48 Hours in World Football Heaven
PHOTO: Sunset at the Manchester Derby, Etihad Stadium. (all photos by Tim Wood)
As recentlty as 10 years ago, when you talked football in America, it only meant one thing: the NFL. A very vocal group of traditional sports fans running the airwaves of sports talk radio kept soccer talk to a bare minimum.
Major League Soccer toiled largely unnoticed, though profitable. Other soccer leagues were middling at best and fathers only begrudgingly learned enough basics to coach their 5-year-old’s soccer team. All the while, a rabid rebellion was growing. Thankfully, U.S. TV and radio networks and mainstream sports sites like Bleacher Report gave us true football fans what we wanted.
Outlets like Sirius XM launched soccer talk channels. FOX launched a soccer-specific channel and an accompanying app that streamed matches from around the world. ESPN bought World Cup rights and made the U.S. national team players into known celebrities.
But the true breakthrough came in 2013 when NBCSN acquired the rights to English Premier League games and streamed every EPL game through its app. Diehards suddenly didn’t have to track down some obscure bar that opened for EPL games. We had the games in the palm of own hand.
I have been a Liverpool fan for many years, but that fandom intensified when John Henry, owner of my beloved Boston Red Sox, led a group to acquire Liverpool. Suddenly, I was up at 6 a.m. on weekends streaming matches and losing my work focus while keeping one eye on midweek games streaming during the afternoon. Finally, I could feel the day-to-day rollercoaster of fandom with an ever-growing number of fan sites dedicated to the Reds. And I could finally see “You’ll Never Walk Alone” sung live … on my home TV anyway.
Within months, it simply wasn’t enough. I had to see Anfield in person. I had to see the glorious chaos of a Manchester Derby game with my own eyes.
The folks from VisitBritain made that quest a reality for me in early March. I flew in for a whirlwind taste of EPL world football, complete with tickets to Arsenal at Everton and VIP treatment for the annual Manchester United-Manchester City showdown at City’s Etihad Stadium.
As so many of my fellow up-until-now virtual Liverpool fans have told me, there is nothing like seeing the real thing. And after my 48 hours immersed in the insanity, I wholeheartedly agree.
FIRST, TO ETIHAD
My journey began in Manchester, England, where I met up with my accomplice for the weekend: fellow travel writer and world football fan Jeff Bogle. To say that this an instant bromance would be a massive understatement, but more on that later.
Fresh off the plane, we taxi’ed over to Etihad Stadium for a quick preview of the Manchester City Football Club — better known as Man City. The stadium was converted to a soccer pitch after the 2002 Commonwealth Games — including digging well below the track and field setup to accommodate a lower pitch and more seating — and is now currently at 55,097 capacity, the third largest in the Premier League. A planned 2017 renovation will add another 7,000 seats.
Our first stay in Manchester was brief, as we headed to the train station for a 50-minute ride to Liverpool, our official first stop of the soccer tour.
We made the five-minute walk from the James Street train station to the Hotel Indigo in the heart of the city’s commercial district.
But it was a dump-and-dash of the luggage in our hotel room, for Jeff had an amazing plan to add to our itinerary.
“Dude, we have to see Anfield,” he said. Sadly, the Reds were out of town the weekend of our journey, so I had figured it was too out of the way. Nope. Not at all.
We hurriedly flagged down a cab and made the 10-minute ride across town just in time to catch the last tour of the day at the storied stadium.
And in that moment, as we entered the pitch, I felt like Ned Beatty seeing the insides of Notre Dame Stadium for the first time.
I spent much of the next 90 minutes alternating between speechless awe and deep appreciation for Jeff’s quick thinking as we soaked in every historic nook and cranny of this magnificent edifice.
Any sightseeing after this was sadly doomed to pale in comparison. Not even the city’s cultural calling card could top it, but the Beatles Story museum on Albert Dock was an amazing history of the Fab Four. It is as documented and rich a history you'll find of the group with audio commentary throughout the tour from Beatles members and those instrumental in their rise.
Our only night in Liverpool ended with a classic across-the-pond meal … at a Brazilian steakhouse. While at first baffled by the odd dinner choice for our itinerary, Fazenda quickly won us over with an orgy of freshly-cut-tableside meats. Here’s the menu highlighting all 15 of our epic options.
I’m proud to say we sampled the entire menu (though Jeff had more endurance than me) and then stumbled back to the hotel in a meat-drunk stupor.
OFF TO GOODISON
Game day in Liverpool began with a walking tour of the commercial district, highlighted by an encountered with the best of a handful of statues of The Fab Four around town and a visit to Mathew Street and a look inside the real Cavern Club, where The Beatles first became The Beatles.
Finally it was on to Goodison Park, home of Everton FC, to see the home-pitch Toffees take on Arsenal. The scene around the historic stadium was almost as electric as the game itself. We sampled the meat pie and chips from Lucky’s Blue Dragon and a pint of Carling Ale from the Peoples Pub at the Winslow Hotel. Personal space became more and more a premium as game time approached, but there’s no better place to go to imbibe and feel the pre-game excitement.
After picking up our tickets from Thomas Cook Sports, we headed inside.“The Grand Old Lady” has hosted countless epic football showdowns since opening in 1954. So don’t go there expecting all the modern amenities of newer stadiums. Instead, you get an intimate setting with great acoustics and clear sightlines nearly anywhere in the stadium.
While many locals reveled in Jeff and my giddiness that clearly gave away our foreign roots, we could do nothing to inspire a victory, as Arsenal dominated throughout.
A big-time pro tip: while it was an easy cab ride to Goodison pre-game, there were zero cabs to be found and no registered Uber drivers within 10 miles of the stadium after the match. And even if we’d found one, them getting through the post-game traffic would have taken an hour.
Instead, Jeff and I walked in the direction of Anfield, which sits on higher land just minutes from Goodison. After 20 minutes of walking, we finally flagged down a cab.
After saying goodbye to the amazing hosts at Hotel Indigo, we headed back to the train station for our return to Manchester.
FOUR STADIUMS IN TWO DAYS? LET'S DO IT
As we flagged down a cab outside Manchester Piccadilly Station, Jeff once again audibled with a stroke of genius. The Derby would be played at Etihad Stadium, but why not swing by Manchester United’s home on the way to the hotel?
We can at least say that we saw Old Trafford in person. We missed the tours, but came upon street vendors selling exquisite Derby gameday scarves, a must for any truly respectable fan just as baseball caps are the norm in the U.S.
The year-old Melia Innside played gracious hosts to us, overlooking the city’s international centre on First Street and providing a flawless night’s sleep after a jam-packed day of football fandom in two cities.
THE FINAL DAY: DERBY DAY
Derby Day in Manchester (and that's pronounced "DAR-by") is equivalent to a Red Sox-Yankees showdown, with tensions between the Manchester United and Man City fan bases at elevated levels since City’s fortunes have risen to a level to consistently challenge Man U for territorial supremacy.
Etihad has many more of the amenities you’d come to expect from a modern stadium. Gameday sights included a food and musical festival in the square just outside the gates and a roll-out the blue carpet welcoming ceremony as the City players arrive by bus for the game.
Officials from Man City treated us like VIPs, complete with an exclusive pre-game stadium tour and insider access to the locker room and the pitch itself.
Premier League is Britain’s NFL and you see it everywhere you go, whether in a city that hosts a team or in the most remote countryside towns. What we witnessed was a finely tuned fan experience – no cheerleaders, no commercial breaks, no wacky in-stadium promotions. Just football – uninterrupted action for two 45-minute halves separated by a 20-minute stretch-your-legs break at halftime. The game clock doesn’t stop. If there are injuries or penalties called that slow down the action, they add time on at the end. Whereas TV has stretched out NFL and baseball games to four hours in the U.S., world football is two hours, period.
Because of that, fans keep the in-stadium energy high throughout. Whereas U.S. stadium crowds intermittently cheer or clap, EPL football fans sing songs and chants that reverberate for miles around the stadium. Any advancement of the ball remotely near the goalkeeper is accompanied with a rise in the decibels coming from the crowd.
Now, that level of excitement can be harnessed for evil at times -- there were a few fights between United and City fans during the Derby, including some haymakers thrown just rows from Jeff and I during the first half.
I thought I was a fan before this. I play as Liverpool on FIFA 16 on XBox One. I stream every game I can on my iPhone. But to experience gameday live, there’s no better sports tourist experience I have had in my quarter-century of adult fandom of any and every sport I’m able to consume. And it made me realize just how much of a world football newbie I really am.
I witnessed what soccer fandom will be like in the U.S. in 20 years. Though as hard as we Americans will try, we will never replicate the feel-it-in-your-bones fandom that makes seeing EPL football first hand such a bucket-list adventure.
And as much as we enjoyed our Brazilian steakhouse feast, before we left, we made sure to take in the cornerstone dish of any self-respecting British pub denizon -- the most delectable fish and chips with mashed peas your pallette could imagine at Albert's Shed restaurant in Manchester.
Two months later, I’m still in awe – and talking my visit enough to make my wife and kids seriously annoyed. I wear my This Is Anfield scarf on gamedays and my Liverpool FC all around town.
And not for nothing, while the home teams were 0-2 during my visit, the Reds have turned around their season since early March and are now in the UEFA Europa League final.
I know a grateful nation thanks me from afar.
More by Tim Wood
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