If anything is worth rising at 8am on a cold Sunday morning in November, sacrificing the sanctity of tea and biscuits in bed with the morning papers, it’s Premier League football.
I’m off to the far-from-biggest London derby – but a derby all the same – Spurs v Crystal Palace. And it’s not just the entertainment on the field that has pulled me wearily away from my duvet.
Regardless of age, sex, colour or creed, the sense of occasion on match day, even as a neutral with no particular vested interest in the outcome, is unique. It’s compounded by the array of food, drink and entertainment on offer at football grounds nowadays which caters for even the most disinterested fan.
It’s not new to cite evidence of football’s gentrification, but clubs are increasingly embracing the lucrative lure of the hospitality industry.
Wembley – along with all other newly-built concrete bowl stadia – was designed with the more discerning ‘FAN’ (ie, ‘customer’) in mind.
Whether you like it or not, clubs need to maximise their multi-million pound investments in new stadia by offering a variety of options to cater for their demographically diverse fan base.
New features such as the Tunnel Club at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium allow fans to get as close to the behind-the-scenes action as possible by installing glass along the tunnel, allowing them to watch from the dinner table as players exchange pre-match pleasantries, for the princely sum of £7,500 per season.
The Three Lions Club at Wembley, where I am spending a couple of hours before the midday kick off, is – at £129 – admittedly not the finest hospitality ‘experience’ the national stadium has to offer.
On arrival, my hopes of enjoying a fresh cup of coffee whilst taking in the great landscape views of Greater London were instantly quashed.
With no hot drink facilities in my lounge, I was instructed to try the ordinary Club Wembley refreshments kiosk. At last – a cup (disposable) of joe (£2.80).
Perhaps leading up to a 4.30pm kick-off, guests would have welcomed a rip-roaring band belting out renditions of Tom Petty and The Killers to create some atmosphere as pints were sipped and chins wagged.
But with doors opening and tunes ringing out from 9.30am – a full two-and-half hours before kick-off – guests would surely have far preferred the sound of their own actual thoughts, or hearing their companions, over the piercing speakers.
Maybe my restlessness could be attributed to not having eaten (more likely the slight hangover).
I went to the hot counter where I duly exchanged my complimentary ‘one food voucher’ for a thick-cut bacon roll, served with two hash browns and a small pot of ketchup. This was decent. Tender, succulent bacon and sufficiently oily hash browns.
Service was generally good and helpful. As a neutral, awkward questions did arise like when one hostess asked “Would you like a Tottenham poppy?”I replied “No thanks, I’ve already got a poppy,” gesturing to my coat collar. The cockerel-emblazoned flower wouldn’t go down well at dinner later with my Arsenal-supporting family.
At 11.30am, I took my seat to watch the players finishing their warm-ups. It was a great seat, almost level with the halfway line and in the second tier with a great perspective over the pitch.
Looking at the team sheet, the big news was that Michel Vorm, meant to be coming in for the injured Hugo Lloris, had been withdrawn. Third-string keeper Paulo Gazzaniga, whom Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino brought in last summer, made his debut.
At a football match in early November, you expect to smell fresh cut grass with an undercurrent of hot dog meat and onions. At Wembley, it’s the opposite.
At least this seemed metaphorically true in my head – such is the culture of the stadium mired in corporatisation.
Pochettino spoke before the match of the importance of “keeping their feet on the grass” after Spurs’ incredible win against European champions, Real Madrid, on Wednesday.
Palace fans predictably made for a good atmosphere throughout the afternoon, banging drums and waving flags, but they were ultimately not repaid with a goal from their team.
The highlight of the first half was a fingertip save by Gazzaniga – from the same town in Argentina as Pochettino it turns out – denying Palace captain Scott Dann’s header towards the back post.
The keepers’ acrobatics were spectacular in what was otherwise a half of football so drab that retreating back to the Three Lions lounge at half-time for a bottle of Carlsberg and a couple more numbers from the unidentified cover band seemed great fun.
The second half proved slightly more exciting from the start with Eagles’ striker Wilfried Zaha finally beating Gazzaniga but failing to hit the open goal, right in front of the travelling supporters.
In the 64th minute, Spurs, missing playmaker Dele Alli to injury, did eventually get the breakthrough with an inch-perfect strike from outside the box by Heung Min Son into the bottom left corner.
Just minutes before, one fan next to me spoke of his surprise at the goalless score line. “If its still 0-0 at 60 mins and the odds are decent I’m whacking £500 on us to win”, he said nudging me with his elbow as if it was a cert.
I suppose you need something to up the ante of such a dry affair. Sure enough, said punter erupted upon Son’s superb effort bulging the net.
I left in the 80th minute to beat the crowds, with not a slightest concern of missing any drama. Trudging back down Wembley Way I reflected on a mediocre day at Wembley. Maybe I should have stayed in bed after all.