One of the small joys in attending any sporting event is, or at least can be, the walk to the stadium.
Whether that's the bars and neighborhoods around famed baseball parks like Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, the city buzz around an arena like Madison Square Garden in New York or the campus spirit infecting, say, an SEC football game, atmosphere is a thing that can be felt as much outside a venue as in.
In England, you experience this by going to a soccer game.
If you are going to go to a soccer game in England, first don't call it that. They call it football, and they're pretty insistent about this, and in any case it does kinda make sense you have to admit.
But second, you have to choose where to go. The largest teams in London, the ones that play in the Premier League, start at the top with Chelsea, go on through Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United, and round out at the bottom with Crystal Palace.
By all means, if you want to see the very best of the best - I definitely understand if you do - go out of your way or pony up and see one of those clubs. I do not doubt for a second the experience will be worth it.
However, that is not what I'm here to recommend. I'm here to recommend Fulham, where we went to a game earlier this year, their welcoming environment and a great stroll to the stadium.
Fulham Football Club was founded in 1879 and their home, Craven Cottage, named so for sitting along the Thames on a site where a man named Craven literally built a cottage once upon a time, is the oldest in London. One of its main stands, the Johnny Haynes Stand, is in fact the oldest still in use in professional soccer in the world.
That's a roundabout way of saying there's a lot of history in this building, and you can feel it throughout the concourses and stands in a way that's not far off from a place like Fenway. There's even a particular history of note with Fulham for Americans. The club has featured some of our best soccer players of the modern era, from Clint Dempsey to Kasey Keller to Carlos Bocanegra to Eddie Lewis to the great Brian McBride (who even has a bar named after him inside the grounds).
To get there you take the tube to Putney Bridge, reachable by a Wimbledon train on the District Line, which feeds into the southwest London neighborhood. From there, Craven Cottage is about a 15-minute walk to the northwest along the Thames. In this is one of the most delightful parts of the whole experience.
The Fulham area is inviting, a tucked-away part of London that gives any American who has a preconceived sense of "charming England" that they are, in fact, there. That includes pubs, of course, and the best advice I can give is to make time to stop at one well before the match. The Golden Lion, Temperance, Kings Arms and The Eight Bells all sit on Fulham High Street a short walk from the station. The last is the most obvious to duck into, closest to the station and situated next to an adorable overstuffed book shop that looks like it belongs in a Hugh Grant movie.
Any will be fine, though, not unfamiliar with Fulham fans and matchday tourists.
From there you can proceed to the stadium, walking through Bishop's Park to get there.
For us this meant blending into the crowd and strolling along on a crisp Spring evening, appreciating the background of a surreal, hazy purple sky at dusk. It's immediately easy to feel like you're one of the lifelong supporters, marching past the All Saints church and greenery of the park with a shared sense of purpose.
We walked past a food stand, selling burgers, an old man grilling them up and dissecting Fulham's promotion playoff chances with some teenagers in line. It was a very familiar banter, the kind that starts out pessimistic and somehow arrives at certainty. "They haven't been as good as they should be," he lamented briefly, before suddenly rationalizing, "but if we can get these three points lads I think we'll be in."
(Note: In most world soccer leagues the top few teams of the second division at the end of the season replace the bottom few of the top division in a system known as promotion/relegation. In England, the third promotion spot is decided via playoffs between the third and sixth teams in the second division, known as the Championship. Wins are worth three points, draws one.)
Alex and I made our way through the rest of the park, grabbing a couple burgers to eat and walk with, arriving at the stretching, elegant brick facade of the Haynes Stand along the east end of the ground, on Stevenage Road. It's an eye-catching structure, adjacent to what is essentially blocks of quaint, almost suburban-seeming homes. The whole air of it combines a surreal mix of the tradition and community that infuses a high school football game with the grandeur of professional sports.
We milled there for a bit, waiting for a couple friends of ours, where you can grab a bite from a food stand, buy a game program, hop into a coffee shop or walk down and pop in the club shop (where I wanted to buy a scarf, that sadly they were out of). I seized the chance to take a picture with Billy the Badger, the club's mascot, because how often in life will you get the chance to completely shed your dignity and pose for a photo with a man in a badger costume?
Our friends finally arrived and we shuffled into the Haynes Stand, where I'd gotten us tickets online incredibly easy. It was as simple as going to the Fulham website, where for £25 a ticket I was able to plop us into the third row, eye-level with the grass, making for an unbeatable view and an amazing experience to soak in.
But first we had beers. In a quirk of English sport that'll seem alien to Americans, you can't drink in the stands, or as it's officially stated, "in view of the pitch." This law dates back to the 80s, when authorities decided the rougher atmosphere of the day didn't need to be exacerbated any further with alcohol.
So what you can do instead is stand around the tight, low-slung concourses and get your fill before heading to the seats. With everyone standing around, chatting and trying to pack as many in as time allows, you unexpectedly absorb the communal atmosphere that permeates Craven Cottage.
After two - or three - quickly-consumed beers we made our way to our seats. The stage before us was something to take in - I mean, while yes we're only talking about a midweek second-division match between Fulham and, as it turned out, a relegation-bound team in Blackburn Rovers, the brightness of the lights, the greenness of the pitch and our astonishing proximity to it all (and, alright, maybe the three beers some) made it feel so much larger. It felt like being courtside at a basketball game. And for just 33 bucks!
We were especially lucky with this particular game. It featured four goals, including one that, at least for a moment, put Fulham ahead with just a few minutes to go and produced an explosion of excitement. (Blackburn tied it just a couple minutes later, and that was equally disappointing.)
I've been to plenty of international sporting events, and the environment can sometimes feel something between indifferent and outright hostile to outsiders. That might, too, seem alien to Americans, where even games between fierce rivals like the Yankees and Red Sox are basically friendly affairs.
But international soccer fans often feel fierce, deep ownership of their local clubs, with their very DNA and their team's intertwined. That's not to say you can't, for instance, go see Bayern Munich, or AS Roma, or even Manchester United. It's just that if you do, you won't have that same connection to the experience, and you will know it.
Fulham is a little different. It's welcoming, it will take you and bring you into its warm embrace. That's not to say their fans are any less devoted than others, or less invested than others, it's just that there's a palpable appreciation for everyone there. Even the opposing fans.
As we were leaving the ground, going back through Bishop's Park, my friend joked that he hoped to see Fulham and Blackburn fans start fighting. "Ooh, I really hope it kicks off," he said.
On cue, a couple of Blackburn fans turned around to us, laughing, "Mate I don't think it's ever kicked off between Blackburn and Fulham fans."
It's hard to imagine it ever kicking off between anyone at Craven Cottage, not with an experience as thoroughly pleasant as Fulham's.