Remembering the first thing you ate at a football ground is unlikely to induce much in the way of Proustian longing for childhood. In fact, if you started attending games in the late 1980s as I did, memories of the mephitic odours emanating from the tea hut at the back of the vast terraces (apart from Wembley, venues were called ‘grounds’ back then, never ‘stadiums’) were often enough for children to plead with their dads to be taken to cricket, hockey or, god forbid, even crown green bowling events instead.
“Football ground food has historically been poor because it’s simply been accepted for so long without anyone showcasing how bad it really is,” says Tom Kirby, founder of Footyscran, a Twitter feed that, for the last two years, has been displaying photos of some of the flaccid, loathsome, yet also progressively terrific offerings that clubs are serving up.
“Clubs know match-going fans, especially ones who may have had a drink or two, are happy to spend £5 or more on very bog standard food,” Kirby adds. “This is all the while knowing that once fans are in the ground there’s nowhere else you can go to eat. So the clubs often don’t strive to make the offering better.”
Football ground food has historically been poor because it’s simply been accepted for so long without anyone showcasing how bad it really is
Tom’s site is followed by well over 300,000 people, who are all encouraged to upload pics of their own good, bad and often downright ugly match day snacks taken in the UK, and increasingly, around the world. His view of the many clubs’ cynical, avaricious attitudes is well founded. I still recall my first football ground tray of pie and chips, served to me by a man who looked like he murdered livestock with his bare hands in his spare time, at the Racecourse Ground, home of my team Wrexham FC, back in 1991.
The pie had the pallor of a forgotten gym sock and tasted, predictably, like the pickings from a sloth’s nostrils. The chips with ketchup looked, and tasted, like they’d been buried underneath a manhole off the M62 since construction and had been harpooned out by a starving foxhound with a nosebleed. I vowed, from that day on, to wait until I got home after the match before I ate. Yet, fast-forward thirty years or so, and it would seem that the livestock-culling pie man of yore is all but absent from the football ‘stadiums’ of today.
“I can now hear people saying, ‘It’s worth the wait in the queue to try this’. After two years, we’ve now got fans that come firstly for the souvlaki, secondly for the beer, and only third for the football itself,” says Erint Petsani, who has been manning the stoves at Come & Go Souvlaki, a purveyor of the Greek street food staple. Erint has had a food stand at Dulwich Hamlet FC for the last two years and, as of this season, will also have outlets at the AFC Wimbledon football club.
“I was born in Albania, but I moved to Greece when I was 2 years old,” he tells me. “Come & Go Souvlaki came as an idea to me during the pandemic. Lockdown meant I wasn’t allowed to go and eat my favourite food which has always been souvlaki. So I thought that I should open the type of venture that would give people my favourite food fast and quick. The fact that I’d already worked in street food markets during my studies on another Greek food stall allowed me to learn how the wraps and the ingredients come together.”
The pie had the pallor of a forgotten gym sock and tasted, predictably, like the pickings from a sloth’s nostrils
In the manner of a promising young striker being spotted by a scout, Erint’s food was sampled by one of the managerial team at Dulwich Hamlet FC and an offer was made for him to come and see if his food would sell in a football setting. To Erint’s delight, Dulwich Hamlet fans embraced his antidote to the burger and hot dog staples, and his souvlaki stand is now a permanent fixture inside the club’s Champion Hill ground on match days.
“Burgers and hot dogs are things you can find anywhere and eat whenever you want at home,” Erint insists. “Souvlaki is a different story. The effort we put into making it is much more intense and time-consuming. The only confusion comes when fans say they want chilli sauce on their souvlaki. I always say that we in Greece would never use chilli on souvlaki, so instead I made my own favourite Greek spicy feta sauces, a type of htipiti, which have gone down very well.”
Dulwich Hamlet, and their partnership with Come & Go Souvlaki, is one of a burgeoning group of clubs who are committed to ending the reality of football ground catering being the gastronomic equivalent of a 3-0 home defeat against Stoke City on a rainy Tuesday night, as Tom from Footy Scran enthuses.
“Birmingham City are trying out many different street food stands at their ground giving fans the option to try curries, roast pork tiger loaves, and even a range of funky flatbreads,” he tells me. “Hull City will always be near/at the top of the footyscran ladder with their innovations from pulled pork fries and buffalo chicken wings all for great affordable prices.”
Souvlaki is a different story. The effort we put into making it is much more intense and time-consuming
Yet, in this era of executive VIP experiences, corporate dining and the sense that, at times, modern, new-build stadiums are built more in mind for prospective Adele and Bruce Springsteen concerts than football matches, there’s an increasingly large segment of the game-attending public who have no issue with the idea of eating street food in the cheap seats.
It was back in the early 1980s that executive boxes, and the concomitant dining facilities, first appeared at British football grounds. Prior to that, the ‘VIP’ facilities extended no further than a pint and a tray of biscuits in the boardroom after the match. Yet football, once again, failed to notice the sea change in British dining habits. In the late 1990s, I was gifted an executive ticket to watch Tottenham Hotspur play Wimbledon on a misty winter evening. At a time when casual, high-quality, affordable dining was just beginning to emerge on our high streets in the form of Pierre Victoire and Wagamama, the menu at White Hart Lane read like a 1970s paean to flares, beige colourways, and the three-day week.
The ‘soup of the day’ was thinner than Bobby Charlton’s hair and the cheese board consisted of two types of cheddar so cold that they may have just been removed from a mortuary slab. That’s not the case any longer. White Hart Lane was torn down in 2017 to be replaced by the Tottenham Stadium, where beer is brewed in-house and the dizzying array of executive dining areas includes ‘The Chef’s Table’, overseen by head chef Mark Reynolds.
“The difference in executive dining standards since I started working in football has been incredible,” says Mark as I speak to him in one of Tottenham’s palatial executive suites before a pre-season friendly against Shakhtar Donetsk where 55,000 fans are about to see Harry Kane score a hat trick against the Ukrainian side. “What we were serving in the highest end of hospitality back then is now what we’re selling as retail food in the concourses to all the fans who attend,” he adds.
The ‘soup of the day’ was thinner than Bobby Charlton’s hair
Having worked at both Wembley Stadium and for Arsenal before joining Spurs, Mark presides over a team of over 80 chefs each match day who create everything fresh on the day of the game, from the executive suites all the way down to the sausage rolls and pies; the latter of which has a filling similar to cottage pie, complete with an added hint of Bovril. It is a pie that any gourmet bakery would aspire to, combining high-quality ingredients with a retro tinge of flavour to appeal to old-school football purists like myself.
“It’s good value too,” Mark insists. “If you drink a pint of our IPA inside the ground or eat one of our sausage rolls or pies, it will be cheaper than what you’d be getting on the high street.”
Mark is correct. A pint at Tottenham is a shade over a fiver while you’ll also get change from a five-pound note after buying a pie. Though if you have deeper pockets (to a depth of around £400 per person, to be precise) the Chef’s Table experience gives you a two-course menu which can include anything from pumpkin and pine nut ravioli with vine tomato sauce and basil pesto to pan-seared, corn-fed chicken with English asparagus, black truffle, pommes anna and thyme jus. This is a complete a la carte, table-service experience that, in the best way possible, is reminiscent of what you might experience in a first-class lounge on a luxury Gulf airline.
“For every away game this coming season, we’re going to get a guest chef from that area to create something different for hospitality,” enthuses Mark. “We’ll have Angela Hartnett coming in for the Arsenal derby as she supports them and we’re planning on Bryn Williams for the Liverpool game as he’s a huge Reds fan.”
If you’re winning then good food is an extra treat. And if you’re losing and it’s raining and you’re angry, then good food can make everything feel a little better
While Michelin-garlanded celeb chefs rub shoulders with bona fide celeb footballers in North London, there is perhaps an argument that the soul of football has been either upgraded or lost along the way. Much as I adored my pumpkin ravioli and New Zealand sauvignon blanc, I felt a need to see if anything had changed in the nether regions of the English football world, far away from London’s culinary innovations.
300 miles north, in Workington, Cumbria, I found a town that, it would appear, has little truck with footballing evolution. The town’s football club hasn’t been a member of the Football League since 1977 and the ground, Borough Park, has hardly changed since, with its swathes of terracing, cowshed-esque roof, peeling paintwork and, underneath the main stand at their match against Penrith, a 15-strong queue for their steak pie, chips, mushy peas and gravy, priced at £4.50. With the option of homemade Mars Bar cake made by ‘Gina’ to finish off, I found I couldn’t even finish the pie and chips, such was the gloriously dense yet flaky crust, the fluffiness of the chips and the almost viscous gravy, redolent of the dream Sunday dinner your granny could never quite master.
“It does make a difference,” long-standing fan Terry tells me as Workington knock in a third to complete a comprehensive win over their local rivals. I tell him of my experiences at the highest end of football ground catering down in London and Terry smiles before taking another bite of his bap, which is overflowing with Cumberland sausages.
“Well that’s all well and good but I don’t think it would work up here. They’ve always done good, traditional food at Workington. If you’re winning then good food is an extra treat. And if you’re losing and it’s raining and you’re angry, then good food can make everything feel a little better.”