A View from Afar / Culture / England

A Philadelphian abroad: An exchange of football in London

Author’s note: I wrote this on Oct. 28 during a train ride of about an hour and a half. Then I sat on it for a few weeks while deciding what to do with it. It’s barely edited, because I wanted to preserve the stream of consciousness quality. 

It’s just before noon on Sunday, Oct. 28, as I sit on the train at King’s Cross, London, England, waiting for a departure north to Cambridge. The Philadelphia Eagles are set to kick off in an hour against the Jacksonville Jaguars here in London, but I am not here for the game and won’t be watching it. I traveled here for work and to immerse myself in English culture during my spare time. 

In the process, I have had the most surreal sporting experience. 

“Football” has become entirely confused. 

When I say “football,” the English think I mean American football. 

I see American football jerseys everywhere out in town: Not just for the Eagles and Jaguars, but the Vikings, Chiefs, Steelers, 49ers, Giants and more. 

“Where are you from?” I ask the guy in the hotel elevator wearing a Green Bay Packers jersey. 

“Cardiff,” he says. 

“This is so strange.”  

“You should see my buddies at work,” he says. “One’s a Giants fan, the other a Chiefs fan.” 

“I told someone I wanted to get tickets to a football match. She asked if I meant the Eagles. I said, ‘No, Millwall!’” 

We laughed. I scratched my head. 

Such has been the nature of this trip. I arrived for work. I stayed for the football. I got the confusion. 

Let me tell you. 

Some background

Some background on me first. 

  1. I was an American football fan and player long before discovering I could fall in love with soccer during a pickup game in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and then several years of playing in the Philadelphia area.
  2. I spent most of my adult life living in Philadelphia and the surrounding area, until work took me elsewhere. 
  3. I now live in Naples, Italy, where my love of the European game has not exactly flourished due to the decayed and decadent nature of Italian soccer. Napoli can be a ton of fun to watch, particularly in important games, but I watch more MLS than Serie A. 
  4. I have never gone to a match in England before this trip. 
  5. I have a red beard and an Irish surname, and I have heard references to attacks by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) at least three times, despite the fact that the Troubles are a thing of the past. This detail has no relevance to this story, but it seems like I should have shaved this week and I felt like telling you. 
Conversations in an English pub

It’s Wednesday evening, Oct. 24, and I’m sitting in a pub called The Stage Door in London’s Waterloo neighborhood. A sign on the side of the building proclaims its establishment in the year 166, which makes it either London’s last Roman pub or a still really old place whose sign is missing a digit. I like both notions, so I’ve gone inside to grab a meat pie, a lager, and a bit of Champions League action. 

On TV, Tottenham have just won their match over a Belarusian team, and Liverpool are about to dismantle Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade. Neither match, however, has nearly the excitement or noise as the second division match showing on the other side of the pub, where televisions show Derby County playing away at West Bromwich Albion.

As I stand at the bar to order some food, an Englishman says something to me that I don’t understand. (This will happen regularly during the trip. We are truly two peoples separated by a common language.) I ask him to repeat himself, and he says something about me having (or not having) the look of a Tottenham fan. I said no, they’re not the football team I follow most, and when he hears my American accent, he presumes I’m referring to American football and says I’m probably in town for the Philadelphia Eagles. 

Philadelphia Union, I say. 

What? he says. 

Philadelphia Union is the team I follow most. They’re a soccer team. American soccer.

He can’t believe it. He asks about the American league, MLS. 

It’s getting quite good, I say. Atlanta draws 70,000 fans to games. The quality of play is much higher these days. Not as good as the Premier League yet, but it’s getting there. Wait until Tottenham drops 20 million pounds for Miguel Almiron, I say. You’ll see. 

We part ways and watch the Liverpool match. Our side of the pub is fairly quiet. 

The pub’s other side erupts in raucous cheers every time Derby County scores. They win 4-1. I should have watched that match. It was clearly more fun. 

The English need to know about The Rooney Game

Thursday evening, Oct. 24. 

I’m at a work reception in Westminster, engaged in conversation with a fashionable, young Englishwoman. 

She asks me what I plan to do during my free time in London. 

I don’t know, I say, but I definitely want to catch a football match. 

Oh, you’re going to the Eagles match. 

Uh, no. European football. Soccer. 

Oh! Brilliant. I’m a Man U fan. 

Way to root for the little guy there. 

She laughs and smiles sheepishly. We read about Wayne Rooney doing so well there. For the team in Washington? 

D.C. United. 

Yes! He’s been grand, hasn’t he? 

Oh, let me tell you. 

And then I do.

I tell her how I, like many Americans, didn’t like the signing at first, because it smacked of the old “retirement league” stigma that MLS was trying to lose. Then he showed up and played some fantastic soccer, passing like a midfielder and scoring like a striker, just like he did at his best. 

D.C. United was awful, I tell her, and they’ve completely turned it around. 

Is it just because of him? 

No. They also have an American defensive midfielder who began playing exactly when Rooney did. Russell Canouse. You’ll hear about him eventually. He’ll be with the U.S. national team and probably play in England. 

She clearly finds this all rather quaint. 

An American colleague walks up, interrupts to say hello, and apologizes for doing so, because that’s what people do. 

It’s OK. We’re just talking about soccer. 

Oh, I just went to a D.C. United game a few weeks ago against Orlando. 

You were at that game? I say. The Rooney Game? 

She gets a big smile on her face. Oh yeah. 

And we tell our Englishwoman about The Rooney Game. About Rooney’s huge, game-defining (and probably season-defining) play that, by itself, was probably the best series of plays I have ever seen in MLS. During a stoppage time Orlando counterattack after a D.C. corner kick and with an empty net ahead because the goalkeeper pushed up to join the attack, Rooney cleaned out Will Johnson in a game-saving tackle. Then Rooney sent in a perfect cross from near midfield so that the shortest man on the field, 5-4, Luciano Acosta, could leap up and bury a game-winning header. 

Another woman we know joins the conversation, also seeking out the Englishwoman. When she finds out what we’re discussing, she says, “We go to D.C. United games all the time.” 

Yes, this all happened. 

No one likes us, we don’t care

Later that night, back in my hotel, I search for tickets to a match in London. There are a dozen professional teams here, so there should be something available. However, the Premier League games are sold out. I’m not staying for a Sunday game. Even tiny but somewhat romantic AFC Wimbledon is sold out. 

Then I find it. 

Tickets are available to Millwall-Ipswich Town. Both are in the relegation zone of England’s second division.

Yep, that’s a walk-up game. Millwall, perhaps the most unfashionable club in the city. I’m there. 

I spend my Friday night and early Saturday immersed in London’s art scene. The London Literary Festival brings me to the Southbank Centre, but the lectures are either sold out or uninteresting, so I opt for a bookshop. (Oh, English-language bookshops, how I miss you.) Another art exhibit featuring mirrors seemed cool but proves a disappointment. However, a free exhibit at the Southbank Centre shows artwork by former prison inmates and their families. The similarly free London Photography Show in an old warehouse along the Thames River is fantastic.

Then it’s on to Millwall. I catch a cab. (I should have taken the Tube. It costs me 18 pounds.) I’m soon self-conscious of it. Millwall isn’t a place to which you take taxis.

To get to Millwall, you travel through some pretty rough neighborhoods. This isn’t the posh, upper class world of Westminster, the tourist-friendly areas along the Thames, the trendy spots at Elephant & Castle or Waterloo. This is working class London. Lower class London. Yep, this is where I belong. If you forgot or didn’t know, now you remember how classist England historically is. 

(It’s sometimes a strange thing being an artistically inclined person from a poor background. The art world, particularly literature, is full of people from privileged backgrounds who fetishize the lower classes in their artwork. I don’t. I send money home to my mom. Alas, I digress.)

I get out of the cab early and walk the rest of the way to The Den. I’m running late and still have no tickets. 

Off to my right, there’s a stand selling scarves that proudly proclaim, “No one likes us. We don’t care.” 

Yes, these are definitely my people. Truly a place for someone who follows Philadelphia Union, where fans chant the following: 

No one likes us

No one likes us

No one likes us

We don’t care

We’re from Philly 

F—-ing Philly

No one likes us

We don’t care

Who sang it first? Probably Millwall. I want to know, but I don’t care. 

I get my ticket to the game. My seat is in literally the second row along the sideline, near the Millwall end. It’s Remembrance Day, a special day for Millwall fans.

It’s grand. 

The author’s view at The Den for Millwall-Ipswich. Not a bad seat in the bad house. (Photo: Dan Walsh)

Millwall win 3-0. The soccer is often ugly, even though it’s not raining. Millwall is an old-style English side, dependent upon hard tackling and crossing, and Ipswich is just not a good team. Every goal comes off a scramble to stop aerial play. 

Only Millwall’s left-footed center back, Jake Cooper, looks up to MLS quality. It’s quite a change from years ago, when players from England’s Championship were looked at as surefire MLS starters. The Colorado Rapids have proved this year that this is no longer the case, with their English imports proving off the pace all year. 

Still, the soccer experience is great. The stadium isn’t as nice as Philadelphia Union’s Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, but it has the same feel and is a fantastic venue. Sight lines are great wherever you sit. Every seat is close to the field. You see everything perfectly. 

It’s nothing like soccer in Naples, Italy, where I live. 

At Napoli games, the cultural experience is unreal. In parts of the stadium, like the Curva, people don’t sit but rather crowd the aisles body to body, and marijuana smoke permeates the air. I once got into a game without a ticket, packed into a single security turnstile with another person like we were sardines. It’s all in who you know.

The soccer experience is awful though. You’re extraordinarily far from the field. The San Paolo is a huge stadium, and a running track puts you even farther from the action. 

Lower division games in Italy have their own problems. I once caught an Aversa Normanna game when they were in the third division. A huge, metal fence separates spectators from the game and prevents them from rushing the pitch or throwing projectiles onto it. It feels like watching a game in prison. 

By the end of the Millwall match, it’s so cold that my fingertips have gone tingly and numb. I ask myself why the British — particularly in Scotland — insist on sticking with the August-May season that most of Europe plays, rather than moving to a March-December season, like the Scandinavian countries and MLS. Once you’ve lived in southern Europe, you realize the August-May schedule exists because it’s too damn hot to play soccer in southern Europe in July. (The Italians typically kick off their season in the last week of August or first week of September.) The Brits have it all wrong. 

As I stand in line at the train station after the game, the gate closed by police until the next train departs to prevent we masses from ascending to and overcrowding the train platform, an Ipswich fan in front of me chats up an old Dutch woman. 

There’s nowhere to go but up, she reassures him. 

Oh no. There’s plenty to go. We’ll get relegated again and go down. And then down again after that. He laughs. 

The gate opens, and we head on up to the train. 

Next stop? 

All this brings me back to today and a different train, to Cambridge. I’ve passed beyond London and into the English countryside. It’s beautiful, tranquil. I have written 2,000 words in the last 75 minutes, and by now the Eagles and Jaguars have kicked off. 

It’s been a surreal football experience. The cultural exchange between America and Great Britain has always been fluid, but never before has it truly been a two-way exchange on the sporting side. There were American football jerseys everywhere in the London Underground. 

“The next stop is Cambridge,” an automated woman’s voice announces over the train’s speakers, “our final destination.”

Maybe, but somehow, I don’t think this is the final destination for any of us. 

12 Comments

  1. el Pachyderm says:

    awesome write up.
    .
    enjoyed.
    .
    Funny, I watched three matches on sunday this weekend past: a BPL match a La Liga match then Copa Liberatadores.
    .
    I shit you not, three matches that would kick off and play, then break for halftime then kick off and play and be over neat and tidy like…then seamlessly I would transition to a new match. It was HEAVEN. Constant action.
    .
    For shits and giggles, over the course of two of those matches (because 2 football matches fit inside 1 NFL game) I would periodically flip over to the NY Giants and Washington Redskins game not because I care to watch but to confirm my bias that it is all one big circle jerk…and every time one of two things was happening… men were standing around or a middle aged man was contemplating his erection as his wife brushed past him in a tree house… not once did I intervene on a play in action.
    .
    If I could urge those english NFL folks one thing, just stick with the sport you have hitched a culture on. Its the closest thing to sporting perfect there is.
    .

  2. Lovely Dan, just lovely. I haven’t been this jealous in a long time. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  3. Nice essay, Dan. Interesting stuff for sure. One of the more remarkable things about English football is the how many clubs there are in London. Six of the current 20 premier league teams are in London. Imagine having a dozen clubs in NYC, 4 or 5 in Philadelphia…

    If I were in London, I’d really do everything I could to get to a Crystal Palace match at Selhurst park. Millwall looks like a pretty great experience, too.

  4. Excellent article, thanks for sharing. It seems as though football is picking up across the pond. I try to convert my many football loving friends to soccer as often as possible. It’s slow but happening.
    It would be easier with a better team or closer stadium or familiar name, but we all know that.
    Interesting to hear about Italian soccer, I didn’t know about the difficulties.

  5. I stayed in a hostel near this pitch in 2004 when Millwall made the FA Cup Final against Man U. I was just backpacking around and my soccer knowledge at the time was basically nonexistent (true story: in a cab in Barcelona later that summer, I genuinely asked the driver if they had a soccer team there…). I went to the pub after hearing about the game so I could watch Man U and Ronaldo, assuming everyone in England liked them.

    Turns out, every single person in the pub wore blue (obviously) and would swear at every single touch the fancy one made. United won the match easily, but I got to have my fleeting moment of accidental English authenticity.

  6. good read, Dan. long form in the off season is a welcomed thing. surprised about the MLS love, even with the Rooney connection. a world away from my 2012 visit. i proudly wore my Philly-hosted MLS all star jersey and no one knew a thing about MLS. i boasted we were the only team to beat Chelsea that year.

  7. Great essay, Dan. I took my teenage sons to London this summer, the first week of the EPL season, and we caught 2 matches: Arsenal v. Man City, and Fulham V. Crystal Palace. Watching a game in Craven Cottage was honestly the most amazing soccer experience I’ve ever had. Just electric. Our seats were so close to the pitch that I could practically have spat on the keeper.

    Oh, but the irony of them fetishizing the NFL… I’m a neurologist by trade, and last year I finally had to give up American football altogether. The data on chronic traumatic encephalopathy is horrifying, and I’m pretty sure the sport is unfixable. I predict that we have witnessed the apogee of American football, and it goes into a long, slow, steady, inexorable decline from here. Foolish for the Brits to pick it up now.

    • I wholeheartedly agree with your concern about American football and concussions, and specifically would not permit my son to play it because of the head injury risk. (He was much more interested in soccer anyhow, thank God, and played goalkeeper for years, probably to punish me. What is your level of concern about CTE with headballs, etc., however? I played for more than forty years, badly, but coached, reffed and was otherwise involve with the game for even longer than that, but have witnessed so many concussions from head to head, head to ball and head to other structure (including goalposts) contact that I am worrying about CTE in soccer now. I know the studies that go both ways on helmets, and that there is both an indication that the player feels more aggressive with a helmet on and that opponents target them, but this strikes me as another issue. It is reinforced every time I see Taylor Twellman call a game. Any general opinion from you, as a neurologist?

      • Sorry I never saw this until now. My concise answer is: don’t conflate CTE and concussions. They are two completely separate things. We really do not know the extent to which the two are related. They might be, or they might not be.

        I certainly don’t want anyone to get concussed in any context, but then again, there are a whole lot of physical activities that might leave one at risk for concussion, and the long-term consequences are not entirely clear. CTE is a completely different beast. It’s progressive, it’s terrible, and while we do not know its exact incidence in pro football, it is pretty clear that it’s way, way too high. I have seen no data to suggest that there is a CTE problem in soccer that is anything like the CTE problem in American football.

  8. Dan, I drank in that pub several years ago when staying at an AirBnB in Waterloo, and loved the centrality of the walk to Trafalgar Square and the tourist stuff. Great to think about it, but try Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese before you leave London or on a return trip. It should resonate with the literary nature that you bring to things. Dickens, Twain, Chesterton and Conan Doyle supposedly drank their fill there while enjoying their visits and work on Fleet Street. The Irish part of your background will enjoy that W.B. Yeats drank there while doing his work, and I have been told that Wilde was there as well. One of the comments that you made struck me as confirming my impressions of Italian soccer, since I read The Miracle of Castel DiSangro. It is a shame to see that the old bad impression is still in effect. I am glad to see that you got to see a match anyhow; several trips to London and Bath, unable to plan far enough ahead to get tickets anywhere myself. Nice article, and funny to see that another European trip that I had was at the same time that you noted this for London, the weather was equally chilly and damp in the Netherlands, France, Germany and Switzerland while we were there.

    • Awesome comment.

      I’ll definitely keep an eye out for that pub when I go back. I love that stuff.

      The Miracle of Castel di Sangro is a great book. And yeah. It’s very representative in many ways. There’s always some team getting relegated or points deductions for questionable finances. Avellino got hit with it this year, and they were a Serie B team I followed. They got dumped all the way to the fourth division — amateur football.

      • One would think that they would realize that , if mighty Juventus would be hammered for such actions, Avellino would be punished. Sad to hear. Enjoy what you can, however, while you are there. I just googled Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese; who knew that they would have a Wikipedia page? I look forward to getting back there myself; maybe we wind up there at the same time. I will buy first round.

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