The Official England House
How did Vancouver become the headquarters of what might be the England national football team’s largest independent supporters’ group? OTF’s Austin Fido spoke to a man who knows the story…
In 2009, Dan Tanner made a decision. “All I had ever done was play rugby and run pubs,” he recalls, “I didn’t want to that anymore.” Nor did he want to be single. His girlfriend, Nathalie, needed to leave England, where she and Dan were living, and head back to Canada. Tanner had a choice: Love or Reading – the English town where Jane Austen was educated, Oscar Wilde imprisoned, and Ricky Gervais was born.
Those three have long since departed Reading, and so did Dan. He chose love. It was a smart decision: he and Nathalie are married. And Dan has learned to do something other than play rugby and run pubs: he’s operating possibly the largest independent England Football Team supporters’ group on the planet.
That’s not a boast, just an estimate. Tanner didn’t leave England to start a business. He and Nathalie moved to Vancouver in October 2009, because they thought it would be fun to be there for the Winter Olympics. He got a job as a grocery clerk and working the door at a bar, “to keep the bills paid”. Not unreasonably, he thought it might be fun to join a few buddies for drinks and England’s final qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup.
They ran into a problem not unfamiliar to anyone who has tried to watch soccer in a bar in North America: “No one knew if the games were on. We had to beg for sound.”
The Olympics brought Dan a possible solution. Vancouver was suddenly infested with national team fan camps. Across the city, venues were transformed into “Holland House”, “German House”, even a house for the Irish, not a people overwhelmed with success in Winter Sports, but perhaps among the world’s elite when it comes to knowing how to make good use of a liquor license.
“England House,” thought Dan. It was a simple idea: create a home for the displaced England fans in Vancouver; find a bar not just willing to guarantee screening of England football matches but to make the game the focus of attention. Fans would get a place they knew they could watch and hear a game, the bar would get perhaps a bigger-than-usual crowd on an otherwise unremarkable summer’s morning (2010 World Cup kick off times were between 4 am and 11 am for Vancouver’s footie faithful).
Tanner asked the bar whose door he occasionally guarded, The Blarney Stone, if it would be willing to host. The pub agreed. A Facebook page was created to keep things organized, but no effort was put into advertising. This was not a commercial enterprise, just a simple way to make sure that when England kicked off its 2010 World Cup against USMNT on Saturday, June 12th, in Rustenburg, a group of like-minded individuals – and anyone else who cared to join – wouldn’t have to beg to see their team play.
As the numbers following the Facebook page began to tick up toward 700, and people started inquiring about making reservations, it occurred to Dan and his friends that they might be dealing with something a little bigger than “a couple of guys trying to get together for some beers”.
Not inexperienced in the ways of catering for large groups of people seeking alcohol and entertainment in enclosed spaces, the former pub manager decided to kick things up a notch: he tacked on a $5 cover charge so he could hire a DJ and fund prizes to be distributed to whatever crowd turned up on the day.
Nathalie was skeptical: “You expect people to turn up to a pub at 8:30 in the morning, and you’re going to charge them to get in?” It did seem a dramatic step forward for an idea motivated largely by the apathy of local bars to soccer. The market knows best. If pubs didn’t want to screen soccer, it was surely because people didn’t want to watch it, let alone pay for the privilege of doing so.
On the morning of the England-USA match, there was line around the block to get into the bar. “My wife’s never doubted me since,” says Dan, with the touching confidence of a (relatively) newlywed.
The venture was called The Official England House. It has never looked back. Since the first event, it has picked up sponsors – Carlsberg, EA Sports, and British breakfast favorite, Weetabix. The Vancouver Whitecaps noticed the crowds gathering, and supported a few events as part of their club and ticket sales promotions.
Tanner has settled on a business model: usually a $10 ticket to guarantee entry and your first beer, plus DJs and whatever giveaways seem like a good idea at the time. The England House now has outposts in eight Canadian cities, like Toronto and Calgary. There is no single England House, there are as many as there are bars interested in hosting and people to fill them.
Nor is England House restricted to England fans. During this summer’s World Cup, Vancouver will have a Brazil house, a Belgium house and a Dutch house. There may yet be others – Tanner is happy to help those who, like himself, want to carve out a space to support their team.
Fans of all stripes, hoops, checks or whatever-the-hell-Scotland-is-calling-its-new-away-kit, are welcome at England House. “This wasn’t supposed to be an event,” says Tanner, who hasn’t shifted greatly from his original view of the whole endeavor as a way to be sure there’d be a game on at the pub.
England House shows England games because that is what England fans, like Tanner, want to watch. All are welcome so long as they subscribe to the prevailing view that watching a game in the company of a few hundred fellow-travelers is cause for celebration, not conflict.
On Facebook, the England House’s membership has ticked past 7,000. It has achieved this without a shred of assistance from England’s Football Association. Not for want of trying on Tanner’s part: “The English FA won’t acknowledge us in any way.”
If the FA prefers to leave Canada-based fans out in the cold, that is its business. For Tanner’s part, he has decided if he cannot join them, he will beat them. Noting the FA’s official supporters’ club numbers about 16,000, Dan hopes to see the England House’s membership eclipse that total. Among the reasons he thinks it will happen: he’s coming to America.
In June, when Roy Hodgson takes his squad to Miami for its final World Cup tune-ups, The England House will be there – tailgating and cheering on its team. Tanner has also been talking with bars in Boston, LA and New York.
In the greater scheme of things, this is perhaps just another data point in the story of soccer support in North America. Couldn’t get the channel changed at the bar? Been there. Not taken seriously by the guys in charge of the team you follow? Done that.
But it’s a point that will be restated until it sticks. We are fans of this game. We do not need permission to be supporters. We can organize ourselves, intelligently and enthusiastically, to watch the games we want to watch. And we are legion.
For more information about The England House, head on over to their Facebook page or follow @OurEnglandHouse. Austin Fido is OTF’s USMNT and CONCACAF editor. For more information about him, follow @canetop.