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THE OTHER SIDE: Derbies, dough, and looking for joy

As the epidemic descended, I was searching for sports love.

I am not sure if there are any of you out there who, like me, in the interests of self-survival, have succumbed to the odd combination of YouTube cooking shows and English football, the Premier League in particular. As bizarre as a previous me would have found it, the Tottenham Hotspurs, a name that rivals anything that could have sprung from the mind of Charles Dickens, and Vito Iacopelli’s multiple adventures perfecting and demonstrating easy-to-make pizzas have thus far saved me from the dual insults of COVID-19 and Donald Trump and his mad knights of Trumpovia. Yes, I very much needed/need to escape my reality.

In spite of everything the owners have done to me, I have always tried to be a loyal sports fan. It began when I was still young and they plucked the Dodgers from Flatbush in Brooklyn to ship them across the country to the faraway Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles. Though a Bronx boy, I literally lived or died with the Dodgers. In my neighborhood, it was the New York Yankees or fight. Yes, it was hard on me when the New York Knicks sold the champion Clyde Frazier, but in spite of everything, and no matter where I have lived, I have stuck with the New York Knicks and the New York Giants.

This continuing loyalty is probably because I began as a Knicks fan when you had to listen on radio and, thanks to the rare opportunity provided to high school students with a New York City G.O. card, you could go to Madison Square Garden for 50 cents and see an NBA double-header. And if you had a larcenous teenage heart, you could systematically make your way from the nosebleed seats located close to the moon and, if you were fortunate enough to find a kind usher, slip into an empty seat amongst the well-heeled. I have been repaying that bargain now for decades by purchasing an NBA League Pass—Boston Celtics be damned—to keep up with my New York Knicks.

It took a while for me to stabilize my baseball fandom when I found myself living in the Berkshires, but, slowly, with the help of Will Curletti, I gradually succumbed to the Red Sox. But after many decades of committed support, greed triumphed and Mookie Betts was gone. After the Sox made it clear they wouldn’t pay, Mookie, one of the best ever, found himself a Dodger, the team whose betrayal still stings. Haven’t watched the Red Sox since then.

Yes, as the epidemic descended, I was searching for sports love. Roger Federer’s body was finally failing him. Serena, too—understandably, since motherhood. And, like many, I had watched Pele and then Ronaldo and Ronaldhino and Neymar during various World Cups, always amazed by how the best seemed like synchronized swimmers, as if there was one brain at work, watching the ball move seamlessly from one to the other.

It helped that there was the Potoski Three (Derk, Jack, and Milo—and sometimes with Parker to make four) always talking about the football the world played, my soccer, when they came to Fuel for Sunday breakfast, dedicated to the game, even when there was no World Cup to be seen. Derk coached, and his sons played. You can add Jon Greene’s infectious love of the game to the equation. So, ever so slowly, their enthusiasm percolated past my impressive stubbornness. And even though I most often hadn’t a clue about what they were saying about the defensive third and the midfielders and the best strikers, I figured the least I could do was try again to understand the game and watch for more than 10 minutes.

I had no idea about what I was wandering into—the long, deep passionate history of English football that had sustained so many for so many years:

Ebenezer Cobb Morley’s 1863 “Laws of the Game,” written for the Football Association. Photo by Adrian Roebuck.

I’m not sure how the Spurs happened. I think I stumbled upon a short behind-the scenes documentary about Tottenham. It might have been his name but I instantly liked their manager, Mauricio Pochettino; he seemed like he could have been one of my mother’s Italian relatives neither of us had ever met—that, at the least, we could share some lasagna. I also appreciated the way Christian Eriksen talked to his mates and the way he managed to kick the ball, looping it so that it fell right before his teammate’s foot, so he never had to break stride. It certainly didn’t hurt that Eriksen is from Denmark, and that, as a kid, I loved it when my dad brought home some prune danish from Zaro’s as a treat on Saturday mornings.

Sadly, Eriksen left soon after, and I watched as he shockingly suffered heart failure on the pitch while playing for Denmark. And then, when he magically recuperated, he chose the winning Manchester United and not the losing Spurs to mount his comeback and continue his career. We played “Man U” just a week or two ago, all even at two to two, but I still found myself thinking Eriksen ought to be wearing a Tottenham jersey.

Ange Postecoglu at the 2017 FIFA Cameroon v. Australia match. Photo courtesy of Кирилл Венедиктов via Wikimedia Commons.

To be completely frank, it has been a difficult ride suffering through several years of mediocrity, and I often wondered if my hasty and impulsive choice of Tottenham was a dreadful mistake. I mean, I would have been better off with Liverpool or Arsenal or, of course, Manchester City. For several years, it was managerial musical chairs at the Spurs: Pochettino out; then Jose Maurinho; and Nuno Espirito Santo in and out; and then Antonio Conte; and interim Ryan Mason; until, finally, our salvation, Big Ange Postecoglu from Scotland’s Celtic via Down Under, the first Australian to manage in the Premier League. Big Ange is a delight. His press conferences are direct, no nonsense, and far less of the run-of-the-mill, state-of-the-art bull-crap—you know, one stale cliché after the other, trying so hard not to reveal anything of interest. By contrast, the Knicks’ Tom Thibideau says pretty much the same thing night after night, “so and so did very well, and this guy too, and the other guy as well, and yes, we made some mistakes which we’ll have to clean up once we watch the film, a few turnovers, and, of course, it’s a long season, and it’s about the effort and hard work and …”

As we used to say when I was boy, “that and a subway token will get you into the subway.”

I still know very little about the sport, but both Maurinho and Conte slowed everything down, trying to keep the ball as much as possible, hoping to bore and hypnotize the opposition—ball control and defense as a nuclear option. But Ange has his team, as the commenters are wont to say, on the front foot: moving and shifting and always ready to move forward to strike.

The most remarkable thing for me has been witnessing in such a short time the clear transformation: the players, who for years seemed close to miserable a good deal of the time, appear much happier, enjoying the game, not looking over their shoulders, never stopping, working hard.

Big Ange lost Harry Kane almost immediately after taking over. Harry Kane was a bit like a Premier League Super Hero. Certainly, not the most athletic. He could pass as a truck—strike that, lorry driver—if he wasn’t the greatest scorer and known to all in recent times in the U.K. Remarkably, he found more and more ways to score goals. The balls he struck seemed to have a will of their own, one way or another, like slightly obsessed free-range salmon, completely committed to transcending any obstacle to make it home and past the goalie. But Harry got tired of Tottenham’s losses, and wanted what they call silverware (Trophies for his den). And, of course, he had already made more money than a million lorry drivers. And besides the trophies, the Germans had still more money to offer.

I recently saw ex-Miami Heat Dwayne Wade’s first podcast, and he posed himself before his three NBA Championship trophies and the one for the NBA Finals MVP, each close to two feet tall, all four sharing a shelf in his den. Well, Harry Kane wants some of that, and so, he went off to Munich to play for Bayern because they win those things all the time.

In the beginning, watching the Premier League, it seemed that I had wandered into another world. It felt like maybe I had woken up in a small city in Bulgaria, where even the letters on the storefronts spelled words that made no sense. Were they selling pastry or paper towels? The commentators might have been using English, but they kept saying things that made me doubt it. They referred to one game after another as a “darby.” What, I wondered, was a “darby.” One game a “London Darby,” then a “Merseyside Darby.” It was a mighty victory when I discovered that their “darby” was my “derby.” Though it turned out there were no horses involved. One saving grace was that you at least weren’t required to down one of those foul mint julips.

It was also illuminating when I added geography to the mix. If a “darby” happens when two teams in the same city play each other, it certainly helps explain the continuing use of the word when you discover that there are football teams every bloody mile or two in London. There are seven in London: Arsenal, Brentford, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Fulham, Tottenham, and West Ham United. There are two in Manchester: Manchester United and Manchester City. And there are two in Liverpool: Everton and Liverpool.

Of course, the choice of teams, and the rivalries, was as primal over there as it was in New York City, where you offered your allegiance to one of the three: the Giants, the Dodgers, or the Yankees. In my case, it was my father and his politics and my parents’ values that made my choice of the Brooklyn Dodgers almost inevitable. The Dodgers, of course, with the brave help of Jackie Robinson, integrated baseball. The Yankees owned the world. Case closed. We were predisposed to go with the oppressed over the oppressor.

But back to the idiosyncratic way they speak: “Added time” was the extra minutes teams had to play after the regulation time of each of the two halves—calculated by the time spent dealing with injuries, or dealing with disputes, or calls that required looking at Video Assisted Referee (VAR) replays. Their computer-generated lines reveal what the human eye could easily miss, and likely did, in fact: the ball makes it indisputably into the net for a goal.

Some tournaments, such as the Champions League (the yearly all-Europe round-robin competition involving clubs from all over the continent), utilize the “Aggregate score.” Winners are decided by the combined score of two games the sides play against each other. So, you can lose one to zero away, but then triumph by winning three to one at home.

Some phrases are keepers, little gems often used in British dramas, comedies, and mysteries: “at sixes and sevens,” the chaotic often discombobulated way some of us live our lives, and clearly the way some English football teams play when nothing is working.

Some terms describe the incredibly difficult acrobatic shots only the best manage to accomplish: “the bicycle kick,” which involves a player whose back is facing the goal flinging oneself in the air, upside down, trying to locate the ball, and in one extended motion kicking it accurately past the goalkeeper to score.

“Cracker” is terrific, and a “cross” is a pass made across the field, through the “box” (the rectangular area nearest the goal), in an attempt to position it in such a way to make it possible for a teammate moving from the other side of the box to kick it past the defense and the goalie.

Watching matches in a state-of-the-art stadium where the Spurs play or in far older, more modest fields, I began to see in the fans the obvious pull of generational allegiance, of neighborhood, of class. I began to watch YouTube episodes of “Men In Blazers,” which, in Michael Davies’ and Roger Bennett’s own words, tell the continuing inside story of football: “With a wide reach and a diverse, vocal fan base, we engage with teams, players, and celebrity fans. We use humor, emotion, intelligence, and to-the-minute pop cultural aptitude to produce unique content that breaks down the biggest stories in the game in ways that are authentic, meaningful, and compulsively entertaining.” And I would say—and it sounds almost contradictory—in a poetic, yet completely down-to-earth and remarkably comprehensible way. A clear labor of love: the two of them English exiles in America doing their best to spread their deeply passionate embrace of world football to an audience still learning to love it and embrace it in the way they have American football.

Roger Bennett tells some of his story here, and I found much to identify with: COVID and Trump lead me to the Premier League, while Liverpool marked his youth “at a time when the city was really challenged in the Thatcher era, a period of incredible darkness, you know like now …”

Bennett reflects on the similarities between New York City facing COVID—remember the makeshift morgues and COVID sufferers packed in hallways and overflowing emergency rooms—and his impoverished Liverpool: “incredible suffering and at the same time the humanity of the city, in that case, Liverpool, right now New York City is exposed, the humanity, the collective wonder, the tenacity, the perseverance …” And, of course, he acknowledges the role both played as port cities and landing spots for “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

A bit like me, my parents suffering through McCarthyism and me huddled with a radio desperate to listen to my New York Knicks, while Bennett’s father looked to the Everton Football Club.

Bennett continues:

I mean there is such a connection between Liverpool and New York … where really America spilled in, everything came through in the heyday of the poor … the ideas, rock and roll, the music, the films, the swagger, so I’ve always saw there’s a big connection between those two cities but growing up in Liverpool a dark, dark time, I really was thrilled by you know, Starsky and Hutch, Hart to Hart, the Love Boat, Miami Vice, the Chicago Bears Super Bowl winning team, all that stuff … it felt that life was living in color over there in America. Never been but I loved all the music, the movies, the television … Penny Lane records, I used to run down to and make them special order all the Stevie Ray Vaughan albums … Public Enemy’s first album, you know … I didn’t fully understand it because I wasn’t from there but I felt alive when I listened and watched it so the first opportunity I could I swore I’d move over there and I did right before the 1994 World Cup …

Bennett’s struggles to maintain his primal connection to Everton and Liverpool while living here reveal so much about the trajectory of America’s initial resistance to, then growing love for, English and world football—the evolution that made it so easy for me to discover via streaming the sport on which I have recently come to rely. Bennett, married to an American and living in New York, tells this revelatory tale about the 2006 World Cup. I don’t think I really clearly absorbed that for so much of the rest of the world, the World Cup really is must-see TV–the Super Bowl times 100. But the reality is that, for the longest time, America didn’t care a fig about what the rest of the world regarded as monumentally important.

Bennett explains that he remembers his history with the help of the absolutely vital calendar of the World Cup:

The 2006 World Cup, we’re going to a wedding—like you. I judge any year, a year to me like 1987, my mind immediately places me where I was, 1986 World Cup I know exactly where I was then—Maradona, and I’m able to locate my whole life by World Cups. So they are the emotional spine to my life. So I’m watching, there’s a damn World Cup, the headbutt World Cup, and we’re getting ready, I’m getting ready for the bloody wedding, and I’m changing as I’m watching and my wife comes out and she’s American … and she says we’ve got to go to a wedding and I say, ‘Who gives a crap about a wedding. It’s going into extra time’ … she says the wedding’s on the boat and if we don’t leave now the boat’s going to leave without us and so I went in a taxi and went down to the South Street Seaport and I was fairly disgusting …

I’m not proud of how I behaved at that wedding. I didn’t want to be there. It angered me that everyone there wasn’t talking about this damn headbutt. No one gave a crap. They’re all just thinking, ‘There’s just Rog thinking about himself,’ these Americans are thinking about the other people. I’m angry. I’m rude. I’m fairly disgusted and I’m sitting at the bar at the end of the night and I’m watching this guy across the bar … he’s probably even more disgusting than I was—he clearly didn’t want to be there. He was English. He was rude, and I went over to him and I said, ‘Hi, you English?’

And he said, ‘Yeah.’

I said, ‘You furious because of the World Cup?’

And he said, ‘Oh my God, am I ever!’

And I introduced myself and it was my partner now, Michael Davis. First time I ever met him at this wedding on a boat just after the World Cup Final and we chatted the whole night. He’s a Chelsea fan and I’m an Everton—he’s from South London. I’m from Liverpool, you know, the north, the south. You know, a shared love of football, a shared love of America. And I loved talking to him. Right then and there we decided to reconnect and start working together, which we did. So, the moral of the story, is even when you’re at your most disgusting, when you cannot believe what your partner is making you do, your girlfriend, your boyfriend, your wife, whatever. Great things can still happen. I’m so grateful at the end of the day I went to that bloody wedding because it changed my life forever …

Bennett made clear the difference between his introduction to the game and the American experience. Like me and pickup basketball, playing ball in schoolyards into the night, and then going to my DeWitt Clinton High School games, college games, and then the pros. With street ball, I had these communal, neighborhood bonds, as he did he, too, sharing Everton football with his father. Bennett recalls how soccer spread in a different way in the United States, first thanks to FIFA EA Sports, via the computer, as young folks found themselves pretend playing as Messi or Ronaldo on the screen, learning how different players and different teams in different lands approached the game. Even now, the Potoskis not only love and play the game as often as they can on grass, but still spend hours playing online.

Bennett continues:

When I moved to America—this is a testament to how much football has changed and how much the internet has changed the way you can be a football fan—when I came over, to watch the 1995 FA Cup semi-final, it wasn’t on TV over here. The answer: called my Dad, had him hold up the phone to the radio to hear the semi-final … young viewers will not understand this. We’re on WhatsApp now. It’s like nothing costs anything—in those days it cost me more for that phone call than—it was like several months’ worth of salary. I wouldn’t swap it for a second but that’s what it was like when I came over …

You know, football, we always joke on our show, football or as they call it here—soccer—we always say soccer, America’s sport of the future as it has been since 1972. You know, it’s always meant to happen, you know, Pele … You know. It is massive, but it just was never an overnight success—it was just slow and steady and watching year to year …

Bennett tells the story of how New York Republican Congressman Jack Kemp reacted when the U.S. was awarded the World Cup games:

Jack Kemp was like, ‘It’s really important for the young generation that they understand that football, you throw it, you catch and you rush with it, and it’s not this kicking the ball, not using your hands.’ He said, ‘One is about American strength and power and the other game is about European socialism.’ And that attitude of hatred is gone, and there are so many factors that played a role in that, and it’s a testament at the end of the day for how many Americans loved an excuse to day-time drink because they’re getting up for the games 6 o’clock, 4 o’clock on the West Coast to watch Everton Football Club—you really have got to love the team, to have a passion, a commitment. You’ve got to savor six pints by 8:30 in the morning …

Then Bennett explains the great jump in interest:

We saw a 2010 World Cup when football just really went over the top here and then the Premier League starts to be broadcast live over here. And on our weekend here, you can watch them in Liverpool right now …

I saw COVID in England through football: The stadiums were empty, but the games went on. And Roger was reminded of Everton’s mission beyond the football:

[B]ut the thing about being an Evertonian and all four kids of mine are Evertonians, which is the greatest parenting achievement I’ll ever have—nothing will top that because it’s not easy, mate, to get from afar to understand the nuance, wonders of being an Evertonian, but to me being an Evertonian is a way of seeing the world.

Bennett went on to explain how the club reached out to the elderly during COVID:

Like every day the Everton Football Club are doing the right thing in ways that make me feel so proud. The thousands of people isolated, the elderly, digging out the files to find the Everton players who are probably are lonely as hell right now and isolated and calling them too.

What amazed me most once in-person attendance resumed was the singing, the chanting, the constant interaction between what was happening on the field and in the stands. And, of course, I was surprised by the pre-match taking of the knee, the constant need to confront racial prejudice. The makeup of a Premier League football team is a living reminder of the extraordinary diversity of our planet. And the league, and its fans, can celebrate at one and the same time an Argentine like Christian Romero, an Erling Haaland from Norway, a Mohamed Salah from Egypt, and Sadio Mané from Senegal, bringing to life the urgent need to practice the League’s slogan: “No Room for Racism.”

There remains something incredibly moving as everyone at Anfield, once Everton’s home and now home to their derby rival, Liverpool, rises to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” My father loved musicals, and especially Rodgers and Hammerstein, and I remember the film version of “Carousel.” So different in some ways than the choral rendition of the play/film, but it seems, in Liverpool, they are much more familiar with the Gerry and the Pacemakers remake, an apt anthem for the 1960s. Which appropriately made it to the top of the chart in the U.K. I knew the Pacemakers from “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” and “Ferry Cross the Mersey.” But as the song echoes through Anfield, it’s hard not to choke up:

When you walk through a storm

Hold your head up high

And don’t be afraid of the dark

At the end of a storm

There’s a golden sky

And the sweet silver song of a lark

Walk on through the wind

Walk on through the rain

Though your dreams be tossed and blown

Walk on, walk on

With hope in your heart

And you’ll never walk alone

You’ll never walk alone

Walk on, walk on

You can see how thousands singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” might make Thatcher’s horrendous austerity and even COVID more bearable.

As for Spurs, the fans together sing:

Oh when the Spurs,
Go marching in,
Oh when the Spurs go marching in,
I wanna be in that number,
When the Spurs go marching in …

What I didn’t know was that the fans at Celtic Football Club in Glasgow, Scotland also sang/sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to start their game. According to Wikipedia:

[Celtic] was founded in 1887 with the purpose of alleviating poverty in the immigrant Irish population in the East End of Glasgow. They played their first match in May 1888, a friendly match against Rangers which Celtic won 5–2. Celtic established themselves within Scottish football, winning six successive league titles during the first decade of the 20th century. The club enjoyed their greatest successes during the 1960s and 70s under Jock Stein, when they won nine consecutive league titles and the 1967 European Cup …

Celtic are one of only five clubs in the world to have won over 100 trophies … The club’s fanbase was estimated in 2003 as being around 9 million worldwide and there are more than 160 Celtic supporters clubs in over 20 countries.

And Big Ange, my new manager for the Spurs, was last at Celtic, hired in June of 2021. The BBC writes:

The former Australia boss joins from Yokohama F Marinos in Japan on a 12-month rolling contract. ‘I will be doing everything I can to get our great club back on top,’ said Greece-born Postecoglou. ‘We want to entertain our fans and we want to win, these are the objectives which I always set myself and which I now begin work on. The opportunity that has been given to me is one of the greatest honours in football.’

While there, he won successive Scottish Premiership titles. He was quickly approached by the Spurs and hired in June 2023.

Now, in the midst of writing poetic about the sport, I would be remiss if I didn’t remind myself and you about the continuing need to balance fandom and the often irresistible tendency to fall in love with my/your team, with the often bitter reality of sports as a business. It is, unfortunately, the fact, that as those dedicated fans of Liverpool are singing their hearts out, the club itself is owned by the contemporary American carpetbaggers who refused to pay my Mookie Betts, one of the most extraordinary baseball players in the universe. Yes, Liverpool is owned by those who own Fenway Park and the Red Sox. And in the most recent development in world football, the tyrants of Saudi Arabia, those who never owned up to the attacks of Sept. 11 or to the grotesque murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Kashoggi, are attempting to sportswash their dictatorial monarchy with football and golf.

As The New York Times reported:

Saudi Arabia is looking to lure some of the world’s best known soccer players to join Cristiano Ronaldo in its national league. And to close the deals, it is relying on money, the one commodity it knows it can offer more of than any of its rival leagues … To make that happen, Saudi clubs are already approaching players receptive to moving to the kingdom with some of the highest annual salaries in sports history. The deals could require in excess of $1 billion for wages for some 20 foreign players …

I want to be clear: it is not either/or, rather yes/but. As the money folks like to suggest:

There is no greater proof of the benefits of a large investment from a foreign owner than that of Manchester City, who since being taken over by the Abu Dhabi Investment United Group have gone on to win five Premier League titles, two FA Cups and 6 League Cups. The benefits of the vast investments that foreign owners have the potential to make extend beyond the field of play too, with the Greater Manchester community benefitting from the gentrification of the area.

Harry Kane understandably wants some tangible proof of his greatness, and all his hard work and exceptional ability shows, to me, that he deserves it. But football also offers another side to this story. Just the other day, the extraordinarily successful coach of Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp, announced to the world his decision to step down:

Roger Bennett announces Jurgen Klopp’s decision to step down on Jan. 26, 2024. Highlighting added.

Roger Bennett, in explaining, wrote about the sometimes transcendent power of football:

I write with fingers shocked by the stunning news we have all woken up to: Jürgen Klopp is leaving Liverpool at the end of this season after nine years at the club. A message delivered via this emotion-soaked announcement at 5:50 a.m. ET, as the 56-year-old told the world, ‘I’m still a normal guy. I just haven’t lived a normal life for too long now. And I don’t want to wait until I’m too old to have a normal life. And I needed at least to give it a try.’

The second the news dropped, my phone blew up and I immediately turned to my WhatsApp group filled with heartbroken Liverpool friends losing their minds. One mourned, ‘It feels like when a truly beloved Pope passes away.’ A second instantly replied, ‘No. It’s bigger than that.’

The news is overwhelming. Partly because there were no hints of the manager standing down early. Two years remain on his contract, and the announcement totally blindsided us amidst the ambitious wonder of a quadruple chase, arriving after neither rumor nor leak. Secondly, Jürgen Klopp was more than a football manager, he was a leader, a transformational change agent, and a deep empath in a chaotic world where that has become all too rare a currency. What he has achieved at Anfield since arriving like a Teutonic Care Bear in 2015 has been nothing short of alchemy.

Back then, Liverpool was a club reeking of tradition, aspiration and haunted nearlies. Klopp transformed it with his singular brand of passion, faith, and bombast, unleashing that audacious, demanding collective pressing game which soon overwhelmed all-comers. Klopp’s Liverpool took the field with power, determination and exuberance – as if driven by their fans’ very passion – as the manager demanded his players “must fight with the last drop of fuel in their machine,” and then rewarded them with a big, big hug.

To watch Liverpool was to feel alive. Champions League triumph in 2019 was followed by long-yearned for Premier League glory in 2020. I know I am an Everton fan and meant to despise everything in red, but the small percentage of me that is still human could only marvel at the joy Liverpool fans were experiencing along the way, and the memories they made as they ‘conquered all of Europe.’ I was reminded of this on Wednesday night, when the Reds reached another Wembley final and their traveling fans raised a banner proclaiming, ‘Imagine Being Us.’ I stared at that statement for longer than I care to admit, before realizing that I honestly can’t. That it does seem like under Klopp, Liverpool fans have journeyed to so many places both real and emotional, witnessed so many magical moments, and had so much bloody fun.

Back to Ange Postecoglu, who has brought an Australian accent into the Premier League mix. Having watched him for a while, what is clear is that his focus is always on the game and helping his players play the game the way he believes it should be played. I have watched a lot of coaches and players and general managers hold a lot of press conferences over the years. His is an honest humility. He has worked his way through football: a player who from the beginning was always more interested in team building and strategy. I am sure his body limited how high he might rise, and his background and the reality that he was born so far from the United Kingdom and Europe early on circumscribed his career. And if he hadn’t worked as hard as he has, and if his perseverance had flagged, he never would have made it to London and Tottenham.

And so his middle-class bearing and values are something he has no desire to jettison. He is who he is. And suffers no fools. And he is impelled to credit those who are actually out on the field doing the hard work:

INTERVIEWER: How important has it been to have players come in like Oliver Skipp, who probably put in his best performance of the season?

POSTECOGLU: Yeah, it’s why we are where we are. We’re not here because everything is running our way. I think anyone doing any kind of objective commentary on our season will not say that we’ve had an easy year. The only reason we’re in the position we are is because we’ve had players who are prepared to put aside whatever adversity we’re going through and give everything they have.

These guys are giving me everything, whoever is out there, whether it’s guys playing out of position, guys who haven’t played in a while, guys coming back from injury, they just give everything. It’s not always smooth but there’s no manager on this planet who wouldn’t feel like they’re in the right place when they see the kind of effort these guys are putting in every week.

INTERVIEWER: With Micky van de Ven coming back and struggling at the end, is there a risk of them reinjuring themselves?

POSTECOGLU: Don’t know what you mean.

INTERVIEWER: It’s a really tough game for him to come back into, a tough environment and he was struggling at the end …

POSTECOGLU: He wasn’t struggling. He was tired because he got cramp.

INTERVIEWER: Ah that’s all it was?

POSTECOGLU: Yeah, it was pretty clear, I thought. It was cramp and I don’t know what that’s like. I haven’t had cramp for a long, long while. He gave everything and it’s a credit to him. He’s worked hard on his rehab and you never know what the right time to throw them back in is, until they play you don’t know how they’re going to get through. He was feeling really good about things, really confident and in a tough place against some pretty quick opponents where all of those things are tested I thought he passed it all with flying colours.

Ange may not have had Rodgers and Hammerstein composing for him, but British pop star Robbie Williams put his stamp of approval on a Spur’s fan adaptation of Williams’ great hit “Angels” to “I’m Loving Big Ange.” As Sports Illustrated wrote:

James Black, a lifelong Spurs supporter who performs live music on matchdays at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, recently reworked the chorus of Robbie’s 1997 mega-hit ‘Angels’ to form ‘I’m Loving Big Ange Instead.’

It went viral on social media and even caught the attention of Robbie himself, who recorded a special version over the weekend.

Robbie famously supports Port Vale but, after singing ‘I’m Loving Big Ange Instead’ in a video uploaded to Instagram, he joked: ‘I guess I’m a Spurs fan now then.’

As put it, there was a revelatory moment when a British journalist decided to go after Ange because, apparently, he has spent so many years in the boondocks:

Ange Postecoglou is used to it now, having arrived at Celtic as a relative unknown in the European game.

But even Postecoglou’s success in Glasgow and positive start to his coaching career at Tottenham hasn’t been quite enough to see the Australian viewed as a ‘big manager’ just yet.

Speaking to reporters ahead of the transfer deadline and Tottenham’s next Premier League game against Burnley, one reporter asked Postecoglou about the viral ‘Angeball’ chant and Robbie Williams’ tribute to him.

The only problem? As Postecoglou put it, the reporter delivered ‘one of the most backhanded, underwhelming compliments’ in the process. Oh, and he also asked if Postecoglou even knew who Williams was.

‘This club have had some big managers, some historic managers down the years, but you’ve achieved something already that none of them have, as none of them have had a pop song sung about them,’ the reporter opened.

‘Firstly, do you know Robbie Williams, have you met him, and what did you think when you heard the lyrics had been changed to one of his most famous songs and he was singing it?’

Postecoglou’s reaction before the question even finished said it all before the Australian delivered a hilarious response to the reporter.

‘That’s one of most backhanded underwhelming compliments I’ve ever had,’ he said.

‘You’ve had some unbelievably fantastic managers, big names, successful … and then there’s you Ange. And then have I ever heard of Robbie Williams?’ Where have I been living mate? I mean seriously.

‘Look, I love Robbie Williams, I think he’s brilliant, a great entertainer. He did the song, I think it came off the back of one of our supporters. Look it’s great, the alternative is they make up songs about you that are less than complimentary.

‘So I’ll take it for what it is but yeah thanks mate. I’ll just float out of here feeling good about myself.’

And so here I am, so many miles from North London, looking forward to the resumption of Premier League matches and anxiously awaiting the return of Spurs players off playing for their national teams: Son Heung-min for Korea, Yves Bissouma for Mali, and Pape Saar for Senegal. And wonder of wonders, I am now anxiously checking the transfer window, their words for the buying and selling of players, wishing for additional help in our climb to the top of the table, what they call being first in the standings.

I would be remiss if I didn’t share credit for my survival these past years with the odd and completely varied selection of chefs who share their culinary secrets on YouTube. My first foray into what I discovered was a vast, almost unlimited library of hands-on recipes was pizza making. This was again yet another trip back in time for me: when affordable pizza by the slice was everywhere in New York City. The storefront window on my street sold pizza at 15 cents a slice, which you quickly folded in waxed paper, trying not to spill the hot oil which streamed from the slice. I often failed the burn-the-roof-of-your-mouth test as hunger and greed won over the time you really needed to let it cool off. But city pizza in those days was about walking and munching. That was true of hot dogs with mustard and sauerkraut; everyone knew street food came with its own permission structure. You want manners, go to the Ritz, but far more of us could afford the Sabrett cart than a fancy sit-down restaurant. And we walked and talked and ate.

My mother’s idea of pizza came from southern Italy, and she made what we called Sicilian pizza: thick, doughy, and delicious. But it was nothing like the thin-crusted Neapolitan pizza of the storefront. I was so addicted to pizza that she taught me a cheap trick to tide me over so she could go to work each day as a waitress knowing I wouldn’t starve to death while she made a living: two English muffins toasted, some canned tomato sauce, topped with sliced mozzarella, then into the broiler. Poor boy’s home-alone pizza.

I got lost in the YouTube pizza world—so many streets to walk down. The search for the best New York City slice, pizza in Chicago, in New Haven, one after another, Italian-American grandmothers, or Brooklyn uncles, secret homemade sauces. Then, of course, the big time: Rome and Naples and Bari, the specially made varieties of flour, with the wonders of the pre-ferment, the Biga, or the Poolish. Then the temperature of the oven. The pizza stone. The pizza steel.

Thanks to Vito Iacopelli, a fourth-generation pizza maker, I settled for a while on the Biga, now I am venturing into his Poolish. My first batch is covered and resting at room temp. I will let you know how it goes.

YouTube offered me a glorious example of the old and new approach to cooking. Over the years, Vito has accumulated a state-of-the-art kitchen to make his videos. And his measurements are almost fool-proof; even I have been able to follow along thanks to my gram scale. And I was able to pull off my Poolish. But Gina, your basic dream Italian grandmother, and her Buon-A-Petitti, offers a version of old-fashioned onion and pork pizza/flatbread that she learned in the old country from her father when it was time to slaughter the pigs. No gram scale, just five pounds of bread flour, water, salt, yeast, olive oil, pork fat, and onions and a frying pan. It was liberating to watch her rely on her basic feel for the dough, adding flour or water, to get it right.

It is the variety or methods I find fascinating. There is nothing like watching Leckerer Kanal cut an onion with remarkable dexterity. I have never been able to achieve such precision.

And I wonder if it would help if I had a sharper knife or hadn’t a history of cutting myself while cutting vegetables.

And I ought to warn you, my newfound desire to get better in the kitchen has led me not only to purchase things but to buy an even wider selection of ingredients: lily buds and wood ears and Shaoxing rice wine and almond paste and buttermilk powder, malt powder, and pretzel salt. This new adventure is not without danger. But along the way, I have grown to appreciate America’s Test Kitchen and their extremely important and educational evaluation of all things kitchen.

These days, I spent time each day learning about how to make things I think I need to make or dream of making. I was thrilled to learn from Brian Lagerstrom how to make cheese danish, while Preppy Kitchen had his own ideas about danish. And, of course, I moved past intimidation to watch as Martha Stewart offered her challenging recipe. Success and some failure, as my attempt to make the wonderful baguettes I had in Avignon quickly revealed that I need a better way to provide the necessary steam. Meanwhile, I have gotten good with moo shoo pork and not bad with chicken tikka masala.

Most recently, watching Giada De Laurentis put homemade fettucine in boiling water has prompted me to order an inexpensive pasta maker. She has always reminding me of the not-so-very-complicated Italian food my mom and Aunt Tessie would make.

I can’t remember which commentator it was or during which game he said it, but the expression has stuck with me: A long overdue goal from a very good striker earned him a “finding joy.” And from the day I found Premier League football extending to international teams and all kinds of pre-Olympic qualification matches, and the recent appearance of Lionel Messi in Miami has brought me great joy. As does my homemade pizza and occasional prune danish and pork fried rice.

I won’t sugarcoat my great distress of what America is becoming before my eyes. The threat of MAGA and the growing attraction of authoritarianism, the increased acceptance of racism and fear of immigration, the threats to public officials, and the willingness of Republicans to embrace bullying and ignorance and deception is so deeply disturbing.

And so I continue to need derbies and dough, and I continue to look for joy.

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