Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My new team

I made it out to my first professional football (soccer) match, going down to London with my housemates to watch  West Ham United take on Wolverhampton Wanderers. On the right is Matt, my English housemate, who has been a lifelong West Ham fan. Last year I was repeatedly told I'd need to pick a team to support, so I staked my lot with the Wolves this year. It's their first year in the Premier League, so I figured they were in need of some fans.

The system is vastly different than American sports. The money gap between teams is enormous, there's no revenue sharing or salary cap, and teams get sent up and down between the different levels each year. Last year the Wolves finished at the top of the Championship (the league just below the Premier League) so they were promoted to the big time. Of course, if they finish in the bottom 3 out of 20 teams, they'll be sent right back. That made this game quite important, as both West Ham and Wolves were tied for 16th coming into it-one spot above relegation.

The result was fantastic for the Wolves, with a decisive 3-1 win that's made it very likely they can remain at the top. For West Ham, meanwhile, the loss at home was a disaster. I've never seen fans react so badly-there were frequent chants of "You're not fit to wear that shirt!" and "Give us our money back!" West Ham (the Hammers) are a gritty team from London's not-nicest neighborhood, with some pretty tough looking supporters. The possibility of them being sent down felt real, I could sense how crushing that would be to dedicated fans. I can't imagine what I would think if the Oakland A's were sent to Triple A after a bad season (though maybe if they move I'll get an approximation).

Beyond the fantastic fan support (the first half, which was scoreless for 40 minutes, they fans were very excited and loud and were singing and chanting in unison). The game itself was a also a revelation. Like watching ice hockey live for the first time, this is a sport that is just completely different in person on a big stage. Being elevated above the pitch, able to see the angles, brings a new appreciation that gets somehow lost on TV. Also the sheer speed and distance of ball movement was amazing. I found myself completely glued to the action at all times.
This was good because there's no getting up and walking around at a football match. There are only 90 minutes of play so everybody is seated the entire time. Alcohol isn't even allowed in the seats and there are no roaming vendors. Here Matt and Andrew are finishing a beer before the game. Most people seem to mill around outside the stadium eating and drinking in the hour before the match, then are seated during the whole contest. Frankly 90 minutes + 20 minutes of halftime is a much more reasonable length for sporting event than 3-4 hours of baseball.

Another interesting thing is the ticketing system. Each team organises its own supporter's club and you literally can't get tickets without joining. Technically I had to register as an official West Ham supporter to get these seats. There are a limited number of tickets for the visiting team, but these go right to the Wolves supporter's club. They physically separate fans of the opposing teams, and in fact it's against the rules to wear the other team's jersey in most of the stadium. Makes sense given the violent history of football hooligans.
Finally, the in-stadium gambling is quite a different experience. The table here is taking bets on the game. You can bet on pretty much anything.
You just fill out a little sheet like this with your picks and hand the guy your money. For example, I bet one pound each on the final score being 2-1 Wolverhampton, and on Nenad Miljas scoring the final goal. Both lost. It's a strange twist to the sporting experience in that the gambling is so normalised.

Overall, I loved the experience and am more enamored with my adopted team. They remind me of some of the things I liked about the A's. They'll always be underdogs because of the small size of their home town, but they fight hard and have very smart management. I probably won't get to this point, but Go Wolves.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

End of Term dinners

Research students don't really have "terms" in the undergraduate sense of the word where you get to stop working and relax for a while. There actually aren't many "stop working" occasions as a grad student if you're doing it right. But, since professors and undergrads still work on a term system, towards the end of term there's usually a raft of dinners and celebrations.

First up, our research group had a dinner together at my supervisor Ross' house. That's him playing the bagpipe to entertain the crowd. Needless to say the computer security dinner wasn't the most rambunctious of the week, but it was fun seeing people outside of the office.
Next up was rugby dinner. No pictures of that, it was a strictly no-cameras-allowed evening and with pretty good cause. That was definitely the most rambunctious night of the week, with a bunch of young rugby players eating a formal meal in tuxedos, but most of them loaded on two kegs of ale and playing drinking games the whole time. Football dinner (above) was a little bit more relaxed. Dress code was black tie on top, football on bottom, though I changed it to black tie on top, rugby on bottom. The three on the right above are me and my two housemates Andrew and Matt. Formal sports team dinners are a very British concept, with the captain giving many long toasts recapping the season, but they provided a nice cap to a long year of sports. I am pretty worn out from trying to play rugby, football, and basketball this year. There were good results though. Churchill rugby had a very strong second half, including a huge upset over Trinity to make the semifinals, where we lost to Jesus. It was the best finish in the 30+ year history of Churchill rugby, which I'm glad to be a part of. Churchill MCR football was knocked out in the quarterfinals, but also had a very strong year. Even Churchill basketball put together a nice end to the season, winning the final two games to qualify for the playoffs and avoid getting relegated.

With sports wrapped up, I went down to London on Friday night to see Wicked with the Gates crowd. It was my first musical in London, and it was well worth it. There were a few plot holes in the play, but the production qualities were fantastic and it was a very enjoyable night, and I got to catch up with many friends I hadn't seen for most of the term.
Finally, Saturday night was MCR guest night, a large grad-students only party with a (slightly ahead of schedule) St. Patrick's Day theme. You can see our varying interpretations above, between green bow tie, Irish rugby player, and leprechaun.
I had a lot of guests come, which made it lots of fun, and it turned out to be a very lucky night. At the craps table with my friends Elsa and Noah, we managed to turn our 500 initial chips into 10,000 which earned us... well, theoretically a chance to win a free bottle of wine, but it turns out that probably never existed. Oh well. By the end of all this I was pretty tired from all the end-of-term festivities.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Women's Varsity Match in Oxford

Made it to Oxford for the first time to catch the Women's Varsity rugby match. Going to Oxford after a year and half in Cambridge is a bit strange, it seems like an alternate-universe version of Cambridge. For example, the towns use the exact same street signs in terms of size and font, but Cambridge's a are black on white and Oxford's are white on black. The universities are set up in a very similar fashion, with colleges running the show and having many old, exclusive buildings. The colleges have such similar names it seems like a joke. Six have the exact same names, and then there are Magdalen and Magdalene, St. Catherine's and St. Catharine's, St. Edmund Hall and St. Edmund's College, and Queens' College and The Queens' College. You get the idea, the places almost go out of their way to seem different despite being almost exactly the same. Unfortunately we couldn't actually see very many because, like in Cambridge, they limit entrance into most colleges to students only.
There are some differences though. First is the river, the Isis, as seen above. Unlike at Cambridge the river doesn't figure prominently into the layout of town, it misses the center and there isn't much built along it.The city overall is about 17% less charming than Cambridge. Besides the river, the main streets are pavement and not cobblestone, and they're wide and straight. Not nearly as memorable as the crooked little streets of Cambridge.
I did happen by chance upon the Stanford House, and chatted with a student there who's doing a year abroad from Stanford. Very strange to see Stanford being involved in such an old place.
The match went very well for Cambridge, with the team taking a 25-0 lead at half time and carrying that home as the final score.
Here we are supporting our (American) friend Talia, the captain of the Cambridge team. If that flag looks familiar, yes, it's the same one from the hockey game last week. That flag has been busy spreading freedom all over this country.
It's a long bus ride to Oxford but it was great to support Talia and get a chance to see a small bit of Oxford. I will have to return some time and spend a little more time seeing the place.