Saturday, March 10, 2007

England Journey 2007



On March 1st, I embarked on my 3rd journey to the United Kingdom to engage in one of my favorite pastimes, viewing English Football in person.

To properly explain my fascination with English Football would take way too long, but for one reason or another, I have become absolutely obsessed with this sport over the last 8 seasons or so. In fact, the level of my obsession continues to grow, as now I am gaining a pretty reasonable knowledge of most opponents my club (Liverpool) plays, and even catch myself now sitting down to watch random games between teams that have very little quality. I believe I may be sick.

I think it all goes back to how this job, that I love so much, has changed me. Once upon a time, I watched games all of the time because that is what I WANTED to do. Now, as I tune in for Rangers game #148 and they are 22 games out of first place, I sometimes admit that I am watching because this is what I HAD to do. Watching sports is not a choice, it is mandatory (I know, don’t cry for me) as it pertains to doing sports talk shows in DFW.

But the point is that watching games strictly for my personal enjoyment has been limited to my love-hate-love relationship with the Green Bay Packers, Wisconsin Badgers, and watching English Football. I say that because there is a very good chance that despite how great the Tottenham vs. West Ham match may have been, there is no way I can bring that up on our show without fear of ridicule. So, I watch it completely and totally for my personal amusement.

And if there is one thing better than watching Manchester United play Liverpool on television, than that would be to go see it with my own two eyes.

So, I planned this trip last October with “Soccer Buddy”. SB and I went in 2004, had a great time, and because of things like families and newborns, could not go again until last week. We really got to get this trip on the annual calendar, but so far I have gone in 2002, 2004, and now 2007 to mighty England. Last October, I surely thought that getting tickets was not going to be a problem, since I now know several soccer “VIPs” from various places. During my last journey, those VIPs were able to gain us admission to the matches we wanted to see, but this time I had chosen what amounts to one of the biggest matches of the soccer year. My connections could not get me in. I was going to have to pay about $700-$800 each to get these tickets from ticket brokers. Wow. People always ask me what these tickets cost and of course it depends on the game. If you are going to go over there, may I suggest you do not select the biggest games. Pick your favorite team playing a team of lesser appeal. Unless you don’t mind $700 a ticket. Usually, $100-$200 can get you into most games, but just don’t pick the big 4 clubs (Liverpool, Man United, Arsenal, Chelsea) against eachother. If you do, prepare to get hammered.

Anyway, long story short, through an incredible coincidence, Tom Hicks bought Liverpool a month ago, and although I don’t believe he is fond of my work, someone who he employs hooked me up, and I was able to get into this match for face value - $67 a piece. That person knows who he is, and I know owe him a ton. The other game we attended was Blackburn at Bolton, and for this game, you could get tickets at the gate without any problem as it was not nearly sold out.

The following is everything I can remember about my Soccer Dream Trip:

Friday


Friday, we landed in Manchester Airport about 12:30, and took the train into town. Our hotel was right by the main train station, and I would highly recommend the Radisson Edwardian in Manchester. Quality.

Despite feeling pretty sleep deprived, as the trans-Atlantic flight is enough to beat anyone into submission and I had not slept in about 24 hours when we landed, you have to stay awake to try to get your body right with the local time. It is a 6 hour difference, so obviously, if you stay on Texas time, you will be going to sleep as everyone in England is waking up.

We decided Friday was about our only chance to do any real sight-seeing, and since we were in Manchester, England, SB suggested we go over to Old Trafford, and see the most famous ground in England.



Old Trafford we decided must be more famous than Anfield (Liverpool’s ground) because A) it is huge, much bigger than Anfield, and B) it is the home to many, many international matches. For instance, When David Beckham scored his amazing free kick against Greece to get England into the 2002 World Cup, it was at Old Trafford.

We took the tour, and it instantly became obvious that we will need to come back to see a match there someday. It just smells historic. The best way to explain Manchester United and Liverpool is to suggest you think Yankees and Red Sox. They both have absolute brilliant stadiums, fervent fan bases, and magical histories. And, they both hate eachother. And they are 25 miles apart.

The tour took us all over the grounds, and our tour guide (who amazingly admitted that he was a life-long Liverpool Fan!) was awesome, and we were showed the dressing rooms, the tunnels, the press areas, the museum, and of course, the pitch itself. In fact, the coolest part might have been when they lined us up in two lines in the players tunnel, turned on a sound system that blared crowd noise, and had us walk down to the field and get a feel for what it might be like to enter the stadium if it was full and rocking. It did give me chills for a moment, although looking back, I clearly was over-reacting.

Manchester United is the big bully in English Football, and has been for many years. Much of the credit (if not all of it) goes to their famous manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. Sir Alex called out Liverpool when he first took the job back in the mid-80’s and said his first mission was to “knock Liverpool off their f-ing perch”. And he has. Liverpool hasn’t been the same since he arrived, and Manchester United’s trophy room has very little room for more hardware thanks to him.




They also are well remembered for the Munich plane crash in 1958 that killed 23 people, including 8 players. All over the grounds, that day is remembered with tributes and memorials.




Anyway, the real highlight of the trip to Old Trafford was to see “REX” written on the edge of the pitch, and upon questioning, the tour guide revealed that it was in fact Rex’s ashes, and his family spelled his name on the field of his beloved United upon his death. Touching.



They hung pictures in the dressing rooms showing who sat where. If you watched the World Cup 2006, you will doubt (as I did) that these two sit next to eachother.



Our Tour guide, who loves Liverpool, which reminded me why a Packers fan can do Cowboys radio...



After the tour, it was time to find a pub and we viewed some football, tried to understand Rugby, and attempted to stay awake until 9pm local time before I was out like a light back at my room.


Saturday

Ah, yes. The day that I had awaited for months. Finally, I was going to see my boys from Liverpool Football Club in person, and to top it off, I was going to see them at home against their hated Rivals, Manchester United.

The weather was amazingly perfect, given my experience in England. I know in my 3 trips I had yet to see sunny weather. But, today, sunny and about 50 degrees. We grabbed a train from Manchester to Liverpool Lime Street Station. It seems that trip took about 45 minutes, and on the trip you could see many a football fan who was headed to the big game down the track. We had decided not to tempt fate and wear jerseys on the train for fear of upsetting any locals who may not share our taste in teams. Our general policy when going over there is to blend in, not cause any trouble, not look for any trouble, and be the proverbial fly-on-the-wall (even if I am 6’4).

When we arrived at Lime Street, we followed the crowd to a bus station, passing what appeared to be some very cool architecture in downtown Liverpool. Didn’t see the Beatles, and didn’t have time to do much, except continue on to bus #17 which will take us to Anfield.

Anfield is similar to Wrigley Field in that it is tucked away in a regular city street with housing all around, pubs all around, and as intimate and non-corporate as you can imagine. I also found Highbury – Arsenal’s old home (from my 2002 and 2004 journeys) to be like this. Just tucked away with no real amenities that would satisfy the AAC crowd, but just pure tradition everywhere you look.

Outside, everyone is singing and eating and waiting for the big game. I did some interviews for the radio show where I tried to find out what everyone thought of Tom Hicks buying the team, and unanimously, everyone agreed it was a wonderful idea. Apparently, the remember that he paid Alex Rodriguez more than any athlete has ever been paid, and that proves that he is willing to pay the price to win. I didn’t ask what happened after A-Rod was paid, because I didn’t want to kill their buzz.







I made my way around the grounds to see the statue of Bill Shankly (their version of Tom Landry or Vince Lombardi), and the Shankly gates that were built in his honor after his death. Also, there is a solemn reminder of the Liverpool tragedies that killed many fans both at Heysel and Hillsborough back in the 1980’s.

Once we decided to go inside, we had to go to the appropriate gate. In the states, your ticket may offer you suggestions on what gate you should enter, but in reality it is usually a suggestion, and once inside you can normally walk all through a stadium or arena. Well, at these soccer games, you must use the gate you are told because you can only access that part of the stadium. This is how they keep fans from fighting fans from the other side – by keeping them separated. It works very well.



Segregation is the only way to exist over there. They offer the away fans 3,000 seats in this league at each match. Those 3,000 fans are in their own sections, using their own entrances, and are completely and totally isolated from the rest of the stadium. There is no going in or going out of the away area. I am sure it has not always been this way, but it has been for the last several years and maybe decades as a way to minimize incidents. Honestly, I think it is a brilliant idea, since we have all had Eagles fans or Red Wings fans behind us at games in Dallas and have all seen incidents of pushing and shoving when obnoxious, drunk fans from each side bow up to eachother. Wouldn’t it be a bit easier to have a special section at Texas Stadium for all of the Steelers fans? Just thinking out loud.



The World Famous Kop



The Scarfs are up for "You'll Never Walk Alone".


The stadium was just as I had hoped. Very Lambeau Field like, in that once you emerge from the tunnel, it finally hits you that you are at the place you have seen on television so many times. I finally made it to Anfield. And when I got to join in for the pregame rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” I was near sports-crying. What a moment.




We were basically even with the 6 yard box on the goal to the left, about 1 section over from the Away Fans. And I must admit, despite my disdain for Manchester United, those away supporters that they brought were amazing. They sang and performed and outshouted the rest of the stadium for almost the entire afternoon. They are surrounded by a perimeter of police, so they are extra courageous. You saw many middle fingers and heard many “R-rated” words, but I must admit, it was entertaining.

The biggest difference between a sporting crowd over there versus a sporting crowd over here is simple: In the states, we are a reactive crowd. We wait for a prompt to cheer, whether it be from the team doing something great, the scoreboard asking us for noise, a cheer-leader or yell-leader (Aggie) to signal us for a reaction. Over there, there is nothing. No prompts. No cheerleading. No begging from the stadium. Really, no game presentation whatsoever. Dan and I are often critical of the stale atmosphere of a Stars game versus the electric setting of a Mavericks game. But, in England, it is all left to the fans. If there is to be noise, it is because the crowd generates it on its own. They sing all game long because they believe it impacts the game. They chant, they cheer, they sing songs and chants to annoy the opposition, to annoy the oppositions supporters, and to “suck the ball into the net” as they say. The whole scene is priceless. Anything that happens in a game generates the next song. It could be a song that promotes their player, it could be a song that laughs at the opposing player or manager, but there is a method to all of the insanity. And it sometimes is better than the games.

No one goes to the concessions or bathroom during the game. Seriously, even when you watch a match on television, you will seldom see anyone walking in the aisles during play. At halftime, we all scramble for a beverage and a pie (gross), if we want to miss the halftime entertainment which was the awkward shootout between disabled ManU fans and disabled Liverpool fans (I kid you not – and I really can’t describe it). No corporate suits on cell phones. No suites with people not paying attention. It really makes you think that we have screwed things up in America by catering to the rich.

Back to the match itself: United was 9 points up on Chelsea, and 16 up on Liverpool at the start of the day, and people were saying that before the match, if anyone has a chance to catch them, it will have to be because Liverpool beat them today.

Well, Liverpool huffed and puffed. By all accounts they carried the action all day long with far more shots and possession than Manchester United. But, just like hockey, dominating action doesn’t count for much if you don’t but the ball in the net. And like usual, Liverpool did not.

Liverpool will never win the Premiership if we don’t get a world-class goal scorer. I wonder if Tom Hicks knows that.



Xabi Alonso on the ball.



The closest I came to a decent photo of in-game action captures the throw-in...



So, with 5 minutes to go, we are staring a 0-0 tie right in the face. Then Paul Scholes (of Gol de Scholes fame) turns and tries to punch Xabi Alonso right in the face. He misses, but this is a straight red card to the Manchester United hero, and now for the final flurry, Liverpool will also have a man advantage. Surely, we will score and I will cap off a miraculous experience the right way.

Peter Crouch has a no-brainer at the goal mouth, but United’s keeper makes a brilliant save. A few other chances are close calls, but again no finishing touch to get the win. United seems more than happy to accept the draw and get out of town.

Then, in stoppage time, a silly foul takes place outside the Liverpool area, giving Manchester United a glimmer of hope. I say to Soccer Buddy that this is bad. Very bad. Cristiano Ronaldo, perhaps the best player in English soccer, and surely the most hated player in English soccer stood over the ball. He curled it to land right at the keeper’s feet. Traffic was everywhere, save made, but rebound right to an unmarked John O’Shea. Goal. Anfield falls silent. Except for the 3,000 to my left. United score in stoppage time with only 10 men. The 3,000 United fans are in heaven. They perform non-stop for the next 10 minutes, the whole time shooting the bird to the Liverpool faithful who stare at the field, realizing that it has happened to them again.

Manchester United, meanwhile, believe that the O’Shea miracle locks up the Premiership for them again. They have wrestled the crown back after Arsenal and Chelsea have held it in London for the last 3 seasons.

After the final whistle, and after the United players celebrated right in front of me by running to their 3,000 supporters, and almost all the players ripped off their jerseys and flung them into the crowd, the police began herding the Liverpool fans out of the stadium. 45,522 is the capacity, and the 42,000 Liverpool fans are made to leave before the 3,000 United fans can move from their places. This, again, is to insure there are no incidents in the streets after the match.

I wanted to get a look at how this all happens, so I put a jacket over my jersey (so as to look like a neutral) and went to the visiting fans exits. There, police on horse, police on foot, and police in cars and helicopters made sure that the street the 3,000 United fans were about to use was completely empty. Completely. All Liverpool supporters were made to go to the other 3 sides of Anfield or down the other streets. This back street would be the path from the stadium gates all the way to the train that waited to take only United fans back to Manchester.

I pulled out a microphone and was allowed to remain on the street with a few other media people because I guess having a microphone made me look legit. The doors swung open, and now 30 minutes after the final whistle, the 3,000 are released and escorted by dozens of cops on all sides to their train. There will be no incidents if the police have any say. And they do. I cannot imagine problems after what I witnessed. They obviously have learned from their mistakes of the past.

All in all it was an amazing spectacle. You hate to go all that way to see your team suffer the most gutting of losses, but, you also can appreciate that you witnessed a result that will be talked about for decades. There are many games without any sort of flavor or remarkable attributes, and this was not one of those. The O’Shea winner that secured the 07 Premiership for United will surely make the history books.

From there it was a visit to the Liverpool Pro Shop where I left a lot of my hard earned money, and then to the bus, back to the train, and off to Manchester on another train (not the one reserved for the 3,000). Soccer Buddy and I had enjoyed the journey.

At the train station in Manchester, we noted that we were close to kickoff for his team (Portsmouth) as they took on Chelsea. We then found a sports cafĂ©, I ordered what they called a “Chicken Sandwich”, and we watched Chelsea lay the wood to Pompey.

Sunday

When you make plans for this trip, you do not know what the schedule will actually be. I bought airlines tickets and hotel room in October, but the television networks did not determine who would play on Saturday and who would play on Sunday until January. Because of Champions League, FA Cup, and television, you seldom know exactly the date and time of your game until about 60 days out.

So, when you plan on going to England for a weekend and you do what I do – which is plan to catch a game on Saturday and another on Sunday, you really prioritize game 1, and then wait on the other game because you do not know what the networks will do. For instance, usually the huge fixtures (like Liverpool-ManU) would be the big game on Sunday. But because they had Champions League affairs on Tuesday, they left the game on Saturday. That left us with two choices for what match we would see on Sunday: Bolton hosts Blackburn, 16 miles from Manchester, and Tottenham visits West Ham in London, 200 miles away. Advantage Bolton.

It should be noted that Bolton are the 5th team in the Premiership. They have a nice new stadium, and a team that features some notable names. But, watching Bolton-Blackburn after Liverpool-Manchester United is like going to see the Red Sox-Yankees on Saturday and then the Phillies-Pirates on Sunday. A nice rivalry to those people involved, but quite a let-down in the aftermath of where you had just been.

We were lucky enough to be the guests of Bolton’s Media Department, and they were very accommodating and pleasant. The Weather, sadly, was not as accommodating and pleasant. It was freaking cold. And raining sideways. Every stereotypical thing you could say about a cold, rainy, miserable afternoon in England, you could say here.

And the fans, evidently, thought it would be much easier to watch on television. You will be happy to know that the media sits with the crowd, so Soccer Buddy and me were shivering little Americans in our seats, trying to stay warm as we watched a largely indifferent first half at the Reebok stadium in Bolton.

Brad Friedel, our American goalkeeper, was in goal for Blackburn, and that excited Soccer Buddy who is hard core into Sam’s Army.

With bad weather, empty seats, and indifferent football, I wish I could tell you there were a lot of great stories, but I don’t have too many.

In the 2nd half, the South African Benny McCarthy, who earlier in the week eliminated Arsenal from the FA Cup, scored twice on penalty kicks for Blackburn, putting the road Rovers up 2-0. Nice to see a few goals and all, but penalty kicks are like free throws to me. It is more of a shock if a professional doesn’t score. Nicolas Anelka pulled one back for Bolton, and they thought they scored the equalizer, but the scorer was offside.



Benny Shoots



Benny Scores



Bolton with a cross, with the American Friedel looking on...But not that many fans...

Two matches in two days, with two road teams winning.

The rain was still falling hard after the game, and as we exited the stadium and walked to the train station, it occurred to us that at 4:30 on a Sunday in the England countryside, it is possible that we may have a while to wait for the next train. We did. About an hour. What a beating. Cold, wet, and tired, we finally got back to the hotel about 2 hours later.

Just in time to get a pizza (they can’t screw that up in England) and get back to the hotel to see Real Madrid-Getafe at 8, and then a replay of the brilliant match between West Ham and Tottenham at 10. That match finished 4-3, and it may have been the best game played all year.

Here are the BBC Stories on the two matches:

Liverpool 0, Mancherster United 1

Bolton 1, Blackburn 2

Various relevent Youtubes:

O’Shea's Winner



YNWA from 2005



The United fans sing to Anfield "We only had 10 men"



I know this was really long, but I hope you enjoyed it if this is your cup of tea.

11 comments:

Warren said...

Thank you. Love this sort of play by play for your next swing w/ the stars. Yes, it's lame, so is getting mad when you post after 9 am, but I cope.

Patrick said...

Thanks so very much. Loved, loved, loved it. I'd been looking forward to this since you previewed it earlier this week.

Does this need to go on GayOrNotGay?

Thanks again!

Jonathan said...

A soccer buddy and a weekend full of English Football. Lucky.

I would also not be opposed to a weekly segment on the Premiership/FA Cup/Champions Cup for the next few months. Just throwing that out there.

Lumps of celery!

Jeff said...

Loved it - it was a great read. Any plans on heading out to the Dallas Cup in a couple of weeks?

Brad said...

Good job Bob.

Interesting read about those british british cigarrettes. I like that idea about the "away section" and having their own entrance.

Pie?

Sports.

Andrew said...

I went to a Lazio game in Rome in 2001, and I was struck by the security measures there as well. When we entered, my father and I were frisked by a police officer as two other officers with machines guns watched. In the stands, every section was separated by 10-foot-high clear plastic barriers that the local kids would climb to get to better seats. The visitors' section was surrounded by more armed police officers.

What amwazes me is that, with the problems the Italians have had this year, all of what I went through was not enough to curb the in-the-stands violence.

jloinette said...

Ahh the greatness that is real football. Couldn't agree more about the fans, I think we as Americans could learn so much from Worldwide soccer fans. Tell me a Rangers game wouldn't be better if everyone is signing and chanting, rather than doing the wave or charge!

bt said...

Good stuff, Sturm. I am more into the German Bundesliga than the EPL (Werder Bremen is my team, I decided when I first started following soccer a few years ago, since my grandmother was born in Bremen), but I'd love to see any game over on that side of the pond some day. Your blog only reinforced that...

bomberman said...

That was a great read, Bob. And that is coming from someone who has almost no interest in soccer.

clay said...

That article was fantastic.

This summer I did the Stamford Bridge tour (Chelsea) and felt very much the same as you at Old Trafford.

I also went to a Spanish Primera game in 2004 with Sevilla FC hosting Osasuna. It was truly incredible. There was a riot afterward with the crowd rushing the field and riot police shooting off tear gas and rubber pellots. I have never had so much fun at the same time fearing for my life.
Sevilla FC 1- Osasuna 0.

party

Lisa said...

Arselnal, Arsenal, Arsenal...