I was lucky enough to get an invitation to attend the most recent NBC Sports Premier League Fan Fest as the representative from Bitter & Blue, though I will admit that was simply because I happen to live closest to New York City where the event was being held. I didn’t want to waste any minute of this good fortune however, and found myself on a Metro North train at around 4:45 AM last Saturday so I could get to the South Street Seaport for the event’s opening.
When I got there, I was most definitely not disappointed because this event was essentially a football fan’s dream!
With a full day of the Premier League on the docket, if you could build a personalized watching environment in a lab, you’d build this event. There were countless screens around the venue, three of which were 20 feet high where the biggest matches of the games would be televised. No matter what club in the Premier League you support, there was somewhere at Fan Fest where you’d feel at home. Though some were bigger than others, each and every club had their own watching area during their match. Supporters of the big clubs obviously came out in full force, but even the smaller sides were well represented (except you Burnley, sorry). It was a lot of fun to roam the area and witness all the traditions and chants from each group. Most were classics but some were weird, like the Cardiff City fans all kneeling before their group leader reading a transcript from a book after their goal (?).
On top of that, you were bound to meet some former players at Fan Fest simply by being there. With the NBC Sports studio show being shot in the direct center of the venue, Rebecca Lowe, Kyle Martino, Robbie Earle, and Robbie Mustoe were out there walking among us commoners. They were all incredibly welcoming and open to have a chat or take a photo. If you were lucky, you might even get to go toe to toe with one of them at foosball!
Alan Shearer could also be found roaming around, just doing Alan Shearer things. But invitations were handed out a number of former to players to just come and watch the match with their former teams supporters. I must have missed a bunch of them, but you could find Claudio Reyna in the Manchester City section at times or Ian Bishop over watching the West Ham match.
When there wasn’t matches to watch, there was still more than enough to do. There were several FIFA 19 gaming stations in addition to a small indoor field if you wanted to get on the pitch yourself, whether it be virtually or in reality.
The center channel of the venue was entirely turf and you could join any of the numerous juggling circles that seem to pop out of nowhere. There were also some tasty foods offered throughout the day and even a stand that could make pancakes of your team’s badge or resemble a player’s face. There was a merchandise stand as well, where each attendee could get a complimentary item (shirt, scarf, hat, etc.) from any club, which was a very nice touch. I personally went with the Manchester City championship t-shirt for obvious reasons.
With so many games throughout the day, NBC Sports had plenty of air time to fill from the studio at this event and the fans were encouraged to get up close and personal with the cameras. I may have even made it on television for all we know!
It was amazing to see the team operate in such a high pace environment. I give them so much credit for even being able to formulate any opinions on the matches with so many distractions surrounding. One of those distractions was actually me, as I was able to pull Robbie Earle and Kyle Martino aside for a few minutes to ask them a few questions about City. For context, I spoke to both of them during the City v. Chelsea match so some of the questions and responses reflect that timing. We wanted to include the audio in the latest episode of the Bitter & Blue Podcast, but it was awfully loud in there so written form will have to do for now!
Interview with Robbie Earle
- Based on this morning’s events, which team has the most annoying fans? And keep in mind, there’s a correct answer here.
Annoying fans? Well, seeing as you’re wearing a Man City shirt, I’m not going to say Manchester City. I’m actually not going to say anyone is annoying because when you’ve been in the studio with Robbie Mustoe for 50 odd weeks of the year, that’s annoying. When you’re out here with people that support their team, no one is really annoying.
- Very professional answer from you, I appreciate that. City have battled through injuries all season, Mendy and De Bruyne for example, how do they get through all these injuries?
It’s a good question, I think one of the strengths of the Man City squad is it’s interchangeable. No one piece is irreplaceable. no one piece is that important. You lose Kevin De Bruyne, Mendy’s ability down the left, but you can slot in Zinchenko, you can slot in Fabian Delph. Because of the way they play, quick control and possession, people can fit in other places. Raheem Sterling, we’ve seen today playing as a center forward, that was never really his role. But the way Pep coaches and the way his team sets up is really difficult for the opposition.
- Pep chose to not start Gabriel Jesus today though his struggles have come up recently. He was great last year, why has he had such a hard time this year?
I think Jesus is a young player who is still learning and developing. He’s got a brilliant player in Sergio Aguero to learn from. I think he’ll be fine, he’s definitely the future but at the moment the manager has to select his strongest eleven.
Interview with Kyle Martino
- Easy one to start, which club’s supporters have been the most annoying so far?
I couldn’t use the word annoying to describe anyone but I’ve had my ears wringing a couple times. One, on Salah’s hat trick goal and then one, on the late Arsenal goal. So, annoying in that their celebrations were so loud my ears are still wringing.
- Manchester City didn’t start a central striker today, went with a collection of attacking midfielders, do you have any concerns in that set up about finishing scoring opportunities?
It’s interesting, both have done it, City and Chelsea. So he’s made the substitution that Gabriel Jesus is playing up there and Raheem Sterling has moved into a wider position. Pep has myriad reasons to make personnel decision to start a game, to substitute, to change tactics, so he saw something that didn’t materialize in the first half and we’ll see if Gabriel Jesus can give him a little more bite in the final third.
- Speaking of Jesus, he’s had a lot of problems this year in terms of goal scoring, only one league goal so far this year. What do you make of his struggles and why do you think he’s been having such a hard time?
Injury, injury, from someone who knows it. It’s hard to come back from a series of injuries that were so unfortunate for him and then when you’re talking about strikers your talking about confidence. The two of those go hand in hand, when you feel good you start scoring goals and to come back from so many injuries, you don’t trust your body and you don’t get into that gear right away so a few goals and muscle memory kicks in.
- City have been able to survive a bunch of injury concerns this season with Mendy and De Bruyne out for extended periods of time. Why do you think they’ve been able to survive so easily and on top of that, is there any one player they could lose that would really see a drop in form?
Remarkable depth, and also not relying on one or two stars. Obviously there’s a lot of quality to call on, but it’s so interchangeable because the system is so specific what Pep is asking of the team and they all know how to do each role. I think Fernandinho would be the one guy if you lose him, there isn’t a lot of depth there. Gundogan can play that role, but he [Fernandinho] is the one guy that seems to always be in the lineup and always be in the same position when he’s healthy.
- With that depth of high quality talent, De Bruyne should be back in the next week or two. Who’s the player you see losing time as a result of his return?
Kevin De Bruyne. I don’t think he can take Bernardo Silva out with how good he’s been. So it is one of probably the Silvas and no one wants to take David Silva out. So he’s not gonna start right away when he’s fit and I think he should just be worked back into the team. When he reaches the form he’s capable of, more likely than not he’ll be splitting time with [Bernardo] Silva, who may also move into a wide position and Sane will see less time.
- City’s dominance over the past two years has been unprecedented in terms of the Premier League, do you see that as a function this Pep era and his presence as a gravitational manager or is there a more sustainable model as a club top to bottom?
There’s something special about Pep. He will leave behind something sustainable because it can’t just be Pep and he says that constantly. The investment, Txiki Begiristain and the recruitment process, the youth structure, all of the infrastructure that has built around Pep to support him. That all stays when he goes, a blueprint of how to play stays but not every manager plays like Pep or manages like Pep. So just like Barcelona and Bayern Munich, you can’t say they reach the same heights that they did under Pep. It’s unlikely your going to see Manchester City do the same, which is not an insult, you don’t say that in a pejorative way because Pep sets such a high bar that if your anywhere remotely close to that it’s success.
- (BONUS Question for USA fans) On a scale of 1 to 10, how excited should we be as Americans now with Gregg Berhalter as the new coach.
I would say an 8, be excited. He’s a very good coach, but if you're a 10 there’s disappointment coming your way. Because it’s a project, there’s a lot of young players and lot he has to do. If you base it off his Columbus Crew project, it’s gonna take time.
But by far the best part of the day was watching the game with all the other Manchester City supporters in attendance. We came out in numbers and definitely made our presence known. It was disappointing that not only City lost, but didn’t even score a goal to allow the fan section to celebrate. Nevertheless, the City supporters were great. The cheering and chanting started well before the match, maintained throughout, and continued even after the final whistle saw City lose for the first time in what feels like ages.
It was hard to be upset with the loss considering City’s form over the past season and a half and the environment which we were all able to watch the game in. Overall, Fan Fest is an event designed for the supporters and achieves its goal perfectly. Just being there breeds excitement about the Premier League and gives such an appreciation for it, from top to bottom. There’s still a lot of season to play, but NBC Sports did display the one thing that everyone in attendance is ultimately fighting for come spring.
Getting a picture with the Premier League trophy is cool and all, but it’s even better when you’re team is the one defending it. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the NBC Sports Premier League Fan Fest is an incredible event for any level of football fan, and if it ever comes to your neck of the woods, I strongly encourage you to do whatever you can to get there.