The Football Neutral: Match Fifty One – Walsall vs Doncaster Rovers

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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, it looks like I’m doing this for another season. Season three! That means that I’ve lasted longer than Fawlty Towers. Fifty games done so far over two campaigns, now let’s crack on with some more, starting at the Bescot Stadium. We’ll get to that in a bit.

You’re probably wondering – if you’re a regular reader of my adventures – where I’ve been until the second weekend in September. If you’re new to this blog then you should probably get used to quite a lot of rabbiting on by me on subjects other than football. It’s kind of my thing.

I spent all of August in Edinburgh at the Fringe. I did at least three shows a day for a whole month, meaning I couldn’t ever find a way to get along and watch a game. One Saturday I left my flat and realised how close it was to Easter Road based on the sheer amount of green shirts that passed me by in the opposite direction. Alas, I could never make it down there as games always clashed with my shows. I very nearly managed to make it to a non-league match one night, but then got given the chance to fill in for another comic at a show and make some money.

It’s normal for comedians to get ill during the fringe, what with over working and eating badly and a general lack of sleep. I actually spent my entire time feeling invincible because I was working so hard that I slept like a log every single night and I didn’t have time to drink so much Irn Bru that I got kidney stones (as happened to me in 2011). In theory the first week of September would be a joy for me as I would be able to relax after a hectic month and then ease myself back into my usual working diary.

Well, no. That’s not what happened, because as soon as I got home my body gave up on me. Also, after a month of not driving the roads of England have decided to take revenge. All of Manchester and Birmingham has recently been dug up completely, with diversions in place that mean at least a hundred cars have been trapped in an endless loop for the last month, like a badly programmed video game.

However, with me in Birmingham at the wonderful Glee Club this past weekend, no amount of aches and pains and the last remnants of fringe flu were keeping me away from the footy.  And a trip to the West Midlands meant that finally, I could go to a stadium that I have looked at more than any other in the country.

The Bescot Stadium (or the Banks’ Stadium as it is corporately known these days) is right next to the M6.  I spend approximately 27 hours a week sat on that motorway, most of which is right outside the stadium, whilst swearing at roadworks that never seem to get finished.  It’s not like you can miss the Bescot, with the large North Stand (the “Tile Choice” end) looming over the carriageway, only kept from it by some massive advertising hoardings that often carry piss-taking plugs for Aston Villa games, just a little way up the M6.

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My Friday night gig was a weird one. The Glee Club is always a complete joy, but one entire side of the room was populated completely by utter bell-ends. This included:

1: A Father and Son duo right by the stage who were from Derby. when I asked them where they were from they told me and then the Dad said “and we’re better than Leicester” with a smug “look what I’ve done, son” look on his face. So he had to be destroyed, as my beloved Foxes remain dizzyingly high in the Premier League. Derby are not.

2: A group of lads – sorry, LADZ – who had one among their number who decided to keep interrupting with the phrase “nice shirt”. When I called him out on it he pleaded with me to not pick on him. Then he would do it again. So I talked about his weird compliment based tourettes and then pointed out the bouncer that was stalking around the room to chuck him out. In the darkened room all you could see was his reflective armband slowly gliding around the perimeter. The ladz remained until they were finally chucked out during Dane Baptiste’s set.

3: Speaking of Dane, one woman in the audience took great exception to a wonderful bit of his material because she seemed to believe that she was watching Question Time rather than an award winning comedian doing comedy in a comedy club. She was also turfed out. Bless the audience for telling her to bugger off.

I retired to my hotel room after the show knowing that I’d get a much nicer welcome at Walsall.  A few people had told me that it’s a pleasant club and football fans don’t ever tend to be wrong about these things. By the way, my hotel was very nice. As a frequent user of Travelodges, I’m just happy to be somewhere that has biscuits in your room and a choice of pillows. That’s like the Ritz for me.

With roads in Birmingham quite tedious at present, I was very relieved to learn that the Bescot Stadium has its own train station AND a return ticket from Brum city centre is just £3.60. That’s a bloody bargain, and I decided to take the train on the Saturday afternoon. Once the hotel kicked me out (I’m never one to leave before checkout time if I can help it) I headed across town and got my train.

On the same carriage as me sat a few teenage girls, an older chap and three Doncaster fans. The Donny lads were all in their late teens / early twenties and dressed like the best wannabe hooligans that there ever was. Someone’s Mam went on eBay and bought a lot of knock off Stone Island, let’s just say that. These three lads were utterly tedious, but it would get quite entertaining.

2015-09-12 12.52.50One of them piped up with this wonderful phrase: “If any Birmingham get on this train it’ll get a bit naughty”. Well, if your definition of naughty is three young lads in fake clothes running away from grown men, then yes it is. An older bloke sat to my right snorted out a laugh. We both knew that the train was heading in the opposite direction.

Another chap kept telling them where they needed to get off. The lads seemed to struggle with it quite a lot, and all three of them asked over and over where they needed to leave. It’s not too hard, lads. IT’S THE NAME OF THE STADIUM THAT YOU’RE GOING TO.

In between their incessant questioning, one of them tried flirting with the girls on the train. No sooner had he uttered an opening line then one of them shut him down by saying “what are you, twelve?”  Beautiful.

Then the ticket inspector came around. Two of the lads were fine, but he asked the final one how old he was. He said sixteen, looking at the girls as he said so (for he was the spurned one). The inspector pointed out that he had a child ticket, and the lad argued that was fine. The inspector corrected him, and told him he needed to pay his full fare from Doncaster again or leave the train. The lad tried arguing whilst we all tried to stifle laughter.

So at the next stop, the lad left. His mates remained. As he left, he stood in the doorway of the train and said “don’t worry about me lads. I’m immortal”. The inspector heard this and walked back, telling his mates that if he gets on ANY other train today he’ll be arrested. They panicked and called people. One of them argued that there is no way another inspector would know who he was, the other one insisted that there would be CCTV. They then genuinely debated whether or not they could get him a disguise, with one saying the following phrase out loud:

“Seriously though, there’s got to be a fancy dress shop in Walsall”.

Geniuses.

I was happy to leave them behind and get off the train and take the short walk under the M6 towards the ground. It’s quite a modern stadium so it’s a bit in the middle of nowhere. I had a walk round the whole place and stood taking pictures in the car park as the two remaining Donny lads were on the phone to somebody, frantically trying to sort out a new coat and hat.

There’s a little club shop and ticket office, so I had a look round the former and got my ticket from the latter. £19.50 to sit in the lower tier of the North Stand, although it is a bit cheaper if you buy in advance. I really should get into the habit of doing that. But as it was still 1pm I couldn’t get into the stadium yet, so I visited a couple of cool places.

First was the Saddlers Travel Centre, in a small cupboard in the supporters club. I wanted to go in there just to take a photo. It reminded me of being a kid again. Thanks to the two nice chaps in there who let me do so.

2015-09-12 13.04.03Secondly, I went to the mildly depressing shopping park next to the ground purely so I could go to the branch of Pets At Home and look at fish and rabbits.  A lot of people would go to a pub and have a swift pint, but I don’t drink and I bloody love animals.  That seems a perfectly acceptable way for me to spend a few minutes.  I did notice that if you dress and look the way I do (heavily tattooed skinhead wearing a black hoodie) then you will most certainly be followed by the security guard in any shop you choose to visit.  I wasn’t likely to steal a rabbit though, tempting though it is.  The wife is allergic.

I got into the ground at about half one. Once you enter the North Stand it has an unusual layout, with turnstiles at either end and then a bar in the middle complete with comfy chairs. Then the concession stands and toilets are in either corner of the stand, and weren’t open just yet. I got chatting to a very pleasant steward who noticed that my hoodie was one from my wrestling company, PROGRESS. He was training to be a wrestler himself and we had a natter for probably twenty minutes or so, until I realised I was probably stopping him from doing his job.

With the concessions stand opening up, I queued up for my first burger of the season (which was very nice) plus some chocolate and a diet coke. I asked another steward if it was then ok for me to take this back into the bar and watch the Everton vs Chelsea game, and he told me to feel free.  I sat in a 1960s style egg-shaped leather chair and watched as Steven Naismith completed his hat trick and condemned Chelsea to their worst start to a season in ages. The Premier League – apart from Manchester City – is currently utterly surreal, especially with my lot sitting in second place. That obviously won’t last, but maybe let me enjoy it for just a little while longer.

2015-09-12 12.57.45I was sat pretty much behind the goal, five rows back, and had a really good view in one of the busier parts of the ground. It’s a tidy little stadium, although doesn’t have too much character with it being a bit newer than most.  The weird little bar layout set it apart from the plethora of new stadia built this century though, and there’s a lot more leg room than some places.

The Walsall mascot – a giant swift, who I believe is called “Swifty” – is one of the most hench club mascots that I have ever seen. I appreciate that he’s based around a bird, but he’s got the kind of broad shoulders that make him look like the avian Brock Lesnar. He is massive. Plus, his big forked tail bursts out of his shorts in a truly disturbing way.  Kids seemed to love him, but I was genuinely terrified.

Prior to kick-off, they played “Ready to Go” by Republica over the PA system. They used to play that at Leicester, and I’ve heard it at a load of other places as well.  Is there a more over-used song at football stadiums? I don’t think there is. Not in terms of the actual walking-out music, just one of the songs played in the last ten minutes before the game starts. Just to make everyone feel old by the way, that song is EIGHTEEN YEARS OLD NOW.

The game kicked off with Doncaster wearing a particularly fetching away kit, and their fans in the opposite end.  The first chance fell to the Saddlers, with full-back Jason Demetriou hitting an unusual volley just wide. He’s a hard-working player, and I remember him being at Orient. I didn’t know that he has spent time in between then and now at clubs in Cyprus before heading back to the UK.  You certainly couldn’t fault his work rate throughout the match as he continued to bomb up and down the right hand side.

Conversation between two lads to my right turned to the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leader of the Labour Party. One said “Corbyn won then”. The other replied with “that’s the Labour Party doomed then”. The first lad simply said “good”.  I was a bit surprised at this, finding it tricky to imagine that Walsall is a Conservative stronghold, let alone in the popular end of the football ground.

2015-09-12 13.39.45In goal for Walsall was Philippines international keeper Neil Etheridge. I didn’t know much about him before the game but knew of his name – I suspect from Football Manager – and he would eventually be named man off the match here.  I don’t recall ever watching a better performance from a goalkeeper in any of the games that I’ve attended. He’s an intimidating presence and a wonderful shot stopper, as shown early on when he made a fantastic save from Rovers midfielder James Coppinger who attempted a spectacular volley.

Curtis Main was up front for Donny, and he played in one of the first games that I ever went to as part of this blog: for Shrewsbury against Coventry in 2013.  He remains a decent prospect, big and strong but missed a couple of easy chances in the first half. Firstly he managed to shoot wide after an Etheridge save from close range, then he did all the hard work with a great run before forcing another save from the Walsall keeper. On-loan Cameron Stewart won a free kick on the edge of the Walsall box and copped a lot of abuse from the fans around me, most amusing of which came from two girls who were maybe 13 years old, giving him rude hand gestures when their Dad wasn’t looking.

The Black Country accent fits one song really well, to the tune of “Come On Feel The Noize” by Slade, Saddlers fans sing “come on cheer the boys”. As Doncaster started to dominate the first half, the fans got on board with that song to try and rally the troops a little bit. Luckily, Doncaster kept finding Etheridge in fantastic form, keeping his team in it as we went to half time with another brilliant save, this time from a free kick that the referee had given in slightly dodgy circumstances after a supposed foul on Main.

2015-09-12 13.40.07During the break we had a crossbar competition where everyone nearly managed to hit the target, before we cracked on with the second half.  With Walsall shooting towards our end, we hoped to see an improvement in terms of effort and we were not disappointed.  Saddlers manager Dean Smith clearly had a stern talk with his high-flying side and they started the second period energised and with new focus.

The pacey Milan Lalkovic won a corner within the first few seconds with his persistence, and he then went close with a decent effort after being teed up by Tom Bradshaw. The latter is incredibly popular, with his name on the back of half a dozen replica shirts that I could see.  Not bad for a lad who was playing for Aberystwyth a few years ago in the Welsh League. Doncaster had a chance up the other end through Andy Williams but it remained all Walsall, just with no end product as the minutes ticked away.

Donny keeper Thorsten Stuckmann got into an argument with one Saddlers fan, sticking his tongue out at him and trying to rile him up. Unfortunately for him, every other Walsall fan saw this and decided to barrack him at every turn. An unusual feature of the support there is for every corner or direct free kick near the goal, the fans at the front stand up and move forwards to the back of the advertising hoardings. The stewards don’t stop this, but know it will happen and take position accordingly. It certainly makes the atmosphere a bit more intense as the corners start to mount up and the home team are chasing a goal.

Andy Taylor drew a good save from Stuckmann before Lalkovic and Henry were replaced. I initially thought this was a bad decision as their pace and skill was entertaining, but Smith would be proved right for doing so. In the 85th minute there was a decisive breakthrough, and the first example of why Bradshaw may well end up in the Championship or higher sooner rather than later.

There was a scramble in the box and the ball fell to Bradshaw who smashed in a wonderful volley from a tight angle. He celebrated in front of the jubilant Walsall fans, as I watched to see Stuckmann admonish his defenders and then try to avoid the gaze of the fan he had a row with earlier.  Straight from kick-off, Donny went up the other end and drew another good save from Etheridge, before Walsall drove forwards again. In injury time, Bradshaw sprung the offside trap and chipped a wonderful finish over the advancing Stuckmann to keep Walsall near the top of the table and the fans excited about what could happen this season.  There is certainly spirit and ability in their ranks.

As for my season, it’s great to be back. I can’t wait to go all over the place watching football this year, and if I have as warm a welcome as I did at Walsall (not to mention seeing goals that good) then I’ll have a smashing year.

Summary:

Walsall 2 (Bradshaw 85, 90) vs Doncaster Rovers 0

Attendance: 4,127

Cost: Ticket £19.50, Burger £3.60, Snickers £1.20, Diet Coke £1.60, Train Journey £3.60

Fun Factor: 7/10

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One thought on “The Football Neutral: Match Fifty One – Walsall vs Doncaster Rovers

  1. Thanks for that, Jim. As an exiled Saddler out here in the States it’s great to get my fix in whatever way I can. Especially nice to get the views of a neutral and glad that your experience was a pleasant one. From what I have read, there are many Walsall fans who just don’t enjoy home games anymore and solely travel away. I guess it will always help when a side is winning and the football is entertaining. Here’s hoping they can carry on the great start. Good luck to the Foxes and thanks to them for giving me something to smile about last Sunday. A Vile capitulation will always be a source of amusement to me.
    Matt P.

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