PHOENIX – It’s 9 a.m. on a recent Sunday and the downtown George & Dragon pub is already rocking.
The Phoenix Red Devils, the official Manchester United supporter group in Phoenix, is erupting. The fans yell, hug, throw beer, lift chairs and scream for joy as Manchester United takes the lead against Arsenal through Marcus Rashford in the 27th minute of their English Premier League match.
Across downtown 24 hours earlier, the atmosphere in The Kettle Black Kitchen & Pub was more subdued as Man City strolled to an easy 5-1 win against Fulham.
At a glance, one might not even realize that the Kettle Black is a soccer pub. Rather than yelling at the various televisions around the place, members of the Phoenix Desert Blues were casually chatting like old friends. The Blues are a Manchester City supporter group and there is a real sense of community in the bar.
The Red Devils and Desert Blues are official “supporter groups” of teams in the Premier League, which is booming in popularity across the U.S. As a result, supporter groups are popping up and looking for places to gather and share in their passion for the sport.
That’s where local pubs come in.
Every weekend in the Valley, Premier League fans rouse themselves as early as 4:30 a.m. to gather at bars where they can gather to cheer for teams playing halfway across the world. It’s an experience like no other.
The Kettle Black and George and Dragon are not the only local pubs that host watch parties for Premier League supporter groups. Yucca Tap Room in Tempe (Arsenal), Fibber Magees Irish Pub in Chandler (Tottenham), Jersey D’s Tavern in Chandler (Chelsea), and Crown Public House in Phoenix (Liverpool) also serve as official gathering spots for the “Big Six” Premier League clubs.
And Tim Finnegan’s, the old home of the Desert Blues, continues to open early for featured Premier League matches and international competitions.
Wherever local soccer fans gather, the atmosphere promises to be raucous.
“I noticed people would order two beers for themselves, and I thought one was for a friend,” said Lauren Amaya, a longtime George & Dragon bartender. “Well, I learned quickly that one of those beers was to start throwing up in the air when they scored.”
Both groups have existed for nearly 10 years. The members of both groups have forged intimate bonds through their love of their teams. However, finding a place to form a community and toss the occasional celebratory beer has not always been easy.
A reliable “home” pub is the lifeblood of strong supporter groups. Pubs provide a meeting space where fans of particular clubs know they can gather to celebrate their team’s successes or share the pain of its losses. However, supporter groups can struggle to find such a home.
Typical sports bar owners often don’t want to open their doors early – or hire and pay staff for additional operating hours. Many don’t even know when the games are being aired.
But when the groups find a home, supporters will soon flock to it.
“The majority of people, in my opinion, want to be out,” said Red Devils co-leader Jamara Saah. “They want to jump and high five or hug somebody when your team scores and share the roller coaster of emotions.”
The Red Devils’ search for a place like the George & Dragon had nearly as many ups and downs as that roller coaster.
Founded in 2015, the Red Devils started meeting in various sports bars in Tempe and Scottsdale with only five or six people showing up for their initial watch parties.
However, the more the group met for games, the more Manchester United enthusiasts the gatherings attracted. Still, none of the sports bars the supporters went to were by people who shared their enthusiasm for soccer and the Premier League.
“The previous pubs were owners looking for an opportunity to make some extra money, and we appreciated their invite,” said Red Devils co-leader Devyn Hickman. “However, they were not open to showing matches as often as we were, and depending on the turnout, they weren’t interested as regularly.”
The Desert Blues had an easier time finding a home, primarily because of the way the group formed.
The group was created back in 2014 when founding member Nick Roen sent messages on Facebook to more than 100 local soccer fans who had “liked” a Manchester City post of his on the social media platform. He was hoping to find enough fellow fans to create a community.
One of the supporters who responded was Jimmy Culleton, a local business owner and a lifelong Man City fan. At the time, Culleton was a part-owner of Tim Finnegan’s, a bar in the northwest Valley, and he was happy to support the group and play host to Man City watch parties.
The group called Tim Finnegan’s home until the end of 2016, when the Desert Blues moved to The Kettle Black, a new downtown Phoenix pub also owned by Culleton.
Premier League games can start as early as 4:30 a.m., so supporter groups require dedicated and knowledgeable pub owners willing to let them gather for most Premier League games.
The Red Devils frequented pubs whose owners didn’t know much about the Premier League and certainly didn’t know the specifics of Manchester United’s schedule.
The Desert Blues never had that problem because of Culleton’s shared fandom and his understanding of the need for a shared space to watch matches. Thus, The Kettle Black is always open for Manchester City matches, no matter the start time.
Saah recalls showing up to the Woodshed in Tempe with 40 members of the Red Devils group for an important FA Cup match and no one showed up to open the pub for them. The group realized they needed a pub with an owner who loves Manchester United as much as the Red Devils do.
“The pub owner wasn’t a football fan, so if we weren’t sending him the schedule he didn’t know when the games were on,” said Red Devils co-leader Michael Vanderplas.
He said that was “never going to be a problem” with David Wimberley, a Manchester United supporter since 1968 who has shown United games at the George & Dragon since it opened in 1995. When the Red Devils were looking for a new home in 2018, Wimberley’s pub was the perfect fit.
“They contacted me and said we want to have a home,” Wimberley said. “I said, ‘Well, I’m a Man United fan, I own a pub and I like watching every game.’ So, yeah, it’s a good combination.”
It is quickly obvious that the George & Dragon is a soccer-friendly pub. Soccer shirts and scarves are hung everywhere, and there is a large Red Devils banner hanging above one of the doorways.
It’s even harder to miss when a Man United match is underway.
Even during lunch hour, if there’s a Manchester United game on, the game will be on the projector screen with the broadcast blaring through the sound system. Unsuspecting lunch customers are likely to be ambushed by roars and groans from supporters.
Kettle Black is a bit more subtle about its status as a soccer pub during normal business hours, with a couple Man City decorations on the walls that fit more of a traditional style. During match days, the Blues place their official banner by the front door and a retro logo flag is positioned next to the big screen for all to see.
Despite the in-your-face soccer nature of the pub, George & Dragon hosts watch parties less often on weekends than Kettle Black.
The difference, in part, is due to the timing of the watch parties.
Kettle Black bartender Alex Whaley opens up the pub even for the 4:30 a.m. matches to allow the City faithful in. Whaley is not necessarily a City fan, but is a fan of the group that consistently comes in each week – even if there is slightly less attendance at the early kickoffs.
Meanwhile, George & Dragon typically only shows games after 8 a.m. because the earlier games tend to draw smaller crowds. It’s hard for the group to motivate many of its members to show up at the early games on the weekend against poor opposition, and that can lead to tension between the group and the pub.
In order to gauge attendance to see if it’s worth the pub opening, the group does a poll on Facebook. Sometimes there is a discrepancy between the number of people who said they’re going and those who actually get out of bed when the alarm buzzes.
“It’s a shame a lot of the supporters say they’re going to be here and then just don’t show,” Wimberley said. “I just looked at the Facebook group and I’ve got confirmation that 38 people are coming on Sunday, so it’s worth opening. I’d be happy breaking even just so I can enjoy the game with the fans in my own pub.”
The Phoenix Red Devils leaders concede it is often difficult to deliver Wimberley consistent attendance.
“People RSVP and they don’t show up,” Saah said. “And he’s looking at me getting mad, and I’m like, ‘What do you expect me to do? I just gave you the number of the people that say they’re going to be there. Do you want me to wake up on a Saturday or Sunday morning to go knock on everybody’s door to make sure to show up at George & Dragon? There’s nothing more I can do.’”
The problem is further compounded by Arizona’s liquor laws, which prevent bars from selling alcohol between the hours of 2:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. Bars showing the earlier games are operating at a loss for the first two hours, something Wimberley doesn’t want to have to do unless significant attendance is guaranteed.
The Kettle Black on the other hand, tries to be open for every City match, hoping the team’s supporters will come back every week – even for the early morning starts. While the Blues have a slightly lower average attendance at The Kettle Black than the Red Devils draw at George & Dragon, the size of the turnout is more consistent.
Following a sport that takes place on the other side of the globe is tricky, but both the Phoenix Red Devils and Phoenix Desert Blues have managed to find somewhere they can call home even in the wee hours of the morning.
“We’ve been blessed that the owner of the George & Dragon is actually from England and is a Red Devils fan,” Hickman said. “He invited us in, he’s been gracious. He puts together great watch parties. He’s got a lot of space. We’ve got great TV’s and his help is really on par with how we would like to be treated.
“It’s been really good for the last couple of years.”