Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The England Adventure-Part One

Game 1: Blackpool at Millwall 9/17/13

“You’re going to Millwall?” was the most commonly heard response when I told people that we would be attending that night’s match.  I admit that reading some stories about the old Millwall stadium, it was a place that foreigners feared to tread.  However, the experience was much more pleasant and stress-free than I expected.
As our cab driver, a wonderful Cockney, (I wish I had gotten his name) navigated the streets of East London, he told us that the Millwall area was where the “real Londonder’s” lived.  By the way, we had no intention of driving to the stadium.  Driving in London is just simply something you don’t do if it can at all be avoided. 
The “new” Den, now in it’s 20th year is in a rather dicey neighborhood, with the approach to the stadium with middle income housing and some ramshackle-looking tire shops.  We were concerned about getting back to our hotel, but fortunately our driver said he would come back for us and wait for us until the end of the match. 

Right before you enter the stadium, there is a small open air cafĂ© which serves (meat) pies, hot dogs, beer, etc.  Our first stop was the Millwall club shop, a small while building under one of the grand stands.  The store had a good-sized line of team merchandise and was doing a brisk business.  The club’s soccer shops in the UK are located outside the stadiums and close before their games start. No merchandise is sold inside the stadium.
It look a while to find the correct window to pick up our tickets and then finding the right entrance.  Unlike most stadiums in the US, your entrance is marked on the ticket and that is the only one that you can use.  Some of the more plump fans will have trouble getting through the very narrow turnstiles at UK stadiums (but they will let you in another door). 
Once inside the stadium, your movements are restricted to the area near your section; you cannot walk completely around the stadium.  The New Den is made up of four separate stands of seating which enclose the pitch.  All four of the seating sections have wind screens on either end and have covered roofs.  There is a video score board in the East corner, which shows game action and advertisements.   It was almost impossible to read the time and the score of the game from where we were sitting because they were so small, and there was no auxiliary scoreboard.  If there were any “luxury boxes”, we could not see them from where we were sitting.  The stadium was “basic”, not having the “bells and whistles” that were have been accustomed to in newer US stadiums.  By American standards, the layout would be considered quite basic, but with that being said, it is every utilitarian and services the needs of the fans quite well.  We enjoyed not being overwhelmed by advertising at every turn, not outside the stadium, inside the stadium, on the scoreboard, or over the PA system.
As opposed to stadiums or arenas in the U.S., concessions at the Den were quite limited.  There was a larger variety of food available outside.  In our area, there were a hot dog stand, a (meat) pie stand, and a burger stand and a beer stand.  (When we were leaving and were able to more freely walk around the stadium, we did notice some additional types of food stands, but those were not accessible to us during the game.) 

The hot dog stand advertised “New York Style” hot dogs.  This was slightly untrue.  The hot dog was good sized and served on a hoagie bun, but tasted like a kielbasa.  My travel companions who like kielbasa said it was very good.   They also said the steak pie was very good. One of the more interesting things was that although beer was available in the concourse, it must be consumed in the concourse.  You cannot take your beer to your seat.  Many fans rushed out to have a pint at the half, just finishing it as the second half whistle blew. 

I found the staff to be friendly and helpful, especially after they found out how far we’d come to see the match.  I found the fans we spoke to were the same.  After mentioning that we were Americans that had come to see the game, broad grins spread across their faces. 
Our seats were approximately 6 rows from the field giving an excellent view of the match.  We seat between the center line and the top of the penalty area.  The seats were of the plastic flip up type but were comfortable and had good leg room.

The crowd was working class regular people and we felt very comfortable with them.  They were very genuine fans.  The crowd was mostly men with few women and fewer children.  We didn’t hear any racial slurs but some of the language was unique- the security and ushers didn’t respond. We were impressed at how many times they could use the “F” word in one sentence!  Some of their other language and cheers were a little colorful as well. This was interesting because there were signs down by the field saying anyone using foul language or racial slurs would be expelled. 
The crowd of 8,415 (about half the stadium’s capacity), was treated to an unexpectedly exciting game.   Millwall was in last place and the opponents, Blackpool, were in first place; it seemed that the home fans didn’t have great expectations for the game.  Blackpool got the first goal of the match, and a sense of dread came over the fans.   However, Millwall could equalize in injury time of the first half on a penalty kick and would score twice in the second half to ice the match.   The Millwall faithful absolutely exploded in cheers after equalizing and again after the go ahead goal was scored in the 71st minute.  After they scored the third goal, they went absolutely bonkers.  We really enjoyed the home fan’s cheer of “We scored 3 goals, you must be shit!”
Blackpool, on the northwest side of England, brought travelling support of approximately 300-400 who were seated in the upper level behind the goal, separated from any local fans.  They were vocal and boisterous and made a good counterpoint to the home fans. There was a substantial police presence around the visiting support, but other than some verbal jabs, there were no issues.
We left a few minutes before the game ended in hopes that our faithful cabbie was waiting for us.  The stewards and security were more than helpful in getting us to the main entrance and after a 5 minute walk we were happy to find that our ride was waiting.  (The roads right near English stadiums are closed down before/during and after a match, so you always had to walk a ways to where you can catch a cab.)
Overall, my first experience with soccer in England was a more than positive one.  The new Den is a fine facility and despite a few drawbacks a terrific place to catch the atmosphere of English soccer.