Last week, I visited my girlfriend who is finishing her masters at a university in England. As a soccer fan, I’ve always wanted to experience the game wherever I travel. As I searched for a midweek game, I was happy to see that Nottingham Forest was hosting Aston Villa in an important English Championship league tie, as both are fighting for a playoff spot.
For those of you not familiar with Nottingham Forest, they have quite the history for being from a relatively small city. Forest have won the Premier League once, a pair of FA cups, back-to-back European cups (called UEFA Champions League today), four league cups and a UEFA Super Cup. All of this from a city of less than 300,000, which would be the second smallest city in Major League Soccer.
I arrived in Nottingham by train. This may contribute to one of the biggest differences between game day atmosphere in Chester vs Nottingham. Very few people drive to games in Europe, and in the U.S., cars mean tailgates. There was no hint of tailgating outside the stadium. The stadium itself (called The City Ground) is on the banks of the river Trent which is scenic but much smaller than the Delaware river in Chester.
The City Ground is only about a mile walk from the center of the city. Right across the river, and only 300 yards away, is the stadium of League Two side Notts County. It’s a strange site seeing two soccer stadiums so close together, and they are the closest soccer stadiums in all of England. Notts County’s stadium holds close to 20,000 people while The City Ground holds over 30,000 with a planned expansion to 38,000.
Instead of the normal tailgating and festivities I am used to at Union games, Nottingham’s pregame existed as packed pubs and street food located outside of the stadium. My girlfriend and I went several hours before the match and were questioned by security to see our season ticket cards or IDs before being able to enter any of the pubs. This was confusing at first, and when they realized that we were Americans they made fun of us and told us there was a football match before letting us in.
Apparently, they generally don’t let anyone from outside of Nottingham into any of the pubs around the stadium on game days, to prevent any clashes between opposing fans. While this makes some sense, it was sort of strange to see such restrictions against traveling fans. I feel that at Union games, and in American soccer in general, there is a certain level of respect or camaraderie in the soccer community. This is not the case in England, and the atmosphere reminded me of Eagles fans pouring beer and cursing out just about any team’s fans that come to visit.
I honestly was quite disappointed in the pregame atmosphere outside the stadium, but once inside my feelings changed. One strange aspect about soccer in England is that no alcohol is allowed in the stands. Before the game starts, people are crowded into the concourse drinking beers. The beer and food was all reasonably priced, which made me long for fan affordable pricing at Talen Energy stadium (fingers still crossed on that one).
There were no gimmicks as the players walked onto the field for starting lineups and instead the crowd created an unreal atmosphere. The entire stadium (barring the thousands of away fans) joined in a song about the storied City Ground and it was bone chillingly electric. The game was sold out, but the stands were so steep, even two rows from the top I felt incredibly close to the action.
When Forest scored early, the place exploded. Having roofs that are designed to protect from the elements while filtering all the sound back into the place creates such a different atmosphere. While I love the river views at Talen, the stadium truly sacrificed game day atmosphere with its river view-centric design. If you take the short drive up to Harrison, N.J. to watch a game in Red Bull Arena you can immediately understand that difference.
The Aston Villa travelling fans numbered in the thousands, and as Villa scored three straight goals to end up winning 3-1 they were deafening. Very few games at Talen have enough away fans to make any sort of impression on the atmosphere, and that’s one of the challenges of the vast distances between teams in the U.S.
I think everyone should experience the game in a different setting. While I may be an optimist, the quality of soccer Forest played seemed lower than many MLS matches. They overhit more long passes than I can remember ever seeing in a Union game, which is saying something.
While the quality of play wasn’t much different than what I’m used to at Union games, the single biggest difference was that the beautiful game was the sole focus of the entire match day experience. No anthem, no fireworks, no flag wavers, just pure soccer and crowd energy. While I do enjoy all of the things the Union do to make matches an even bigger event, as well as the tailgating before games, I think the biggest change the Union need to make to their game day experience is simply packing the stadium to capacity.
The single biggest thing I take away from this experience is that I really do appreciate American soccer and am glad to be a small part of trying to grow the game here. Maybe one day Union fans will be joining together to sing songs of cups won, but until then I choose to enjoy what makes American soccer unique, the camaraderie among fans regardless of their team, and the great American tailgate.