A Trip Over the Pond

When I first started thinking about making the trip overseas to see the Bills in London it was sort of like how you “plan” a trip with your buddies after having a few too many beers. Making the trip seemed like it would be great but I wasn’t sure if I’d actually pull it off.

But after some actual planning, the trip actually came together and the Bills were a primary piece of the itinerary for an eight-day jaunt to London.IMG_1801

It’s been a while since I even looked at the 2ITB Sports Bucket List and while seeing the Bills in Wembley never seemed like something I’d ever consider, the game wound up as another check mark on the list. The trip also afforded me a handful of other cool sporting experiences which I’ll share along the way.

I don’t want to get too deep into my thoughts on London (or Dublin where we spent a couple of days) but it is a terrific city. The Tube is beyond convenient and despite the sheer size and number of people in the city, it felt like a place I could definitely live in. Comparatively, I’ve loathed my visit to NYC for a host of reasons, but London was incredibly enjoyable. London felt a little bit like Toronto, actually. Maybe that takes away from the essence of going to Europe, but it also helped me feel comfortable so there’s a little given and take there.

Among the items we hit were a few walking tours and the typical tourist spots like the Tower of London, Tower Bridge and the Churchill War Rooms. Definitely do that last one at all costs, by the way. I saw the inside of plenty of pubs in both London and Dublin and if there was any one thing I took away from those two towns which Buffalo could repurpose, it is the need for added density in popular areas like Cobblestone or Canalside.

The one remaining block of attractions in Cobblestone features tightly packed buildings with bars dropped in throughout. Granted, the population in London and Dublin is exponentially bigger, but if the swaths of surface lots in Cobblestone or the development parcels at Canalside were filled in the right way, Buffalo would have something similar to the cool, tightly packed live/play areas that I wandered through.

From a sporting perspective, you could spend weeks in Britain alone and only scratch the surface of what’s available to you. I’m pretty sure every major and minor club or stadium offers guided tours and I’m guessing that nearly every one of them is pretty cool. In addition to the Bills game, we took a tour of Emirates Stadium, swung by West Ham to see Boleyn Ground (we didn’t go in) and took in a match between QPR and MK Dons.

The Bills game sucked, but we all know this. The phantom pass interference call push the team back into the 10-foot hole EJ dug in the first half. But there were Bills fans all over the place and Wembley itself is incredible.

Bills fans probably outnumbered Jags fans but the vast majority of the 80,000 and change at the game were just there to see an NFL game. Pick a team and their jersey was being worn in the stadium (even the Browns). I likened it to how we buy soccer jerseys in the States. Maybe you like the team or you just think the player is great so you snag it. I mean, I was talking to a guy in an Alfred Morris jersey on the Tube after the game. As good as Morris was his first couple seasons, I wasn’t expecting to see his jersey in London.

The fan support was solid, though. For the most part the impartial fans just cheered for whoever was doing well. There were massive cheers for the Jags in the first half and just as many for the Bills as they turned the tide in the second. The atmosphere was solid and had the Bills come away with a win I’m sure postgame would have been insane.

Wembley is crazy, by the way. I knew it was big but I think because I’m so used to the Ralph’s construction I wasn’t ready for how truly massive Wembley is. It’s big from the outside, but I’ve been outside of Ohio Stadium and I don’t think the size of that place registered with me either. When you step into the bowl you realize how massive the place is. I was truly awestruck by the sheer size of the building and I’m not sure pictures do it justice. Maybe the sunken bowl at the Ralph is the reason I wasn’t prepared for how big the place is. After all, the Ralph probably loses about five stories of height due to how it’s built.

I can’t imagine what Wembley is like during a game the fans are really invested in. Something like the FA Cup Final or another game were you have scores and scores of supporters filling the stadium. It was very nice inside as well. Enclosed concourses and a very sleek, modern look (both inside and out) really defined the stadium from my perspective. It certainly makes me look forward to when the Bills build a new home. I know it’s not going to be a 90,000-seat behemoth, but I’m still looking forward to seeing more modern amenities built in when the time comes.

Easily the highlight of the trip, from a sports perspective, was the Emirates Tour. As a fan of the Bills and Sabres, some of the typical fan experiences have been sterilized to a point due to my previous work with each team. This is simply because I’ve had to train myself to conduct myself in a professional manner when watching games in the press box and I’ve been through the locker room so many times that it’s just kind of white noise at this point. But to stroll through the various areas of a stadium whose team I’m only connected to as a fan was terrific. I regret not having the chance to see an Arsenal game while we were there, but the tour certainly covered plenty of what I was looking forward to seeing.

IMG_1834The best part of these stadium tours is getting to walk down the player’s tunnel and to the pitch. It’s something you only typically see on television (in any sport) and being allowed to as part of the tour is really quite awesome. The tours feature just about anything else you’d imagine (locker room, suite and club level, etc.) but nothing beats the areas the player occupy on gamedays for me. That’s stuff you don’t normally see with other sports and it’s so cool that these clubs open up their facilities in this manner.

Side note: Why the Sabres don’t do arena and locker room tours at every chance they get is beyond me. It would hardly be a foolish venture in terms of fan connections and in the cash register. The Bills should do it as well, both teams would clean up.

The final piece of the trip that the sports fan in me got to enjoy was the match between QPR and MK Dons. Getting to see a true and proper soccer match was item 1A on my list for the trip and the game we saw fulfilled that ten times over.

We had a couple choices when it came to games. QPR and Fulham were both home on the Saturday before the Bills game and I even wound up getting an offer for Arsenal tickets at the 11th hour which I unfortunately had to turn down. Choosing QPR was pretty much just a coin flip as I don’t have any allegiance to them or Fulham.

We made a good choice though as this happened. Look at that ball, that was incredible.IMG_1788

I’ll add some more thoughts on the game itself in a separate post.

The trip was certainly a success though. We saw a couple cool sporting events, got to take in the sights at a couple of other venues and if I ever had the scratch to pull it off, I’d return to do a soccer roadtrip and I’m firmly on the lower end of general soccer fandom, that’s for sure.

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