In 2011, when an Arsenal supporter friend invited me to a game at The Emirates, it was very much as if I had stuck my head through a portal and peered into another world — a world, I would soon learn, called groundhopping.
I was aware of English football, of course, and like many Americans I had seen it on television. I also supported the US national teams and my hometown MLS side, and I had vague memories of NASL games around 1980 as well as one very cold, very stoned night at Feyenoord FC in Rotterdam.
Beyond that, I had only a few scraps of information in my head: there’s a Champions League, and an FA Cup, and I think I was aware that other leagues existed in England, and that of course most other countries played the game. The size, the scope, and the complexity of it all was well beyond me.
All I knew that night in North London is (A) I wanted to see more games in person, and (B) I wanted to write about it to help other people do the same thing.
So I knew I was going to write a book. But I had no idea that I would one day find myself flipping through Twitter to read about somebody’s day at a third-tier Norwegian club — much less that I would embark on a quest to see a game at 92 professional English clubs.
I had no idea I had become a groundhopper.
What is Groundhopping?
“Ground” is, for British people, either a word for an old-fashioned stadium where games occur, or maybe an old-fashioned word for the places where games occur. Or both. I have wandered into this before and found that not even all English people agree completely on it, but for an American, think of it this way: “ground” equals “ballpark.” So you know that Wrigley Field is a ballpark, and you might also call Yankee Stadium a ballpark. Either way, if I told you I was on a “ballpark tour,” you’d know I was off to see a lot of baseball games.
In the same sense, hopping from ground to ground is simply being a football tourist, collecting grounds and experiences, and maybe scarves and badges, and certainly beers and photos and (one may hope) followers. And on the internet, adherents to this hobby, which like all others can get super geeky and out of hand, gather around #groundhopping.
The World of #Groundhopping
My first intro to #groundhopping was from a guy named Shaun Smith, founder of the 100 Football Grounds Fan Club. He calls it “the original internet ground logging website,” and I don’t think it has changed much since it was launched in 2006.
Even if he lacks in technical skills, Mr. Smith makes up for it with his dedication; in December 2020, he posted a report from ground #743 for him, Sheerien Park, home of Athersley Recreation (the Penguins) of the Northern Counties East League Premier Division, at tier 9 of the football league pyramid:
Some relevant stats from the day: attendance 107, admission £5, cappuccino and burger £3.70, and a 4-2 loss for the home side at the hands of league-leading Yorkshire Amateur.
Normally he would also list the pubs he visited and ales he consumed, both of which can become rather impressive numbers. But I suppose this is another casualty of Covid-19. Speaking of that, the pandemic limited him to “just” 39 games in 2020.
Still, from his posts I began to understand the basic #groundhopping template: where did you go, who played, who won, what did it cost, what was it like, and how much did you drink? From there, leave it to the internet nerds to make an insane sort of contest out of it.
The 92 Club
I have a little of the geek in me as well, so when I heard about “doing the 92,” and even more so that there was a 92 Club one could join … well, I now have a purpose in life.
What’s the 92? Well, as I described in the video above, the English football world is organized in a sort of pyramid of leagues, connected by promotion and relegation, with the Premier League at the top and the Northern Counties East League Premier Division way down below (but not at the bottom!). There are hundreds of clubs, but at any given time 92 of them are in the Football League or the Premier League and are, thus, fully professional.
To “do the 92” is simply to see a game at all 92 of those grounds.
Well, it’s simple until you get actual people involved. Thus, at the impossibly archaic ninetytwoclub.org, there is a list of qualifications one must meet in order to join the club. Originally drafted in 1978 by a Bristol Rovers fan, the requirements come with this helpful explainer: “In the case of clubs moving grounds, either the original ground or the new ground can be counted during the first two seasons following the move. Once the club has played at the new ground for two seasons then the original ground becomes invalid and thereafter only the new ground can be counted within the 92.”
Also helpful is this: “The absence of score or attendance details for each match will not necessarily invalidate the application.” Because, I assume, pubs and beer.
I have reached out, by the way, to see if any of the roughly 1,500 people to “do the lot” are from the US. I would check the membership rolls on the website, but it isn’t there. It is, according to the club hierarchy, “stored on our computer.” Still I have a dream: the be their first American member.
Tracking Your Own #Groundhopping Progress
Should this particular bug, a cross between travel, sports, anthropology and general nerdery, happen to bite you, rest assured people are waiting to help you track the grounds you’ve been to. The folks at the 92 Club’s official site won’t be of any help in this regard, but others have sprung up, particularly the92.net, 92club.co.uk, and doingthe92.com.
I am partial to footballgroundmap.com, where I have registered as yankee-groundhopper. It’s simple: You enter the grounds you visited and the clubs and games you saw, then they put it all together. So I can say that I am ranked #20,467 overall and am #2 among Portland Timbers fans. (I’m coming for you, lauriejane!) They also share news about clubs and stadiums, and they sell a poster of the 92 clubs every year.
I would also suggest you join Groundhopper Guides’ very own Facebook group to share your #groundhopping adventures with us.
The Hard Core #Groundhopping Online Crowd
As I said before, all hobbies, when combined with people (okay, men) and computers, can get a wee bit out of hand. For an example, here are links to #groundhopping on Twitter, Facebook or especially Instagram.
Just to randomly pick the most recent half dozen #groundhopping posts on Instagram as of this writing, you can see Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires, Tuzla City in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Tottenham Hotspur, Valencia in Spain, Deportivo Cali in Columbia, and Brentford in London.
If you want to jump into the fun on Facebook, there are also pages and groups to join:
- Groundhopping is a private group founded by Germans so has a German focus, but is all over the world.
- Football Away Days is a great follow (also on Twitter) for video clips of away supporters traveling all over the world.
- The 100 Football Grounds Club is Shaun Smith’s little corner of Facebook.
- The London Football Guide is a guide, updated weekly, on games to see in Greater London. We interviewed the founder of this one.
- Football Stadium Gallery is really just that — photos — but some of these places are amazing!
- United Football Grounds is a clearinghouse of sorts for little snippets of groundhopping culture.
- Non-League Grounds of England, Scotland and Wales is for UK groundhoppers specializing in smaller clubs.