By Neal Thurman
Over the course of a week spent in London, I got to see what I think of as a pretty wide sampling of the English soccer experience. My wife and I saw three league matches at three dramatically different venues. In addition to attending an Arsenal match, we visited two other London-area stadiums and watched an Arsenal Champions League match in a pub. I also got to spend some time with the Editor of World Soccer Magazine for whom my blogging partner Jeremy and I had just finished writing our first print article.
For me, it was interesting to get a sense of the other fan experiences available in English soccer. And as before, I saw that the sports experience in England and America have many similarities and differences to what a fan might find in the US.
|Inside Fulham's Craven Cottage
It was Easter Sunday and the entire experience seemed like something straight out of 1950s Ivy League lore. We again took the Tube, and from the station had a pleasant albeit longer walk through a quaint upper-middle class neighborhood.
The stadium was definitely “old school” and hadn’t been updated in many years. The “concourse” we took to get to our seats was outdoors and provided a beautiful view of the neighboring River Thames that any metropolitan jogging trail would be proud of.
There were more than a few supporters dressed in suits and ties presumably having come straight from Easter services. A small selection of merchandise was being sold out of a small structure along the river (I know from a previous trip that Fulham’s main team store is a number of blocks away from the stadium). During the match, the crowd was subdued and polite, even as the home team prevailed 2-1 over Wigan.
American Equivalent: In my imagination this would mirror a University of Pennsylvania Ivy League clash in the 50s or 60s but the closest I’ve been to in person by way of comparison was at Northwestern vs. Miami, Ohio in Chicago.
One of our goals (OK, my goals) in seeing three matches in three days was to have a wide variety of experiences over the course of our trip. In choosing Crystal Palace and Selhurst Park, I was aiming to have an experience outside of the Premier League and outside of central London.
And what a difference it was! The atmosphere itself was incredibly different. After taking the Tube from our hotel to the train station, we then had to take a substantial train ride to get to South Norwood.
|The author's view at Selhurst Park
But once we arrived it was almost like a carnival atmosphere outside the stadium. There was loud music and activities for kids in the area around the stadium. There was a buzz that just wasn’t present at either Premier League encounter. Sort of like this was THE big event in this neighborhood this week, and it was in a way that blasé Londoners have probably long since left behind.
The stadium was pretty large but like Craven Cottage it was definitely “old school” rather than being a modern experience. We were able to buy tickets over the internet from the club for a quite reasonable price. We sat in the fifth row just about at midfield, but we ended up being lucky that it didn’t rain. It turned out that the reason the seats were available despite their proximity to the action, was likely because they weren’t covered from the elements.
One major difference between all three English stadiums I visited and venues in the USA is that there they have extended roofs that cover a large majority of the seats from the rain or snow. There was no meaningful rain for any of my three matches but we’ve all seen enough on TV to know that this is a pretty big deal.
The crowd was the most lively that we encountered of the three, with singing, chanting, and tons of energy for nearly the entire match. I have a bit of a soccer crush on Darren Ambrose so it was cool to be so close to the action when he scored. The result was a home win that helped Palace avoid relegation despite losing nine points in the standings as a penalty for going into administration.
American Equivalent: A well-supported high school football team in the Southeast of the US (but not quite 'Friday Night Lights' in Texas intense).
Champions League in a Pub
I’m fortunate enough to have spent most of my adult life in a city (Washington, DC) that boasts a number of high quality soccer bars so I was really interested to see how the English pub experience was on a big Champions League night.
After a day of touring around the countryside we walked down the street from our hotel to watch the Arsenal-Barcelona game at the first decent-looking pub we saw. For those familiar with London, this pub was just off The Strand and didn’t particularly look like a sports bar. But it did have a few large TVs and that was good enough for me.
And apparently it was good enough for a lot of people. The pub was filled to near capacity and buzzing like a true American soccer bar does on a big match night. Still, it’s hard to compare the two because it would have been hard NOT to be buzzing after the performance Lionel Messi put on despite the disappointing result.
American Equivalent: Just about any bar in the US with a good sized TV during the NFL playoffs
Meeting with a soccer journalist
Along with my blogging partner Jeremy, I had the opportunity to write a fantasy World Cup preview for World Soccer Magazine’s Unofficial World Cup Guide edition. And because the first printed copies coincided with my trip to London, the magazine’s editor invited me to his office to meet in person and pick up a few copies for friends and family.
The only time it would work with our respective schedules was almost immediately after my wife and I arrived in London. I can’t say I was at my best after a mostly-sleepless redeye flight into Heathrow, but the entire experience was pretty wild.
It was pretty amazing to talk with the World Soccer editor. He not only was a great resource for understanding more about the soccer media, he was also a source of a bunch of great stories about the game and English soccer culture. We discussed the differences between the US and England in terms of what type of content the average consumer likes – US sports writing is MUCH more analytical – and some theories as to why the US is so much more into fantasy sports than their English counterparts (think legalized gambling).
American Equivalent: I also had the opportunity to meet Jayson Stark, a senior baseball analyst at ESPN, at a Spring Training game. I found them both to be equally eloquent about their sport as well as equally generous with their advice for an aspiring sports writer.
The final thought I’ll leave you with is the second major myth that I had busted while I was in England: the soccer hooligan. While I’m sure it still exists in isolated cases, I’d list all three matches that I saw in England among the top family-friendly sports experiences I’ve ever had. I don’t think I heard a supporter swear at high volume, there was no verbal abuse of away supporters or of the officials.
In the end, I definitely felt that the trip had given me a much deeper connection with both Arsenal and the English game. It was an experience that I would recommend to any soccer fan – unless, of course, you don’t like crowds.
Neal Thurman is a management consultant in the Washington, DC area. In his spare time, his obsession with soccer has led to writing assignments for Yanks Abroad, Goal.com, Yahoo UK, and World Soccer Magazine. His very understanding wife deserves a lot of the credit for allowing this obsession to continue despite life’s mounting responsibilities. He and his writing partner (who isn’t a Gooner, but is OK anyway) can be found writing about the Premier League and Premier League Fantasy Football at http://fantasyepl.blogspot.com. Join him there on most Premier League Saturdays for a live chat while the games are going on.Copyright 2016 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source