In the fall, on brisk Saturday mornings in Stillwater, well before Pokes past and present flock to the berms on campus to tailgate and just as the sun rays glisten off of Boomer Lake, a select few Cowboys from across the pond indulge in the form of football they are more familiar with.
“Besides family, it is what I miss the most” Colin Carmichael said.
Carmichael is the head women’s soccer coach at Oklahoma State University and he leads a staff that includes three coaches from Great Britain, all of whom have gotten used to a particular set of habits that come along with being a fan of the more global version of football while living in America.
Carmichael grew up on the outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland, before his dad’s company relocated him to Houston, Texas, when Carmichael was 12. Carmichael’s associate head coach, Justin Elkington, is from Lincoln, England, which is about two hours east of Manchester. Volunteer assistant Ben Williams is from Liverpool, England, but don’t dare make the mistake of assuming he supports the Reds of Liverpool FC.
“Even working in the sport here, you still miss the obsessive nature of football back home,” Williams said. “It is a religion for us.”
Carmichael, Elkington and Williams all took a similar route to coaching in the US. In England, in lieu of college sports, kids who want to pursue soccer as a profession are given two-year apprenticeships by clubs around age 16, which is essentially a scholarship that allows the player to train as a semi-professional for two years.
After graduating high school, Carmichael went back to the UK and trained with Doncaster Rovers, a club currently in the fourth division of English soccer. When he was 16, Elkington accepted an apprenticeship at Mansfield Town, a club about an hour away from his home town. Williams grew up in the Everton youth system before accepting a trial at Preston North End’s Academy when he turned 16.
When their trials concluded, none of the coaches were offered full-time professional contracts in England. Rather than continuing on with nonleague clubs, they decided, thanks to the guidance of various connections, to come to America to play college soccer. Carmichael attended the University of South Alabama, Elkington played at Oral Roberts University and Williams starred at Oklahoma Wesleyan. All three began coaching during their college careers, starting with youth teams before moving up to clubs. But before they were co-workers, Carmichael and Elkington were teammates for the Tulsa Roughnecks, a semi-professional indoor and outdoor team.
“It’s funny, even being part of the game to the point where it is your profession, you still feel like you are missing out a bit,” Carmichael said.
More so than their intertwining paths or even their hometowns, what defines these three coaches is which club they support. In England, that matters more than race or religion and it is passed down by blood. Carmichael supports the Scottish club Rangers, Elkington supports Manchester United and Williams supports Everton, which represents the blue side of Liverpool.
The soccer coaches aren’t the only ones who deal with this soccer-specific case of homesickness, either. Some of OSU’s international athletes suffer from it, too.
Matthew Fayers is long-distance runner at Oklahoma State from Ickensten, which is on the outskirts of London. He grew supporting the London club Chelsea but didn’t like the personal nature of the trash talk that would go on at school when they lost. To find the perfect blend of good-natured fandom, Fayers latched on to a club from a city where his grandparents lived called Macclesfield Town F.C., which plays in the fifth tier of English football (think low-A baseball).
Fayer’s track teammate Jacob Fincham-Dukes is a long jumper from Leeds, England. His club, Leeds United, was on track for a playoff spot in the hunt for a return to the Premier League this season before falling short in their final game.
“It bugs me that I can’t keep up with the club as much,” Finchum said. “But I do my best to support them from afar.”
Fayers said FIFA, one of the most popular video games in the world, is a good way for the domestic and international athletes to bond around soccer, though he admits the British guys tend to have a homefield advantage of sorts, even if they are thousands of miles away from home.
“I’ve been pretty dominant in my time here,” Fayers said. “Typically I beat all of the Americans. One of the better guys on the team is also from the UK – Northern Ireland. The Americans like using the five-star teams – Real Madrid and Barcelona – but I enjoy using the lower-tier teams. Luckily I can beat them anyways.”
For fans in Great Britain, soccer is an afternoon occasion, but for those adjusting to viewership stateside, grogginess and dozing off are expected side effects.
“When I first got here, I used to stay awake on a Sunday until two in the morning and listen to a German show – and I don’t speak German – in hopes that they would have highlights of the European games,” Elkington said. “There was a Bundesliga highlight show and you would hope they would flash up the scores. There was no internet, long distance phone calls would cost you an arm and a leg, so between that and getting Barnes and Nobles and getting last week’s newspaper. That is how you used to keep up with things.”
For the younger generation, the internet makes following along away from home more convenient, but it doesn’t make up for the time difference.
“I follow the team mostly through Twitter and the ESPN app,” Fayers said. “I get a little bit more sleep that way.”
Although it can be hard to get into a routine of getting up at 6 AM on the weekends, particularly when the rest of the day will be jam packed with American football, at least in the fall, Elkington says the early start times can serendipitously unearth new fans.
“I think (early kickoffs) is great for soccer in the US because it doesn’t conflict with bouncy ball, batted ball and throw ball,” Elkington said. “So there is now an affiliation. One of the guys who works here is now into a team because he got up early in the morning to take care of his baby and turned on the TV and saw a soccer game, so now he is a soccer fan.”
Even with the early starts and the Atlantic Ocean dividing them, the biggest obstacle for a soccer fan in Oklahoma might just be vocabulary. Who knew the word “soccer” could be so irritating.
“It still annoys me,” Fayers said. “I typically refer to it as soccer just for ease of conversation. I have adapted to it, begrudgingly.”
Although Carmichael said it was a bit easier for him to adapt to the American nomenclature for the Beautiful Game because he was just trying to fit in with his peers at school, his fellow coaches took years to make the adjustment.
“The reason I did change is because I was sick and tired of repeating myself,” Elkington said. “I would say things like ‘They’re a good footballer’ and people would say ‘You’re a coach? You coach football?’ And I would get these funny looks like, you’re five-foot-five, five-foot-six, what do you doing in American football. It was a good 10 years before I fully came across and said ‘Yeah, I’m a soccer coach.”
Terminology aside, Carmichael said he sees a massive difference in the way that Americans and the British experience sports fandom.
“It is just something that is in our culture and in our DNA I think,” Carmichael said. “(Rangers) have been through the worst period in their history. They have had some financial problems, they’ve been demoted, they have had to fight their way back up. But I still watch them. It just doesn’t go away. You are either fan or you’re not. I think a lot of people in America, they’re like ‘Oh, Golden State is good. I’m going to support them.’ Doesn’t work that way when you are from the Glasgow area of Scotland. You are either a Rangers or a Celtic fan.”
And yet, as the sport grows in popularity in America, most fans do latch on to the larger clubs just as they do with the successful American teams. This has led to an influx of fans for Elkington’s beloved Manchester United, the world’s most popular sports team according Forbes Magazine, but he is quick to differentiate himself from the bandwagoners.
“You have fans and you have supporters,” Elkington said. “I consider myself a supporter.”< What makes him special, you ask? “I proposed to my wife in the dugout at Old Trafford (Manchester United’s stadium),” Elkington said. “I have a brick at Old Trafford with my name on it. I have shares in the club. My dog is called Keane, as in Roy Keane, who used to play for Man United and was captain. My other dog is called Trafford, as in Old Trafford. My car license plate says Manchester United. I’m a Man United supporter to the bone.” Interestingly, the coaches say most of their soccer discussions about the professional game are confined to the office. Not even their players have a comparable interest in the sport. "Us coaches watch football constantly," Carmichael said. "I’ll turn the TV on and there will be an Argentinian game on or a Chilean game. That’s just what we do. Our players just don’t watch football. I don’t know if it is a women’s football thing, maybe more on the men side are more engaged. There are a handful of players. Generally speaking, the majority of the American girls don’t have a lot of interest in watching football." It is hard to imagine a college basketball player not knowing about Steph Curry or a college baseball or softball player not knowing who Mike Trout is, but even as the audience for European football grows larger than ever in America, being a soccer fan in Stillwater, Oklahoma, can still leave a handful of Englishmen longing for an important piece of home. "I don't know if lonely is the right word," Williams said. "But you do feed a bit like an outsider looking in when you are watching from afar."