Wednesday, May 21, 2014

England Trip 2014

This morning, I wanted to recap my recent trip to England in a blog that will be read by some, bookmarked by others (for their own trip planning), and totally ignored by many.  Figure out whatever category you belong in and carry on.  It is all good.

For those new to my non-NFL/American Sports addictions, I have very few vices in this world.  But, I make up for it with going completely over-board with my sports interests.  In this particular case, my long-time love affair with world football is where I actually take trans-Atlantic journeys to feed.  Somehow, my lovely bride has accepted the fact that once every few years I am going to leave for 5-6  days to watch as much English Football as I can get my hands on, and then come back even more obsessed with it.

It started in 2002, then 2004, 2007, 2010, 2012, and now 2 weeks ago here in May of 2014.  For a brief history of the other journeys and blog recaps, follow this link and catch yourself up.

This year, being the Liverpool fanatic that I have become, it was a rather easy target once we could sort out the available weekends of our traveling party.  I wanted to see Liverpool, in their quest to win their first title since 1990, in a vital match and witness some level of history either way.  I did.  More on that later.

But, once you pick a weekend - for me, it was to see Liverpool in London at a ground that I have been led to believe in worth the experience by itself (Crystal Palace) - then you work with what is left on the schedule and make a full weekend out of it.

This was not difficult as that particular weekend, many London teams were all home at the same time.  Below is a map showing all of the major stadiums in London (at least the ones that I am aware of - I am sure I am missing several).  It is a massive city with a love for the beautiful game.  If you are like me and want to see a ton of matches in a short amount of time, it is always best to make it a London-based trip, because obviously, the choices for enjoying the rest of your time there are endless in a city that is one of my favorites.  I took the liberty to use pink font so that you could actually figure out what was what.  It is clearly a very colorful map - but you get the idea, I hope.

The point of that exercise was to show you that with a 30 minute train/tube/taxi ride, you can get to 10 different stadiums from a nice central London hotel.  So, the prospect of seeing 2-4 matches in one weekend is ambitious and expensive, but possible.

In our case, we had a number of options as West Ham, Arsenal, Chelsea, Millwall, and Crystal Palace were all home.  I knew I would be a Selhurst Park, but the other thing you must know is that the times/dates are a little like college football in that they can get moved around with little notice for TV.  But, unlike college football, they can also jump dates.  So, when you are planning, they all say Saturday at 3pm kickoffs.  But, about 3 weeks out, they all move for TV, and therefore Liverpool went to Monday (so, I had to get another day off work and change my plane tickets at that point), Arsenal and Chelsea both moved to Sunday, and Saturday was rather wide open with West Ham and Millwall as our choices.

Now, how do you get tickets?  This is the question I get no less than once a week for the last decade.  And the answer never changes - prepare for 2 things: difficulty and pricey.  Now, this can all be modified by what you want to see, because there are plenty of places to watch football in England that are cheap and easy, and my trip to Southend United was both, but also a wonderful experience for sure.  But, most of you are like me and suggest if you are going to travel that far you want to live what you see on TV at the famous grounds watching the biggest clubs in the most storied environments.  I don't blame you, but that brings us back to difficulty and pricey.

I am lucky enough to have connections now after all of these trips, so I have an easier path that I use, but unfortunately, I cannot really help you in your trip.  However, my connections have not covered all the matches I have seen and I will tell you that my trip to Old Trafford and my trip to Stamford Bridge in these last 2 trips were purchased just like you would - through the expensive outlets available to all.  I used Stubhub UK for my Manchester United visit and paid about £175 (British pounds) each, then for Chelsea this time it was £195 through my hotel concierge.  Very expensive, but I highly recommend you bite the bullet and buy them this way then look for a cheaper route and end up with counterfeit tickets.  Trust me, you don't want this.  I will elaborate more on this in a bit.

Now, on to the recap:


West Ham hosting Tottenham would have been the preferred pick on this day, but Upton Park was proving difficult to get tickets, and therefore, we decided to call in a favor with a friend and his fantastic Millwall connections.

I don't know if you know anything about Millwall, but they are a very famous club that has not been in the top flight since 1990.  But, they are well-known for many, shall we say, non-football reasons as demonstrated by fiction (Green Street Hooligans) and non-fiction works (Watch this documentary from 1977 if you really care).  They are a fan base that lives by the slogan that "No one likes us and we don't care", which you kind of admire.  But, just don't think your fan base is tougher than theirs.  They have been defending that reputation for quite a while.

Honestly, our trip to the Den was certainly with a bit of trepidation, but we met nothing but nice people who were nervous because they needed to win a match to insure that they would stay up in the Championship for next season.  I don't have time to give you a full relegation lesson right now, but know that the prospect of getting kicked down a level is the ultimate stomach punch to a side, and therefore, the tension was high on the last day of the season when my group sampled their match day scene.

They were playing Bournemouth, a much better side that day, but also a side that was secured in their finishing place, while Millwall needed all 3 points or they could be going down.  Given that I had never witnessed a match with this much on the line, it was pretty cool to soak all of that in and to see the pitch invasion that followed which you can kind of see in this over-exposed selfie right at the end of the match (Below).   

You may also note that I am dressed a bit nicer than one would expect from a t-shirt type, and that is because we were given access to their version of the Platinum level and spent time in the prematch in their hospitality suites.  This allowed us the very odd opportunity to see the Millwall manager (the great Ian Holloway who I remember best for getting Blackpool into the Premiership a few years back) address the crowd of VIPs less than 10 minutes before kickoff.  I found this to be so odd to imagine Rick Carlisle or Jason Garrett have to stand up in front of fans and explain his lineup and tactical ideas for the day and to encourage everyone to "stay on our side" and to know how important your support is to the club.  It seemed like a real beating to have to explain yourself to the supporters while you should be worrying about the match, but over there it appears to be a major part of the gig. 

It was only the 2nd time I had ever witnessed a match over there that was not part of the "Premiership", but the crowd was packed, the songs were loud, and it was a very intense display of football that I think anyone would enjoy.

Also, aside from those that ran out on to the field to challenge the authorities, I saw nobody get punched which in a way made me happy and safe, and in a way disappointed me because of their reputation which might have been part of the reason I wanted to see what all of the talk was about in the first place.

Anyway, I really enjoyed Millwall and wish them nothing but the best success in the Championship another year in 2014-15.  They seem like a proud, loyal side that doesn't care what you think of them.

Easy in and out train access from London Bridge train station and we were back at our hotel in plenty of time to watch Everton and Manchester City as I hoped that Liverpool's neighbor could do them a solid and get LFC back in control of their own destiny after the very unfortunate slip (pun intended) against Chelsea.

It didn't really work out for me.


The mission on Sunday hatched only because we had never been to Stamford Bridge. It really didn’t make sense otherwise, because most travelers would love to see West Brom at Arsenal and just be satisfied. But, even though there is a Gunner in our group, we can all agree that Emirates Stadium has all of the charm of Cowboys Stadium – except no awesome big screen and certainly no Sky Mirror.

It isn’t that the stadium isn’t nice – it is. Every seat has a great view of the action and of course, Arsenal is Arsenal, so the football is quite pleasing to the eye. But, the fan experience of feeling you are caught up in a wave of emotion never really hits there like it did at the old place. Did they make their new stadium too big and forsake the genius of Highbury? Maybe, but you should see the matchday revenues! They make tons of money and have luxury suites and the rich of London seem to really enjoy Arsenal, so if it isn’t broke….

Regardless, we saw Chelsea play at Arsenal in 2012 and if that match cannot produce a rowdy atmosphere, then West Brom in Week 37 is not going to work, either. And while it isn’t horrible, it just wasn’t enough to hold our interest.

When our ticket efforts to get into Chelsea (for Norwich City) were unsuccessful at first, we jumped on tickets to Arsenal (so as not to have no matches on Sunday), only to have some regrets that we were letting Stamford Bridge get away from us again. For me, this was my 6th trip to England and 5th to London, and I still have never been to the Bridge (which looks simply fantastic on television most matches). It didn’t take much persuading and after one of our group started quoting the principles of “YOLO”, we decided to pay our hotel’s absurd prices to get us into that match. Visa agreed to borrow us the cash at a small fee, and I must now apologize to the family about the college fund.

Anyway, this was going to be difficult because now we were actually going to try 2 matches in 1 afternoon – having tickets to both Arsenal (1:30pm) and Chelsea (4:00pm). On our 2012 trip, we did a 2 match day already (London is the best city in the world for a soccer fan with at least 10 large stadiums at various parts of the massive area) with Arsenal at 12:45pm and Queens Park Rangers at 5:30. But, as you can see, that is hardly a conflict with each match done in less than 2 hours. This one, with a 38 minute train ride in between was going to be most aggressive. But, knowing that we were only going to live once, we went for it.  The video directly below is the shaky footage from my phone that documented the mission:

It started with taking the train from our hotel at King’s Cross/St Pancras up to the Arsenal tube stop on the Piccadilly line at about 12pm.  We tracked down our tickets and enjoyed the Arsenal fan scene which is quite impressive and enjoyable with lots of gatherings and pubs everywhere.  Our seats were 3 rows from the top, but still in one corner with great sight lines and a good look at everything there was to see.
As expected, West Brom was on the run most of the day, and Olivier Giroud put home a header in the 1st half of a corner from the shockingly diminutive Santi Cazorla to put Arsenal ahead. We saw many more chances, but at about the 65 minute mark (or 2:55pm) we decided it was time to make our move. We budgeted 5-10 minutes to get to the tube platform, then 38 minutes to get from Arsenal to Chelsea, and wanted to not risk getting there any later than 3:45 to allow for the congestion around the Bridge and getting to our seats by the time 4:00pm hit and the 2nd game started.

Our plans actually went perfectly. As you might imagine, leaving a match early allows for a completely empty scene outside the stadium and the trip to the tube was lonely except for all of the authorities wondering what we were up to as we arrived significantly earlier than they expected anyone to arrive. We jogged our way down to the platform at the Arsenal stop and jumped back to the southbound Piccadilly line.

2:59 the train pulls up and we hop in. Change at South Kensington at 3:25, new train arrives at 3:28 on the District line now down to Fulham Broadway which is the preferred stop for Chelsea Football Club. And no kidding, the Iphone app that told me 38 minutes nailed it right on the money. 3:37pm, we join the masses of blue-clad Chelsea fans and a brave group of Norwich City rowdies that are ready to try to cheer their team out of the relegation spot they find themselves in (thanks a lot, Sunderland!).

After the short walk with noise, singing, and smells of various foods in the air, we arrive on a cloudless London day at the Bridge at 3:43pm, stand in line, walk up the stairs, stand in a quick concession queue (Pork Shoulder/Stuffing/Apple Hoagie for 6 pounds– not that bad!), and then to our seats at 3:54pm or with 6 entire minutes to spare. I could not have been timed more perfectly, I do not believe.

Unfortunately, the match did not explode into the battle we had hoped as Chelsea’s title dreams died a few weeks earlier and then their Champions League campaigned also died on this same pitch at midweek. So, a less than inspired Chelsea side looked the part against a Norwich side that did not have the man-power to find the 3 points that they desperately needed to stay up. Some substitutes at the half (Eden Hazard and David Luiz) spiced it up quite a bit, but still no goals and a frustrated Bridge crowd was unhappy with a 0-0 draw that removed any miracles of a title completely off the board.

I will report, though, that the atmosphere at the Bridge was much more my speed in terms of a stadium that you can tell can really shake on a proper night. It is old, tight, and full of personality. I suppose that is another way of saying old, but I will argue that the “progress” in building sports stadiums is highly debatable as any additions of comforts and facilities to meet the needs of the affluent have come at the expense of electricity and atmosphere, which is a real shame. But, to this point, the deep pockets of Roman Abromovich have not been supplemented with several levels of life-sucking suites, so credit there to that very rich man and his team of rich men.

Overall, it was one of my favorite stadiums to visit, and I would recommend that you give that one a try if you are in the area and wish to see what it is all about.

To top off a day full of football, what do you think I would do? Well, if you guessed walk the 1.9 miles across Fulham to see Craven Cottage (even though it was empty and matchless), you win! The Cottage houses Fulham FC, and despite their relegation, I would very much like to see a match there sometime soon as again, on television, it always seems lively. Their ground sits right on the banks of the River Thames, and is connected to a park that is a wonderful walk and quite beautiful. Sadly, the Michael Jackson statue stands there no longer, but otherwise, it all appeared to be in solid repair, despite being another ground with serious age spots.


OK, now the main event. Let's be clear here - most Liverpool fans knew we weren't winning the league this year after Everton didn't do LFC a favor against City.  Regardless of the results of Liverpool's final 2 matches, if Manchester City won their 2 home matches against Aston Villa and West Ham, then it was over.  Nothing that happened at Palace would matter unless Manchester City choked.  And, most of us knew that wasn't going to happen before this match was even played.  So, the possibility of witnessing Liverpool's historic night was cancelled the weak prior.

However, I still couldn't wait to see my guys in person for the first time since 2010.  I have seen Liverpool twice before, both at Anfield, but they didn't score a single goal in either match and were pretty poor in 2010 with a coach that was about to be out and no striker to speak of.  Now, they had the #1 and #2 scorers in the league and a team that played wonderfully all year.  They finished 7th and were generally in nobody's pick to finish in the Top 4.  Now, they could do no worse than 2nd and needed a miracle to get 1st with a week to go.

But, in truth, I would have made this same trip if Liverpool was 7th.  I wanted to see my club and see them play in a place where everyone speaks so highly about the amazing atmosphere of a small south London club where the fans make the place come alive.  And that absolutely happened.

From the first second you get off the train, it is amazing.  It is in a small neighborhood which is a 5 minute walk from the train station.  You are walking with hundreds and since the match was on a Monday night, you could just sense that Palace was getting a rare chance to show off their scene with the whole nation watching.  They had your undivided attention and they were going to show you everything they had.

When I go to these matches, I never have tickets in hand.  I usually am told to pick them up at a given ticket window and I always get nervous about showing up and them not having any idea who I am.  I think it is more of a reflection of my personality than it is an actual legitimate fear because it has always worked out for me, but since my mind enjoys considering the worst possible outcome of events, it is always there.

Anyway, we arrived about an hour before kickoff (7pm) and worked our way through the thousands of fans who were crowded around this neighborhood stadium.  It is quite a sight to behold as there are houses in every direction but this old stadium sits right in the middle.

I got to the window and gave my name.  The girl searched and searched and found nothing with my name.  She shrugged and asked for alternate spellings.  I gave the most popular misspelling of Sturm which of course, is Strum.  Panic was starting to set in.  This is why I wanted to go on the trip and I simply couldn't miss this match.  I started thinking of alternative options, but buying from the scalpers seemed quite ill-advised given all of the warnings in the press for this particular match about counterfeit tickets that were everywhere.  It would be expensive and then highly risky to buy outside.

Thankfully, after a 30-minute search in which I produced a verification email from one of their ticket managers (or I might have been out of luck), they finally found my tickets under my connection's name in their computer.  They asked if he was coming and I said he would not be as he is back in Texas.  But, if we must, I could try to get him on the phone.  They seemed convinced with that offer and printed up my tickets.  The search took us until nearly 7:40, but they were nice enough and we finally could go inside, so no problems.

Below is the ticket from that night, complete with everything but my friend's name blocked out.  I wanted you to see it to verify all of the specifics which include a number of items that would be difficult to duplicate if you are one to counterfeit tickets.

So, we get in the park and go directly to our seats.  We had 4 tickets, but only a group of 3 (long and uninteresting story there) and knew we were going to have an open seat - which appeared to be the only seat that was unfilled in the entire stadium.

With about 10 minutes until kickoff, I am trying to take a nice selfie with the entire Liverpool squad no more than 15 yards behind me warming up right by my seats.  I am fairly used to being close to athletes and teams I admire, but I will confess that being so close to those I have watched on TV for so many seasons and to have pulled off this dream mission was a moment to savor.  I had this wild idea to go see my club in their potentially historic title run (sad face) and picked a match and pulled it off.  It all fell perfectly into place.  So, at the moment of the picture to the right, everything has gone well and you are seeing a satisfied smile.

At this moment, a man comes down the aisle and halts my selfie party to tell me I am in his seat.  I thought that seemed like a reasonable accusation as I very well might have been.  So, I grab my ticket and verify my aisle and seat numbers and then cross reference with the section number and end up disagreeing with him.  I am in my proper seat!

Now, he is confused and looks back at his ticket.  No, this is his seat.  But, I am sure it is mine.  By now, it is rather clear that English is his 2nd (or 4th) language, and I later find out he was in from Sweden on business and bought his ticket out front for a reasonable £250.  I don't want any trouble, so we all remain calm and we hold our tickets side by side.  They are identical.  I mean, identical.  Right down to my friend's name printed on his ticket.  It made no sense and given how every seat was taken in the entire stadium, my nervousness returned as I started to consider how this might be worked out.  Most notably because my prematch indigestion had started with both teams walking on to the field.

The usher was called and then after his confusion set in, the head usher was called.  The Swedish business man could sense how the wind was blowing and started to throw himself at the feet of the judge as he realized he had been duped out front to the tune of about $450.  Meanwhile, since my friend was on the ticket and my email verified my connection, I started to figure out how to make our 4th seat available to the man who had endured this mess with me.

The head usher came over and listened to the story - given how loud the stadium now was, that consisted of yelling in each other's ears from close range.  He heard my story and then asked me if I was Ben Sturm.  I said that was close enough and he agreed that Bob and Ben were essentially the same name and told me I was good.  He wanted to run the Swedish dude out, but I told him that I wanted to give him our 4th seat.  The usher didn't care much, but then pulled 3 more copies of my ticket out of his pocket and said he had been catching these all night with my exact seat.  I have no idea how this all happened, but evidently, someone made multiple copies of my ticket at the Crystal Palace computers and then they got into the hands of the scalpers.  I am not saying the club had anything to do with it, but a club operative had to have been involved.  If you think about it, the brilliance of this scam is easy to see.  Make bogus tickets, give to scalpers, they sell for hundreds of pounds, the counterfeits get caught, the scalpers disappear, and the cops can't do anything to fix it.  I was told an Australian tourist also was duped and during the match 2 college kids from South Korea walked in, again, with my tickets.

It was unsettling, but I was back into the scene by kickoff, so I accepted my lowly role in an international ticketing scandal.  Also, a meat pie was brought to me by my buddy who made a concessions run and I must say it was amazingly better than I ever imagined anything called a meat pie could be.

The match was amazing.  It really was.  Liverpool was trying to win by 8 and with their record scoring ability, they broke it open after halftime with 2 quick goals to go up 3-0.  I would imagine in the English Premiership that a 3-0 lead is closed out about 99.9% of the time.  The reason why it is impossible to come back from 3 goals is that most teams cannot score 3 times in a game and because the other team is smart enough to protect the lead.  But, not Liverpool who doesn't protect leads well, and not that night as Liverpool had this foolish idea that they could fix the enormous goal difference deficit to Manchester City.  To do so, they would have had to win by 9 or 10, but at the time, they were pretty confident and a bit overly dismissive of a Crystal Palace side who had killed a few giants already at home.

Anyway, as anyone who is reading this already knows, I witnessed the collapse of Liverpool that night in an epic fashion.  A 3-0 lead with 78 minutes gone became 3-1 at 79, 3-2 at 81, and 3-3 at the 88 minute mark.  You can watch 1,000 matches and never see that again.  It was bonkers in that stadium all night, but the final 15 minutes were unlike anything I ever saw or heard.

Words cannot describe how awesome the crowd was.  I put it above Loftus Road (QPR), Highbury (old Arsenal), Anfield (Liverpool), Upton Park (West Ham), and Fratton Park (Portsmouth) as the best scenes I have ever been a part of.  It was electric and it wasn't just when they scored.  From the moment the fans walked in they were loud and self-motivated all night long trying to will their team to victory.  I left very impressed with Crystal Palace and their supporters.  It is clear that the teams who are not givens to be in the Premiership have the best fan bases.  QPR and Palace, in particular, seem free of the rich, entitled group and full of just hard core loyalists who are thrilled to be in the top flight.

I must admit it is an odd feeling to see your team throw up in front of you when you have flown 4,000+ miles to see them play.  I think it would have been a million times worse if the Chelsea moment had not happened and this choke actually cost them their first title in 24 years.  In reality, this  horrible night really was surely memorable (if just for that picture of Luis Suarez crying), but it really didn't decide anything for the title.  City never slipped and Liverpool already had.

But, man, to be in that stadium that night was something so awesome.  Yes, my club collapsed, but for some reason, it was secondary to my best soccer night ever.

Knowing I could never do it justice with words, I made sure I rolled some video with my phone.  There might be a naughty word here (very salty language around me), but I think it captures the night pretty well.

So, 4 matches in 3 days caps off another fantastic soccer journey.  It is my 6th and surely not my last. Can't wait for 2016 to do it all over again.  

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