Tom Lyons dips into his bucket list and attends a Premier League game to see what all the hype is about
IT was on the bucket list, to be done at some time, and the chance arrived last weekend with a family re-union in London.
A visit to a Premier League soccer match wasn’t top of my list, but I was curious to see what all the hype and hassle is about. A chance to go to Wembley at the same time was a plus to compare that legendary stadium with Croke Park – not that we’ve seen much of it in recent years – and Páirc Uí Chaoimh with all its problems.
So it was Tottenham Hotspur versus Newcastle United on Saturday at 12.30, with the in-laws from Korea all ready with their flags to support their national hero, Son Heung-min.
Freezing cold but dry, we headed off by train and tube, the Jubilee Line packed with soccer supporters. If London has nothing else, it has the greatest transport system in the world; get anywhere if you keep your wits about you.
Arrived at final stop, Wembley Park, and disembarked to get our first view of the famed Wembley Way, stretching straight to the stadium ten minutes away. Already, at 11.15am, thousands were streaming down the Wembley Way and the first thing that really struck us was the huge amount of stewards and security people all round, literally, hundreds.
It was definitely something we could learn from as regards big GAA matches. Along the way, the snow of the previous night was all shovelled against walls, the road and paths perfectly clear.
Many of the fans were clearly tourists like ourselves, all taking photographs and a steward was on hand to help the taking photos at the huge statue of the 1966 World Cup-winning England captain Bobby Moore at the entrance to the stadium. I could name Moore and most of his fellow players from the famous West Ham team of the 1960s, but could barely manage three names from the present Spurs team, Harry Kane, Son and Davinson Sanchez.
Unfortunately, Kane was out injured but Son was home early from his Korean duty and would be playing. The only name I managed from Newcastle was Rafael Benitez, the manager, and I couldn’t even pronounce the name of the Spurs manager, Pochettino!
So, as you can gather I’m no Premier League fan, never was even in my younger days, but it was the big match experience I was after, not so much the game itself.
Having spent most of an hour wandering around, taking in the sights and paying the extortionate price for the Spurs jersey for the young Korean nephew-in-law, as well as paying only £3 for a fine programme, we made our way to the seats, very accessible in the second level behind one goal, having been informed on purchasing the tickets, reasonable at €50 each, that they were at the side in the middle of the pitch. No problem there, as there’s a perfect view from every seat in the fabulous stadium, although I wouldn’t fancy a seat high up at the back of the top section.
That top section was almost entirely sealed off for the game as the crowd was about 40,000 and the stadium holds up to 80,000. Little wonder Spurs can’t wait to get back to their own new stadium soon. Later, when I heard that only 6,000 attended the double bill in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday, I pictured that tiny crowd in Wembley, lost in the stadium.
Many years ago, I had visited the old Anfield stadium in Liverpool on a tour, and was amazed at how small the pitch looked compared to a Gaelic pitch. Same in Wembley where you could see every corner easily from behind the goal, whereas in Croke Park, if you get a seat in any corner it’s almost impossible to see the action in the corner at the far end. I haven’t sampled much of Páirc Uí Chaoimh yet, but the view seems good from every section, especially from the North Stand.
Down below us at ground level and in one corner were the travelling Newcastle fans, a few thousand, all confined to that section. This segregation of fans is a road the GAA must never go down, although to their credit, the Newcastle fans totally out-sang the muted Spurs fans on the day.
It looked a clear indication of Roy Keane’s ‘prawn sandwich brigade’ comments. Only in the closing minutes, when Spurs needed to score to gain a necessary win, did their supporters seem to come to life. I was disappointed at that aspect of the game and would far prefer the Rebel chant that thunders around Semple Stadium on Munster hurling final day.
Again, many of the fans around us seemed to be tourists like ourselves, an American couple behind us having ticked another stadium off their list with Barcelona and Messi next. I definitely missed the shouts and cheers one gets at a GAA game, directed at players we all know personally; different attitude and atmosphere entirely at these big soccer games.
The pitch itself was in immaculate condition, an army of workers on hand after the warm-up to fix any marks. We could only think of the old days when games were often played in fields of mud at this time of the year.
The game itself? Like a chess game on a pitch as the sides tried to break each other down and several chances were missed in the first half. By half-time, following a poor 45 minutes, I was almost wishing for a decent game of thundering hurling.
But, what was quite evident was how our present game of Gaelic football is aping the possession game in soccer. That is where all our present ills in football originally stem from, something we will never forgive soccer for, or the inter-county coaches who started it.
At half time the seats almost emptied as thousands went for food and drink; no drink allowed in the seated area. The second half proved much livelier and the bonus arrived when, right in front of us, Son scored a late winning goal for Spurs, our Korean flags flying. It was the crowning point of the day.
One-nil to Spurs, the win our Korean family wanted. We noticed, just before the final whistle sounded, that the Newcastle corner had almost emptied, maybe on purpose to avoid any clashes, or to get to the transport first.
We expected to be waiting ages for the Tube train, but it was all so well organised that there was no crush, no rush, everybody co-operating, and we were quickly on the underground train, packed to the hilt, and heading back to Waterloo station.
When one considers that this happens every second week, the most striking aspect of the whole day was the organisation around the stadium itself, absolutely top-class. Travelling by Tube meant there was no hassle about parking as we have in Cork and Dublin. And there wasn’t the slightest hint of trouble anywhere, as we often read about at big soccer matches.
We definitely enjoyed our experience at Wembley, the bucket itself feeling a bit lighter afterwards, but were swiftly brought down to earth on Sunday when we learned the results of the Cork games at home, double demoralising defeats saw that a crowd of only around 6,000 turned up and that the surface of the pitch was again a disaster.
The troubles facing Cork GAA are increasing by the day but we still wouldn’t change it for all that Wembley had to offer. The GAA is unique and special because of its parochial base and that is something we should never tamper with in any way.
Next item on the bucket list must be Munster v Saracens, if the results go according to plan and the game is played at spacious Twickenham.