England's Premier League: a must-do for tourists

Attending a Premier League match should be up there with the Tower of London and the Tate Modern on every tourist 'must-do' list, writes Paul Connolly.

From the moment I secured the only ticket I could get—a ticket among the Tottenham Hotspur home fans—I wondered what I'd do if Liverpool, the away team, my team, scored.

Hours before the match I'd also entertained that question while catching the train from London's Liverpool St Station north out to White Hart Lane, the carriage full, mostly men wearing Spurs merchandise, some of whom were slugging back long cans of Kronenbourg lager.

I thought about it once more as we shuffled out of the train, towards the exits and the colourless, worn out streets below the platform. There, half a dozen men, clearly not suffering bashful bladders, relieved themselves against the brick wall flanking the station entrance situated along the optimistically named Love Lane.

And the question sat with me still as I took my seat, surrounded by Spurs fans, and marvelled at the greenness of the pitch and how close it all seemed. The stands seemed to lean in and over the pitch, as if craning for a better view, which had the effect of trapping the noise and quickening the pulse.

So, the game upon me, that question again. What to do if Liverpool scored?

My first impulse, sure, would be unoriginal, though no less heartfelt. I'd jump to my feet, release my pent up adrenalin with a loud “Yes!” and perhaps even do something silly with my arms: pump a fist, punch the air, or thrust both of them skywards.

The problem with this impulse, however, and the kicker to the question I'd been asking myself —perhaps redundantly— was that it could quite possibly get my face rearranged. It may surprise people who know what I look like, but I'm rather attached to my face the way it is.

I was not coming to this dilemma cold, I should point out. Twenty-two years earlier, in 1989, when mounted police in riot gear would herd visiting fans between stadia and rail stations, I saw my first live game of English football having been a fan since I was eight or so. Thanks to a ticket tout I was sitting with the home fans at Chelsea's Stamford Bridge with my brother, and instinct took over when Liverpool's Peter Beardsley opened the scoring in just the third minute.

The comments and looks we got from everyone around us —men fitting various descriptions of burly— were far worse than dirty; so much so that for each of Liverpool's next four goals we remained mute and pretended to look uninterested in the thrashing. I may have even feigned a yawn or two. We then left early to, ah, beat the rush.

We could have done without the threats, of course, but it was an exhilarating experience all the same; the noise, the spectacle, the intensity of top-flight English football.

A mate told me a similar account of when he was watching his team Sheffield Wednesday from among the home fans at Queen's Park Rangers. When Wednesday scored he did what he'd do following Hawthorn at the MCG: he leapt to his feet with a whoop. But before he fell back down to earth he had a steward on each arm and was being escorted out of the grandstand, his feet barely touching the ground. “For your own safety, mate,” they told him.

So, admittedly, two examples of implied violence only —but they must be viewed against English football's well-earned reputation for trouble off the pitch; a reputation consolidated during the 1970s and 1980s, two particularly dismal decades when violence and hooliganism were a stain on English and European football.

It was during this period, for example, that crowd segregation was established in English stadia as a reaction against violence, a situation that remains in place despite some claiming it does more harm than good since, critics say, it encourages a kind of perverted-tribalism that demonises opposing supporters and allows vile chants to flourish.

The '70s also saw organised “firms” of hooligans emerge to wage war against each other, while it was in 1985 that 39 Juventus supporters were killed in Belgium's Heysel Stadium after being crushed by a collapsing wall in their attempts to flee from charging Liverpool supporters.

Then, just four years later, 96 Liverpool supporters were crushed to death, many against perimeter fencing at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. While the tragedy was not the result of hooliganism (the official inquiry into the disaster, the Taylor Report, highlighted the failure of police control as the main cause), it was the threat of hooliganism and pitch invasions that saw perimeter fencing become ubiquitous in the '70s.

From that nadir things look much improved today —how could they not? For instance, football-related arrest levels are at historic lows (averaging one a match), a result, in part, of better security and policing at English league grounds.

Also making a difference, as recommended by the Taylor Report, are more modern, maintained, well-catered, all-seater stadia that have since replaced the ramshackle, urine-soaked dumps of yesterday. Gone too, days after Hillsborough in fact, are the dehumanising perimeter fences.

As this indicates, there has been a kind of gentrification of football in England since those dark days. Not everyone is unreservedly happy about this, of course, with critics suggesting the attraction of more middle class fans (read “bandwagoners”) has seen a decline in the atmosphere at games and a meteoric rise in ticket prices that exclude traditional support bases. At Arsenal, for instance, the cheapest ticket for a category A game is £51 ($A79). In 1989-90 it was £5.

But, thanks largely to billion-dollar broadcasting deals, the financial health of the game has never been better, nor its appeal wider. The number of women, children and ethnic minorities attending Premier League matches, for example, continues to rise. In the 2009/2010 season women made up 23 per cent of supporters attending Premier League matches. In the '80s, the percentage was in single digits.

Whether the rising attendance of women, children and minorities is a response to, or a contributing cause of, the reduced violence at English football is a moot point. The bottom line is that the long era of English football being the sole domain of working class males is well and truly over.

Instead, English football is striving to become the family game —that's where the money is— and if any more proof were needed witness the many family stands popping up around the country. At the City of Manchester Stadium, for example, Manchester City's oil-rich owners have introduced a family stand replete with magicians, jugglers and even a kids' menu.

Spaghetti and smoothies anyone?

English football may have changed enormously in recent decades but to this outsider at least it is still a wonderful spectacle. The quality of pitches and the standard of play is as good as its ever been while the atmosphere in the grounds, watered down though it may appear to some, is still hard to beat.

It's also markedly different to what you'd find at an AFL or NRL match, which adds to its appeal for the Antipodean visitor.

Segregation plays a part in this, I'm sure. Although it's depressing that adults aren't trusted by authorities to sit alongside each other simply because they support different football teams, segregation does allow more uniformity and cohesion among likeminded supporters, and a channelling of emotion when it comes time for the often witty songs and chants —football's hymns— that so define English football.

It also creates a compelling dynamic between supporters, a dynamic supporters enjoy. Sitting there among the Spurs supporters as the game went on beneath me I kept getting drawn to matters off the pitch, to the interaction between the home supporters around me and the nearby Liverpool supporters, occupying a wedge of seating between the south and west stands.

Full of voice the Liverpool fans made their presence known. You'll Never Walk Alone got an airing as it always does, as did a ditty —sung to the tune of Depeche Mode's Just Can't Get Enough— in honour of their controversial striker, the impish Luis Suarez. And at one point, when it seemed Suarez had scored (only for the 'goal' to be disallowed for offside) the Red faithful's first thought, after a brief explosion of delight, was not to celebrate amongst themselves but to turn en masse to the nearby Spurs supporters and let them have it.

When the goal was disallowed the abuse was returned, thousands of Spurs fans jabbing their fingers in synchronicity—as if each of them had a Liverpool supporter right in front of them and were jabbing him in the chest.

Earlier, when Spurs had asserted their early dominance with a wonderful goal by Luka Modric, the Spurs fans erupted with a song of their own asking if Liverpool were in fact “Arsenal in disguise,” a doubly effective insult since it also mocked their hated north London rivals who were doing very poorly at the time.

Witnessing all this around me, delighting in it, I couldn't help but picture David Attenborough observing it too. I could see him in the aisle, crouching, his silvery hair ruffled by a light breeze, his tones distinctively hushed: And here we see a band of northern red-faced Scousers responding to the threat from the white-chested Hotspurs by puffing out their chests and breaking into defiant song.

An English football crowd is an anthropologist's dream.

But the difference in atmosphere is more than that, I reckon. If I had to speculate I'd say that a higher percentage of Australian crowds, for various reasons, treat their preferred code of football as just another form of entertainment. Die hards are die hards, yes, but the others? Well, they might yell and scream and ooh and ah but when the final whistle blows they can leave it all behind, like all the chips and empty beer cups littered around their feet.

But the impression I got at White Hart Lane and other English football matches I've attended is that the outcome means more to more people, people whose very identity and sense of self-worth is intricately linked to their football club.

It's as if most of the fans watching —still predominately young to middle-aged men despite the changing demographics— are so emotionally (and financially) invested in the fortunes of their club that the air fairly crackles with joy, anger, relief, menace, exasperation and anxiety.

But this is not a reason to avoid attending a football match when you're in the UK. It's a reason to go. I'd say that attending an English football match, whether you're interested in football or not, should be on every tourists to-do list alongside the likes of the Tate Modern, St Paul's and the Tower of London. You want a window into the lives of the locals, go to the football.

Whether you'll survive sitting among one group of fans and cheering a goal for the other team, however, I can't say for sure. But I suspect it would still be a bad idea. The game may be different to 20 years ago but it's not that different.

What did I do?

Well, unfortunately, I never had to make that tricky decision what with Tottenham scoring four unanswered goals.

At least the locals went home happy.

Twenty Premier League teams —from Newcastle and Sunderland in the north, London (with five teams) in the south, Norwich in the east and Swansea (Wales) in the west— ensure there are usually at least 10 Premier League matches played every week in the UK between August and May. Midweek matches are also common. Prices range from 10 pounds, the cheapest adult ticket at Blackburn Rovers, to 100 pounds, the most expensive at Arsenal. Tickets can be purchased from individual clubs or through the Premier League site. Advance bookings are recommended.

For ticket information go to www.premierleague.com/en-gb/matchday/tickets.html

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