Seems everybody in the world is trying to get tickets to a Premier League game, but here is some advice I wish more people would follow: Forget the Premier League and check out the lower leagues.
Why? Here are some starters:
- Tickets are a whole lot easier, as in “Walk up to the ticket office and buy them” about 98 percent of the time. In the Premier League, tickets are a nightmare.
- Stadiums are smaller and more intimate.
- You’ll be among the very few tourists on hand.
- It’s a true English footballing experience, often with old-school terraces.
- It will get you to cool towns you wouldn’t ordinarily visit.
But who are these clubs, and what are they all about? Below is an introduction — indeed, an invitation — to the lower-league teams in and around London. See if you can catch a game between any two of them, and you’ll have yourself a treat.
London-Area Championship Clubs
Let’s start in the Championship, which is the second tier of the English football pyramid. And we’ll go in alphabetical order to deflect any charges of bias.
Brentford in West London is the epitome of old-school charm. They have one more season in their old ground, which is famous for being the only one in the country with a pub at each corner! Here is what I have written about the Bees.
Fulham, also in West London and headed down to the Championship for the 2019-20 season, is well known to many Americans because of all the Americans who have played there over the years. One of them, Brian McBride, even has a bar there named for him. It’s a 25,000-seat nationally-listed old stadium on the banks of the Thames. Here is what I have written about the Cottagers.
Millwall, in South London and very near the center of town, are back in the Championship this year after winning promotion from League One. They have a reputation for being a rough crowd, but almost all of that is left over from the 1970s. They’re a true working-class club in a stadium, The Den, which is always threatened with redevelopment. And they have one of the great songs in the world, “No One Likes Us.”
Queens Park Rangers, yet again in West London, will defiantly point out they are, in fact, the only team in West London proper. They play in the coziest of venues, Loftus Road, with 18,000 seats — all of them close enough to hear players shouting at each other when the fans aren’t yelling “Hoops” after scoring a goal. Here is what I have written about the Hoops.
Reading isn’t technically in London, but it’s only an hour by train from Paddington Station, so I am including them here. The town is lovely, and while the stadium is one of these new ones on the edge of town that may lack character, another way of saying that is that it’s modern, clean and comfortable. See if you can catch them playing rivals Oxford in a cup tie.
League One London Area Clubs
AFC Wimbledon are an inspiring story. The original Wimbledon FC was moved to Milton Keynes in 2004, thus becoming MK Dons. And while this is familiar to Americans, it’s bizarro in the least to Brits. So the Wimbledon fans started themselves a new club! They play in a tiny ground called Kingsmeadow, and yes, they are in that Wimbledon, a lovely area in Southwest Greater London.
Charlton Athletic, with the curious nickname The Addicks, reside in South (and East) London, not far from West Ham United. Although their stadium, The Valley, is impressive and holds 27,000 people, they really feel like a local club. You get off at the train station, hit up the local cafe or pub or chippie, and head in with the other locals. As for that nickname, it appears to come from the local pronunciation of haddock; a local fishmonger used to give the team haddock and chips after games.
Oxford United, like their rivals Reading, are also just an hour from Paddington. And besides, any tourist will want to see Oxford, the university town known as “the city of dreaming spires.” Take a hop-on hop-off bus tour of the town, admire the world’s oldest university, and then head down to see an up-and-coming club in their 12,000-seat stadium. Here is what it was like when I went there.
League Two London Clubs
Barnet is a little club way up in North London, not far from Wembley Stadium. Around it are a tube station, a pub, a couple of restaurants … and that’s about it. Also an AirBnB where I had an awkward experience while attending a non-game at Barnet. So it’s at least an easy one to deal with, and I need to get back and check it out.
MK Dons, speaking of the former Wimbledon, took their club and nickname to the “new town” of Milton Keynes. That’s a town that didn’t exist until 1967 and was part of a massive effort to relocate areas bombed out during World War II. So it’s a new club in a new town; naturally, they have a new stadium, the 30,000-seat Stadium mk, which opened in 2007. I get the impression that Brits don’t really know what to make of MK Dons; their rivalry with AFC Wimbledon is sometimes called “The Derby That Shouldn’t Exist.”
Crawley Town is another of the New Towns like Milton Keynes, and their little club plays at the friendly 6,000-seat Broadfield Stadium. They have only been in the Football League since 2011, the same year they lost to Manchester United, only 1-0, in the FA Cup Fifth Round. Crawley is near Gatwick Airport, about an hour south of London Bridge Station.
Luton Town, north of town less than an hour from Euston Station, have the wonderful nickname The Hatters. That would be because Luton was known for making hats. They have played at Kenilworth Road (now 10,000 seats) since 1905, and in all that time, the main thing of note they ever did was beat Arsenal to win the 1988 League Cup. Luton, just under an hour from St. Pancras in London, is now mostly known as an affordable bedroom community for London workers.
Stevenage is in another such bedroom/suburbia town, and in fact they have quite a rivalry with Luton Town. There is actually an Old Town in Stevenage, as I found on my visit there, but the stadium is across from a car dealership, and my taxi driver there told me that quite literally nothing happens in town. The games are fun, though — proper terraces and all, with singing and illicit booze et al.
Non-League London Clubs
This is just the few I’ve actually been to:
Dulwich Hamlet is a great little club in a rapidly-gentrifying South London area. They play in the National League South, at tier 6 of the pyramid, and I saw them play on Boxing Day 2019, when they returned to their home ground after a rent dispute.
Boreham Wood are in the National League, tier 5, and play in a suburb north of London which is also kind of the Hollywood of the UK. It doesn’t have a walk of fame or anything, but there are some famous studios up there. Also the biggest MacDonalds I’ve ever even heard of. Here is my visit there for an FA Cup game.
Leyton Orient were in the Football League for many years until 2017, when their lame owner nearly finished the job of destroying the club by getting them dumped into the National League. They have a great little stadium in the East End, where I took a Groundhop Crew on New Years Day 2019.