A transat-latic love affair

Sara Mathew and Amber Allen spent over £9,000 to watch one Oldham Athletic game, despite know nothing about football or Oldham. And now they’re planning on doing it all again this winter. Gary Andrews speaks to the American students who take the definition of football fanatics to a new level.

Standing on an unfamiliar backstreet in one of the less pleasant areas in South East London trying desperately to get hold of their taxi driver, Sara Mathew, a 24-year-old medical student from California, and her friend Amber Allen stood wondering if they’d get back home without getting attacked or worse.

The pair had, on a whim, flown to England to stand in the away end at Millwall’s New Den to watch a sport they new nothing about in a City they knew even less. One thing they knew, though, was almost everybody they’d met had warned them the streets around Millwall’s ground were not the safest areas to be, especially for two foreign girls late at midnight.

Yet these newly-converted Oldham supporters had flown 11,000 miles to watch their new favourite team play, and they weren’t going to let the small matter of being stranded in Bermondsey dampen their enthusiasm for the Latics.

Happily the girls made it back alive after finding a bus stop to take them back to central London, much to the amazement of the people in their hotel. “They were, like, I can’t believe you didn’t get attacked,” giggles Amber as she recalls the August night from earlier this year. “We were at this bus stop, it was midnight, we couldn’t reach our driver, and we were just saying ‘Oh my God.'”

This slightly strange tale starts in May in the Cayman Islands, where the two medical students were (and still are) on placement and get chatting into a group of footballers on holiday. We’ve all been star struck by chance encounters with the architects of the beautiful game, but few of us would fly half way around the world to watch a League One team play away at Millwall. And then come back for more as a result.

A short while after meeting a group of Huddersfield Town footballers on the islands, the girls got involved in a construction deal that fell through, costing them somewhere in the region of $36m if the video of their exploits is to be believed.

“It was a bad time,” says 23-year-old Amber, who met Sara after moving from Florida to California to attend med school. “There was a lot of money lost.” But while most would drown their sorrows of a lost fortune at the bar, the girls decided the best way to deal with this setback was to fly to England and watch their first ever football game, involving one of the players they’d met on holiday.

“We didn’t tell them we were coming,” says Sara. “We just found out who they were and decided to go out there.”

“Our families were dead against the idea, they didn’t know what we were doing” says Amber. “We didn’t know anybody out there, we just decided to go for it.”

Such was their lack of planning that, 11,000 miles and £9,000 later, the girls arrived in London with nowhere to stay and no idea where they were going. “We were literally dragging our suitcases around London for two days, we had nowhere to stay” says Sara. “We got lost for four hours in a ten mile radius.

Undeterred, the girls pressed on and got their ticket for their first ever soccer game – Millwall versus Oldham Athletic. The New Den wouldn’t necessarily be first on the list for any football fan to visit, let alone as a first game as an away fan, not knowing anybody else in the ground. But that was the game the girls chose.

“People were like ‘You’re going to die’,” says Sara. “We were traveling around and telling people why we were here and what we were going to do, and everybody kept telling us we were crazy. We were staying in a hostel and people kept telling us not to go.”

If this seems like a strange choice of game, there was a rationale behind it. One of the players Sara had gotten to know in the Cayman Islands, Jon Worthington, had been transferred from Huddersfield to Oldham during the summer, so the Latics were adopted as the girls’ team. The Millwall game came from a fascination with English hooligan culture after watching Green Street and other similar films.

“That intrigued us,” said Amber. “We’d never seen anything quite like it before and didn’t know what to make of it. We’ve got NFL and that over here, but you never get anything like that. Do you guys have people attacking each other every game?” I assure the girls that, with the exception of Millwall against West Ham, that’s not the case.

But before the pair took their trip to South Bermondsey, they decided they had to stock up on Oldham merchandise. So, after flying into London for a game at Millwall they did what any self-respecting fanatic would do and took a trip to Oldham, to an empty Boundary Park to pick up the Oldham essentials.

Unfortunately, the girls arrived close to closing time and the staff refused to print Jon Worthington’s name on the back of a Latics shirt, although this part of the story has a happy ending. Once Oldham’s managing director, Simon Corney, heard of the girls’ exploits, he arranged for a named jersey, and other kit, to be sent out to the pair.

If the Oldham staff were a little surprised at the two girls turning up on a non-match day to load up with merchandise, Millwall fans and stewards were even more confused. “Nobody quite knew what to make of us,” says Sara. “Even the policeman thought we were insane.”

The match itself wasn’t the most memorable to Latics fans, who made the journey back to Manchester on the back of a 2-0 defeat, while Sara and Amber were left to ponder the finer nature of the game in the backstreets of Bermondsey while waiting for a non-existent taxi to turn up.

On returning to the states, the girlsposted a video of their exploits in Britain (below), which quickly become a minor internet sensation leading to an interview on Talksport and a piece in the Sun, much to Sara’s bemusement. “I went away for a few days and when I came back it had got all these views – I don’t know how, somebody must have posted it on their blog or something.”

But while Oldham fan took the girls to their hearts, the Millwall faithful were less impressed. “Millwall hate us,” giggles Amber. “There was their thread on their message board going on about how awful we are.” But the girls and Millwall may at least have one small thing in common. “We’re fine, they don’t like us, we don’t care. We’re just having fun.”

Having caught the footballing bug well and truly at the New Den – they now listen to commentary from every game online – the girls resolved to watch an Oldham home game at Boundary Park and will be flying over for the Latics game against Exeter City later this year.

“We’re really excited,” says Sara. “We’ve never been insider Boundary Park before. I don’t know what to expect. I think we might do the half-time draw or something, and go down the White Lion after the game.” She pauses. “I’m not really sure what that means.

“Everything’s been really bizarre, you know, from getting on the plane to getting lost and going to all these different places. People are now asking us to do all these interviews, we’re getting messages from the club’s owners. It’s really cool.”

Impressively, they’ve posted another video (below) detailing their research into the Exeter team, displaying a level of depth to their research skills that would put many journalists to shame. “We’ve done the same kind of research for some of Oldham opponents. We did it for Leicester, Leeds, and Millwall. We couldn’t find much information on Exeter though,” says Amber

Their Exeter City research video shows why the girls struggled with finding out information about the club. Other than Michael Jackson’s short-lived directorship, and the official club website, the most detail information they found was a YouTube video song comparing much-maligned former City striker Steve Flack to a giraffe.

Exeter fans were just as confused as the two girls were over the Grecians history when the pair signed up to the fan message board Exeweb, with many assuming it was a wind-up. But once the girls had proved their credentials, Exeter fans started warming to them and the feeling, it appears is mutual.

“Exeter fans are a lot friendlier than other fans, and we’re getting quite fond of them,” says Sara. “We’d definitely quite like to go to Exeter for a game as well.”

But Oldham is definitely where the girls’ hearts are and, after their flying visit in December, when they’ve already been approached to appear on Sky’s Soccer AM, the girls are planning to return for another game in January. Not that they’re any more prepared than their first visit.

“We still don’t really have anywhere to stay,” say Sara. “And we’ve been told Boundary Park’s the coldest ground in England. That might be a problem, as we don’t really have any winter clothes, living in the Cayman Islands.”

“I only have flip-flops,” says Amber. Somehow you suspect flip-flops or no flip-flops, Amber and Sara will be on the terraces whatever the weather. Boundary Park won’t know what’s hit it.

Editor: Sara Mathews is an avid video blogger as well – here’s her profile on Vimeo.

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