It’s hard enough being a 49ers fan from a different state. You don’t get out-of-market games on your method of television of consumption unless you finagle a way to stream it, or have NFL Sunday Ticket, or stay glued to RedZone, hoping you don’t look away at the wrong time when they pull up the Niners game.
These are just some of the hurdles non-local fans face on a weekly basis. I would know! But imagine not just being from out of state, but out of the country?
That’s the case for Jim Neal, an avid 49ers fan and Romford (near London) resident. Jim began following American football when his dad would watch NFL highlights on a local sports channel. He was smitten with the greats of that era.
“I was nine years old, and all you see are these amazing players, the red and the gold,” described Neal. “It was like, ‘Those guys are amazing.’ Steve Young and Joe Montana, Jerry Rice. Obviously [now] it’s a lot easier with the Internet.”
No more waiting until days later to see how his favorite team did, and no more waiting to venture to the United States to see NFL football live either. So while he hasn’t been to see his favorite Niners stateside yet, Neal has been to games at Wembley Stadium.
The Niners played there in 2010 and 2013, and most recently, the Jaguars, Texans, Rams, and Bengals played in 2019 before the league faced off at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in 2021. NFL games return to Wembley this year and head to Mexico City and Munich.
Over the years, Jim has passed his love for the Niners to his 13-year-old son, Joshua. Well, Joshua didn’t really have a choice, Jim joked.
“If he wants to eat in my house, he will support the teams I support,” Jim laughed.
It’s a hobby they’ve enjoyed, but consuming Niners’ game can be a bit challenging at times. They have access to Sky Sports, which broadcasts a certain amount of live games and other NFL programming on its league-dedicated channel, and NFL Game Pass which streams games to the United Kingdom. Sounds great, right? Yes. However, the time difference is what gets ya.
“On Sunday nights, some games kick off at 9:30 p.m., and they’re not finished till maybe 1:00 or 1:30 in the morning,” Neal explained. “Some games kick off at 1:30 in the morning, so there’s no way that he’s [Joshua] staying up to 4:30 a.m. and then doing a full day at school. It’s a lot of Monday mornings, you know, the first hour of work is really, really difficult.”
For Joshua, sometimes he has to go to sleep when games are going on, tossing and turning, wondering what’s happening when he can hear his dad watching downstairs.
“I remember in the Rams game, I woke up at like 2:00 a.m. and I’m shaking in bed like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t go to sleep.’” said Joshua.
“It’s challenging but fun,” said Jim.
According to Jim, Joshua has picked up the game ‘through osmosis, researching rules and learning about various plays on YouTube. That’s what it takes when most peers and cohorts are consumed by soccer or rugby and not American football — and that’s exactly why Joshua loves it.
“It’s just different. I like the kind of change it has from the sport we have here. It’s more fun, and it seems like a better atmosphere than whatever we have around here.” added Joshua. “People say it’s complicated, but I like the fact that it’s complicated because then it makes me feel smart when I’m talking about it.”
The NFL — and especially the 49ers — are hardly the talk of the town in the hallways of Joshua’s school.
“I was talking to my friends on the bus a couple of days ago: ‘I was watching the NFL highlights,’ and one of them looked over my shoulder and said, ‘NFL? Really? That’s just like weird rugby.’”
Honestly, not a bad way to describe American football, eh?
“It is big, and it’s getting much bigger in this country. They sell out all the Wembley games. So there is a dedicated channel to it. But it’s never going to top soccer, cricket, or rugby. It’s just not ingrained like that.”
Regardless of the taboo, the NFL holds outside of the US; it provides a special bond Jim and Josh share, just them two.
“He’s really, really gotten into it and got all of the nuances of it,” said Jim. “It’s nice to have someone to talk to about it. It’s a good way to connect.”
Perhaps the most obvious expression of that was how the Neals celebrated the Divisional round when the Niners faced off with the Packers in an ice-cold Green Bay. The game was Saturday night in America, which meant early Sunday morning for the Neals.
“The idea was my alarm would go off at 1:00 a.m., and we would come downstairs very quietly and watch it,” said Jim. “It was a case of trying to watch it and celebrate it as silently as humanly possible.”
Very quietly watch the Niners? I’ve never heard of that!
“The blocked punt happened. We’re jumping up and down. He slid across the floor to the other end. The dog was looking at us as if we’re mad.” described Jim. “We couldn’t afford overtime. It’s all really 4:00 in the morning, and it’s getting lighter outside.”
Oh, but the 49ers didn’t need any overtime to get the job done, thanks to Robbie Gould walking it off as time expired to win 13-10.
Celebrating beating the Packers at 4:15am uk time with my son, an absolutely glorious moment with my favourite human pic.twitter.com/iRuf93fKXV— Jim (@jimmneal) February 3, 2022
“It was great, you know? And then it’s the case of [telling Joshua] ‘I know you’re really excited. I know we’re really high on this, but have a glass of water, and you’ve got to go back to sleep because we’re getting up in three hours and we getting on a train and we’re going into London.’”
Joshua didn’t care about the lack of sleep.
“I had to go to bed with the knowledge that they won,” said Joshua.
It’s those moments, they said, that make the game and being a Niners fan so special.
“As disappointing as the Rams game was, it’s those sort of things you live for. You can’t experience those high highs without experience in those low lows,” said Jim.
Well, put. The Neals said they’re ready to go for next season. They already own a Trey Lance jersey, and Joshua has a North Dakota State Lance jersey, too, and have plans to make their way to Santa Clara one day.
“In maybe five years' time, we will be making the pilgrimage to Levi’s Stadium,” said Jim. “There will be tears in my eyes when I get there. That would be probably the pinnacle of my NFL supporting life.”
And suddenly, the more than 5000 miles separating the Neals and the 49ers will all be worth it.