The quick backstory: two years ago I watched the World Cup, and was fairly bored by what I saw. I was encouraged by soccer fans to pick a club from a big Euro-league (EPL, La Liga, Serie A, etc) and watch for an entire season, then decide if the sport sucked or not. Sounded like a fun experiment, so I took the challenge. I picked Arsenal (for many reasons, all outlined in previous posts), and for the last two seasons I’ve had a blast following the Gunners, and the sport in general.
One of the things that drew me in was the atmosphere at the matches. It looked and sounded spectacular. Being a life-long pro cycling fan, which is a very Euro-centric sport, I was drawn to the international flavor of soccer. In this country, we watch so much football, basketball, baseball, etc, that our brains get used to seeing the same advertising, the same network coverage, the same terms and teams and uniforms over and over. When you introduce a sport from a foreign land to your brain, it is stimulated. I call this sensation Foreign Sports Stimulation (or FSS). The human brain needs FSS. It can lead to improved productivity in the workplace, a better sex life, and can be a deterrent to Alzheimer’s.*
*none of the above claims could be substantiated at the time this post went to press.
I put attending an Arsenal match on my bucket list, but I thought it would be something that I might get to in retirement. Then, around February, Bob Sturm (aka The Sturminator from BAD Radio, 12-3 on The Ticket) informed me that he and his buddies were taking a soccer trip in April, and were planning on seeing four matches, including Arsenal-Chelsea at Emirates Stadium. At first, I thought it would be difficult to make the trip, as I was running the Boston Marathon the Monday before. But the more I thought about it, the more the timing made sense. I was already going to be in Boston until Tuesday, so why not make the short flight from Boston to London mid-week, meet Bob and the boys on Friday, go to the matches, and fly home on Sunday. So I booked it. I ended up having Thursday to myself in London, so I went out to Wimbledon and took the tour of the grounds and walked though the museum, which was awesome!
The appetizer match on our menu was on Friday night--a League Two showdown between Southend United and Barnet. We had to take a 45 minute train ride from London to Southend-on-Sea, a very sleepy coastal “resort” town in Essex. It turned out to be a fantastic experience--much like going to a small Texas town on a Friday night to watch a high school football game. We walked around the town a bit, took a colorful cab ride to Roots Hall (capacity 12,392), bought some souvenirs, took our seats (on the second row) and watched the home-standing Shrimpers score three goals in the first half en-route to a 3-0 victory.
Saturday was the big day: two English Premier League matches, both London Derbies. We took The Tube to the Arsenal stop (the only Tube stop in London named for a soccer club), walked around the neighborhood (which included a look at the apartment complex that now occupies the spot where the old Arsenal home park, Highbury, used to sit), and headed to a pub across the street from the Emirates. There is something really great about sipping a pint of Guinness with a bunch of football fans across the street from a stadium right before the start of a big match. The atmosphere outside was very similar to the feeling outside a college football stadium before a big game.
The Arsenal-Chelsea match wasn’t much to look at. My first EPL match ended in a 0-0 tie, which was a bit of a bummer. But I still loved every minute of it. The Emirates is a beautiful stadium. In many ways, it’s the Cowboys Stadium of London (but nowhere near as over-the-top as the DeathStar). Even though I’ve only been an Arsenal fan for two seasons, it was still oddly comforting to be in the midst of 60,000 like-minded (and at times, like-frustrated) folks. It was one of my favorite sports experiences ever.
After the match, we took a cab back to the hotel, then jumped on The Tube again. The second match of our EPL doubleheader was Queen’s Park Rangers-Tottenham. QPR play at historic Loftus Road (capacity 18,360), and what a wonderful old place it is--it felt like the EPL’s version of Fenway. QPR was desperate to avoid relegation (which, in the end, they did), so the fans were insane. Spurs were trying to finish with a top four spot (which, in the end, they did), so each team had a lot to play for. The fans were the loudest and crudest of our trip. I’ve never hear the c-word so many time in my life (and I’m talking about the c-word for the most private of female areas). QPR won the match, 1-0, and it was as action-packed as a 1-0 match could have been.
I’ve still got a lot remaining on my sports bucket list. I’ve now been to Wimbledon, but I still want to see an actual tournament match in person. I want to see the French Open. I want to see The Masters. I want to see the single-day monuments in cycling (Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, etc.). Lots to do, but very, very happy that I’ve now experienced English football matches in person. FSS is a wonderful thing.
A note of special thanks to two gentlemen who helped us with tickets to these matches: the great Gordon Jago, who led the Sidekicks to the MISL title in '88 and who seems to know everyone in England, and an ex-pat by the name of Tom Fox who is now an Arsenal front office executive who has taken a peculiar interest in my new-found admiration for his club. Thanks to you both for helping make it a wonderful trip.