers, Toffees or Magpies need apply.

I considered going downmarket. The first interview of footballers in England I had conducted had been with two Yanks, Kasey Keller and Bruce Murray, when they played for Millwall, and they had spoken of their "enthusiastic" supporters. But I discovered, like a slap to the face (or a punch to the jaw), that the Dockers may have invented hooliganism. If I wanted to join a gang, I could have ferried over to Kowloon and tried a triad on for size.

I circled Aston Villa several times, kicking the tyres. They passed my name test.

I imagined ruins of a Roman settlement in the centre of town. A museum. And they were a competent side, in 2008, but not a Big Four club. I knew Brad Friedel from the 1998 and 2002 World Cups.

I went to their Wikipedia page and was stopped cold: I realised that the team kit mattered. Aston Villa have a hideous pairing of maroon and baby blue, and upon viewing it I may have thrown up a little in my mouth. I believe the club referred to the colours as "claret and sky blue" but they were an off-putting combination by any name.

I also remembered that Brad Friedel was something of a pill.

I was running out of options. Several people offered up Tottenham, a London club, good but not great, lots of history. But then I saw Harry Redknapp, and I realised I couldn't support a side whose coach had a face like a basset hound. A snap decision, rude and shallow, but there you are.

I reviewed. What had I decided? Probably a London club, competent but not bagging trophies every season, no silly nickname, not known for thuggery.

For a moment, I gave up entirely.

The turning point occurred nearly nine months later. I was in the media workroom for a France-Romania World Cup qualifier in Paris when a tall, polite, grey-haired man with an almost patrician manner entered the room.

I should have known him, but it eluded me for a moment. Several French reporters got up to chat with him; he apparently was going to do TV commentary. A British reporter approached him, and I realised the dapper visitor spoke accented English. Then it hit me: Arsene Wenger.

It all fell into place. I had liked the "Arsenal" and "Gunners" names from the start. The team crest, with the cannon, was fun. Their basic colours, red and white, were simple and inoffensive. A London club with no particular history of violence. And a coach who looked like a university president.

I appreciated their style of play, the almost self-defeating Wenger insistence on attractive, possession football. I liked their players: Cesc Fabregas, Abou Diaby, Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott.

When I mentioned that I was leaning towards adopting Arsenal as my Premier League team, every Briton I know seemed to recoil in horror. "Anyone but Arsenal!" "How can you stand Arsene Wenger's excuses?" "First English club to play without any Englishmen!" "Arsenal are evil!"

A widely loathed team? In my mind that justified the flip-flopping on the Big Four issue. I apparently was joining the ranks of the reviled. Plus, just how big can Arsenal be if they haven't won a trophy since 2005?

I am not a die-hard supporter, of course. You don't pick a team like a brand of crisps at the market and become emotionally invested right off. Arsene and the lads can choke away another lead today, and I will sleep like a baby. But there it is: Arsenal's Gunners, winners of one man's supporter derby, if by process of elimination.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae