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Bill Connelly | September 10, 2014

Premier League road trip, part 3

Etihad, odds and ends, and Hi Ho Sheffield Wednesday

Bill Connelly spent five days in England to search for the heart of English soccer, compare football crowds to futbol crowds, and figure out why everybody was telling him not to rent a car.

VI. Hi ho, Hillsborough

These grounds had been built for a generation of fans that didn't drive, or even rely on public transport overly much, and so they were placed carefully in the middle of residential areas full of narrow streets and terraced houses. Twenty or thirty years after the catchment areas began to expand dramatically, and people started traveling from ten or twenty or fifty miles away, nothing has changed. This was the time to build new stadia, out of town, with parking facilities and improved safety provisions; the rest of Europe did, and as a consequence the grounds in Italy, Spain, Portugal and France are bigger, better, and safer, but typically, in a country whose infrastructure is finally beginning to fall apart, we didn't bother. Here, tens of thousands of fans walk up narrow, winding underground tunnels, or double-park their cars in tiny, quiet, local streets, while the relevant football authorities seem content to carry on as if nothing at all -- behaviour, the fan base, methods of transport, even the state of the grounds themselves, which like the rest of us start to look a bit tatty after the first half-century or so -- had changed. There was so much that could and should have been done, and nothing ever was, and everyone trundled along for year after year after year, for a hundred years, until Hillsborough. Hillsborough was the fourth post-war British football disaster, the third in which large numbers of people were crushed to death following some kind of failure in crowd control; it was the first which has been attributed to something more than bad luck. So you can blame the police for opening the wrong gate at the wrong time if you like, but in my opinion to do so would be to miss the point.

-- Fever Pitch

Soccer landmarks are strange. We know the stadiums we know for all sorts of reasons. "Here's Anfield. It's where Liverpool have played for 120 years, and it's where You'll Never Walk Alone."

"Here's Old Trafford, where amazing players have played and Manchester United have won 100 titles."

"Here's Hillsborough, where Sheffield Wednesday play and a whole lot of people died once."

There's similar "I need to see that stadium; it's famous" motivation for each.

Hillsborough is indeed famous for reasons that have nothing to do with Sheffield Wednesday. On April 15, 1989, during an FA Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, 96 Liverpool fans died in a crush as officials and police went step by step through everything you’re not supposed to do in crowd control, making sure to check each box.

You’ve probably heard of Hillsborough because of old documentaries or the incredible 30 for 30 presentation this past April. Like many others (I figure), I fell into a YouTube rabbit hole at my desk job a few years ago and ended up watching hours of Hillsborough documentaries and recaps. But something hit me a while later that has fascinated me in a different way: on May 9, just over three weeks after Hillsborough forever became the official English proper noun for "sports disaster," Sheffield Wednesday had another home game there.

Owls drew 19,905 for a 2-0 loss to West Ham that day. Fans of this club have been going back to the stadium every week to watch their team play. A site of tragedy to some, it is a respite to others. It is sacred ground. It is home field.

We were originally only assured of attending Liverpool-Southampton, but when it got moved to Sunday, it opened up an opportunity to see Hillsborough.

these beautiful old tin boxes, relics of what so many of us picture as quaint old English soccer, those are the real stadiums.

When we were prepping for this trip, the built-into-the-city stadiums were most appealing and interesting to us. Who wants to see some new, huge structure with ample parking? We can see plenty of that in the states already. No, these beautiful old tin boxes, relics of what so many of us picture as quaint old English soccer, those are the real stadiums.

I found myself desperately not wanting to write mostly about Hillsborough when I got to Hillsborough. I didn't want to ask fans about it, and honestly I don't want Wednesday fans to even read this. They've been asked about it enough, and they've been tied to this tragedy, which didn't involve them, for long enough. But it was strange watching a match there, at least at first. We parked off of Leppings Lane, and I recognized the street because the Leppings Lane entrance was where things went awry in 1989. We watched Derby County fans chant and carouse in the west end of the stadium, realizing we only knew the west end because of the documentaries. It was everywhere if you wanted to see it. But the stadium is still a stadium, and the game is still the game. And when the two teams kicked off, this place was Sheffield Wednesday’s home stadium and nothing more.

Let's not mess around: the owl is pretty badass as far as logos go. It should be featured as prominently as possible. As you have probably seen, the "Hillsborough" label stands guard in that rounded, 1970s-jai-a'lai-center font. But the owl and team crest hover around a corner. It is the bee’s knees.

For the match itself, let’s first set the mood.

Why that? Because of this.

I had the song in my head the rest of the trip. I may have purchased it on iTunes when I got home.

We sat at basically midfield, third row. This may only be a Championship match, but the athleticism is as clear as Wednesday’s blue is vivid. Derby are considered a promotion favorite this year, and they were sounder and had stronger weak links. But if you were to list the six best players in this match, Wednesday had at least four of them. The Owls crafted a strategy perfectly around those pieces – quick winger Jacques Maghoma beat defenders one-on-one down the left side. Defender Sam Hutchinson, with pretty hair and nasty game, pulled a Billy Bremner on opposing attackers and all but winking them after he got away with a potential foul. Attacker Chris Maguire worked and worked and worked, sprinting everywhere all game. And monstrous Atdhe Nuhiu, twice as big as those defending him, posted up and won nearly every lob sent his way via goal kick or long ball. Wednesday controlled a majority of the first half, nearly scoring on quite a few occasions but never quite pulling it off. Maguire made a hash of a couple of free kicks, drawing the crowd’s ire, then bonked another one off the cross bar, winning them back.

Wednesday controlled the first half and easily dominated the battle of fierce sponsors, conquering the JustEat.co.uk on Derby’s kits with "AZERBAIJAN LAND OF FIRE." But when Nuhiu wore down in the second half, as heavyweights are prone to do, the tide turned. Derby’s subs were better than Wednesday’s, and sub attacker Johnny Russell got behind Wednesday’s mostly sound back line. The game ended scoreless because one of Russell’s shots dribbled wide and another was saved beautifully by Wednesday keeper Keiren Westwood on a 1-on-1.

Even though we very much wanted to see a goal celebration, especially in the final minutes, a scoreless draw was justice. In a 12-round fight, Wednesday would have won four of the first six rounds, then dropped four of the final six. (The game was also proof that scoreless draws can be fun. There were dull stretches in the middle, but the first 30 and last 30 minutes were tense and entertaining.)

The fans were, for the most part, the "soccer fan" stereotypes. There are loads of old couples and families with small children in attendance, but the chants are still there, the occasional vulgarity can still be heard, and the chanting creates a unique atmosphere we obviously don’t get in the states. College football comes close, with school chants and marching bands, but they aren’t nearly as oppressive as 20,000-50,000 mostly male voices screaming words you probably don’t understand. (Insert obvious "Yeah, but Texas A&M..." interjection here.)

Derby fans brought their A-game – the traveling fans usually do, since those are likely the most hardcore folks of the bunch. The fans chanted early and often, tiring as the game slowed down in the middle, then picking back up after halftime. When Wednesday narrowly missed an early shot on goal, they Nelson Muntz’d the Wednesday fans to their left, pointing and laughing. This outright appalled the 10-year old boy sitting next to me. He carried on for quite a while about how outrageous Derby fans are. The man next to him, either his young father or older brother, told him how awful Derby people are in general.

Sheffield and Derby are 50 miles apart, by the way. These fan bases are almost certainly more similar than they’d care to admit, just like Florida and Florida State fans, Oregon and Oregon State fans, etc. As fans, we are nothing if not a predictable (and predictably great) bunch. And when Wednesday fans began taunting Derby fans right back after their own misses, it was delicious.

the bottom line is that many Americans just don't want to sit in an anxious state for that long without breaks.

Fun fact about soccer chants: there’s a good chance that the only words you’re going to recognize as a group is singing are a) their team’s name, b) the other team’s name, and c) "fucking." They very clearly enunciate (c) every time. And there are plenty of opportunities to do so.

Soccer is inherently about anxiety. You might have to wait 90 minutes to find a resolution to the conflict at hand, and you might not even get one then. Soccer-hating Americans (of which there are fewer and fewer) can talk about low scores or floppery or whatever they want, but the bottom line is that many Americans just don't want to sit in an anxious state for that long without breaks. American sports have breaks. When you think about American and British stereotypes, it of course makes sense that Brits like soccer more. (It also reminds us that sports help to create these stereotypes.)

At the same time, though, the season is obscenely long. For both Derby and Wednesday, this was the second of 46 matches in league play. Instead of constant anxiety, the vibe in the stadium was more of reassurance. Crowds go crazy every time their team wins a corner (even though well more than 90 percent of corners fail to result in a goal). And the man behind us said basically one of two things all match: "Well done" and, when a Wednesday player got the ball with space to run, "Go! GOOOOO!" He was a patient, supportive parent. Granted, he also called one of Maguire’s failed free kicks rubbish as well, but … well, it was rubbish.

The simple thing to do following the 1989 tragedy would have been simply tear down this stadium and build somewhere else. But that's not how this sport and this continent work. Heysel Stadium still stands. Valley Parade Stadium still stands. Hillsborough Stadium still stands. In a continent that has seen wars, plagues, and disaster, you don't tear down and rebuild your history; it is what it is, and you live your life around it. Hillsborough was an old stadium 25 years ago, and while infinitely stronger safety measures are still in place, it is now mostly what it was then from an aesthetics standpoint.

And just as your history is your history, your fixtures are your fixtures. Teams still play each other when asked. Millwall and Luton Town still played when required after the 1985 Kenilworth Road riot. Liverpool and Forest still played until Forest's demotion. Hell, Wednesday remained a top-division team for 10 of 11 years from 1989 to 2000; that means Liverpool came back to Hillsborough for a road tie 10 times. History is formative, but really, history is a caboose you drag behind you from fixture to fixture.

Just a few weeks after Hillsborough, Liverpool had a chance to win the league at Anfield and, for however long, give stricken followers a chance to briefly celebrate. Instead, the match was fodder for one of Arsenal's greatest moments. Sports tragedy following real tragedy fills you in pretty clearly on what's most important in life, but ... damn. But both the club and the fans rallied, winning the First Division title the next season.

Sheffield is Pittsburgh, gray and alive, married to steel with rows of homes in the hillsides. It has been called the best beer city in England, which we unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity (or, after the night in Leeds, the wherewithal) to prove right or wrong. It is a family-friendly area with two proud fanbases – Wednesday and United – and while the aesthetics could be polished up a bit, there’s no need. It is what it is, and I was disappointed not to spend longer there.

eplSheffield Wednesday's stadium in Hillsborough. (Getty Images)

***

VII. Potent Potables

Here are some odds and ends about the Wednesday-Derby game, Britain itself, and driving in this damn country.

Wednesday-Derby

  • America has a tailgate culture. England has a fish-and-chip-shops-outside-the-game culture. There weren’t many bars too close to the stadium, but the chip shop was hopping, as one would expect.
  • The most popular concession among the families in our section: french fry sandwiches. As far as I could tell, it was literally just bread, fries (er, chips), and ketchup. We asked some friends about this later in the trip; they both just gave a regretful raise of the eyebrows, confirming that this is an actual thing and isn’t limited to Sheffield.
  • We heard plenty of F-bombs, but it took us until the 73rd minute to hear "twat." I would have bet the under and lost.

Music

  • Granted, the Stones were playing the moment we turned on the car for the first time, but it took more than hour for us to hear an Adele song on the radio. Naturally, it came in between a solid block of Lady Gaga, Prince (the d.j. teased it as a new Prince song, then played "Raspberry Beret"), Brian Adams, and Ace of Base.
  • Meanwhile, how did it take us until Sunday, as we rolled into Liverpool, to hear the Monkees?
  • Britain. Loves. Ed Sheeran. We heard two of his songs at least 25 times in four days of driving. (This one and this one if you want to be afflicted with Sheeranitis.) Pretty sure even BBC Classical played "Sing" twice.
  • Get off my lawn, etc., but … house music is just terrible. Awful. A dance remix of John Legend’s "All of Me"? Really? And can you come up with more than five remix beats? Kids these days. Tell you what.
  • But on the bright side, we heard TLC’s "Scrubs" twice in about four hours of driving.
  • Kings of Leon are the Black Eyed Peas of rock music. This has nothing to do with anything, but I came to the realization on this trip, therefore you get to read it.

Driving

  • It took fewer than 10 minutes of driving to pull off our first "Big Ben, Parliament" experience. I’m rather proud of that. We don’t mess around. But this country loves its damn eight-lane roundabouts, and the Garmin lady was having none of it. She hates London. It took us a while to get out of London on Thursday; then again, it took us a while to get anywhere.
  • So yeah, roundabouts. I understand the purpose of a lot of them. They (usually) prevent long lines at busy intersections. But on Sunday night, while trying to avoid hilariously thick congestion on the main highway between Liverpool and Birmingham, we took the back roads. First of all, more people should take the back roads. They’re scenic and empty. Even if we didn’t save time using them, the stress level went from 10 to four.
  • Still, the stress would have gone down to a two or three if we hadn’t had to slow down for roundabouts almost literally once per mile. Imagine a U.S. highway – the four-lane, higher-speed roads that aren’t interstate. You know all of those small roads onto which you turn, either via off-ramp or simply slowing down on the shoulder and turning? Now imagine all of those, all of those, are roundabouts.
  • By the way, if you complain too loudly about this, you will almost instantaneously encounter a double roundabout.
  • Let’s just say that semi trucks in England don’t have the same oomph as those in the states. Every time we had to go over even a slight crest on the highway, traffic slowed to a crawl. We lost 15 minutes behind a hay truck on approach to Nottingham. I can no longer complain about truckers going 55 on the interstate.
  • I remembered this from my last trip: Traffic lights go yellow in both ways – from green to yellow to red, and from red to yellow to green. That inevitably means that people begin inching forward, but Brits can handle that. Americans almost certainly cannot. Then again, this would probably be one distinct way for Missourians to learn particular lessons about running red lights. They haven’t really learned it to date.
EPL (Getty Images)>

Whatnot

  • BBC stations are prevalent on the FM dial, and on quite a few occasions, we encountered mature conversations on difficult topics. This was jarring. You mean, you can talk about St. Louis and Ferguson without partisan blinders? You can talk about the difficulties of coming out of the closet (and even the unique difficulties of those with strong religious views) without a screaming match equally pitting "both sides of the argument?" Even with the requisite Silly Radio Dee-Jays and ridiculous newspapers, England destroys America in this category.
  • Our second-favorite discovery of the trip: an hourlong BBC show featuring highlights and interviews from a vast number of Football League (those divisions below the Premier League) matches, with a different set of hosts and analysts. We watched every second. This further proved to me that the show idea I desperately want – an hourlong late-Saturday show featuring almost nothing but highlights of FBS games and key FCS games – would work. Let Lou Holtz and Mark May keep yammering; those of us who ignore them (and most of ESPN’s other talking-head programming) would happily tune into ESPNU to watch this. Do you really think a) it would be expensive, or b) it would perform worse than some full-length replay of one of Saturday’s earlier games? Of course not. But I digress.
  • On the radio heading out of Nottingham, we listened to local radio featuring a former Forest goal-keeper and a former Liverpool player. Liverpool Guy was asked if he enjoys the current game of soccer as compared to the one that he played 30+ years ago. Of course he doesn’t. He liked when players were allowed to "have a go," and he doesn’t care for all the floppery. When asked if the great 1980s Liverpool teams could compete with today’s, he of course gave the 1980s the advantage; he admitted that today’s players are more physically fit (duh), but that was as much backtracking as he could stomach. We stayed on the channel for a while to catch their name and failed (I believe the Forest guy was Steve Sutton), but that's not particularly important. Old former pros in one sport are old former pros in another.
  • Also on the radio, we heard the story of 22-year old Romsey Town manager James Phillips, who became the youngest manager in the history of the FA Cup on Saturday. One of his main qualifications when he was hired: he has played thousands and thousands of hours of Football Manager. We have a new favorite manager. (Romsey lost to Fareham Town, 3-1.)
  • Half of the British male population wears soccer jerseys at all times, but we didn’t see a single England National Team jersey in five-plus days.
  • 100 percent of the Bradford City fans we met on the trip were piss drunk, peeing in the streets of Leeds, by 9 p.m. One of one.
  • Speaking of which, judging by our experience, a man is lawfully allowed to urinate anywhere he wants, particularly on highway shoulders.
  • Phone numbers all sound like they came from a Monty Python skit. "Phone lines are open! Just dial zero, eight, double-zero, double six, double three, double four, seven, double five." They only have one extra digit than an American phone number; it feels like 12 more.
  • I still have no idea what the nouns or verbs mean when listening to cricket summarized on the radio. As a sports person, it is consistently disorienting.

***

VII. Beef, pudding, and infrastructure

Perhaps the most heartening moment of the trip, from a fan perspective, came the day after we left Manchester. Listening to the radio while stuck in the aforementioned highway gridlock somewhere between Liverpool and Stoke, we found the final 15 or so minutes of the City-Newcastle match on the radio. The announcers were pleasant enough and not completely homerish; that is, they completely revealed they were homers, but they weren't obnoxious with it.

Stuck in the car for quite a while, we went ahead and listened to the post-game show as well. After a bit, the radio guys began taking calls with answers to the makeshift question of the day: If you could choose for City to win either the Premier League or the Champions League this year, which one would it be? (The answer is Champions League. Of course it is.) After talking to a couple of callers, however, the guys stepped back and marveled: How amazing is it that we’re even talking about this?

they talked about how incredibly lucky City and its fans were to stumble across not only a rich owner, but an absurdly rich owner. EPL(Getty Images)>

With callers and amongst themselves, they talked about how incredibly lucky City and its fans were to stumble across not only a rich owner, but an absurdly rich owner. And after an initial bout of setting as much money as possible on fire to prove he’s serious, City owner Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, whose City Football Group bought the club in 2008, has gotten serious about the club’s long-term prospects. Mansour could have gotten some other club, but he got City. And it has changed the trajectory of English soccer.

Before 2008, City had been a solid program. The Sky Blues had been a top-division club for most of their history but had won just two first-division titles, in 1937 and 1968. The team fell out of the Premier League in 1996, then got relegated again in 1998. The rally had already begun before the City Group took over -- City was back up to the second level by 1999, then yo-yo'd between the second and first divisions from 2000-03. But they hadn't finished in the Premier League's top five for 16 seasons when the Mansour money came in. They've finished fifth, third, first, second, and first in the last five years.

Chris Anderson, co-author of the seminal The Numbers Game: "First of all, it's still pretty recent. So for most of them, they're pinching themselves. But they're pinching themselves with a gain of salt -- 'This could end quickly. It could go away again.' So I think they're pleased that the club is making real infrastructure commitment. That's something that'll help the club going forward even if the money were to go away. But they've always been the noisy neighbor to the big Manchester United, and it'll take a while longer to get over that.

The City Football Group also owns what are basically now three sister clubs as well: New York City FC, Melbourne City FC, and Yokohama. There are rumblings about a fourth club. Etihad expansion efforts are underway. The SportCity complex surrounding the stadium is a small city, with not only Etihad but also a squash center, a 6500-seat arena, a velodrome, a tennis center, and the English Institute of Sport. It's a striking, beautiful area.

"There were some nouveau riche things going on early," Anderson says. "They splashed money in silly ways, but they have sort of grown into it. That's nice to see. They've hired better people, they've come up with a philosophy for the club, a playing philosophy. They've also come up with this plan to own multiple clubs. This is designed to do a couple of things. First, it has little to do with football and everything to do with legitimizing the ownership and its background and its country. But it also has to do with brand building. Send players to and from, develop them.

"For a football club, that's really valuable. You have similar coaches, coaching philosophies, playing styles. Everything fits together right now -- the way young players are developed in England is, if not subpar, then inferior to what it could be. They can come up through your academy, through your system, but they hit a ceiling in terms of the competition they can play. So you need to loan them out, and once you loan them out, you have less control over what happens to them -- how they play, how they train. So you need to find clubs that cooperate with you, that you trust. It's incredibly ad hoc. So having these clubs means you have this guy, he's 19, he's this kind of player, he needs to work on x, y, z. Let's send him to Melbourne -- there's a coach there who can help him. Without that, you have a 19-year old winger who's a great talent ... what are you going to do? He shouldn't play in the reserves, he's not quite ready to play in the Premiership, so let's send him to ... ?"

The radio chat convinced us that City fans have a decent grasp of reality. But we saw all we needed of Mansour’s commitment the evening before as we rolled into Manchester.

Going straight from Hillsborough to Etihad Stadium was like going from a row house to a fortress. Etihad is incredible, with is hotel-like entrance gates and its nearly perfect aesthetics. Sure, the general mega-stadium structure isn’t particularly unique, but the use of graphics around the stadium is executed perfectly, and the sports complex as a whole is impressive.

Along the exterior of the stadium, you get a runthrough of City's club history and some general celebration photos. But on the west side is my favorite part. City commemorates, moment to moment, the day that hooked me on club soccer forever. With City needing to beat QPR to win the title and QPR needing to win to (potentially) avoid relegation, the underdog visitors held a shocking late lead before the Citizens pulled off an even more shocking comeback.

That turn of events, right down to Sir Alex Ferguson looking flustered and QPR then staying up because of another result, hooked me on this sport forever. It didn't make me a City fan to any major degree, but I appreciate City for being a part of it.

Mansour spent the money to make City good. Then he made City great. And now he’s investing in ways to assure that City remains great for the distant future. And with the infrastructure he is building, even if he gets bored and sells the club, it will take a lot of incompetence from his successor to break down what is and will soon be in place.

After Etihad, we checked into our hotel in downtown Manchester, met up with a friend from Rock M Nation, and ate at Beef & Pudding, our second literally-named restaurant in two days. The boards of meats and cheeses are apparently trendy things at the trendy restaurants in city centres. We ordered one with various cow- and pig-related products, and when some customers walked out, they gave us a seafood board for free. We figured this was the best place to cross black pudding off of the list, as well. The verdict: with gravy, it’s basically salisbury steak, maybe with a bit of what Andrew Zimmern would call a "minerally aftertaste." The gravy is key.

Sunday morning, we needed to be up early enough to get to Old Trafford before heading out of town. It was windier than a port city as we traced around another large complex, and it began to rain on us pretty hard. But aside from a team picture that makes it look like Wayne Rooney is stepping on Sir Matt Busby’s head, the United folks know aesthetics, too. You make a semi-circle around the stadium, with all sorts of statues and banners, and then you make your way underneath the stadium to the Munich entrance, forever commemorating the 1958 plane crash that took the lives of 23 passengers, including eight United players, three United staffers, and eight journalists.

This happened long before the United States became cognizant of soccer's goings-on, but it was one of the most stunning, somber moments in the sport's history, and United's sprawling memorial is well done. Again, your history is never past. For all of United's great success -- and lord knows this club has had plenty of that -- it is never more than a few steps away from its toughest loss. There's poignance in that, even when it's windy as hell outside.

We couldn’t stay as long as we wanted at Old Trafford. We of course hadn't gotten out of the hotel as early as planned, and it was time to go to Liverpool.


Previously:
Part 1: Nerds and Ian Darke
Part 2: NOTTINGHAM, DIRTY LEEDS, AND REGULARS AT THE HOTEL BAR
Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Spencer Hall | Title Photo: Getty Images

About the Author

Bill Connelly grew up a fan of the Miami Dolphins (post-1970s glory), Pittsburgh Pirates (ditto), Portland Trailblazers (ditto again) and Missouri Tigers. That he still enjoys sports at all shows both severe loyalty and a potential personality disorder. He spends his evening playing with excel sheets and watching DVR'd football games from ESPN Classic. See more of his work at Rock M Nation, Football Outsiders and Football Study Hall.

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