Tag Archives: Sport

How Transport for London keeps the capital’s sports fans moving

When it comes to sport, London is a special city. Indeed, each year it hosts hundreds of football, cricket and rugby matches, as well as Wimbledon, athletics events and the odd Rugby World Cup or Olympics.

With each of these events attracting thousands of fans from all over the country and the world, Transport for London (TfL) is primarily responsible for transferring the masses to and from numerous sporting locations.

But, with the potential for chaos and disruption, how does the travel authority prepare to make sure everything always runs smoothly?

TfL’s tactical plans

“There are an awful lot of sporting events in London,” says Stuart Reid, programme director for travel demand management at TfL. “We have 12 league football teams in the capital and they bring their own challenges. You also have cricket matches and the once a year events like Wimbledon and the London Marathon.

“What’s good about stadium events compared to ones on the road like marathons is that we know roughly how many fans will be attending. And then we primarily work with the promoters and police to try to establish where most people will be arriving from. It’s a multi-agency approach.

“We find the more we accommodate an event, the more successful travel becomes and the more the sporting traveller knows what to expect. That makes things a whole lot easier.”

“There are operational plans that we can enact,” says Nick Owen, head of control centre operations at TfL.

“But it does take a lot of thinking. London Underground and bus services are extended if they need to be. And roads will be closed. All, of course, depending on how many people are expected to be travelling and the event.

“For example, with an event like Wimbledon we start planning for the following year’s tournament the day after it finishes. We would have a debrief on what’s gone well and what hasn’t gone well, and then we would plan how to improve our approach and services the next time.

“The key for us is to have as much notice and prior knowledge of the event so we can tailor the works on the network, whether that be above or below the ground.”

Twickenham scrum

With most fixtures scheduled in the summer and the season starting in August, preparing for football games is a rather simple and repetitive task with the help of clubs and police.

However, it’s the one-off events like the Olympics in 2012, which really stretch TfL’s resources.

These require the highest amount of planning and cooperation. As Reid and Owen point out, hosting the recent Rugby World Cup in 2015, demanded years of preparation.

“The opening ceremony at Twickenham was the first full capacity event there in the evening,” says Owen. “Fans were flocking to the stadium, but there was the added pressure of the normal Friday rush hour and people trying to come out of London, so that all had to be navigated.

“It’s quite a contrast. With football, for example, the fixtures are released in June and we can cope with that relatively easily. But the Rugby World Cup takes many months, if not, years of planning.”

“The Rugby World Cup used existing stadiums, but matches were played in locations they wouldn’t normally be, all at different times, so we had an overlay on our networks, “says Reid.

“At Twickenham the stadium operation was revved up. Parking around the stadium was reduced so we had to lay on shuttle buses to the station. That meant the A road next to Twickenham had to be shut, which wouldn’t happen for normal rugby matches. That’s where all the different planning comes in.”

Bigger stadia

With football clubs in the capital all gradually expanding their stadium capacities, the pressure on underground, overground and bus services continues to increase.

Indeed, just in the last 12 years, Arsenal and West Ham have moved to bigger grounds, withTottenham Hotspur and Chelsea planning to follow. So are TfL worried as thousands more fans descend on their services?

“It’s not as big a problem as you would think,” says Reid. “It may seem like a cliché at this point but ultimately it comes down to preparation.

“The clubs help out with stewarding. When Arsenal are playing, we have more staff on the ground at Highbury & Islington station. And at Wembley Park the same when England are playing.

“With White Hart Lane’s expansion, undoubtedly there will be significant rise in demand for services in that location, and it’s something we are working with the club and other agencies on how best to deal with it. It’s taking time but we’re planning for it.”

Benefits to London

Even though hosting sporting events takes meticulous planning and puts a strain on resources, it would be easy to forget that sports fans using transport services only make up a tiny percentage of the total number of users each year.

Hence, as TfL is keen to point out, the priority is always to keep the rest of the city moving and protect the everyday traveller from any inconvenience events can cause.

“Thirty million journeys are made on a typical day in London,” says Reid. “Therefore, it’s important to remember that the number of people you have to manage going about their normal day outstrips the number of people going to a sporting event.

“We’re constantly thinking about how we can keep traffic moving. How we can keep buses running amid a road event. You’ve got to make sure, the rest of the public are least affected as possible and can go wherever they need to go.”

Speaking to Reid and Owen their modesty is commendable. However, it’s clear that sporting occasions couldn’t run as efficiently as they do in the capital, if it wasn’t for the work TfL puts in behind the scenes.

Every year, London’s booming population is making it harder and harder to maintain a good service, but, admirably, those at TfL still recognise the advantages of London hosting sports events and are committed to helping them run smoothly.

“There’s a challenge we face every day,” concludes Owen. “Increased travel demand due to the growing population. That’s why TfL is  investing heavily so we can deal with these pressures. But I don’t think it’s getting harder to accommodate sporting events.

“We absolutely understand the benefits of those events to the economy, to the local councils. The World Athletics Championship, for example, contributed £107 million to the London economy. That just shows how important they are to this city.

“That’s why me and Stuart and the rest of the team spend so much time trying to accommodate these events. They are a part of what makes London a global city.”

Images courtesy of TfL

Review: Whites vs Blacks: How Football Changed A Nation

The widespread outpouring of emotion sparked by the recent death of Cyrille Regis underlined the fact that he was not just simply a footballer but an inspiration to so many.

Part of West Bromwich Albion’s swashbuckling ‘Three Degrees’, Regis – along with Brendon Batson and future Real Madrid star Laurie Cunningham – would terrorise defences throughout the late 1970s and into the 80s

Arguably the first real black stars of the English game, they even had racists on the terraces – and there were plenty of them at the time – talking about how good they were.

The sad demise of Regis at the age of 59 gave the BBC another opportunity to screen a documentary made by TV sports presenter Adrian Chiles, a lifelong West Brom fan, in 2016.

It chronicled the testimonial match for Baggies stalwart Len Cantello in May 1979, in which the ‘Three Degrees’, along with other black players from as far down the footballing pyramid as Hereford United, took on a team of white players mostly comprised of the WBA starting XI.

In the cold light of 2018, the very thought of such a contest might make many a person wince.

However former Wolves, QPR and Leicester City defender Bob Hazell, who played on the black side that day, said in the film that it was “fantastic, great memories and a great day everybody wanted to be a part of”.

A galvanising moment

What was noticeable about the differing views on the game was that the black players remembered it with far more clarity than those the white players.

John Wile, Albion club captain at the time who played for the white team, reminisced: “I remember all these kids and faces that we’d never seen before, because there wasn’t that many black players playing at that level.

“The game itself I don’t really remember. I think that year I played something like 76 games. So it was just something else that happened at the end of the season.”

This could well be because the team with Regis and Co. won 3-2 on the day; or more likely, because this simply was an historic moment for black footballers in this country.

“This game, if anything, represented a burgeoning progress which the ‘Three Degrees’ would go on to encapsulate”

Only a few years before this match in May 1979, it would have been impossible to configure a side solely comprised of black players from the English footballing leagues.

This game, if anything, represented a burgeoning progress which the ‘Three Degrees’ would go on to encapsulate.

The film portrayed the feeling that the game brought those black players on the pitch that day together, and in a sense, the entirety of the black contingent within the leagues.

It was an important moment to those players even if it was not for their white counterparts. As former Wolves defender George Berry commented in the film: “We wanted to win.”

Institution of hate

However, the game itself was not the sole focus of the documentary, which in a case such as this would have been far too reductive in nature for the subject matter.

Horrific stories of racist abuse were recalled in the documentary, one of the most striking being that told by Berry about playing against West Brom.

“All I can hear from this West Brom fan is, you black b*****d, effing get back up the tree, you effing gollywog – and I’m marking Cyrille Regis!”

‘Death threats, racism, sexism, homophobia – social media risks becoming its own form of National Front-led terrace before our very eyes’

“I just said to this bloke doing the shouting ‘Who are you talking to? Me or Cyrille?’ Cyrille just shook his head.”

The partners, families and friends of black players were forced to stay away from matches even as the far-right National Front infiltrated the terraces. The higher-ups at the FA even refusing to permit Hazell to dreadlock his hair for fear of a backlash.

This was an age where racism around football was almost entirely unpoliced. According to one former NF member and Birmingham City fan, as huge quantities of bananas were bought pre-match ready to be hurled onto the pitch.

The presence of the NF on the terraces, at a time when football seemed to be a dying sport played in crumbling stadia, exacerbated those weekly displays of hatred and bile.

The documentary captured perfectly how the NF aimed to manipulate impressionable young people into doing their bidding.

One rather rotund National Front leader proudly proclaimed: “There is a lot you can do with a football hooligan,” adding that “football fandom is a form of patriotism”.

Happily ever after?

Today, 30 percent of British footballers are black. So given this, why are there so many barriers that still exist within the game?

And, putting the obvious lack of black and minority managers aside for a moment, has that racially-motivated hatred on the terraces gone for good?

Some would argue that improved facilities, leading to higher ticket prices, leading in turn to the gentrification of football, simply priced racism out of the game.

“In the now immortal words of Regis, ‘you’ve got to overcome’ “

Jason Roberts, nephew of Cyrille Regis and former Premier League striker, suggested as much during the documentary. The question posed in the film was: have the racists simply moved online?

Death threats, racism, sexism, homophobia – social media risks becoming its own form of National Front-led terrace before our very eyes.

People with Union Jack flag headers and a ‘Brexit means Brexit’ profile pictures scour the internet looking to aim internalised hatreds directly at people who look, feel and are different to them. Let’s not pretend many of them aren’t football fans – nationalism and fandom again side by side.

However, in the now immortal words of Regis – “you’ve got to overcome.” Thus the opinions of the faceless few on the internet should not denigrating the progress that has been made and which was sparked by the likes of Regis, Batson and Cunningham.

Achievement

Regis and Batson would prove vital cogs in what was the most successful period in West Brom’s history.

Ironically this was overseen by manager Ron Atkinson – a man who whilst working for ITV in 2004 was accidentally heard describing Chelsea defender Marcel Desailly a “f*****g lazy thick n****r” – a sad reminder of how little some mentalities have changed over the years.

Cunningham would go one better than his fellow ‘Three Degrees’ and become the first British player to ever player for Real Madrid. Given race relations in Spain following the Franco years, this was no small achievement in itself.

Cunningham went onto bedazzle defenders at several other clubs before losing his life in car crash in Madrid aged 32. Dion Dublin and Ian Wright paid emotional tributes to their heroes, as if they were kids again, when reminiscing to Chiles.

Thankfully, we now live in a time in which racial hatred has no place in football, or anywhere else, although issues such as that glaring lack of non-white managers persist.

So much progress has been made, however and for that we have in part to thank the ‘Three Degrees’. They helped pave the way towards a far more beautiful game.

Whites vs Blacks: How Football Changed A Nation is currently on BBC iPlayer.

London 2017 World Athletics Championships Podcast

This summer, the London Stadium in Stratford will host the 2017 World Athletics and ParaAthletics Championships.

These will be the biggest and most prestigious athletics events staged at the venue since the glory days of the 2012 Olympic Games.

But how many people are actually aware that the Championships are coming to the capital in August?

Crystal Davis and Lucas Chomicki visited the Queen Elizabeth Park, home of the London Stadium, to ask people there about the 2017 Worlds.

These events should be the highest-profile entries on the UK’s sporting calendar this year, but are they still flying under the radar with less than six months to go?

Seven of the best comebacks in sports history

Trailing Atlanta by 25 points in the third quarter you could have been forgiven for switching off the TV as a New England Patriots fan watching the 2017 Super Bowl.

However, lead by 39-year-old Tom Brady, the Patriots launched a stunning comeback, described as the best in Super Bowl history, with Brady becoming the first quarter-back to win five Super Bowl rings.

With a great comeback always comes the turning point; Julian Edelman’s phenomenal catch for a first down, under pressure from three Atlanta players, with two minutes left on the clock proved to be exactly that, allowing James White to level the game on a two-yard run.

After that Super Bowl thriller, here are seven more of the best comebacks in sport, some you may of heard of, others maybe not.

 

Lasse Viren – 10,000m – 1972 Olympic Games, Munich

Lasse Viren
@JO_Montreal76

On the 12th lap, Finish runner Lasse Viren was tripped by Emiel Puttemans sending him sprawling to the surface, with Moroccan runner Mohamed Gammoudi also getting caught up in the aftermath.

Gammoudi was down and out, picking up an injury in the fall. Viren however, was straight back to his feet with a 20m deficit to make up and 12 and a half laps to go.

That might not sound like too much, but in an endurance race making up gaps that size is one of the toughest tasks. Not only do you need to have enough energy to get to the end of the race, you need to find the speed to catch up to the rest of the pack.

Incredibly, it only took at matter of seconds for Viren to find himself back in contention, with the crowd cheering him on as he recovered back to the leading pack.

Viren then produced an unprecedented last 600m to take the gold medal in a world record time – one which still stands as the fastest ever 10,000m at the Olympiastadion in Munich.

 

England – 1981 Ashes, Third Test – Headingley

England, Ashes 1981
@CricketopiaCom

With Australia up 1-0 after two Tests, the 1981 Ashes headed to Headingley, where Australia looked set to take a 2-0 series lead.

In a match where England were forced to follow one after the first innings, a victory was so unlikely that England had odds of 500-1 to win.

However, Ian Botham, who just resigned as captain due to poor performances, had other ideas, producing a total of 149 runs, giving England a small lead of 129, forcing the Australians to bat once again.

A lead which you would have expected the Australians to claw back, yet an inspired bowling display the following day from Bob Willis, saw him take eight wickets for 43 runs, as Australia fell for just 111 runs. Suitably fired up, England went on to win the series 3-1.

In what was described as Botham’s Test, it was only the second time in history a team won a test match after being forced to follow on.

 

Nick Faldo – 1996 US Masters – Augusta

Norman and FaldoHaving lead the first three rounds at the 60th US Masters, Greg Norman went into the fourth and final day with a six-shot lead over Britain’s Nick Faldo.

Norman and Faldo were paired together for the closing round, and after seven holes Australian Norman, despite have his lead reduced to four shots, still looked on course for victory.

While Faldo continued a flawless day, Norman who had never won the Masters in 14 attempts, completely collapsed over the next 11 holes, and twice found the water for double bogeys.

Faldo’s score of 67 was the best that day, while Norman’s 78 was one of the worst. It was one of the most astounding comebacks and collapses in golfing history, handing Faldo his third Masters title.

In a great show of sportsmanship, afterwards Faldo and Norman embraced, the Englishman almost seemed more upset for Norman than the Australian himself did.

Faldo told the press afterwards: “I honestly, genuinely feel sorry for him. He’s had a real rough ride today.”

 

Manchester United – 1995/96 Premier League 

Eric Cantona
@ManUtdArchives

In a glittering managerial career that spanned over 39 years, Sir Alex Ferguson was certainly no stranger to a comeback, a trait that defined the teams he managed.

The one that sticks in the memory are the 1999 Champions League Final where injury-time goals from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjær completed a famous treble for United.

Their comeback to win the 1996 Premier League though is one that is overlooked. With Newcastle United 12 points ahead in January, no-one would have bet on on Fergie’s team winning the title.

Going into the season with a young squad and little spending, a 3-1 loss on the opening day to Aston Villa, saw BBC pundit Alan Hansen famously say: “You never win anything with kids.”

Newcastle, meanwhile, had a storming start after a big-spending summer. However a run of fives losses in seven games after January, while United went on a near-perfect run spurred on by the return of Eric Cantona from an eight-month suspension, saw Fergie’s men overhaul them in the title race.

This as well as Ferguson’s mind games prompted a famous quote, or rant, from Magpies manager Kevin Keegan live on Sky Sports, as United went on to win the title by four points.

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Houston Rockets vs San Antonio Spurs – NBA, 2004

Perhaps one of the best one-man comebacks in history, with Houston Rockets 10 points down against San Antonio Spurs in the final quarter, Rockets swingman Tracy McGrady score 13 points in 33 seconds to secure a 81-80 win for the Rockets.

McGrady scored four consecutive three-pointers – one was part of a four-point play – his last one coming 1.7 seconds before the end to secure the victory.

Liverpool, UEFA Champions League Final – Istanbul, 2005

Liverpool fans in Istanbul 2005
@FBAwayDays

Keeper Jerzy Dudek was the hero as Liverpool fought back from 0-3 deficit at half-time to shock the giants of AC Milan, winning the Champions League on penalties in one of the most famous comebacks European Football.

Struggling in the league at the time, the Merseyside outfit produced a number of shocks against European giants, including Juventus and Chelsea, on their way to lifting the club’s fifth Champions League trophy.

Most expected an AC victory, and by the interval Milan fans were already celebrating victory, after Paolo Maldini and a double from Hernan Crespo sent them into half-time with 3-0 lead.

However, a Liverpool team with Steven Gerrard leading them could never be written off, and it was their captain fantastic who headed them back into the game.

Vladimir Smicer was an unlikely hero, really putting pressure on AC after his long-range attempt was fumbled by Dida to bring Liverpool right back into the game, before the outstanding comeback was completed when Xabi Alonso pounced on the rebound from his own penalty which had been saved by Dida.

The Italian side was totally stunned by the comeback, having completely dominated the first half, and despite golden chances to win it, Dudek produced an incredible double save from the shellshocked Andriy Shevchenko to send the game to penalties.

Liverpool’s Polish keeper then replicated Bruce Grobbelaar’s famous “spaghetti legs” to put off Milan’s usually reliable penalty takers and bring the trophy back to Merseyside.

 

Team Oracle USA – America’s Cup 2013

America's Cup 2013The 34th America’s Cup saw challengers Team Emirates New Zealand take an 8-1 lead, just one point away from victory.

That was before the defenders Team Oracle USA brought in British sailor and five-time Olympic medalist Sir Ben Ainsley as a tactician for race six.

Despite this Oracle fell 0-6 behind after eight races, due to penalties they had imposed on the, and by the twelfth race New Zealand just needed one more victory as they led 8-1.

However, with Ainslie’s presence now being felt, Team Oracle were flawless and they won the next eight races to stage an extraordinary comeback to defend the trophy.

The gruelling competition was the longest-running America’s Cup series in history.

Six Reasons why FIFA keeps outselling PES

FIFA is like the popular kid at school. It barely tries to impress, treats most people like crap but remains loved by everyone.

Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) is like one of those perfectly nice but awkward kids that resorts to giving away free sweets just for a moment of attention while always somehow remaining unnoticed.

According to analyst Daniel Ahmad’s Twitter feed, FIFA 17 has sold 40 times more copies than PES 17, having shifted more than 1.1 million units while PES couldn’t even reach 50k. It’s a pattern that been repeated in recent year. Here’s a few reasons why this might be:

Licences: While FIFA has the rights to all the official club and player names, PES has to improvise. Classic examples include: London FC (Chelsea), Hampshire Red (Southampton) and my personal favourite, Man Blue (Man City). Bonus example: back in the day Cafu’s name was Facu.

Peer pressure: If I went out and bought PES I’d have no-one to play it with because everyone else has FIFA. The EA Sports game has become the norm and it feels like this snowball is just getting bigger and bigger.

The name: I don’t have to go out and do a survey to know that about 99% of British fans call the beautiful game football, not soccer. This is a pretty serious deal. I have seen armies of keyboard warriors threaten anyone who disagrees. I think Konami would be taken more seriously if they called it Pro Evolution Football but I guess PEF doesn’t quite have the same ring as PES.

Game play: The fast pace and easy scoring always made PES feel like an arcade game while FIFA’s painstaking attention to detail, steady gameplay and genuine feeling of accomplishment after scoring  gives it more of a simulator vibe.

Barcelona: The main selling point for PES 17 is its licence for Barcelona. As great as this is, it’s a well-known fact that if you’re playing with a friend or online and you pick Barcelona you will be labelled as someone with no skill whatsoever. I know this because I quite often play as Barcelona.

Soundtracks: Both games have always had decent soundtracks but FIFA always seems to have the edge by including more songs. This is especially helpful when you’re spending hours and hours playing career mode. Listening to the same 11 songs on PES while playing a 40+ matches season can become more than tedious.

From a personal standpoint I prefer FIFA simply because it’s something that I’m more accustomed to. The last Pro Evolution Soccer instalment I owned was 14.

As mentioned in my second point, FIFA is a game that’s played by all my friends and their minds are made up as much as mine. Even if I’d want to give the new PES a try I don’t really fancy spending £55 on a game I’m sceptical about, and there’s no-one I could borrow it from. There’s always demos but I feel they never give a big enough picture and feel of the game.

Can it ever change?

I have seen a lot of people on social media who don’t think FIFA 17 is that great. The main criticisms were that player statistics don’t work properly (Messi outjumping Ibrahimović for a header or Mertesacker keeping pace with Sterling?) and set-piece play becoming unnecessarily complicated.

Even the new ‘Journey’ mode has been criticised for being only one season long.

In addition, Pro Evolution Soccer 17 has received very positive reviews overall and its overall score was lower than FIFA only by a tiny margin.

Maybe this year could be the turning point in the football gaming industry where the unnoticed kid at school finally gets their lucky break….

I’ve got Olympic fever again after my first velodrome visit

Since the 2012 Olympics, I’ve only felt truly patriotic three times.

They were when the England Lionesses were knocked out of the Women’s World Cup last year, when the Tour de France passed by the top of my road and yesterday: when Sir Bradley Wiggins led Team GB’s Men’s pursuit team to the final in the Track World Championships at the Velodrome.

“I honestly hadn’t felt such pride in my country since we were in the thick of the Olympic and Paralympic Games”

The only time I’d ever actively watched cycling before yesterday’s session at the Olympic Park, was during the 2012 Olympics when I watched on TV as Wiggins won the road race and Sir Chris Hoy score his final gold medal on track. And aside from the 10 seconds of action during ‘Le Tour’ opposite my local pub, I’d never seen cycling live.

That changed when I attended the UCI Track World Championships, to get a real taste of why it’s becoming so popular in the UK.

The Lee Valley VeloPark is a very impressive venue in which to watch live sports. It’s small, but feels huge, it’s enclosed, but not overwhelming, and modern, but not bland. I must admit however, that my first impressions of the actual event weren’t all that good.

Shaky start

The women’s pursuit qualifiers after a while, became quite monotonous, with little notable action. When it comes to motorsport for instance I’m quite happy just relaxing and watching the ebb and flow of quiet moments – because I find just ‘watching cars’ move interesting. But bikes don’t give me the same feeling of excitement.

“Team pursuit in country vs country form encapsulates everything I love about sport”

That quickly changed after that session was finished, and the 6000-strong sell-out crowd were treated to some pure competition in the form of keirin heats, 1k time trial finals and team pursuit heats; three events I hadn’t seen before, even on TV.

Keirin gave me a real sense of speed, as the women participating took part in two-and-a-half laps of sprinting after the warm-up laps behind the motorbike. It extremely entertaining to see just how often the finishes were decided by thousandths of seconds, with some riders using slingshot tactics on the banked turns similar to that of NASCAR drivers on super-speedways.

Seeing Theo Bos dominate the men’s time trial, with an early time that was over a second quicker than seemingly everyone else – only to be pipped on the final run by Germany’s Joachim Eilers was mind-boggling to witness. But that wasn’t really what grabbed me during the afternoon, instead, it was the sheer patriotism expressed by the fans surrounding me when the Team GB riders were competing.

I honestly hadn’t felt such pride in my country since we were in the thick of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It was the men’s team pursuit which I will remember for a very long time.

Unforgettable

Team pursuit in country vs country form encapsulates everything I love about sport. I love the speed, the endurance, the strategy, the teamwork and the ability to get an impression of just how hard the athletes are working.

“I took the energy out the door and back onto the train home”

When Sir Bradley Wiggins, Ed Clancy, Owain Doull and Jon Dibben all stepped onto the track to face off against Italy to secure a place in the final, the crowd erupted, it was exactly how I’d pictured the atmosphere to be during the Olympics when I entered the velodrome for the first time a few hours earlier.

Soon after the two teams set off, it seemed that Team GB were set for the win, taking a lead and holding it for the remaining tours. It wasn’t the dominance that got the crowd going though, it was the pace.

The announcer over the PA began getting louder and louder as the race continued, and at one point revealed that the four riders were on pace to break the record they set back in the Olympics.

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Infectious

The fans went mad – and I did too. Union flags started being waved furiously in the stands and the riders seemingly used the energy coursing through the building to spur them on to the finish.

In the end, they didn’t break the record, but that didn’t detract from the experience. Any time 6,000 people are loud enough to sound like 60,000, it’s impressive.

I took the energy out the door, back onto the train and all the way home; I had caught ‘Olympic fever’ again for the first time since the Opening Ceremony almost four years ago.

For me, visiting the Track World Championships in the end was the best way to spend a quiet Thursday afternoon in March.

Bring on Rio!

On The Road With My NFL Team

Going on the road to watch your team in the NFL is a strange thing.

As with all the major sports in the USA, the distance between each team can be anything from sharing the same stadium, to travelling almost 3,000 miles across a single country and multiple states.

But the main difference is that the NFL is king in America, and travelling to see your team play away from home is more like a pilgrimage; it’s taken very seriously. And I didn’t realise that fully, until I flew from London to Charlotte to see my NFL team – the Green Bay Packers – play the Carolina Panthers away from the team’s home field.

The Panthers aren’t the most storied team in the NFL, having formed as part of the League’s expansion in 1995, but its fan base are about as passionate as the rest, despite it needing a bit of growth. Bank of America Stadium is also a really cool place to catch a game, if a little generic for a downtown stadium.

It seems to suit the team, the structure is new, and exciting, but lacks any character gained from a lengthy history.

None of that mattered though, as joining the thousands of Packers fans outside – who had also travelled an incredible distance to see the team play – made Charlotte feel like the streets surrounding Lambeau Field back in Wisconsin, proving that Pack fans really know how to make anywhere in the USA feel like a home from home.

Small market, big support

“Oh yeah, if the Packers come to town it’s always the biggest game for us,” said Adrian Green, a sales assistant at a sports retail store local to Bank of America Stadium.

“They just come in droves and it’s actually a real positive for our business round here. I mean, even the Panthers’ rivalry games don’t attract the same sort of support as the Packers, wherever they play, it seems like the entire fanbase converges on the city.”

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Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium

And he really wasn’t joking, as the tailgating scene surrounding the stadium was littered with people of all ages donning ‘Green and Gold’.

“Oh, it was only a 14 hour drive down,” said one Wisconsinite in a worn-out Packers jersey, while grilling a bratwurst beside his truck. “We try and do one game a year outside of Green Bay, it’s just really fun to see new places and cheer on the team as a road warrior.”

The pre-game festivities have become an essential part of every NFL gameday now, as everyone meets up and parties in the huge parking lots or bars near the stadium.

Back in Green Bay, Lambeau Field is quite segregated from the rest of Wisconsin and its major cities Madison and Milwaukee. It’s a small town, in the middle of an agrarian part of America; so gameday is a day which eight times a year, brings everyone together in celebration of the smallest market in the league.

Tailgating in the middle of a city is so different. Charlotte is very much cosmopolitan, and densely populated, so the areas where fans party are tightly packed and spread out. It didn’t detract from the experience though, as per usual, I was constantly offered all manner of food and drinks when walking around, between the various set ups soaking it all in.

“Has the game started yet?” one fan asked me. “No,” I replied. “There’s still an hour until kick-off.”

“Brilliant,” he said. “More time for beer!”

Warm welcomes

The atmosphere in the stadium was also a friendly one. Whether it’s just a ‘Southern Hospitality’ thing or not, it was really encouraging to see both Panther and Packer fans alike cheering, chatting and sharing the game experience together.

There’s no segregation in America, which to a UK fan may seem very alien, but out in the US it’s normal. I didn’t have to be quiet when the Packers scored – partly because there were so many of our fans, and partly because Panthers fans were very accommodating.

“American sport sets itself apart from other countries when it comes to fan culture”

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever shouted louder during a game, despite being surrounded by fans wearing black and blue jerseys. The Packers started strong, but played awfully after leading at the end of the first Quarter. Until the final 15 minutes of regulation, Carolina were firmly in control, leading by three scores, but the Packers battled back and made for one of the more exciting finishes to a football game I’d ever seen.

Down just one score with two minutes to go, Green Bay’s Demerious Randall intercepted Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton to give the Packers extremely favourable field position for one last shot at victory.

The section I was in erupted, with a unique mixture of groans and jubilation. I’ll never forget jumping up and down, screaming and high fiving all the fellow fans around me. What seemed like a foregone conclusion at halftime was suddenly turned on its head; I guess that’s the sort of drama which gets so many people make the trips to opposing teams’ stadiums.

Incredible experience

In the end it wasn’t meant to be though, as the Packers turned the ball over just a few yards from the score. My team, our team, Wisconsin’s team, had lost; and it was somehow gut-wrenching, despite all of us having accepted defeat seemingly hours before the game’s conclusion.

Those of us wearing green were left with long journeys home ahead of us, including an eight-hour flight back to London for me.

But it was worth it. Seeing the NFL for what it really is behind the TV screen, and in its native country is always an incredible experience.

American sport sets itself apart from other countries when it comes to fan culture, because it’s always such a great experience for families, as much as die-hard fans; it’s closer to Bundesliga, than it is Premier League.

“Better luck next time,” one of the Panther fans said on the way out of the stadium. “You guys are good, and we’re just riding high. See you in the playoffs hopefully? It’ll be a great game!

“Oh, and thanks for making the trip,” he added just before turning an opposite way to us onto the street outside the gates. “You guys made the atmosphere special today.”