Editor’s Note: This is a guest post written by Adam “The Tailgate Knight” Goldstein. Goldstein is the author of the book Tailgate To Heaven: A British NFL Tackles America.
For six straight seasons the NFL has brought over two teams to do battle in London and the famous new Wembley stadium. Thankfully the NFLUK, (the NFL’s U.K side dish) realise that you can not have a true NFL experience without a Tailgate and they have done an amazing job each and every year to provide this…or rather a form of this, because what they really have on for two straight days is a huge fan zone. Saturday’s fan rally is in Trafalgar square and free for anyone, while Sunday’s “Tailgate” is much the same with player interviews, Super Bowl trophies, but you need a game day ticket to get in.
The Definition of a tailgate, can differ greatly from tailgater to tailgater. As someone who has tailgated at numerous NFL stadiums, I would say that true tailgating is something where friends come together in or nearby the stadium, and cook for each other with no money exchanging hands. Once inside the Tailgate at Wembley you can only buy food.
I believe there are three crucial elements that the U.S has which allows for this “tailgating freedom”. Car parking space, the laws of public flames and culture.
Many NFL stadiums have vast car parking spaces and many Americans drive to games. In the U.K our cars are not only smaller, but there is limited parking at most stadiums. Our stadiums are like Wrigley Field in Chicago, in a residential area. Wembley does have a lot of car parking space for a U.K venue, but considering it seats up to 90,000 people it is not anywhere near the size of U.S parking lots. The space that it does have is taken up with the so called “Tailgate Party” run by the NFLUK and its sponsors, which we locals call this the “Official Tailgate”. Even though this is not a real tailgate, the NFLUK provides hours of entertainment, something that does not happen at all for soccer matches at the same venue.
Wembley stadium is serviced by a subway stop and a mainline station both within 10 minutes of walking distance. When 95% of fans are coming by public transport it makes it difficult to bring your grill and flat screen TV so most fans across the country go to a pub before hand to get their booze on.
Okay, so even if we did have lots of space and decent sized cars to transport our grills and such, tailgating would still be thwarted because we are not allowed naked flames in public. We can however have open liquor and drink alcohol on the streets, hence there is no need for the bright red cup. This upsets me because you can’t have a true tailgate without the red cups. I actually searched high and low in the U.K for these magical receptacles to play some beer pong, but I couldn’t find any!
In the U.K there are some designated areas where you can take a portable or disposable grills, and these areas are growing in some parks. There is usually a sand bag or emergency water nearby, but there is no way any higher authorities would allow fans to cook themselves near a stadium. Sure our BBQ culture is growing, which is great, and people can buy some great food at the Official Tailgate. Unfortunately those vendors have a trailer, staff, roped off areas and they probably had to fill out a mountain of paper work doing risk assessments and health and safety checks.
With soccer hooliganism still lurking in the shadows it will take a long time for the politicians to trust fans to cook for themselves. I do hear that at International Rugby matches at Twickenham, there is some kind of a small tailgate. In Rugby, the crowds are not separated like in soccer, and the sport is followed by the middle classes and not the working classes like in soccer. Plus Twickenham is not serviced by as many rail links like Wembley, so more people drive to those games. I propose, and have done for some time, that for these reasons, the International Series should be at Twickenham, the home of Rugby and not at Wembley, the home of soccer (and its hooligans).
Although Wembley has a few pubs within walking distance, the best and most famous is the humble yet slightly grubby Green Man pub, which is up a steep hill. A hill that has knocked the wind out of fans from eight of the nine teams that have come to London. The exception of course was when the 49ers came to visit in 2010, and their fans felt like they were back home when they tackled the mighty hill leading to the Green Man pub.
At this pub we are getting closer to the real thing. This pub usually picks the home or away fans to host during soccer matches, but for the NFL games they make an exception and allow all jerseys. The staff behind the event is the backroom staff from the Colchester Gladiators American football team. They hire the pub and make it an open door all weekend long for NFL fans.
There are raffles and games much like one would find at a tailgate. Though I was the only one who had a beer pong table! The food that is cooked by the pub is very basic pub food which they charge for, so yes it is still not a pure tailgate, but any fan can come by with or without a ticket. The atmosphere is very friendly and very relaxed and this is where friends from all over Europe meet up. There is also a tent with merchandise and other goodies being sold and there was a stand giving out information if anyone wants to be a referee. (They could have used that stand in the U.S at the start of this season!)
It was in this tent that I was signing copies of my book Tailgate To Heaven: A British NFL Tackles America. It was my best signing of my tour and we sold out in under thirty minutes. That’s when I heard the voice of a Cheesehead tell me that he is actually really tailgating in the pub car park. I knew I had to come and check this out.
A few of us dashed to the pub car park. This Packer fan stood proud by his open trunk that was filled with food and snacks. His portable grill, which was the size of a briefcase, was already lit, and he placed on the grill a rather sad looking hot dog and a can of chili onto the heat.
I was stunned to find a real tailgater! He could get in big trouble for having a hidden BBQ in public like this, but he is a true Packer fan and knew he couldn’t come to the game without true tailgating. This was oddly the worst and the best real tailgate over the weekend.
It was here that some local fans came by to question what he was up to. The U.K NFL fans seemed unsure, as to why was he offering food to people. They scuttled off and bought a horrible burger from the pub. Now this is where the culture is just so different. The British folk are not too confident about striking up a conversation with a neighbor. At all six NFL games at Wembley I never once high fived a stranger sitting next to me. In the U.S I must have gotten 100 per game from strangers.
Sadly even if we did drive to games and cooked up food, it is just not in our culture and history to cook at sporting events. Unless the U.K changes its culture, people would still go and buy food from a vendor. Even though my Dad has read my book, he is still gobsmacked that all these fans in the U.S cook at the tailgate and that no one is poisoned through bad cooking. He genuinely does not trust the cooking abilities of strangers in a car park.
I do hope that somehow Britain can start to change its culture and be more relaxed, social and more willing to break bread with its neighbors. That hope is not reserved at football games, but across the whole country. The only way to really to do that is to have more fans like this Cheese Head chap willing to break some silly local public flame rules so that he can share his food before the big game.
My fiance, Steph, and I saw this Cheese Head and we were inspired! Next year there are two games in London, and we will be bringing our portable BBQ and beer pong table (with red cups of course) to the Green Man Pub. We will be parked next to the Cheese Head and start an almighty cook off! We may not be able to change the laws, but we can certainly start to change the culture game by game.