This is the refurbished version of Wembley. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer)
By Michael Lewis
You always remember your first, they say.
I certainly do.
No, not that. I mean my first trip to England, and specifically London.
It was actually a vacation and we were on some sort of package tour way back in the stone age in 1982.
If I am correct, the entire tour – a week cost $650 or so per person. That included plane ride, a hotel room and breakfast. We could do things with the group or go off on our own.
My ex-wife and I went off our own. There was so much to see and do in London.
Before I left, I spoke with former North American Soccer League all-star defender Peter Short on what the do’s and don’ts of traveling across the Atlantic and watch to watch on the soccer end of things.
Remember, this was prior to the internet and information about teams and schedules were pretty scarce in the U.S.
As it turns out, we had to re-fuel in Shannon, Ireland en route and we wound up in the duty-free shop at the airport (by the way, I remember when the plane was landing how green the fields were). In the shop, I purchased an Irish newspaper that had British football fixtures. It said that England was hosting Germany at Wembley that night in a friendly.
I told my ex-wife, “I don’t know what you’re doing tonight, but I’m going to Wembley.”
I wasn’t kidding, even though I didn’t know anything about London’s travel infrastructure.
We both went, even though I was tired from the trip, but then again, how often do you get to watch an international friendly at the cathedral of football on your first European trip. I learned quickly that I had to look to my right before I stepped off the street because they drive the wrong way in England (well, not the American way).
We purchased general admission seats. I remember looking through one of the portals at the seats behind one of the goals, and it looked to me something out of Dickensian England with fans standing, shouting and milling around while looking menacing and dangerous.
Certainly a place we did not want to go near, although the environment and atmosphere at the stadium was off the charts for yours truly.
Remember, this was during the time when English supporters had forged a horrible reputation and prior to such fan disasters in Heysel, Belgium (1985), Bradford (1985) and Hillsborough (1989), among other horrible and embarrassing incidents.
We decided on a nice, empty row in the third deck of this magnificent stadium.
We weren’t going to bother anyone, and no one was going to bother us on this cold, damp London night.
A German fan sat about 100 yards to the right of us. When Germany scored, he proudly waved a German flag.
An English supporter, however, confronted the fan. You knew he probably had too much to drink because he had a beer in his hand.
Fortunately, security escorted him away, and hopefully out of the stadium.
Germany won, 2-1, and we left and caught the metro back to our hotel.
That was only part one of the adventure.
Between visiting friends, doing some sightseeing, searching for the precious Rothman’s Football Guide and other stuff, I managed to attend and cover two lower division football games, hosted by Orient that Saturday and Wimbledon that Tuesday (the night before we were supposed to return home).
It was an experience and half, a learning one as well, as we soaked in an incredible atmosphere at both matches.
I wound writing about both teams and matches for Soccer America, which has graciously allowed me to repost them on this website.
My experience covering both teams allowed me to get an appreciation of lower division soccer, not just in England, but just about anywhere. Of course, that includes the U.S., where I have covered dozens, if not hundreds of matches below the NASL and MLS over the years.
(I also fell in love with London, for so many reasons, which included my favorite sport, great theater – relatively inexpensive compared to New York City, the historic backdrop of the city, museums galore and bookstores).
As I discovered early on in my soccer career, it doesn’t matter what level or game you are covering. There is a story there. Embrace the moment and match.
In 1995, I returned to England and covered eight games in the London environs over a 13-day holiday period. I did sequels for Soccer New York about Orient and Wimbledon.
I don’t know if I will ever turn it into a trilogy for both clubs, but I am glad I took the great jump across the pond four decades ago.
It helped open up a world of soccer that I was unaware but still treasure very much, anywhere in the world.