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A groundhopper’s guide to London

It’s incredibly difficult to illustrate the feeling of not going to football games when you’ve done it your whole life. Pain is the wrong word. Pain suggests something burning or malignant inside. Perhaps melancholy is the better word for that feeling. For over 12 months, the habit of nearly every weekend of your lifetime, gone. Not gone forever. But in this bizarre, sad flux of being- not quite knowing whether or when you’d be able to return, and what to do with yourself in the meantime.

So what a thrill it was to get back to it this season, and to rediscover my love of groundhopping which has been with me since I was about 7. I’ve been to nearly a third of the grounds in professional English football. However, I wasted many opportunities in my first year to develop this pursuit in London. Now in my third, I’m keen to tick off as many of the 37 grounds in London that I could. To that end, I printed off the map which is the featured image of this piece, gave myself the satisfaction of ticking off the grounds I’d already been to, and with the brilliant Futbology app to guide my activities, I’ve made sure that every spare Saturday and Tuesday night I have doesn’t go to waste.

I had already been to The Den (Millwall), the new Tottenham stadium (vs Norwich in 2019/20 FA Cup, just as the Covid pandemic was beginning to truly hit), The Valley (if you’ve read the Sports section before you’ll know it’s a de facto Charlton comment mouthpiece due to our affiliations past and present), Kingsmeadow (when AFC Wimbledon played there), Craven Cottage as a neutral, the London Stadium, but only for the 2017 World Athletics Championships, not a West Ham game, and thankfully Griffin Park (my favourite ground in English football), demolished in 2020 as Brentford moved on to pastures new.

And that was a good place to start for my 2021/2022 London footballing travels. A Tuesday night League Cup game for £10 against Malaise FC (Oldham Athletic) with many fellow groundhoppers also there, ticking off a new stadium on the cheap. A Yoane Wissa bicycle kick right in front of me, London Pride in its local habitat on a weirdly bitter draught tap, 7 goals to enjoy, and a surprisingly efficient stadium for its small size and ‘penned in’ nature made it an evening very well spent.

Next on my list was one of hipster football’s pilgrimage site, a 10-minute walk from mine in Camberwell, to Dulwich Hamlet FC and Champion Hill (the stadium, and yes, its right by that KCL accommodation that had to be permanently evacuated due to a fire hazard). Known for their explicit stance in anti-discrimination and anti-homophobia campaigns, I first ventured up the Hill for a Tuesday-nighter against fellow playoff hopefuls Maidstone United in a Conference South clash. I’d been to a non-league game during the brief end to a full-on lockdown in December 2020 (to Brackley Town with Roar Sport great Aki Chandel), but there hadn’t been a bar due to restrictions. Due to professional football’s stance on alcohol inside the stadium, I forgot what an amazing feeling it was to have a pint in front of the footy. With thanks to the £5 student ticket, immaculate Altbier from the Brockley Brewery, a fittingly-hipster option of a delicious pork souvlaki, and the friendly nature of The Rabble (Dulwich’s fans), the 0-0 draw and a bizarre trait of rattling your keys during a corner was no bother to me.

The next new tick concerned Wimbledon’s new stadium at Plough Lane. Though too early in the season to be labelled a relegation battle, their match against Crewe had a good amount at stake. The stadium was similar to Brentford’s new one in many respects- penned in and with a big Lego Stadium vibe. However, the lethargic and slow nature of getting into the stadium due to its lack of turnstiles, and the fact that due to the newbuilds around the stadium, once you’re in it has the feel of something out of MySims, meant I was much less charmed to it than Brentford’s new digs. A reasonably entertaining 3-2 game slightly helped matters, but much more in helping was my pleasure that this set of fans were finally back home and away from the hideous, 5ft9-discriminating nature of Kingsmeadow (yes I’m still bitter).

Over December, I returned to Champion Hill (rewarded with a 5-2 win over Ebbsfleet this time) and The Valley, but one more ground was ticked off, Gander Green Lane of Sutton United. In the football league for the first time ever, they had to turf up their plastic pitch and replace it with a grass one, creating an awkward mishmash of surfaces on the sidelines. With no bar in the stadium and a weirdly removed terrace behind the goal, it was certainly the least enjoyable of my new spots this year, though maybe the 2 degree weather had more to do with that sentiment.

Going to new grounds stirs that most basic, glorious human sense of adventure, even in a small capacity. It’s just simply a lovely thing to do which I encourage all fans of football to try, that state of just wandering, drifting in and out and soaking up new experiences. Just hopping around from place to place.

I suppose, in the end, that’s what we’re all doing.

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