Stories and pictures of the beautiful game.
Let me just make this clear upfront: this is not the ultimate, unabridged guide to all London football, there’s just too much of it out there. When I started this journey, I set myself the goal to visit all London teams in the top three divisions and as it currently stands, I’m only three short: Tottenham Hotspur, Queens Park Rangers and Leyton Orient. So if you’re interested in these or in non-league football, this article won’t be able to help you.
What I can do is take you through my personal journey through London football: from high hopes to disappointments, to understanding and finally appreciation. I had to accept that there is almost no Ultra-style support, no organized singing. Cheers and songs usually come into existence spontaneously and only last a few seconds. The “Holmesdale Fanatics” supporters group at Crystal Palace were the sole exception to the rule as you will read below.
And as a little bonus there is even one non-league ground among the nine that I feature here. With the plethora of teams and teams per league, there is hardly a day without football in London. So let’s get started – as usual sorted by ground capacity.
To many of you it might not be a surprise that Arsenal was probably my biggest London football disappointment. Somebody later told me: “They didn’t have any atmosphere at their old ground and it only got worse after they moved.” The crowd is very picky and there isn’t even a club anthem played at the beginning. Don’t ask me why, but I ended up seeing three matches there (once each in the Premiere League, the English League Cup and the UEFA Champions League) and the experience was consistently bad (with the exception of some away crowds). While the stadium is generally impressive, it also reeks of a standard kit 60k identikit arena. Given that the admission fees are through the roof and that you might struggle getting tickets on general sale for a lot of the fixtures, I would only recommend this if it was your only option and you absolutely have to see a game.
In terms of atmosphere, Chelsea is only marginally better than Arsenal. The crowd I experienced seemed very spoiled and only created atmosphere when the team was performing well – a 2:0 lead at half-time during the derby against Arsenal did help to get superiority jeers and chants going, but the mood changed as soon as Arsenal scored early in the second half. Suddenly people were only bickering against their own team. It’s still a solid football experience and if you get a ticket for the Shed End, you might even get to stand. People just ignored the stewards’ pleads to sit down, and the atmosphere seemed much livelier than at other sections. The grounds’ architecture is very diverse; every stand has its distinct feature.
You could say the same about Boleyn Ground’s design, this is not identikit. But if you want to see West Ham play there you should hurry, because the club will move to the Olympic Stadium starting in the 2016/17 season, following a trend of London clubs who think they need to increase capacity. It remains to be seen whether or not that will be a good idea in terms of atmosphere. At Boleyn Ground I was entertained quite well, and it was the first time I noticed those spontaneous chants that arise for one special occasion: The fans didn’t take a recent transfer of their former player too well and greeted him with “Fuck off, Craig Bellamy!” every now and then. I’ve also grown accustomed to those jolly anthems or theme songs they play at the beginning, and West Ham’s “I’m forever blowing bubbles” is definitely one of my favorites (see video).
Charlton Athletic were the first team I saw in London, and while I was impressed with the physical intensity of the match, the atmosphere was a bit of a letdown. The team had chances for Premiere League promotion at the time, but this energy and tension did not get transferred to the home fans; the only atmosphere was created in the away end. Three of the ground’s stands are connected while the corners to the fourth (which is also where the away fans are located) are not closed. The club song “Red Robin” is also quite charming!
Even before I set foot in Selhurst Park, I finally got to experience English Ultra culture as I joined the supporters group “Holmesdale Fanatics” in their pub before the match. Several noteworthy details are all written up in the report linked above but in short: I felt like I arrived at the end of a long search. The “Fanatics” are a dedicated group that support their team throughout the match with creative and songs and sometimes elaborate tifo displays. All four stands of this mid-sized ground have different designs and you can even find some old wooden seats. Crystal Palace would be my recommendation for your London football experience if you like Ultra-style support.
Craven Cottage | capacity: 25,700 | Fulham FC | pictures
I won’t keep complaining about lack of atmosphere from here on, though Fulham would certainly give me plenty of reasons. It’s just important to manage expectations, and I will still recommend going to Fulham – because of the ground. It’s located right at the River Thames which you will get to stroll along when you approach the ground from the train station. One of the stands is even directly next to the river and respectively called “Riverside Stand”. The most famous stand is probably the “Johnny Haynes Stand” which is the oldest in the English Football League at the moment (built in 1905) and adds a lot of character. Make sure to sit in the “Hammersmith End” to get a good view of the entire ground.
Back in the days, Millwall gained a bad reputation for its hooligan fans. As a response to sustained bad press, the supporters started singing a “Nobody likes us, we don’t care” adaptation of Rod Steward’s “I am sailing”. Things have quieted down in the last decades but certain games will still have a spark of the olden days, like a derby against West Ham or – more likely to happen – a game vs. the old enemy from the north: Leeds. There is deep hatred between the two fan groups which will turn The Den and its four free-standing sections into a boiling cauldron. Regular games will be a lot less exciting.
In terms of logistics, Griffin Park might be your ground: it’s only a few tube stations away from Heathrow Airport and there is a pub at every corner. It’s also one of the few remaining Championship grounds with terracing which creates a slightly livelier atmosphere, and you will also be charmed by its design – especially the two-tier stands seem quite original to me.
I promised you a non-league bonus – so here you go. This was the last game I saw in London to date and gave me the impression that the world below the top three leagues is worth exploring as well. The ground is a small and tidy construction of four individual stands, split about evenly into terracing and seats. Kingstonian share the ground with AFC Wimbledon, I saw the former play. We’re well down the league pyramid here in the Isthmian League Premier Division. It’s that kind of game that attracts a few hundred local folks who enjoy some pre-game warm-up in the club house and then end up singing more lively and continuously than I got to see at most Premiere League matches! Home and away fans turned this into a great experience (see video) that I can recommend, though I obviously lack the proper basis for comparison on the non-league level.
This concludes my journey through London football over the last few years. As with my other football guides (Football guide to Prague and Football guide to Berlin) I will update it if I go to more games so keep an eye out. Subscribe to my facebook page for more frequent updates and full photo albums, or check out my flickr profile for what I feel are my best photos.