This is a repost of a story that appeared in the January 1996 edition of Soccer New York.
By Michael Lewis
LONDON – If you need a soccer fix, then Christmas week in London was made just for you.
They play games a day or two before Christmas, the day after Christmas (Boxing Day), two days before the New Year and a day after it.
Throw in a couple of matches moved to other dates for television purposes, and you can find a game to watch in person almost every other day.
In 1982, I journeyed to London for the first time and wound up writing a couple of stories for Soccer America about the not so glamorous side of soccer in England – third division Leyton Orient and fourth division Wimbledon.
This series is sort of a sequel to those two teams, only it is an expanded version to include the five other clubs.
It was an unforgettable experience; one I probably will not get an opportunity to relive again. There was talk of having a Christmas break in England, not unlike other European countries to rest the players.
I managed to watch seven soccer matches over 13 days. I could easily have watched only Premier League games, but the more interesting stories are the clubs trying to stay alive. In fact, I got better access to the first, second and third division players and officials than the Premiership.
What was life like in the second and third division? Believe it or not, it reminded me a lot of the four U.S. International Soccer League franchises (now the USL Championship, League One and League Two) in the metropolitan area at the time, only several of those English clubs have 100 years of tradition behind them.
I started with Leyton Orient Dec. 22 and followed that up with Wimbledon Dec. 23. Arsenal was on tap for Boxing Day, Dec. 26. Brentford was the site for Dec. 30, Millwall and Tottenham for Jan. 1 (yes, two games in a day) and finally Queens Park Rangers Jan. 2.
Not surprisingly, my most ambitious day was New Year’s Day. I watched the Millwall-Leicester City game in south London at 3 p.m. and then took the tube (that’s the British word for subway) back to central London and had a taxi whisk me to White Hart Lane in north London to witness the Tottenham-Manchester United encounter at 8 p.m.
As for the inevitable questions, here are my questions:
* The best match – Tottenham-Manchester United. While both sides had a number of key players sidelined with injuries and Tottenham did win the game by a huge martin, 4-1, it was an entertaining game. Both teams continually attacked and tried to play soccer, not any of this long-ball garbage.
* The worst match – If you were into long ball, then the Leyton Orient-Rochdale match was your cup of tea. At times, skill was virtually non-existent.
* Best atmosphere – Tottenham-Manchester United. For the first time in my life, I sat behind the goal in the stands with fans (as a sportswriter, I usually sit in the press box at midfield or stand in the same general vicinity). It didn’t hurt that the fans had something to cheer for.
* Most surreal sight – Watching the Alexis duPoint High School Tiger Marching Band of Wilmington, Del. entertain the Queens Park Rangers crowd before the match and at halftime Jan. 2. between the 140 members and yours truly, it must have set some sort of record for the most Americans at an English soccer, err, football match (at least at the time). The band was in London for the London Parade (they used many of the floats that were well-down in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade) on New Year’s Day. The crowd enjoyed the band.
Tuesday: A trip to Leyton Orient