Chants, Pints, And Scams: Football The British Way
The time I attended a Crystal Palace versus Manchester United match — without a ticket in hand.
The Overground train ran express from Central London to South London through the frigid January air. It skipped stations of other periphery London neighborhoods because it only had one in mind. Every passenger that crammed the train had a shared destination: Selhurst Station. Every passenger had a shared objective: to partake in the widespread whirl of intensity that is the Premier League. Tonight, was Crystal Palace versus Manchester United.
The train slowed and our station was announced. The crowd—the push rather—trampled what had been a quaint, quiet station only moments earlier. I didn’t know where the stadium was—hell, I didn’t even have a ticket. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know where to go; there was nowhere to go but with the push. The streets were barricaded by metal blockades and police in neon vests with weird hats. Their sole purpose: to halt any wanderings out of sight and down side streets of dark family homes. Unexpectedly, chants burst from the depths of the Crystal Palace fanatics surrounding me. It was as if they could no longer contain their anticipation and excitement and the only thing that would satisfy their sensations was to roar. It was time to let Croydon know they’d entered; it was time to make their arrival felt by all.
South! South! South! South London! rang through the streets. Fans were spawning everywhere, and with their growth came the spawning of more cops…and more pints. A lot more pints. Everywhere. The decibels of the chants grew as the pint consumption did. South London grew more and more electric with every fan, every shout, every lager. It became tangible; the electricity consumed every present soul and built with every minute that ticked off toward kick-off.
The verve arose radically when a haunting fleet of buses came teeming onto the grounds. Here come the Red Devils—their words, not mine. Each wheeled behemoth made its way through the yelling crowds and lined up single file along the flooded streets. Hundreds of Manchester United fanatics engulfed those of Crystal Palace, screaming, Glory, Glory Man United! Glory, Glory Man United! As the Reds go marching ON, ON, ON!
It became a dualling of chants, an unspoken competition to see who was more intimidating. The sea of supporters divided like oil and water. The pints kept flowing. The volume kept rising. The police surveilled acutely, for the Red Devils had a reputation—most Premier League supporters do for that matter. A few decades ago, football hooliganism was a calamitous problem in Europe. It was not uncommon for supporters to instigate deadly riots and ravage towns. It became such a problem that Red Devils were banned from attending their own matches in the mid-80s—the ban was issued by the team itself. Since then, the wreckage caused by football hooligans has diminished—no one has been throwing knives at their rivals lately—but the potential for something mutinous to break out is on everyone’s mind and is never ruled out.
Supporter cries were peaking as some began to shuffle through the gates. I was so enamored by the pre-match rituals that I forgot I didn’t have a ticket. I needed to find one, I needed to get into the match; the atmosphere had an inexplicable grip on me, and I craved the experience it offered. Or maybe it was the pints. Whatever it may be, I knew I was experiencing a cultural phenomenon.
It had been a spur-of-the-moment decision to jump on the train for the match—I hadn’t planned for it really, but I couldn’t spend another night dead stoned in a London pub. My night prior had ended in one of London’s many Prince of Wales pubs on the northern end. There I can remember giggling in the smallest bathroom I’d ever been in with two elderly British lads, but I can’t recall much else. I too remember being serenaded by a pretty Scottish lady seated at a piano. My brain spun fast, wide circles as it finally found a pillow—still thinking about the Scottish splendor.
I circled the stadium looking for tickets. I dodged drunken Englishmen scarfing down take-out. I maneuvered my way through kids up to no good—probably secretly drunken off their fathers’ supply. I even saw a fox cross the street in the midst of all the chaos—that’s not a lie or hallucination—a real fox. I was utterly stupefied by my surroundings; it enigmatically consumed my actions and thoughts.
I found two British lads standing near the concourse. One was rather tall and skinny—we’ll call him Bones. His friend was very short and very plump—we’ll call him Pudge. Bones shouted something about having tickets, so I approached.
Bones offered a price in pounds, and my American-dollar-accustomed brain did an inaccurate conversion. It was pricey, but I needed it. The police presence was too great for me to have confidence being on the jib (that’s British slang for sneaking in). I talked the man down to a price we agreed on and he presented the ticket. I skimmed the ticket for scams, to be sure I was getting a legitimate ticket. It looked right.
“You’re not trying to scam me, are you?” I asked him. Stupid question.
“No, no, I don’t want in, you can have it,” Bones replied. We completed the transaction, and I took off for the gate.
I was quickly frisked by security to ensure I didn’t have a shank on my person. I passed. I approached the ticketer where my ticket was denied. I looked at the ticket and only now did I realize I was scammed. I had bought a ticket for a game between Crystal Palace and Manchester United that happened five months earlier. My first thought was: You idiot, how did you overlook the date?! I guess I was blind from fervor…and one or two pints. My next thought was: I made that way too easy for Bones. He thinks I’m some stupid yank.
I sprinted around the stadium scouring for my wanker scammer. I don’t think I can say that since I am in fact some stupid Yank, but I was acting on pure, hooligan adrenaline that was omnipresent around and in me. I couldn’t deny it, it was addicting, it was provocative. I didn’t know what I’d do when I found Bones, but I was getting that ticket if it were the last thing I did. I was not to be made a fool.
I couldn’t find him anywhere. I ran around, frenzied, searching. Finally, I found Pudge. I ran directly toward him and shouted, “Yo, you sold me a fake ticket,” I was close to Pudge, looking down on him with every ounce of intimidation I could muster from my unintimidating stature. “Give me the real one or I’ll make a scene. You told me this wasn’t any shady shit.” Nearby police watched us, I could feel their eyes.
Pudge was confused, he seemed entirely unsure of what I was referring to. It became clear to me that Pudge didn’t realize Bones was conning me. Pudge truly believed I had been given a legitimate ticket, so he was alarmed when I sprung on him in anger.
“I’m not trying to fookin’ scam ya, mate!” He exclaimed.
“Maybe not you, but your buddy sure as hell was! Where is he?” Pudge didn’t know. “Give me the fucking ticket I paid for!” I barked.
I felt sorry for Pudge, but I was not about to lose many of my few remaining Pounds to Bones’ easy scheme. Pudge began to realize I’d do whatever it took to shake the ticket out of him. I now firmly believed I’d do whatever it took to shake the ticket out of him. He couldn’t run—I’d easily catch this out-of-prime hooligan. He was exactly that: an out-of-prime hooligan. And I was a wannabe hooligan—a new hooligan who didn’t know how to comprehend the energy of the atmosphere. This wasn’t anything like American football. I could see him weighing his options. Twenty years ago, this man would’ve tried to put me in the dirt. But he saw the cops, he saw I was not going to let this go, and he saw he was in a losing battle. I had won the intimidation match. He gave me my ticket in defeat, and I sprinted, yet again, to my gate.
The match was as electric as its pre-match shenanigans. The chants never died out once, the fans continued their binging of howls and pints all ninety minutes. Crystal Palace scored an equalizing goal in extra time right before the final whistle. Selhurst Stadium erupted like I’ve never seen a stadium erupt before, all for a draw. Fans rushed the field four different times throughout the match. Some were drunken idiots who wanted a story to tell, others were young kids who couldn’t contain the euphoria of seeing their idols in front of them. It was magical, it was a human experience.
It carried onto the train as well. The entire ride back, a few Red Devils rocked violently with the movement along the rails; they chanted their slurred, unharmonious chorus, and drank deep, deep toward rapture.
I stopped in a pub once I was back in Central London to wash away some of the electricity still flowing through me. As I left in search of a pillow, I stumbled past a small, scrawny man wearing a Tottenham jersey. His body swayed down the sidewalk—unable to hold a straight line. He sang his loyalty into the cold—now quiet—midnight air: Tottenham till I die!
There’s a puzzling ferity to English football. It’s a bewildering cultural phenomenon. Something is generated at every match that reverberates and courses through every present creature to form an addictive, chaotic, pure, and perfect human condition.