The Football Neutral: Match Forty Four – Whitehawk vs Basingstoke Town

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…I queued up for some food, getting a massive hot dog and some chips for all of £4.50.  I was so busy chatting to the two Garys that it took me forever to finish it, although that did mean that we stayed in the warm rather than braving the biting cold outside.  With no segregation we could watch the game from a different end in each half.

I didn’t realise until Gary junior told me, but the so-called “Wealdstone Raider” gained his notoriety at the Enclosed Ground, his filmed rant that went viral aimed at the Hawks.  He’s now somehow a celebrity, getting 4 figure sums to make personal appearances.  The world is completely insane sometimes.  That said, he has used that fame to raise a lot of money for charity, so credit to him for that.  Also, his face was once on a banner at a PEC Zwolle game in the Netherlands.  I don’t want the money, I just want my face on a banner at a football match.

Outside of the clubhouse there is a strange patch of grass enclosed by a fence that nobody is allowed onto.  Its existence is a mystery, and it makes it feel like the paddock area of a racecourse.  The massive temptation to hop the fence and run over it never left me once during the course of the game.  Or to pretend to be a jockey.

The bulk of the seats are at the two ends of the ground, the Sea End, which has no roof, and The Din, which nearly has a roof.  We would sit in the former during the first half, and you can see the English Channel from it, just about.  There are certainly worse views in football, that’s for sure.

You can also note how non-level the playing surface is.  I mean, it’s all over the place.  I don’t know how you’d go about levelling a playing field anyway, but you need one of those “adverse camber” signs that you see at roadworks to warn people about it.  It slopes off in the corners, and apparently the entire pitch runs downhill towards the Din.

The Whitehawk fans have established their own band of Ultras who sit behind the goal that they’re attacking and make a proper racket.  They’re not as high in numbers as the Clapton Ultras, but they’re enthusiastic and one in particular goes to excessive levels to ensure that the crowd are particularly wound up.  Gary and Gary pointed him out to me as we sat down, although he wasn’t difficult to spot as he was carrying an air raid siren with him…

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The Football Neutral: Match Forty Three – Clapton FC vs Basildon United

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…When the teams came out the first thing I noticed is that both keepers were unbelievably short and moderately tubby.  Hey, I’m not exactly a marathon runner when it comes to my waistline, but it did make things seem more surreal; almost like we were watching a Sunday league team but with fans that wouldn’t be out of place in the Bundesliga or Serie A.

I have never heard so many brilliant songs before.  I struggled to note them all down, as every couple of minutes there was another brilliant one.  The first one to get my interest was rather wonderfully set to the tune of Anarchy In The UK, and that set the tone (and tune) for 90 minutes of singing constantly.

More examples:

“Jamie Lyndon is massive” sang to the tune of MC Vapour’s Jungle Is Massive.  Yep.  Really.  That set the standard.

“I wanna take you to the Old Dog” sang to the tune of Electric Six’s Gay Bar.

Songs for various players set to songs by Cyndi Lauper and Joy Division.

Oh yeah, and a club song set to the theme of The Littlest Hobo.

All of the above happened in the first five minutes, and my smile was only made broader by the aforementioned Lyndon putting Clapton 1-0 up.  I’d love to describe the goal for you, but I barely saw it as the celebrations around me started just before the ball crossed the line.

The atmosphere then got turned up even more, and by the 15th minute it was 2-0 when Shamari Barnwell scored.  The Ultras were delighted.  I couldn’t help thinking what it must be like to play in front of them, surely it’s a massive boost to any player of any level to have that kind of vocal backing.  I know one of the things we’re proud of at our PROGRESS Wrestling shows is the atmosphere and how it seems to always bring the best performances out of the guys that work for us, I really hope it’s the same for the Clapton players.  Not everyone at their level is playing in front of crowds like that.  In fact, let’s be honest, the only time ANYONE at their level is playing in front of crowds like that is when they visit the Old Spotted Dog….

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The Football Neutral: Match Forty Two – Crewe Alexandra vs Scunthorpe United

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…Once in Crewe I was surprised that I seemed to be the only person on the train heading to the football.  Gresty Road really is easy to find; come out of the station, head left and take your second left.  I already knew this, but two different policemen in the station politely asked me if I was heading to the game and gave me directions.  I have no idea how they knew I was likely to be watching the match, as I was wearing nothing to give it away and they didn’t ask any other passengers.  They’re both tremendously polite and incredibly perceptive.

You walk past the away end that has its own ticket office. It is the whole side of the ground rather than an end, and is named wonderfully.  A few years back I went to Gresty Road with my Dad to watch City play there on the last day of the season (I think) and we noticed that the game that day was sponsored by the same company that now sponsor this stand: Whitby Morrison Ice Cream Vans.  On that day and this Saturday, I asked myself the same questions:

1: There is a company that just makes ice cream vans?

2: How much demand is there for ice cream vans?

3: Who is going to watch Crewe Alexandra and thinking “hang on a minute, I might buy an ice cream van. Thank god they sponsor that stand as it jogged my memory!”

I popped into the home ticket office to get mine sorted out – twenty two quid, same price for any part of the ground – and headed into the massive main stand.  And it is HUGE compared to the rest of the ground.  I seemed to remember Gresty Road being bigger back in the day, but it might be because it was fuller then.  It holds just over 10000 fans now, with the main stand taking up nearly 70 per cent of the seats.  Crewe thankfully still have turnstile operators – I loathe those barcode readers – and I climbed the stairs up to my seat.  I’d been given a seat number, but was told I could sit anywhere that was free.  I sat in an aisle seat just as the game kicked off, with Crewe in red and Scunthorpe in an unfamiliar green…

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The Football Neutral: Match Forty One – Crawley Town vs Barnsley

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…There were a lot of kids on the terrace with us, presumably a day out watching Crawley is cheaper than heading to watch Brighton or Crystal Palace.  Like my trip last season to Dagenham and Redbridge though, there is a strange atmosphere.  I’ve no doubt that some people love Crawley dearly, but without a long legacy of league football many of the crowd seem to treat the club as their second team.  A few fans wore red scarves or shirts, but it wasn’t the norm.

As the teams came out and the line-ups were announced, I listened out for familiar names.  A striker for either side caught my ear:  For Barnsley they had diminutive, pacey frontman Leroy Lita – a player that I thought was headed for the very top when I saw him play for Bristol City years ago.  Now 30, his career hasn’t fired as he would have liked and he signed for Barnsley in August after Swansea released him.

Up top for Crawley was Izale McLeod, a player that Leicester were linked with a lot during his time at MK Dons.  He’s never reached the heights that Lita played (briefly) at, yo-yoing up and down the league ladder.  After a poor spell with Charlton he rebuilt his career at Barnet and Portsmouth before a second spell at MK Dons that led to him being released and snapped up by Crawley.  Also 30 years old, he’d be the player we’d be talking about at the end of the game.

We kicked off and the Barnsley fans made some noise.  One flag in their end read “Hove Tykes”.  If I’d have known, I could have asked for a list with them and left that bloody car in North Wales.  Barnsley started on top – as a team shorn of their manager often do, some players to prove a point, some to impress who is coming in – and the fans around me started to vocalise their worries.

I couldn’t help noticing that Crawley employ the tiniest ballboys that I have ever seen.  One behind the goal at the opposite end looked to be all of 3 feet tall and 4 years old, although still did a half-decent job as Barnsley chances peppered the goal of Crawley keeper Lewis Price.

Assisting McLeod on his initially thankless task up front for Crawley was Mathias Pogba.  Sound familar?  He should, as he’s the brother of Juventus star Paul Pogba, a player currently touted as being worth tens of millions of pounds.  Mathias isn’t worth quite as much, although he works hard enough and puts himself about.  He does have a ridiculous haircut though, looking like someone has applied tipp-ex in a line around his head…

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The Football Neutral: Match Forty – Borussia Dortmund vs FC Augsburg

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I don’t have the most complicated bucket list in the world. I’m not one who wants to fly around the world in a hot air balloon or climb Mount Everest. I want to get paid to make people laugh (done that one), have a novel published (working on that one) and go to watch football in some of the greatest stadiums in the world alongside the best fans. This week, I’ve been working towards the latter.

I am obsessed with German football. Every club has tremendous support, wonderful stadiums – that are actually interesting, not just identikit concrete bowls – and football is still the game of the working class. Everyone is welcome, and everyone can afford it. I’m also fascinated by Germany, having learned about it when studying the language at school (although I can only remember a few snippets of it these days). Yet I’ve never visited the country before. I reasoned if I was going to go there, I should go to the city that I wanted to visit the most, purely for football reasons.

Dortmund. In my football obsessive youth they stood out in their bright yellow shirts, and the first time I saw the Westfalenstadion (now corporately called Signal Iduna Park) I was blown away. A concrete and steel monument build in the 1970s, I always reasoned that the noise from the fans was good when I was watching them in the Champions League on the TV, but what would it be like in real life? I had to go there one day. Finally, in 2015, at the age of 36, I can say that I have been there – and as it would turn out, I went along on what was a very interesting night…

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The Football Neutral: Match Thirty Nine – Bath City vs Staines Town

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….Bath isn’t too far a drive from Bristol, and Twerton Park is on the outskirts.  My regular trips to Bath to perform at Komedia have taught me that there is no parking anywhere in the city, so arriving at the ground and finding that the club has two car parks AND street parking in abundance was a bit of a pleasant surprise.  The two official car parks are slightly odd though; you can choose to park in one where you pay a couple of quid, or park in one right next to it for free.  You know which one I chose, and there didn’t seem to be any discernible difference.  I imagine on busier days that it would be of more benefit to pay to park, of course.

I entered through the turnstiles and walked straight onto an awesome terrace.  Most of the stadium is standing, and it really reminds me of watching games when I was a lad.  Twerton Park feels like a stadium from the lower leagues in the 1980s that has been preserved perfectly in a time capsule.  The side that you enter on has a main stand with seats and standing, then the other three sides are all standing.  There’s a food stand as soon as you walk in and I grabbed a burger from there.  And WHAT a burger.  One of the best I’ve had in ages, and certainly the best I’ve had this season.  I tweeted how great it was and several fans agreed with me – both from Bath and elsewhere.

There’s a pretty good view from every part of the stadium, so I wandered round to the large covered terrace on the opposite side.  I thought a roof would be in order as it looked like rain, and then when I got round there I was treated to one of the most spectacular views in football.  From my vantage point you could see most of Bath, meaning I’d have something to look at if the game wasn’t the best.

Bath have a mascot.  He’s a large pig – I didn’t catch his name – and he walks around the terraces before and throughout the game.  He doesn’t mess about doing stuff to entertain little kids (the crowd being more mature than at bigger clubs, at least from what I could see), and is clearly a huge fan of the club doing his duty for his team.  Maybe it’s a different person each game?  That would be a pretty sweet deal, forcing people to do it like jury duty.

Before kickoff it seemed that the pitch was the widest one that I’ve ever seen, but that could just have been a side effect of the view playing tricks on my depth perception.  When the teams came out I couldn’t help but notice that Staines have done what many a non-league side has done and got themselves a Macron shirt that makes them look like a lower division Italian side.  A most fetching kit, to be sure….

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The Football Neutral: Match Thirty Eight – Brentford vs Rotherham United

2015-01-10 14.51.44

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…It’s pretty cramped inside the New Road stand, and I don’t mean that as an insult at all.  It feels – for want of a better word – like a proper stand.  Once kick-off approaches it seems to teem with humanity, and as me and Nathan stood and chatted over a burger (me) and a hot dog (him) you start to feel like you’re a little bit swept up in a tide of fans, having to lean this way and that to let anyone through.  And here comes the only real issue I found with Griffin Park:  If you buy some food and want sauce on it, you’ve got to walk about ten metres away from the concession stand to be able to apply condiments, then walk back again.  Easy if the place was empty, a bit trickier when it’s so full.

Nathan would have more walking to do because at half time he was needed to do an interview with the official Brentford website and media partner, but in the Braemar Road Stand.  That involved walking all the way around the ground rather than just nipping across the pitch or around the touchline, then doing the same to get back for the second half.  I hoped for his sake that the second period of this game wouldn’t start as quickly as it did at West Brom last week.

With about five minutes to go before the game began, I bid my farewells to Nathan and wished him luck for the game.  I then found my seat, and found myself in the midst of a lot of chaps – most older than me – who all seemed to know each other pretty well.  I guess this is a consequence of buying someone else’s season ticket seat for the day.

The first thing I noticed – apart from the lack of elbow room compared to newer stadiums, but you don’t mind being packed in on a cold day – is that the dugouts were right in front of us.  I appreciate that if you sit near the halfway line that you might be near to them, but the nature of Griffin Park being so close to the pitch meant that you really feel like you’re right on top of them.  I looked forward to seeing the notably volatile Rotherham boss Steve Evans up close during the game.

Most of my favourite football stadiums are in London, where being close to the pitch is more common and space is at a premium.  I love Upton Park, White Hart Lane, Brisbane Road, I did love Highbury and now I love Griffin Park.  With the place pretty much full it instantly reminded me of watching football as a kid, from the terraced Ealing Road End to the two-tiered standing and sitting Brook Road Stand, where the away fans are put.  I’ve since learned that this end is called “The Wendy House” by some fans, and it’s the most accurate nickname I’ve heard for quite some time….

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The Football Neutral: Match Thirty Seven – West Bromwich Albion vs Gateshead

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…On my walk I spied a few interesting things:

A: A bakery.  I didn’t see this first, I smelled it.  And it smelled AMAZING.  When I was very little, we lived near to a bakery and it will remain my favourite smell for the rest of my life.  From the outside the building looked deserted, but clearly someone was in there making up bread and the like.  I wanted to go in and eat all of the bread in the world, partly because of the aroma and partly because I’m not meant to eat bread on account of me being a delicate flower.

B: A UKIP Car. I don’t just mean a car with a bumper sticker on it, I mean a car parked up next to the main road with UKIP posters in every single window as an elderly couple handed out flyers from the driver and passenger seat to anyone that looked like they would be receptive to such a piece of paper.  I am relieved that as I approached they both averted their gaze and left me alone.  Incidentally, the car was most definitely illegally parked, which is probably the fault of immigrants somewhere along the line.

C: Bloody Half Scarves. For a WBA vs Gateshead FA Cup tie. COME ON! I didn’t see anyone buy one, and rightfully so. Someone’s Gran lost her thumbs knitting them so her grandson could try and turn a profit. PROPER FOOTBALL FANS HATE THESE BLOODY SCARVES!

D: The old WBA supporters club.  Now run down and boarded up, presumably as there are newer facilities in the ground, it’s still a magnificent old building and I bet it was a great place to be way back in the day.  One of my favourite things about visiting Ajax was their amazing looking old-school supporters lodge that they still use.  Let’s bring stuff like that back, yeah?…

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The Football Neutral: Match Thirty Six – Tranmere Rovers vs Northampton Town

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…I’ve not been to Tranmere for years.  I remember a couple of trips there in the second tier back in the mid 1990s, one time for a playoff semi-final as half of Leicester travelled up the M6.  I don’t remember the game much, I just remember having stones thrown at us by youths at the end of the match (although knowing me back then, we probably deserved it).

Then there was the League Cup Final in 2000 at Wembley where Rovers were the better team despite being a division below Leicester.  It was a struggle to beat them and a weird feeling after the game, where we should have been pleased at winning a trophy (and the first time we’d ever won one at Wembley) but it felt very anti-climatic as we were expected to win and only just scraped by.  Former City striker David Kelly played in that game at the twilight of his career and looked world class.

My main memories of Tranmere in my youth apart from City based stuff are as follows:

1: They always seemed to play on a Friday night, along with Stockport County.

2: On one version of Championship Manager, they had a whopping transfer budget of £27,000,000 for some reason.

3: John Aldridge and Pat Nevin had great spells there at the end of their career.

4: The only reason I knew where the Wirral was came down to them being sponsored by their own council.

Whenever I gig in Liverpool you can get a laugh out of “proper” scousers by insinuating that people from the Wirral are quite posh.  I’ve never had that backed up, but it’s amazing how different it feels to the rest of Merseyside just because of being separated by a tunnel…

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The Football Neutral: Match Thirty Five – Rotherham United vs Blackpool

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…The Blackpool fans filled about half of the away end, and over the empty seats unfurled a large banner that read “Football First: Financial Fair Play for ALL Clubs, Not Just The Top”. They’re having an awful time of it at the moment, but would loudly back their club throughout the game.

The Rotherham mascot – which I think is a cat – wandered through the stand, hugging fans and having pictures taken. This was pretty cool, rather than just wandering around the pitch and waving at kids he was properly getting involved with older fans and being daft. I suspect there is an out of work actor within that costume, just throwing himself into the role as best as he can.

The last two songs played before kick-off are “Two Tribes” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, which is one of the best songs ever made – as long as you’re listening to the gloriously over the top 12 inch mix of it that lasts for about a day and a half and has Chris Barrie from Red Dwarf doing impressions on it. It really does, look it up.

Then they play New York New York by Frank Sinatra. Not the whole song, just the final few bars. And whilst I thought it would be cheesy, it really isn’t. The fans join in, an orchestra swirls beneath the singing and it does make the beginning of a match feel suitably epic.

The game kicked off and I noted that Nile Ranger was playing up front for the Tangerines.  I’m always one to allow a player to try and play his way out of his reputation, but he spent the entire match leading into every 50-50 ball with his elbows.  He got a surprisingly small amount of flak from the Rotherham fans bearing in mind his history, but he wasn’t exactly a terrifying threat up front for Blackpool playing completely on his own.

Rotherham made a decent start, with Matt Derbyshire playing alongside on-loan (from Leicester, no less) Tom Lawrence.  The latter was making his home début, as was Scott Wooton (from Leeds), Emmanuel Ledesma (Middlesbrough) and Reece James (Manchester United).  Rotherham manager Steve Evans has been trying to strengthen his squad as best he can in recent weeks to try and stave off the threat of relegation, with Ledesma the player catching the eye the most, marauding down the right wing with bags of pace and skill.

The United fans were excellent, every one of them singing as loud as they could and getting 100% behind the team. Lawrence had the first really clear-cut chance of the game on 15 minutes, before Nile Ranger had his only really good sight at goal, drawing a decent save out of Rotherham keeper Adam Collin….

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