Depending on who you ask, the answer you get to ‘What is the football capital of the world?’ could invite any number of replies. Supporters may be tempted to offer their own clubs as suggestions, their claims perhaps being substantiated if their team has a rich history or is located in a noted footballing hotbed.
London would have a stronger claim than most to the title of the world’s ‘football capital’ for a variety of reasons. Some may feel that Wembley‘s aura and history alone would swing the argument. You could also point to the city boasting six of the 20 Premier League clubs both this season and last, with England’s top flight legitimately laying claim to being the strongest domestic league in the world right now. When you factor in the Football League as well, the number of football venues in London rises further, the number boosted by Sutton United’s promotion to League Two earlier this year.
During the first lockdown in the spring of 2020, as I pined for being able to traverse outside of my five-kilometre limit, I started mapping out the idea of visiting each of London’s football grounds. The first step was a pretty straightforward one – pinpoint on a map of the city where each of them is located. I then identified the nearest Tube or train station to each, which led me to draft a rough plan of action for getting from one to the other.
A few months after I had started the initial planning, two alterations were necessitated. Firstly, Brentford moved into their new venue at the start of the 2020/21 season, leaving behind Griffin Park after 116 years. Not long afterwards, AFC Wimbledon ended their temporary stay at Kingstonian to move into their new ground at their spiritual home of Plough Lane. The opening of those two stadia forced some tweaking to my plans, which in hindsight ended up making the getting from to and fro easier.
Still confined to Ireland a year after I had begun mapping out the idea, one more venue was added to my list as Sutton United gained promotion to the Football League for the first time in their history. The criteria I had made for the trip was to include every Premier League and Football League stadium within the boundaries of London. That excluded venues from regions narrowly outside the city such as Hertfordshire.
Once I got the call for my first COVID vaccination, I began to put more of a structure on getting from one ground to another; and shortly after being fully vaccinated, I went for broke and booked flights and accommodation. Now knowing the dates and times that I would land in and depart London, along with where I would be staying while in the city, it made an embryonic idea feel very real, and I could finalise my plans for the trip.
I ended up with the best part of three days to visit 14 venues across London, luck on my side as I would fly in on a Tuesday morning and had until Thursday afternoon before flying back out from Stansted Airport. I had planned the trip as best as I could, although there were some factors outside of my control, such as transport disruption or inclement weather, which would still scupper the entire deal. If that were to happen, so be it. It was out of my hands.
The pandemic is still rife, but I felt confident enough to get on a plane and fly to London in early October to embark on my long-planned tour of the city’s football grounds. Over a three-part series, one for each day of the trip, I will recall my experience of visiting each stadium. Here is how it all unfolded!
Day 1: Tuesday 5 October
Venue 1: The Valley (Charlton)
Route taken: London Bridge to Charlton via Thameslink/Southern Rail, then reverse trip
My early-morning flight and ideally located hotel meant that I was crossing London Bridge by midday, proceeding to the train station bearing that name and taking the 15-minute rail journey to Charlton.
I had been to The Valley as a 16-year-old in 2005 as part of a trip to the city with the underage football team I represented at the time. We got tickets for the meeting of Charlton and Bolton, both of whom are now in League One but what was then a Premier League fixture. It was a sign of the times that Sam Allardyce’s Trotters won 2-1 thanks to an El Hadji Diouf winner to move fifth in the top flight, taking them above a Liverpool team which would win the Champions League less than six weeks later.
Upon getting off the train at Charlton, the first thing I saw was a large red wall mural reading ‘This way to The Valley’ and an arrow to that effect. I had Maps on my near-fully charged phone but it wouldn’t be needed in this instance.
It was only a five-minute stroll to Floyd Road, where the red-topped back of one stand came into view, soon followed by the Charlton Athletic Superstore. It may have seemed a relatively low-key start to the trip but The Valley is a tremendous ground when it gets rocking, its reputation for impressive acoustics reflected by The Who breaking a record for the loudest-ever concert when they played at the stadium in 1976.
There were other telltale signs in the locality that hinted at the club’s presence, including a Floyd Road postbox labelled ‘Addicks’ and the distinctive Valley Cafe at the corner of Delafield Road and Charlton Church Lane.
A short train trip and an even shorter walk meant that it didn’t take me long to tick off the first of 14 venues that I planned to visit over the subsequent 48 hours. I was up and running, and it was back to London Bridge to continue on to the next stop of the tour.
Venue 2: Selhurst Park (Crystal Palace)
Route taken: London Bridge to Norwood Junction via Southern Rail, then reverse trip
The Valley was one of the most easterly venues on the trip; now it was time for one of the most southerly. I was hopping on another 15-minute train trek from London Bridge, this time heading to Norwood Junction in Croydon to tick off the first of the six Premier League clubs on my list.
There is a Crystal Palace train station but I knew that it wasn’t the closest to the football club bearing that name. I was looking forward to visiting Selhurst Park more than most of the other venues for two reasons – one was because Palace fans seem to always whip up a fervent atmosphere, and another because I have relations living in Orpington who are huge Eagles supporters. As it turned out, I would visit them later that night, armed with being able to recount my firsthand experience of seeing the stadium.
It didn’t seem overly difficult to get from Norwood Junction to Selhurst Park – after coming out of the station, I simply had to walk past Aldi, take the next left and keep going until the stadium came into view. I overcomplicated things by going one turn-off too far, but basic directional instinct meant that I was quickly able to come back on course, finding Holmesdale Road and approaching it from behind the stand bearing that name. I actually recognised the corner from which the players emerge on matchdays.
There was a lone security man stationed at the half-opened iron gates bearing Crystal Palace’s name and he may well have been a tad perplexed as to why a random person with an Alice band was stopping to take photos of this part of the stadium. A few pictures later, I continued along by the back of the Holmesdale Road stand, getting one clinching shot of its distinctive roof before strolling back to Norwood Junction just in time to catch a city centre-bound train.
Venue 3: Plough Lane (AFC Wimbledon)
Route taken: Jubilee line tube from London Bridge to Waterloo, Southwestern Rail to Earlsfield
When I started following football in the mid-1990s, Wimbledon were a Premier League club ground-sharing with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. Alas, they slipped out of the top flight in 2000 and underwent a hugely contentious mutation into MK Dons four years later. In the meantime, disgruntled fans had set up a new club, AFC Wimbledon, who climbed their way up the footballing pyramid to currently sit side-by-side with the Milton Keynes outfit in League One.
In the autumn of 2020, AFC Wimbledon returned to their spiritual home of Plough Lane at a newly-built stadium which lay just 200 yards from the site of their former ground when the inimitable Crazy Gang made waves in English football during the 1980s. The Dons’ new venue was still a good 15-minute walk from Earlsfield station, one of the longer station-to-stadium walks that I would undertake during the London tour.
At least it was a straight walk for the most part, although when I got to where Maps on my phone was telling me I would find Plough Lane, all I could see were modern apartment blocks. I eventually found an elongated wall surrounding a quartet of floodlights, which told me that I had indeed come across AFC Wimbledon’s ground. Still searching for the main entrance, I came upon it directly across from a retail park, the stadium condensed neatly into a compact residential space.
Just as I began walking back towards Earlsfield, a rain shower threatened to turn me into a soaking wreck, but it abated within five minutes and, with luck on my side, it would turn out to be the only time across the three days that there was even a hint of rain. Until I was flying back from Stansted on Thursday, by which stage I wasn’t fussed.
Venue 4: Brentford Community Stadium (Brentford)
Route taken: Southwestern Rail to Clapham Junction, with a change for Kew Bridge
As I had evening plans, there was only one more venue for me to tick off on day one, and it was the second stadium in a row that opened just last year. I was off to see the new home of Brentford, the Premier League’s 50th and newest member.
Unlike Plough Lane, which took a 15-minute walk to reach from the nearest station, the Brentford Community Stadium was literally on top of its nearest public transport hub. Upon getting off at Kew Bridge, I turned my head to see the Bees’ crest looking down upon me. Suffice to say there wasn’t any need for me to be consulting Maps this time!
Even reaching it from Kew Bridge station was ridiculously easy – all it takes is a climb up the steps from platform to street, an instant left turn and a stroll up along the back of one stand, where on this day there were two customers making good use of the club’s box office, perhaps wanting to get in early for their forthcoming home fixture against Chelsea.
I never visited Brentford’s former home Griffin Park, but I was aware of its place in legend for having a pub on each corner. That feature may be lacking in the new stadium, but the venue looked appropriately smart for a club that has diligently worked its way up the leagues over the last 15 years.
It was a satisfying way to round off my first day of groundhopping throughout London. After easing myself into it with four venues on day one, there was a busier itinerary planned for the following day, which will be chronicled in the next piece over the coming days here on The Football Pink!