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LOST IN LONDON
or "Clueless American Tackles Football"
BILL WOOD | JUNE 1, 2023
Welcome to my first-ever Travelblog, where I’ll be detailing adventures—and misadventures—throughout my various travels. This first blog is all about the lessons learned when attempting to attend a Premier League football match in London, and how other travelers might avoid my missteps. Enjoy!
Finally, the date was set. After years of planning—including a lengthy stretch that was indefinitely postponed by Covid—the wife and I were headed to London, England. We were thrilled to visit one of our ultimate dream destinations, home of Big Ben, Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Piccadilly Circus, Tower Bridge, Trafalgar Square, Harrods, Abbey Road… and soccer.
What, you seriously think I’d travel to England without taking in a Premier League match?
The fact is that I loosely scheduled our vacation around the Premier League schedule. With some quick research I discovered that Chelsea FC’s home venue Stamford Bridge was a short Tube ride away from the hotel where we were staying, so I decided on a Chelsea match vs. Birmingham's Aston Villa. I had absolutely no clue how or where to purchase tickets, but the whole affair seemed manageable enough. And yes, those are indeed famous last words.
Now it must be said that I am not a Chelsea supporter. My Premiership team is Nottingham Forest, which plays 130 miles north of London. Why Forest? Well, I was playing FIFA way back when and decided I liked their logo. Seriously, that was the entire thought process. I once had a discussion with an English football fan in a Pasadena pub, and when I tried to explain the dubious origin of my Forest fandom he looked a bit concerned. I must have seemed like a kid who had just read his first comic book and decided to become Batman. In any case, seeing as we weren’t going anywhere near Nottingham on this particular trip, I decided I’d better make do with Stamford Bridge.
My wife and I have been to hundreds of games throughout the States and Canada, so I'm experienced when it comes to planning sporting events. We’ve been to every MLS stadium on the West Coast several times over, we’ve seen every MLB team, we’ve traveled from Vancouver to New York City to Tampa to Los Angeles to watch sports. Knicks at the Garden, Lakers at "The Cryp" (as us OGs like to call it)... we've been there. And in all this time, purchasing tickets to a live event has never been more difficult than opening my phone and searching, so perhaps I might be forgiven for assuming that scoring tickets to a Premier League match would be every bit as easy.
The early warning signs started popping up when I couldn’t find tickets from any of the usual suspects; Seatgeek, Stubhub, nada. Of course there were several pricey options available on presumably honorable sites such as luckylouiesdiscountseatz.net. Opting not to let these sites anywhere near my credit card info, I did what I assumed intelligent folks do in this situation and started researching.
As it turned out, there were no tickets available to the general public for this particular Chelsea match, or for any Chelsea match for that matter. I already knew that Chelsea were one of the Premier League’s most popular clubs, therefore it came as no surprise that a match or even the entire season might be sold out. I purchase 99% of my tickets via resellers so I can usually find what I want regardless of box office availability, and for once-in-a-lifetime events such as this I am willing to pay a premium. "If you can't get something you want, spend more money." It's a patently American tactic and it can be effective.
No, what surprised me was that the club disallowed ticket reselling from all ticket brokers save their own official reselling services. Of course we have our own anti-scalping measures in place here in the States, but the rules are rather lax. Some of Chelsea's banned resellers are actually authorized resellers over here (e.g. Stubhub), so it gets confusing. On top of this, prospective Chelsea FC ticket buyers must be club members to even have the opportunity to purchase said tickets, a membership costing around $40 annually for global supporters.
To be fair, there are several valid reasons for this. Discouraging ticket reselling via online vendors also discourages scalping and price gouging, as the price you pay for a resale ticket via Chelsea FC’s member service is face value. And since you're buying directly from the club, there are zero worries about getting scammed. One might reason that this is a foolproof system as supporters can safely get seats without getting fleeced. With this in mind, $40/yr. isn’t too much to pay for the opportunity to buy a verified ticket... assuming you actually can buy a verified ticket, and therein lies the rub. Here I was foiled again, as resale tickets were also not available for the match. Therefore my $40 would have been an utter waste, as overseas members don’t even get the awesome team socks and pencil set that English members get.
Now the date was drawing near and I was getting desperate. Left with precious few options, I consulted that great hive mind of popular thought, Reddit, where people as clueless as myself might learn something. It was on this platform that I was able to unearth one valuable suggestion. “Call the ticket office, act dumb and tell them you’re American. They usually have a few seats held in reserve for those types.” Dumb... American... quickly my confidence began to build.
And so I picked up the phone and dialed the Chelsea FC ticket office in London, where I was greeted by possibly the driest female voice I have ever heard in my entire life. This voice was unmistakably human yet utterly devoid of empathy or emotion, there was one point where I longed for the drone of an automated attendant. Maybe it's just that us Yanks tend to get excited when we're selling stuff, I dunno. In any case, I did my best to seem completely oblivious to my situation (no stretch there), swallowing hard and starting my pitch:
“Umm, hello. I am a dumb American and would like to purchase tickets.”
The Dry Chelsea FC Woman politely informed me that tickets were not available for the match versus Aston Villa (yes, I knew that). She also informed me that one option was to purchase a membership and search for tickets from members who could not attend, but it didn’t seem as though any were available there either (what exactly was the point then?). I quickly realized that The Dry Chelsea FC Woman was onto my plot, and that my ruse of international ignorance was getting me nowhere fast.
Realizing that the English football gods were about to deliver a bicycle kick to the gonads, I made one final, desperate appeal for entry. The solution offered was to consider something called a hospitality package, which was—as The Dry Chelsea FC Woman explained—“in a higher price tier.” How much higher? Well, the only hospitality package left was a luxury suite at $11,850, which included champagne and a four-course meal but apparently not a relaxing post-match shoulder massage from the goalkeeper. I promptly hung up the phone and headed to the closet for a change of underwear, pondering if it might be worth three times the cost of airfare and hotel for my entire stay to hobnob with Saudi oil barons and watch some guys kick a ball about for 90 minutes. Sadly the answer was no.
Now I'm sure there are plenty of experienced Premier League attendees out there who are reading this and thinking, “you went about it all wrong, you should have done this or that.” To which I would refer you to the word “clueless” in the subtitle. And so it was that I decided this particular visit to England would have to be football-less.
Fast-forward one month later; my wife and I are in England and having the time of our lives. There was no soccer in our future but it hardly mattered. London is just one of those cities – you really haven’t lived until you’ve visited. Every you turn there is a wealth of art, history and architecture. Most locals are extremely friendly and only-too-willing to share information about their beloved city and country.
We also did some out-of-London sightseeing, taking a train through the English countryside to the charming town of York, which is officially My Favorite Place in the Entire World™. On the train ride back we struck up a conversation with a very pleasant young man and the topic soon turned to football. Informing him of my less-than-successful Chelsea FC experience, he asked:
“Are you open to seeing other leagues?”
Before we go any further, I must explain to those who don't binge watch Ted Lasso or Welcome To Wrexham that there are actually four tiers at the apex of the English football system; the Premier League (the one most are familiar with, with Manchester United and whatnot) is the first tier, then the Championship, then League One and finally League Two. Beyond that, the English football system becomes quite the tangled web so we’ll leave that alone. As for why a league named the Championship is actually the second tier, again, it’s too much for this particular blog. Just know that there are many English leagues and teams which exist outside the top-tier Premier League, and any team can actually move up and down within those leagues based on their season success or lack thereof. If that's still too much, just imagine the Cleveland Browns getting kicked out of the NFL and having to play in the XFL. Tempting, isn't it?
I was extremely excited at the prospect of attending a lower league football match. I’m a huge fan and had in fact searched around briefly for available matches. Strangely enough, it seemed as though every football club in London was playing out of town on this particular weekend. That’s when my train-riding friend picked up his phone started searching. He informed me that Crystal Palace and West Ham were playing in town, but I already knew that. They were both in the Premier League and tickets were similarly unavailable.
“Ahh, here we go," his eyebrows raised. "Charlton is home against Shrewsbury.”
Bingo! League One's Charlton Athletic FC was a club I was quite familiar with, the team having spent nearly a decade in the Premier League. And Shrewsbury Town sounded like one of those quaint villages you might read about in an English murder mystery (it's actually outside of Birmingham). Excited at the prospect of attending a football match after exhausting all hope, I hopped onto Charlton’s website, created an account and purchased front row seats within five minutes. The cost per ticket? $31, less than I’d have paid to not get tickets via a Chelsea membership plan.
Arriving back in London, I decided I still wanted a taste of the Premier League experience, no matter how inconsequential. And so I ended up taking a lengthy walk to Stamford Bridge the day before the Chelsea match, strolling down Kings Road past the former site of Sex, the late Vivienne Westwood’s clothing shop were the legendary Sex Pistols were born. Indeed, history is everywhere you look in London.
As I headed toward Stamford Bridge and the stadium concourse, I noticed numerous signs proclaiming "No Touts," tout apparently being the British word for scalper. Tout seems like a very silly word until you really consider the word scalper. I imagined what this stadium must look like on matchday with 40,000 Andy Capp clones in tow. I imagined that I was one of them, chanting, cheering, chomping on caviar. Then I ended my charade and moved on, heading over to Loftus Road, home of the team with the greatest name in English football, Queens Park Rangers, before heading back to the hotel.
My wife was exhausted after all of our traveling and sightseeing, so I hopped on a London Underground line headed east to catch the Charlton match by myself (and let me digress for a moment to comment on how wonderful the Tube is). As an outsider, the first thing you notice about Charlton's stadium—dubbed The Valley—is that it is built right into the neighborhood. I mean this quite literally, there was a row of flats where someone’s front door abruptly gave way for a concourse. Gnome-lined gardens were piled up along a narrow one-way street directly across from a main entrance. The visceral effect was nothing short of breathtaking.
I decided that I wanted to live next door to The Valley to become one with the team and possibly grow annoyed with the hooligans who show up to terrorize stadiums on matchday. Actually, hooliganism is virtually non-existent in English football these days (sorry Millwall) and there was nary a trouble-starter in sight, just families and friends getting together to have a great time and cheer on their favorite team. In fact, I'd go as far as to say The Valley hosted one of the better sporting crowds I've seen. And let's face it, if you can get through a Dodgers crowd then you can get through almost anything.
As I approached The Valley via a series of increasingly narrow side streets and pedestrian bridges, I noticed more and more fans congregating, decked out in caps, jerseys and scarves of traditional Charlton Red. I hastily made my way to a merchandise booth outside the stadium, where I spied a t-shirt that read "Keep Calm And Hate Palace," referring to the Premiership's Crystal Palace FC. I thought to myself, "Aren't they two leagues above Charlton? And who could possibly hate a palace made of crystal?!?" I reasoned that I did not hate Palace enough to wear this t-shirt, opting instead a cozy scarf for £15, quite a deal for the perfect matchday souvenir.
It was at this merch booth that I was greeted by a rather well-worn older couple who picked up on my accent (do I have an accent?). They both wore charcoal-colored parkas and were missing several teeth, and I briefly wondered if the English reputation for sub-par dentistry was in fact well deserved. Combined with the tiny streets and charming houses, the whole effect was rather Dickensian. I half-expected the Artful Dodger to sneak up from behind and snatch my cell, fortunately this did not happen.
“Ay, where’re ya from?” the old woman asked.
“Los Angeles,” I smiled back.
The old woman looked confused. Taking a moment to ponder the cloudy, dismal sky that perpetually threatened rain but never did, she asked. “What’re ya doin’ ‘ere?”
“Well, I'm vacationing.”
“No,” she repeated, pointing to the ground. “What’re ya doin’ ‘ere?!?”
“Oh,” I answered, finally getting her point. “It’s my first English football match!” I grinned widely and my eyes began to water, I could barely contain my excitement as I slung my new red-and-black-striped scarf proudly around my neck. The old woman—clearly unfazed by my enthusiasm—nodded dismissively at the stadium behind her.
“The way this lot are playin’, it may be your last.”
My God, English wit. How I love thee. I went on to explain my recent plight and how I ended up “‘ere” instead of Stamford Bridge, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. In return, the couple regaled with me tales of Charlton Athletic Football Club and their folkloric rivalries with various other factions, including one clan named after a palace made entirely of crystal. I decided that this molar-deprived pair were two of my favorite people on the whole entire planet. After our lovely discussion the match almost became ancillary, I immediately wanted to travel to other lower-league stadiums and speak with other lower-league supporters to find out which teams they hate. Little did I know it, but Charlton Athletic was the exact football experience I'd been longing for.
Compared to MLS stadium standards, access to The Valley was a thoroughly retro affair; printed tickets in a plain white envelope, cold metal turnstile, no cavity search required. The match itself was brilliant, with Charlton marching onto the field to the tune of The Clash's "London Calling" and posting a 6-0 drubbing of Shrewsbury Town in front of several thousand appreciative spectators. Goals came flying in from every direction, the crowd was going absolutely bonkers. Honestly, it was one of the best sporting events I’ve ever witnessed, I was completely buzzing afterwards. The walk back to the North Greenwich station was around 40 minutes, I could have taken a bus but I wanted to soak in every precious moment. I strolled past modern apartment buildings, shopping centers and even the mighty O2 Arena, where Sir Elton John was hosting an extended engagement for his Farewell Tour. The entire day was both surreal and sublime, I didn't want it to end.
Along my walk, a passerby noticed my red scarf and asked, “Who won?” “Charlton, 6-nil. It was an utter pasting!” I exclaimed happily, doing my very best to sound both British and informed. Just a few days ago, I was resigned to missing out on English football altogether due to my frustrating experience with Chelsea Football Club. Not only had I achieved this seemingly impossible feat, but I was now a proud dispenser of truth and wisdom on the busy streets of London.
Clueless? Yes. Hopeless? Never. - BW
Postscript: Final of the match at Stamford Bridge: Chelsea FC 0, Aston Villa FC 2.