It ain't no English Premier League, but it's the highest standard of football available in North America!
My Dad took me to my first ever Newcastle United game when I was ten. I'm a third generation fan on one side, fourth on the other, and he felt it was time to begin my education (thanks for the twenty-odd years of pain, Dad). He even managed to talk his way into the dressing room before the game, so I got to meet my hero Peter Beardsley (and other members of the team, including a very young and hungover-looking Gazza), and we beat Southampton 2-0.
I instantly loved it - being part of a crowd, the singing and chanting and cheering and jumping up and down, the banter, all of it. I once took a friend to a Scotland-South Africa rugby game in Edinburgh - she hated sport but thought that she "should go and see what it's all about" - and while she spent most of the game shivering and sulking, she came to life as Scotland pushed for the line, recycling the ball over and over, and eventually scoring a try through sheer bloody-minded perseverance. As the whole stadium leaped to its feet and roared, she admitted that she could see the attraction. But I've always felt it - tens of thousands of people (and thousands or even millions more in front of their TVs) uniting in one wish that, if fulfilled, causes an outburst of pure joy and elation and causes strangers to hug and grown men to declare that they love each other.
My Dad and I went a few more times while I was growing up in York, about a 90 minute drive away. An evening game against Norwich (we won 4-1) and a quite terrifying cup game against Wimbledon (we lost 3-0) stand out in the memory - the latter occasion was the one and only time I ever stood, and being at about head height to the concrete barricades, with TV images of Hillsborough still fresh in my mind, I did not particularly enjoy it. The drive back up to Ashington in my Dad's cousin's van was equally harrowing.
Then, when I was eighteen, I moved back to the region of my birth to attend Newcastle University, and lived within sight and sound of the magnificent St James' Park stadium during the Keegan era of the late 1990s. I was in heaven, even though it was almost impossible to get tickets and I only got to go to a game once a year or so. (My favourite experience was when a friend of my then-boyfriend asked me, in a very patronising voice, "is the stadium bigger than you'd expected?" His expression got more and more surprised as I answered "well, it's really improved since I first came here nine years ago, the corners have filled in, they've added the extra tiers, and of course there's no standing section any more. And I hear the dressing rooms have really improved since the time I got in there to meet Peter Beardsley").
The only time I've ever got tickets since, with Mr E Man in tow for his first ever Premiership game, the fixture was cancelled 20 minutes before kick-off, due to snow. We got to see Alan Shearer throw a snowball though. Mr E Man opined that he threw like a girl, which almost caused my Dad and me to abandon him to his fate at the hands of 50,000 irate Geordies, but we chose the path of light and my Dad explained loudly "it's alright, he's Canadian".
In contrast, the Vancouver Whitecaps have never aroused the same feelings of tribal passion, despite links to Newcastle through the likes of Beardsley, Bobby Robson, and (much less impressively, although he's a decent keeper), Tony Caig. I've been to a couple of special occasion games - the Beckham spectacle, and a pre-season visit by Newcastle's bitter rivals,
But my one experience with MLS - a Columbus Crew game in 1997 - leaves me optimistic that the standard of football in Vancouver is about to improve to the extent that I will actually want to go and watch a regular season game. (Back then I found the MLS standard to be somewhere between Newcastle and York City, who I've seen once, and never again, although hopefully the MLS (and York City) standard is rising). I'll definitely give it a try, dragging friends and/or nephews along with me if necessary. No doubt the new team will be significantly cheaper and easier to see than the Canucks (who are hopefully streaking their way into a decent play-off run as we speak. Getting to the second round this year would be nice, guys...)
To be continued... in 2011...