A Football Weekend in London

A few weekends ago, I made a trip to London, England, and took full advantage of the rare chance to enjoy both English football and American football in the span of two days. On Saturday, I went to Emirates Stadium to see Middlesbrough face Arsenal in a Premier League regular season match. Then, on Sunday, I went to Twickenham Stadium to see the New York Giants play the Los Angeles Rams in an installment of the NFL International Series. I had an incredible time across the pond and wanted to share my unique experiences, observations, and insights as an American sports fan in London.

Saturday – Arsenal vs. Middlesbrough, Emirates Stadium

The first order of business was finding tickets for the match. Finding soccer tickets in England isn’t nearly as easy as finding tickets for games in the US. There wasn’t a StubHub or SeatGeek website for individual tickets to the game. Instead we had to use an English Premier League specific website that has a season ticket holder mail you their season ticket card that will let you into the stadium. Once the game is over, you have to mail it back to the season ticket holder (or else you get a very large fine from the sponsoring website). Another funny note is that the card does not even have your seat number on it, so you just have to know (aka get it from the season ticket holder ahead of time). It was an interesting system that really prevents scalpers from buying season tickets just to sell each individual game. As a visitor, it made things difficult, but I don’t think the Premier League is too concerned about catering to visiting American fans.

Before the game, my friends and I, of course, had to go to a proper English pub. We researched the area outside of Emirates Stadium and found an Arsenal pub between the tube stop and and the stadium. The establishment was called Tollington and was about a 6 minute walk from the stadium. The bar was jam packed a few hours before kickoff and we surprisingly needed to show our “season ticket” holder card just to enter. Obviously, the bar was 100% Arsenal fans who were enjoying a few pints and watching the Tottenham vs. Burnley match on the televisions. The crowd was very pro Burnley as Tottenham is a crosstown rival of Arsenal. Everyone was pretty cheerful and this was surely their version of our tailgating. I also purchased an Arsenal kit to wear to the game (much to the chagrin of fellow H&H writer Jordan Curet). No regrets though, as it made me fit in better with the local fans.

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After a few pints at Tollington, we headed to the match to see the Gunners. As I mentioned, to enter the stadium you had to slide your card on a reader (similar to paying for groceries) and then you could enter the stadium. Emirates is a pretty new stadium (only 10 years old) and is the 3rd largest in in England holding over 60,000 fans. The concourse was pretty standard compared to an American stadium, with concessions for hot dogs and beer. The hot dog looked a bit different than stadium dogs over here in the US, but tasted pretty similar. The beer prices were cheaper (about $6 for a beer), but there was one strange rule. You were only allowed to drink in the concourse and could not take your beverage to your seat. This led to large crowds in the concourse during pregame and halftime, with a lot of chugging right before the whistle blew to start the game.

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Once the actual game started, there was, to my surprise, not a whole lot of drama in the seats. There were a reasonable cheers and some AR-SEN-AL chants, but overall the crowd was pretty tame. The loudest chants actually came from the Middlesbrough section that was roped off and flanked by security on all sides so not to intermix with the home fans. I had heard many stories of crazy English soccer matches, but this was not one of them. I chatted with some locals who told me that Arsenal fans were known to be some of the quieter fans in the Premier League and I can confirm that was true at the match I witnessed. The Gooners (nickname for the Arsenal fans) sat on their hands most of the game, but part of that might have been the game play. The match was still enjoyable and the Gunners dominated possession for most of the match. The game was scoreless for the entire 90 minutes until Arsenal banged one home on the opposite goal to give them the 1-0 lead. The crowd went nuts in jubilation and I was high fiving people left and right. Sadly, a few seconds later we all realized that the goal didn’t count because apparently a player was offsides. Sigh. The game then ended in a nil-nil tie in classic soccer fashion, spoiling Arsenal Manager Arsene Wenger’s birthday.

Having been to a few MLS games and European team friendlies in the US, I can tell you that the talent difference was clear on the pitch. I think if the MLS could get near the level talent of the Premier League, soccer could really take off in the States and rival the fervor of the major sports here. Obviously, that will take some time, but watching top flight talent made a difference to a casual observer. All in all, the Arsenal match was a really fun experience and one that I would gladly take part in if I’m ever in London again.

Sunday – New York Giants vs. Los Angeles Rams, Twickenham Stadium

On Sunday, we had a fairly long trek to Twickenham Stadium to southwest corner of London for the NFL game. Most of the NFL games in London are played at the famous Wembley Stadium, but this was the first one ever played at Twickenham, which is actually the home of England rugby. There was even a statue of rugby players right outside the main gates. The stadium can hold 82,000 fans for a rugby match, but was down to 75,000 for the football game due to sight lines to the field. Thankfully, this game had regular tickets like you would you see in an NFL game back home and was pretty easy to navigate overall.

At the game, we bought some traditional soccer-like scarfs with Giants and Rams logos on them to commemorate the occasion. Ironically, we did not know we’d be going to the football game, so we did not bring our NFL gear to wear. The scarfs would have to suffice for the day. Our seats were upper deck behind the endzone, so we had to walk up a very narrow staircase to get to the upper level to a very small concourse. Luckily, the soccer beer rules did not apply at Twickenham and we were able to bring them to our seats. The prices here were once again reasonable and the food selection was still basically just hot dogs, beer, and a charity selling Krispy Kreme doughnuts, which sold out pretty early.

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The Rams tried to make the game atmosphere feel familiar by giving out team flags and treating the pregame like they would back in LA. This made sense since they gave up a true home game to come to London, but it was not followed very well by the hodgepodge of fans in the stadium. The Giants fans (only a 7 hour flight) definitely outnumbered the Rams fans in the stadium, but random fans of other teams easily outnumbered both teams playing by far. I actually kept track and all 32 teams had at least one fan who came into my view during the game. Pretty impressive. I was curious on how this happened, so I spoke to a few British fans. There was a group of three men from London who respectively had a Dolphins, Vikings, and Patriots jersey on. I asked them why those were their favorite teams and got three interesting answers. The Dolphins fan just said he liked them because he saw them play a few times before in London (the NFL must like hearing that). The Vikings fans said he saw a picture of all 32 jerseys and picked Minnesota because he thought it looked the coolest. Sadly, he had a Teddy Bridgewater jersey, which may be of little use for a while. The Patriots fan said he was between the Patriots and Giants for a while, but landed on the Pats because they win more. Clearly he must have missed Super Bowls XLII and and XLVI due to the time zone difference.

The fans seemed pretty content just for the chance to watch some real NFL action in person and I would compare the crowd to an All-Star game in the States. Everyone was happy to be there, but no one had a strong rooting interest. There was still a t-shirt toss and a dance cam during the game, which of course the crowd enjoyed. The British must be about a year behind us, because I swear 70% of people on dance cam just dabbed. Also, to assist the fans, the stadium frequently explained NFL rules on the JumboTron. This was actually pretty helpful for some novice football fans who wouldn’t understand how touchbacks work, or why there are timeouts/challenges, or even why they would punt vs. kick on fourth down. It was a really good way for new fans checking the game out to be able to understand the small intricacies of American football.

The cornucopia of fans made the crowd pretty quiet overall in my estimation. There were definitely some Giants chants, especially when they were doing well and made big plays. Landon Collins had two big interceptions which had the largest cheers of the day. It didn’t help that London had the privilege to watch Case Keenum do Case Keenum things and the game ended with an unexciting 17-10 victory for the G Men. I really think we need to start giving London some better games, because the fans there really want to see some good football. I think if we give them a better product, they would be more likely to remain fans in the future.

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As far as a team moving to London, I would personally bet that there will be one (probably the Jaguars) by 2020 or so. The flight over there isn’t that bad honestly and it didn’t take too long to adjust to the 5 hour time difference. Heck, it’s a 3 hour time difference for the West Coast to the East Coast trip, so it’s really not that much more to ask. I actually talked to some NFL staff members while in London. While they were very non committal on giving me any details on a team moving to London, they did tell me the Indianapolis Colts trip a few weeks ago really helped their cause. The Colts skipped their bye week after their London game and played a game immediately the next week back in the states. Not only did they play they game, they also won. This will be a great narrative example to dispel some naysayers on team’s inability to travel back and forth successfully. There is definitely a craving for American football overseas, and as the NFL becomes oversaturated in America, they will need to expand to new fan bases to keep growing.

All in all, my best advice to an American traveling to London for any type of football game is to do your research ahead of time to prepare, and obviously to simply enjoy the experience. Make sure to take part in the local customs like hitting up the Pub and wearing the local gear. Do not be afraid to ask questions and really just go with the flow of the locals. Fans are fans no matter what the sport is and everyone just wants to see their team play well and have a good time. You aren’t guaranteed to see any scoring (as I found out the hard way), but you will definitely have a great experience if you do it like a real Londoner.

-Nick Bair

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