Baseball fans like myself often fantasize about traveling across the country, stopping in cities along the way to marvel at the grand old cathedrals of Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, as well as the new gems that have been built in Seattle, Baltimore, Minneapolis and New York. To me it's the ultimate expression of love for America's pastime. Like that bit from Field of Dreams when James Earl Jones goes off on that awesome tangent about how "people will come."
The equivalent for an American soccer fan is a trip to England to see the likes of Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, White Hart Lane as well as the newfangled Emirates Stadium. While thousands of miles away, the English Football Pilgrimage is quite a bit easier to pull off in many respects, especially considering those stadiums are all situated in close proximity on a comparatively small landmass.
My friend Evan recently returned from one such trip to England's most famous football pitches and was nice enough to sit down with me and impart some of the wisdom he learned along the way.
1. Get a BritRail pass
Though the British Rail can be a little dodgy at times, It's definitely the quickest and easiest way to get around England. About $300 (depending on time of year and other considerations) will buy you unlimited travel within England for eight days.
Evan was in England for ten days and saw nine matches. After flying in to Manchester on September 23, he traveled to West Brom, then down to London the next day, then up to Norwich, back to Manchester, back to London, stayed for a day, then east to Southend-on-Sea, north to Wolverhampton, back down to London again, and finally back to the airport in Manchester. I'll get to the reason for the convoluted itinerary in a bit, but suffice it to say, a Britrail pass made all of that quite a bit easier.
2. Maximize your soccer experience
If you're looking to maximize your soccer experience, plan your trip at a time of year when you can see a game every day, like during the Champions League group stage.
As I mentioned above, Evan arrived in Manchester on September 23, a Friday. The rest of the itinerary went like this (ESPN Soccernet match reports are linked on each date):
Sat 9/24 West Bromwich Albion v. Fulham (EPL)-- ticket: $45
Sun 9/25 Queens Park Rangers v. Aston Villa (EPL) -- ticket: $80
Mon 9/26 Norwich City v. Sunderland (EPL)-- ticket: $75
Tue 9/27 Manchester United v. FC Basel (Champions League) -- ticket: $95
Wed 9/28 Arsenal v. Olympiacos (Champions League) -- ticket: $95
Thu 9/29 Tottenham Hotspur v. Shamrock Rovers (Europa League) -- ticket: $50
Fri 9/30 Southend United v. Shrewsbury Town (League 2) -- ticket: $30
Sat 10/1 Wolverhampton v. Newcastle (EPL) -- ticket: $65
Sun 10/2 Fulham v. QPR (EPL) -- ticket: $70
That's right, Evan was present at that fantastic draw between United and Basel, as well as Clint Dempsey's hat-trick during the 6-0 drubbing Fulham handed to QPR. Pretty fortuitous planning if you ask me. The above match schedule explains all the crisscrossing across England on the British Rail -- maximizing your soccer experience will require quite a bit of time on the train.
3. Pack light
But bring a laptop or iPad. You will be tooling around without a home base for most of your visit, but you'll also have a ton of downtime. Many of the trains have wifi available for about $5 per hour. And carry water with you -- they don't really do public water fountains there.
4. Wear the right colors
Well, hold that thought. As many of us experienced in 2011, it's fairly commonplace for the Timbers Army away support to be louder than the home fans in many MLS stadiums. I was surprised when Evan told me this is often the case in England as well. English teams don't have the tight restrictions on away support numbers that MLS does, and since away fans tend to be more dedicated and vocal, visiting supporters can often be louder than the home supporters.
So it can be a fun experience to sit with an away crowd. But be aware: if you're planning to sit with away fans, you will need to buy your tickets through the away club.
OK, back to the subject of wearing the right colors. Evan attended a Europa league match between Tottenham and the Irish side Shamrock Rovers and bought one of those half & half matchday scarves, like the ones made for the friendlies the Timbers play. Security personnel stopped him twice on his way to his seat to verify that he wasn't wearing the opposing team's scarf. Even the slightest bit of green on his person was enough to raise the alarm.
And in the same way that it's always a no-no to wear Sounders gear outside the away section at Jeld-Wen, don't be wearing anything associated with Arsenal at White Hart Lane, no matter who they're playing. Duh.
5. Do some stadium tours
They are worth the reasonable price of admission. A tour of Emirates Stadium, the five year old home of Arsenal, cost $25. A tour of the century old Craven Cottage, where Fulham play, will set you back $20. Evan says it's definitely worth checking out some older stadiums as compared to the new ones, because even though they were all made for soccer, they were built with entirely different ideas in mind.
Evan also highly recommends checking out a lower league team stadium for a match. Admission is much cheaper, and the cultural significance is, shall we say, less a product of Sky Sports and more a genuine experience. Evan attended a match at Roots Hall, a 12,000 seat stadium in Southend-on-Sea where the League 2 team Southend United took on Shrewsbury Town. "The stadium was nestled into the surrounding neighborhood, in such a way that you actually had to walk through the neighborhood to get from one gate to another.
"The seats were these ancient wooden seats that folded, but they didn't have a spring in them, so you had to manually lower them and lift them. And they're very uncomfortable and very small. And there was no working clock or scoreboard, so you had to remember the score and time the game yourself.
"But the fans were very much into it -- I kind of felt like soccer was really what was keeping the town going."
6. There's no law that says you have to sleep anywhere near a stadium
You've got a BritRail pass, so there is a pretty wide radius of hotel, hostel, and couchsurfing options around whatever stadium you end up at on a given night.
This is a particularly important consideration in places like the Old Trafford district of Manchester or West Brom, which aren't necessarily the most pleasant places to spend your vacation. Norwich, on the other hand, is a lovely town, says Evan. He elected to stay there for two nights, rather than stay in the big city after the QPR match -- he was going to be spending plenty of time in London anyway.
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Aside from all the weird cultural and linguistic aspects of traveling to England (e.g. "pants" and "toss" have slightly different meanings there), you're now pretty much ready to go on your pilgrimage to the birthplace of the beautiful game.
Also, take a look at the EPL travel guide on epltalk.com for more useful information about planning your trip. And I'll do my best to answer whatever questions readers might have about his experience.