The Football Neutral: Match Fifty Four – Sheffield Wednesday vs Preston North End

2015-10-03 14.15.55So 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!

You might be aware that my footballing loyalties lie with Leicester City, the team that I have supported since I was six years old and first went to Filbert Street.  It was that Saturday afternoon that I fell in love with everything about football: Of course the game itself, but also the fans, the food, the stadiums.  Everything.  But Leicester wasn’t the only team to have a massive influence on me growing up.  The other team was Sheffield Wednesday.

I went to a fair few games at Hillsborough during the early nineties, accompanying my Uncle Bill and his brother Paul.  At the time my Dad was often busy at the weekend with his fledgling business, so my Uncle – recently out of the Navy and working as a prison guard – would take me up the M1 as he knew I was really into my football.  It was watching Wednesday when I first sang a song at a match (it was, I believe, “Big Fat Ron’s Barmy Army”), when I first understood a real local rivalry (against Leeds in a televised game that Wednesday lost 6-1) and I was even at the match at Notts County where the legendary David Hirst first got injured.  Nobody is really allowed a “second team” as it’s a daft principle, but Wednesday are as close to that as I’ll allow myself.

So please take it from me, I think Sheffield Wednesday is a fantastic club with a storied history and brilliant fans.  Please read and re-read that sentence as I get cracking through a game that highlighted a couple of massive problems facing football fans today.  More on that in just a little while.

I went to six or seven games in the season when Wednesday finished third in the top flight, and about the same amount the next season when they visited Wembley four times in one campaign.  My hero during those two seasons remains the best player I have ever seen play: Chris Waddle.

As a kid, I would try and emulate Waddle when I played football.  I didn’t have the pace, nor the accurate crossing ability, or the co-ordination to nail his amazing step-overs and mazy dribbles.  I would stand on the Kop at Hillsborough, watching Waddle sit out on the right wing with his shirt untucked and his socks rolled down.  He wasn’t one for tackling back, but when he got the ball he was mesmerising.  One of my most prized possessions as a kid was a signed picture of the great man, and I remember watching him score that ridiculous free kick at Wembley against Sheffield United in the cup semi-final on the TV in my bedroom.  I don’t think anybody will ever replace him on the right hand side in my all-time eleven.

Hillsborough itself is responsible for some Leicester-based memories as well.  It was there that City won the League Cup in 1997 via a replay, and I was there in the main stand after queuing overnight to get tickets.  I was in the toilets relieving myself during extra time when a huge cheer went up from the Boro end, and I splashed my shoes in my rush to get back outside.  It turned out that Ravanelli had gone close and a few of their fans had thought he had scored.  A few minutes later, Steve Claridge scored for us and we actually won a trophy.  My Dad had always said that we’d never manage to win one in my lifetime, so I think I celebrated that one goal more than I’ve ever celebrated one before or since.

I’ve also had fun in the away end at Hillsborough, although during City’s Premier League run in the 1990s we would often come up short.  On one trip we were sat in the top tier of the stand on a Monday night TV game, with the home fans sat below us making a lot of noise.  At one point during the first half, everyone was stood up gesturing the home fans.  As the furore subsided, my Dad pulled on my sleeve to tell me to sit down.  I did.  My mate next to me did not, flicking the Vs to the Owls fans.  He wasn’t the only one, plenty of burly lads were doing the same.  But he was 17 years old and weighed seven stone, so he was chucked out by the stewards to make a stand rather than any of the more bothersome chaps.  He never came to a game with us again, probably because we stayed and watched the match while he stood around in the cold outside.

2015-10-03 13.55.03I was working at the wonderful Last Laugh club at Sheffield City Hall over the weekend, and having been to see Rotherham, Sheffield United, Sheffield FC, Chesterfield and Barnsley during previous trips to the steel city, it seems strange that it’s taken this long for the fixture list and my diary to align to take me back to Wednesday.  I sat in my hotel room on the Friday night and looked up how much the ticket would be.  I presumed it wouldn’t be too expensive as:

a) We’re in the North.

b) Wednesday are now owned by a benevolent zillionaire, apparently.

c) This is a Championship level game against Preston.

What I found is that if I bought a ticket on the day of the game it would cost me £33.  Preston is deemed a category “D” fixture.  £33 is the cheapest adult ticket in the ENTIRE ground.  To see a Championship level game against Preston.  Think about that for just a minute.  It is obscene.

If I was to sit in the North Stand instead of the Kop, it would be £36. In the South Stand, £39.  This is a baffling amount of money, especially in a city where there are two massive football clubs.  I contemplated not going to the game on principle, but reasoned that I should to see what value for money those fans get.

The club would no doubt point out that if you are a member then you get a discount and my ticket would have cost £28.  However signing up to that itself costs you £30, so you would need to attend six games just to get your money back.  Hillsborough holds just shy of 40,000 people.  The average attendance is just above half that, and prices like this seem to show that the club has no interest in filling the stadium nor making the game accessible to the working class fan.

There are eight price bands for matches at Hillsborough.  They range from category “G” to “A*”.  In the Kop for instance, a “G” game will cost you £20 – although a “G” game would be likely to be a first round League Cup match against League Two opposition.  This scale goes all the way up to £45 for an “A*” game in the Kop, and as high as £52 elsewhere in the ground.  It is utter madness.  Under 17s get in for roughly half the adult price, and under 11s are cheaper but that’s really not the point.  The stadium is half empty.  Why not drop the prices and fill the place?  The Hillsborough I remember was always full, always loud and never expensive.  When my Uncle took me to games I used to be shocked at how cheap it was for me to get in.

I feel I should speak about “price bands” as well.  Clubs do not need them.  How about you set a flat price for most games and a cheap deal for games where attendance is likely to be low – such as early cup games and the like.  If every game at Hillsborough was £20, the place would be fuller.  End of story.  More fans would buy more merchandise from the club shop and more food and drink on the concourses.  The team would probably perform better on the pitch as the atmosphere would be like it used to be.  Of course, it would mean that games against teams like Leeds would experience more of a rush on tickets, but there’s nothing wrong with that.  Knowing a game has sold out  – just like a comedy or music gig – is more likely to gain attention in the media and drive sales of other games.

And what do you get for £33?  You get a football match.  It could be brilliant, it could be awful.  It could be on a gloriously sunny day – as it was on Saturday, and again cheap prices would have meant fair-weather fans would have swelled the gate – or it could be hammering down and miserable.  The shows I performed at over the weekend at City Hall were well received by the audiences, featured a line-up of four comics including myself and a disco afterwards.  Shows started at 8.30, comedy finished at after 11pm and people stayed until late.  Admission for that was £16.  Why does football have to be so much more expensive?  Wednesday are not paying any of their players stupid money, as far as I can see.  They own their stadium.  They are not in debt thanks to a new owner.  What is going on?

My wrestling company runs shows in London, one of the most expensive cities in the world.  We sell shows out in twenty minutes.  If we wanted to be cynical, we could sell tickets for way more than we do and make much more profit, but we do not want to run the risk of alienating our core fan base and ruining the atmosphere that we have created.  We make ENOUGH money.  Compare our prices to Wednesday or our nearest club, Arsenal.  Our most expensive ticket for a whole afternoon of entertainment is £22, and the majority of our tickets are £12.  Why should football charge more?

We’ll come back to this issue in a while.  I don’t think I’ve ever been more stunned to learn of a ticket price.  Looking back on my adventures, the only time I have paid an equivalent amount in this country was to watch my own team against QPR in the title deciding game a couple of seasons ago.  I had one of the best seats in the ground, it was a category “A” game and it cost me the same amount of money.  I must stress:  I was disgusted with that as well, but was certainly more caught up in the moment of potentially seeing my team win the league and fell for that ploy.

Other Championship level clubs that I’ve visited and have charged high figures include Bolton (£28), Middlesbrough (£26) and Brentford (£26).  With the exception of Griffin Park which was full and is comparatively cheap for a London stadium, Bolton and ‘Boro were half empty stadiums.  Once again, make it cheaper and people will come.  Football isn’t exactly unpopular at the moment, is it?  Look at Germany:  Football is universally affordable at every club and stadiums are always busy.  My ticket for Hertha the other week cost me around £22 to watch a top-flight match in one of the most historic stadiums in the world.  The cheapest tickets there cost around £12.  That’s the same at Dortmund, where me and my mates paid £35 last year thanks to the stronger (at the time) Euro, but those were the most expensive tickets in the ground to watch one of the biggest club sides in the world.  You stand on the Yellow Wall and it’s about £12 again.  Average attendances in Germany are on the up because clubs understands that you need fans for a club to succeed.  If you turn everyone off with high prices then you will eventually kill your club.

And… breathe.

I walked to the game on Saturday.  I’m on a health kick and besides, I was no longer able to afford the bus.  It was around 4 miles, so I set off in plenty of time and enjoyed the scenery.  I love Sheffield as a city, I enjoy the mixture of old and new buildings and the fact that I’ve been visiting the place for so many years means that sometimes I will glimpse something and get sent back to my childhood or teenage years, fragments of a memory that I’ve long since forgot.

On my walk I had forgotten about the plethora of burger vans on the routes towards the stadium.  There are dozens of them, and I have enjoyed many a snack from them in the past.  They all seemed to be competing with each other, with every one I passed being cheaper than the previous.  One had the ultimate bargain:  A double cheeseburger for £3, with free chips.  It had a small queue, even though the streets were still pretty quiet.  I reasoned that I should eat inside the stadium, as per my rules on sampling what clubs have to offer.

I noticed that Wednesday fans seem very proud of their older shirts, with only half of those I saw choosing to wear the current season’s kit.  This meant that I could enjoy a roll-call of the club’s past sponsors, and they’ve had some blinders.  From being sponsored by an actual country – Azerbaijan – to the more niche side of confectionery – Mr Tom and Chupa Chups – and the unfathomable systems stuff – WANDisco and Bartercard.  It’s such a shame that I didn’t see any featuring the short-lived “Napoleon’s Casino” deal.

I had a quick wander round the club shop – Wednesday’s current kit is made by Sondico, so sadly their gear isn’t as sweet as it was during their “Puma King” shirt heyday – and then paid my money on the turnstile to enter the Kop.  I didn’t walk up the big staircase on the left of the stand as my ticket was on the right hand side, but I looked at it for a while.  It still makes me feel small, just like it did the first time I ever climbed up it.  I’m a foot taller now.  The turnstiles are pretty snug though, so I was glad I walked down to the stadium and kept up my weight loss.  A regime that I would now ruin by eating food.

I wanted a burger, as walking past so many burger vans made me crave one.  I ordered one.  I also ordered a diet coke.  The burger was £3.90.  The drink was £2.30.  Again: You have a captive audience of football fans.  They will buy your food and drink.  But why do you need to rip them off?  I reasoned for my £3.90 that my burger would possibly be one of the best that I had ever eaten.  It was certainly not.  It was in a stale bun, was one of the microwaved burger variety (you know the ones, heated up from frozen but not grilled at the ground, then kept in a metal container to be eventually put on some bread).  It didn’t even come with cheese!  No wonder none of the fans were eating them.  They’d all been clever enough to eat outside the ground.

Once again, let’s go back to Germany: The schnitzel that I ate at Hertha – cooked fresh there and then – cost me two euros.  So, what, £1.50? A bratwurst cost 3 Euros and was massive and cooked fresh.  Why are we constantly getting ripped off?  This doesn’t just happen at Hillsborough, look back through all of the games I’ve seen in the UK.  Food costs a fortune.  If you actually look after your fans and subsidise their food a little, your club will grow.  Parents will bring their kids.  More money will eventually go through the tills.  Why is everyone running a football club so short sighted?  I think I was even more enraged at the cost because I had just spent £33 to enter the stadium, but still.  Too expensive and not good enough quality.  At least the kids serving were pleasant.

2015-10-03 14.15.59I took my seat and had a bit of a rant about the prices on Twitter, getting support from fans of various clubs, including Wednesday.  It turned out that it was £45 to sit in the away end at Carrow Road that day to watch City, but our owners had subsidised the tickets for the travelling fans and knocked a tenner off.  You see?  That’s caring about your supporters.  Food there was apparently cheaper as well, credit to Norwich (although shame on you, charging £45 for the away end).

The Kop is still an imposing stand, even with the seats in place these days.  I’ve never sat in there, only ever stood before it was redeveloped in 1993.  By that point my visits to Wednesday had ceased as I had a season ticket at Filbert Street, and the Wednesday fan Uncle had joined us at those games, whilst still listening out for the Owls score.  I took my seat and was immediately transported back to my youth as I spotted one chap, shirtless.

Tango Man.

In vase you’ve never heard of him before, Tango Man is really called Paul Gregory.  He’s a large, bald chap who takes his shirt off and watches Wednesday.  He’s so famous that the little corner stand he sits in – the uncovered Kop Corner – is often called “Tango’s Corner”.  When I was a kid I once high fived him on the the way into a game.  He seemed to be a lovely chap, and he’s the closest thing that we get to a true continental Ultra: a fan who loves his club so much that he’ll willingly disrobe and watch every game topless because it’s just something he does, all the time starting songs and giving the impression that his football club is the most important thing in his life by quite some way.  I couldn’t help noticing that there was another chap who also went shirtless, and admired them both for not caring about what they look like.  If I had to take my shirt off I’d be breathing in and flexing for ninety minutes.  They don’t care about body image, good on them for that.  They probably eat their burgers outside the ground as well.

Prior to kick-off, I had a good look around the stadium.  I’m sure the roof of the Leppings Lane end – where you can still see the outline of the old “Presto Stand” sponsorship  – used to be painted blue, but I might be imagining that.    The South Stand – where I sat for the League Cup Final replay – is, in my humble opinion, one of the most beautiful main stands in football today.  When architects are designing the faceless, bland new stadiums that spring up everywhere, they should be made to look at structures like this and recall a time when grounds actually had some personality.

As the teams were announced, I was interested to learn that Chris Kirkland was on the bench for Preston.  Of course, he had a spell at Wednesday so was returning to his former club, but I have another vested interest in Kirkland.  For much of my adult life, I lived in a village called Barwell.  I went to high school there till I was 14, too.  He’s the same age as my sister, and went to the same school and grew up in that village.  He’s pretty much the most famous thing to come out of if, unless you count the meteorite that hit the main street there in the 1960s.  Even when he played for Coventry – my most despised of City’s rivals – I wanted him to do well.  You couldn’t avoid him in the local press because literally nothing else happens in the Hinckley area.  Trust me, I was in the paper there for passing my degree.  I think they called me a “boffin”.

Once the game kicked off, I realised that it is nigh on impossible to read the numbers on the back of the Wednesday shirts.  Using black numbers and letters on a blue and white shirt somehow makes it akin to one of those magic eye pictures from the 1990s.  Therefore it took me a while to recognise the players, with the exception of Austrian striker Atdhe Nuhiu.  You can’t miss him.  I mean, you literally cannot miss him.  If I shot a bullet out of my window in Wales now in the rough direction of South Yorkshire, it would hit him.  He is six feet six inches tall and easily as wide.  he is the most massive footballer I have ever seen, and having sat with Wednesday fans watching him for an afternoon I am both now a fan of him and no wiser on how to pronounce his name.

For the first 44 minutes of the game, Nuhiu attempting the odd bit of skill and the Kop Corner having fun were the only entertaining things about the game.  Seriously, it was the most boring 44 minutes of football that I have ever seen.  It was so dull that it even managed to kill the atmosphere inside most of the stadium.  Pre game enthusiasm was replaced by yawning and checking of phones.  It was almost as if the teams knew how annoyed I was at having to spend £33.

Then finally on the stroke of half-time we had some action: A goal from Kieran Lee after a delightful backheel from Fernando Forestieri.  It was a great finish from Lee, but a rare moment of quality from one of the worst halves of football that I have ever seen.  Genuinely, apart from the goal and an unfortunate injury to Preston’s Paddy McCarthy, nothing happened.  Not a thing.  Well, Barry Bannan ran around a lot, like an enthusiastic terrier.

2015-10-03 14.16.05

During half time there was a massive ovation for the lad doing the lottery draw.  As luck would have it, Chris Waddle was there, no doubt in the know about me attending the game.  Even now he could have played in that first half and made it 100% more entertaining.  Luckily, the second half would be infinitely better.

Tom Lees went close with a couple of towering headers from corners, before Bannan drew a great save from Jordan Pickford.  The rebound fell to Forestieri but Calum Woods made a world-class block to deny him.  Then in the 55th minute John Welsh dithered in his own area when he should have hoofed it clear, and Daniel Pudil robbed him of the ball before slotting home from a narrow angle with defenders flailing around him.  Nuhiu stabbed the ball home on the line, but it was already going in and the on-loan Watford man got the credit for the goal.

Now the atmosphere was closer to how I remembered it back in the day, with everyone in the Kop singing along and Wednesday threatening more goals.  After the bland first half, the game now really opened up with Preston needing to get back into the game somehow, and Wednesday trying to exploit the gaps to stretch their lead.

After about an hour, I had a weird similar experience to my time in Berlin.  That night we all learned of Lewandowski scoring five goals in nine minutes for Bayern against Wolfsburg.  At Hillsborough, everyone became aware of Sergio Aguero scoring five goals as Manchester City rapidly came back from 1-0 down to massacre Newcastle 6-1.  It wasn’t in nine minutes, but it was pretty bloody rapid.

Eoin Doyle should have scored for Preston, before Wednesday replaced Nuhiu with Lucas Joao.  He’s also massive – although not as biblically huge as Nuhiu  – and the best way to describe him as being like a tricky Carlton Palmer.  You know he is, in theory, a professional footballer, but he’s as ungainly as can be.  At one point he literally got tangled with the Preston keeper leading to a free kick.  Paramedics nearly had to be called to prise them apart and check how many limbs Joao has.  He’s like a footballing octopus.

In the 76th minute Preston made a game of it, a fine finish from Alan Browne after Doyle’s flick-on from a corner.  The 1000 or so Preston fans roared their team on and the last few minutes would be pretty frantic.  Keiren Westwood made a great save from Welsh to keep Wednesday in the lead, and then Forestieri cleared off the line from the resulting corner before substitute Lewis McGugan went really close with a free-kick up the other end.  Bannan – who never stopped running all afternoon – took on three players before teeing up substitute Alex Lopez to go close.

Then as the clock ticked into injury time, Preston threw everyone forwards for a corner – including keeper Pickford.  The corner led to nothing and Wednesday sped forwards, the crowd screaming at them to shoot at the empty net.  Pickford got back into his area just in time for McGugan to lob him from 45 yards with a wonderful finish.  The Kop went suitably nuts, nobody missing the goal because they had left early.  Presumably with prices as high as they are, you may as well get every minutes worth.

That was pretty much the last kick of the game, and Wednesday march closer to the playoff places.  Their owner has stated that he would like to have the club back in the top flight by 2017, and it seems weird to have such a huge club not be in the Premier League.

However, the attendance on Saturday was just 20,383.  I hate to hammer the point home, but if you made the tickets much cheaper then Hillsborough would once again be the packed-out theatre of football that it deserves to be.  Those fans – as excellent as I remember them being from my childhood – shouldn’t have to pay so much to watch their team in this current rebuilding era.


Sheffield Wednesday 3 (Lee 45, Pudil 55, McGugan 90) vs Preston North End 1 (Browne 76)

Attendance: 20,383

Cost: Ticket £33, Burger £3.90, Diet Coke £2.30

Fun Factor: 7/10 (hard to score: value for money 2/10, first half 2/10, fans 9/10, second half 9/10, overall I’ll say 7)