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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary:

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

Attendance: 1,767

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

Fun Factor: 7/10

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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 Thirty Six – Tranmere Rovers vs Northampton 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’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…

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 Thirty – Mansfield Town vs Burton Albion

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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!

…When you’re used to travelling to games on your own, it’s really enjoyable to head off to a match with a couple of mates.  Our journey from Nottingham to Mansfield didn’t take too long as it’s just a few miles north.  The car was filled with talk of comedy – The Noise Next Door had a great Edinburgh and are on tour soon – and at one point we spotted a tent at the side of the road, pitched as if someone is living in it on a permanent basis.  I was very tempted to stop and have a look, but what do you say if someone is actually in there?  It’s a weird way to start a conversation.

Once in Mansfield we parked up and walked along to Field Mill (now renamed as the One Call Stadium) and had a little wander around the outside.  As we walked down the street that we’d parked on, Tom managed to find a discarded blade of some sort on the floor and we speculated how it got there – obviously the answer won’t be as fantastical as the suggestions that we came up with.  The away end at Field Mill sticks out into a retail park that has my ideal day out with my daughter summed up in two shops:  Maplins for me (I like looking at electronics and making plans for projects that I will never construct) with Pets at Home next door (so my daughter can go and look at fish and hamsters).  Underneath the far side of that end was a mattress, suggesting that someone lives there on a semi-permanent basis.  If we’d have known, we could have stole him a tent.  Whoever it belonged to had popped out for the day, a good idea as the Burton fans (who were superb throughout) would have kept him awake with their noise if he fancied a nap.

If you’re a comedian, you pride yourself on knowing every single comedy club in the country.  Well at Mansfield, the three of us discovered a new one:  The excellently named “Hoofers” that has nights within Field Mill.  However, they are paying the Peter Kay IMPERSONATOR (yes, that’s right: A man who DOES ANOTHER MAN’S ACT) Lee Lard to perform there this festive season.

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At least you get cheesecake, I suppose. But he’s more expensive than a Michael Buble tribute with a three course dinner! And it’s not like you won’t know all of his jokes! Madness…

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 Twenty Nine – Bury vs Plymouth Argyle

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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 also remember Bury were sponsored once by Birthdays, the card shop that I believe was once owned by Bryan Robson.  The pastel logo on the front of the shirt didn’t exactly fit in with their rugged northern image, and yet I’d kill for one of those shirts now.  I do love a strange sponsor on a shirt.  Takes me back to my days reading 90 Minutes every week.  Here are some of my favourites:

CLYDEBANK – Sponsored by Wet Wet Wet – Being sponsored by a band is pretty cool (Newport County were briefly sponsored by Goldie Looking Chain, I’m sure) but when it’s one of the most insipid bands to ever darken the charts then it’s really not very rock and roll. My childhood felt haunted by Love Is All Around, and even being addicted to heroin couldn’t make Marti Pellow become a badass frontman.

CLUB MEXICO – Sponsored by Bimbo – Apparently a bakery, Bimbo sponsor a lot of Latin American teams.  I cannot see it without giggling.

FC NURNBURG – Sponsored by Mister Lady – I own this shirt!  A local clothing company, it doesn’t stop it being hilarious in the extreme.  I like to think they had a radio advert with the jingle set to Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady”.

BRIGHTON – Sponsored by Nobo – Ha! Their shirt said nob! …

Remember, to read the rest of this post from last season you can pick up my eBook for less than £3. 24 matches, many thousands of miles travelled. Thanks!

 

The Football Neutral: Match Twenty Three – York City vs Burton Albion

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This is now an edited version of the original blog… you can read the full one by downloading my Football Neutral 2013/14 season review on Kindle.  Well over 300 pages of daftness. Less than £2! Thanks!

…Like most older stadiums, Bootham Crescent is surrounded by terraced housing.  In one of the tiny little front yards, a goth man stood gardening.  A proper goth.  Completely done up in full regalia.  Well, not quite full – I presume his full length leather trenchcoat was left inside as it was quite warm – but he was wearing makeup, his long hair dyed the blackest of blacks (for another sitcom reference, the black of a priest’s socks in Father Ted) and he was wearing long fishnet sleeves over a short sleeved black t-shirt.  We were agog.  I’ll be honest, seeing a goth in a supermarket is a weird enough experience; seeing one with a trowel in hand potting some plants is mind-bendingly weird.  Fair play to him though; he didn’t care that every single football supporter walking past noticed this rather odd sight.  He just got on doing what he was doing; I suspect trying to grow black roses or something like that.

Following on from the goth experience, we rounded a corner to head into the ground.  As we did so, we saw the fattest policeman that I have ever seen.  Honestly, he must have been at least 25 stone AND not exactly tall.  He was waving people across the road as he stopped a car, and I was surprised to not see him pull out a pasty to enjoy whilst he had a spare second.  He was the kind of chubby that made him resemble a cartoon character.  I am confident that even with dodgy knees, an irregular heartbeat and sciatica that I could outrun him in a pursuit.  He was so lardy that I reckon anything like that would immediately kill him.

As you walk to the turnstile for the David Longhurst Stand (named after the York striker who tragically died on the pitch in 1990) I noticed that most of the windows in the Main Stand look like badly built extensions; all jutted out and surrounded by red painted wood.  The turnstile we entered just says “ground” on it.  £17 and you’re in, and you can either stay stood on the Longhurst Terrace, or you can pay an extra £1 to sit in the Popular Stand.  And on this particular day, both stands were definitely popular.  The sun was out and the ground seemed pretty full to me…

If you enjoyed this tiniest of snippets of my day out in York, then please help support this project of mine by downloading my ebook which has the full versions of all 26 matches I attended last season and lots more. 300 pages for less than £2! Thanks!

 

The Football Neutral: Match Twenty Two – Burton Albion vs AFC Wimbledon

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This is now an edited version of the original blog… you can read the full one by downloading my Football Neutral 2013/14 season review on Kindle.  Well over 300 pages of daftness. Less than £2! Thanks!

…I had to park out the back of the industrial units, near to a sandwich packing factory.  As I got out and put on my coat, I noticed the fattest man I have ever seen wearing a hairnet smoking a cigarette.  He finished it, and whilst staring at me, slowly got out another and lit it.  At this point I was not entirely sure that he was employed by the company.

As I approached the stadium near the away end, I caught a glimpse of the terrace I would be in, the West Stand.  Massive flags everywhere, reminding me of a miniature version of Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park (which, for the record, sounds nowhere near as good as Westfalenstadion).  Even with a modest history, it seems the Burton fans are desperate to promote a good atmosphere and club feel; my initial theory is that it would be like my trip to Dagenham, but transplanted into the Midlands – all Derby, Forest and maybe Leicester fans choosing to watch a more local team to save some money and get their kids into the game.  Wrong.  Everyone I met was Albion through and through, and some of the most knowledgeable fans I’ve met this year.

Now for some criticism.  I apologise in advance, because Burton really is a cracking club and I had a great day.  But: their club badge is stupid.  Really horrible.

It’s like someone saw the Ajax badge (made up of just a few lines) and thought it could be recreated.  It can’t.  A guy in the ground had a proper retro flag that would have been a MUCH better choice.  I’m just putting this out there.  There’s isn’t much other criticism, honest.  Certainly not of the ticket prices, because they’re easy to get: £15 to stand, £20 to sit.  Same for both home and away fans (which is incredibly rare higher up the leagues so I’m always pleasantly shocked by it).  Three stands are terraced, then the main stand has seats where you actually have to buy a ticket from the main office.  For us lucky standers, it’s just cash on the gate, exactly how football should be.

Once in the ground, I needed food.  I’ve been on a diet for two weeks since meeting wrestler turned Yoga guru “Diamond” Dallas Page and starting his DDP Yoga programme, so was allowed something unhealthy. Burton is the place you want to go if you fancy something naughty, trust me…

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The Football Neutral: Match Twenty One – Portsmouth vs Cheltenham Town

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This is now an edited version of the original blog… you can read the full one by downloading my Football Neutral 2013/14 season review on Kindle.  Well over 300 pages of daftness. Less than £2! Thanks!

…The last time I went to Fratton Park was for a 2-0 Leicester win. It was just over ten years ago, and was a Premier League encounter.  It was probably a bit of an upset us picking up the victory, as Portsmouth’s side that day featured the likes of Dejan Stefanovic, Alexei Smertin, Steve Stone, Patrik Berger, Tim Sherwood, Ayegbeni Yakubu and Teddy Sheringham.

In 2008, Pompey won the FA Cup. I remember watching their victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford in the quarter finals on a TV at the King Power Stadium, everyone cheering wildly when Sulley Muntari scored the winning goal from the penalty spot – because everybody loves an upset.  That was six years ago.

Somehow, Pompey are now mid table in League Two.  The fourth tier.  How on earth did this happen?  I know as a Leicester supporter that we’ve experienced some boom and bust times, but the fate that has befallen Portsmouth in recent seasons is as dramatic and cruel as it could possibly be.  Whilst as a Leicester supporter we have never got on with the Pompey fans (once me and my Dad got chased out of the away end, the first time I’d ever seen my old man run at the time.  I think I was 19), you can’t argue that they’re amongst the most loyal and loud in the country.  In fact, when I said that I was going to Fratton Park (a consequence of having two gigs on the Saturday evening in the area) I got a load of tweets from football fans waxing lyrical about the great atmosphere down there.

I have memories of it myself, remembering a City defeat down there in the 1990s where the roar of the Fratton End celebrating a goal was about as loud as I’ve ever heard, even in a relatively small stadium.  I really fancied going to a match that would be LOUD, and properly so, and I knew this would be the case.  Portsmouth had decided to make the game incredibly cheap (just a tenner for adults, as little as a quid for kids) and when researching stuff ahead of the game on Friday I realised that it may well be a sellout.  This was excellent news indeed…

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The Football Neutral: Match Twenty – Newport County AFC vs Cheltenham Town

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This is now an edited version of the original blog… you can read the full one by downloading my Football Neutral 2013/14 season review on Kindle.  Well over 300 pages of daftness. Less than £2! Thanks!

…When I got to Newport, I realised that I once performed at a kids gig in the arts centre there.  This isn’t a knock on Newport itself, but it is the quietest arts centre I have ever been to.  I imagine it’s called “The White Elephant”, or something like that.  Rodney Parade is much less empty, with the fans in yellow and black making a bee-line (shut up, I know that’s a weak pun) to the stadium as I drove in from the M4.  Trouble is, there’s so many of them and so little parking that I needed to drive a bit further afield to find somewhere to stash my car.

Helpfully, there is a pay and display car park next just down the road from the ground that is just £2 for a whole day. Unhelpfully, it’s pay and display and the only coins I had were Euros.  As a side note: How small are Euro pennies? They are tiny. I imagine many children within the EU have eaten them. Often by complete accident.

I was left with the task of finding a car park where I could pay on my exit, ideally by card because I never have any actual change.  Any cash that I do have often finds its way out of my pockets and into the deepest, darkest recesses of my car, never to be seen or spent again.  If you stole my car now you would easily find £8,000 in change within it. And I’ve only owned it for a year.

Parking in the main Newport shopping centre, I found my way out, went to a cash machine to get my ticket money, and crossed over the River Usk right next to the aforementioned arts centre, tumbleweed blowing out of its doors.  This was a hefty 15 minute walk, most of it spent behind three Cheltenham fans who kept stopping to pose for ridiculous pictures whenever they could.  When there was nobody else around they were quick to sing Cheltenham songs and act the fool, but the minute they saw anyone they suspected to be Welsh then the bravado stopped.  To their credit, at least they weren’t employing the ludicrous sheepshagger stereotypes that I’ve detailed in earlier versions of this blog.

As we crossed the footbridge, two youths approached with mildly terrifying dogs.  They barked and lunged at the Cheltenham fans, one of whom screamed in a most effeminate and amusing manner.  Then a policeman on a bike rode past and the dogs turned on him.  Instead of screaming he merely said “ah, dinnertime is it lads?” and rode away, winking at me as he went….

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The Football Neutral: Match Fifteen – Cheltenham Town vs Hartlepool United

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This is now an edited version of the original blog… you can read the full one by downloading my Football Neutral 2013/14 season review on Kindle.  Well over 300 pages of daftness. Less than £2! Thanks!

…Whaddon Road is in the middle of a housing estate that feels quite un-Cheltenham.  Of course, football grounds are only ever in two places: In the middle of a housing estate or on the outskirts of a town.  The former are always better.  If you’re watching football in Germany or Portugal you can add two other places: in the middle of a forest or on the side of a mountain.

Saturday was also a big racing day at Cheltenham, and the town centre full of Christmas shoppers so traffic around the ground was a little slow.  Did wonder if Town struggle for a decent attendance on days where the racing and the football clash.  I’ve done gigs at the racecourse in the past and even though it’s on the outskirts of town, racing is a seriously big deal in these parts.

I parked up on a side street and headed to the ground with about 20 minutes to spare.  There were signs everywhere saying that parking restrictions are in place during matchdays.  These signs are clearly a massive lie, because you can park where you want quite safely and for free.

The Prestbury Road End was where I was headed, another terrace behind a goal for me to rejoice in.  Luckily it was covered, because even though the sun was out the wind was swirling around enough to make me put up both of my hoods.  I’m a two-hoods kind of guy on a blustery day, that’s for sure.  Didn’t seem to be too many people around, even close to matchday.  Didn’t see a single Hartlepool fan, although I reasoned there would be some, even if I could probably count them on one hand.

The smallest away support that I ever saw before I started my challenge this season was actually at a top flight game.  Must have been around 1994 or 1995, and Sheffield Wednesday were hosting Wimbledon.  I went to the game with my Owls supporting Uncle and my schoolfriend Andrew.  On the journey there, Andrew threw up all over the velour seating in the rear of my Uncle’s Saab 900, then when we got to Sheffield city centre a water main had burst and several streets were flooded.  Eventually in the ground at the Kop End of Hillsborough, I spent a few minutes counting the Wimbledon fans in the Leppings Lane end.  Thirty six in total.  That’s not even a busload…

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