England’s Premier League is arguably the world’s most popular sports league. Yet soccer has only recently become cool in the United States. It was very much considered a sport for those of a weaker spirit when I was growing up, and it’s not like my formidable years were all that long ago.
It wasn’t until college when I first learned of England’s much-revered and celebrated Premier League through the film Fever Pitch, an adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel. The film stars Colin Firth, a steadfast Arsenal supporter who never seemed to grow out of his childhood obsession of his favorite sports team as evidenced by his team-colored boxer shorts.
What always stuck with me about that film wasn’t the message about growing up and all that movie stuff. Rather, it was the experience of British football as portrayed in the film.
See, as an American, I’m far more accustomed to sitting through long stretches of boredom at sporting events. Tailgating, tipoff, the first pitch — all exciting things. Unfortunately, the majority of what follows isn’t all that captivating, which explains why most fans sit, relax, and maybe even grab a bite to eat during the game. Commercials, of course, make matters worse by demanding a pause in play after what feels like every breath.
“Hernandez steps into the batter’s box, takes a pitch, and we’ll be right back after this unrealistic car commercial depicting a world free of traffic and crashes!”
This is all alien to English football. Fever Pitch showed packed stadiums with fans standing at full attention, chanting, singing, and occasionally taunting for all 90 minutes of play (plus stoppage, of course). I was entranced, to say the least, and so began my desire to see a proper soccer match in person.
My first chance came while living in Chicago, attending a Chicago Fire match against the Columbus Crew. I had a blast, mindlessly clapping and chanting along. (I also appreciated the speed of the game, in and out within two hours.) That 0-0 draw was more exciting and memorable than so many American baseball, basketball, and football games I’ve attended in my life.
Still, I thought England could do better. I didn’t know it at the time, but it had something to do with how you get to the game. The Chicago Fire play in a suburban stadium with most fans driving. Sure, there was the pub downtown that welcomed fans for pre-match drinking before boarding an old-fashioned school bus for the stadium. It was a blast, drinking and learning chants along the way, but I want my stadium in the city, not the suburbs.
Then there was my trip four years ago to Ireland. I thought this would be my opportunity to see a proper soccer match. Sadly, it turns out the Shamrock Rovers don’t quite hold the same clout as an English Premier League team. I was appreciative of having the stadium accessible off of rail transit, but the stadium reminded me more of an American high school football venue than what I saw in Fever Pitch.
I came close to what I longed for in Costa Rica, attending an El Classico match between league favorites Alajuela and Saprissa. Such matches are played at the national stadium in beautiful La Sabana, an impressive urban green space that’s a joy to walk to. However, the Saprissa supporters were awfully quiet even though they were the winning side. Had they matched the Alajuela supporters, perhaps I would’ve found what I was looking for.
Recently, an opportunity came to finally experience soccer the way it’s meant to be enjoyed. On March 14, 2016, I had the great privilege of watching Leicester City take on Newcastle United at King Power Stadium.
Prior to matchday, I had been traveling around England from London to Newcastle upon Tyne. In London, my traveling colleague Clint Johnston of TripHackr and I started our Premiership immersion with a stop at Chelsea FC’s Stamford Bridge. I was pleased right from the beginning knowing the Fulham Broadway rail station was just steps away from the stadium. This is something I also noticed and admired in Fever Pitch.
In the film, fans are shown taking the train to the match. I always imagined that it made for a much more enjoyable experience compared to how so many U.S. sports fans attend professional sports with their cars, traffic jams, monstrously ugly parking garages and connected stadium skwyays that ironically keep people from interacting with the very city they’re supporting. Author David Goldblatt of The Game of Our Lives: The English Premier League and the Making of Modern Britain makes a similar observation, noting that even the most suburban of Premier stadiums don’t quite match that of, say, the Kansas City Royals or what’s coming for the Atlanta Braves, who are purposely moving away from transit connectivity.
To me, nothing says “screw you” to a fan like forcing them to own a 4,000-pound financial albatross just to see their hometown team in person.
Chelsea were away that morning, but that didn’t stop fans dressed in blue and white from making the trip to the stadium. Some were catching a supporters’ bus for the away match at Everton while others, like me, were visiting for a stadium tour.
A couple of things stuck out about the tour, which took us through the locker rooms to the pitch itself. First, the Premier League truly has the world’s most international fan base. Our group alone had guests from the Netherlands to Saudi Arabia. Second, there’s really not much to the stadiums. I say this not as an insult, but I actually admired the simplicity.
Here we have one of the world’s most popular sports franchises playing in a stadium that’s not even remotely as extravagant as America’s worst football team. But why would a Premier League stadium be full of scoreboards the size of spaceships? After all, the game is relatively nonstop compared to, say, baseball where a manager might need to be concerned about their players getting too cold due to inactivity even if they’re actively in then game. There’s simply little time to pause and look at a scoreboard in the Premier League.
Don’t get me wrong, folks. I like a good ballpark as much as the next American. But I left Stamford Bridge appreciating that the focus was on spending money on the team, not in keeping fans distracted from how bad their team is. (I say that as a Browns and Cleveland baseball fan.)
In Newcastle upon Tyne, Clint and I met with Mr. Les Hoslop for a fantastic five-mile walking tour of the city. Any city that can keep me walking for five miles without noticing it is a winner in my book.
Our walk included a brief stop at New Castle United headquarters before working our way through the Strawberry Pub where supporters gather on matchday. Les shared that the pub once temporarily changed its name to La Fraise (strawberry in French) when France’s Paris Saint-Germain visited for a match, an enjoyable anecdote that contrasted the typical hooligan stereotype of English football fans.
On our final full day in England, we took an afternoon train from Newcastle upon Tyne over to Leicester where we had just enough time to drop our bags and start the mile walk to King Power Stadium. For this stadium visit, we were just a tad spoiled with seats at the Legends Lounge.
Our Legends Lounge tickets included a stadium tour much like Stamford Bridge, a three course meal, and all the beer we could handle. But what made it all that much more exciting was the fact that Leicester City were having a cinderella season, sitting at the top of the table in a league criticized for a lack of parity. This all after facing relegation just one year earlier and having been in the second-tier league two years ago. With wins continuing to pile on in the late season, long time Leicester City fans actually felt confident in their chances of winning a Premier title.
(Speaking of feeling things, Leicester City supporters made international news after creating an earthquake of 0.3 on the Richter scale following a last-minute winner earlier in the season.)
A short hallway is all that separated us from the Legends Lounge dining area and our seats. Despite the biting cold, it was a thrilling experience for this American to finally attend a proper British football match. As Fever Pitch advertised to me all those years ago, fans were loud and engaged for all 90 minutes of play. Clappers were clapping, flags were waved, and disparaging insults were yelled at the ref, just like back home.
At the end of the evening, Leicester City walked away with a 1-0 victory over struggling Newcastle United. While some shuffled off to their cars and masochistically subjected themselves to vehicular traffic, the overwhelming majority walked out of the stadium and into the streets of Leicester with the celebratory glow of a fan base who can taste a championship.
Disclaimer: I traveled as a guest of Visit Britain. As always, all opinions are my own.