Among the Hugs: Men in Blazers Come to Washington

The soccer podcast touched down at the British Embassy and, yes, there were pies.
Among the Hugs: Men in Blazers Come to Washington
Davis, left, and Bennett. All photos by Andrew Beaujon.

Consider, just for a moment, American English Premier League fans. Viewed one way, they enjoy remarkable freedom. Unbound by geography or religion, they can support any club they like, based on a tenuous ancestral connection, a year abroad, or, like Tom O’Dea of Bethesda, finding themselves on a business trip to London, where West Ham United had the only tickets available.

O’Dea grew up in Boston, where public television showed highlights of British football, and he wanted to see a game live. Two decades later, here he is standing in the manicured surroundings of the British Embassy in Washington, wearing a Hammers jersey and enjoying a Guinness stout. “I like to say West Ham chose me,” O’Dea says. His friend from Arlington, Nels Berkland, stands next to him, drinking the same but wearing a Liverpool kit. He fell in love with the Scouse team after they pulled off a miraculous comeback and he noticed they had a Norwegian player.

But the cost of this freedom is that US fans don’t always understand the crucial folkways that surround the team they’ve made their own. English football is tribal and deeply personal, a vector for grudges so old few can remember their origins. Parachuting into those traditions may be delightful, but it’s hard to feel like a real fan when you’re doing it.

That’s where Men in Blazers come in. Roger Bennett and Michael Davies’s podcast and NBCSN show about the Premier League has taught Americans about the majestic weirdness that surrounds the sport’s highest levels. “Rog” and “Davo” steep its storylines in wit, pop-culture references, and an inside-joke vocabulary that you can pick up after a few episodes, even if you’d rather die than pronounce “derby” as if there were an “a” in it.

Bennett and Davies visited the embassy Wednesday to record the podcast live. It was their first proper show after the Premier League season began last week, and the overwhelming feeling one got strolling among the fans was gratitude to be among others who worry about Chelsea’s rough start against Burnley, have mixed feelings about Wayne Rooney’s move to Everton, or just cough involuntarily when they hear the word “soccer.”

We are outdoors on the beautiful porch off the embassy’s ballroom. It’s one of those humid August-in-Washington days when you can feel your blazer quickly turning to oatmeal on your shoulders, if you’re foolish enough to actually wear one. There’s a massive cheese table—Stilton and some quite nice cheddar were available—as well as more silver trays covered with pies and sausage rolls. People seem liberated to wear their Everton or Man City jerseys without, for once, having to explain them. Some even carry scarves.

Maggie Wenz and David Driscoll run the DC Jacks, a club for DC supporters of the Welsh team Swansea City. An American employee of the British Embassy wearing a Cardiff top plops down on the sofas next to them, and they all talk about trades and the affiliations of Welsh celebrities. Driscoll pulls a Men in Blazers badge from his wallet. Bennett and Davies talk frequently about their baldness, and he’s got an off-brand full head of hair, I note. “You have to earn your baldness,” he says. That’s true, David. That’s true.

Inside, waiters carry silver trays full of pints of Guiness stout and blonde. The predominately male crowd is split roughly between millennials and people Gen X and older. The fans of various teams mingle in a way that would be unlikely in the UK, where meetings of, say, Arsenal and Chelsea fans don’t always end in good-natured ribbing.

Pat Rouleau is here from Centreville. He’s drinking a lager and wearing a Bolton Wanderers shirt. Supporting a team that just scraped into England’s second division is an almost indie-rock choice in this room, but Rouleau is repping them tonight, even though he’s more of a Chelsea fan. Really, he loves Bolton because Stuart Holden used to play there.

“Bustin’ Loose” plays, and pictures from DC history flash on two big screens on either side of the stage. John Wall. Sonny Jurgensen. Minor Threat. Sir Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to the United States, approaches the lectern and is greeted with a raucous “wa-hey!” “You’re about the rowdiest crowd we’ve ever had here,” he says, “but also the best-dressed, except for those terrible red shirts.” He means Arsenal supporters. (Darroch supports Chelsea.)

Sir Edwin Lutyens designed the embassy residence and this ballroom, where the Beatles were guests of honor at an awkward reception in 1964. Onstage there’s a table with three microphones. A Warhol screen print showing Queen Elizabeth hangs behind them, a shock of punk in a room with marble columns, two large chandeliers, and orchids that grew on the embassy grounds in crystal vases. Bookcases behind the table clutch tchotchkes—soccer balls, cleats, a photograph of Jim Vance.

Darroch reminds everyone to call the sport “football” and talks about its growing fortunes in the United States, where Bennett and Davies have long joked that it’s been the “sport of the future” since 1972. But maybe—Major League Soccer be damned—it’s finally taking root. NBCSN’s broadcasts of last weekend’s opening matches drew an average of 592,000 viewers each, a not-insubstantial number of them streaming the matches. The network says it reached 33 million viewers with Premier League matches last season, and we’re heading into a World Cup year that, if a recent pattern holds, should shovel more Americans from watching their national team into watching one of the world’s elite leagues. Darroch calls himself a pretty recent “GFOP”—Great Friend of the Pod, as Bennett and Davies call their fans—shouts out Chelsea, and then says, “So enough from me, to the football!” just like Rog and Davo do as the show gets underway.

They enter to wild applause. “Holy crap, where are we, mate?” Bennett says. Davies notes they’re on Embassy Row, another reference plangent to the fans. Their producer, Lexi Tannenholtz, appears and takes a photo of Rog and Davo in front of the beer-waving, scarf-hoisting crowd.

They pay tribute to the late DC sportscaster George Michael—“an American Julio Iglesias,” Bennett calls him—and Vance, and talk about Bennett’s time living in Adams Morgan from 1996 to 2000. (He’s fond of the Big Hunt and the Black Cat.) Davies says we’re in the room where Piers Morgan’s extradition papers were signed. They each pour themselves a Guinness.

CBS News’s Major Garrett appears from behind the stage, hoisting a Guinness and quoting Richard II. Garrett mentions Chris Cillizza and a noticeable number of people around me say “ugh.” They talk about this somewhat odd time to report on the White House, and later Bennett compares Arsenal forward Olivier Giroud to Tiffany Trump. “Can we hear it for the ambassador? You’re in his bedroom right now!” They start to run down the previous weekend’s games. The Liverpool-Watford game was like watching the Gilbert Arenas-era Wizards. Tannenholtz passes up a note that Bennett reads: “We finished all the beer in the embassy. Mazel Tov, GFOPs, you are SAVAGE.”

Among the items next discussed: Manchester City midfielder David Silva’s unexpected baldness. Gylfi Sigurdsson’s move from Swansea City to Everton. Whether Wayne Rooney rides a unicorn. Tottenham Hotspur fan Cillizza is out next. He says he doesn’t often find himself in friendly spots, that he’s usually where people don’t like him. “Still don’t,” mumbles a guy next to me.

Davies passes out some cans of Guinness from his stash to people in the crowd. Cillizza talks passionately about how he became a Spurs fan and knowledgeably about the upcoming season. He uses some Men in Blazers terminology. Darroch replaces him behind the table, and Bennett angles for Davies to get a knighthood, producing a toy sword in case the ambassador can make it happen right now. (He can’t.)

Darroch talks about his wonder at meeting Americans who’ve somehow nurtured “lifelong support for some terrible football team.” They talk about Chelsea’s loss, which Darroch thinks is a “freak result” and Davies thinks augurs a bad season. Bennett announces he’s been fingerprinted for US citizenship this week, and the crowd shouts “USA! USA!” Darroch, who was named to his post in January 2016, talks about what he loves about the States: “It’s a complete pleasure to wake up every day in this wonderful city in this amazing country—and wonder just what in the hell is going on here.”

We’re nearly out of football. The stacks of cards have gotten small, and there’s an after-party at Teddy & the Bully Bar later. “If two balds can do all this,” Bennett says as the show closes, “anything is possible.” As he leaves the stage he mimes “come for a drink.” On the N6 home, most of the GFOPs get off at Dupont Circle to rejoin Rog and Davo. It’s like Liverpool—or is that Celtic?—fans sing: You’ll never walk alone. At least not tonight, mate.

You can hear the most recent episode of Men in Blazers, recorded at the British Embassy, here or wherever you get your podcasts. The Men in Blazers Show season premiere is Monday, August 21, at 5:30 PM on NBCSN.

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously the news editor and lead media reporter for the Poynter Institute, arts editor for the now completely vanished TBD.com, and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.