Arsenal at Home – Big Day Out

The magic of the cup eh? Tin foil cups, sloping pitches, electricians playing full back and always the possibility of a shock result. Except that, by and large, that magic is being devalued by the second. Not having the Final as the one 3pm Saturday kick off you can watch live on telly saddens me as much as the continued existence of Big Brother. Cup ties on a Monday (like our game against Hull was last season – twice) and the fact that big sides always play their reserves are other nails in a fairly hefty coffin. Attendances, on the whole, are dwindling. The one exception is for those clubs lucky enough to land a plum tie against Premier League big boys at home. Like, say, Arsenal.

So it was that over 30,000 tickets were sold for the Amex yesterday and most of their owners turned up for once. Our usual group of me and another dad with our boys was augmented by a friend from up the road with his soon-to-be-five year old and another of The Boy’s mates with his mum and granddad. From young to old we squeezed ourselves on a train early enough to make the journey relatively painless. On the train from Brighton we met some old school Arsenal fans who “only did aways”. One of them was, apparently, bad luck. The other hated Wenger. With three shock results already over the previous two days and now this. the omens were lining up all right. We were bound to lose.

Beers bought for the adults, sweets and drinks distributed among children we took our seats fifteen minutes before kick off to see, not an empty stadium but one that had already pretty much filled. In these circumstances Fanzone is, indeed, a useful warm up for voices and scarf twirling arms. In these circumstances finding a version of “Ring of Fire” that is just the trumpet riff on a loop is genius. In these circumstances dropping the last bars of “Sussex By The Sea” to let the fans take over is entirely right. The stadium was buzzing. Songs fizzed from North to West. Flags waved. Scarves twirled. It built like an enormous bubble. Within two minutes of the start Arsenal had popped it.

I don’t actually think we touched the ball more than twice before it was in the net. We came out exactly like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights. Arsenal stroked it around like we used to under Oscar but with more pace and purpose. Then they remembered we had Joe Bennett at left back, sliced us open down that side before a neat cross set up Theo Walcott who showed he can actually finish when given the freedom of Sussex. Two minutes. One nil. Oh dear.

Poor Bennett. He is a skilful footballer with lovely feet and good pace. And he tries. You’d never know he was on loan from his effort. But I want to go back in time and find the coach who decided he was a left back and shout “NO, COACH. THIS IS NOT A LEFT BACK YOU SEE HERE. THIS HERE IS A WINGER! A WINGER, DON’T YOU SEE? NOW GET IN THE CORNER AND GIVE YOURSELF A GOOD TALKING TO.” The first half, yesterday, showed why the poor lad will never start in that position for Villa. Meanwhile, having told the old school Arsenal fans on the train how good Ince was, he too was proceeding to have a nightmare. In fact we all were. Collectively, all over the park we were horrible, with the exception of COG who was feeding off scraps. Inevitably we went two down in this time, a lovely pass threading our defence for Ozil to finish in style. Yes, this was the week Ozil and Walcott returned to the first team. Lucky us eh? About six minutes later we had our first shot, to ironic cheers. Half time came and, for once, I needed a half time beer. Even The Boy was stunned in to silence. We really could have been four or five down.

Sipping that beer quickly I still emerged to see the game had kicked off and we had the ball. We were passing it around! Woo hoo. Chris Hughton has not quite been here a month, yet, after Brentford, this would already be his second “difficult” half time team talk. God only knows what he said but we were now wide awake, fearless and, at times, the better side. Were these the same players? After good work down the left the ball found O’Grady who held off his man and drilled low in to the corner. It was brilliant number nine play. Never have I been more wrong about a player. If reports that he has already been sold turn out to be true then the man will get a public thanks and apology on these pages.

The fans too came to life. The scarves were up. Songs crackled in to the night. Ince became a monster in midfield, Baldock a menace. Arsenal were looking genuinely worried until we needlessly gave the ball away on the edge of our own area. It was worked to Rosicky whose powerful volley found the centre of the net to Stockdale’s disappointment.

Still we came back, though the players this time, not the fans. If anything they need our support more at 1-3 then at 1-2 but the bubble had popped again and someone was going to have to blow it up. Cue Sam Baldock with a sublime finish. I went mad. The boy went mad. Tickertape. Ring of Fire. Game on.

Except that was it. We couldn’t get back in to it and the final whistle blew with the players applauded from all sides. A true game of two halves. If only.

Afterwards we had a beer “to let the queue die down”. My friend who had taken her son and his granddad decided to go straight to the station where, according to a later text they were surrounded by “nasty Arsenal fans” and walked straight in to a fight. Even though we left later there was still a huge queue and it took well over an hour to get home. There were no “nasty” Arsenal on our train but there was a group of drunk teenagers, surrounded by the police singing hilarious homophobic songs that we’ve never, ever heard before.They were blatantly breaking the law yet  the police seemed to be there in case anyone tried to chin them. I suspect there were more than a few with that on their minds.

I mention all this because this is what our reality in the Premier League would be. Sunday kick offs, huge away attendances, long waits for everything and a whole new set of clubs who think that “we can see you holding hands” is the funniest chant ever. On the pitch lots of close defeats. Lots of “what if”. We still need to survive in The Championship this season of course, but still. Be careful what you wish for.

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Brentford at Home – Prawn Sandwich 

When we’re talking Modern Football there’s nothing that quite vexes me like corporate hospitality. Those two words go along with “the football” as well as “new iPhone” goes with “bath full of lemonade”. And yet it doesn’t. These days it is what keeps many clubs going if we’re honest. The Albion have just posted the sort of corporate finance figures that show that, while David Burke did go, Tony will never get rid of Paul Barber. Having been a harsh critic on these pages you have to tip your hat to that sort of financial performance. It may even mean we can get some new players, because the squad depth was badly exposed again yesterday, but without the revenues from the lounges the rest of us would be watching worse football still. Or no football.

So what exactly was my dilemma? I belong on a terrace wearing Adidas trainers. And some other stuff, obviously, otherwise I’d be freezing and get arrested. But the trainers are the thing. I literally cannot remember the last time I have been to a game and not worn them. Perhaps a mid week game when I had to come straight from work. I’m not sure. However, in the 1901 Club they are verboten. There is a collar and shoes dress code. When I was younger I made it a rule to avoid night clubs that had similar dress codes for the fairly obvious reason that they were rubbish, overpriced lager palaces with terrible music and erection sections. But not quite all the time. When certain friends wanted to go then I did because being with my friends was more important than my musical and drinking prejudices. This is how I found myself in the 1901 yesterday, and before that dressing in a shirt and shoes for the football. Because a very good friend had free lounge passes. Free is my favourite price. And my very good friend shares a love of football, music, food, drinking and banter. A reminder that sometimes it’s good to break your own rules.

It was coincidental that The Boy was missing his first Saturday home game of the season, due to a birthday party on the other side of Sussex. So we had a boys day, a jolly boys outing, a day on the sauce. If you are looking for an insightful and factual account of the game I would stop right now. The painful irony is that yesterday I had the best view I have ever had of a football match and yet I can barely remember most of it. An opportunity wasted. Literally.

We started with the best of intentions. We were back to mine after the game for curry and wine with our wives and so we thought we’d take it easily. That, frankly, lasted until we got to The Cyclist and my friend had drained his Cruzcampo almost before we’d sat down. And, if you can’t beat them, join them. The night before we had played badminton together and my friend had said his dad was meeting us at the ground. “You’ll like my dad. He likes drinking.” Before I could even meet Dad however Dick’s Bar had worked its magic and drawn us in, as if it were one of Brighton’s more interesting and bohemian pubs rather than a strip lit bar at a football ground. Two down we met my friend’s dad and his mate and went to the lounge. Now we were four.

Four is the ideal number for drinking in rounds. I’m sure I’m preaching to the converted here. Two can and do drink in rounds of course but it’s not a proper round. It’s two friends at a pub. With three of you there is a tricky decision to be made as to if you stop at three pints or move on to a much more dangerous six. But with four of you a pleasant afternoon can be whiled away over beers without getting either too wasted or staying too sober. Only, of course, we’d already had a couple.

So what can I say about that ultimate evil necessity The Lounge? Well, it was very nice. You can see instantly why people do it. No queues. A proper knife and fork for your pie. Alan Mullery lurking silverly in the background. Glass glasses. BRANDED glasses. As I imagined the bulk of my friends battling in on a train bantering with the large away support, or struggling through traffic on their coach, I was sat with a proper pint in a proper glass round a table that wasn’t unlike the ones you get at dinners at smart hotels. When I went to get my round in the young girl behind the bar looked distraught when I ordered two Harveys. “I’m terribly sorry” she sighed “but do you mind them in Guinness glasses as we’re out of Harvey’s ones?” She looked like she was about to sob. I resisted the temptation to yell “ACTUALLY YES, I DO MIND. WHAT HAS THIS PLACE COME TO? NO BRANDED GLASSES? BRING ME PAUL BARBER SO I CAN DICTATE AN IMMEDIATE EMAIL TO HIS FACE!” Instead I just said “that will be fine”. And smiled at her. The poor love seemingly had no idea that I can usually spend over 10 minutes queuing only to find no beer or pie at all.

Just as the lounge is lovely so are the seats. An amazing view, right behind the managers. The seats even wider. Even more padded. And that’s where it gets a bit hazy. Brentford seemed to have more of the ball. We seemed to have the better chances. They scored from their only chance of the first half via a massive deflection. We squandered a couple of good ones, Calde shooting straight at the keeper when through on the angle. Brentford played the sort of high line that a decent striker combined with a linesman who knows the rules should be exposing over and over. We had neither.

And here’s why I love football. Whether you are in the best seats in the house in your best shirt or behind the goal in your trainers and other stuff you will have an opinion on the game. That opinion will be strong whether you are a member of a Temperance Society or, frankly, quite pissed. Mine, and my friend’s dad was that we had generally been the better side and had been unlucky. My friend’s (and Mark who I normally sit with agrees with this) was that we were poor. Very poor. I’m offering both sides because, honestly, when it comes down to it, yesterday was a day out on the piss more than it was a sporting occasion. And there’s nothing “modern football” about that, it’s what I did for years.

 

Charlton Away – Ring of Fire, Turnstiles and Luck

For reasons best explained in my match preview I really haven’t done a lot of away games recently. Perhaps the blog’s name is another clue. But yesterday was a proper day out in That London and I suspect it won’t be the last for another seven years.

A while back, as I mentioned in the preview, when a mate offered to get tickets for me and The Boy to Charlton I thought it would be the perfect first away game for him, due to easy travel access and low expectations. Network Rail ensured that the easy travel access lasted considerably longer than it should have, as we plumped to travel via the beautiful Arun Valley line. I got the first grumpy look of the day from The Boy as I made him look at Arundel Castle out of the window, until I remembered that we ALWAYS make him look at of the window at Arundel Castle. And we go through Arundel a lot. It’s the equivalent of someone repeatedly pointing out to me the presence of a silver Ford Focus in a residential side street.

There was also plenty of time for my mate to helpfully point out that as we were right down at the front the players might celebrate in front of us if we scored at that end. That’s the low expectations destroyed in a sentence then.

Castles and expectations aside we reached Victoria dead on time and rewarded ourselves with coffee and cakes, for this was to be a sober away trip, something I’ve probably not done since I was sixteen and sitting on a Costa Express coach without a loaded bottle of magic lemonade. An extended thirty mile an hour clank round South East London later and we were at Charlton station. I can’t speak for the boys but for me this is where the magic begins. The Valley, despite the wilderness years and the renovations, is one of those perfect old football grounds.

You emerge from the station in to tight residential streets that reek of chips and onions and horse shit. The path to the away end is almost natural and you divine your way to it, no thought of Google Maps or Garmins. And then a proper revolving turnstile. When the last of these goes in favour of card reading bleep machines I will genuinely cry. Portakabin bogs and an outside “bar” are your reward for entry through the metal gates, thence a large, roofed stand with tiny seats that everyone stands in front of. In short, The Amex it ain’t, and all the better for it. Unless, of course, you are The Boy taking a wee in that Portakabin. “DAAAAAAD! There’s no soap!” he yelled while washing his hands (the very act of washing already marking him out as a newbie). “No there isn’t son” I had to agree. “It’s soooo unhygienic!” came the reply. You’ve got a lot to learn son. A lot to learn.

We found our standing position which was, indeed, at the front though not front row as row A at Charlton isn’t always the front! Within seconds my name was shouted from behind. An old mate that I used to travel with to many away games and stand with at The Goldstone was right behind me with his son, a little older that our two travelling companions. A general game of musical chairs ensued to try to make sure the adults could chat while the boys could see and then we were off.

1 charlton

A largely forgettable first half but for a few things of note. Firstly there is a difference in us under Hughton (as was starting to emerge under Jones) that is subtle and hard to put your finger on, but nevertheless there. The players seem to give a bit more effort, there is a little more organisation, leadership and luck. Definitely luck, since down our “end” Charlton were denied what looked like a clear penalty for a Joe Bennett hand ball and Stockdale made a magnificent feet first save from the already-injured Johnnie Jackson, the ball squirting to safety, Calde landing on the dangerous Charlton player who was taken off at half time. There was also an opportunity for the 3000 away fans to get a close up view of the fact that Lewis Dunk has now graduated from the Adam El-Abd school of Centre Back Wind Ups as he mercilessly teased Tucudean who was in his pocket until coming off early in the second.

Three thousand away fans you say? Must have been quite a noise. And, of course, it was. The non stop singing, combined with our domination of possession, were the other notable things about the first half. I had privately warned The Boy there may be a teensy bit of naughty language. If I’d known that Charlton fans now have an effing DRUM I’d have said it was a certainty. Within seconds of it starting up it was drowned out by a rousing chorus of “you can stick that f***ing drum up your arse”. I looked down in case there was any chance the boys hadn’t heard. They were in fits of giggles. Oh well.

The second half saw both teams up their game and Charlton forced in to a couple of early subs, For fifteen minutes we were on our heels. On 61 minutes this culminated in Charlton opening up our defence and Solly (theirs, not March) hitting the underside of the bar with Stockdale beaten. The ball bounced out and we lashed a long ball up field. CMS hared after it like an eager puppy and was brought down level with the penalty area. Solly (March, not theirs) took a perfect kick and Rohan Ince was on hand to convert an unmarked header. The away end went absolutely BARMY. Ince initially headed for the centre circle before remembering we were there and celebrating right in front of us. Pressure off.

We held on for the win. Charlton had a couple of chances to equalize, Solly March could have put us two up had he shot earlier and that was that. A win, the first The Boy has seen this season and the whole stand bounced to Ring of Fire. The. Whole. Stand. As the players came over Calde had the cheek to suggest we might want to up the noise level! The bond between players and fans has been restored. The confidence and luck is back. Or, as The Boy said, on the way home, “it’s like watching the old team”.

Ring of Fire is by Johnny Cash. In Walk The Line, the film of his life, Jerry Lee Lewis says “We’re all going to hell for the songs we sing!”. No better illustration of this exists than when I was in the Burger King queue at Victoria, post game. Quietly, but loud enough for me to hear, my son involuntarily went ‘ohhhhhhhh, you’re shit ahhhhh’. Yes, he hadn’t missed that one either. I told him to stick to Ring of Fire.

Charlton Match Preview – Only At Home Goes Away

OMG! I’m super excited! Like totes!

Sorry, I don’t know what’s come over me (except that if I keep writing like that the answer will eventually be Joey Essex). It’s just that I’m going to my first away game for SEVEN AND A HALF YEARS on Saturday. I really wasn’t kidding when I named this blog. Back then The Boy was The Baby. I had just come back from four years living abroad and combined the odd Withdean game with the odd away game. At the end of that season we played Cheltenham away and I went, partly to get away from my Step Father In Law who’d invited himself down. We had cheese and organic cider on the train, got there for opening time and one of my mates sported a particularly daft false mullet and tashe combo to the derision of the rest of us. Standard.

At the time I really didn’t think that would be it for me and away games but the demands of family and work meant that was it for me and footy for a while. Then, after years of campaigning (of which a bit more later), we got our new ground and I did my deal with the devil, a home season ticket in exchange for family duties on away days. Sounded fair enough to me. However, The Boy was no longer a baby. He was becoming increasingly interested in what Daddy was doing at “the football”. Eventually he found out. Though he can’t remember his first game (which was lucky as it was the dreadful 1-3 reverse to Watford in Poyet’s final season) he went a few times under Oscar and practically begged me for a season ticket this year. Well, who was I to refuse?

Incredibly he is yet to see us win this season. We were in France for Bolton. Wigan was an evening game as were the Capital One Cup games. Yet these are the only home games he’s missed. I’m typing this in January. That tells you all you need to know about our car crash of a season. Clearly, though, he is a natural born Brighton fan as, far from put him off, he has become more and more keen with each game, to the point where he was pestering me to go to an away game. One of the other dads at his school takes his son and we go over together and have a drink before and after the game, and his son wanted to go away too. So we chose Charlton. Nice and easy to get to and very little expectation of a result. Should be perfect. Oh, wait.

Thanks to Network Rail it will actually be a complete pain in the backside to get to. It would probably be quicker to drive to somewhere in the south Midlands than get the train to Charlton on Saturday. At least the boys will have plenty of time to get their questions out of the way I suppose. Meanwhile, since we got the tickets the club has a new manager and has played away in London twice, winning each game 2-0. That’s right. Two wins. Two clean sheets. Four goals including a couple from our strikers. This should ensure an excellent turn out at The Valley and PLENTY of noise, but it also means that, where there was once resigned indifference there is now expectation. Chrissy Hughton’s Blue and White Army need to bring home some points.

What are the chances of that? The reverse game was actually my favourite of the Hyypia era. Admittedly that’s like finding the Christmas Quality Street tin in June and having to choose from the final two but still. Last minute equalizers are brilliant, especially when your seven year old has spent the previous five minutes deriding early leavers on the basis that “we could still score, Dad”. Bob Peeters was sufficiently scathing at the end of the game to suggest he thought we’d lucked out but, at the time, there seemed plenty of promise. Particularly in that game in the way Teixeira linked up with Colunga. Both should be fit to start this one. Other changes for us have seen Gary Gardner return to Villa to absolutely no tears whatsoever and Greg Halford come back in to the delight of many Albion fans – not a sentence I ever thought I’d type.

For sure it will not be an easy game as the new boss adapts to a squad that still looks a little thin and leader-less given our injury list. However some of that squad seem to be reborn. COG and Stockdale are notable for the stick they received under Sami but the latter is now showing exactly why we paid what we did for him with some brilliant shot stopping. The former has set up one and scored one in the previous two games despite only coming off the bench. His interview post Brentford is compelling listening. A decent family man who seems to have been messed about by the club and left to the derision of the supporters in an age when it’s the moneyed ex-pros who are attacking the fans. We should re-appraise and accept that we will get a better player if we play to his strengths or a chunk of our money back if he goes back to Sheffield.

I mentioned campaigning earlier. This week we lost a long term campaigner in Sarah Watts who did so much to secure our new ground, fight off the Archerlotti and get homophobia in football on to the mainstream agenda. She was secretary of the Supporters Club when I joined it at the age of seventeen. It’s fair to say that I ended up as not quite a Supporters Club type but not before I had met two very good friends and travelled to a fair few aways on the coaches that she and Liz Costa organised. Her straight talking was legendary and she copped far more stick than she deserved. The Albion have now lost Sarah, Roy Chuter and the Veggie Postie, all contributors in the gory years in different ways, far too young and with the new era only just in full swing. The thoughts of this writer and many Albion fans are with Sarah’s friends and family.