A transatlantic trip to behold the teams, players and narrative we love, live and in person. It’s a trip more American-based football fans are making, as evidenced by the amazing number of Patches at the Park we saw on Twitter this festive period.
I was grateful to be among those who sojourned to Albion for a football-packed, Guinness-fueled (a lot coffee was also involved) trip, experiencing the 17th 38th of this Premier League season with a long time friend of mine. The four-day itinerary included three matches, the entire Top Four, and, unbeknownst to us at the time, Super Al's Last Stand (Thermopylae it was not).
We left late Friday Dec. 16, going JFK to Heathrow on one of those overnight flights that makes you feel like you've endured a Ryan Shawcross tackle. And a mere five hours after landing, we were in our seats for game No. 1: Crystal Palace vs. Top of the Table Chelsea.
Between the four years I lived in England as a kid (my dad was in the U.S. Air Force), and subsequent visits, I have been fortunate to see my share of English football up close and personal. But I’m not sure I’ve ever been anywhere as quintessentially English as Selhurst Park.
The thick fog, never ending South London row houses, and Palace fans trudging toward a fate that they seemed to sense was preordained, made it feel like a WWII munitions factory fantasy camp. Selhurst Park itself is camouflaged against the row houses and sneaks up on you. Like its inhabitants, the ground isn’t putting on heirs. But once you’re through the gates, it is a football oasis of the highest order. From “Glad All Over” to the final whistle, Palace fans were full-throated and ebullient.
Their energy was matched only by Antonio Conte, who looked like he received a pre-game Five Hour Energy IV Drip. I always assumed we were the beneficiaries of television match directors catching the four or five moments a game he goes bonkers. Wrong. He is like that the ENTIRE game. In the end, Chelsea won 1 - 0 and we walked back toward the Southern Line station to a soundtrack of “We’re Top of the League,” courtesy of the sizable number of blues in attendance.
After an early night in London, we were off to Manchester via a three-hour-ish early Sunday morning train ride for City vs. Arsenal. Unsolicited travel tip: pay for the first-class train ticket. It’s only marginally more expensive than the alternative and it is to Amtrak what NBC's Premier League coverage is to Men in Blazers. That is to say, vastly superior.
Manchester was the leg of the trip I most looked forward to. For two reasons. 1. David Silva. 2. Oasis. The former did not disappoint. In a 2 - 1 victory over Arsenal, Silva played with all the elegance you would expect. The economy of movement with which he mines space and links up play is remarkable. After the game, and a few Guinness at the Sir Ralph Abercromby, we attempted to join a holiday party in progress at our hotel. We were told by a slurring, snarling gentleman, who could’ve been Wayne Rooney’s cousin, that underdressed out-of-towners were not welcome. See ya later, Manchester.
Monday morning. Another train. This one much shorter. About an hour from Manchester to the home of the Liverpool College Breaking Crew. The derby awaited. I have never experienced an atmosphere in any sport like the one that greeted us Monday night at Goodison. We stayed in the city center, so we took the bus to the ground. We got off about a mile away and decided to walk the remainder of the trip. As we turned down the road that leads to Goodison, we encountered a group of maybe 150 Liverpool fans. They announced their arrival to the Everton fans, with whom we walked on the other side of the road, by lobbing flares and the occasional bottle at them.
To say my friend and I felt unsafe would be an exaggeration. Dozens of police, a handful on horseback, lined the middle of the road and separated the fans. Instead of keeping the peace via force, they did so by pointing video cameras at offenders, hoping the risk of being caught on tape would be deterrent enough.
The game itself crackled with intensity. Every Ross Barkley tackle, wayward Dejan Lovren longball (plenty of those), and dodgy Mike Dean decision (even more of those) was received with a guttural roar from the Everton fans. At Palace, the fans are loud the entire time. At Goodison, the crowd oscillates with the game. There’s a give and take slightly more nuanced than I’d ever experienced.
The sense of tribalism among the Everton faithful is impressive. A small kid sat immediately to my right. He looked about eight or nine and there was no parental supervision in site. Every chance Everton wasted, he nudged my shoulder in commiseration, obscenities tumbling out of his mouth in an accent so thick, it’s debatable whether what he said could actually be classified as English.
When Mane scored in the 94th minute, the reaction was visceral. It was like the cops had just arrived to break up the greatest house party of all time, leaving the Scouse Oliver Twist, and the rest of the blue half of Liverpool heartbroken.
The rest of the trip was rote. A train back to London. Very little sunlight. Many pints of Guinness. A pie that was not even close to as good as the ones in the CPOS. A marginally shorter trip back to JFK.
It’s a trip I would encourage anyone who loves football to make. To worship at the altar of the game we love is an experience unlike any other. And doing it with friends or family makes it all the more special. And for those asking why I didn’t see Ipswich. They were away at Wigan early Saturday and I couldn’t find a flight to get us there on time. Trust me. I tried.
GFOPs, we want to ready your football travelogues. If you’ve been to Blighty (or on any football vacation) recently. We would love to hear about it. Where you’ve been. What you’ve seen. And the quality (or quantity) of pie of you have eaten. EMAIL US at firstname.lastname@example.org.