The wonderful thing about being in Britain is that you can hear conversations about football in the most interesting places. Taking the train from Manchester to Liverpool last month to embark on a trip to see Everton at home against Bolton, you couldn’t escape hearing people talking about the beautiful game. And that included wives, children, teenagers and grown men.
Taking the train to Goodison Park, I had plenty of time to reflect on my youth growing up in the U.K. and how football has been such a integral part of the fabric of my life. From 1984 when I emigrated to America, I had a lot of catching up to do.
I wasn’t quite prepared for what was about to unfold.
Everton’s Goodison Park isn’t the most convenient place to visit by train. After arriving at Liverpool Street Station and catching another train to Liverpool Central, I had to take another train before I arrived at Kirkdale station. From there, the walk was about a mile, which I didn’t mind as the blood pumped through my veins in anticipation of my first visit to Goodison.
Walking up the streets toward Goodison Park, it was a typical Saturday morning in England with busy traffic on roads, women entering laundromats, kids chewing McDonald hamburgers and the usual bustle of a busy city. After walking up a side street past terraced housing, there she was: the Grand Old Lady, built in 1892 and one of the world’s oldest and most historic football stadiums, Goodison Park.
Arriving at Goodison approximately 2-3 hours before kick off, I must have circled the ground twice before entering the Main Stand from Goodison Road. Everton was courteous enough to provide me with a press pass, so I was able to ascend the glorious carpeted steps in the executive area of the stand.
After walking up several flights of stairs, I found the press box and proceeded to take in the view in front of me: An expanse of green encircled by the glorious blue empty seats, an incredibly impressive sight indeed.
From the inside, the ground looks smaller. I proceeded to walk down the concrete steps to get closer to the pitch. With not a person in sight, it was hard to believe that millions around the world would be watching the match in a mere two hours.
Standing in the Main Stand, I was able to take in the majesty of the Bullens Road Stand and Gwladys Stand, both built by Scottish football designer Archibald Leitch. Only 11 of his stands remain in existence today, and two of them are at Goodison.
One of the things that I noticed about the Main Stand was how antiquated it looked even though it was built in 1971 after the 1909 stand was demolished (also built by Archibald Leitch). The giant concrete steps near the back of the stand obviously hadn’t been built in preparation for the tiny seats, but the addition of the original wooden seats from Leitch in the stand was a nice touch.
After stepping into the press room behind the press box for a bite to eat and a drink, I was conscious about how much smaller everything is in the UK: parking spaces, restrooms, houses, and even press rooms. But what it does do is force people to mingle more in confined spaces. And what you find, especially in Liverpool, is that the people – for the most part – are charming.
The employees at Everton behind-the-scenes were stellar. And watching the fellow journalists was also interesting. Hearing the banter between them and watching them preparing their notes and thoughts for the game ahead of them.
With an hour to go before kickoff, I decided to step outside to take in the atmosphere. The number of people in the crowds had picked up by now with thousands streaming around the stands. However they were (as I’ve previously written) surprisingly quiet other than the occasional horn noise, chit chat or programme seller trying to catch the attention of passerbys.
I think part of the reason for this, other than the whole gentrification of the game, is that fans most often attend matches in small groups today (father and son, two mates together, or a small family). What you don’t see as much is the large pack of young men going to matches together, which is more likely to be more vocal and intimidating.
Walking around the ground again, this time along with thousands of strangers, I stopped by St Luke’s Church nestled in the corner between the Main and Gwladys Stands. While the church itself isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing, its presence in all of places a football ground makes it so unique.
Continuing around the corner to the Gwladys Stand, you could sense that this end of the ground had fans who were more boisterous. You could feel a difference in the atmosphere, which may have been made more profound by the police horses that strode up and down the street.
Back inside the ground, the press room was buzzing with approximately 30 journalists crammed into a small area to grab a drink before the match began. Walking through the door and into the press box facing the halfway line, the blue seats had now disappeared and were replaced with the darker clothing colors synonymous with the blustery weather.
I’m not surprised that there are very few overweight football journalists in the UK. Judging by the exceedingly cramped conditions in the press box, there’s no way a hefty journo could squeeze into the minute wooden seats where you sit cozily side-by-side with other reporters, while your knees brush up against the row in front of you. Still, it’s one of the best views in the house with the director’s box just a few rows below where Sam Allardyce sat for this first half.
The build-up to the kick-off was anti-climatic, as it was in all of the other matches I went to see on the trip. Looking at my watch, I could see that with ten minutes to go before kick-off, the crowd was silent other than the buzz of conversation. On television, you’d be seeing cutting-edge on-screen graphics and the sense of some kind of wonderful that was approaching. In the ground, it seemed that the fans were preparing for “just another match.”
That all changed as soon as the fans were greeted to the theme of Z-Cars as the Everton squad walked out to the field next to the Trotters. And when the theme for the English Premier League sounded out from the PA system, a chill ran down my spine. The fans around Goodison seemed to erupt, too, with the Bolton fans outsinging the Everton fans during the first 15-20 minutes of the match.
A note of interest is that during the match, it was very difficult to see any of the TV cameras, so Sky does a good job at being inobtrusive.
During half-time, I slipped back into the press room to grab a drink and ran into Guillem Balague, the famed Spanish journalist who is one of the guests on The Game Podcast from The Times.
The match itself was not a classic by any means, but the goal that separated the sides was one of the goals of the season with a beautiful left-footed shot by Mikael Arteta.
After the match ended, I went to the changing room area and interviewed Bolton’s Johann Smith, the promising American youngster who only days prior to the match had been in Florida playing for the U.S. under-20’s side against Guatemala alongside Freddy Adu.
The area near the changing room was cramped. David Moyes was next door giving an interview in front of the Sky Sports cameras, and there was a horde of journalists waiting to get into the press conference area to interview Moyes and Arteta.
Moments later, I stepped outside Goodison Park and into the darkness. The streets around the ground were now practically deserted. My journey to Goodison Park had ended.
Later that evening, I stayed with my Great Aunt who lives about half a mile from Anfield. One of the memorable stories I heard was about my Great Uncle who one day got a job as a taxi driver in Liverpool. One of his first jobs was to drive to Goodison for a pick-up. He arrived at Goodison on a matchday and parked the car as instructed in front of the ground. Out walked several men carrying large bags. They proceeded to fill the car with the bags when my Great Uncle realized what the purpose of this particular taxi ride was…
He was there to pick up the money bags from the match and transport them to a local bank!
If you want to visit a British ground steeped in history and full of character, Goodison Park needs to be on your list. One of the reasons I went there was to see the ground since its future is in jeopardy due to the club considering a move to the Liverpool suburbs. The next time you go to England, stop by and visit the Toffees.
As promised, over the next several days, I’ll be sharing more about my experiences touring England to watch four Premiership matches and one Champions League match. Stay tuned to this blog for observations about how different the Premiership is in person versus on television — which is how most of us experience it.