In 2000, I was an American Liverpool supporter who had never been to London. Imagine my delight when my room mate let me know that he had a connection for tickets for a match in London. In fact, the tickets were to be for a Liverpool match, and they were playing Arsenal at Highbury. It was the time when the best deals you could get on airfare were through Cheap Tickets, before the online search and compare sites, and a time when you could get $99 each way. This put you in London for about $250. With a free place to crash, London was going to be a dream. Tickets bought, bags packed and off to the aiport we went. Richard Branson did a bang up job of getting us to Heathrow in one piece, not to mention style. As my friend went through customs with his UK passport, I stood in line for the first time, eager to meet our ride. When asked why I was coming into the country I replied: “To see a match at Highbury”. “Who do you support?” the security officer asked me. I started to sweat a bit, thinking, he heard me say Highbury, so he expects me to say the Gunners, but if I don’t, there is no way I’ll be allowed in England. I said the truth, “Liverpool”, and without even looking at me, he stamped my passport and sarcastically said “best of luck with that”. I was in, welcome to Old Blighty. Shortly I was stuffed into a back of a three door Volvo hatchback with the luggage as our host, a giant of a man named Lindsay sped from the airport back to his flat in Islington. The Big Man, as he was called, was a lorry driver, part time boxer and doorman for clubs all around London. He was excited to have some friends from America (at least one, as my roomie had lived in London for quite a long time), and I was excited to talk football, get a tour of the city, and eventually see a live Premiership match.
“ Who do you support?” the security officer asked me. I started to sweat a bit, thinking, he heard me say Highbury, so he expects me to say the Gunners, but if I don’t, there is no way I’ll be allowed in England. ”
We did some sight seeing, ate kebabs, and did some shopping. It seems that while we were shopping, I reached for my ATM card. It wasn’t there. Unbeknownst to me, I had left it in the Bank machine back in the States before I got on the plane. Here I was in London, only a small amount of money, no credit card. A panic sunk in. Imagine my mood when we were eventually informed that the ticket connection had fell through. I was shattered. As we approached Highbury on match day, I was optimistic that we would get three tickets. The walk up to the stadium was unlike anything I had ever experienced in American sports. There was a buzz in the air, people were drinking pints on the street, football chants were all around, to me it was sheer madness. I loved it. We stopped for a quick bite, a fish and chips shop where I ordered and I quote “haddock and chips please” (I must have sounded like such a tourist) from an Asian woman with a thick Cockney accent. My reward was the best fish and chips I had ever had, served up nicely in newspaper. I was again in heaven. As I got closer Highbury with my friends, the excitement grew bigger and bigger, but was soon crushed at the enormous price for tickets to get into the stadium. We tried scalpers, but that was even worse. We were relegated to watch the match, in, of all places, an Arsenal pub. I was informed not to get too excited during the game, rather to watch it quietly, and exchange some glances back and forth to my friend who supported Liverpool. At least I get to watch the match with an English commentator (how thrilling it was back then), and Liverpool squeaked out a one nil victory when Stevie G had a sublime pass (pass of the year?) to Titi Camara and he finished past David Seamen. Match over, but that’s not the end of the story.
Fast forward eleven years later, visits by both parties on both sides of the Atlantic, endless telephone banter about football, and I can say without a doubt that The Big Man is one of my best friends. I taught him about some American sports. He said he wanted to pick a baseball team, I replied it couldn’t choose the Yankees. He chose the Mets, a team I equated with Portsmouth. We both got a laugh. He taught me about the beautiful game, sent me newspaper clippings from every football headline, Football Weekly, and the official Liverpool magazine, as well as football collectibles you can’t get here. Swapsies on footy stickers?. A Chelsea supporter who could tell you about the Headhunters, firm rivalries and 80’s hooliganism as easy as he could write poetry and wax poetic about Jack Kerouac and world affairs. His greeting on weekly phone calls of ” ‘ello mate” and a good bye message of “Stay lucky son” and “Up the Blues” was a sound I have grown to love, and look forward to. While in London last time I was there, we visited every football ground we could, took a tour of Stanford Bridge (a stadium he had never taken a tour of as a Blues supporter), and sat close to the pitch on a raw November day at the Valley, as Charlton put a thumping on MK Dons. I was excited to see their manager, the great player, now gaffer Paul Ince. He was a figure I had only seen on Sky Sports News, and while we stuffed our faces with Curried Chicken Pasties, the rain fell down and The Big Man lamented: “This is a perfect day to play football”. I couldn’t agree more.
You see, football is more than just a game, it’s life. I’ve grown to appreciate English football, the English approach to the game, and the cheeky culture that goes with it. The Big Man and I may not see each other but only once a year, but when we do, it’s like it was yesterday. Two football supporters who not only support different clubs, but support and respect the game. As I look back to my first trip to London, I may have missed that match at Highbury that day in 2000, but I gained one of the best people I could call my friend. That’s well worth the price of admission I didn’t pay. Stay Lucky.