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’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.
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.
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?
Huddersfield Town 2 (Paterson 57, Wells (Pen) 90) vs Reading (Vydra 71, Robson-Kanu 87)
Cost: Ticket £10, Parking £7.50, Hot Dog £3.50, Pie and Drink £5
Fun Factor: 8/10