Why Gooners love the Tollington
If you were to cut The Tollington pub in half it would bleed red and white – it’s Arsenal through and through, the Emirates being just a five-minute stroll away.
A focal point for fans before, during and after the game, it’s a great example of a sports bar that gets everything right, from social media to the number of screens in the pub. It also succeeds in appealing to London’s ever-expanding and diverse communities and makes a virtue of being unapologetically female-friendly.
Just how does this North London gem get it right on matchdays for dedicated Gooners? We caught up with owner Martin Whelan and his social media right-hand man Sean Keenan to discover how and why The Tollington is such a special sports bar…
Owner: Martin Whelan
History: “I previously had The Gunners on Blackstock Road for 20 years, which used to be the main Arsenal pub. I took this on when I knew we were moving to the Emirates – the pub was finished two weeks before Dennis Bergkamp’s testimonial, which was the first game at the new stadium.”
Improvements made: “It was a rundown wreck. We tore it apart. In 2011 we built an extension on the car park next door. It doubled the capacity and has made a massive difference. We can get the balance right when screening games. We’ve got eight screens and we can zone them.”
Is it just Arsenal fans? “When Arsenal are playing we just show that game. On other Champions League or Europa League nights we’ll show two matches. There’s a big Spanish community near here, a few Italians and other nationalities. Obviously there’s interest in English teams. We’ve broadened the appeal. At The Gunners – and probably because of the name – it was just Arsenal fans that used to come in. We do a lot of food here. We get groups coming in here. Especially when the Spanish fans come in. We’ve built it up through social media.”
Matchdays: “We open at 11am. It’s home fans only (people have to show their season ticket or produce a Tollington Loyalty Card). There’s the build up towards the game at 3pm. After the game people come back and watch the results. Lots stay for the 5.30pm game.”
And when Arsenal are on TV? “The locals that don’t go to the game will stay and watch it here. Some can’t afford to go, some can’t afford the season tickets, and some are on the waiting list. It doesn’t empty out when Arsenal are at home. Lots come down to sample the atmosphere.”
What’s the atmosphere like? [Sean] “It depends whether Arsenal are winning or not (laughs). No, it’s great. I won Europcar’s Supporter of the Week by sharing a photo of the pub when it was the FA Cup semi-final and using the Tollington hashtag. It demonstrates the importance of hashtags. I won a hire car for the weekend. A shame I don’t have a driving licence.”
Do you show other sports? “We’ll be showing the Rugby World Cup. There’s massive interest in that. We also show cricket – which is good for summer days. Cycling, Tour de France… You name it, we’ll show it. Yesterday we had the All-Ireland Hurling Final on because there was the interest…”
How important is the audio-set up; the sight lines? “I’d like to think we’ve put some thought into it. We can have one game at one end of the pub and a different one at the other end and the sound doesn’t mix. We can have the audio on selected speakers. When we had the hurling on we only had a couple of speakers on so it didn’t annoy those people who were in eating their Sunday lunch.”
Is food important? “We’re a female-friendly pub. We’re not a boozer. During the week, outside of football, we do 30 per cent of drinks sales are wine – 25 per cent is food. We can seat 400 people in here. People come for the food. We do 50-odd dishes, Thai and English. And, yes, we do food on matchdays.”
How do you use social media? [Sean] “We plug the games we’re showing. That’s the main thing. At the start of the week we look at when Arsenal are playing and then work from that. But I will tweet what games we’re showing and when. If we get replies I’ll answer those. It’s social media – you have to be social. Otherwise just stick an ad in the newspaper. You’ve got to respect the people that take the time to reply to you. We’ll throw out an initial tweet and work from there. Some people want to bring kids so we let people know they can’t bring kids in on a matchday – we’ll send out a tweet to that effect.”
How have you developed it? [Sean] “It’s about being engaged. If you’re going to do it you have to do it properly. We’re friendly with Arseblog (influential Arsenal blog site), so that helped initially. Alan Smith (a former player) visited in June and we tweeted him and that got us over 100 new followers and 164,000 people saw that tweet.”
Are pubs that aren’t on social media missing a trick? [Sean] “Definitely. Arsenal have six million followers on social media – they’re the most socially active club in the world. We’ve seen that in action with the Alan Smith tweet.”
Martin: “It’s a younger generation and that is where Sean is so strong. The sky is the limit with social media, but you have to put in the time. He spends about three hours a day on there. Sometimes I could kill him – but he gets it right.”
Global appeal: [Sean] “There’s a lot of Dutch fans that come in, but they’re from all over. We have postcards from fans all over the world – from Kansas to Kazakhstan. Someone from Kazakhstan had read about us in the Gooner fanzine – we’ve been named that fanzine’s pub of the year for the last two years – and he came in here to meet Martin.”
Most memorable day in the pub: “The first FA Cup Final against Hull City in 2014. Believe you me for a fan it wasn’t nice. We were rammed and we were 2-0 down after 15 minutes. I was thinking how it had all gone Pete Tong. We were celebrating until about Thursday. There was the parade after it.”
And there’s a Tollington Gooners flag? “Yes, that was made after the signage for the pub was made – it’s bespoke. That flag has been all over the world. It was spotted in Fenway Park (Boston Red Sox’s baseball stadium) this summer.”
What makes The Tollington so unique? [Sean] “One of the perks we have is that the players’ drive past after the game. They stop and sign autographs for the kids. We’re working, but we know what’s going on. Alexis Sanchez now hides under coats when he’s being driven past – I think he was so intimidated by everyone trying to get his autograph. When Lukas Podolski was here he loved it – he would come out of his sunroof with his fists pumping. Santi Cazorla is also good. I’ve seen the police asking him to move on because his car was surrounded. He was there shrugging his shoulders as if to say, ‘What can I do?’”
What the regulars say: “The Tollington has everything you’d want from a sports pub. Lots of big screens, great selection of beer, lovely food, plenty of atmosphere – especially around Arsenal games – but there’s something more to it than that. Martin, Louise and all the staff just add that something special to the place that always makes you want to go back.”
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