It’s the question everyone’s asking. In the pubs and bars of the capital, the debate is raging. Kids are OMGing and FYIing about one subject and one subject only. If you were allowed to talk to a stranger on the underground, you’d both be discussing this. That’s right, you’ve guessed it: What is the best Premier League ground in London?
I recently realised that I have attended a match at every Premier League stadium in London and found myself wondering which one was the best. Do you define ‘best’ as the most entertaining football? Is it the value for money one gets for (supposedly) top quality football? Does ‘best ground’ mean the best atmosphere? Am I going to stop writing endless rhetorical questions? Who knows? All these will be questions I will attempt to answer in a thorough and shamelessly subjective manner.
This is the ground I most recently attended – the harrowing 3-1 defeat by Bayern Munich in the last-16 Champions League tie. At £63.50, the ticket wasn’t cheap, but, bearing in mind this is the world’s finest football competition, not a disgrace. From my seat behind the goal (apparently the cheapest in the price band) I could see the match perfectly; apart from I couldn’t because all the Arsenal fans insisted on standing up for the whole match (at 5ft 5ins I have a slight disadvantage in this respect.) The stadium itself is very impressive and very accessible, only a 5 minute walk from Holloway tube. The best thing about the ground is its simplicity. Once through the turnstile, I was in my seat within 20 seconds. There was little in the way of queues for anything (apart from the toilets obviously) and everything was laid out it a clear and structured manner (the most important thing for every football fan I’m sure you’ll agree.) I couldn’t tell you the price of the refreshments available because I smuggled in a pack of Penguins (the biscuit not the animal) for a half-time snack.
What didn’t impress me was the Arsenal fans themselves. After going 2-0 down in about the 15th minute, one ‘supporter’ three rows in front of me turned around and walked out. The rest thankfully stayed until at least half-time, when a chorus of boos echoed around the stadium. When players tried something that didn’t come off, some fans around me started getting on their back – not conducive to a winning team. The supporters didn’t seem to appreciate they were playing one of the best teams in Europe, a team that are light-years ahead of Arsenal at the present time. Whilst there was definitely some negativity emanating from the stands, I must state that there were an equal number of fans that admirably got behind their team even when they went 2-0 and 3-1 down, constantly singing and urging their team on. Arsenal need more of those supporters, especially given the current predicament in which they find themselves.
Now I must admit that the last (and only) time I saw a match at Stamford Bridge was at the age of 11. That day I remember Sam Dalla Bona and Mario Melchiot scored and possibly Gus Poyet too in a 3-0 victory (a scoreline they can only dream of these days.) I have been back since, but only to an after party at ‘Under the Bridge,’ Roman Abramovich’s nightclub under (funnily enough) Stamford Bridge, and I remember even less about that so let’s discuss the football instead.
When I went, it was already a lovely stadium – what I like about Stamford Bridge is it is not a new-build stadium, so it is very compact, like everything has been squashed in as tight as possible. I was sat almost parallel to the goal, but in those days there were poles holding up the stand so unfortunately I had an impaired view of the action. My Dad bought the tickets so I have no idea how expensive it was, but apparently, these days, attending Chelsea matches isn’t the cheapest. I can recall quite a lot of ‘hilarious’ comments flying out of the crowd around me (I really love it when these ‘comedians’ pipe up with their words of wisdom) and the overall atmosphere being quite jovial and friendly. There was also a plethora of swearing which, as a good-natured boy of 11, I found rather a shock to my innocent, little cherubic ears, not to say embarrassing as I was with my Dad (to this day, his idea of turning the air blue is the word ‘crap.’) But overall (and it really pains me to say this as a Liverpool fan) I remember having a very enjoyable day out.
This is my favourite-looking ground in London. Everything about Fulham’s stadium is picture-perfect: it’s position right on the river Thames makes for an idyllic walk from Putney Bridge station, the pavilion in the corner of the ground which still houses the players’ changing rooms, the Johnny Haynes Stand where it’s like going back to watching football in the 1950’s. So quaint and romantic.
I really like Fulham. As a club they understand their position in football’s hierarchy. They never try to overspend or attain a position beyond their means. In fact they regularly overachieve. For a club that has a stadium capacity of just over 25,000, to stay comfortably in the Premier League for more than a decade and reach the final of the Europa League, beating the likes of Italian giants Juventus on the way is a credit to everyone involved in Fulham. Yes they are backed by Mohamed Al-Fayed, but he is hardly ploughing hundreds of millions of pounds in the club à la Chelsea and Manchester City. Al-Fayed has taken a back-seat role in recent years (gone are the days of signings like Steve Marlet for £11.5m) and has recently stated that “the continued success of Fulham and its eventual financial self-sustainability is my priority” (thank you Wikipedia.) They operate a shrewd transfer policy, combing promising young players and loan signings with experienced professionals keen for a challenge (e.g. Dimitar Berbatov.)
But I digress. I attended the 3rd round FA Cup tie at Craven Cottage against Blackpool and could purchase tickets for a bargain £16.25 for a very good seat behind the goal. The facilities are not top notch like Arsenal or Chelsea (probably) but more than adequate all the same. The stadium is right on top of the pitch and, where I was sitting, home and away fans could mix freely without any trouble. Indeed I went for a few pints before the match with some friends in a pub near the tube station which actively welcomed visiting fans (welcome: a word that has disappeared from the vocabulary of most Londoners.) The atmosphere at the match was not compelling, but I didn’t hear many supporters berating their own players (except when Berbatov couldn’t be arsed to track back, the lazy git.) Fulham are never going to have the die-hard, hardcore following of a traditionally more working class club such as Tottenham or West Ham, but from a pure enjoyment point of view, I couldn’t have asked for a better afternoon of football.
The smallest ground in the Premier League by some margin, Loftus Road is probably my favourite. Like Fulham it has the sense of the old-school about it: a small stadium that rises out of a residential area; stands so close you can almost touch the players. None of this brand-spanking new spacious luxury facilities lark here. What real football fans want is to be squashed in like sardines, watching a shit match with a pint that tastes like the piss that the bloke next to you just did on your shoes in the toilet. And if this is your idea of a real football experience, QPR is the place to go.
Like Fulham, QPR are a real community club. You don’t get many people travelling to games from outside their West London fan base (apart from the 100 or so Koreans, desperate for a glimpse of Park Ji-Sung.) Unlike Fulham, it has a much more passionate support. QPR aren’t renowned for playing one-touch attractive football and putting 5 goals past the opposition, so you don’t get the feel-good fans like at Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs, and to a lesser exent, Fulham. Only real Rangers fans go to Loftus Road because they’re the only people mad (and stupid) enough to watch them (if you lived in West London and had any sense, you’d go to Chelsea or Fulham.) But as a result the atmosphere is awesome. Because the stadium is built-up in all four corners of the ground and the stands are so close to the pitch, the noise stays inside and the experience is incredible. Equally as important, and Arsenal fans take note, Rangers fans know their team’s limitations, so when the players invariably do something a bit rubbish, the crowd rarely victimise them, instead cajoling them into winning the ball back or defending for their lives. It’s a compelling 90 minutes, whatever happens (usually a QPR defeat.)
One issue I must raise is the price of a match day ticket. To see QPR vs Man City in early February, my brother and I paid over £50 for a seat that was close to the action, but not what you would call ‘premium’. I understand clubs have tier systems with their ticket prices, and a game against Man City comes at the top end of that scale, but for Rangers to charge that when you could see two rather better teams only a few miles away in Fulham and Chelsea is somewhat naive. Mind you, with the astronomical wage bill at QPR, they might have to start charging three figures per seat just to keep Chris Samba at the club for another week.
White Hart Lane
Many people will be surprised to read that Spurs is a club very much centred on its community. The area in which the stadium is situated is not the most affluent and, to its credit, the club realise this and you get a sense of a real bond between the club, the players and the supporters. For a man who thinks anything outside of zone 2 on the underground is not worth going to, to me White Hart Lane really is in the arsehole of nowhere, requiring a couple of train changes and a good 15 minute walk to the ground. BUT this is no bad thing as the walk creates a sense of solidarity and unity among the supporters which is translated to the terraces. Spurs fans are among my favourites because, although they are doing well at the moment and have been for the last three to four years, they always have a slightly glass-half-empty mind-set, almost believing that their team is somehow going to grab defeat from the jaws of victory (which it used to with alarming regularity). Hence they have a very dark sense of humour and when something (inevitably) goes wrong, they don’t take it well exactly, but with a grim understanding of the footballing gods.
I attended the final game of the 2011/12 season at White Hart Lane against Fulham. A friend of mine bought the ticket so I don’t know how much it cost exactly but I imagine it was between £40 and £50. Not bad value for a team who was fighting for third place. Again, the disadvantage with the older stadiums is that the poles holding up the roof can obstruct the fans’ view and this is indeed the case at the Lane. Still, I had a good seat in line with the goal, and at £4ish a pint (it’s my attention to detail that is really impressive), the refreshments were not stratospheric. The football too was of good quality. Moussa Dembele, then playing for Fulham, was by far the best player on the pitch, even eclipsing Gareth Bale, and the defending was gloriously dodgy, wholly befitting of a team managed by Harry Redknapp. Another commendation to the Spurs fans: throughout the match they sung the name of the opposition manager, Martin Jol – also an ex manager of Tottenham. Really good to see.
I have mixed feelings about Upton Park. Like Tottenham, it’s miles away from anywhere useful and it has some of the most impatient and annoying fans in the world, but it is the only time I have ever sat in the director’s box, so at least I had some very tasty sandwiches at half time and got to meet Trevor Brooking and Phil Brown (back when people thought he was a half-decent manager.) The match itself was the first Premier League game I had watched live for a good five years, and I was struck by the high quality of the football (I seem to remember Scott Parker and Danny Murphy had blinders.) Value for money-wise (the tickets were free) you couldn’t beat it.
What I didn’t enjoy was the season-ticket holder sitting directly behind me who, for the duration of the match, decided to shout at the top of his voice, regularly berating his own team. Not only is this clearly detrimental to the players, more importantly it was also terribly annoying for me and my poor eardrum. The rest of the Hammers fans weren’t much better, constantly shouting expletives at their beleaguered team. Now I’m no expert, but I think if you shout encouragement to players, they are probably more likely to improve their performance. Whereas if you constantly remind them of their complete lack of ability, question their parentage, and how you regularly treat their missus to a dinner date and then don’t call her, they will probably get more down on themselves and play worse. Hammers fans, take note. In the event, the match ended 2-2 even though Fulham had a player sent-off after about 30 minutes. Good football match, less good fans.
A footnote to this story is the walk home my friend and I did in our suits from the ground to his local, about a half-hour walk away, through some less than enticing areas of London. The reactions we got from the various shady looking characters we encountered on our stroll (two middle-class white boys walking through the depths of East London apparently isn’t advisable) ranged from bemusement, to one man who looked as all his Christmases and birthdays had come at once. I’ve never been more happy in my life to see the relatively safety of Wanstead Flats.
I realise that in writing this rather long-winded account of London’s football grounds I have provided a completely useless guide to each stadium, instead focusing on trivial matters that the average football fan would deem completely superfluous. However, for what it’s worth, my favourite club: Fulham. Favourite ground: Loftus Road. I’m sure you’re as glad as I am that it took over 2000 words of at times inspired, but mostly drab anecdotes to reach this most enlightening of conclusions.
David de Winter