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

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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

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

The Football Neutral Season 2014/15 – eBook Now Available on the Kindle Store!

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Just like last season, I’ve now compiled a compendium of all of my reports from last season, along with a few extra bits and bobs.  It was a big hit with eBook readers last year, so hopefully it’ll hit the spot in the same way this year.

If you click here you can pick it up for any Kindle device (tablet, PC or smartphone) for less than £3, and you’ll be helping fund my adventures for another year in 2015/16.

Please spread the word about it, I’d be genuinely grateful! And obviously, give it a read to relive two of my favourite ever match day experiences… (the clues are on the front cover)

 

The Football Neutral: Match Fifty – AFC Wimbledon vs Cheltenham Town

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The only way to read this post in FULL along with 23 others from 2014/15 is to buy my season review eBook in the Kindle store. It’s less than £3 and over 300 pages of my daft adventures. Pick it up, enjoy it and you’ll be supporting my travels next season. Feel free to tell anyone you might know about it too! Thank you so much!

…I walked from Norbiton station to the ground just as the City game kicked off.  My phone soon buzzed to reveal a message that read “what a start” from my Dad.  Well, this could mean anything so I asked him to elaborate – City had scored after 47 seconds.  My Dad can’t spell “Ulloa” because the difference between spelling and correct Spanish pronunciation baffles him.  I think he typed his name as “Uoohchuhuoaaah”.

I also had time on my walk to think about the plight of Cheltenham Town, already relegated out of the league.  I watched them more than any club last season (three times) and I found their fans to be really good people.  I sincerely hope that they bounce straight back, and they’ve at least got a manager with good pedigree in Gary Johnson.  I spotted a fair few of their fans on my stroll, and it was encouraging that they took so many supporters to their final game of such a disappointing season.

I collected my tickets from a small Portakabin before meeting Paul.  I pulled out my phone to get my confirmation and the nice lady said “don’t need it love, just your surname”.  What a pleasant thing to see, a bit of trust that I wouldn’t be after anyone else’s tickets!  That is very rare these days, bearing in mind how many clubs have asked me for ID when buying tickets at the ground on the day of a game in case I was there to cause trouble.  I’m obviously not, but I can understand why people sometimes jump to conclusions, what with me being a tattooed skinhead and all.  It’s only if you look closer at the tattoos and you realise that they’re all daft and that I’ve only got a shaven head because my hair is falling out.

The club shop is another small building, and it’s clear to see that the current Wimbledon kit is GORGEOUS. Not only are they sponsored by every supporters favourite waste of time – Football Manager – but it’s a lovely blue with awesome 1980s style pinstripe AND it’s made by Admiral.  My first ever Leicester kit was made by Admiral, so the memories it brought back were fantastic.  I had to stop myself from buying it.  I’m thinking about going online and buying it now.  It’s a truly smashing kit, only rivalled by the Forest Green Rovers away shirt….

The only way to read this post from last season in full (along with 23 others and a load of extra stuff) is to get my eBook for less than £3. Click here to get it. I’d be really grateful!

 

 

 

 

The Football Neutral: Match Forty Nine – Oxford City vs Guiseley

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The only way to read this post in FULL along with 23 others from 2014/15 is to buy my season review eBook in the Kindle store. It’s less than £3 and over 300 pages of my daft adventures. Pick it up, enjoy it and you’ll be supporting my travels next season. Feel free to tell anyone you might know about it too! Thank you so much!

…The game ebbed and flowed for a while, and it wasn’t a bad game at all but the entertainment on the terrace was second to none.  Again using “Seven Nation Army” as a theme, the Oxford fans responded to a “Yorkshire” chant from the Guiseley lot with “Mild, Flat Caps and Whippets”.  The Guiseley fans weren’t annoyed, indeed they applauded the creativity.  This was followed by further excellent, written on the spot Oxford songs – the benefit of a smaller crowd iss these things can spread to fans that want to sing much more easily – such as “You’ll Never Take the Woolpack” and “You’re Just a Bus Stop Near Minston”.  That last one was researched on the spot by Alex, and was then followed with a chant from both sides of “Local Knowledge!”.  Brilliant.

The fans were desperate to see substitute Paul Stonehouse be brought on to the pitch, singing songs about him (one set to “Stay Another Day”, for crying out loud) and even asking Snow White to walk around the pitch and ask the manager to bring him on.  Just as that started to pre-occupy us, Tom Winters scored in the 70th minute to put Oxford back in front.  As we sang in celebration, keeper Scott joined in with us.  It might not be the biggest crowd, but it must be fun playing in front of that lot when things are going right.

I chatted with Alex and the others about the club website during a brief lull in the singing.  When I visited it to enquire on ticket prices it looked like it had been hacked by someone spamming you about knock-off university courses.  It turns out that it wasn’t, it’s just that the club has been bought by an American who is using the Oxford City name to get interest in his other businesses in the USA and beyond.  It’s certainly true that the Oxford name has kudos attached to it, you only have to look at how many tourists in London are wearing Oxford hoodies on their flights back home.

Snow White now had his own dwarf, which was an Oxford fan called Sam (on his knees).  Sam would later regale us with the song “Any Dream Will Do”, belting it out as we laughed at him uncontrollably.  Yussuf would add his second – and Oxford’s fourth – in the 85th minute, and that just kicked the party up a notch.  Snow White managed to find seven dwarves now….

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The Football Neutral: Match Forty Eight – Rochdale vs Leyton Orient

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The only way to read this post in FULL along with 23 others from 2014/15 is to buy my season review eBook in the Kindle store. It’s less than £3 and over 300 pages of my daft adventures. Pick it up, enjoy it and you’ll be supporting my travels next season. Feel free to tell anyone you might know about it too! Thank you so much!

…I’m a sucker for a ground surrounded by houses.  That always makes a stadium proper to me; playing off my memories of going to Filbert Street as a kid.  Spotland is just like that, and it instantly makes me feel nostalgic.  We went into the Sandy Lane End, the terrace behind one goal.  The rest of the stadium is seated and to be fair, it may be small but it’s in good nick and still feels like it has a character, unlike so many nameless bowls around the place.  The game was just kicking off as we got in, and I got myself a meat and potato pie.  This is the only pie you should ever eat when in the North West.  I first had one at Blackburn years ago (they have to be Hollands ones) and I’ve been addicted ever since.  Although saying that, James clearly has been reading this blog in detail because he presumed I’d be annoyed at the lack of hot dogs.

As I got my pie, an older chap next to me asked if they were hot this week.  I said I didn’t know yet, but it felt it.  He proceeded to tell me that at the last game they were cold, but the game before that they were “nuclear”.  I like to think he has a chart on his wall at home, marking off pie temperature by game.  This being near the end of the season, it would now be pretty much filled in.

James noted the Rochdale keeper was Josh Lillis, who went to the same school as him.  I don’t have the joy of seeing footballers I went to school with playing the professional game, my school was much more into rugby (it produced Dead Richards, Graham Rowntree, Manu Tuilagi and many others).  although I do remember one lad having a trial with Notts County once, and we treated him like he was a god from that moment onwards.

Whilst I liked Spotland a lot, it did bother me a bit that the seats that spelled out “ROCHDALE” in the Willbutts Lane Stand weren’t quite centralised and symmetrical.  It’s tiny things like that which I’ll often spend far too much time worrying about, odd little man that I am.  The Orient fans took up one block, making some noise but still looking crushed from such a disappointing season  Last season they were brilliant and came so close to promotion, what a difference one year (and a change in ownership) makes.  I feel bad for them, they’re a cracking team and a good bunch of fans…

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The Football Neutral: Match Forty Seven – Swindon Town vs Yeovil Town

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The only way to read this post in FULL along with 23 others from 2014/15 is to buy my season review eBook in the Kindle store. It’s less than £3 and over 300 pages of my daft adventures. Pick it up, enjoy it and you’ll be supporting my travels next season. Feel free to tell anyone you might know about it too! Thank you so much!

…On the pitch, I was quickly impressed by left back Nathan Byrne who was full of pace and running.  It looked like he was playing as a wing-back for this game, spending much more time virtually up front and trying to cut into the box as often as he could.  Also a real talent is centre forward Jonathan Obika, a massive handful who looks like he could play at a much higher level.

On 15 minutes, I stifled a cheer as Leicester went 1-0 up against Swansea.  It was the weirdest feeling not screaming out, and I channelled my excited energy into loudly “oohing” as Obika missed an absolute sitter with the goal completely at his mercy.  Swindon should have been one up, and they kept up the pressure on a Yeovil team who could barely get out of their own half. Yeovil keeper Artur Krysiak wasn’t helping his own team with some incredibly wayward kicking, with three straight clearances going out for throw-ins on the left hand touchline.

Ben Gladwin hit the post for Swindon with a great curling effort from outside the box and it seemed like it was only a matter of time before they’d be in front.  It took 40 minutes for Yeovil to have their first chance (and just after I’d stifled a celebration for Burnley going behind at Everton) as Kieffer Moore aimed a decent header at goal but it was saved by Wes Foderingham.

I couldn’t believe that it was still goal-less at half time with Swindon completely bossing the game.  Our entertainment during the break was one of those target shooting things, where a series of fans aim for holes in a tarpaulin suspended in the goalmouth.  Everyone who had a go wasn’t the best, including a girl who I willed to show us all how good she could be… and she then proceeded to be utterly terrible.  Credit to the fans around me though, there was none of the catcalling and whooping that there would have been ten or twenty years ago.

Some schoolkids were doing a lap of honour in their little team kits, and they got a great reception.  I wish I’d have had chance to do that as a kid, although five years ago this week I did manage to run two laps around the pitch at the King Power Stadium to help Alan Birchenall raise money for charity (and I recorded it for my then radio show).  I was 31 at the time and that experience was mind blowing, so if you;re ten it must be simply amazing.  When there’s a load of kids, there is always one who knows how to play to the crowd properly; you’ll see him, kissing his badge and patting his chest as he implores the crowd for more noise…

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The Football Neutral: Match Forty Six – Chester vs Forest Green Rovers

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The only way to read this post in FULL along with 23 others from 2014/15 is to buy my season review eBook in the Kindle store. It’s less than £3 and over 300 pages of my daft adventures. Pick it up, enjoy it and you’ll be supporting my travels next season. Feel free to tell anyone you might know about it too! Thank you so much!

…Firstly, Chester are no longer Chester City.  That club was dissolved in 2010, and Chester is a five year old fan-owned club that has risen through the non-league ranks pretty sharpish.  Then there’s the trivia question that everyone knows about: The pitch at the Deva Stadium is in Wales, but the car park and some of the offices are in England.  I think that fact is a bit more mind blowing when you’re not like me, crossing the border about a dozen times a week.  Heck, I have to cross the border to go to my nearest decent sized supermarket.

I’ve seen signs for the Deva a few times as I’ve driven into Chester city centre, but never ventured down the road that it’s on.  It’s on an industrial estate, but at the far end so there’s green in the distance to one side and factory units to the other.  There’s also ample parking, which is just a couple of quid.  If you’re clever you can easily park for nothing on the surrounding streets though.  Knowing that they’re fan owned I felt much more community spirited in giving them a few extra quid for their coffers.

There’s a decent little club shop too, which in a weekend where I was spending time with so many wrestlers had an amusing item in there in abundance: The foam finger.  You know the ones I mean, in the 1980s they were yellow with “Hulkamania” on them.  You now only see them at wrestling events where there are a lot of kids… and at Chester matches, where a few youngsters had them.  The Chester kit is pretty nice, by the way.  Nothing compared to the glorious Forest Green home kit though, a vision in green and black hoops.  What a shirt.  I want one now.

As I wandered around the stadium a very polite chap selling fanzines asked me if I wanted one.  I politely declined (I knew I only had enough money for my ticket and some food on me), then went on my way.  When he saw me again a few minutes later he went to ask again, recognised my face and apologised for bothering me again.  What a splendid chap…

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The Football Neutral: Match Forty Five – Sheffield FC vs Chasetown

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…That last thought worried us a fair bit, especially as we were pretty vocal in our disappointment regarding the performance of the burly number nine.  That said, he was so poor that you’d imagine that even if his Dad was stood next to us that he’d agree with us.  And I must stress we weren’t being mean; the other fans around us were as annoyed with him as we were.  We wanted him to be an all-conquering action hero, what we got was a lad off of Geordie Shore.

It took a couple of minutes for someone to update the scoreboard, a disinterested steward getting the job.  He slowly put up a number one for the away team.  Poor bloke didn’t know at this point how busy he would end up being that afternoon.  We could hear him sighing as just as he had finished and walked away from the scoreboard, Sheffield got an equaliser through Gregory.

We wondered how many numbers they had by the scoreboard in case of an abnormal score, and then chatted about the good old days of the videprinter on Grandstand and how you’d get a massive score every now and again, spelled out in capital letters as well as numbers.  I remember watching that at my Gran’s house as a kid, her second husband vocalising how I’d then see it for the rest of my life.  He was checking his pools coupon and a score came in from the Scottish second division – I forget what team so let’s say Hamilton – had scored 8. As I read the word “EIGHT” he shouted “FUCKING EIGHT??!!”  I can only read scores like that in that way nowadays….

The only way to read this post from last season in full (along with 23 others and a load of extra stuff) is to get my eBook for less than £3. Click here to get it. I’d be really grateful!