Several years ago, I had the privilege of attending a hockey game in England, my ever-so-brief home and native land.
The contest was between arch-rivals Sheffield and Nottingham and I loved the experience, not so much for the calibre of play, but more for the atmosphere in the arena. It was full, about 12,000 in attendance, and nobody was sitting on their hands. Songs were sung, chants were chanted and creative insults hurled at the opponents. It was all good fun.
That was the frame of reference I took with me to my first-ever English Premier League soccer/football match a couple weeks ago. It turns out I was profoundly unprepared. I’ve been lucky enough to go to some huge sporting events in my life, from the Stanley Cup final to the Super Bowl, but nothing in my North American adventures has been similar.
I should acknowledge the unique episode had much to do with the location of our seats. My youngest son was desperate to see a Manchester United contest and they were playing at London-based Fulham while we were on our family vacation. So after scouring the Internet and going through a host of my contacts, I was able to land tickets…in the Man U “away” section.
Manchester United, it has been explained to me, is akin to the Montreal Canadiens of the EPL, or what the Toronto Maple Leafs would be if they ever won. As a die-hard fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, I’d liken them more closely to my favorite NFL team. They represent a working-class city, one with extremely passionate supporters who will travel great distances en masse to see their club live.
I discovered just how zealous these devotees were as we entered Craven Cottage, Fulham’s home pitch. The away area is behind one goal and when we arrived, about 20 minutes before kickoff, the stands were full and raucous. Everybody was standing, everybody was cheering or singing. It was deafening and to a couple of the more demure in my party, intimidating. One of my companions actually talked about leaving because she found the din and “pack” atmosphere scary, evoking images of hooliganism.
But we soldiered on and eventually found our seats. Of course, we didn’t need seats because nobody sat down. Ever.
Even if they did, I would have had a problem. The lad standing next to me was perched in front of my seat, squishing my party of four into three standing spaces. When I say “lad” that’s a bit of a misnomer. He was about 6-foot-8 and I’m guessing 275 pounds, with closely cropped red hair. He was a flame-lit mountain.
When I politely mentioned he was standing in my space, a huge grin crawled across his face. He looked way down at me and said matter-of-factly, “Mate, you don’t understand. We’re Manchester United. When we’re away, we sit wherever the f--- we want.”
I didn’t argue.
So I huddled in with my group, only to encounter another viewing challenge. A 40-something large dude (though not quite as massive as Big Red) positioned in the row below us decided to stand on his seat facing backwards and directly in front of me. He was one of the away team’s self-appointed cheerleaders. For the entire first half I tried to peer around his girth, to glimpse the field, while he loudly led songs and chants, pumping his fists in the air and sending enough spittle in my direction that I wished I’d brought my raincoat for me and some Clorets for him.
I had a tough time deciphering much of what he was singing, but if I understood and am remembering correctly, his most common refrain went something like this:
This is how it feels to be City
This is how it feels to be small
This is how it feels when your team
Means nothing at all
Nothing at all
Nothing at all
The “City” in question would be Manchester City, Man U’s chief rival. It was a derisive song, mocking the Fulham throng, but a pretty sweet chorus nonetheless.
The songs, taunts and chants echoed throughout the match, though the second half was slightly less noisy as Man U attacked the end at which we were positioned. It became a more serious business, with those around us uttering more and more colorful profanities as their heavily favored heroes allowed the home team to come back and tie the game 2-2.
At the game’s conclusion, I was moderately surprised we were able to exit the stadium in an orderly fashion and saw no signs of violence between the supporters. It became apparent there were no hooligans among us, not Big Red or loud cheerleader guy (who I eventually determined was there with his teenaged son, just like me). They were just exuberant supporters, expressing their passion in a way I’d never witnessed. It was special and something I’ll remember just as vividly as the Steelers Super Bowl triumph I sat through in 2009.
Huh, I sat at the Super Bowl. How quaint.
Jason Kay is the editor in chief of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears regularly.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.