The Football Neutral: Match Sixty One – Forest Green Rovers vs Macclesfield Town

2016-01-30 14.34.24So this is season three of my adventures, don’t forget you can pick up the ebook of last season on Kindle for less than £3. Do it and support this blog! I’d be very grateful! Loads of games from Dortmund to Clapton. You can also get the first season at Amazon too!

I’ve got a list of clubs that I want to visit more than others, and I’m gradually ticking them off.  Some are really obvious: giants like Dortmund and Ajax, others are down to my own daft little reasons like Clapton, Orient and Hastings.  Last time out, I was desperate to go to Huddersfield because I’d managed them for a season on Football Manager.  It’s not always down to geographical proximity to where I’m working.

Last Saturday is a case in point.  I’ve been desperate to go to see Forest Green Rovers for a while now – as for why, I’ll explain in a minute – and a gig in Cardiff in the evening was just about reason enough to take a massive detour to The New Lawn on my way to work.

But why Forest Green?  There’s a load of reasons, most of which were kicked off towards the end of last season when I witnessed them beating Chester up at the Deva Stadium on a sunny bank holiday Monday.

1: The tales of Rovers being an environmentally friendly club are well documented, and one Chester fan found the prospect of trying to save the Earth incredibly offensive.  He repeatedly called their players “tree huggers” as if he went home and operated a Victorian smokestack every night out of principle.  He would have called them murderers with less enthusiasm and bile.  So obviously, I wanted to learn more.  Any team that can anger an idiot that much is appealing to me.

2: They’ve got a great kit.  Like, really awesome.  I remember being little and the first two teams who had kits that I really remembered were Dundee United (who played in the first game I ever watched on TV) and Anderlecht (who I saw in a magazine).  Tangerine and vivid purple looked pretty cool, and kicked off my long love of slightly weird-hued shirts.  Rovers play in green and black hoops, but it’s a very special green.  It’s the brightest green in the world, like a cross between a highlighter pen and the aliens on The Simpsons.

3: They’re based in a village.  In fact, a place smaller than a village (Wikipedia calls it a “hamlet”, which if I remember correctly is a place with less than 1000 inhabitants) which luckily happens to be called Forest Green. The nearest place with a decent amount of people in is the town of Nailsworth, with a population of 6600 people. This is why I remember Rushden and Diamonds so fondly, and why I am so desperate to visit Hoffenheim in Germany.  Being from a huge city is SO last season.

4: The whole stadium is vegan.  I keep trying to convince my wife that we could be vegan for the undoubted health benefits, but she likes to remind me that we both really like meat and are incredibly weak when it comes to bacon.  In all seriousness, I am aware of the health and environmental reasons of giving up all meat and dairy products and I’d like to give it a shot in the future.  It’ll be tricky, but I gave up booze and worse back in the day, maybe I can do the same with some other stuff in the future.  I’ll be honest, I was curious to see how fans reacted to this within the ground on a match day. Do people get enraged looking for a hot dog?

2016-01-30 14.34.40I was joined on my trip to Chester last season by my mate Darren – formerly known as wrestler Mad Man Manson – and his wife Sammy.  Darren also came to Berlin with me this season, and has since gone back there to watch Hertha again, in a snow-ravaged game that I jealously watched on television.  He’s a bloody good egg and loves his football.  Sammy isn’t into it so much but is smashing company and indulges us just being nerds.

We would meet up before the game, with Darren and Sammy living much closer to rural Gloucestershire than I did.  For me it would be a three hour drive down the M54, M6 and M5, but knowing that Forest Green were top of the Conference and going well meant that we could well expect a half decent game to reward us for our travels.  Opponents Macclesfield have been in the Conference now since 2012, having previously had a 15 year stint in the league.  I can remember them getting promoted, reading about their rise in the pages of 90 Minutes magazine; first in 1995 when they won the Conference but weren’t allowed to go up because their stadium wasn’t up to scratch.  They were finally promoted in 1997, around the time that 90 Minutes actually folded and I had to find something else to read every week.

My drive down was pretty uneventful, apart from driving past a sign for Cirencester  and having a memory come flooding back to me.  A few years back, I did a gig at the Royal Agricultural College there.  It was me, doing half an hour of comedy; and legendary cabaret performer Mister Methane, a man who can fart on command and do all kinds of wacky stuff that you would imagine relates to having such a skill.

The crowd were typical agriculture students: As in they were all rich kids and nearly everyone was wearing at least one gilet. Towards the front of the stage they were pretty decent, laughing at a lot of stuff and playing along nicely. But one lad wandered forwards and repeatedly screamed the word “wanker” at me.  At one point he got quite close, so I pulled him towards me and told him, firmly, to get away from the stage or we would have a problem.  He traipsed towards the back of the room.

I carried on, but then had one of those weird slow-motion moments where time stood almost still because I was aware of something that was about to hit me.  A pint glass (and an actual glass one, not plastic) hit me in the shoulder.  It had been lobbed by my mate from earlier, who stood at the back loudly proclaiming it was him.  For the first time in my career, I walked off stage before my time was up, and had a bit of a pop at the poor students who had organised the gig.  It wasn’t their fault of course, but there was no security and the lad who chucked the glass was still in the room, with nobody deciding to chuck him out.

I calmed down a bit, watched Mister Methane and got paid.  Then as I was leaving (and I weirdly remember that I was driving a Mini Cooper S that my Dad had as a courtesy car, but with no need for it), the lad who threw the glass was outside.  I remember thinking “well, if he apologises now I’ll let it go.”  He saw me, stood up and said in one of the poshest voices that I’ve ever heard that “for a comedian, you’ve got no sense of fucking humour”.  I remember thinking he was rubbish at swearing, doing what all rich people do and adding a twee cockney twang to his cursing that made him sound like even more of a tool.

I don’t remember throwing the punch at him, but his friends told me that he deserved it.  He said his piece to me, I may well have told him to go away (in slightly more ribald terms) and he squared up to me.  So I punched him in the face, apparently.  The red mist descended so quickly that I only remember sitting on a wall next to his friends and thinking about how much my fist hurt.  He was fine, if dazed (I’m still mildly impressed little me could take a burly rugby playing farmer down with one punch, but he was very drunk) and he then chose to apologise to me, bowing to my boxing skills.  I drove home terrified that I’d never work for that promoter again, so I fired off a text apologising for what I’d done, both the fighting and walking off stage.

The next day I was sat watching Leicester with my Dad (this was back before I had a gig every Saturday) and the promoter rang me.  You can tell I was worried, because this is the first and last time I have ever taken a phone call during a football match.  He apologised, offered to have the shirt I was wearing dry-cleaned (I never bothered with that) and said he’d never run the gig there again.  He was good to his word, he never did.

2016-01-30 14.55.47I tell you what, you’ll struggle to find prettier surroundings on your way to many stadiums in the top five divisions in England.  Once you get near Nailsworth it’s all forests and hills and old stone buildings.  It’s a little bit like you’re playing Skyrim and they just put an A-road through it.  Darren messaged to say he’d been delayed, so I slowed down a little.  Mindful that I would get no meat products at the game (and yes, that includes Bovril) I panicked and realised I needed to get some kind of beefy taste hit.  So I sat for a good few minutes in a petrol station eating a bag of beef McCoys and questioning the decisions I make in life.

There’s not much parking at The New Lawn.  I don’t know if this is a consequence of the teams recent good form, or because you can’t really get to the ground without driving there, or just because they’re so green that they don’t want you to drive there.  I don’t think, however, that public transport is that widely available, unless you count hijacking a cow and riding it side-saddle through Gloucestershire to the ground.  The main car park was full, so I stuck my car in a nearby school for £4.

I wonder how many different businesses I’ve parked in over the years.  For ages at Leicester me and my Dad would park in a disused factory where presumably the only income they made was on a match day.  I’ve since parked in countless schools, community centres, dodgy pubs (that’s the norm in the West Midlands and Greater Manchester) and factories.  One of my favourites is in Luton, where you can park out the back of an electrical store that still sells BBC Micros.

From the school I parked in, I thought I was looking at another school until I realised that it was The New Lawn.  The trouble with new structures at Conference level is that they don’t tend to be the most imposing or interesting, but of course the story behind this place is less to do with aesthetics and more to do with how it’s powered and looked after.

For example, much of the power required by the stadium is provided by solar energy, the pitch is organic (and prize winning) and mowing is done by a solar-powered robot.  Really.  That last bit is 100% true.  I hope that there’s a picture of the mower on the wall of the clubhouse alongside all of the other staff.  Or that there is a robot tea lady and steam-powered kit-man.

After the short walk up to the ground I queued for a couple of minutes at the small, efficient ticket office.  I decided to stand (as I usually prefer to do) behind the goal with the home fans.  Three sides of the ground are terraced.  Both ends – one for home, the other for away fans – plus one whole side (which is sparsely populated and uncovered), then the rather snazzy main stand has a load of seats in.  For this match, that stand was pretty full.

Once inside, I obviously had to get food.  Normally I would get a burger or a hot dog, but that wouldn’t be happening here.  As you’re queuing up, there are even signs explaining why they don’t sell meat or dairy products in the stadium.  I have to say, having given  it a read it makes some very good points.  And it wasn’t like there was loads less choice than most other teams: You could have a veggie burger, a quorn pie or chips with various things over them.  I went with the veggie burger… and it was amazing.  Seriously.  Genuinely wonderful.  It even had salad on it!  That did mean that I had to pick gherkins out of it, but it was easily the best burger I’ve eaten in the UK, even if there was no meat in it.

I ate some vegan chocolate too, made with rice milk.  That was pretty snazzy as well, although I’m a fan of non-dairy milks: I make protein smoothies with almond milk and I really like horchata (made with rice milk) from my favourite Mexican restaurant in London.

Wow. I just re-read that last bit and I sound like the worst hipster in the world.  I am so, so sorry.

Having taken my place on the terrace, I was joined my Darren and Sammy just as the game kicked off.  One of the last songs that they played over the PA before kick-off was – and I swear I am not making this up – “Bohemian Like You” by The Dandy Warhols, featuring the line:

So if you dig on vegan food  / come over to my work / I’ll have them cook you something that you’ll really love

Utter insanity.

2016-01-30 14.55.56The game was affected by the conditions.  It might have been sunny, but the wind was swirling around and the pitch had taken a lot of rain in recent weeks.  It was cutting up a little after the warm-up, so neither side was going to be able to play the most free-flowing football.  Rovers were shooting towards our end and had a talented bunch of players though, with Elliott Frear full of tricks, Charlie Clough a mountain at the back and the wonderfully named Keanu Marsh-Brown up front.  Just think: We are just waiting for an explosion of Keanus onto the footballing world. Hollywood has a lot to answer for.

The first half was punctuated with the odd chance, but nothing too brilliant.  The best moment came when the tannoy announcer asked if there was a driver of a black BMW X5 who needed to return to his vehicle.  Why?  He’d left it running.  Of all the places to do that… and of all the vehicles.  Nobody likes a BMW driver.  They’re alongside Audi and Volvo drivers as the most tedious on the motorway.

We went into half time all square and with neither team really on top.  Darren bought some chips and we kicked back off, noting that there is something about the environmental nature of the ground that means you won’t litter like you carelessly do at every other stadium.  I still had my rubbish in my pockets.  He didn’t think it would get to him.

It wasn’t until the 69th minute that there was a breakthrough, and it came from the away side.  A back-pass to Rovers keeper Steve Arnold was woefully underhit, catching on the sluggish turf, and Macclesfield’s Jack Sampson stabbed the ball home.  Even Sammy – admitting herself that she’s no football fan – knew that it was a terrible error on behalf of the Forest Green defence.

Luckily, eight minutes later Rovers were level and the home fans were in fine voice.  Left back James Jennings got onto the end of a Frear free kick way up at the other end in front of the 80-something Macclesfield fans.  It had been coming in a way, even if the conditions meant that clear-cut chances were few and far between.

I didn’t think that we would find a winner, but no fans decided to leave early as we went into injury time.  And it’s a good job everyone stuck around as three minutes into injury time Clough prodded home from close range to send a small Gloucestershire hamlet into raptures.  All of his team-mates piled on top of him like it was a school cup final, and once the game was re-started the final whistle blew.

As we left, Darren realised that he, like me, was carrying his litter out of the stadium.  Somehow, subliminally, the club had made us care just a little bit more about our surroundings.  Fair play to them.

I did have to stop on my way to Cardiff to eat some meat though.  I’m a monster.

Summary:

Forest Green Rovers 2 (Jennings 77, Clough 90) vs Macclesfield Town 1 (Sampson 69)

Attendance: 1,617

Cost: Ticket £15, Parking £4, Veggie Burger and Vegan Chocolate £4.20

Fun Factor: 7/10

The Football Neutral: Match Sixty – Huddersfield Town vs Reading

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It’s that time of year again, the time where I am contractually obliged as a quasi-journalist to say at the beginning of any report that it is, once more: THE MAGIC OF THE FA CUP.
In the previous two seasons of my wanderings, I have chosen to attend two clashes of non-league versus bigger clubs, in Kidderminster grinding out a draw at home to Peterborough in 2014 and West Brom battering a very game Gateshead last year. I decided to do something a bit different this year though, and attend a game that hardly anyone was bothered about.
See, when the media choose their Cup matches to endlessly bang on about, there’s a clear pattern that they observe. Every game is one of the following:
1: Non league club having its big day out
2: Small club with a chance of a shock
3: All Premier League clash, because we don’t get enough of those sides already
4: Local derby that hasn’t happened for a bit
Literally nobody was bothered about Huddersfield vs Reading. If anything, the cup is a mild inconvenience to both teams who would take reaching the playoffs in the championship over a cup run any day of the week, because let’s be honest (and with all due respect to both clubs, who are smashing) neither of them are winning the cup anyway. It’s just another game that you have to prod your fans into attending.
I was informed that tickets were cheap and that only three quarters of the John Smiths Stadium would be open for the game, but that isn’t why I chose to attend. Nope, it’s because of Football Manager. On my latest saved game on the newest version of the greatest game ever made, I started out with Huddersfield. I’m not there anymore, but more on that in a minute. I did enjoy my two seasons there, mind you.
Before we get to the match itself, I must confess that I have been to two other matches since I have last written a blog. These matches didn’t get a write-up as they are clubs that I’ve visited before, and that I’m fond of for different reasons.
First up, the Saturday before Christmas, was a return trip to The Old Spotted Dog stadium in East London, home of the almighty Clapton FC. Regular readers will know that my visit there last season remains one of my favourite experiences in my thirty plus years of watching football; an Essex Senior League game which finished 4-3 and featured anti-homophobia displays, pyro and my introduction to the Clapton Ultras.
I really had to go back there this season, and I did, taking along my mate and business partner Jon to experience it for himself. Their match against Sporting Bengal (I’m led to believe that they’re still from London rather than the Indian subcontinent) was a Christmas spectacular, with the club handing out free raffle tickets and the Ultras giving everyone a seasonal hat. A second scaffold has been constructed ensuring another 100 or so people can avoid the rain, and the singing remains loud and proud. One wonderful moment saw the manager of the visitors hand the Ultras a crate of food for them to put into their own food bank that they had organised. He was, quite rightly, roundly applauded by everybody.
However, in some other aspects the mood has changed. There are now signs up having to tell fans how to behave after a few groups of ladz (yes, spelled like that) came along to the odd game and got the wrong impression of how to act. People now need to be told to tidy up after themselves and not spend the entire match taking selfies on their phones.
Also, some of the Ultras seem a bit annoyed that their little secret has exploded so much. I get it if the new fans are misbehaving like the story above, but at least once I caught a couple of fans staring at me and Jon because we weren’t singing every song. Well, I couldn’t do that – firstly because I don’t know the words to them all, and secondly because I’ve been ill for six weeks and singing loudly makes me cough and lose my voice. I still did it a bit though, it’s damn infectious there.
I still love Clapton and consider myself both an Ultra from a distance (I type this from a laptop that is COVERED in their stickers), but I hope this is more of a teething problem than a symptom of a turn away from the wonderful, friendly experience that I had there last year. Don’t get me wrong though, I’d still go there every week if distance and writing commitments didn’t get in the way. It is splendid on that scaffold. (The game finished 1-1, by the way)
Then just after Christmas I returned – exactly a year to the day since I was last there – to Prenton Park, the home of Tranmere Rovers. They’re now in the Conference, which I think is pretty heartbreaking for a club that Leicester seemed to play a lot back in the mid 1990s, and indeed in the 2000 League Cup final (which they deserved to win. Trust me, I was there).
For this visit though, I wasn’t just watching. I was working as well, hosting the hospitality guests, conducting interviews before and after the game. I’ve been a regular MC at a comedy club there over the past year, and it’s only 40 minutes from my house (only Chester and Wrexham are closer at Conference level and up; Airbus UK are technically my closest team). I dressed semi-smartly (they told me not to wear a suit as I would look weird, they know me very well indeed) and had a chat in front of 150 fans with man-mountain assistant manager Shaun Garnett, chairman Mark Palios and after the game, man of the match Steve McNulty.
Each little interview was fun for different reasons. Shaun gave us the team news in the following way. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it genuinely went like this. I don’t think even the biggest Rovers fan knew what he was talking about:
” Davey, Stevo, Thommo, other Stevo, Bandit, Charlie, Banjo, The big lad, Trev, Bazza and the lad up top”
I just nodded, obviously.
I knew Mark Palios was a good chap because Tony Jameson (top chum and Football Manager Ruined My Life legend) had met him once and he told me he was sound. He was as well, cracking jokes and nattering to me like I was important before the mic was turned on. Watching him with Tranmere fans you get the impression that he wants them all to be happy, he seems to have time for everyone. He even threw in a betting joke following the past scandal at the club. That got a massive laugh, nearly as much as the one little girl who cried when he started talking.
Rovers won 1-0 and man of the match was centre back Steve McNulty, a scouse lad who is on loan from Luton. Indeed that is where I’ve seen him before, terrifying strikers. Genuinely. He’s a big lad. He’s not fat, he’s like Akinfenwa; you get the impression he would lift a bus off you if you were stuck underneath it. He also scored one of the greatest goals ever in the conference a couple of years back, a magnificent volley against Southport. Google it, you won’t regret it. I mentioned that goal and we had a chat before the mic was on, he’s a really lovely feller. I mentioned that I was a Leicester fan and he spoke highly of Jamie Vardy, who he played with at Fleetwood. I mentioned that my wrestling company have named a show after him (we really have, it’s called “Chat Shit Get Banged” and he offered to pass on my number to one of his teammates who is Vardys best mate. Still waiting for the call, but that was a nice thing to suggest).
What was odd is that Steve is a big, scary lad on the pitch and an affable, talkative lad off of it… Until you out a microphone in front of him. I forget sometimes that I talk for a living and chatting in front of 150 people is just my job, for him it’s a lot weirder. The fans were very happy to see him though.
Right then, back to the cup. On my drive across to Huddersfield I listened to Wycombe drawing with Aston Villa, as Five Live and TalkSPORT both presented that game, smelling blood as Villa slip further into the relegation quicksand. There were 9000 at that match, the biggest attendance at Adams Park in quite some time. The reception for their equaliser was wonderful, and I wondered if I would experience a true reflection of the Huddersfield atmosphere with the game there meaning nowhere near as much.
It might have been cheap to watch Huddersfield on Saturday, but parking isn’t. £7.50 to park on the ground itself, and then you can walk up to the stadium which looks out of its sunken foundations like a stranded spaceship. I remember when it was built and we were told that all new stadiums would look as crazy as that. A couple of decades on and every single new ground may as well be built from the same Lego kit (and yes, I include my own teams home in that statement, it’s not exactly interesting to look at). I’d been told on Twitter to sit in the South Stand as its where the loudest fans would be (the misplaced for one game North Stand Loyal).
I noticed upon entry that Town had a similar – albeit smaller – set-up to Ajax fans, a few trusted fans being handed flags on their way in that we stored in a black bin. I watched this whilst eating my food, a decent hot dog and the King of all Pies: a Hollands Meat and Potato Pie.
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I had my first Hollands when I was 17, attending a game in Manchester with a school friend who grew up there. He told me that they were amazing pies, and I doubted him, I didn’t even like pies back then, and these shouldn’t be as great as they are. There’s not exactly a ton of meat in there, but there’s something about the combination of gravy and potato and pastry that blows you away. I remember an away trip to Blackburn where they sold them out of polystyrene boxes as soon as you were through the turnstile. I ate three that day, I think my dad did four.
I sat down in my seat – it was unreserved, so you could go wherever you wanted in the three stands that were open, barring the away end of course – and thought about the Huddersfield Town team that I had shaped on football manager. I got them promoted in my first season (Nakhi Wells, Mustapha Carayol and Joe Lolley all starring) and then steered them to a respectable 17th in the Premier League in my next season before being harshly sacked for applying for the Ajax job. I didn’t get that and am now trying to rebuild by career at Utrecht (I figure I had pre-emptively bought a place in Holland so stayed there).
Of course, I didn’t stick with exactly the same team. I love Joe Lolley because I watched him look wonderful two years ago when he was at Kidderminster (you see, it all links) and Wells was great leading the line on his own. But I did bolster the back line with Ben Gibson from Middlesbrough (who was FAR too cheap) and Calum Chambers on loan from Arsenal. It brings me no joy to see them struggling in the 2017-18 season, but they shouldn’t have sacked me. I JUST WANTED TO TALK TO AJAX TO SEE HOW IT WOULD GO.
As the teams walked onto the pitch, I noticed two things. Firstly, that despite the smaller attendance, the Huddersfield fans are LOUD. Properly noisy, with every fan – young to my left and older to my right – singing at the very top of their lungs. Secondly, that for some reason Reading were playing in a lavender kit.
Look, pink is a cool colour. Teams all over the world use it. Just wear pink. It’s like they designed a pink kit and then panicked, forgetting they were in 2016 rather than 1976. Either that or they let someone’s Gran design it. Lavender isn’t proud enough to be pink or different enough to be purple. It’s an insipid colour, like taupe and beige.
The teams shook hands and I noticed that the experience at the John Smiths Stadium felt quite German. Two guys at the front conducting the fans in what songs to sing and even stranger, they sang EXACTLY the same pre-match song as I had seen Hertha Berlin do in the autumn. You know the one, it goes la la la la la la la la, Hertha BSC (with the end bit substituted for HTFC in this case). They even do the right moves for it, although of course it is on a smaller scale. That was a pleasant surprise. I wonder if a Town fan has visited the Olympiastadion, or it developed in a more organic way? The football these days is also a bit German too, with Town managed by David Wagner.
We kicked off and behind me sat four work experience lads, all wearing suits. Because they were young and fashionable, they could have passed as youth team players being on their best behaviour, all iced gem haircuts and shiny, strange coloured shoes. One was genuinely wearing a bow tie, presumably because that is what Neymar would do if he had work experience in Yorkshire.
Lolley and Wells both started brightly, with the former showing real drive and promise every time he got the ball. With the way he has risen through the ranks from non league and Jamie Vardy making the path slightly more considered these days, I could really see him playing in the top flight. He’s still young and has put on muscle mass since I last watched him play. He was at the heart of every attack, trying to lay something on for Wells or trying stuff on his own.
Huddersfield did have to defend as well though, with Vydra rounding the keeper and having his shot cleared off the line in a first half that had few clear cut chances but was fun enough to watch.
The biggest moment of the first half involved Reading’s Danny Williams who raised his hands to his marker but stayed on the pitch. The referee didn’t even book him, drawing the ire of the home fans, who also noted that Town were passing the ball well but nobody wanted to have a shot. “We’re like a shit Arsenal” said the chap next to me, who was heading every ball. Nobody had sat down yet, even though we had seats. That’s how it should be.
Wells did fashion a shot after good work from Harry Bunn (I can’t say his name without saying “bakers son” after it, I’m sorry) but the referee was weak once again, giving a free kick for a foul on Vydra who went down as if he had been cleaved in twain, only to have him leap up before the physio could come on and stop the match. The Terriers were applauded off at the break, but the referee was most certainly not.
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During the interval we were treated to the most honest half time draw I’ve ever heard. The lady with the winning draw ticket came down and received her prize of a few hundred quid, but then she had chance to pick a number between 1 and 11 to possibly win ten grand. She chose her number and won a Huddersfield Town hat. The bloke doing the draw said “you’re gutted aren’t you? I’m sorry. That’s awful”. Northerners rule.
Onto the second half, and both teams went for it, knowing a replay wouldn’t be the best of things for either side with so many fixtures still to play in the season.
Reading attacking towards their fans (in the same stand as us, to my left) prompted their first song. I genuinely didn’t realise they had any fans there at all, so loud were the Town supporters. The best thing was that the home end reacted in a cool way, demonstrating that almost German vibe that I noted before. When I was a lad, if the other fans piped up you would then sing songs about them, and only them. Instead the Town support decided to get louder in terms of singing their own songs, and there was not a single one handed signal to the Reading lot in sight. Maybe football atmospheres are changing for the better? It certainly seemed to be the case on Saturday.
It was quite acceptable to call the referee a wanker though, because he was still a spineless fool incapable of giving a decision to Town and giving anything to Reading. I swear at one point I sneezed and Vydra went down.
Didn’t matter though, because soon Town were ahead. The ball was won by Kyle Dempsey and flicked out to the left wing, before a cross was hung over the area and Jamie Paterson smashed a beautiful, towering header into the top corner. Despite the game hardly meaning the most in the grand scheme of things, the place went quite nuts. I only wish the goal had been in front of us rather than the empty end.
The singing was now turned up to eleven, but I couldn’t help noticing one girl from where I was. Ever been to a music gig and spotted one drunk lass dancing when she should be pogoing? I once watched a girl twerking to Slayer at the Sonisphere Festival and had to stop my wife from killing her on principle.
Well, this young lady, bless her, had had a bit to drink and would clap when nobody else was, swirl her scarf when everyone was clapping and kept standing on her seat. She looked like she was having the time of her life, and that is of course to be applauded… But she needs to get some rhythm at some point in the future, that’s for sure.
The referee then had another moment to shine and blew it. Wells sprinted into the area and Reading keeper Ali Al-Habsi came out to meet him. The Town striker was too quick and rounded him, with the former Wigan stopper bringing him down. We all knew it was a penalty. Al-Habsi knew he was doomed and waited for his red card… Which didn’t come. Instead, Wells was booked for diving to howls of derision. The bloke to my right made an excellent point: Wells was round the keeper and certain to score, why would he dive? Al-Habsi didn’t protest him going down, neither did any of his team mates. A few minutes later Vydra would dive in the area and he wouldn’t get booked, and typically Al-Habsi (who to be fair isn’t a cheat, and is a great keeper) then started playing out of his skin.
At around this time a child, aged maybe 10 years old, walked past me. He was clad from head to toe in designer clothing: Armani jeans, Boss polo shirt, Burberry scarf and Stone Island hat and coat. Either that lad has a very profitable paper round, millionaires for parents or they’ve got a sewing machine in their front room. I didn’t know you could even get Stone Island for ten year olds.
The referee got things wrong again as a foul on Wells – that he didn’t give, neither did he cite again for diving – led to the Reading equaliser. It was the somehow-still-on-the-pitch Williams that committed the foul. The ball arrived with Vydra who hit a deflected shot that looped into the net.
Bunn had a chance at the other end but the lads in lavender, seemingly feeding off the referee based rage, started to dominate. Soon they had their second goal as the previously great mood started to sink. Hal Robson-Kanu converted after a pass from Lucas Piazon and everything was certainly feeling pretty unfair.
What was nice to see was the lack of Town fans ploughing towards the exit when all seemed lost, and that was especially crucial as finally the referee awarded something the way of the home side. It may well have been outside the area (or possibly not even a foul), but Bunn went down under a challenge and Wells converted from the spot to send us to a second game.
So both sides get a replay that I doubt they would have wanted before the game. There’s something to be said for getting rid of replays now, we all trust extra time and penalties enough to settle things now. I can’t see the attendance in Reading being massive for this one, even if the first match was certainly lively enough.
Credit the Huddersfield fans though. I expected this to be a sedate experience, instead I had a genuinely memorable afternoon spent in the company of some of the most passionate fans I’ve seen in a while. I definitely think somebody has been to Germany though… Or maybe there’s a Hertha fan who observed them and took it back to Berlin?
Wonderful.
Summary:
Huddersfield Town 2 (Paterson 57, Wells (Pen) 90) vs Reading (Vydra 71, Robson-Kanu 87)
Attendance: 9,236
Cost: Ticket £10, Parking £7.50, Hot Dog £3.50, Pie and Drink £5
Fun Factor: 8/10

The Football Neutral: Match Fifty Nine – Northampton Town vs Northwich

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So this is season three of my adventures, don’t forget you can pick up the ebook of last season on Kindle for less than £3. Do it and support this blog! I’d be very grateful! Loads of games from Dortmund to Clapton. You can also get the first season at Amazon too!

I’m not going to lie.  This is a good one, and it’s not just because of the Magic of the FA Cup (TM).

My last two games have been goalless draws.  Last time out at Chorley it was still entertaining enough down to the company I was in and the weather conditions the game was played in, alongside the spectacular old stand I sat in.  The game before that at Solihull was, let’s be honest, dire.  At least the fans kept me entertained because it was, quite easily, the worst game of football I have ever watched.  This past weekend needed to give me something to remind me why I do this… and boy, did it.

I wasn’t even planning on going to a game on Saturday.  As I was working in Leicester my plan was to stay at my Dads and find some kind of online feed to watch City against Swansea in the afternoon before rocking up to my gig at night.  My general feeling of lethargy and laziness was not exactly helped by fainting in the Fosse Park branch of Asda on the Friday night.

I was just idly looking at Quorn sausage rolls one minute (I’m not a veggie, I just really like Quorn), and then I was on the floor the next.  Two very nice ladies who worked there helped me, up, sat me down and gave me a cup of tea with seventeen sugars in it.  I think they thought I was drunk, which probably wasn’t helped by me insisting that I wasn’t drunk even though they never asked.  Because as everyone knows, the more pissed you are, the more you deny it.  After a while they let me go about my business and drive back to my Dad’s.

Compare and contrast the reaction of my wife to this news to how my Father dealt with it:

WIFE: “You need to get some proper rest.  You’re working too hard, and probably need to see the doctor.  I’m very worried about you, you really need a holiday.”

DAD: “You’d best have a jaffa cake.”

But much as I’d have liked to feel sorry for myself and lounge on a sofa eating biscuits on Saturday afternoon, a mate came calling.  That mate is Lloyd Griffith, and he is one of my very favourite human beings.  I always feel that my combo of comedian / writer / wrestling promoter is pretty neat (more on that in a minute), but his is even better: Comedian / actor / opera singer.  He genuinely has the voice of an angel: one of my favourite memories of the Fringe this year was Lloyd and Charlie Baker singing the Tetris theme tune together on stage during a Gamer Gamer show that I was hosting.

As well as being bloody funny and a smashing lad, Lloyd happens to be a Grimsby supporter.  He’s such an enthusiastic fan that if you spend any time with him I can guarantee that you will then always look out for their score on a Saturday from that moment onwards.  He’s even had chance to commentate on his team recently, something that I’ve done in the past with City (vs Loughborough in a pre-season friendly) but he’s been trusted with proper games as he’s actually, you know, good at it.

Lloyd messaged me to ask if I was doing a game, so I had a quick look at the fixture list and decided upon Northampton vs Northwich in the second round of the FA Cup.  Whilst I chose it mainly because of it’s geographical proximity to both of our gigs that night (I was in Leicester, Lloyd was in Stafford and Stoke), it also happened to be the tie of the round.

Northampton are currently turning heads in League Two despite the club being in dire financial trouble.  They’ve got an unfinished stand that they can’t pay for, HM Revenue and Customs issued them a winding up order over unpaid taxes in October, and their players have gone periods without being paid during this season.  But they’re playing good football and sit in a promotion spot, level on points with top team Oxford United.

Then there was their opponents, Northwich Victoria.  The lowest ranked team still in the cup, they ply their trade in the Northern Premier League Division One North and are no strangers to financial peril themselves, nearly going bust twice since the turn of the century.  They’re based not too far from where I live, sharing a ground with their local rivals Witton Albion (whose stadium it actually is).  Northampton’s unfinished stand and owed money will certainly resonate with Vics fans, as they opened a new stadium in 2005, only to have to sell it and see it demolished seven years later.  A splinter group of fans even formed a new club – 1874 Northwich FC – that plays in the league below the Vics.

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Before I set off for the game I had to do a radio interview for TalkSPORT about Leicester City and various other things with Georgie Bingham and Micky Quinn.  I remember Quinn as a player, terrorising defences for Portsmouth, Newcastle and Coventry.  It was at the latter where he made his biggest impression on me as it was around that time that I realised growing up in Hinckley that Leicester’s biggest rivals in my eyes would always be the Sky Blues.  They were pretty good back then, too.

Interviews like this often come in through my agent.  I’m the only comedy circuit regular who is a City supporter, as far as I’m aware, so with them doing well at the moment I get asked to do the occasional thing here and there (presumably because X Factor winner Sam Bailey costs too much).  I sense towards the end of the season when we go twenty games without winning (knowing us, that will happen) that I’ll get called upon once again.

The interview didn’t start too well, as I was introduced as a comedian (correct), writer (correct) and wrestler (oh no).  You’re left with two options when something like this happens: just agree with it, or correct the interviewer.  I did the latter, and felt bad about it but they were pretty nice.  I even offered Micky the chance to train to become a wrestler, although he insisted that he would be better at the Sumo variety.  When asked to explain how I felt about our season so far, I stated that none of it is real and I’m clearly just dreaming or in a coma.  I was only half joking, but at the time we sat second in the league.  That kind of stuff doesn’t happen to us.

As I left for Sixfields, it was blowing a serious gale.  So bad was the weather that I heard on the radio that a lorry had been blown over on the M1, so took the A5 down to Northampton from my Dad’s.  I never speed anywhere (fear of losing my license keeps me on the straight and narrow) but at least seventeen cars warned me of the speed camera van that I drove past, including one flashing their lights as I was pretty much next to it.  If I hadn’t seen it by then then I’m certain that my cataracts would have missed your lights as well, bucko.

I parked up in a little car park in a field next to the ground for £3, just as Manchester City looked like they would lose away at Stoke.  This would give Leicester chance to go top of the table again with a win at Swansea, but I wasn’t expecting that to happen.  I wandered over to the stadium in the ever-increasing gale and waited for Lloyd.  As I stood there, two chaps manning a burger van kept trying to convince me to buy food from them, like market traders trying desperately to shift the last few bruised bananas of the day.  At one point one of them just shouted “oi you in the hat! Buy a bloody burger!” It seems someone is familiar with the Simpsons subliminal / liminal / superliminal gag.

In the car park by the way, there was a sign for the nearby McDonalds.  It merely said “ten seconds this way”.  Who is reading that sign and thinking “unless it is ten seconds or less away then I am not going there”?

We’d expected to spend £20 on tickets, but it was only £15 on the day.  I learned at FC United a few weeks ago that you have to sell tickets for at least £10 as part of FA Cup rules, what with the away team taking a percentage of the money and all.  You can only sit in the West Stand (where we chose to head) or the North Stand (Dave Bowen Stand) at present, with the South Stand reserved for away fans and the East Stand just a shell, frozen halfway through its development.

I grabbed a hot dog and Lloyd had a cheese and onion pasty (he’s a veggie) once we were inside.  I knew that he had been doing some work for EA Sports recently with regards to their FIFA games, and had been lucky enough to interview people from all around the world, including the strongest player in the game – Football Neutral favourite Adebayo Akinfenwa – plus various coaches and some lad called Lionel Messi.  I am not bloody joking.  Apparently the Argentinian magician (and arguably the best player of all time) took a shine to Lloyd.  I told you he was a good lad.

We talked about me having to do that radio interview as I’m possibly the 274th most famous Leicester fan in the world and the previous 273 were all too busy or expensive.  I put it to Lloyd that I think he’s the most famous Grimsby fan out there, to which he corrected me: Thomas Turgoose (of This Is England fame) is, but they’re now mates, bonded over a love of Grimsby Town.  I love it when stuff like that happens.

We got to our seats and Lloyd pointed at something.  Behind the North Stand stood the Sixfields Tavern, and there seemed to be smoke coming out of it.  Lloyd insisted that it was on fire. It didn’t seem to be a lot of smoke, so I let it pass.  In the away end, one of the Northwich fans threw a very unimpressive flare onto the pitch, and a bored looking steward slowly poured a bucket of sand on it like a high school caretaker.

There was now a lot more smoke pouring out of the pub.  Lloyd pointed out that it was definitely a fire, looking at where smoke was coming from within the building.  When I asked him how he knew so much about it, he told me that he loves fire engines.  Seriously.  Like I enjoy football stadium architecture, one of the circuits best comedians genuinely loves fire engines.

The teams took the field and kicked off, but I’ll be honest: as the situation in the pub escalated, it was very difficult to concentrate on the match.  It wasn’t just like that for me and Lloyd, everyone struggled.  You were instantly aware of the humour of football fans though: I didn’t hear a single person express their worries for anyone inside the pub (it turns out that nobody was hurt, everyone was evacuated quickly thanks to the stellar work of the staff there), instead everyone tried to one-up each other with jokes about the fire.

“Well, better book somewhere else for Christmas dinner”

“I didn’t ask for my steak to be THAT well done”

“Hello, is that direct line?”

Then there was an audible “ooh” from everyone in the crowd as flames started to leap out of the building.  It made for a very surreal atmosphere indeed.  Here’s a picture Lloyd took (and follow him on Twitter – @lloydgriffith )

fire2All of this meant that I couldn’t tell you much about the first half an hour or so of the match, even though it wasn’t bad. It’s just tricky to look at anything else. We did notice that the stewards in the East Stand were having to wear hard hats though as it;s still a construction site, and the flags in there were blowing around violently.  Also, a Northwich fan was thrown out for setting off another smoke bomb, presumably jealous that the pub fire was getting too much attention.

At one point Northampton threatened their smaller opposition and the Cobblers fans started singing “You;re Going Down With The Tavern” which made me genuinely laugh out loud for a good five minutes.  Lloyd chose this moment to sum up the surreal nature of the afternoon:

“A few days ago I was in Barcelona at the Nou Camp interviewing Lionel Messi.  Now I’m in Northampton watching a pub burn down. I love football”.

One fire engine kept driving around and not parking up, leading everyone – because we all noticed it – to speculate that he was that weird kind of lost, where you can see where you’re meant to be but can’t physically get there because of the tiniest of road closures.  Lloyd knew exactly what type of engine it was as well.  I asked him if he ever fancied being a fireman and he said he did, but after taking some preliminary tests he was, and I quote, “dangerously scared of fire”.

At this point in the game, Northwich were on top of their higher-ranked opposition, with Northampton struggling to get any real chances together and the Vics playing without fear. They had a decent chance through Howard before their keeper Mason Springthorpe was drawn into a couple of good saves from rare cohesive Northampton attacks. Then in the 44th minute the whole of Sixfields was shocked as Jimmy Ball put the visitors ahead with a volley from a corner in front of the Northwich fans.  They rightly went utterly insane as the players celebrated with them.

We went into the half-time break with the minnows in front and the pub still ablaze.  That’s a sentence I don’t think I’ll ever type again.  With a gale force wind whipping through the stadium (and fanning the flames) we were treated to a handful of fans trying (and failing) to chip footballs into the boot of a car parked in the corner of the ground.  I checked up on how Leicester were doing an they were two-nil ahead away at Swansea, meaning they were also top of the Premier League.  At this point I thought I might actually be dreaming all of this.

2015-12-05 14.54.49The wind showed no chance of slowing down as we kicked off the second half, with it making every dead ball a tricky prospect. The Vics keeper took abut three minutes to take one goal kick as the stiff breeze kept moving the ball just as he made his run-up. Home favourite Ricky Holmes was brought on in the 59th minute, and this gave the home fans chance to sign his name set to the Spandau Ballet hit “Gold”, giving rise to one of the more catchy songs I’ve heard this year.

Four minutes after his arrival though and it was 2-0 to Northwich. Richard Bennett nodded home after great work from Brian Summerskill, dispossessing Buchanan and seeing a fantastic cheeky lob rebound back off the bar for his team-mate to double their advantage.

Credit both sets of fans here.  Nobody in the home end turned on their team despite an upset being on the cards, and the away fans turned up the volume and backed their side as loudly as they could, albeit without any smoke bombs or flares now.  It was part of the FA Cup script that Vics keeper Springthorpe would now start playing out of his skin, stopping Taylor from pulling one back with an absolutely out of this world save.

With the Cobblers fans also cranking up the volume as their side chased the game, Lloyd found a novel way of joining in with songs without feeling like he was cheating on his own team. When ever the home fans sang a song, he would replace “Cobblers” with “Coldplay”.  He kept this up for the rest of the game.  If only we were watching Derby so we could have been watching a Chris Martin on the field to make the reference more accurate.  It certainly fit in every song though.

In the 82nd minute Northwich brought on Muhammed Ali.  The announcement of that name certainly got everyone’s attention, and while we were still processing that Northampton finally found a way past Springthorpe. Sam Hoskins eventually got the final touch on a shot that ricocheted through the six yard box to bring the Cobblers back into the match.  The atmosphere was now rocking, and the pub was STILL on fire.

Lloyd pointed out that the Northwich players heads had visibly dropped after conceding, and he wasn’t wrong. Two minutes later the game was level, with former Leicester midfielder Nicky Adams teeing up Jason Taylor to head home.  The place went nuts and even the stewards in front of us stopping jubilant fans from getting onto the pitch were dancing and singing.

We’d barely sat back down when Northampton broke Northwich hearts with a winner, just four minutes after being 2-0 down.  Ricky Holmes twisted and turned on the right wing and used the outside of his foot to curl in a wonderful cross right onto the head of Dominic Calvert-Lewin to power a fine header into the back of the net.

For those who doubt what the FA Cup means, the reaction to that goal said it all.  Sure, Northampton were expected to win but getting to the third round is enormous for them.  The crowd were as loud for that goal as they would have been for one against much bigger opposition, and you could see how distraught the Northwich players were on the field at letting their lead slip, especially their keeper who seemed close to tears.

Calvert-Lewin should then have added a fourth as both sides still went toe to toe, but conceding three so quickly had really blunted Northwich and there was no way back for them.  The Cobblers fans chanted “Shoe Army” and the wonderful “We’ve Got No Pub But We’re Beating You” as the final whistle sounded and we were told over the tannoy that due to an ongoing incident that the North car parks would not be accessible for some time.  A few wags said “what incident?”

The Northwich keeper sat in his penalty box, head in his hands.  He was applauded by both sets of fans, as were the rest of the Vics players.  As the away fans left the ground, a section of home fans sang the name of their opposition out of respect.  Me and Lloyd were giddy at what we’d seen.  A comeback, a great atmosphere and a pub burning down.  The magic of the FA Cup, indeed.

Summary

Northampton Town 3 (Hoskins 83, Taylor 85, Calvert-Lewin 87) vs Northwich Victoria 2 (Ball 44, Bennett 63)

Attendance: 3,837

Cost: Ticket £15, Parking £3, Hot Dog £3.30, Bovril £1.80

Fun Factor: 9/10

 

The Football Neutral: Match Fifty Eight – Chorley vs Skelmersdale United

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So this is season three of my adventures, don’t forget you can pick up the ebook of last season on Kindle for less than £3. Do it and support this blog! I’d be very grateful! Loads of games from Dortmund to Clapton. You can also get the first season at Amazon too!

I found myself in somewhat of a quandary this weekend, with the desire to watch a game to write about going up against the need for me to watch the top of the Premier League clash between my own Leicester City and Manchester United at 5.30pm.

I sense if you’re reading this a long way into the future that you’ll go back and re-read that last sentence a few times. Believe me, I’m still pinching myself.

On Saturday morning, I awoke in a world where colours were a little brighter, music sounded a little bit better and everything tasted sweeter because my little team were top of the league. And not in a “small club wins first two games so are top in August” kind of way. No. Top of the league at the end of November. With the top goal scorer in the league in our side and playing the sort of football that fans of other clubs are massively envious of.

I’ll let you into a secret of how Claudio Ranieri manages City. It’s very similar to playing Ultimate Team on FIFA. Select an eleven where all the attacking players have a pace rating of over 90, then at the beginning of a match push right on the D-Pad five times to set the tactics to “ultra attacking”. Who cares if we’ve let in the seventh most goals in the league? Vardy, Mahrez, Kante, Albrighton and Drinkwater are all playing phenomenally well. I’d go as far as saying that since April, this is the best Leciester City side that I have ever seen.

I promise I’ll get to Chorley in a second, but do indulge me my best ever City eleven from players I’ve actually watched playing:

GK: Kasper Schmeichel. Yes, we had a run of good keepers in the late 1990s, and the idiot hipster in me wants to select perma-track suited Pegguy Arphexad for this slot, but everyone knows Kasper is the real deal. Always winning us points on his own and probably has a ton of assists in his Leicester career thanks to his accurate throwing and ability to kick the ball from Leicester to Munich.

RB: Pontus Kaamark. Injury kept him out of our team a lot of the time during his stay, but he famously won us the 1997 League Cup by marking Juninho out of the game. Bryan Robson complained about this being unfair, which seems a bit daft. Obviously we should have given him the ball and let him terrorise us.

CB: Matt Elliott. Scored at least 300 goals from corners. I once bumped into him in the Hinckley branch of Morrissons where I couldn’t think of anything to say to him so just screamed “fuck me, it’s Matt Elliott!” And he ran and hid in the freezer aisle by the Yorkshire puddings.

CB: Wes Morgan. Primarily because we signed him just to annoy Forest, but he’s been a great captain. Wanted to choose Marcin Wasilewski here because he’s just the most terrifying man on the planet, but went with Wes as he’s a great captain and owns a tattoo studio in Leicester. Lad.

LB: Jeff Schlupp. I was desperate to pick Schlupp because he’s one of the quickest players that I’ve ever seen. Sure, he can’t defend that well but when you see him running towards you it’s time to panic. Scores goals for us when picked at left back, when picked further forward he never does. THE BEST FORM OF DEFENCE IS ATTACK.

CM: Muzzy Izzett. One of the most elegant midfielders to ever play in England, but always overlooked because he played for City. Scored a ton of goals for us, including the header at Watford in 1996 that took us into the playoffs at the very last chance. Played in a World Cup semi final for Turkey. Was about to become a roofer when we signed him from Chelsea reserves.

CM: Neil Lennon. One of the hardest midfielders that I’ve ever seen, if I was that lad playing for him at Bolton that called him a prick at the weekend then I’d be bracing myself for a receipt during training. Got an assist on his debut for us and immediately kissed his badge, thus making us all love him. That was when you could trust players who did that.

CM: N’Golo Kante. Not played many games for us yet but mark my words, will one day leave us for Real Madrid. Tiny and terrifying, he is one of the fastest players in the league despite only being five foot four inches tall, he has thighs as wise as a regular person and wins more tackles in a game than most teams do in a season. Not Makelele-like, Makelele travelled forward in time in a DeLorean and based himself on Kante.

LW: Emile Heskey. I get tired of people giving him grief because not only was he always stellar in a City shirt, but when we went bust he gave us some of his own money to keep us afloat. When he broke into our side as a teenager he was played out wide and nobody had ever seen anything like him. I played against him as a kid and he would score 15 goals per game from centre back. Also, his middle name is Ivanhoe.

RW:  Riyad Mahrez. When we first signed the little Algerian, we all thought he was backup to Anthony Knockaert. He quickly proved to be the best £400k we have ever spent, full of wizardry and great passes. If Anthony Martial is worth £58 million, Mahrez is worth £2 billion.

ST: Jamie Vardy. If you’d have told me two years ago that he would become our best ever striker, I’d have disagreed. He took a while to get going after we signed him from Fleetwood, but now he’s not just beloved by us, he’s lauded by the entire world. Equalling Ruud van Nistelrooy’s goals in consecutive games record was amazing, but was instantly a better achievement. Why? Vardy did it in one season and scored less penalties. And crucially, he did it whilst playing for little old Leicester.

Subs: Tim Flowers, Gerry Taggert, Robbie Savage, Steve Guppy, Marc Albrighton, Steve Claridge, Esteban Cambiasso

I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited for a City game that I couldn’t attend. I was even offered tickets for it by more than one person, but with a weekend of Christmas gigs up in Liverpool it would have been impossible to watch the game and work in the evening. And Smallman has to pay the bills, you know what I’m saying.

So I went online and asked friends on Facebook and Twitter to suggest a game for me where I could also try and watch our game afterwards AND get over to Albert Dock in Liverpool for showtime. Smashing bearded comic and chum Freddy Quinne suggested Chorley vs Skelmersdale in the FA Trophy third qualifying round, and I was sold.

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I much prefer watching games with other people. I have a lot of my adventures on my own and that’s fine, but when I know of friends in the comedy world who love football as much as me then I always get a bit giddy about attending a game with them. And at this time of year we need all the company we can get to cheer ourselves up. Why?

Because it’s ruddy Christmas.

Regular readers of my words will be aware that at the end of every November it all goes tits up for comedy work. Not due to a lack of gigs, far from it. It’s due to having to entertain many tedious idiots out on their work parties, with maybe ten per cent of audiences wanting to have a laugh and the other ninety per cent there to try and have sex with a colleague and enjoy free drinks courtesy of their boss.  It’s often utterly horrid. Up until this point I was actually having a good weekend of shows in Liverpool, but you’re always on your guard. All comedians will take the chance to escape the circuit and have a laugh at this point, trust me.

I’ve never been to Chorley. I reckon I’ve been to most places in the UK thanks to comedy and football, but never Chorley. My only real reference for the place are the Peter Kay / Phoenix Nights spin-off “Chorley FM: Coming In Your Ears” car stickers that were en vogue a few years back. I also imagine that Chorley FM would play the music of En Vogue.

This would mark my second ever FA Trophy game, following on from a visit to Hastings in season one that remains one of my favourite experiences. That had a speedway track, a sending off, a gaggle of pensioners watching for free through some bushes and a Brazilian playing for Hastings after arriving from Malta (and falling on his arse with his first touch). Chorley had a lot to live up to, but I had high hopes.

First off, how can you not like a football club that started as a rugby club and then realised that sport was bobbins and that they should just change? That’s the opposite of how rugby was invented, of the legends are to be believed. Chorley have been at the wonderfully named Victory Park since 1920 and you know me, I’m a sucker for some history.

Then there’s the fact that this game was, ostensibly, a local derby. Skelmersdale is Just sixteen miles away, and although they’re a tier below Chorley (Northern Premier to Conference North) you would imagine that they’ve met a few times in the past and there must be a rivalry.

Both teams have attracted stars at the beginning and end of their careers. Chorley are currently managed by Matt Jansen, a player who was touted as being the future of English football until injuries curtailed his career. They were formerly managed by Garry Flitcroft, who my father genuinely thought was called “Barry Flipflop” for many years until he had his ears syringed.

Skelmersdale was the first club of Liverpool legend Steve Heighway, notorious for being a bit of a “super sub” (according to my first ever sticker album that had him down as a club legend, rightfully so) and playing 444 times in the greatest Liverpool side of all time. Imagine that, a young lad taken in his early twenties from Skelmersdale to Liverpool and becoming a club legend. Echoes the story of Jamie Vardy a little bit there, I reckon.

On my drive to Chorley I half expected it to be called off, as I drove through rivers of water on the M6 and the country roads outside the town were waterlogged. I also drove past an antiques place that I remember going to with my dad when he owned a pub and it was the done thing to fill the walls full of memorabilia. I remember spending a day thee choosing many different types of earthenware jugs and glass cases containing football cards.

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Victory Park is nestled away in the middle of a housing estate in Chorley. From the outside, there is nothing to give away the existence of a football ground, it’s small capacity not giving rise to massive floodlights that you can see from miles away. The only giveaway from the road is a small car park and a steady trickle of fans in black and white scarves making their way to see the Magpies.

On the whole “Magpie” nickname, surely that’s most apt for a team that has unjustly stolen a lot of silverware?

Freddy was caught up in traffic, so I waited in my car until he arrived. He’s a smashing lad that I’ve got to know better over the past year or so. He’s also, ironically. A Manchester United fan. When he suggested the Chorley game to me and insisted on joining me, I knew it was the right choice. He’s not a fan of football for the sake of it, he’s as nerdy and daft as I am.

When he arrived, I met him as he was queuing for tickets in the office / club shop, only to be told that we could pay on the gate. Freddy has a beard and I’m always impressed at how much it suits him. If he wasn’t a comedian, he would be a fine sea captain or circus strongman.

What happens when most comedians get together is that we quickly gossip about our industry, and then we fix it with some simple solutions, forgetting that it’s a bit out of our hands and actually controlled by a cabal of non-comedians making deals in the offices of showbiz agents in that London. But we can dream, dammit. Both me and Freddy work as MCs a lot, meaning that we don’t get to work together all that often. We do both take that role very seriously though, and spent a good twenty minutes discussing the art of being a good MC. Here are the results of the chat:

1: Don’t be selfish. You’re there to make the whole night work, not get all the attention for yourself.

2: Don’t do 25 minutes before the headliner just because the gig is nice.

That’s basically it. Freddy is one of those acts that everyone should feel safe in the hands of, MC or set. He’s got the intelligence to read an audience and furthermore, he genuinely cares about being good. He’s got an album of his standup out at the moment, I heartily endorse checking it out.

It was still hammering down as I got some food from the little hut known as the Magpies Nest. As we walked in, one lad serving behind the counter tried to remove his jumper as he was warm. Working with two girls of the same age as himself, he removed his jumper but his t-shirt went with it, then he panicked and tried to hide as he struggled to undress himself in a civilised manner. The girls giggled. Everyone definitely noticed that he had made a bit of an arse of himself.

Before I went to Chorley, I would have expected to be able to buy chips and gravy in the stadium. I was not disappointed. I also grabbed a cheeseburger and the whole lot only came to £4.80 (and it was pretty bloody decent). The rain intensified as we sat down on the bench seating in the large main stand that may be one of the oldest that I have sat in on my travels. The teams tried to carry on warming up without being too thrown by the conditions, but it was the sort of rain that hits you so hard that you have to crouch down a bit to take the impact.

We did the classic thing of presuming one of the Skelmersdale subs was brilliant based on the tricks he was doing in his warmup, without considering if he was particularly special that he wouldn’t be at Skelmersdale in the first place (no offence intended). We’ve all done that, it’s even worse than watching a YouTube video and presuming a player is godlike (Leicester fans will remember Hossein Kaebi for that). I’ve always judged keepers based on their warm ups until I realised that by that token I’ve always thought every sub keeper was a world beater as they take more shots before a match.

I made my point to Freddy about pitches being pretty decent these days – even at non league level – and then realised that the weather may change that later on. But at the time it was holding up well as the teams retreated from their warm up. I also discussed the game at Solihull last week, which was an enjoyable experience on the terrace but easily the worst game of football that I had ever seen.  I was really hoping for better things in Chorley.

The teams came out for the first half and fans were still coming in. There are two “proper” stands at Victory Park: the main stand that we sat in, and a small covered end that looks equally as old. Then the other side and end are uncovered, and a few hardy fans stood in those areas in the rain. It certainly seemed to be a decent attendance though, and where we sat we had a lot of fans around us helping everyone to collectively keep warm.

Chorley’s kit is fetchingly set off by having gold numbers on the back, giving them a regal air compared to the simple blue of Skelmersdale. The away side managed to have a sponsor that looks like the football manager logo from a distance though, so that’s something. As we kicked off, both sides really went for it, the nature of it being a cup game and the weather adding to the frenetic nature.

It was already a better game than last week, and Chorley had a couple of lads who looked to be real quality. Up front was James Dean, a big number nine who looks nothing like his screen idol counterpart. Deceptively skilful for a big old beast of a chap, he was at the forefront of every good sequence in the first half. Freddy told me he’s their leading scorer, and he looked dangerous every time he had the ball. It seemed a bit strange that they didn’t repeatedly pump balls into the box for him to get on the end of, because he looked like he could easily overpower both of the Skem centre backs.

Darren Stephenson also looked useful, running at defenders as often as he could. It was proper end to end stuff, we were just lacking in decent chances for either side as the first half came to a close. The weather certainly made it interesting though, and Freddy pointed out how utterly ruined the pitch was after the first half. It was fun to see a goalkeeper actually covered in mud like the old days, as Skelmersdale’s Fearon trudged off the pitch like a man desperately in need of a hot bath.

The PA played “Right Here, Right Now” by Fatboy Slim as we went into the 15 minute break, causing me and Freddy to discuss the most played songs at football grounds.  I reckon that’s well up there alongside “Ready To Go” by Republica and “Let Me Entertain You” by Robbie Williams.

We decided to have a bit of a wander ahead of the second half, the joy of non-league games meaning no segregation. A lot of Chorley fans made their way to the covered end as their side would be attacking that goal in the second half, whilst the Skelmersdale fans had the luck of the rain stopping so they could happily stand at the uncovered opposite end.

One Skem fan had brought an air horn with him.  Every time the Chorley keeper would attempt a clearance, he would let out a short blast on it in order to try and distract him.  This is a tactic that I have not seen employed for many, many years (although wrestling fans will want to look up the guy in the USA who goes to CZW shows and employs the same tactic when wrestlers try to talk on the microphone).

I always feel bad saying anything rude about any players at non-league level, as during my time at Hastings I am certain that I was stood next to one of the player’s parents.  You run that risk in a small crowd, that’s for certain.  I’d hate to be haranguing a winger and get clipped round the ear by his mum.

Chorley started the second half with on-loan Wigan striker Sam Cosgrove coming on for Lewis Guy in the 53rd minute.  He’s another big lad, even taller than James Dean, and he was also a handful for the Skelmersdale defence but couldn’t find a breakthrough.  He went really close before Dean clipped the post after Cosgrove had set him up.  Skem would sit back, absorb the pressure and then occasionally break forwards at pace  There may not have been goals, but their was effort from both sides and a good atmosphere as the massed Chorley fans standing behind the one goal really tried to make as much noise as they could.

It was painfully obvious that Chorley needed to pump some crosses into the box as the pitch got cut up, but they kept trying to play football.  We should probably applaud this, but with massive lads like Dean and Cosgrove in the box it would have made a lot of sense.  Every cross that did come in was low or mis-hit, much to the frustration of the crowd.

Skelmersdale brought on a substitute, and both me and Freddy noticed just how big a backside he had.  He wasn’t fat, he was just pear shaped.  My wife has a weird thing where chaps with disproportionately fat arses make her unreasonably angry.  It’s the main reason that I maintain a gym membership.

With the final whistle approaching, we wondered out loud if we were to get extra time and maybe the prospect of penalties.  Nobody around us seemed to know the definitive answer… until the referee called for full time and everyone trudged away as the rain began again.  That certainly answered that question.

There’s clearly a reason why Chorley have decent attendances for a small club (over 1,000 per game last season).  It’s a club with a great vibe to it, and the old stand just feels like a great place to watch football (even if we both wished that we’d brought our own cushions like some fans had).  You can’t argue with £8 for a game either.

Of course, my footballing day wasn’t over.  I tried to find somewhere to watch the Leicester game to no avail.  So I drove to Warrington services and hoped to get fast enough wifi in there to watch the game on my iPad, again no luck.  In the end I sat in my car eating KFC and drinking hot chocolate as Jamie Vardy broke the Premier League record for consecutive games scored in and my beloved club remained joint top.

Look, we all know it won’t last, but let me dare to dream.  The league table currently looks like I’ve been cheating on Football Manager.

Summary:

Chorley 0 vs Skelmersdale United 0

Attendance: 559

Cost: Ticket £8, Parking Free (street), Burger Chips and Gravy £4.80

Fun Factor: 8/10

The Football Neutral: Match Fifty Seven – Solihull Moors vs Gloucester City

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So this is season three of my adventures, don’t forget you can pick up the ebook of last season on Kindle for less than £3. Do it and support this blog! I’d be very grateful! Loads of games from Dortmund to Clapton. You can also get the first season at Amazon too!

A quick apology: I’m a very happy-go-lucky kind of chap, but last weekend I found that I couldn’t drag myself to football after the events in Paris.  I was due to go to watch Queens Park play Peterhead at Hampden as I spent the weekend in Glasgow, but as I got off stage on the Friday night my wife texted me to tell me what had happened.  I then spent the entire night watching the news, trying to process what had occurred.

I’ve never been to France, but that doesn’t mean that events like that shouldn’t upset you (likewise I’ve never been to Syria, Mali or anywhere else where horrific events have happened recently).  The fact that part of the atrocities happened outside a football stadium wasn’t why I was so upset either, although it certainly made me think about how I would cope in that situation.

I’m an atheist. I did an interview this week with a podcast in the USA where I talked about recovering from addiction and stated that I’m not a preachy atheist (which to me, kind of defeats the point).  If you have faith then that’s cool.  I could well end up being wrong about heaven and hell and all that jazz, although I doubt that very much.  But I have friends of every possible religious denomination.  My Muslim friends are all, uniformly, the most reasonable and peaceful people that I know.  That anyone would choose to act in such a way in the name of a religion is terrible; the fact that it now tars the vast majority of Muslims with the same brush in the eyes of utter idiots upsets me just as much.

I just want everyone to get on.  I come from a city where everybody DOES get on, and sitting reading through Twitter after those horrible events was utterly depressing as rumours start to spread of arson at Calais, and American ultra-Christians tweeted me all kinds of anti-Muslim bile.  I’m as scared of the knee-jerk reactions of idiots as I am of ISIS.

So yes. No football last week. But for once I chose to watch an England game on TV in the week and I was heartened to see the reaction of every supporter at that match, and realised just how powerful messages from football fans can be. The behaviour of the England fans was magnificent that evening, and I don’t think I’ve ever welled up watching the national anthems of two teams that I don’t support before.  That gesture snapped me out of my sadness over the events and made me press on with this week.

***

This past week has been very busy and full of travelling. I’ve been to Manchester, Scunthorpe and Durham and then was due in Bath on Saturday night.  A scan of the fixtures revealed a decent looking local derby between Cheltenham and Forest Green Rovers, but I’ve been to Whaddon Road on my travels before. There wasn’t much else that I could watch and then get to Komedia for my show, so in the end I settled on Solihull vs Gloucester.  The Conference North never usually disappoints.

The Moors were formed in 2007 as a merger between two clubs: Solihull Borough (which is what some road signs around the ground still say) and Moor Green (who I watched play Hinckley Athletic when I was a teenager, I’m sure of it).  I know Solihull as the go-to place to mention when performing in Birmingham if I have to make a reference to an affluent area.  Having been to the town centre a couple of times, it strikes me as a pretty pleasant place.

The side are currently managed by former QPR defender Marcus Bignot, and they’ve clearly set about to try and build a decent side by using his connections in the game. They’ve got a big striker up front in Dutchman Akwasi Asante (formerly of Birmingham City), with Swiss Under-21 International Benjamin Siegrist in goal; and they have veterans Stefan Moore (twin of Luke Moore, both formerly of Aston Villa and Stefan briefly played on loan at Leicester) Darren Byfield (formerly married to Jamelia). Undefeated in Conference North going into Saturday, they’re clearly having a real go at things at that level.

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Solihull play at the Automated Technology Stadium, very close to the Jaguar factory and Birmingham airport.  On my drive along to the ground I passed a few plane spotters, stood in lay-bys with long lenses on their cameras.  My Uncle partakes in that hobby, and I’ll never understand it.  Who gets excited at getting another plane number?  I understand being excited by seeing planes up close, I still do after years of flying all around the world.  But it just seems such a dull hobby… says the man who was getting excited about seeing the architecture of another football stadium.

I knew that I would have to stay in touch with my Dad throughout the game as Leicester were playing up at Newcastle with Jamie Vardy – every neutral’s favourite player this season  – having the chance to tie the consecutive games scored in record with Ruud Van Nistelrooy.  If you’d have told me that a Leicester player would be top scorer in the Premier League more than halfway through November then I wouldn’t have believed you, let alone imagined that one of our lads could get near such a record.  I found myself wanting him to break it as much as I wanted us to win the match.

My first impression of Solihull was given to me by the incredibly pleasant lady who took my £2 to enter the car park.  With the ground in the middle of nowhere, you only really have the option of using the official car park, but it’s big enough and convenient so fair play.  She saw me get a tenner out of my wallet and noted the money in there as I’d been paid in cash for some gigs this week, and said “bloody hell, someone is doing ok for themselves” with a smile.  I parked up and sat in the car for a bit, because it was freezing outside.

I didn’t have any gloves with me.  I always buy gloves around this time of year, and then I put them away in the spring and they go missing, never to be seen again.  Someone has clearly thieved at least thirty pairs of gloves from me.  Winter socks as well, I have no idea where they all end up. I had luckily demonstrated the foresight to wear many layers and bring along my massive winter coat though.  It looked like it was a good job that I had as the car park filled up and fans quickly hurried into the ground.

There’s just the couple of turnstiles in the one entrance, and it’s only a tenner to watch the game. You can choose to sit or stand, but as cold as it was there was no way I was sitting down and losing the use of my extremities.  As soon as you’re inside the ground, you can use your ticket to get entry to the clubhouse, or you can just mill about for a bit.  I did the second option, getting a burger from the van that was positioned pretty much at pitchside.  Only £2.70 is a bargain for a burger these days as well, fair play.

The main stand is painted blue and yellow (Solihull’s colours) and has a few areas fenced off for officials. It’s a very old-school two-tiered structure that I instantly took a shine to.  The rest of the ground isn’t as well appointed, with one stand behind a goal, and the other end and side just flat concrete with barriers.  Attendance wasn’t too shabby though, especially considering the weather.  My favourite thing about grounds like this is being able to walk a full loop around the pitch.  I did so until I found myself in the covered end, next to the tuck shop.  It’s actually called that.  The last tuck shop I ever went to was at my school when I was 14 and addicted to Nerds and Tango.

I bought a Bovril (obviously), a Twix and a packet of crisps.  This cost me just £1.90.  I had to check that the bloke hadn’t made a mistake, as that would have been at least £6 in a Championship stadium.  I’ve not eaten this cheaply since Germany.  I took my place on the terrace and put my Bovril on a brick wall that was meant to block off the “away end”.  In said end were a load of Solihull youths, and they were moved on by a steward.  The Gloucester fans were up at the other end as that was the goal they were attacking in the first half, so when two Moors lads returned to find their mates had gone they just stayed, presumably reasoning that their friends had been kidnapped by aliens.

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Ok then. I’m now going to make a departure from my previous posts.  I usually blend in my observations on fan culture, architecture and the like with a full-blown match report.  This week I cannot do that.  Why?  Because whilst the Solihull Moors experience is very pleasant (fans are excellent, everyone I met at the club was cool, more on that stuff in a second), the game was by far and away the worst that I have ever watched.  Not just this season or since I started this blog.  Ever.  It was the kind of game that makes me understand how people can not enjoy football.  Here’s everything that happened in the game:

  • After about half an hour, Siegrist saved well from a header from Gloucester’s Jones.
  • Two minutes later, Stefan Moore broke but was eventually rebuffed by former Moors keeper Jas Singh.

That was genuinely all the action in the entire game.  It was woeful.

Of course, the fans made the experience worthwhile.  I truly was a football neutral, by staying in the same position for the entire game I was surrounded by Moors fans in the first half and Gloucester fans in the second.

FIRST HALF

I’ve had the song “Moors Moors Moors” – to the tune of “More More More” by Andrea True Connection – stuck in my head for 24 hours now.  It’s an obvious song if you think about it, but using a 1976 disco hit as a basis for a club anthem in Conference North is pretty bloody inspired.

The Moors fans chatted with former keeper Jas Singh throughout the first half, and he took it all in good humour.  Everybody in the ground both noticed his hot pink jersey, but also the fact that his number one on the back of it had been ironed on the wrong way.  Speaking of kits, the Gloucester away shirt that they sported that day was excellent, making them look like a Serie B side, the joy of having a Macron kit.

On the stroke of half time, Jamie Vardy scored up at St James’ Park and I found that I briefly forgot how unbelievably cold I was.  As the whistle sounded, nobody booed or applauded.  We were just relieved that it was all over.

HALF TIME

I was all of a sudden pretty much alone on the terrace, until I was joined by a few Gloucester fans.  One produced several flags and started tying them to the front of the stand.  They were a pleasant lot, but then a steward asked them to move the other side of the wall I was leaning on because that was the “away end”.  They tried to reason with him, but it quickly became the most polite and British discussion of all time as both sides apologised and did exactly what they were meant to do.  Credit to the steward who chatted to them like they were human beings, not just treating them like cattle.

SECOND HALF

The linesman checked the nets in front of us with all the interest of a man kicking the tyres of a used car that he isn’t interested in.  I don’t think he really wanted to be there either.

The chap who owned the Gloucester flags was a Birmingham supporter, like the steward who moved the away fans.  We chatted over the plight of Aston Villa (at that point 4-0 down) and he then remembered that the Solihull keeper was on loan from Villa so chanted at him about them going down.

The stewards would occasionally spot a rogue Gloucester fan in the same area as me and would move them on.  One lady got spotted and asked to move along, to which her own fans chanted “you’re getting banned in the morning” at her.  Another fan – called Tommy – was greeted with “Tommy is from Cheltenham”.

I think we all forgot that there was a game going on, and that was for the best really.

After the final whistle, I got back to my car to learn that Leicester had won 3-0 and were now top of the Premier League.  I could only conclude that I had somehow passed out due to the cold and was in a coma.

I still can’t feel my toes, by the way.

So, not the best game.  Far from it.  But a great little club and two excellent sets of fans.  and you know what?  I’d always choose an awful 0-0 draw in the freezing cold over sitting in a hotel room feeling depressed at the world.  The impeccably observed minute’s silence for Paris at the start of the match told me that football will always carry on.

Summary:

Solihull Moors 0 vs Gloucester City 0

Attendance: 542

Cost: Ticket £10, Parking £2, Burger £2.70, Drink, Twix, Crisps £1.90 total

Fun Factor: 6/10

The Football Neutral: Match Fifty Six – FC United of Manchester vs AFC Telford United

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So this is season three of my adventures, don’t forget you can pick up the ebook of last season on Kindle for less than £3. Do it and support this blog! I’d be very grateful! Loads of games from Dortmund to Clapton. You can also get the first season at Amazon too!

Since I started writing about my football related travels, I’ve been lucky enough to have many of my chums from the world of comedy say to me “ooh, we should go to <INSERT TEAM NAME HERE> together”.  I’ll get around to them all eventually, because there’s nothing better than taking in a match with a mate, especially if he can give you some insight into the club.

Most people in comedy know Big Lou. That’s his name. Well, he’s really called Lewis Jones, but we all call him Big Lou.  He gave himself that name, may I add.  He’s a Manchester based comic and I think it’s fair to say that he’s one of the nicest people that I know.  The sort of lad who would help anybody out and only ever has good things to say about people.  Over the last few months he’s implored me to accompany him to FC United, and after missing out the last couple of weekends because I’ve been busy, it seemed the right time to take him up on his offer.  I checked the fixtures on Monday night and realised I could take in a game on my night off the next day, so all it took was a quick Facebook message to Lou and we were on.

I’ve been keen to watch FC United for quite some time because I think most football fans are completely aware of their entire history.  I can’t think of another non-league club where as many fans are as in tune with the minutiae of their existence since inception.

Here’s the short form: In 2005, fans of Manchester United decided to set up their own club in the wake of Malcolm Glazer’s takeover of the Old Trafford club, amongst other reasons for their general feeling of disillusion.  The idea quickly gained traction, with the team quickly climbing the league ladder.  On the pitch the team achieved three promotions in their first three seasons (from level 10 of the football pyramid to level 7) whist off the pitch the club was lauded for being truly fan-owned and fan-governed.  It may have taken FC United a little longer than planned to get to the sixth tier of football, but now they’re there they have everything in place to try and stay at that level and maybe kick on and shoot for bigger things.

Until 2014, FC United had a ground share with Bury, using their Gigg Lane stadium for their games and often drawing magnificent crowds for matches at that level.  Then they had a season sharing with both Stalybridge Celtic and Curzon Ashton before moving in to their own new home – Broadhurst Park – in May of 2015.  The 4,400 capacity stadium was mainly funded by the fans themselves, from community share schemes (which raised around £2 million) and internet crowd funding alongside grants and loans from the FA and the local council.

If you know me by now – and I like to think that you do – then you’ll know that I can’t resist a new stadium and that I’m a massive fan of fan-power and ultras culture.  So going to FC United seems like it is far too overdue.  I can only presume that the reason I’ve held off for so long is the club’s ties to Manchester United, because like every fan of any other team in the country, I’m not too hot on them.  I’m also man enough to admit that this is 100% down to utter jealousy.  I support Leicester, and I can only dream of their success.  They’ve been the best team in the country for the vast majority of my football-watching life.

I’d spent my Monday in London, taking the train there and back to do a voiceover job.  On the way down I’d watched a magnificent documentary about Joy Division, one of my favourite bands.  The archive footage of Manchester in the 1970s and early 1980s came back into my mind as I drove down the M56 on my way to Broadhurst Park, which is in Moston, a few miles north-east of Manchester city centre itself.  That film made me muse upon how the Greater Manchester area can sustain so many football teams, with the working-class history of the area set into sharp focus.

Speaking of the M56, ever since I’ve returned from the Edinburgh Fringe it has become my nemesis.  It should take me around an hour to travel from my home in North Wales to Manchester.  Yesterday it took me nearly three hours to get to Moston.  It wasn’t just me that was stuck though, as the Telford team bus got delayed as well, pushing the kick-off back to 8.15pm.  I arrived at 7.30pm and parked up, just as Big Lou sent me one of the best messages that I’ve had in ages:

Kick off delayed to 8.15pm. Fuck me, you must be important

The large amount of cars parked on the streets around the stadium told me that it wouldn’t be a sparsely attended game for sure.  As you approach the ground you realise that it’s a very pleasant place to watch the game, not just a faceless metal and plastic bowl in the middle of nowhere.  With football pitches facing it for the younger sides to play on (Lou would explain to me that they’re set out that way deliberately to give young players a sense of aspiration, working their way towards the main stadium), it’s illuminated in a way that makes it stand out from every other non-league ground that I’ve ever visited.  Excuse the bad photograph, it was hammering down at the time:

2015-11-03 19.36.35I met up with Lou on the Boardwalk outside, and we made our way inside.  At this point I must confess to breaking one of my official rules.  I would usually pay to attend a game, but Lou insisted that he would sort this out.  For the record, it’s only £9 to watch FC United, but Lou does a few bits and bobs for the club so we managed to get in for free.  Even better, we didn’t even use the turnstile.  Lou nodded at a steward and he just let us in through one of the corner gates.  We even walked past the manager Karl Marginson, who Lou pointed out through a window.  He’s been the manager of the club since its inception, and has now abandoned his fruit and veg business to do the job full time.

The first thing that strikes you upon entering Broadhurst Park are the banners.  They are everywhere, especially on the smaller terraces to one side of the pitch and behind one of the goals.  Behind the other goal is a very large terrace where most of the vocal FC United fans stand, and then there is the impressive main stand with a mixture of seating and standing, as well as a bar area behind glass at the top and the usual food stands on the bottom.

Some of my favourite banners on display were as follows – and there were too many to list, as well as the massive scarf behind one goal in the colours of the club that I didn’t even notice it until the second half.

“Making friends not millionaires”

“Mancunian dissent”

“We are the resurrection”

You can buy sweets – and oddly, temporary tattoos – from a table just inside the entrance, but I required more sustenance.  I am happy to report that for £3 you can buy a pie, mushy peas and gravy.  Plus they keep the prices of drinks down (just £1) and they sell wafers (like those that you get in a coffee shop) rather than the usual Mars range.  I even had a can of Dandelion and Burdock, and they leave out free bread for anybody having their home-made soup.  I may have taken some bread.  I’m marathon training and need the carbs.

We went off to find a seat, and I realised that Lou knows everybody.  He introduced me to a chap called Vinny, who works in a commercial capacity for the club.  He seemed a smashing bloke, and he in turn introduced us to a chap who had just climbed Kilimanjaro for charity.  At every turn FC United feels like an inclusive, family club where everyone is welcome – although maybe if I was wearing a Manchester City shirt things might feel a little bit different.

We took our seat and I finished my pie.  I remained hungry, and spied a food van on the small terrace behind the goal nearest to us.  I walked over to it to get my second course, expecting the usual football fare.  I was pleasantly surprised with what I discovered.

2015-11-03 19.56.22Yes, that’s right. Quesadillas.  Two vegetarian options.  At a football match.  I ordered a chilli beef one and chatted to the chap serving them up.  With the sides warming up, he all of a sudden became very aware that footballs may well be flying into his kitchen area in the near future.  He told me he’d not thought about that when he got set up.  Whilst he toasted my quesadilla in front of me, another bloke ordered some of the home-made oxtail soup.  It looked amazing, loads of meat and vegetables in there.  I can happily report that my quesadilla was really rather wonderful, although it’s a hard thing to eat on a paper plate whilst sat at a football match.

FC United haven’t had the best of runs in recent games, with five consecutive defeats going into this match.  Telford were faring even worse, with them following up their relegation from Conference National last season with a dreadful start to this season, starting the game in bottom position.  I went to see them last season when they took on Dover and they looked poor at that level, but they tend to yo-yo between tiers five and six in the pyramid.  They had brought a couple of coaches worth of fans to this game as well, demonstrating decent support on a wet Tuesday.

I asked Lou how it works with FC United fans with regards to Manchester United – who were playing at home to CSKA Moscow at the same time – do they cheer their score if they’re winning? Or have they abandoned one side to support the new one?  It seems that most FC United fans remain fans of the Old Trafford club, although some of the younger fans will no grow up supporting FC United only.  For Lou it’s odd as he isn’t a Manchester United fan, he’s actually an Everton supporter as his Dad was from Bootle.  So it was only me, him and the Telford fans who weren’t bothered on how the Champions League game across town was going.

The game kicked off with Telford instantly taking it by the scruff of the neck and being much the better team.  If you didn’t know that they were struggling, you would have presumed that they were a team pushing for promotion.  They looked bigger, stronger and fitter, and midfielder Sean Clancy wore his floppy hair under a headband and wandered around the pitch like he was a Conference North version of Gareth Bale.  I love flair players at this level, mainly as I imagine that they’re a nightmare to train with and play alongside.

FC United’s keeper Dave Carnell had a rather schizophrenic opening few minutes, spilling routine shots but then redeeming himself with good saves.  In his defence, the goalmouth was very greasy as the rain continued to belt down.  One stop in particular was world-class after he had blocked a shot with his chest when it looked easier to catch the ball.  He’d then be bailed out by  centre-back Nia Bayunu after spilling another chance. Bayunu – who looked decent throughout – would then clear off the line after a Telford scramble.  It was all Telford at this stage, and the inevitable goal followed.

Was probably my fault for mocking him, but in the 20th minute Clancy tucked the ball away following a cross from Samuels.  I noted then how unsegregated the fans were, with a pocket of Telford fans behind the goal that he scored in, plus a larger contingent on the left side of the main terrace and a few dotted around us in the seats.  Was never any trouble between anybody though, everything was very cordial.  The only animosity came from one FC United fan near us who complained constantly about the performance of his own team.  True, they weren’t in the game at this point but during their first season at this level you’d think he’d cut them some slack.  He was the only fan at this stage to be so vocal in his criticism, mind you.

Even though they were behind, the FC United fans on the large terrace were excellent, singing their hearts out and possibly getting even louder when their team went a goal behind.  This seemed to galvanise the side on the pitch, as they improved greatly and seemed to have much more attacking nous from then on.  There was a scary moment as FC United’s Sam Sheridan and Telford’s Darren Campion both went hurtling into the advertising hoardings at great speed.  This held the game up for a while and Campion was eventually substituted (and apparently needed stitches to the inside of his mouth).

Sam Sheridan hit a decent free kick at goal which the Telford defence scrambled away for a corner, before Matthew Wolfenden forced keeper James Montgomery into a good save with a chance from the resulting corner.  With FC United doing a lot of pressing, their recent bad luck and form should tell you what happened next: They went 2-0 down.  Telford won a free kick, Kyle Brownhill whipped it in and Robert Paratore smashed it home.  The small pocket of Telford fans behind the goal spilled onto the pitch, so Lou nudged me and said “those lads should calm down, it’s only a Tuesday night”.

As the game drifted to half time, one FC United fan really made me laugh.  A Telford player won a throw in just in front of us, and his manager (Rob Smith) barked instructions at him.  The fan shouted “hey mate! Don’t listen to him! Have your own thoughts! Or listen to us!”  It gave everyone around us a good giggle, and even Smith acknowledged it with a grin.  As the half time whistle sounded, there were no boos from the home fans, even if the disappointment at their current run was palpable.

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I always tend to notice what music is played during half time breaks.  Quite aptly, the music played during this interval was “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy.  I couldn’t have made a better choice.  Whoever is responsible for that is a genius.  I noticed another couple of banners on the large terrace  – one representing German side St Pauli, another bearing the “Refugees Welcome” message and a third saying “Football: Saturday, 3pm”.  Broadhurst Park really does have the right vibe to it.

For the second half FC United brought on returning all-time top goalscorer Rory Patterson.  Initially at the club between 2005-2008, he scored 99 goals as the team ascended through the lowest reaches of the leagues, before going on to play in his native Northern Ireland and briefly for Plymouth Argyle.  He even earned 5 international caps before making his way back to Manchester.  The fans were pleading with Marginson to bring him on, and he replaced Matthew Wolfenden.  Having seen pictures of Patterson during his first run at the club, he’s a little heavier now than he was but as soon as he entered the field he looked to be exactly the catalyst that FC United needed.  He was eager and on occasion, his enthusiasm did transfer into being a little bit naughty as the game became scrappy and a tad ill-tempered.

Tackles were flying in like on the latest version of Pro Evolution Soccer, where you can pole-axe someone at knee height and the referee won’t even blow the whistle.  Challenges came in from both sides with increasing ferocity, leading me to think that if this was a Premier League match that both sides may well have been down to eight apiece.  Thing is, nobody rolled around as if they were injured, they just got on with it.  It wasn’t a dirty game, just a lot more enthusiastic in the tackle than you would normally see.

A few cards were handed out – to Wright and Daniels in quick succession, among others – but FC United struggled to make any clear chances despite having more possession than the first period.  A series of corners seems to yield nothing, until in the 74th minute Telford keeper Montgomery made a hash of one of them, punching the ball right onto the head of Tom Greaves.  FC United had a goal back, it was game on. Would the bottom side of the division start to wilt under the pressure?

In a word, no.  Telford wisely slowed the game down, with full-back Samuels getting booked for time wasting before a long goal kick in the 85th minute arrived on the head of Dave Hibbert.  It sailed past the onrushing Carnell, hit the post and trickled over the line.  That was it, game over.

Interestingly, whilst a few fans set off for home – after all, the game had been delayed by 30 minutes – most stayed put and carried on singing.  You cannot fault the fans at all, and it’s a lot to ask for the team to get to the sixth tier and just walk it to the next level.  It took a while to get to this stage, it might take a while to go higher but everything is in place for this club to do great things.

It’s a shame to go to Broadhurst Park for the first time and not see them win, but if you get a chance to go along there and you love your football, jump on it.  Yes, you might not like Manchester United, but there is nothing but a long list of things to like about FC United of Manchester.  A smashing club.

Summary:

FC United of Manchester 1 (Greaves 74) vs AFC Telford United 3 (Clancy 20, Paratore 40, Hibbert 85)

Attendance: 2,781

Cost: Ticket free (should be £9); parking free; Pie, peas and gravy £3; wafers £1; Dandelion and Burdock £1; Chilli Beef Quesadilla £4

Fun Factor: 8/10

The Football Neutral: Match Fifty Five – Barnet vs York City

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So this is season three of my adventures, don’t forget you can pick up the ebook of last season on Kindle for less than £3. Do it and support this blog! I’d be very grateful! Loads of games from Dortmund to Clapton. You can also get the first season at Amazon too!

It wasn’t meant to take me this long to get to Barnet.  I’ve wanted to go there since I began this, mainly as I knew they had a new stadium and I’m always driving through the place on my way to London.  When Edgar Davids was there I was desperate to get along to a game, although based on his disciplinary record as player-manager I reckon there was every chance that I would have picked a game where he was suspended.  If the day ended in “y” then that was often the case.

In my first season of being neutral I actually set off to go to a Barnet game.  I left my hotel in Surrey at 11am, planning on picking up my mate and business partner Jon from his place in North London on the way.  I thought I left plenty of time.  I did not allow for something called “London traffic”.  At 3pm I was still somewhere in South London, swearing at the roads.  Not much in this world brings me to tears, but I have learned that traffic often can.

For example, this blog has taken me over a week to write up as I’ve been busy with comedy and wrestling and voiceover, as well as being a little bit poorly.  Nothing major, I’ve just got a cold.  Note that I said “a cold”.  Not the flu.  You can’t tarnish me with all that “man flu” rubbish, because I’ve had flu twice in my life and both times I thought I was going to die.  The last time I had it I hallucinated that Leicester legend Steve Claridge was in my front room trying to sell me fruit and veg like he did when he was playing for Aldershot.

On Friday of this past week I had to drive to London for a last minute voiceover job.  Yes, I had to drive: I had to be there for 11am, so getting a train at the last minute would have cost me my entire fee.  So I got up at 5.30am, left home at 6am, parked at Cockfosters at 10am (you are allowed to laugh, I’m 37 and still do), got the tube to Central London and walked to the studio.  Was there for all of 45 minutes, then walked two miles back to Kings Cross to stretch my legs.  Then back at my car for 1.15pm and set off for my gig that night in Preston.  My sat nav said that journey would take me until 4.30pm.  My sat nav is a big fat ruddy liar.

Seven hours and five minutes later I arrived at my gig with five minutes to spare before I went onstage.  I sat in the sort of traffic that seems to exist purely because nobody is good at driving except me.  No accidents, no roadworks (well, none that closed lanes), just a queue at every single junction to get off the M1 or M6, and then another queue half a mile later as people tried to get onto those godforsaken stretches of tarmac.  I sat behind the same Fiat 500 for four of those hours.  I now weep openly at the sight of those cars.  In short, traffic on Friday was just as frustrating as that aborted trip to Barnet two seasons ago.  Maybe it all happened because I’ve delayed writing this up.

My trusty mate Jon (employee of the Guardian, co-owner of PROGRESS Wrestling, hardest working man I know, speaker of German) would accompany me for this trip, which made sense as I was staying at his house.  With me working at the fabulous Boat Show in London and then us having a PROGRESS show on the Sunday, as always he was gracious enough to put me up.  Even more awesome as he works nights from home, and if he’s doing his thing for the Guardian when I’m staying that means he abandons his comfy workstation in his lounge to perch on a stool all night in his kitchen so I can sleep.  That’s a bloody good mate right there.

While he slept off his night shift on the Saturday morning, I headed to Brixton and our wrestling school.  We’ve got a big class of newbies there at the moment and whilst I can’t teach them to wrestle – I am far too uncoordinated and unskilled to do such a thing – I can help them learn how to talk because it’s been my job for ten years.  Now you’re thinking about ways that I could do that.  What do I do? Give them a chance to put on a rasping, gravelly voice and cut a promo on one of their fellow trainees? Give them a gimmick and get them to run with it?  Nope.  I take my influence from the world of Radio 4.  We play “Just a Minute”.

It’s one of my dreams to be on that show, as I pride myself on being a half decent improviser.  But it is HARD: speak for a whole minute without hesitating, repeating yourself or deviating from your point.  Nobody EVER lasts a minute when we play it at training, regardless of how experienced they are.  I can’t do it, and I’m a gobshite who gets paid to be mouthy.  But it teaches you to think on your feet, slow down when you’re talking (a necessity) and plan what you’re saying under pressure.  Everyone had a good go at it, and I think the best time was a shade over 30 seconds.

I then got a 40 minute tube ride to Canon’s Park, the station which serves The Hive Stadium, home of Barnet since 2013.  If you look at the non-geographically correct tube map it seems to be in the wrong place, far west of High Barnet.  Luckily the tube map is not something you should ever use in order to gauge correct placement.  It just about gets north or south of the river right, everything else is much more loose.

I love public transport, especially in London.  As I live in a village where we have three buses a week, the concept of being able to get pretty much anywhere by a couple of trains or buses blows my mind.  I really needed the train on that Saturday afternoon too, as I had decided to walk 11 miles the previous day.  With me now in marathon training, the hardest part is the boredom when putting in the distances.  I can run 5km pretty comfortably now, but nobody is expecting me to run lots further just yet, not until I’m in better condition.  So walking from North London to Embankment and then back again afterwards is – in theory – good for my legs.  It did not feel it on the Saturday afternoon.

Nothing on the tube feels more awesome than when your train comes out of the underground and you are thrust into daylight and actual scenery.  I’ve been going to London for years and the sensation still gets to me, a change in light, air pressure and noise as a load of you are all symbolically born to the London outskirts in a massive metal tube.  It’s more than just your ears popping, it can’t just be me that feels it.

2015-10-17 14.23.16When you arrive at the station, you can see The Hive in the near distance, with the massive arch of Wembley just off to the South West.  If you squint at the picture above you should be able to do just that.  I left the train alongside a handful of York fans who had made the long journey via train, thinking of fond memories of heading there  couple of seasons ago.  They’re a good club that – like Barnet – have had their ups and downs in recent years.

I met a very tired Jon outside the station and we walked over to the stadium.  This involves crossing a leafy suburban road and then trekking over a path through a field that contains Barnet’s training facilities.  It’s more like walking to a lower league stadium in Germany, and it feels a little strange beings surrounded by so much green when you’re still at a football stadium in Greater London.  A couple of police watched the fans wandering along to the ground, but everything was peaceful and amicable.

As there is the option of standing at The Hive, that is where I wanted to watch the game.  However, it’s not immediately obvious where you need to go, so we wandered around the ground a bit to start with.  There are a couple of club shops – one in a Portakabin, one in the main stand – alongside a cafe that proudly serves Starbucks coffee (this is North London after all).  Then there’s a small ticket office and turnstiles in each corner of the ground.  We eventually found the one we needed, tucked away.  Despite it having the cash price of a ticket on the gate, you can’t buy one there as it’s unmanned.  We instead walked back to the ticket office, got ours and headed onto the small terrace behind the goal.

I remember Barnet being one of the first teams that I was aware of coming from Non League, with the Barry Fry led side of 1991.  This was before he was manager of Birmingham and had a worrying addiction to buying strikers, like me when I’m bored playing Football Manager.  I’ve always been fond of them because of this, and also because of their similarity to my Mum’s maiden name and the fact that they play in orange.  Well, they call it amber, but we know it’s orange.  The first game I ever watched on TV as a kid was Dundee United vs Gothenburg and I loved their orange (fine, “tangerine”) kit, and from that point onwards whenever I played International Soccer on my Commodore 64 I would always have my team wear orange.  It’s just a badass colour for a football kit.

With the ground being called “The Hive” as well, it’s a marketing strategy that not enough other teams have taken up.  My beloved Foxes should play at “The Den”, but that’s kind of already taken.  Manchester United should play in “Hell”, not just when they travel to Galatasaray.  I’m all for a nickname based link, fair play to Barnet for embracing this.

Speaking of Barnet’s kit, it’s pretty nice.  Black and amber hoops for home, white and purple for away.  It’s a striking shirt that I was almost tempted to get and add to my growing collection, but I still think the best hooped shirt around is the amazing Forest Green Rovers away kit for this year.  That is an absolute beauty.  Jon seemed to like the kit as well, although I feel that both of us have forgotten what the other looks like in clothing that isn’t PROGRESS merchandise.

Whilst awaiting kickoff, Jon grabbed a coffee to keep him awake.  I got myself a hot dog and some Rolos (why don’t more stadiums sell Rolos?  They’re amazing.  It’s nearly always no deviation from the standard Snickers and Mars Bars.  I remember back in the 1990s Nottingham Forest sold their own brand of chocolate at games and it was the nastiest, grittiest chocolate that you ever ate.  And for some reason, I really liked it).  I also had my first Bovril of the season, noting how cold it had now become outside.  I’m always too hot when I’m in London so dress accordingly, but now I was starting to feel the chill.  I remain as hopelessly addicted to Bovril as always, and typing about it now makes me want a cup of it.  If they found a way to caffeinate it I would never consume anything else.  I’d be twitchy and beefy constantly.

2015-10-17 14.51.44Whilst The Hive is a nice stadium, like many new complexes it does have (as noted by Jon) an air of Ikea about it.  I mean in terms of construction, not because they serve meatballs and Daim cake there, although that would be pretty awesome.  The teams made their way onto the pitch and the decent number of York fans made some noise.  As the PA announed the York keeper’s name, I found myself saying “stupid sexy Flinders” to a perplexed response from Jon.  I then realised he didn’t know his name (Scott Flinders), nor was he aware of The Simpsons reference that I was referring to.

The first half was not exactly champagne football.  It was punctuated by several utterly rotten set pieces from Aaron McLean.  The former Peterborough striker now plays a lot deeper, which is more suited to his diminutive stature and lack of goalscoring record since his ill-fated move to Hull City in 2011.  Whilst he clearly is a talented footballer, he seems to be one of those lads who feels that he should take every corner and free kick because he’s one of the most senior players, not because he’s good at that part of the game.  He hit a direct free kick and a corner in the first half, both of which now rank as two of the worst set pieces I have ever seen.  His inability to clear even the first man from corners was frustrating for me and every Barnet fan in a half of very few chances.

The fantastically named Bondz N’Gala did miss an utter sitter from a corner (that McLean didn’t take) and Barnet should have been ahead.  York didn’t really test Jamie Stephens in the home goal and they had little to show for their fantastic away support.  The home support is a little strange, with the impression that you get from the small crowd that for many fans Barnet is their second team, like I found when I visited teams like Dagenham and Ebbsfleet in previous seasons.  It’s a tough sell for them as a club with giants like Arsenal and Tottenham on their doorstep, although it is a lot cheaper to watch Barnet.

Going into the half time break the referee was starting to lose control of the game a little, with it descending into a scrappy middle of the park slugfest rather than a flowing game of football.  Me and Jon hoped that the second half would be better, firstly as Barnet would be shooting towards us and secondly because Jon had got out of bed to watch this game.  At this point, he seemed to be regretting his decision.

2015-10-17 14.51.47Luckily, things really did pick up.  At first it was just in terms of our conversation as we noticed two excellent names in the Barnet side.  Most obvious was Michael Gash, who I watched in my first season of my travels when he was playing for Kidderminster Harriers (home of the best pies in the land).  Less easy to make jokes about is Andy Yiadom, with my idea being that he should have his name announced in the same way as the 1980s post-TV-show “Viacom” sting was.  That’s a niche gag, but Jon enjoyed it at least.

The game changed in the 53rd minute.  Luke Gambin and Aaron McLean were replaced by Justin Nwogu and John Akinde.  Nwogu was making his debut on his 19th birthday, having come through the youth system at Barnet after starting his footballing apprenticeship at Dartford.  Akinde is just a massive dude, with spells at 12 clubs under his belt already at the age of 26.  But don’t be fooled into thinking he’s another Trevor Benjamin, he’s had a great couple of years.  19 goals for Alfreton in 2013-14, then 33 for Barnet the next season as they got promoted from the Conference.  His introduction saw a clear reaction from the York defenders.  Their heads visibly dropped out of the fear of being faced by him.  The only striker at this level who is more physically imposing is Adebayo Akinfenwa.  Me and Jon talked briefly about sorting them out training as a tag team.

Within six minutes of his introduction, Akinde was on the scoresheet.  His pace baffled the York defence and he took a through ball well, slotting past Flinders and then running off to celebrate with some young Barnet fans.  As he didn’t start the match, he didn’t sulk and let that show through in his workrate.  As soon as he got onto the pitch he was chasing everything, holding the ball up well for his team-mates and generally making the difference for his side.  You do have to ask why Martin Allen didn’t pick him to start when he made such a difference, but in terms of immediate impact he is right up there with anything that I’ve seen in the past three seasons.

Barnet continued to dominate, but then in the 80th minute were stunned by a York equaliser.  The side on the pitch didn’t deserve it, but their wonderful travelling support and shouted enough to warrant celebrating something. Michael Coulson – who had been a rare good player for York all afternoon – smashed the ball home with aplomb and the finish was so tidy that he drew begrudging applause from some of the home fans.

Two minutes later, Barnet were ahead again as the game really started to pick up.  The impressive youngster Nwogu was fouled 25 yards out, and Gash stepped up to hit a fantastic free kick past Flinders.  You’ll go a long way to see a better free kick than that, and it was probably only because McLean wasn’t on the pitch that Gash got to take it in the first place.  This goal had a clear effect on York, and their heads dropped visibly as Barnet took firm control on the final few minutes.

As we approached full time, one York fan was allowed onto the terrace behind the opposite goal to retrieve his flag.  Jon noticed him and pointed him out to me, just an angry fan trying to convey his rage at his team’s performance via the removal of a banner.  Even though he was well over 100 yards from us, you could tell how cross he was from his body language, and imagine him swearing as he untied his flag and thought about his long journey home.

I hope he had a head start on his travels, as into injury time on-loan Brentford full-back Josh Clarke marked his début with a fine late run into the box and a great finish, a couple of minutes after Akinde should have put the result beyond doubt.  Barnet ended magnificently, and their fans rewarded them with a rendition of “Twist and Shout” that Jon noted was one of the most atonal things that he had ever heard.  In their defence, it’s not the easiest song to sing at the best of times.

The full time whistle sounded, and we all headed back across the field to the station.  Barnet is a friendly, accessible club that deserves bigger crowds than it is pulling in, especially in its first season back in the league.  Credit to the York fans, thanking the home support and the police as they left, dejected after an ineffective performance.  But for the residents of North London, there is an exciting young team under their noses that they really should be paying more attention to.

Summary:

Barnet 3 (Akinde 59, Gash 82, Clarke 90) vs York City 1 (Coulson 80)

Attendance: 1,767

Cost: Ticket £17; Hot dog £4, Bovril £1.80, Rolos £1.50

Fun Factor: 7/10

The Football Neutral: Match Fifty Four – Sheffield Wednesday vs Preston North End

2015-10-03 14.15.55So this is season three of my adventures, don’t forget you can pick up the ebook of last season on Kindle for less than £3. Do it and support this blog! I’d be very grateful! Loads of games from Dortmund to Clapton. You can also get the first season at Amazon too!

You might be aware that my footballing loyalties lie with Leicester City, the team that I have supported since I was six years old and first went to Filbert Street.  It was that Saturday afternoon that I fell in love with everything about football: Of course the game itself, but also the fans, the food, the stadiums.  Everything.  But Leicester wasn’t the only team to have a massive influence on me growing up.  The other team was Sheffield Wednesday.

I went to a fair few games at Hillsborough during the early nineties, accompanying my Uncle Bill and his brother Paul.  At the time my Dad was often busy at the weekend with his fledgling business, so my Uncle – recently out of the Navy and working as a prison guard – would take me up the M1 as he knew I was really into my football.  It was watching Wednesday when I first sang a song at a match (it was, I believe, “Big Fat Ron’s Barmy Army”), when I first understood a real local rivalry (against Leeds in a televised game that Wednesday lost 6-1) and I was even at the match at Notts County where the legendary David Hirst first got injured.  Nobody is really allowed a “second team” as it’s a daft principle, but Wednesday are as close to that as I’ll allow myself.

So please take it from me, I think Sheffield Wednesday is a fantastic club with a storied history and brilliant fans.  Please read and re-read that sentence as I get cracking through a game that highlighted a couple of massive problems facing football fans today.  More on that in just a little while.

I went to six or seven games in the season when Wednesday finished third in the top flight, and about the same amount the next season when they visited Wembley four times in one campaign.  My hero during those two seasons remains the best player I have ever seen play: Chris Waddle.

As a kid, I would try and emulate Waddle when I played football.  I didn’t have the pace, nor the accurate crossing ability, or the co-ordination to nail his amazing step-overs and mazy dribbles.  I would stand on the Kop at Hillsborough, watching Waddle sit out on the right wing with his shirt untucked and his socks rolled down.  He wasn’t one for tackling back, but when he got the ball he was mesmerising.  One of my most prized possessions as a kid was a signed picture of the great man, and I remember watching him score that ridiculous free kick at Wembley against Sheffield United in the cup semi-final on the TV in my bedroom.  I don’t think anybody will ever replace him on the right hand side in my all-time eleven.

Hillsborough itself is responsible for some Leicester-based memories as well.  It was there that City won the League Cup in 1997 via a replay, and I was there in the main stand after queuing overnight to get tickets.  I was in the toilets relieving myself during extra time when a huge cheer went up from the Boro end, and I splashed my shoes in my rush to get back outside.  It turned out that Ravanelli had gone close and a few of their fans had thought he had scored.  A few minutes later, Steve Claridge scored for us and we actually won a trophy.  My Dad had always said that we’d never manage to win one in my lifetime, so I think I celebrated that one goal more than I’ve ever celebrated one before or since.

I’ve also had fun in the away end at Hillsborough, although during City’s Premier League run in the 1990s we would often come up short.  On one trip we were sat in the top tier of the stand on a Monday night TV game, with the home fans sat below us making a lot of noise.  At one point during the first half, everyone was stood up gesturing the home fans.  As the furore subsided, my Dad pulled on my sleeve to tell me to sit down.  I did.  My mate next to me did not, flicking the Vs to the Owls fans.  He wasn’t the only one, plenty of burly lads were doing the same.  But he was 17 years old and weighed seven stone, so he was chucked out by the stewards to make a stand rather than any of the more bothersome chaps.  He never came to a game with us again, probably because we stayed and watched the match while he stood around in the cold outside.

2015-10-03 13.55.03I was working at the wonderful Last Laugh club at Sheffield City Hall over the weekend, and having been to see Rotherham, Sheffield United, Sheffield FC, Chesterfield and Barnsley during previous trips to the steel city, it seems strange that it’s taken this long for the fixture list and my diary to align to take me back to Wednesday.  I sat in my hotel room on the Friday night and looked up how much the ticket would be.  I presumed it wouldn’t be too expensive as:

a) We’re in the North.

b) Wednesday are now owned by a benevolent zillionaire, apparently.

c) This is a Championship level game against Preston.

What I found is that if I bought a ticket on the day of the game it would cost me £33.  Preston is deemed a category “D” fixture.  £33 is the cheapest adult ticket in the ENTIRE ground.  To see a Championship level game against Preston.  Think about that for just a minute.  It is obscene.

If I was to sit in the North Stand instead of the Kop, it would be £36. In the South Stand, £39.  This is a baffling amount of money, especially in a city where there are two massive football clubs.  I contemplated not going to the game on principle, but reasoned that I should to see what value for money those fans get.

The club would no doubt point out that if you are a member then you get a discount and my ticket would have cost £28.  However signing up to that itself costs you £30, so you would need to attend six games just to get your money back.  Hillsborough holds just shy of 40,000 people.  The average attendance is just above half that, and prices like this seem to show that the club has no interest in filling the stadium nor making the game accessible to the working class fan.

There are eight price bands for matches at Hillsborough.  They range from category “G” to “A*”.  In the Kop for instance, a “G” game will cost you £20 – although a “G” game would be likely to be a first round League Cup match against League Two opposition.  This scale goes all the way up to £45 for an “A*” game in the Kop, and as high as £52 elsewhere in the ground.  It is utter madness.  Under 17s get in for roughly half the adult price, and under 11s are cheaper but that’s really not the point.  The stadium is half empty.  Why not drop the prices and fill the place?  The Hillsborough I remember was always full, always loud and never expensive.  When my Uncle took me to games I used to be shocked at how cheap it was for me to get in.

I feel I should speak about “price bands” as well.  Clubs do not need them.  How about you set a flat price for most games and a cheap deal for games where attendance is likely to be low – such as early cup games and the like.  If every game at Hillsborough was £20, the place would be fuller.  End of story.  More fans would buy more merchandise from the club shop and more food and drink on the concourses.  The team would probably perform better on the pitch as the atmosphere would be like it used to be.  Of course, it would mean that games against teams like Leeds would experience more of a rush on tickets, but there’s nothing wrong with that.  Knowing a game has sold out  – just like a comedy or music gig – is more likely to gain attention in the media and drive sales of other games.

And what do you get for £33?  You get a football match.  It could be brilliant, it could be awful.  It could be on a gloriously sunny day – as it was on Saturday, and again cheap prices would have meant fair-weather fans would have swelled the gate – or it could be hammering down and miserable.  The shows I performed at over the weekend at City Hall were well received by the audiences, featured a line-up of four comics including myself and a disco afterwards.  Shows started at 8.30, comedy finished at after 11pm and people stayed until late.  Admission for that was £16.  Why does football have to be so much more expensive?  Wednesday are not paying any of their players stupid money, as far as I can see.  They own their stadium.  They are not in debt thanks to a new owner.  What is going on?

My wrestling company runs shows in London, one of the most expensive cities in the world.  We sell shows out in twenty minutes.  If we wanted to be cynical, we could sell tickets for way more than we do and make much more profit, but we do not want to run the risk of alienating our core fan base and ruining the atmosphere that we have created.  We make ENOUGH money.  Compare our prices to Wednesday or our nearest club, Arsenal.  Our most expensive ticket for a whole afternoon of entertainment is £22, and the majority of our tickets are £12.  Why should football charge more?

We’ll come back to this issue in a while.  I don’t think I’ve ever been more stunned to learn of a ticket price.  Looking back on my adventures, the only time I have paid an equivalent amount in this country was to watch my own team against QPR in the title deciding game a couple of seasons ago.  I had one of the best seats in the ground, it was a category “A” game and it cost me the same amount of money.  I must stress:  I was disgusted with that as well, but was certainly more caught up in the moment of potentially seeing my team win the league and fell for that ploy.

Other Championship level clubs that I’ve visited and have charged high figures include Bolton (£28), Middlesbrough (£26) and Brentford (£26).  With the exception of Griffin Park which was full and is comparatively cheap for a London stadium, Bolton and ‘Boro were half empty stadiums.  Once again, make it cheaper and people will come.  Football isn’t exactly unpopular at the moment, is it?  Look at Germany:  Football is universally affordable at every club and stadiums are always busy.  My ticket for Hertha the other week cost me around £22 to watch a top-flight match in one of the most historic stadiums in the world.  The cheapest tickets there cost around £12.  That’s the same at Dortmund, where me and my mates paid £35 last year thanks to the stronger (at the time) Euro, but those were the most expensive tickets in the ground to watch one of the biggest club sides in the world.  You stand on the Yellow Wall and it’s about £12 again.  Average attendances in Germany are on the up because clubs understands that you need fans for a club to succeed.  If you turn everyone off with high prices then you will eventually kill your club.

And… breathe.

I walked to the game on Saturday.  I’m on a health kick and besides, I was no longer able to afford the bus.  It was around 4 miles, so I set off in plenty of time and enjoyed the scenery.  I love Sheffield as a city, I enjoy the mixture of old and new buildings and the fact that I’ve been visiting the place for so many years means that sometimes I will glimpse something and get sent back to my childhood or teenage years, fragments of a memory that I’ve long since forgot.

On my walk I had forgotten about the plethora of burger vans on the routes towards the stadium.  There are dozens of them, and I have enjoyed many a snack from them in the past.  They all seemed to be competing with each other, with every one I passed being cheaper than the previous.  One had the ultimate bargain:  A double cheeseburger for £3, with free chips.  It had a small queue, even though the streets were still pretty quiet.  I reasoned that I should eat inside the stadium, as per my rules on sampling what clubs have to offer.

I noticed that Wednesday fans seem very proud of their older shirts, with only half of those I saw choosing to wear the current season’s kit.  This meant that I could enjoy a roll-call of the club’s past sponsors, and they’ve had some blinders.  From being sponsored by an actual country – Azerbaijan – to the more niche side of confectionery – Mr Tom and Chupa Chups – and the unfathomable systems stuff – WANDisco and Bartercard.  It’s such a shame that I didn’t see any featuring the short-lived “Napoleon’s Casino” deal.

I had a quick wander round the club shop – Wednesday’s current kit is made by Sondico, so sadly their gear isn’t as sweet as it was during their “Puma King” shirt heyday – and then paid my money on the turnstile to enter the Kop.  I didn’t walk up the big staircase on the left of the stand as my ticket was on the right hand side, but I looked at it for a while.  It still makes me feel small, just like it did the first time I ever climbed up it.  I’m a foot taller now.  The turnstiles are pretty snug though, so I was glad I walked down to the stadium and kept up my weight loss.  A regime that I would now ruin by eating food.

I wanted a burger, as walking past so many burger vans made me crave one.  I ordered one.  I also ordered a diet coke.  The burger was £3.90.  The drink was £2.30.  Again: You have a captive audience of football fans.  They will buy your food and drink.  But why do you need to rip them off?  I reasoned for my £3.90 that my burger would possibly be one of the best that I had ever eaten.  It was certainly not.  It was in a stale bun, was one of the microwaved burger variety (you know the ones, heated up from frozen but not grilled at the ground, then kept in a metal container to be eventually put on some bread).  It didn’t even come with cheese!  No wonder none of the fans were eating them.  They’d all been clever enough to eat outside the ground.

Once again, let’s go back to Germany: The schnitzel that I ate at Hertha – cooked fresh there and then – cost me two euros.  So, what, £1.50? A bratwurst cost 3 Euros and was massive and cooked fresh.  Why are we constantly getting ripped off?  This doesn’t just happen at Hillsborough, look back through all of the games I’ve seen in the UK.  Food costs a fortune.  If you actually look after your fans and subsidise their food a little, your club will grow.  Parents will bring their kids.  More money will eventually go through the tills.  Why is everyone running a football club so short sighted?  I think I was even more enraged at the cost because I had just spent £33 to enter the stadium, but still.  Too expensive and not good enough quality.  At least the kids serving were pleasant.

2015-10-03 14.15.59I took my seat and had a bit of a rant about the prices on Twitter, getting support from fans of various clubs, including Wednesday.  It turned out that it was £45 to sit in the away end at Carrow Road that day to watch City, but our owners had subsidised the tickets for the travelling fans and knocked a tenner off.  You see?  That’s caring about your supporters.  Food there was apparently cheaper as well, credit to Norwich (although shame on you, charging £45 for the away end).

The Kop is still an imposing stand, even with the seats in place these days.  I’ve never sat in there, only ever stood before it was redeveloped in 1993.  By that point my visits to Wednesday had ceased as I had a season ticket at Filbert Street, and the Wednesday fan Uncle had joined us at those games, whilst still listening out for the Owls score.  I took my seat and was immediately transported back to my youth as I spotted one chap, shirtless.

Tango Man.

In vase you’ve never heard of him before, Tango Man is really called Paul Gregory.  He’s a large, bald chap who takes his shirt off and watches Wednesday.  He’s so famous that the little corner stand he sits in – the uncovered Kop Corner – is often called “Tango’s Corner”.  When I was a kid I once high fived him on the the way into a game.  He seemed to be a lovely chap, and he’s the closest thing that we get to a true continental Ultra: a fan who loves his club so much that he’ll willingly disrobe and watch every game topless because it’s just something he does, all the time starting songs and giving the impression that his football club is the most important thing in his life by quite some way.  I couldn’t help noticing that there was another chap who also went shirtless, and admired them both for not caring about what they look like.  If I had to take my shirt off I’d be breathing in and flexing for ninety minutes.  They don’t care about body image, good on them for that.  They probably eat their burgers outside the ground as well.

Prior to kick-off, I had a good look around the stadium.  I’m sure the roof of the Leppings Lane end – where you can still see the outline of the old “Presto Stand” sponsorship  – used to be painted blue, but I might be imagining that.    The South Stand – where I sat for the League Cup Final replay – is, in my humble opinion, one of the most beautiful main stands in football today.  When architects are designing the faceless, bland new stadiums that spring up everywhere, they should be made to look at structures like this and recall a time when grounds actually had some personality.

As the teams were announced, I was interested to learn that Chris Kirkland was on the bench for Preston.  Of course, he had a spell at Wednesday so was returning to his former club, but I have another vested interest in Kirkland.  For much of my adult life, I lived in a village called Barwell.  I went to high school there till I was 14, too.  He’s the same age as my sister, and went to the same school and grew up in that village.  He’s pretty much the most famous thing to come out of if, unless you count the meteorite that hit the main street there in the 1960s.  Even when he played for Coventry – my most despised of City’s rivals – I wanted him to do well.  You couldn’t avoid him in the local press because literally nothing else happens in the Hinckley area.  Trust me, I was in the paper there for passing my degree.  I think they called me a “boffin”.

Once the game kicked off, I realised that it is nigh on impossible to read the numbers on the back of the Wednesday shirts.  Using black numbers and letters on a blue and white shirt somehow makes it akin to one of those magic eye pictures from the 1990s.  Therefore it took me a while to recognise the players, with the exception of Austrian striker Atdhe Nuhiu.  You can’t miss him.  I mean, you literally cannot miss him.  If I shot a bullet out of my window in Wales now in the rough direction of South Yorkshire, it would hit him.  He is six feet six inches tall and easily as wide.  he is the most massive footballer I have ever seen, and having sat with Wednesday fans watching him for an afternoon I am both now a fan of him and no wiser on how to pronounce his name.

For the first 44 minutes of the game, Nuhiu attempting the odd bit of skill and the Kop Corner having fun were the only entertaining things about the game.  Seriously, it was the most boring 44 minutes of football that I have ever seen.  It was so dull that it even managed to kill the atmosphere inside most of the stadium.  Pre game enthusiasm was replaced by yawning and checking of phones.  It was almost as if the teams knew how annoyed I was at having to spend £33.

Then finally on the stroke of half-time we had some action: A goal from Kieran Lee after a delightful backheel from Fernando Forestieri.  It was a great finish from Lee, but a rare moment of quality from one of the worst halves of football that I have ever seen.  Genuinely, apart from the goal and an unfortunate injury to Preston’s Paddy McCarthy, nothing happened.  Not a thing.  Well, Barry Bannan ran around a lot, like an enthusiastic terrier.

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During half time there was a massive ovation for the lad doing the lottery draw.  As luck would have it, Chris Waddle was there, no doubt in the know about me attending the game.  Even now he could have played in that first half and made it 100% more entertaining.  Luckily, the second half would be infinitely better.

Tom Lees went close with a couple of towering headers from corners, before Bannan drew a great save from Jordan Pickford.  The rebound fell to Forestieri but Calum Woods made a world-class block to deny him.  Then in the 55th minute John Welsh dithered in his own area when he should have hoofed it clear, and Daniel Pudil robbed him of the ball before slotting home from a narrow angle with defenders flailing around him.  Nuhiu stabbed the ball home on the line, but it was already going in and the on-loan Watford man got the credit for the goal.

Now the atmosphere was closer to how I remembered it back in the day, with everyone in the Kop singing along and Wednesday threatening more goals.  After the bland first half, the game now really opened up with Preston needing to get back into the game somehow, and Wednesday trying to exploit the gaps to stretch their lead.

After about an hour, I had a weird similar experience to my time in Berlin.  That night we all learned of Lewandowski scoring five goals in nine minutes for Bayern against Wolfsburg.  At Hillsborough, everyone became aware of Sergio Aguero scoring five goals as Manchester City rapidly came back from 1-0 down to massacre Newcastle 6-1.  It wasn’t in nine minutes, but it was pretty bloody rapid.

Eoin Doyle should have scored for Preston, before Wednesday replaced Nuhiu with Lucas Joao.  He’s also massive – although not as biblically huge as Nuhiu  – and the best way to describe him as being like a tricky Carlton Palmer.  You know he is, in theory, a professional footballer, but he’s as ungainly as can be.  At one point he literally got tangled with the Preston keeper leading to a free kick.  Paramedics nearly had to be called to prise them apart and check how many limbs Joao has.  He’s like a footballing octopus.

In the 76th minute Preston made a game of it, a fine finish from Alan Browne after Doyle’s flick-on from a corner.  The 1000 or so Preston fans roared their team on and the last few minutes would be pretty frantic.  Keiren Westwood made a great save from Welsh to keep Wednesday in the lead, and then Forestieri cleared off the line from the resulting corner before substitute Lewis McGugan went really close with a free-kick up the other end.  Bannan – who never stopped running all afternoon – took on three players before teeing up substitute Alex Lopez to go close.

Then as the clock ticked into injury time, Preston threw everyone forwards for a corner – including keeper Pickford.  The corner led to nothing and Wednesday sped forwards, the crowd screaming at them to shoot at the empty net.  Pickford got back into his area just in time for McGugan to lob him from 45 yards with a wonderful finish.  The Kop went suitably nuts, nobody missing the goal because they had left early.  Presumably with prices as high as they are, you may as well get every minutes worth.

That was pretty much the last kick of the game, and Wednesday march closer to the playoff places.  Their owner has stated that he would like to have the club back in the top flight by 2017, and it seems weird to have such a huge club not be in the Premier League.

However, the attendance on Saturday was just 20,383.  I hate to hammer the point home, but if you made the tickets much cheaper then Hillsborough would once again be the packed-out theatre of football that it deserves to be.  Those fans – as excellent as I remember them being from my childhood – shouldn’t have to pay so much to watch their team in this current rebuilding era.

Summary:

Sheffield Wednesday 3 (Lee 45, Pudil 55, McGugan 90) vs Preston North End 1 (Browne 76)

Attendance: 20,383

Cost: Ticket £33, Burger £3.90, Diet Coke £2.30

Fun Factor: 7/10 (hard to score: value for money 2/10, first half 2/10, fans 9/10, second half 9/10, overall I’ll say 7)

 

 

The Football Neutral: Match Fifty Three – Wrexham vs Eastleigh

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So this is season three of my adventures, don’t forget you can pick up the ebook of last season on Kindle for less than £3. Do it and support this blog! I’d be very grateful! Loads of games from Dortmund to Clapton. You can also get the first season at Amazon too!

My last trip to a match was to Berlin, a mighty 893 miles (by road) from my house.  That’s over 14 hours of driving, if I chose to head there that way (I didn’t, obviously).  That is the very furthest away from my house that my adventures have taken me, so far at least.

Last weekend I went to the Racecourse Ground which is all of seven miles from my house. I could, as I am currently undergoing training for the London marathon, comfortably run there in about 45 minutes.  Instead I drove there in 15, but it certainly feels weird to be watching a team so close to my house.  Even more so that I haven’t been there so far in the previous two seasons of doing this (or in my three years of living in North Wales).

I’ve been to Chester, Tranmere, Colwyn Bay, Telford and Connah’s Quay since I started, and they’re all pretty close to home but nowhere near as close as Wrexham.  I get my car serviced there.  Me and the wife sometimes go shopping there, and we drive past the stadium and I get all giddy.  It’s a crime that it’s taken me so long to get down there.  The guy who owns the pub down the road from us – where we even had our wedding reception – is always talking to me about Wrexham and telling me to get down there.  Well, I’ve finally done it.  And after seeing two 2-0 victories for my adopted sides in my first couple of games of the season, I felt confident I could help my most local of sides pick up another win.

Speaking of driving past the ground, the main reason to get excited is that there is a speed camera that forces you to slow down and peek inside the stadium, getting a good look at the now disused Kop end. In its heyday it was one of the largest standing ends in British football, but the 5,000 capacity end now remains empty.  On match days it is covered in supporter flags, but every time I drive by it I see the slightly uneven concrete and red painted crash barriers and wish I could have experienced it a few years ago.

Because I was only down the road, I had a weirdly lazy morning before the game.  It was a far cry from getting up at 4am to get a 6am flight to Berlin.  I lounged about the house, had breakfast and had a natter with my wife.  Very dignified.  I set off for the game at 2pm, arrived at 2.15pm and found myself trying desperately to get a parking space at the ground.  You pay £2 and you can park in the adjacent university, but it seemed that everyone had the same idea as me.

Whilst the Racecourse is right next to the station, pretty much – not really a surprise as the ground is one of the oldest in the UK from back when stadiums were in town centres – the nature of North Wales is that you need to drive most places.  When my friends in London complain about having to wait an extra ten minutes for a bus or a train, I like to remind them that we have one bus a day in the village where I live.  Driving is a must up here, so it’s no wonder the car park was heaving.

It’s one of those hard to navigate ones as well, with two separate entrances and about seventeen different car parking areas.  The fact that loads of other sports are played on the University campus also meant that we were competing for parking spaces with people playing hockey and other sports.  I eventually found a very narrow spot and got into a Mexican stand-off with another driver over it.  He reversed towards me aggressively to stake his claim.  I did what any British man would do: I indicated and waited.  I won out in the end.  A parking space isn’t worth losing your no-claims bonus over.

2015-09-26 14.39.10For £15 I sat in the Glyndŵr University Stand, formally known as the Tech End. It used to house the away supporters but they now have a section up in the Yale stand.  That area is now officially called the “Cash4Gold Stand”, something I will never ever type again.  Of all the corporate sponsorship I have ever seen, that is the most abhorrent.  At least with the university they are a big part of the financial security and infrastructure of the club.  They’re not getting you to shove your Gran’s necklaces in an envelope for a tenner.

It’s sad to see Wrexham outside of the leage structure these days, in the fifth tier Conference Premier.  When I was a kid, they were responsible for one of my most vivid football memories.  I did a paper round on Sunday mornings, and I remember how I would read the back pages of the papers as I walked around, half awake.  I’d always get back in time to eat breakfast and watch Trans World Sport and Sharky and George, mind you.  One Sunday the papers all carried the same story and iconic image of Mickey Thomas celebrating after the Red Dragons knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup.  Thomas’ goal was a bit special, that’s for sure, but very few people outside of Wrexham seem to remember that the winner in that game was scored by Steve Watkin.  That result was stunning at the time, with Wrexham in the old Division Four, having finished in 92nd place in the league the previous season.  Luckily thanks to the departure of Aldershot from the league there was no relegation to the conference level.  Arsenal at that point were the reigning league champions.  It was an utterly stunning result, especially in a time where big clubs didn’t treat cup games as an excuse to put out their reserves like they do now.

This game was the start point of a big sporting week in North Wales.  In the evening the Welsh rugby team would take on England in the World Cup, and the following Saturday Wrexham will travel to their most fierce rivals: Chester.

That game will kick off early, and away fans will only be allowed into the stadium if they travel through approved methods.  It is a raucous, sometimes violent rivalry that very few people from outside of the area can understand.  It’s one I struggle with a bit as I’m not from the area originally, but also because I’m half Welsh.  I like both the Welsh and English national teams – although if I had to choose, I’d go for Wales because my Dad is Welsh and my wife is Welsh and I live in Wales.

Chester and Wrexham are less than half an hour away from each other.  That would be a fine base for a rivalry, but when you add in an international border to the mix then it makes it all the more feisty.  When I went to Chester last year I noticed that there was a lot of anti-Welsh sentiment, in the same vein in Wrexham there is anti-English vibe.  Neither time did it make me feel uncomfortable or out of place, nor did it slide into casual racism.  But you get the impression that the word “England” to a Wrexham fan conjures up that little city across the border, and vice versa with Wales to a Chester fan.  It’s a strange dynamic when you grew up a fair way away, but I’m certainly starting to get it now.

Once in the stadium I got my first hot dog of the season.  A keen reader of this blog might say “but Jim, you ate a bratwurst in Germany”.  That is not a hot dog.  It’s a totally different type of sausage.  That’s a sentence that I never thought I’d type.  Wrexham serve the best hot dogs – Rollover – and I grabbed a Yorkie and a Diet Coke as well.  There were two concessions stands in our end, but only one had hot food despite it being fairly busy.  The sunshine had brought people out, and I won’t lie to you:  In North Wales, sunshine in September is definitely not the norm.

Seats are unreserved, and when I took mine I noted that the Mold Road stand – the newest at the stadium  – is oddly futuristic.  It looks a little bit like a UFO has got very lost and decided to do a bit of ground-hopping.  It made me like the Racecourse even more; even though I’m not a fan of more modern grounds, the mixture of something that modern with the huge disused Kop and the more regular (yet still mildly old) other stands makes it an interesting place to cast your eye around.  It’s certainly not boring, that’s for sure.

2015-09-26 14.49.46As the teams finished warming up, I noticed that there are two separate tannoy announcers.  One read the line-ups out in Welsh, before the other did the same in English.  Quite a lot of the inane PA chatter was in English, but all the important announcements were in Welsh first.  I didn’t hear anyone speaking Welsh inside the ground, but that’s not the point.  Wrexham fans – much like my wife – are proud of being Welsh and proud of their language.  Many people (like myself) who grew up in England won’t be aware that Welsh is still a mandatory subject in all schools in Wales.  It may not be widely used these days, but it’s fantastic to try and preserve a language even in a setting like a football match.

The Eastleigh fans seemed in decent spirits despite a difficult week.  They were only promoted to this level two seasons ago, and last season reached the end of season playoffs.  I counted 37 of them (they would later be announced officially as numbering 50) and they unfurled a banner thanking their now ex-manager Richard Hill for his hard work.  He had resigned this week with them having a stuttering start to the season, but he was clearly held in high regard after guiding them to the Conference South title and a fantastic fourth place last season.

As we kicked off, our end was pretty busy.  To my left was a bunch of youths, none older than 14.  To my right, three older men who were very enthusiastic.  And in front of me, five lads of university age.  All of them had the local accent, which I now know is from North Wales but isn’t the Welsh accent that you expect if you’ve only ever watched Gavin and Stacey.  Just don’t for the love of god call anyone from North Wales a Scouser.  They’re not.  It’s like me with my accent, East Midlands is a hard one to define but you know it when you hear it.

The first Wrexham chance fell to Wes York, a diminutive wide player on the right hand side who one of the chaps on my right seemed to have a burning hatred for.  As he spooned a decent effort wide, this bloke went on a thirty second rant about him, crucially not swearing once as he noticed that kids were behind him.  He used the words “sugar” and “flip” a lot though, in the most aggressive way that I think I have ever heard them used.

Rob Evans then had a good effort that was well saved by Eastleigh keeper Lewis Noice, before I was briefly distracted by one of the kids to my left.  He proudly produced a vape device to show to his friends, making me laugh to myself as I reasoned he wasn’t even old enough to have smoked in the first place.  At least he’s cutting out the addiction and lung disease from smoking and going straight for the vaguely futuristic alternative that most people use to quit with.  I feel at this point I should say something like “the state of youths today”.

In the twentieth minute, we were dealt a shock. Jai Reason hit a shot at goal for Eastleigh from outside the area that took a massive deflection and nestled in the net.  This followed good work from Lee Cook and a distinct lack of closing down from the Wrexham defence.  The away fans were delighted, nearly all of them removing their shirts and jumping about.  I imagine – seeing them from where I did – that I can pick out the one bloke who suggested taking their shirts off.  In amongst all of the regular football fan bodies was one bloke who was quite insanely ripped and who I should probably give a job as a pro wrestler.  He looked like the sort of man who understands interval training and macros.  The rest of their fans presumably think macros are places where you can buy your shopping in bulk.

With the away fans shirtless, the usual “you fat bastard” songs followed, with most fans settling on the much more subtle “have you ever seen a salad?”  It’s a shame there isn’t a follow on song that includes the words “of course he has, you get one free with a kebab”.

Wrexham reacted to the goal by having the lion’s share of possession but no real end product for it.  There seemed to be an over-reliance on crossing with no target man in the middle, whilst Eastleigh seemed a real threat on the counter attack.  Whilst Wrexham toiled in front of goal, Eastleigh would go 2-0 up in the 40th minute through Andy Drury, and what a strike it was.

It was great work from Cook once again down the right hand side, and he held off two men before passing the ball into the path of Drury.  From 30 yards out, he looked up and hit a wonderful half-lob over Cameron Belford into the top corner.  It was a mix of brilliant awareness and ridiculously accurate finishing.  If you want to get a sense of how deft a touch it was to loop the ball in, everyone in the stadium knows that he pressed R1 as he hit it.

Yes, that’s a FIFA 16 reference for you all.  Although it’s so hard now you’ll never score a goal that good.

Belford would have to punch a corner away in a panicky fashion before the first half came to a close, with the entire stadium a little stunned.  The Eastleigh fas were still all half-dressed and bounding about, and the Wrexham fans were astonished at their lack of effectiveness despite all the play they had, and that quite amazing goal from Drury to leave them reeling.  The only thing that cheered the stadium up was learning that Chester were doing even worse, 3-0 down at Bromley.

2015-09-26 14.49.55In the second half the youths to my left did not return, which I found myself oddly relieved by.  Despite having a 12 year old and being a former teacher, I find kids quite baffling.  Their desire to echo the dress sense of the older lads in front of me was quite funny, especially knowing that at that age they still can’t quite do it right and they have to ask their mums for Ellesse track suit tops for their birthday or Christmas.

Wrexham boss Gary Mills had to make some changes at half time, and he brought on Javan Vidal for Rob Evans and club captain Lee Fowler for Adam Smith.  The latter really made a difference, adding urgency and organisation to the team as they started the half with a desire to get something out of the game.  Wes York and Dan Harding got into a scuffle that the referee had to break up as Wrexham tried to dictate the pace of the game.

Connor Jennings flashed a header wide from a Wrexham corner, before another goal in the 54th minute, this time giving hope to the home fans.  Jennings sprung the offside trap to put York through who finished with aplomb.  Jennings then managed to miss when clean through before Dominic Vose hit the post from a fair way out.  Vose is very impressive, still only 21 and with a fantastic future ahead of him.  Once given a trial by Manchester United and Arsenal, he is fantastically skilful but also incredibly hard working.  He’ll go far.

With the clock ticking on, Wrexham pushed forwards and the atmosphere really picked up inside the ground.  A throw-in on the right hand side led to a hanging cross into the box that was hammered home via a towering header from full-back Sean Newton.  Once the cross was in the air you just knew he was getting on the end of it, running from the edge of the box and flattening anyone who got in his way.  He celebrated wildly in front of us, and the thought in everyone’s minds now was is there enough time for a winner?  The whole place was jumping.

Well, one thought in my mind was why isn’t there a uniform font for the backs of shirts in the Conference?  Stuff like that really annoys me.  At least it isn’t as bad as the German league where teams like Augsburg pretty much have Comic Sans on the backs of their shirts.  That is a bloody atrocity.

The game was all Wrexham now, but in the 87th minute Eastleigh had a rare chance to attack via a free kick on the right hand side.  The ball eventually came to Joe Partington who crossed from the byline onto the head of midfielder Ben Strevens who put Eastleigh back in front.  Their fans got undressed again in celebration, and our end was stunned.

York could have tied it up for Wrexham again, sliding in but not managing to get on a dangerous ball across the six yard box, before Jamal Fyfield was sent off for a second bookable offense for the home side.  Eastleigh held on and got their interim manager Chris Todd his first win in charge, whilst the Wrexham fans -who were loud and proud and excellent throughout – had to go home and hope that Wales would beat England in the rugby that night.

So it turned out that in the end, it wasn’t that bad a day after all.

Summary:

Wrexham 2 (York 54, Newton 75) vs Eastleigh 3 (Reason 20, Drury 40, Strevens 87)

Attendance: 4,708

Cost: Ticket £15, Parking £2, Hot Dog £3.20, Diet Coke £1.80, Yorkie £1.50

Fun Factor: 8/10

The Football Neutral: Match Fifty Two – Hertha BSC vs 1 FC Köln

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As we begin season three of my adventures, don’t forget you can pick up the ebook of last season on Kindle for less than £3. Do it and support this blog! I’d be very grateful! Loads of games from Dortmund to Clapton.

So then, second game into the season and I’m already doing one of my patented overseas trips. In season one it was Ajax, last season it was Dortmund and this season I wandered over to Berlin to watch Hertha.  I don’t see any reason to hang about, I love watching football in other countries and I’ve always wanted to visit Berlin.  This was a very easy decision to make, especially post-Edinburgh when I need a bit of a break from comedy.

Also, let’s be honest: German football is AMAZING.  The product on the pitch is excellent, of course; but it’s the fan culture and atmosphere that really blow my mind.  My visit to the Westfalenstadion last season was a genuine life-changing experience as it made me feel like a kid again, wandering around the stadium before the game wide-eyed with wonder, and then having the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as I saw the Yellow Wall for the first time and heard how loud those fans could sing.

More and more British fans are cottoning on to the German football phenomenon at present, especially as it is so cheap to go and spend a couple of days out there watching football.  I’ll go into cost details a bit more in a while, but let’s just say that it was cheaper for me to fly to Berlin, stay in a nice hotel, eat in good restaurants and buy a match ticket than it would be for me to get a train to London and watch a team like Arsenal.  For me, that’s a real no-brainer.  I’ve harboured ambitions of going to every German stadium in Bundesliga 1 and 2 for quite some time, and I’m now going to definitely make that dream a reality.

I’ve got a wishlist of places that I wanted to visit first in Germany.  The top three are Dortmund (done), St Pauli (obvious really, me being a punk fan and all) and Hertha.  Berlin has always fascinated me as a city, with one of my most vivid childhood memories being the fall of the Berlin Wall (as I imagine is the case for many people of my age).  Then as I grew up and got into other things like music I realised what an important city it was for art and culture, and the more I’ve read about the place the more I wanted to visit.  Having an interesting football team play in one of the most amazing football stadiums in the world just happens to be an excellent bonus.

I find myself drawn to Hertha as I imagine being a fan of them isn’t a million miles away from being a fan of Leicester City, just they happen to play in an enormous global landmark.  Both sides aren’t ever likely to be enormous influences on the game itself, but they’ll yo-yo through the leagues and have the occasional stab at Europe.  Indeed, Hertha (like my beloved Leicester) have suffered financial hardship, good top flight runs and a stint in the third tier.  It certainly makes for a more interesting history than boring old Bayern or Manchester United.

As with my trip to Dortmund, I would not be travelling alone.  This time we had a smaller crew though, so I’ll introduce you to them:

2015-09-22 19.40.13Darren – obsessed with Pick and Mix and the TV Series “Dream Team”, the man formerly known as wrestler Mad Man Manson is a bodybuilding enthusiast with a love of knowledge, top trumps and musical theatre.  He owns even more football shirts than I do.  I am 99% sure he was meant to be at work for the trip and just told his colleagues he was popping out to pick something up.  Darren supports Manchester United and Bohemians from his native Ireland.

Jon – my business partner in PROGRESS Wrestling, Jon used to be my agent and we’ve been mates ever since.  He’s a handy lad to have around in Germany as he lived there as a kid and speaks the language.  He’s also been to Berlin before so knows a bit about the place.  I sense he’s now getting the bug to go and watch random games all around the world just like me, as he’s got a big wishlist of places to visit. Jon supports Woking, although as a kid would watch Fortuna Dusseldorf with his Dad who doesn’t like football at all.

I took charge of organising things for the trip.  Because of all my comedy work always being at weekends, we had to do a midweek trip.  That played in our favour, as flights were cheaper.  I decided to get a VERY early flight on the Tuesday morning (6.30am from Stansted) and then a late afternoon flight back on the Wednesday so we could explore the city a bit more.  I won’t write about the day we had exploring as it was after the game, but suffice to say that Berlin is beautiful, is full of excellent and friendly people and I’ll be returning with my wife and daughter in the future to see even more of the place.

Flights booked, I asked for some help from my friend Mark on hotels and other tips.  Mark happens to be a Hertha supporter who I know from my early days in comedy.  He now works for my old university in Leicester, and makes a few trips each year to the German capital to watch football.  He advised on the hotel – the Energie in Charlottenburg – which was a great tip.  A single room is MASSIVE and costs about £40, and it’s in a handy location near the S-Bahn and a few stops from the stadium to the west and the city centre to the east.

Then came buying tickets.  Purchasing them for Dortmund was quite tricky, with passport details being required and bank transfers and the like.  Much easier for this game, just a regular credit card process and you collect them on match day.  You can’t get any tickets in the Ostkurve (essentially the popular end where the Ultras are) but I managed to get three tickets in block P6 which is right next to it.  If that wasn’t awesome enough, they were only 28 Euros each including booking fee.  That is quite spectacular.  It’s a lot more expensive to sit by the side of the pitch, but we were happy enough in the corner.

The flight out meant staying in London at Jon’s on Monday night so we could head to Stansted together at 4am Tuesday.  Darren got up and drove from his place near Worcester at 1am, the crazy fool.  We all met up in the airport, realising we had to board just as Jon was desperately trying to buy breakfast.  He’d have to wait.  On the plane though, I achieved the holy grail.  Check this out:

2015-09-22 06.21.47That’s right. Two empty seats next to me so I could stretch out and go to sleep, and then three empty seats across the aisle from me.  The plane wasn’t exactly empty, so no idea why this happened.  However, I couldn’t sleep (too excited) so played games on my iPad instead.  Not entirely sure why there’s a lifejacket in that picture, by the way.

We were flying into Berlin Schonefeld airport, which is one of those places that the budget airlines use. Luckily, it’s not a hundred miles outside of the city centre like they often are, and it’s a simple case of getting a travelcard and using the S-Bahn station.  Using public transport is seriously cheap in Berlin, 7.40 Euros getting you travel across zones A, B and C for the day – akin to zone 1-6 in London. So about a fiver to use rail, tram, underground and bus for the day. We took the S-Bahn to Sudkreutz station and then walked about a kilometre to our hotel, stopping for lunch on the way in an American diner where we had our first experience of awesome customer service.

The waitress that looked after us spoke in German to Jon, and asked him questions about London and complimented him on his language skills.  Jon asked where the toilets were, and she told us – in German – that we had to go out of the restaurant, turn left, walk half a kilometre, turn right… when she noticed we were trying to remember the instructions she laughed and told us she was joking.

Food was good in there.  Jon had something called a Dutch breakfast, which seemed to be just a huge collection of cheese and meat.  Having decided that he wasn’t eating carbs at present, Jon would find it quite difficult to avoid bread over the next day.  Bread is the staple part of a German diet, it would seem.  More on that later on.

We then checked into our hotel, having a nice chat with the guy at the reception desk. He let us check in early so we could then walk Darren to his place (about half an hour away) and then return to have a sleep before the game.  We all needed it, that was for sure.  It was decided that we would get the U-Bahn to Darren’s hotel later on, then walk the couple of km to the Olympiastadion and eat as much food at the ground as we could.

2015-09-22 17.49.43One thing I noticed when inside the U-Bahn was that German football fans can drink responsibly.  If you see an English fan drinking out of a glass bottle on a train you tend to expect the worst; in Germany people can drink beer and be sociable and stop when they’ve had enough.  We would pass a few Hertha fans and you’d see them having a beer on the way to the game but all were behaving themselves, just relaxing after work and before the match itself.

I was glad that we walked to the stadium, because the route we chose meant that it looms up in the distance, the two towers with the Olympic rings suspended between them highlighting the magnificent structure.  The closer you get, the more enormous and impressive it seems, even though most of the ground is actually sunken down.

We walked past some caravans that were parked up on the main road, all adorned with Hertha flags and posters.  As it was so early everywhere was quiet and we wondered what they were for.  We walked up to the massive east gate and got our bearings; there are two entrances, south and east of the stadium.  You enter through turnstiles there rather than at the block where you’re sitting, presumably as the Olympiastadion is such a historic and beautiful building that attaching gates to the outside would ruin it.

With the gates still closed, we got ourselves a schnitzel each from a vendor outside.  I love schnitzel, it’s something that I dearly wish we had in the UK more.  For a couple of Euros I got a massive schnitzel served in a bread roll.  You needed the bread as it had come straight from the frying pan and without the roll my fingers would have melted.  My mouth still wears the scars from the burning now.  Totally worth it though, that was one hell of a schnitzel.

The three of us waited for the gates to open with everyone else, observing as people went around and collected up any used glass bottles – just like they did on the train we used in Dortmund last year.  A few Köln fans came along to queue up when it would have been better for them to head for the south entrance. They were lightly mocked by the Hertha fans, but in a good-natured way.  Everyone was smiling and there seemed to be no real animosity.

Once inside the gates – and after being searched by the most pleasant steward that I have ever met – we decided to walk around the entire stadium.  This might be one of the best ideas that I have ever had, because this is no regular football ground.

Designed by Werner March for the 1936 Olympics, this is the place where Jesse Owens won his medals in front of a no-doubt very annoyed Hitler.  After the war the whole complex became the headquarters of the British military occupation forces.  Because of what the stadium had signified in the past, there was a debate in 1998 of what to do with the complex; should it be torn down and rebuilt? Should it be left alone?

As it stands, the stadium itself has been renovated at a cost of over 200 Euros. This happened in time for the 2006 World Cup, but the authorities were keen to keep the surrounding area intact as well.  This means that – as with all of Berlin – there is no shying away from the actions of the past as they look to the future.  My impression of the German people is that they are always keen to point out and apologise for the mistakes of their predecessors, and it often makes me think about how the British are nowhere near as candid at admitting when we have been wrong.  Nobody in that stadium this week was responsible for what happened in the 1930s and 40s, but there is a collective sense of apology that you pick up on as a visitor to Germany.  The information boards around the stadium highlighting the actions of the Reich and how they applied to the Olympiastadion don’t shy away from any tricky issues.

It’s eerie seeing how much stuff is still intact, including the diving and swimming pools that look like they haven’t been touched since the end of the Olympics.

2015-09-22 18.42.22Then there is the Maifeld, which Jon accurately noticed had cricket equipment on it.  Some research tells me that the Berlin Cricket Club has been playing there since 2012, and the British Army used to hold parades and the like there.  The Reich used to hold huge May Day celebrations there, and during the Olympics it was used for equestrian events.  It’s looked over by an imposing grandstand, huge horse statues and massive towers.

2015-09-22 18.48.35The iconic arch at the east end of the stadium is called the Marathon Gate, and you can walk right up to it on the outside.  As we did so, I could peer through the fence and see the Ostkurve starting to fill with fans.  just like most German stadiums, there are huge banners hanging over the advertising hoardings: a huge “OSTKURVE” one took up most of the end we would be sitting in, but also one above where we would be sitting read “COMMANDOS”.

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At the Marathon Gate you can take pictures of the memorial to all those who won medals during the 1936 Olympic Games.  I did so, as did many of the visiting Köln supporters.

2015-09-22 18.53.13One final thing on the architecture outside: It’s easy to understand why there are no food concessions, turnstiles or the like built into the walls of the ground.  With it constructed out of huge, solid blocks rather than metal it would be a shame to spoil it.  It really makes you realise how faceless new stadiums are when compared to something so awesome.

2015-09-22 18.42.28Even the fan shop has a strange feel, as it is within the walls of the stadium but is not the usual cavernous space that most clubs would have set up.  I bought myself a club track top for 40 Euros, which isn’t too bad in the grand scheme of football merchandise.

Before we took our seats we walked past the away fans areas, and saw as the polite stewards asked the Köln fans to unfurl their banners and flags before letting them take them in.  Can you imagine a British club letting fans in with dozens of huge flags or banners?  I can’t.  Once again, German fans can be trusted to behave.  Indeed, the Hertha club officials even assisted the Köln fans in putting a huge “refugees welcome” banner up high above their end.  The away support was magnificent – I’d say that there was around 5 to 6 thousand of them.  Not bad for a long journey on a Tuesday night.

Hertha operates both a cashless card system – I got one to go with my collection – but most stalls took cash as well.  Darren got himself pick and mix, obviously (12 Euros worth) whilst me and Jon opted for Bratwurst – in more bread, of course – for about 3 Euros.  It was fantastic.  We then all got drinks, but were disappointed that our plastic glasses weren’t special collectable ones like at Dortmund.  It’s still the same system, 2 Euro deposit per cup, which you claim back at the final whistle.

When we reached our seats I claimed my superstition based one.  I have a thing about the number 13, and I had deliberately chosen seats in row 13 of block P6.  In addition to that I had seat 13, and to my left was a perspex fence and the brilliance of the fans in the Ostkurve.  You had that mass of singing, clapping, swaying, jumping humanity just there, and then the other-worldly, surreal, massive stadium ahead of you.  I sent my wife the picture from the start of this blog and she told me it looked like something out of a video game.  It’s a great mix of colours, with the athletics track changed to blue to reflect the club colours over the traditional red for running lanes.

As the teams were read out, I enjoyed the usual German tradition of shouting the player’s surname after their first name is announced.  I thought about the players in the Hertha side that I knew anything about.

Obviously there is former Chelsea forward Salomon Kalou who is doing a decent job there, plus Swiss players Valentin Stocker and Fabian Lustenberger. I was also aware of striker Vedad Ibisevic, and was told that he had gone a mammoth 25 games without scoring a goal.  He had just signed for Hertha from Stuttgart but was of course looking for his first goal.

2015-09-22 19.39.53I noticed that there were literally no kids anywhere near us.  It feels unusual to be watching football without children around, and it’s even stranger seeing people smoke in a football stadium after having years without it.

The teams made their way out and it was shown on the big screens.  Because they have to come down a massive flight of stairs, an escalator has been built in to ensure that the players don’t go falling down the steps and get injured before they’ve even started.  Once they started arriving on the pitch the noise level was cranked right up.  The Hertha fans started swaying, then singing quietly, then jumping up and down as one giant moshpit.  It was quite a sight, and even with the stadium only just over half full they made more than enough noise to fill the place.

A few minutes after kick-off it became apparent that Kalou is a lot more hard working than I remember him being, with him looking like he should have won a penalty and chasing everything down.  Also impressive alongside him was Japanese midfielder Genki Haraguchi who had a great understanding with full-back Mitchell Weiser, both of them full of running  Hertha are an exciting team to watch, playing the game the right way and full of pace.  The referee wasn’t helping them though with some poor decisions, ranging from the penalty that never was to giving free kicks for the slightest contact on Köln players. Yuya Osako in particular went down very easily on more than one occasion, drawing the ire of the Hertha faithful.

The Ultras would start complicated clapping-based songs that seemed to be conducted by a couple of fans at the front of the Ostkurve with megaphones.  I’d love to do that, it’s like being the conductor of the coolest orchestra ever invented.  I kept reading the banners high above us, spotting one very prominent anti-homophobia one. Once again, we can learn a lot from these fans.

The first decent chance of the game fell to Köln midfielder Kevin Vogt – linked to Leicester last summer – with a header from a few yards out.  Then after about half an hour Leonardo Bittencourt went even closer, hitting the post with a great shot from outside the box.  The one drawback of the athletics track is that it is hard to see what is going on from a distance as well as some other stadia; it’s also hard to hear the away fans when the home fans are so close by and so loud.  Vladimir Darida had a goal chalked off for Hertha for offside before Marcel Risse went close for the visitors.

After those chances for the away side, Hertha started to take control. As half time approached, we joked that we surely couldn’t come to Germany and not celebrate a goal with the away fans again.  I’m glad we brought that up, because Timo Horn was forced to make a smart save from Ibisevic after a corner as Hertha pushed forwards.  On 43 minutes there was the breakthrough, and maybe me doubling up my lucky number 13 helped out Ibisevic. Full-back Marvin Plattenhardt crossed from the left and the Bosnian stopped to flick a header past Horn from a tight angle. The Olympiastadion went INSANE.  25 games without a goal and that unwanted record was finished.

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The mood was buoyant as went into half-time. The fans in the Ostkurve sat down for the first time during the game whilst everyone (apart from us) stocked up on beer.  In front of us were three fans who seemed desperate to get into the Ostkurve, trying to echo everything that was going on from the other side of the glass.  It did make me wonder how you do get a ticket in there, as there were a few empty spaces.  It’s not a standing end like Dortmund or other German stadiums, with the Olympiastadion a rarity in that it is permanently all-seater. The capacity is 74,475 which makes it the largest all seater stadium in the country, which is what the stadiums in Dortmund and Munich have to be for international or European matches.  Apparently a temporary stand can be constructed over the Marathon Arch if the capacity needs to be improved for certain fixtures, I bet that looks awesome.

During half time the club put on live interviews on the big screens, as well as having their mascot shoot t-shirts into the crowd with a gas-powered gun.  A chap a few rows back caught one perfectly with one hand as he drank beer with the other.  Well done that lad.

At the beginning of the second half both sets of fans unfurled huge banners.  I don’t think they were linked to each other and my German isn’t great (Jon wasn’t there to translate).  I think the Köln one was something to do with refugees, all I could see of the one in the Ostkurve was the words “NOT ALLOWED”.  I think it may have been anti-racism but would love to know what it said if anyone knows.  When they had made their show of the banners, the fans at the front of the Ostkurve carefully tore them up to get them out of the way.  It’s amazing seeing the co-ordination that the Ultras have, raising certain flags at certain times to ensure that everyone has a good view.  One guy at the front had a microphone and a PA system and was delivering something very impassioned at the beginning of the second period.  I find it fascinating to watch and want to learn more German so I can one day join in a lot more.

Kalou had two good efforts at the start of the second period as Hertha looked to build their lead.  At the back Niklas Stark seemed determined to keep the visitors out, excellent in the air and deceptively quick.  He made his fair share of great challenges, but not as impressive as the goal-line clearance that Weiser made from Köln substitute Yannick Gerhardt just after the hour mark.  You won’t see many better defensive blocks than that, it was wonderful.

During breaks in play, the big screens would flash up score updates.  In the first half Wolfsburg took the lead against Bayern at the Allianz Arena to a massive cheer – because much like Manchester United in this country, nobody seems to like Bayern in Germany – but in the second half we learned of a comeback.  Robert Lewandowski equalised and it was met with boos. As Bayern went 2-1 and then 3-1 up a couple of minutes later, it became obvious that something special was happening as Lewandowski claimed a ludicrously quick hat-trick.  Just nine minutes after his first, he claimed his FIFTH goal and the result was applause from the fans hundreds of miles away where we sat.  Five goals in nine minutes has to be saluted, even if you play for a team that nobody seems to like.

2015-09-22 21.55.45We had a long break in play after an injury to Kevin Vogt, the Köln midfielder eventually being carried off on a stretcher with a suspected broken cheekbone.  Interestingly, nobody booed or whistled whilst he was being treated.  Everyone was respectful and his departure from the pitch was met with polite applause from everyone.

Darida had a decent chance for Hertha but Horn made another good save, before Anthony Modeste had a golden opening at the other end but sent his header way off target.  Modeste didn’t look too mobile up front pretty much on his own, struggling to make an impact with Stark always sticking close to him. That said, Köln continued to push on, trying to get an equaliser and making things nervy for everyone in the stadium. But Hertha remained organised and then in injury time they grabbed aa second.

With the visitors piling everyone up front, a quick break from Hertha substitute Alexander Baumjohann caught them off guard. He slotted a wonderful pass through to the on-rushing Ibisevic who finished calmly and put the result beyond doubt.  That would be the last kick of the game, and a deserved win for an impressive looking Hertha side that briefly lifted them up to fifth ahead of Wednesday’s Bundesliga fixtures.

After the final whistle we saw yet another difference between German and English football.  The entire Hertha squad came and celebrated in front of the Ostkurve, singing songs with the fans and saluting them.  It was like they’d won a cup, rather than just a regular home game.  It’s no wonder that the fans feel so proud of their team, because you genuinely get the feeling that the players treat their supporters as a true extension of their squad.  The whole “twelfth man” cliché is used a lot in the UK, but in Germany it is genuinely true.

So the Olympiastadion is a beautiful arena with a storied history, and the fans who attend games there are some of the loudest, proudest and best that I’ve ever seen.  Watching a game in such an iconic structure is something that everyone should try and do at least once, and I have no doubt that we’ll be back again at some point as Berlin is such a wonderful place to visit.

As we left the ground, I bought myself a giant cheese pretzel and Jon got another two schnitzel. We walked past the caravans that we’d seen earlier on and they had now sprung to life, with loud music playing from them and fans congregated around them drinking and celebrating.  As someone who usually curses them being on the road, I’ve never appreciated caravans more.

Yet again, Germany demonstrates that it is the best place to both eat meat products and watch football.  I’ll never tire of visiting there, and would like to thank the people of Berlin – all of them – for making us feel so welcome. Credit to the Köln fans for being excellent, and may Hertha have a fantastic season. Those guys in the Ostkurve deserve it.

Summary:

Hertha BSC 2 (Ibisevic 43, 90) vs 1 FC Köln 0

Attendance: 40,181

Cost: Ticket approx £22, flight £60, hotel £35, schnitzel £2, bratwurst £2, pretzel £2, drink £2

Fun Factor: 10/10