Sunday, April 7, 2013

Abroad Again Back Home

WBA 2-2 Aston Villa F.C.

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i have been on vacation... again.

since my 50th birthday, when i returned to england after an absence of 34 years, i have been going back to visit twice a year. with my mother having initially gone back in 1986 - and then making a second permanent return in 1989 - england is now the family home. this offers me a great excuse to get to the hawthorns a couple of times a year, and i am also afforded the opportunity to visit other grounds and watch other teams. on my last visit, for example, i went to meadow lane for the first time and watched notts county play bury on the friday night before sunderland came to the hawthorns... yet another adventure in my ever growing number of overnight tours of midlands' football stadia.

on tuesdays - and when i am in london - i go watch brentford at griffin park.

one of the sad ironies of my trips these days, is that with the baggies playing in the almighty, bloody PREMIER LEAGUE, i now only see them live twice a year. whereas, i went to six fixtures - and could have made it seven if i'd been able to get my ass up to middlesbrough on a sunday afternoon - the year they won promotion. also, much to my dismay, i can't get tickets to away matches anymore. evidently, top-flight football has its price. for two years running, i've seen brentford more times than i've been to watch the baggies; and last year, i went to both griffin park and the county ground at swindon more times than i was able to get to the hawthorns.

Everton F.C. 2-1 WBA

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i actually started this trip with the chelsea v brentford 4th round FA CUP replay at stamford bridge. this was the most oppressive atmosphere that i have yet encountered when attending football in england since the 1970s.

perhaps i am underestimating the fact that it was a local derby and the heightened security was warranted, but the general attitude of the stewards was excessive. for example, access to the club shop was physically blocked to away supporters and one particular steward outside the stadium took, what i felt, was an inappropriate interest in my activities as i photographed the brentford supporters coming down the brick-wall enclosed lane-way leading to the famous "shed end" of stamford bridge.

it appears that chelsea football club provides part-time employment for every dance-club bouncer and neighbourhood tough-guy in the west end of london.

while the bee's acquitted themselves well in the first-half, thanks to the goalkeeping of simon moore, it was all the LEAGUE ONE side had in them. after a decent crack at goal by adam foreshaw went just wide, and a poor decision by the referee saw marcello trotta's goal pulled back, the score remained 0-0 through half-time. however, the first chelsea goal came within minutes of the restart and that was the signal for the flood gates to open. the home side ran out easy winners by a score of 4-0.

it didn't matter and was surely something that we all knew was possible - and even likely - but by virtue of the fact that brentford took six thousand travelling supporters to stamford bridge, it was a significant event. i had been to a home fixture in the league last year that drew less than four thousand. of course, that match was on TV, so smaller than usual numbers at the gate would be expected.

WBA 0-1 Tottenham Hotspur F.C.

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my next trip was to cardiff on a tuesday night. ironically, i had been there before and felt no connection to cardiff city football club whatsoever and had not anticipated returning. however, that particular experience had been soured before the fact that i had gone to cardiff because i hadn't been able to get tickets to watch the baggies away to the villa, and i simply wasn't going to spend a saturday afternoon in england (or wales, for that matter) without going to the football. it was one of my first great experiences of disillusionment with life in the PREMIER LEAGUE. on this visit, however, i did the right thing and bought my ticket from brighton and hove albion and went as an away supporter.

i stayed at a charming old hotel around the corner from the train station, and travelled out the stadium on a local service that cost £1.80 return.

after my experience at chelsea, the atmosphere here was much more laid back. it was nice to see that the stewards were actually supporters themselves, and were engaged in the match rather than looking for beach-balls to deflate and half hoping for trouble to kick-off. with the visiting team playing a brilliant rear-guard action, and sealing the victory with a late goal on the counter-attack, it was a really enjoyable way to spend a tuesday evening.

Liverpool F.C. 0-2 WBA

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after a couple of days back home with me mum, it was time for the highlight of the trip: an overnight excursion to watch football in the midlands.

i had done this a few times before. that is, i had made the journey leaving the day before and taking in an extra match on the eve of going to the hawthorns. it is a tradition that began out of necessity when west brom's PREMIER LEAGUE fixtures with wolves were played on the sunday with a noon kick-off, at the behest of the west midlands police. this meant that i would have to travel to birmingham a day early anyway. so what better way to pass the time than checking out other football grounds?

having been to leicester city, walsall and birmingham city on previous trips to see the albion, i now found myself spending a cold friday night in nottingham. i have always wanted to go to meadow lane, and i felt a connection there that i almost never feel when going to a new ground.

needing to use the facilities, i found a bar just inside the grounds of the stadium. truthfully, it looked more like a workingman's club or legion hall than it did a pub, and i doubt if anyone inside was younger than sixty. it was an environment that appeared timeless where life had changed little in the last thirty or forty years. as i looked around the brightly over-lit room, with its ancient, yellowing white walls, marked by the odd outdated event poster, i couldn't help but wonder if there if would be a next generation of supporters who would one day be there to take their place. in a world of SKYsports and ESPN broadcasts that show top-flight domestic and european games, it's hard to imagine football's traditional working class environments surviving past the next couple of decades.

notts county's opponents were bottom of the league strugglers, bury f.c., who had brought perhaps two or three hundred supporters down from lancashire with them. while they were certainly vocal enough for their small numbers, the jimmy sirrel stand appeared near empty, belying the fact that there was a reasonable gate (for a televised LEAGUE ONE match on a cold friday night) of nearly six-thousand.

while notts were clearly the more skilled side in possession, they lacked any luck or ability to finish, and a defensive mistake gave the visitors an early one-nil lead that they carried through half-time. this, of course, prompted some good old fashioned midlands-style moaning and groaning over a smoke in the parking lot at the break. the conversation was thick with threats of not renewing seasons tickets for next year, complaints about ticket prices, questioning the intentions of the board and their immediate ambition (or lack thereof)... all the cliché pronouncements heard regularly in pubs across the midlands.

however, with just over 12 minutes gone in the second-half, the magpies hit back with 3 goals in the space of 7 minutes and ran out 4-1 winners on the night.

WBA 2-1 Sunderland A.F.C.

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so, after a night in nottingham, i strolled down to the station and was at new street a good 2 hours ahead of kick-off.

this was my 11th trip to the hawthorns, and i am well familiar, at this point, with navigating the city centre and catching the local train from snow hill.

i have had extraordinarily good luck, as i have only seen the baggies lose once in all my trips to the hawthorns. of course, that was a christmas time fixture with blackburn rovers, when they were in the middle of their annual poor run of form, that traditionally starts in novemeber/december and carries through january/february. the only other occasion that i have been to the hawthorns that did not result in a victory was the re-scheduled fixture when carlos vela scored the equalizer in injury time to salvage a 1-1 draw with wolves and kicked off an 8 match unbeaten run under then new head coach, roy hodgson. despite my family and friends joking about my status as "good-luck talisman" for the baggies, the truth is, that i target matches that i think will be competitive and the baggies have a good chance of winning. i mean, i would just hate to travel the 3000 miles to see my team lose to the likes of manchester united or arsenal!

this was the second year in a row that i've been to the home fixture with sunderland. last year's game was without a doubt the baggies best overall performance of the year - and that includes the 5-1 win at the molineaux. this year's corresponding fixture wasn't in the same class, but the baggies were still good enough to hang on after going two-nil up (thanks to romelu lukaku) , before conceding a lone goal to the excellent stéphane sessègnon late on, for the final result of 2-1.

the big disappointment this year was my inability to get into the club shop. since the club's promotion, match day business has been picking up to such a degree that i would have needed to get there at least an hour and a half before kick off to get in a decent session of shopping for shirts and souvenirs. as it was, i had to line up for 15 minutes just to get in the door. however, i couldn't move and didn't get 15 feet past the entrance before i gave up, turned around and just got the hell out of there. it had changed so much since my first visit to the hawthorns for a match with plymouth argyle, that i thought, i'll do my shopping online and pay the shipping charges as long as it's like this, thanks!

of course, i really miss being in the same division with wolves, and i think that there is something irrational about a baggies supporter cheering the misfortunes of the dingles at the bottom of the CHAMPIONSHIP. i really miss the wolves fixtures at the hawthorns, and i hope to get a chance to travel to the molineaux for the derby one day. albion/wolves is the best rivalry in english football, and i really enjoyed the heightened intensity of these particular fixtures. i, for one, wish wolves only success until we're back in the same division.

my adventure that had begun at stamford bridge in such grand and grim fashion, ended rather modestly on a tuesday night at the broadfield stadium in crawley watching brentford away. i was staying at a hotel out near gatwick airport and crawley is only a 10 minute train ride south. i had gone out to the airport a day early in order to travel down and watch the match on tuesday, thus giving myself an extra day in london before having to leave on thursday morning.

in terms of a facility, crawley is a club that has come up into the FOOTBALL LEAGUE too quickly. they play in a quintessentially poor non-league stadium and employ an over-zealous security staff. it's not a particularly good place to watch football either. the designated seating for away supporters has the poorest sight-lines i have ever encountered at a professional ground.

there was 1500 travelling bee's fans that night, and it really felt like the staff was overwhelmed. i still haven't found out what happened, but during the break at half-time, the away supporters lounge was locked down, and the blue-coated "response" team moved in. there was much remonstrating and chanting from the travelling brentford support. i even witnessed an incident where a bee's supporter was having a verbal stand-off with one of the response team. the blue-jacketed steward then knocked a bottle of coca-cola out of his hand, which was the signal to strong-arm him out of the stadium, on the pretext that he had thrown it at them.

they wouldn't let us out into the parking lot to smoke, which i've only ever seen at much bigger clubs where the exits are more difficult to police. christ! we all still went out for a smoke during the half-time break at cardiff city stadium!

quite comically - and on the way in, a lone female steward was trying to pat down an entire crowd of travelling brentford supporters. eventually, most of us just got tired of waiting and walked around her and went through the turnstile.

brentford got their season back on track with a 2-1 win and now look dead certs for at least the play-offs this year. although, i have to say that i think in terms of actual promotion, they're probably a year or two early for anything but a struggle in the CHAMPIONSHIP. still, you've got to begin improvement and upward mobility somewhere, and uwe rösler has done a brilliant job whatever happens.

of course, i will be back to check on things all over again in october.

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