Soccer in America is better than soccer in England. Don’t believe it? Ask Richmond’s resident soccer-loving Brit.
Being English in Richmond has perks. Sometimes you get free fish.
“The very first time I went to Ukrop’s, back when it was Ukrop’s, I was buying some salmon,” said Daryl Grove, the English-born 34-year-old who moved to Richmond in 2006 and who co-hosts WRIR’s Total Soccer Show. “I was talking to the girl at the counter and she asked me about my accent and where I was from and then, at the end of it, she put a whole extra thing of salmon on top [of my order] after she’d wrapped it up, just for being foreign.”
While his accent doesn’t always earn complimentary food, it often garners curiosity. “Everyone just seems interested to talk to you for no other reason that you have a slightly different accent,” Grove said. “I’ve met a lot of people that way, just having these odd conversations just on the back of having a funny accent.”
“Being English in Richmond is absolutely fantastic,” he said.
It took a thrilling World Cup to turn Grove from an indifferent pre-teen into a soccer aficionado. Now in America, Grove’s a local voice for one of America’s sporting counter-cultures.
Grove grew up in Colley Gate, a suburb of Birmingham in the West Midlands made up of just a few thousand people. Before Grove’s time, the West Midlands was a booming industrial area of England. “It was a big chain-making place,” Grove said. “Where, literally, they make the big chains” for large ships. The auto-maker Rover was also there. “Their big factories were in Birmingham, but they closed down as well.”
Soccer didn’t interest Grove growing up. “All I wanted to do was play video games,” he said. “I didn’t get into watching soccer until the 1990 World Cup.”
The 1990 World Cup enthralled the country. “England made it to the semi-finals,1 which is the best they’ve done since 1966,” Grove said. “The whole family would come over to our house, so there would be five or six of the grown up guys, like my brothers and uncles.”
“When you’re a kid, you look up to the grown ups,” he said. And the grown ups, like all of England, were over the moon that The Three Lions made it to the semi-finals. “They’re all really excited about it, and when you’re 11 you’re like, Oh, I want to be involved with this. So I’d watch every game with them and that was my ‘in.'”
Before YouTube’s oodles of soccer videos, Grove relied on a friend and his family’s VHS player for his soccer fix. “He had all these videos of games and he had a Subbuteo board.” A Subbuteo is much like an electric football board. “It’s the soccer equivalent of that, but it’s all finger powered.”
After graduating college and spending a year at a Rover plant (“I did a year in the car factory to save up for grad school just before the car factory closed down”), Grove moved to Dublin to attend film school. There he met a woman from Detroit, Shannon O’Neill. “We were in the same class and the same dorms.” The two married and decided they’d live in America.
“I think I was too stupid to worry about it,” Grove said about emigrating. “I really think, looking back, it was a big move and…I thought: yeah, let’s do it!”
He maybe had second thoughts about America considering his first taste of his new country was Detroit and its dilapidation. One of the first landmarks he saw was the Michigan Central Station, built in 1913. In its heyday, the train station was opulent: marble, hand-carved wood, tall ceilings, wrought-iron railings, enormous columns, and Guastavino tile arches. “You can tell it was beautiful at one point, but now it’s all smashed windows and abandoned. That was my first look at the US,” he said.
His next look at America was just as big, but in a more patriotic sense. “Outside of Shannon’s apartment was a gigantic American flag, like the biggest flag I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” Grove said. “That was slightly frightening to see, in a weird way, because I think I interpreted it incorrectly. Like it feels almost threatening.” It was a far cry from back home. “We don’t really do that in England, it’s not as balls-out patriotism.”
But Grove acclimated. And when he and his wife visited a friend in Richmond for New Year’s 2004, the two fell in love with the city. “We walked around The Fan and went to bars and all that sort of stuff and thought Richmond was incredible,” Grove said. “And her friend offered her a job down here, that’s when we decided we’re going to set up and do it here.”
Finding an ‘in’
The 1990 World Cup was Grove’s in to soccer. The Central Virginia Soccer Association was his in to Richmond. “Before I even moved here I contacted a team through the CVSA,” he said. “I think I played two or three days after arriving.”
Soccer in the US isn’t the same as football back home. If soccer is a giant in England–where fans and tabloids fawn over and scrutinize players at a national level–it’s downright subterranean here in the US by comparison. That’s good.
“I don’t miss soccer there, I like it here more,” Grove said. “It feels like you’re part of this smaller community. Back home it’s not special to be a football fan. You’re just one of many, many people…[soccer’s] almost a counter-culture as opposed to the dominant culture in England.”
“The soccer fans, especially those who found the game in the last five years or so, are the same people who are into movies in a big way, or are really into Game of Thrones and Mad Men, the people who listen to great indie bands,” he said. “It seems like half the Richmond chapter of the American Outlaws are freelance graphic designers and writers.”
Like many fans, Grove listened to soccer podcasts between games. While running an online soccer website, The Offside, Grove became friends contributor and fellow CVSA player Taylor Rockwell. “After I left The Offside, he suggested, why don’t we try to do a [podcast] ourselves?”
The shows the two listened to were all England-based. “We weren’t aware of any American soccer shows,” Grove said. Having an American guy and a British guy would set them apart from the pack. “Just aurally, it’s different.”
But what exactly is an American perspective on soccer?
“To me, it means what Americans are watching. It doesn’t mean just MLS, it doesn’t mean just the [Richmond] Kickers…it doesn’t mean just the national team,” he said. “Americans are watching the Premier League, they’re watching La Liga games on beIN Sports…so the idea was, whatever Americans are talking about, that would be our focus, because that’s what we would be doing as well.”
Another way Grove wanted to differentiate the show would be its format. He told Rockwell: “If we’re going to do it, let’s not do a podcast…we should do it as a radio show that’s also a podcast.”
And as it so happened, Grove had an in with radio. In 2009, he was volunteering at WRIR, the city’s independent station. “They want to represent the under-represented views in Richmond,” Grove said. “And we sort of made the pitch: soccer is a big part of Richmond” with about 100 teams in the CVSA; 4,000 registered players, the Richmond Kickers drawing 3,000+ fans to games, growth of youth soccer, etc. “There was a definitely a soccer community, but that wasn’t represented.”
Soon it would be.
Grove and Rockwell took about three weeks to put together one 27-minute demo show to present to WRIR for approval. “We were figuring out how to use the equipment, how to use the editing software, [and] just figuring out how content works,” Grove said. WRIR picked up The Total Soccer Show, which began airing in August 2009.
“The only people we heard from were friends and family,” Grove said about the initial responses. But soon The Total Soccer Show began uploading shows to iTunes as podcasts. “Very slowly” strangers started contacting the show with compliments.
Nearly five years in, and with a rotation of local co-hosts,2 roughly 9,000 people listen to each episode of The Total Soccer Show. “Almost every single show gets more [listeners] than the last one,” Grove said. “So there’s always this forward momentum that keeps us doing it, because we know if we keep going more people will listen.”
One of the reasons people listen is because the hosts know what they’re talking about. “A lot of the [soccer] shows that we tried that we didn’t like, we felt like it was because people were bluffing it. They were just saying things they didn’t know about or couldn’t back up,” Grove said. “So we had this rule from the beginning: anything you say, you have to be able to explain it.”3
And if you had to explain it, you explained it calmly. “Because we were being aired on WRIR, we were very deliberate about wanting to do a sports show that wasn’t like the usual jock-tastic sports shows, full of opinionated blow-hards leading with whatever topic they feel like they can best exploit to get people riled up,” Grove said. “We definitely aimed to be a calmer, more considered, public-radio-type show, as opposed to talk-radio-type shows.”
The hosts’ passion and knowledge of the sport makes the show great for both soccer novice and expert. “We want to reach people who are either informed, or who want to be informed,” Grove said.4 “At least have an interest in being informed, as opposed to just being confident in their own opinion, without caring what the other person thinks.”
One of the reasons Grove became a supporter of the US men’s national team was because people back home didn’t care, and weren’t open to believe, just how good the US was.
With the 2014 World Cup underway in Brazil, Grove is one of the US’s biggest supporters. During the 2006 World Cup, Grove watched as the anticipation of the English team’s performance competed with the presence of the players’ WAGs in the host country of Germany.5 “It kind of repelled me a little bit. And then I saw the US team in comparison, where they’re not all famous, some of them weren’t being paid very well [in MLS]…” Grove said. The US were underdogs that just wanted to play their hearts out without getting caught up in the celebrity of soccer. “I really got on board with that.”
“I started watching the [US] team, and I was quite impressed with certain players, but then I’d hear people back home be really disrespectful of the team,” Grove said. “I started to feel sort of protective about the US in terms of what other people were thinking.”
Now in 2014, Grove feels his love of the team “more intensely than I did” back then. It’s a love that outmatches his affection for England’s national team. “If the two games are on at the same time, I watch the US,” he said. “I only have one passport, I’m still only English. But I feel really patriotic about the US team.”
But to a point. “Still not getting a giant flag, though,” he said.
- The (excellent) documentary One Night in Turin highlights the English run, and is available to stream on Netflix. ↩
- Albert Ottati, Josh Stankus, Peyton Siddall, Laura Coutts, and Ryan Heins. ↩
- “If you say [US forward] Clint Dempsey is a good player…you have to be capable of backing it up by listing the skills that he has [and] what he’s done that’s impressed you just so that you’re never ever bluffing it or just trying to get away with saying something,” Grove said. ↩
- Grove’s association with the show helped recently land him the gig with Paste Magazine’s soccer section. ↩
- British tabloid slang meaning “wives and girlfriends.” ↩