Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Dallas Cowboys 31 vs Jacksonville Jaguars 17 - November 9, 2014

The main reason I was in London last weekend was to check out the NFL Wembley experience. There were three games as part of the International Series this season, but the only one that worked well with my schedule was the last one, featuring the Cowboys and Jaguars, a likely stinker. There has yet to be a game in London where both teams were above .500, so stinkers are pretty much the order of business here. At least one team promised to play well.

Anyway, the EPL match at White Hart Lane finished around 3:30 but it took me nearly an hour to get to Seven Sisters tube station as traffic was slow and buses were being diverted. One thing to know about London is that before and after a sporting event, roads surrounding the stadium are shut down, which renders any planning via Google Maps quite useless.I ended up walking about 20 minutes to catch a bus to Seven Sisters, where l hopped on the Victoria Line to King's Cross from where the Metropolitan Line brought me to Wembley Park about an hour before the 6:00 kickoff.

As you exit the tube station, Wembley stands majestically in front of you, the highlight being its arch which was lit in red this evening (above). The approach is known as Olympic Way; it was filled with attractions and sponsor tents. The crowds corning off the train were huge but things moved smoothly. Wembley holds around 90,000 fans normally, but capacity is reduced to 86,000 for the NFL. Still,  that's more than any regular NFL venue can hold except the Cowboys own stadium in Arlington, which can accommodate 105,121 including standing room.

The stadium is a full kilometre in outer circumference and as it was getting late, I decided to skip the usual walkaround and head straight in. As is custom in England, you must enter through the gate specified on your ticket even though you can wander about freely once inside. The concourse here is huge and more than enough for the crowd. The stadium is well designed, if a bit sterile in spots, and there are fences every so often that would be locked if this was a soccer game to keep opposing fans apart.

I do like the historic touches along the upper walls that list historic events that occurred here and its predecessor, which was torn down in 2003. I happened to notice West Ham's 1965 Cup Winners Cup championship as soon as I entered (below).

Concessions at Wembley are plentiful with good variety, though a bit overpriced as you might expect. As usual when visiting an English sports ground, I recommend that you have a pie. At £5, the beef and ale variety was a tasty bargain considering hot dogs were an extra pound.

There was an obnoxious pregame show with some famous person singing loudly, so I stayed on the concourse enjoying my pie until the nonsense had ended. When I finally entered the seating bowl just a few minutes before kickoff, l was happy to see that l had lucked out with my ticket. It was in the lower level end zone where l happen to enjoy sitting and turned out to be in row 31, the first row above a walkway that bisects the lower bowl. Fans were not allowed along this walkway during the game, so I had an unencumbered view of the proceedings from start to finish.

Fans were given a plastic bag to hold up during the pregame ceremonies, mine was red while some others were white and black. When held up together they formed giant poppies in honour of Remembrance Sunday. We also received Jaguars flags which we were supposed to hold up when the team appeared on the field. With Jacksonville in the midst of a four year run of having an annual London game, they are the de facto home team and a surprising number of locals were supporting them. Given English soccer's recent run of failure, the fans are accustomed to finishing out of the playoffs, so Jacksonville suits them quite well.

The other bit of good news was that Tony Romo (above) had recovered from the back injury he had sustained two weeks prior, although this did mean that the game would not be very close. No need to recap it here, but it was great to see Romo and Dez Bryant (dropping a TD pass below) connect on a few occasions while DeMarco Murray finished with exactly 100 yards on the ground; the Cowboys are a good team when firing on all cylinders and fun to watch.

The final was 31-17, but the scoreline was closer than it should have been as the Jaguars added a late touchdown. Not the most exciting game, but the fans in London didn't seem to mind, staying until the end and cheering throughout.

I don't know how long this NFL experiment can continue (there are three more crap games next season including Buffalo vs. Jacksonville) but so far, it has been a resounding success. I don't want a full-time franchise in London, as I think the logistics would be tough to manage week-to-week, but having an annual series works well. I might even revisit next year as the games all take place during the Rugby World Cup.


Every NFL team was represented by at least one fan. In fact, as I wandered around outside, I noticed jerseys for all clubs except St. Louis and Tennessee. Soon after I entered the stadium, a man with an old Rams jersey wandered by, leaving the Titans as the sole unrepresented team. I didn't expect to see anyone in that unique light blue colour scheme inside the seating bowl, but as usual I was wrong. Just a few rows in front of me sat a guy sporting a Kendall Wright jersey, thus ensuring that all 32 teams have fans in England.

After the game, I stopped by a pub near my hotel, the Kings Arms in Ealing. As I sat there nursing my beer, a gentleman in a Bills jersey sidled up to the bar. I asked him why he had chosen to support the club with the longest playoff drought in the sport and he responded that they reminded him of the English football team he supports, Everton. Blue uniforms and always blowing the game at the end, he said, only half-joking. Good enough reason. I told him of my 2013 trip to all 32 NFL stadiums and we got to chatting; he eventually invited me to join his mates, a group of about 10 guys who were NFL fans, each supporting a different team. It was great fun to chat with them about sport on both sides of the Atlantic; I learned a lot about the intricacies of fandom in the UK and was impressed with their knowledge of the NFL as a whole.

Too many sports fans in the US are boorish and stupid, knowing little about the game they watch, preferring to insult the other team and its fans with idiotic insults like "You suck". Having seen four events during this all-too-brief weekend, I found the fans in England here to be intelligent and observant, with a passion that goes beyond painting your face and acting like a moron for the camera. Of course, hooliganism is still a problem in Europe, but those are not sports fans, just criminals who use sport as a vehicle for their behaviour. The average fan in the UK appreciates sport for the inherent pleasures in witnessing competition and athletic endeavour rather than following a club purely to boost one's self-esteem at the expense of others.  I look forward to a return visit there next year.



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