The Football Neutral: Match Sixty – Huddersfield Town vs Reading

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It’s that time of year again, the time where I am contractually obliged as a quasi-journalist to say at the beginning of any report that it is, once more: THE MAGIC OF THE FA CUP.
In the previous two seasons of my wanderings, I have chosen to attend two clashes of non-league versus bigger clubs, in Kidderminster grinding out a draw at home to Peterborough in 2014 and West Brom battering a very game Gateshead last year. I decided to do something a bit different this year though, and attend a game that hardly anyone was bothered about.
See, when the media choose their Cup matches to endlessly bang on about, there’s a clear pattern that they observe. Every game is one of the following:
1: Non league club having its big day out
2: Small club with a chance of a shock
3: All Premier League clash, because we don’t get enough of those sides already
4: Local derby that hasn’t happened for a bit
Literally nobody was bothered about Huddersfield vs Reading. If anything, the cup is a mild inconvenience to both teams who would take reaching the playoffs in the championship over a cup run any day of the week, because let’s be honest (and with all due respect to both clubs, who are smashing) neither of them are winning the cup anyway. It’s just another game that you have to prod your fans into attending.
I was informed that tickets were cheap and that only three quarters of the John Smiths Stadium would be open for the game, but that isn’t why I chose to attend. Nope, it’s because of Football Manager. On my latest saved game on the newest version of the greatest game ever made, I started out with Huddersfield. I’m not there anymore, but more on that in a minute. I did enjoy my two seasons there, mind you.
Before we get to the match itself, I must confess that I have been to two other matches since I have last written a blog. These matches didn’t get a write-up as they are clubs that I’ve visited before, and that I’m fond of for different reasons.
First up, the Saturday before Christmas, was a return trip to The Old Spotted Dog stadium in East London, home of the almighty Clapton FC. Regular readers will know that my visit there last season remains one of my favourite experiences in my thirty plus years of watching football; an Essex Senior League game which finished 4-3 and featured anti-homophobia displays, pyro and my introduction to the Clapton Ultras.
I really had to go back there this season, and I did, taking along my mate and business partner Jon to experience it for himself. Their match against Sporting Bengal (I’m led to believe that they’re still from London rather than the Indian subcontinent) was a Christmas spectacular, with the club handing out free raffle tickets and the Ultras giving everyone a seasonal hat. A second scaffold has been constructed ensuring another 100 or so people can avoid the rain, and the singing remains loud and proud. One wonderful moment saw the manager of the visitors hand the Ultras a crate of food for them to put into their own food bank that they had organised. He was, quite rightly, roundly applauded by everybody.
However, in some other aspects the mood has changed. There are now signs up having to tell fans how to behave after a few groups of ladz (yes, spelled like that) came along to the odd game and got the wrong impression of how to act. People now need to be told to tidy up after themselves and not spend the entire match taking selfies on their phones.
Also, some of the Ultras seem a bit annoyed that their little secret has exploded so much. I get it if the new fans are misbehaving like the story above, but at least once I caught a couple of fans staring at me and Jon because we weren’t singing every song. Well, I couldn’t do that – firstly because I don’t know the words to them all, and secondly because I’ve been ill for six weeks and singing loudly makes me cough and lose my voice. I still did it a bit though, it’s damn infectious there.
I still love Clapton and consider myself both an Ultra from a distance (I type this from a laptop that is COVERED in their stickers), but I hope this is more of a teething problem than a symptom of a turn away from the wonderful, friendly experience that I had there last year. Don’t get me wrong though, I’d still go there every week if distance and writing commitments didn’t get in the way. It is splendid on that scaffold. (The game finished 1-1, by the way)
Then just after Christmas I returned – exactly a year to the day since I was last there – to Prenton Park, the home of Tranmere Rovers. They’re now in the Conference, which I think is pretty heartbreaking for a club that Leicester seemed to play a lot back in the mid 1990s, and indeed in the 2000 League Cup final (which they deserved to win. Trust me, I was there).
For this visit though, I wasn’t just watching. I was working as well, hosting the hospitality guests, conducting interviews before and after the game. I’ve been a regular MC at a comedy club there over the past year, and it’s only 40 minutes from my house (only Chester and Wrexham are closer at Conference level and up; Airbus UK are technically my closest team). I dressed semi-smartly (they told me not to wear a suit as I would look weird, they know me very well indeed) and had a chat in front of 150 fans with man-mountain assistant manager Shaun Garnett, chairman Mark Palios and after the game, man of the match Steve McNulty.
Each little interview was fun for different reasons. Shaun gave us the team news in the following way. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it genuinely went like this. I don’t think even the biggest Rovers fan knew what he was talking about:
” Davey, Stevo, Thommo, other Stevo, Bandit, Charlie, Banjo, The big lad, Trev, Bazza and the lad up top”
I just nodded, obviously.
I knew Mark Palios was a good chap because Tony Jameson (top chum and Football Manager Ruined My Life legend) had met him once and he told me he was sound. He was as well, cracking jokes and nattering to me like I was important before the mic was turned on. Watching him with Tranmere fans you get the impression that he wants them all to be happy, he seems to have time for everyone. He even threw in a betting joke following the past scandal at the club. That got a massive laugh, nearly as much as the one little girl who cried when he started talking.
Rovers won 1-0 and man of the match was centre back Steve McNulty, a scouse lad who is on loan from Luton. Indeed that is where I’ve seen him before, terrifying strikers. Genuinely. He’s a big lad. He’s not fat, he’s like Akinfenwa; you get the impression he would lift a bus off you if you were stuck underneath it. He also scored one of the greatest goals ever in the conference a couple of years back, a magnificent volley against Southport. Google it, you won’t regret it. I mentioned that goal and we had a chat before the mic was on, he’s a really lovely feller. I mentioned that I was a Leicester fan and he spoke highly of Jamie Vardy, who he played with at Fleetwood. I mentioned that my wrestling company have named a show after him (we really have, it’s called “Chat Shit Get Banged” and he offered to pass on my number to one of his teammates who is Vardys best mate. Still waiting for the call, but that was a nice thing to suggest).
What was odd is that Steve is a big, scary lad on the pitch and an affable, talkative lad off of it… Until you out a microphone in front of him. I forget sometimes that I talk for a living and chatting in front of 150 people is just my job, for him it’s a lot weirder. The fans were very happy to see him though.
Right then, back to the cup. On my drive across to Huddersfield I listened to Wycombe drawing with Aston Villa, as Five Live and TalkSPORT both presented that game, smelling blood as Villa slip further into the relegation quicksand. There were 9000 at that match, the biggest attendance at Adams Park in quite some time. The reception for their equaliser was wonderful, and I wondered if I would experience a true reflection of the Huddersfield atmosphere with the game there meaning nowhere near as much.
It might have been cheap to watch Huddersfield on Saturday, but parking isn’t. £7.50 to park on the ground itself, and then you can walk up to the stadium which looks out of its sunken foundations like a stranded spaceship. I remember when it was built and we were told that all new stadiums would look as crazy as that. A couple of decades on and every single new ground may as well be built from the same Lego kit (and yes, I include my own teams home in that statement, it’s not exactly interesting to look at). I’d been told on Twitter to sit in the South Stand as its where the loudest fans would be (the misplaced for one game North Stand Loyal).
I noticed upon entry that Town had a similar – albeit smaller – set-up to Ajax fans, a few trusted fans being handed flags on their way in that we stored in a black bin. I watched this whilst eating my food, a decent hot dog and the King of all Pies: a Hollands Meat and Potato Pie.
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I had my first Hollands when I was 17, attending a game in Manchester with a school friend who grew up there. He told me that they were amazing pies, and I doubted him, I didn’t even like pies back then, and these shouldn’t be as great as they are. There’s not exactly a ton of meat in there, but there’s something about the combination of gravy and potato and pastry that blows you away. I remember an away trip to Blackburn where they sold them out of polystyrene boxes as soon as you were through the turnstile. I ate three that day, I think my dad did four.
I sat down in my seat – it was unreserved, so you could go wherever you wanted in the three stands that were open, barring the away end of course – and thought about the Huddersfield Town team that I had shaped on football manager. I got them promoted in my first season (Nakhi Wells, Mustapha Carayol and Joe Lolley all starring) and then steered them to a respectable 17th in the Premier League in my next season before being harshly sacked for applying for the Ajax job. I didn’t get that and am now trying to rebuild by career at Utrecht (I figure I had pre-emptively bought a place in Holland so stayed there).
Of course, I didn’t stick with exactly the same team. I love Joe Lolley because I watched him look wonderful two years ago when he was at Kidderminster (you see, it all links) and Wells was great leading the line on his own. But I did bolster the back line with Ben Gibson from Middlesbrough (who was FAR too cheap) and Calum Chambers on loan from Arsenal. It brings me no joy to see them struggling in the 2017-18 season, but they shouldn’t have sacked me. I JUST WANTED TO TALK TO AJAX TO SEE HOW IT WOULD GO.
As the teams walked onto the pitch, I noticed two things. Firstly, that despite the smaller attendance, the Huddersfield fans are LOUD. Properly noisy, with every fan – young to my left and older to my right – singing at the very top of their lungs. Secondly, that for some reason Reading were playing in a lavender kit.
Look, pink is a cool colour. Teams all over the world use it. Just wear pink. It’s like they designed a pink kit and then panicked, forgetting they were in 2016 rather than 1976. Either that or they let someone’s Gran design it. Lavender isn’t proud enough to be pink or different enough to be purple. It’s an insipid colour, like taupe and beige.
The teams shook hands and I noticed that the experience at the John Smiths Stadium felt quite German. Two guys at the front conducting the fans in what songs to sing and even stranger, they sang EXACTLY the same pre-match song as I had seen Hertha Berlin do in the autumn. You know the one, it goes la la la la la la la la, Hertha BSC (with the end bit substituted for HTFC in this case). They even do the right moves for it, although of course it is on a smaller scale. That was a pleasant surprise. I wonder if a Town fan has visited the Olympiastadion, or it developed in a more organic way? The football these days is also a bit German too, with Town managed by David Wagner.
We kicked off and behind me sat four work experience lads, all wearing suits. Because they were young and fashionable, they could have passed as youth team players being on their best behaviour, all iced gem haircuts and shiny, strange coloured shoes. One was genuinely wearing a bow tie, presumably because that is what Neymar would do if he had work experience in Yorkshire.
Lolley and Wells both started brightly, with the former showing real drive and promise every time he got the ball. With the way he has risen through the ranks from non league and Jamie Vardy making the path slightly more considered these days, I could really see him playing in the top flight. He’s still young and has put on muscle mass since I last watched him play. He was at the heart of every attack, trying to lay something on for Wells or trying stuff on his own.
Huddersfield did have to defend as well though, with Vydra rounding the keeper and having his shot cleared off the line in a first half that had few clear cut chances but was fun enough to watch.
The biggest moment of the first half involved Reading’s Danny Williams who raised his hands to his marker but stayed on the pitch. The referee didn’t even book him, drawing the ire of the home fans, who also noted that Town were passing the ball well but nobody wanted to have a shot. “We’re like a shit Arsenal” said the chap next to me, who was heading every ball. Nobody had sat down yet, even though we had seats. That’s how it should be.
Wells did fashion a shot after good work from Harry Bunn (I can’t say his name without saying “bakers son” after it, I’m sorry) but the referee was weak once again, giving a free kick for a foul on Vydra who went down as if he had been cleaved in twain, only to have him leap up before the physio could come on and stop the match. The Terriers were applauded off at the break, but the referee was most certainly not.
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During the interval we were treated to the most honest half time draw I’ve ever heard. The lady with the winning draw ticket came down and received her prize of a few hundred quid, but then she had chance to pick a number between 1 and 11 to possibly win ten grand. She chose her number and won a Huddersfield Town hat. The bloke doing the draw said “you’re gutted aren’t you? I’m sorry. That’s awful”. Northerners rule.
Onto the second half, and both teams went for it, knowing a replay wouldn’t be the best of things for either side with so many fixtures still to play in the season.
Reading attacking towards their fans (in the same stand as us, to my left) prompted their first song. I genuinely didn’t realise they had any fans there at all, so loud were the Town supporters. The best thing was that the home end reacted in a cool way, demonstrating that almost German vibe that I noted before. When I was a lad, if the other fans piped up you would then sing songs about them, and only them. Instead the Town support decided to get louder in terms of singing their own songs, and there was not a single one handed signal to the Reading lot in sight. Maybe football atmospheres are changing for the better? It certainly seemed to be the case on Saturday.
It was quite acceptable to call the referee a wanker though, because he was still a spineless fool incapable of giving a decision to Town and giving anything to Reading. I swear at one point I sneezed and Vydra went down.
Didn’t matter though, because soon Town were ahead. The ball was won by Kyle Dempsey and flicked out to the left wing, before a cross was hung over the area and Jamie Paterson smashed a beautiful, towering header into the top corner. Despite the game hardly meaning the most in the grand scheme of things, the place went quite nuts. I only wish the goal had been in front of us rather than the empty end.
The singing was now turned up to eleven, but I couldn’t help noticing one girl from where I was. Ever been to a music gig and spotted one drunk lass dancing when she should be pogoing? I once watched a girl twerking to Slayer at the Sonisphere Festival and had to stop my wife from killing her on principle.
Well, this young lady, bless her, had had a bit to drink and would clap when nobody else was, swirl her scarf when everyone was clapping and kept standing on her seat. She looked like she was having the time of her life, and that is of course to be applauded… But she needs to get some rhythm at some point in the future, that’s for sure.
The referee then had another moment to shine and blew it. Wells sprinted into the area and Reading keeper Ali Al-Habsi came out to meet him. The Town striker was too quick and rounded him, with the former Wigan stopper bringing him down. We all knew it was a penalty. Al-Habsi knew he was doomed and waited for his red card… Which didn’t come. Instead, Wells was booked for diving to howls of derision. The bloke to my right made an excellent point: Wells was round the keeper and certain to score, why would he dive? Al-Habsi didn’t protest him going down, neither did any of his team mates. A few minutes later Vydra would dive in the area and he wouldn’t get booked, and typically Al-Habsi (who to be fair isn’t a cheat, and is a great keeper) then started playing out of his skin.
At around this time a child, aged maybe 10 years old, walked past me. He was clad from head to toe in designer clothing: Armani jeans, Boss polo shirt, Burberry scarf and Stone Island hat and coat. Either that lad has a very profitable paper round, millionaires for parents or they’ve got a sewing machine in their front room. I didn’t know you could even get Stone Island for ten year olds.
The referee got things wrong again as a foul on Wells – that he didn’t give, neither did he cite again for diving – led to the Reading equaliser. It was the somehow-still-on-the-pitch Williams that committed the foul. The ball arrived with Vydra who hit a deflected shot that looped into the net.
Bunn had a chance at the other end but the lads in lavender, seemingly feeding off the referee based rage, started to dominate. Soon they had their second goal as the previously great mood started to sink. Hal Robson-Kanu converted after a pass from Lucas Piazon and everything was certainly feeling pretty unfair.
What was nice to see was the lack of Town fans ploughing towards the exit when all seemed lost, and that was especially crucial as finally the referee awarded something the way of the home side. It may well have been outside the area (or possibly not even a foul), but Bunn went down under a challenge and Wells converted from the spot to send us to a second game.
So both sides get a replay that I doubt they would have wanted before the game. There’s something to be said for getting rid of replays now, we all trust extra time and penalties enough to settle things now. I can’t see the attendance in Reading being massive for this one, even if the first match was certainly lively enough.
Credit the Huddersfield fans though. I expected this to be a sedate experience, instead I had a genuinely memorable afternoon spent in the company of some of the most passionate fans I’ve seen in a while. I definitely think somebody has been to Germany though… Or maybe there’s a Hertha fan who observed them and took it back to Berlin?
Wonderful.
Summary:
Huddersfield Town 2 (Paterson 57, Wells (Pen) 90) vs Reading (Vydra 71, Robson-Kanu 87)
Attendance: 9,236
Cost: Ticket £10, Parking £7.50, Hot Dog £3.50, Pie and Drink £5
Fun Factor: 8/10
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The Football Neutral: Match Fifty Nine – Northampton Town vs Northwich

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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!

I’m not going to lie.  This is a good one, and it’s not just because of the Magic of the FA Cup (TM).

My last two games have been goalless draws.  Last time out at Chorley it was still entertaining enough down to the company I was in and the weather conditions the game was played in, alongside the spectacular old stand I sat in.  The game before that at Solihull was, let’s be honest, dire.  At least the fans kept me entertained because it was, quite easily, the worst game of football I have ever watched.  This past weekend needed to give me something to remind me why I do this… and boy, did it.

I wasn’t even planning on going to a game on Saturday.  As I was working in Leicester my plan was to stay at my Dads and find some kind of online feed to watch City against Swansea in the afternoon before rocking up to my gig at night.  My general feeling of lethargy and laziness was not exactly helped by fainting in the Fosse Park branch of Asda on the Friday night.

I was just idly looking at Quorn sausage rolls one minute (I’m not a veggie, I just really like Quorn), and then I was on the floor the next.  Two very nice ladies who worked there helped me, up, sat me down and gave me a cup of tea with seventeen sugars in it.  I think they thought I was drunk, which probably wasn’t helped by me insisting that I wasn’t drunk even though they never asked.  Because as everyone knows, the more pissed you are, the more you deny it.  After a while they let me go about my business and drive back to my Dad’s.

Compare and contrast the reaction of my wife to this news to how my Father dealt with it:

WIFE: “You need to get some proper rest.  You’re working too hard, and probably need to see the doctor.  I’m very worried about you, you really need a holiday.”

DAD: “You’d best have a jaffa cake.”

But much as I’d have liked to feel sorry for myself and lounge on a sofa eating biscuits on Saturday afternoon, a mate came calling.  That mate is Lloyd Griffith, and he is one of my very favourite human beings.  I always feel that my combo of comedian / writer / wrestling promoter is pretty neat (more on that in a minute), but his is even better: Comedian / actor / opera singer.  He genuinely has the voice of an angel: one of my favourite memories of the Fringe this year was Lloyd and Charlie Baker singing the Tetris theme tune together on stage during a Gamer Gamer show that I was hosting.

As well as being bloody funny and a smashing lad, Lloyd happens to be a Grimsby supporter.  He’s such an enthusiastic fan that if you spend any time with him I can guarantee that you will then always look out for their score on a Saturday from that moment onwards.  He’s even had chance to commentate on his team recently, something that I’ve done in the past with City (vs Loughborough in a pre-season friendly) but he’s been trusted with proper games as he’s actually, you know, good at it.

Lloyd messaged me to ask if I was doing a game, so I had a quick look at the fixture list and decided upon Northampton vs Northwich in the second round of the FA Cup.  Whilst I chose it mainly because of it’s geographical proximity to both of our gigs that night (I was in Leicester, Lloyd was in Stafford and Stoke), it also happened to be the tie of the round.

Northampton are currently turning heads in League Two despite the club being in dire financial trouble.  They’ve got an unfinished stand that they can’t pay for, HM Revenue and Customs issued them a winding up order over unpaid taxes in October, and their players have gone periods without being paid during this season.  But they’re playing good football and sit in a promotion spot, level on points with top team Oxford United.

Then there was their opponents, Northwich Victoria.  The lowest ranked team still in the cup, they ply their trade in the Northern Premier League Division One North and are no strangers to financial peril themselves, nearly going bust twice since the turn of the century.  They’re based not too far from where I live, sharing a ground with their local rivals Witton Albion (whose stadium it actually is).  Northampton’s unfinished stand and owed money will certainly resonate with Vics fans, as they opened a new stadium in 2005, only to have to sell it and see it demolished seven years later.  A splinter group of fans even formed a new club – 1874 Northwich FC – that plays in the league below the Vics.

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Before I set off for the game I had to do a radio interview for TalkSPORT about Leicester City and various other things with Georgie Bingham and Micky Quinn.  I remember Quinn as a player, terrorising defences for Portsmouth, Newcastle and Coventry.  It was at the latter where he made his biggest impression on me as it was around that time that I realised growing up in Hinckley that Leicester’s biggest rivals in my eyes would always be the Sky Blues.  They were pretty good back then, too.

Interviews like this often come in through my agent.  I’m the only comedy circuit regular who is a City supporter, as far as I’m aware, so with them doing well at the moment I get asked to do the occasional thing here and there (presumably because X Factor winner Sam Bailey costs too much).  I sense towards the end of the season when we go twenty games without winning (knowing us, that will happen) that I’ll get called upon once again.

The interview didn’t start too well, as I was introduced as a comedian (correct), writer (correct) and wrestler (oh no).  You’re left with two options when something like this happens: just agree with it, or correct the interviewer.  I did the latter, and felt bad about it but they were pretty nice.  I even offered Micky the chance to train to become a wrestler, although he insisted that he would be better at the Sumo variety.  When asked to explain how I felt about our season so far, I stated that none of it is real and I’m clearly just dreaming or in a coma.  I was only half joking, but at the time we sat second in the league.  That kind of stuff doesn’t happen to us.

As I left for Sixfields, it was blowing a serious gale.  So bad was the weather that I heard on the radio that a lorry had been blown over on the M1, so took the A5 down to Northampton from my Dad’s.  I never speed anywhere (fear of losing my license keeps me on the straight and narrow) but at least seventeen cars warned me of the speed camera van that I drove past, including one flashing their lights as I was pretty much next to it.  If I hadn’t seen it by then then I’m certain that my cataracts would have missed your lights as well, bucko.

I parked up in a little car park in a field next to the ground for £3, just as Manchester City looked like they would lose away at Stoke.  This would give Leicester chance to go top of the table again with a win at Swansea, but I wasn’t expecting that to happen.  I wandered over to the stadium in the ever-increasing gale and waited for Lloyd.  As I stood there, two chaps manning a burger van kept trying to convince me to buy food from them, like market traders trying desperately to shift the last few bruised bananas of the day.  At one point one of them just shouted “oi you in the hat! Buy a bloody burger!” It seems someone is familiar with the Simpsons subliminal / liminal / superliminal gag.

In the car park by the way, there was a sign for the nearby McDonalds.  It merely said “ten seconds this way”.  Who is reading that sign and thinking “unless it is ten seconds or less away then I am not going there”?

We’d expected to spend £20 on tickets, but it was only £15 on the day.  I learned at FC United a few weeks ago that you have to sell tickets for at least £10 as part of FA Cup rules, what with the away team taking a percentage of the money and all.  You can only sit in the West Stand (where we chose to head) or the North Stand (Dave Bowen Stand) at present, with the South Stand reserved for away fans and the East Stand just a shell, frozen halfway through its development.

I grabbed a hot dog and Lloyd had a cheese and onion pasty (he’s a veggie) once we were inside.  I knew that he had been doing some work for EA Sports recently with regards to their FIFA games, and had been lucky enough to interview people from all around the world, including the strongest player in the game – Football Neutral favourite Adebayo Akinfenwa – plus various coaches and some lad called Lionel Messi.  I am not bloody joking.  Apparently the Argentinian magician (and arguably the best player of all time) took a shine to Lloyd.  I told you he was a good lad.

We talked about me having to do that radio interview as I’m possibly the 274th most famous Leicester fan in the world and the previous 273 were all too busy or expensive.  I put it to Lloyd that I think he’s the most famous Grimsby fan out there, to which he corrected me: Thomas Turgoose (of This Is England fame) is, but they’re now mates, bonded over a love of Grimsby Town.  I love it when stuff like that happens.

We got to our seats and Lloyd pointed at something.  Behind the North Stand stood the Sixfields Tavern, and there seemed to be smoke coming out of it.  Lloyd insisted that it was on fire. It didn’t seem to be a lot of smoke, so I let it pass.  In the away end, one of the Northwich fans threw a very unimpressive flare onto the pitch, and a bored looking steward slowly poured a bucket of sand on it like a high school caretaker.

There was now a lot more smoke pouring out of the pub.  Lloyd pointed out that it was definitely a fire, looking at where smoke was coming from within the building.  When I asked him how he knew so much about it, he told me that he loves fire engines.  Seriously.  Like I enjoy football stadium architecture, one of the circuits best comedians genuinely loves fire engines.

The teams took the field and kicked off, but I’ll be honest: as the situation in the pub escalated, it was very difficult to concentrate on the match.  It wasn’t just like that for me and Lloyd, everyone struggled.  You were instantly aware of the humour of football fans though: I didn’t hear a single person express their worries for anyone inside the pub (it turns out that nobody was hurt, everyone was evacuated quickly thanks to the stellar work of the staff there), instead everyone tried to one-up each other with jokes about the fire.

“Well, better book somewhere else for Christmas dinner”

“I didn’t ask for my steak to be THAT well done”

“Hello, is that direct line?”

Then there was an audible “ooh” from everyone in the crowd as flames started to leap out of the building.  It made for a very surreal atmosphere indeed.  Here’s a picture Lloyd took (and follow him on Twitter – @lloydgriffith )

fire2All of this meant that I couldn’t tell you much about the first half an hour or so of the match, even though it wasn’t bad. It’s just tricky to look at anything else. We did notice that the stewards in the East Stand were having to wear hard hats though as it;s still a construction site, and the flags in there were blowing around violently.  Also, a Northwich fan was thrown out for setting off another smoke bomb, presumably jealous that the pub fire was getting too much attention.

At one point Northampton threatened their smaller opposition and the Cobblers fans started singing “You;re Going Down With The Tavern” which made me genuinely laugh out loud for a good five minutes.  Lloyd chose this moment to sum up the surreal nature of the afternoon:

“A few days ago I was in Barcelona at the Nou Camp interviewing Lionel Messi.  Now I’m in Northampton watching a pub burn down. I love football”.

One fire engine kept driving around and not parking up, leading everyone – because we all noticed it – to speculate that he was that weird kind of lost, where you can see where you’re meant to be but can’t physically get there because of the tiniest of road closures.  Lloyd knew exactly what type of engine it was as well.  I asked him if he ever fancied being a fireman and he said he did, but after taking some preliminary tests he was, and I quote, “dangerously scared of fire”.

At this point in the game, Northwich were on top of their higher-ranked opposition, with Northampton struggling to get any real chances together and the Vics playing without fear. They had a decent chance through Howard before their keeper Mason Springthorpe was drawn into a couple of good saves from rare cohesive Northampton attacks. Then in the 44th minute the whole of Sixfields was shocked as Jimmy Ball put the visitors ahead with a volley from a corner in front of the Northwich fans.  They rightly went utterly insane as the players celebrated with them.

We went into the half-time break with the minnows in front and the pub still ablaze.  That’s a sentence I don’t think I’ll ever type again.  With a gale force wind whipping through the stadium (and fanning the flames) we were treated to a handful of fans trying (and failing) to chip footballs into the boot of a car parked in the corner of the ground.  I checked up on how Leicester were doing an they were two-nil ahead away at Swansea, meaning they were also top of the Premier League.  At this point I thought I might actually be dreaming all of this.

2015-12-05 14.54.49The wind showed no chance of slowing down as we kicked off the second half, with it making every dead ball a tricky prospect. The Vics keeper took abut three minutes to take one goal kick as the stiff breeze kept moving the ball just as he made his run-up. Home favourite Ricky Holmes was brought on in the 59th minute, and this gave the home fans chance to sign his name set to the Spandau Ballet hit “Gold”, giving rise to one of the more catchy songs I’ve heard this year.

Four minutes after his arrival though and it was 2-0 to Northwich. Richard Bennett nodded home after great work from Brian Summerskill, dispossessing Buchanan and seeing a fantastic cheeky lob rebound back off the bar for his team-mate to double their advantage.

Credit both sets of fans here.  Nobody in the home end turned on their team despite an upset being on the cards, and the away fans turned up the volume and backed their side as loudly as they could, albeit without any smoke bombs or flares now.  It was part of the FA Cup script that Vics keeper Springthorpe would now start playing out of his skin, stopping Taylor from pulling one back with an absolutely out of this world save.

With the Cobblers fans also cranking up the volume as their side chased the game, Lloyd found a novel way of joining in with songs without feeling like he was cheating on his own team. When ever the home fans sang a song, he would replace “Cobblers” with “Coldplay”.  He kept this up for the rest of the game.  If only we were watching Derby so we could have been watching a Chris Martin on the field to make the reference more accurate.  It certainly fit in every song though.

In the 82nd minute Northwich brought on Muhammed Ali.  The announcement of that name certainly got everyone’s attention, and while we were still processing that Northampton finally found a way past Springthorpe. Sam Hoskins eventually got the final touch on a shot that ricocheted through the six yard box to bring the Cobblers back into the match.  The atmosphere was now rocking, and the pub was STILL on fire.

Lloyd pointed out that the Northwich players heads had visibly dropped after conceding, and he wasn’t wrong. Two minutes later the game was level, with former Leicester midfielder Nicky Adams teeing up Jason Taylor to head home.  The place went nuts and even the stewards in front of us stopping jubilant fans from getting onto the pitch were dancing and singing.

We’d barely sat back down when Northampton broke Northwich hearts with a winner, just four minutes after being 2-0 down.  Ricky Holmes twisted and turned on the right wing and used the outside of his foot to curl in a wonderful cross right onto the head of Dominic Calvert-Lewin to power a fine header into the back of the net.

For those who doubt what the FA Cup means, the reaction to that goal said it all.  Sure, Northampton were expected to win but getting to the third round is enormous for them.  The crowd were as loud for that goal as they would have been for one against much bigger opposition, and you could see how distraught the Northwich players were on the field at letting their lead slip, especially their keeper who seemed close to tears.

Calvert-Lewin should then have added a fourth as both sides still went toe to toe, but conceding three so quickly had really blunted Northwich and there was no way back for them.  The Cobblers fans chanted “Shoe Army” and the wonderful “We’ve Got No Pub But We’re Beating You” as the final whistle sounded and we were told over the tannoy that due to an ongoing incident that the North car parks would not be accessible for some time.  A few wags said “what incident?”

The Northwich keeper sat in his penalty box, head in his hands.  He was applauded by both sets of fans, as were the rest of the Vics players.  As the away fans left the ground, a section of home fans sang the name of their opposition out of respect.  Me and Lloyd were giddy at what we’d seen.  A comeback, a great atmosphere and a pub burning down.  The magic of the FA Cup, indeed.

Summary

Northampton Town 3 (Hoskins 83, Taylor 85, Calvert-Lewin 87) vs Northwich Victoria 2 (Ball 44, Bennett 63)

Attendance: 3,837

Cost: Ticket £15, Parking £3, Hot Dog £3.30, Bovril £1.80

Fun Factor: 9/10

 

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 Seventeen – Kidderminster Harriers vs Peterborough 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!

Oh yes, it’s the magic of the cup (copyright the Football Association, Budweiser, BT Sport and ITV).

If I hadn’t have attended a third round FA Cup tie as my first match of 2014 then something would, of course, been incredibly wrong.  But with that said, the cup doesn’t have the same sheen on it as it used to – and with many a fan on phone-ins and message boards trying to figure out why attendances have dropped and the like, I think I can add my weight to these discussions.  I’m 13 stone, so brace yourselves.

I chose to go to Kidderminster vs Peterborough not just because it was on my way from Manchester (where I had been a guest on Fighting Talk) to Bristol, where my first (and thankfully non Christmassy) gig of the year was in the evening, but also because it had the air of a proper cup tie.  A non league team up against decent league opposition with the prospect of a shock hanging in the air, much better than choosing to see a couple of decent sized clubs put out their reserves after the busy festive season.

Aggborough was packed, but we’ll come to that in a while.  I’m writing this up later than normal, on Monday evening.  I have, since Saturday afternoon, watched several other games on TV and seen reports and highlights of others.  Stadiums half empty.  Youth players blooded because the league is more important.  Managers talking the competition down.

I can explain the first bit.  People seem to think that fans have been turned off of the FA Cup, but that’s nonsense.  Of course we haven’t.  You try telling the Wigan fans that the Cup wasn’t worth it last season.  Speaking as a Leicester City fan, I follow one of the biggest clubs to never win the FA Cup.  We took a fair few thousand fans to watch our game at Stoke on Saturday, even though we knew we’d put our reserves up against theirs.  I remember the last time we got to the quarter finals a fair few years back, and the anticipation of the tie against Blackburn was unbelievable.  Fans love the cup.  That really hasn’t changed.  We all want a day out at Wembley, even if it is overpriced and lacking the character of the old place with its horrible wooden benches….

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The Football Neutral: Match Fourteen – Stevenage vs Stourbridge

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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!

…Stourbridge occupied the South Stand directly opposite.  It was reported after the game that they’d taken nearly 900 fans with them to the game, even better when you consider that their average home attendance is less than half that.  They were incredibly loud and, it has to be said, pretty funny throughout the game.

As we kicked off, I could get a look at Stourbridge.  Now I knew that they were the lowest ranked club left in the FA Cup, but seeing them gave you a true impression of this.  Of course, no squad names or numbers.  But then you looked at their club sponsor and realised that they’re actually officially backed by a dental surgery.  One defender didn’t even have a sponsor on his shirt at all.  I’m presuming this is because they ran out of kit and iron-on logos, rather than a Papiss Cisse-like aversion to the ethics of the sponsor in question.

Stourbridge started strongest.  And I mean REALLY strong.  They played without fear and with the rocket up the arse that the FA Cup provides a smaller team.  They worked their socks off, chasing down everything and being first to every loose ball.  Up front Luke Benbow impressed, quick and powerful and with an eye for goal.  Veteran Stevenage keeper Chris Day had to be at his best to keep the non-league side at bay, and the Stourbridge fans grew louder with every chance.

The Stevenage fans were pretty quiet, but I’m not going to criticise here.  I’ve been to watch Leicester play much smaller sides in the cup and it is difficult to generate an atmosphere when winning is expected.  You get the feeling that Broadhall Way could be a much more lively venue if a bigger team was in town and driving the fans on to back their side; As it was, the Stourbridge fans supplied all the atmosphere – although at one point they were singing the Yaya / Kolo Toure song that I saw the Connah’s Quay fans singing a few weeks back.  Look, it’s funny but it’s not THAT funny….

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