Tuesday, April 24, 2012

England Premiership Trip Recap 2012

How did it happen?

Kind of a long story, really. The short version is that a friend challenged me to give a few matches a try back about 12 years ago. He said follow one team and watch 3 matches and then tell me that it wasn’t that great.

I tried. He was right. And I was hooked on English Premiership Football. Since then, I have hardly gone a week during a season without consuming at least one match and have infected countless of my other friends with the bug themselves.

Now, in 2012, I talk every day with people who closely follow soccer on a worldwide level and also watch matches and live with their teams (clubs) from across the pond on a level that is not that dissimilar to their relationships with their local basketball and baseball teams – except that they don’t get to attend the games in person much.

But, otherwise, thanks to the interest of the public and the advancement of technology, there are no significant matches that are unavailable in high definition on live television in the states. If you follow any club in England, Spain, Italy, or Germany that is popular, you can see all of their matches live. It was something that wasn’t true when I was infected with “football fever” back after the 1998 World Cup, but the progress has been amazing.

And as I write this, I am on my flight back from my 5th journey to England in the last decade to watch matches live in England – and already I find myself mentally planning journey #6 that will likely happen in about 24 months. I truly can’t wait.

This latest trip was shoehorned between my various job responsibilities – the end of the NHL regular season and the NFL Draft. I found a week where I could leave and my presence would not be completely required in Dallas and looked for matches that could be attended in a 5-day stay. Here is what happened:

Friday, April 20: Our flight (a group of 4 of us would meet my Ticket colleague, Craig Miller who had already arrived) landed on Friday morning and we checked in at the hotel and grabbed a much-needed power nap of about 3 hours to at least give the body clock a chance at surviving through Friday night with no sleep since Wednesday night due to the time changes. London is 6 hours in front of Texas, so after a 9 hour flight and a significant time change, you land at about 8 am in England. Your body clock is off badly, but with a nap, it can work. On Friday night, 3 of us wanted to see lower division football. This is the level that is professional, but not incredibly tainted by the cash of the top division. We took a train out to the eastern coast of England to see 4th-tier Southend United in a late-season home match against Barnet. Southend by the Sea is a coastal town that has a fair-ground on the coast and at one point appeared to be a destination point for the English weekender.

Our goal that night was to see a match in its natural habitat, a place where a little town follows a little club in an old stadium and dreams of being promoted to a higher league soon. We were able to see that in all of its glory at old Roots Hall where about 6,000 fans cheered the Shrimpers to a 3-0 victory. Bilel Mohsni scored a first half hat trick and there was much rejoicing out at the coast as the Shrimpers have a chance at going up to the 3rd Division for next season if they do well in the next month. For 15 pounds on the train and 19 pounds at the gate, we caught a real slice of England that is clearly not televised. We caught the last train out of Southend back to Liverpool Street station in London and were back to the hotel by 11pm.

Saturday, April 21: This was the centerpiece of the trip when it was conceived back in January. With Craig and my other buddy, Scott, both newly converted Arsenal backers in the last few years, they wanted to go see their Gunners in person at the huge Emirates Stadium in London. I figured that if we were going to do this, we might as well schedule a great opponent, so we found this weekend where they would host cross-London rival Chelsea in a “London Derby” which is what you call a match where two geographic rivals square off. The game was the early match (12:45 pm) allowing a committed sports nerd like myself to find a 2nd match later in the day (more on that later).

Chelsea was a bit distracted by their midweek battle with Barcelona in the Champions League and did not field its best players all over the field, but it was still an intense and spirited affair. Sadly, for those of us who do not enjoy the kissing of a sister that a scoreless draw sometimes carries, nobody was able to put the ball in the net. I considered trying to convince my readers here that a scoreless draw can be quite compelling (because it absolutely can be) but then I remembered that it sounds ridiculous to even say it, so just know we had higher hopes for this match and aside from witnessing the pageantry and scene in person, it was the least noteworthy part of the weekend – despite it being the top item on the itinerary.

Now, because of the early kickoff, and because of the awesome feature in English football that the entire countries clubs can be found in the space between Dallas and Houston, I was able to find a 2nd match on Saturday that kicked off at 5:30 pm on the other side of London. Queens Park Rangers hosted Tottenham Hotspur in another London Derby and because of some great connections that I have established over the last 12 years, I was able to get tickets to both matches at face value (about 70 pounds a piece). Incidentally, for those without the connections, scalpers seemed to be seeking about 150 to 175 pounds for tickets to matches on the day of the match.

The Arsenal match concluded about 2:30 and by 3:30 we were on the train to QPR. Queens Park was about a 30-minute ride on the train west from our hotel in High Holborn in Central London and we arrived shortly after 4 pm. Whereas Emirates, home of Arsenal held about 66,000 fans, Loftus Road, the home ground of QPR holds slightly below 20,000 fans in a place that is absolutely intimate and electric.

I have now attended 12 matches in person on English soil, and I always find that the smaller the grounds (stadium) the better my experience. I love the electric scene and Loftus Road instantly shot to the top of my list of favorite places that I have been to, alongside Arsenal’s old stadium (Highbury), Portsmouth (Fratton Park), and Liverpool (Anfield).

The match featured a home side in QPR that was attempting to stay up in the top flight of English football. To those who do not know the intoxicating system of relegation and promotion that goes on around the world in sports (outside the USA), a team must earn the right to remain in their league each year. Basically, there are 4 tiers of football in England, and each year, the top division relegates their 3 bottom team down to the 2nd level in exchange for the top 3 teams from that division. This goes on up and down the ladder so each year, every squad is trying with all of its might to avoid relegation. This is brilliant, as it keeps teams from playing meaningless games at the end of each season and it also demands that every team tries to compete every year unlike some of the teams we have in our country who consistently field horrid teams. They can’t do it there, or they get kicked out of the league.

So, here is QPR, needing to win to aid its efforts in staying in the premiership taking on a team that sits 4th in England, Tottenham in a mismatch in talent, but not in urgency. The Rangers took a lead in the 1st half on a goal that was quite wonderful and caused the stadium to shake from its foundation (not difficult for a stadium built in 1882) and then spent the rest of the afternoon trying to survive flurry after flurry from Tottenham and amazingly stayed alive with a 1-0 win that might insure that their fans can see top division football next year, too. It was a magical scene to witness, one that has me very invested now in their fate. I feel myself rooting for their survival although I have never had a shred of connection with the club before that experience. I see how much it means to those people who clearly love their boys.

2 matches in one afternoon? The cynics will point out that is a lot of running around for 1 goal, but if you could have been there, I think you would have appreciated a rare treat of skill and competition that left nobody unsatisfied who witnessed it.

Sunday, April 22: You can’t have 3 matches being played in England on a Sunday while you are there for that purpose and not figure out how to attend one, so our group caught a train to Manchester (70 pounds) to see the New York Yankees of English Football (just ask them) Manchester United in their natural habitat at famous Old Trafford. The stadium is humbly called the “Theater of Dreams” and despite enjoying several years of rooting against them, I will concede that I have wanted to visit this famous ground. No connections in Manchester made this ticket easily the most expensive of them all, as we had to fork over 175 pounds to attend this match. Not something that I would do very often, but with a chance to knock something off the bucket list, I paid the freight. It is easily the largest home stadium in all of England, as almost 80,000 loyalists plan on an easy destruction of Everton on their way to their 20th league title.

But, it wouldn’t go as planned. Everton would score first, but United answer as Wayne Rooney scored right before half to tie things up at 1-1. Early in the 2nd half, United hit the gas and scored 3 more times to take a 4-2 lead and the celebration for the day and the season was underway. Prematurely, we would find, as Everton scored twice in the final 10 minutes to earn a 4-4 draw in the most unlikely of results. The tie kept United within range of cross city rival Manchester City, which now has a chance to steal the league title next week when the two sides square off for what could amount to a championship game for the whole title. I counted seeing 8 goals in one match and no Manchester United victory as a win for my journey, so I left back to the train station as a happy man.

4 matches in 42 hours in 4 different stadiums in crowds ranging from 6,000 to 80,000. 12 goals and 350 pounds in tickets. 50 pounds lost in gambling on the matches (which is a delightful way to waste money as you can legally wager on the matches from right at the stadium – next to the concession stands).

It was expensive, tiring, and wonderful. It is the one sport I can follow and consider it not a part of my living where I must take notes and offer tons of insight or research. It is simply an enjoyable side hobby that I can enjoy in the very early hours of my weekends in Dallas or occasionally hop on a plane and see it up close.

If you love the sport as I do, you should consider a pilgrimage to see it live. The stadium experience is unlike anything we have in the US. In England, there is really only one sport and the people really only have one team that they follow. But, they follow it with a passion and allegiance that is off of the charts. Here, if the Mavericks are playing poorly, we follow the Rangers. If the Cowboys are bad, we have a college team we like more. In England, they truly understand what being a die-hard actually means. Through thick and thin, they follow one team. We could argue whether it is a better experience or worse, but it is surely different, and fun to consider.

Monday, we ended the journey with a tour of Tottenham’s home ground, White Hart Lane, a place that might be a destination spot for the next trip. And on Tuesday, it was the long, absurd flight back to Dallas where you fly for 10 hours but with the time change, you can do it all between lunch and dinner. It makes for a long day.

Anyway, since many of you have asked, there is a brief rundown of my 5th trip over there in the last 11 years.

Let’s get back to the draft tomorrow.


Bryan said...

Great writeup. Really enjoyed this.

If you didn't have your "day" job to worry about and could plan a trip like this for any time during the season, what would you consider to be the "ideal" time?

Casey said...

Bob - hey I was a Barista a while back at the Starbucks you and your friends would go to... you had a buddy who always came in with a Tottenham jersey, and I would give him some stick because I've been an Arsenal supporter since I discovered Henry at the 98 World Cup for France, and coincidentally - Arsenal. Did he go with you guys? If so, I bet he was pretty bent out of shape by the QPR loss, huh? He was a nice enough guy, but I always love sticking it to Spurs fans!

Anyway, I'm super jealous of your journeys abroad... I hope to get to watch a game at The Emirates someday! For now, it's early morning coffee & playing with my 2 year old on Saturdays while watching the Gunners to tide me over till I can!

I had one question... have you ever considered doing watching party type things? As a way to introduce people to the game? Like a breakfast, or lunch thing, (depending on when kick-off is), because that could be cool! I'm always trying to convert friends, and if there was something like that - I'm sure people would get into it! How could they not!

love johnson said...

did you have to buy your tickets to OT from a broker or scalper?

Eric said...

Nice write up. The more I listen to you talk about soccer, I might have to do what Junior did and adopt a team for a year to see if I can get into it. I live here in South Korea with a lot of Brits who love the game so I would have plenty of people to talk to.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff Bob. My family and I had the opportunity to go to England last month over spring break and as a die hard Liverpool fan I had to make football a part of the trek. Caught the Liverpool v Sunderland match at the Stadium of Light (unfortunate result) and luckily the Tuesday night Mersyside derby in Liverpool at Anfield where Stevie G had his hat trick. I just want to confirm your sentiment that there is little that rivals the experience of seeing a match live. The Premier league matches are great, but there is definitely merit in catching lower level games as many of thiose teams have great history and football venues as well and are much more accessible on short notice. I know I plan on working a few of those in on the next trip.

Love the show.

Sent from my iPhong

mitthrawnuruodo said...


I just found this. Apparently my favorite band's singer is your favorite team's pilot...