Following in the steps of Vikram, I will also share a personal football story, one that reminds us of the bond we have to this game…
So for those who do not know, I support two teams: Everton and Olympique Lyonnais (If you have issue with that, then know that I do not care). I followed both of those teams for years, and when I got the opportunity to attend a study abroad course in England the summer after my freshman year at university, I knew I had to take the opportunity to see a match live.
Now, my first match experience is quite different from the experience of many other Americans who travel over. Most Americans travel over ahead of time, take plenty of pictures outside of their beloved team’s stadium, and maybe even take an official tour. They have their tickets purchased and packed ahead of time, they arrive well before kickoff to take in the sights, and they proudly display their team’s colors the whole time. My experience was not that, and you know what? I would not have traded it away.
So the first major detail of difference is the location. I have never seen Goodison Park. I have never even stepped foot into the city of Liverpool, and while I aim to change that in the near future, before Goodison is eventually torn down, I was not able to on this trip. This match was an away match, as Everton traveled to East London to play West Ham. Much easier on my bank account, as rail tickets between London and Liverpool were quite expensive, but it presented a significantly different potential experience than going to a home match.
The second major difference was the ticket and its acquisition. Home matches are, at least relatively, easier to get tickets to for the home fan, but when their team travels away, the issues arise. While I considered buying a home ticket, I felt that the experience would be less whole, a fish out of water sort of thing, if I were not with the Everton fans, so I embarked on the challenge of finding an away ticket. For those that do not know, in England (at least with Everton), the opportunities to buy away tickets are offered in phases that are based on a points system, which accounts for season ticket holders and how many matches they attend, before they are released to the general public. Now Everton are a very well supported team with a very large base of season ticket holders (and a nearly-four-year-long waiting list for season tickets), and if you are not a season ticket holder, it is near impossible to get an away ticket from general sale. I took to fan forums to see if I could find a ticket, and I eventually found what I was looking for. I made an agreement with the Everton fan from whom I was purchasing tickets, one for myself and another for my friend Blake (an Arsenal fan but he was supporting Everton that day), to meet him outside of his place of work where we would exchange the tickets and I would pay him for them. Now in retrospect, this definitely sounds like a set up to rob some dumb gullible tourists, but as luck would have it, it was not a set up. He was a nice guy, even offering me face value for the tickets. We made the exchange, he wished me well, and we were on our way. It took me until a few days before the match, but the tickets were acquired.
The match day experience was also quite different from the typical American fan’s first match. For starters, I did not wear anything with an Everton badge on it. Not a shirt, not a scarf, nothing, and the only thing I wore that was even blue was my jeans. Many of the (unfair and overgeneralized) stereotypes about some English fans, and namely with West Ham, circled through my head leading up to the match, and I did feel more comfortable as an away fan not wearing anything signifying my support of the away team. My fears ended up being vastly exaggerated, a handy lesson that I learned in this experience. Timing was also an issue. Do not get me wrong, we wanted to be there early to take in the scenes like other American tourists, but we ran into some issues. We had to get from Central London to East London, and on paper, it was an easy route through the London Underground. However, we had not been in the country long enough to completely master the public transportation, and we unfortunately went one station in the wrong direction before we realized we had to turn around. We got to the match as soon as it had kicked off, no time to soak in the sights, it was time for the match.
Ok, so we got to the point where I am in the stadium. I have made my way up to my seat, which was in the very top row of the away section. The remnants of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” still echo through the stadium, and the referee has blown his whistle to start the match. I look out onto the pitch and it hits me: I am actually at a Premier League match, watching the team I support. I have spent nearly half a decade waking up at odd hours of the morning to watch these matches and now I am actually here. The grass was greener than it appeared on tv, and the colors were more vibrant. The air almost even felt different. The feeling everyone talks about when they step out and see the pitch for the first time, the shared experience that football fans have that signifies the romanticism and allure of the sport, is quite real, and I was experiencing it.
It started a bit dull, with the match at 0-0 going into the half with a few chances between two evenly-matched teams, but I did not care. I clung with every possible memory. The Lukaku free kick that did not go in sure looked like it did from where I was. The general feel and aura of watching a Premier League match was breathtaking. I enjoyed the atmosphere of being in the away end, including standing for the whole of the match, impossible in the home end, and chanting “Red and White S**te” at ex-Liverpool midfielder Stuart Downing, who suited up for the Hammers on that day. Every little thing about this experience was amazing, and it seemed to meet and exceed the standards I had set in my head.
That old nemesis Stuart Downing aimed to ruin my experience, though, as he fired West Ham into the lead around the hour mark. For some reason, whether it was the positivity around me being there or something else, I had belief that Everton would find their way back into the match. Now, for those of you not akin to the experience of supporting Everton, things like hope and belief are frivolous commodities for which we have little use, so it is remarkable to think back and feel that I was hopeful we would turn it around. And, would you know it, that belief paid off. Lukaku, who had been toying with West Ham’s defense all day, found himself in some space on the right side and played in a cross to Leon Osman, who took it on the half volley from close range and leveled the match. Right in front of the away end.
The first goal I had ever seen Everton score, and it was right in front of me. I had a perfect view of everything. It is hard to create a more ideal first goal to ever see your team score. I was ecstatic. A little more than 20 minutes from time, and Everton were level. I thought that was the best thing I would experience in that match, that this would be the peak of my football fandom. Well, I was wrong.
As the game went on, both sides had their chances, but it started to feel like it was going to end at a draw. I was not too fussed, as it was still an incredible experience. But little did I know, it was not over yet. In the 93rd minute, Aidan McGeady (remember him?) found some room on the right side and lofted in a weak-but-inviting cross toward the far post. The ball seemed to hang there, almost teasingly, waiting for someone.
And up stepped the big man.
The West Ham fans started making their way toward the exits. Lukaku stood in front of the away end, basking in the sounds of the Everton fans chanting his name. It was over. This was the peak. The final whistle blew shortly after, Everton would be leaving East London with the three points thanks to the heroics of their talismanic striker.
It took a long time to get out of the stadium. It took even longer to get to a tube station that did not have a line that stretched multiple blocks. I did not care, I did not want the day to end. I did not get the opportunities to be much of a tourist, and I do not think I ever returned to the Boleyn Ground, but I would not change that experience for anything.
Memories like this serve to remind us why we love this sport, and they remind us of the things that we took for granted about football before the pandemic struck. We cling on to the memories of seeing the stadium, of smelling the grass, of experiencing the atmosphere, of celebrating with thousands of random strangers. It is about the highs and the lows, the good and the bad, and football is the one sport where you can experience all of those emotions and concentrate them into 90 minutes. West Ham-Everton is not the most glorious match up, it is not Champions League football and it is maybe a match that most fans would not have given a second thought to, but the little things made it a day I will never forget. Whether it is El Clasico or non-league football, those things are still there. It is the little things that we miss the most, and it is those things that we will not take for granted when football returns to our lives again.