Tag Archives: Groundhopping

Baggies, Magpies and the Poshest Greggs in the World…

I must have been a very good boy this year because I got to go to two football matches over the Christmas period! I’ve already written about my visit to Haverfordwest County FC on Boxing Day. If that was cake and ale football, then the visit to The Hawthorns and West Bromwich Albion on 28th December was much more like champagne and caviar. And that must be the first time that West Bromwich Albion, champagne and caviar have all featured in the same sentence.

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The slightly faded club badge on the outside of The Hawthorns

Things returned more or less to normal for this trip. It was Dan and me. I drove. And the traffic around Newport on the way to the Midlands was awful. However, there were a couple of striking differences too. Dan – newly financially independent now that he’s working full time – had bought the tickets. And – following earlier Bank Holiday ground hops to Shrewsbury, Oxford, Wolves and Yeovil – this was our first sojourn to a Premiership match.

Newport notwithstanding (when will somebody finally approve the start of work on the new M4 to the south of the city?) the trip to West Bromwich was uneventful. The club’s website had helpfully stated that parking was plentiful and reasonably priced all around The Hawthorns, and that proved to be the case. We left Cardiff at 11.40am and parked within 10 minutes walk of the ground (¬£5) at 1.20pm. Thankfully, this was a dry day, and the temperature was a balmy 13 degrees C as we strolled towards the ground.

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Probably the poshest Greggs in the World – and the focal point of the WBA Fan Zone

We stopped off first in the WBA fan zone just outside the stadium, drawn mainly (to be honest) by the sight of the poshest-looking Greggs that we have ever seen! Eschewing the delights of that establishment’s chicken pasties, we instead plumped for an excellent burger from one of the outlets within the Fan Zone before leaving for a walk around the stadium.

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Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown – WBA legend

It’s fair to say that The Hawthorns is not the most picturesque ground in the world. There is little to whet the appetite of the amateur photographer in the stadium’s external architecture. Just outside what passes for the main entrance to the ground, there is a statue of Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown. Brown is a WBA legend having made over 550 senior appearances for the Baggies, scoring over 200 goals along the way. Another WBA hero was remembered more poignantly on the day that we were there. Don Howe had passed away on 23rd December. Howe played over 340 games for the Baggies between 1952 and 1964, before returning to manage the side between 1971 and 1975. There was a heartfelt minute’s applause to mark his passing before the kick-off, which was marked in equal measure by WBA and Newcastle fans.

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Players and fans joined in a minutes’ applause in memory of Don Howe before kick off

Having made our way into the ground, we were amazed to find that our seats were almost within touching distance of the playing surface. Normally, I like to watch the game from a slightly more elevated position, affording a degree of perspective over the whole match. However, it’s only when you’re down at pitch level that you get a true appreciation of the the speed of the game and the physical attributes of the players. Victor Anichebe and Jonas Olsson both started this game for WBA and they were by some margin the most intimidating players on the pitch. Anichebe bullied the Newcastle defence all afternoon, and Baggies boss Tony Pulis will be hoping that the injury that he picked up in the final few minutes is not as serious as it looked at the time.

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Anichebe (10) and Olsson (on stilts!) making life difficult for the Newcastle defence at a 1st half corner

The game itself was actually very entertaining. The Albion won it with the only goal coming from the head of Darren Fletcher with 14 minutes remaining. It was no more than the Baggies deserved, although Newcastle will be disappointed that a determined (not to say occasionally desperate) rearguard action did not bring them a  share of the points on the day. Stand-out players on the day were Anichebe, Sessegnon and Fletcher for the Baggies; and Coloccini for the Magpies.

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The mandatory kick-off pic – Fletcher was excellent for WBA

Mike Jones and his refereeing team had a generally good day, although there was a blatant pull back on Wijnaldum by Jonny Evans at the mid-point of the second half that should have resulted in a penalty kick to Newcastle and a red card for the WBA centre back. With the benefit of the replays on Match of the Day later in the evening, it seems likely that Jones was unsighted at the critical moment, but it was certainly a let-off for the Baggies. Unusually, Jones didn’t produce a card throughout the entire game; which is in part, testament to the spirit in which both teams approached the match.

In the car on the way home, the match summariser from Radio 5 Live suggested that Newcastle had shown enough in the game to suggest that they would avoid relegation this season, despite their precarious current position in the table. I’m not sure that I’d agree with that assessment, given their lack of any sustained attacking threat on this occasion. But I hope they do survive if only as a reward for the Geordie fans who filled the away seats at The Hawthorns and supported their team noisily and consistently throughout the entire 90 minutes.

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Newcastle players going through their pre-match warm-up routines – orange and fuschia bibs brightening a dull afternoon!

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The pre-match ‘Respect’ handshakes – that’s Sessegnon behind Olsson, not one of the mascots!

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Bluebirds, Black & Greens, and a Howling Gale

Saturday 26th December 2015. Boxing Day. Time for another odyssey to a previously unvisited ground to catch some seasonal football. Only this time it was different. My travelling companion was Charlotte, and we were off on the trip to Pembrokeshire to watch the Welsh Premier League fixture between Haverfordwest County and Aberystwyth Town. Before friends and family start to worry, let me put your minds at rest. We hadn’t completely taken leave of our senses. This was the first opportunity that we had had to go and see Dan on Assistant Refereeing duties following his promotion to the Welsh Premier assistants list at the start of the season.

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Dan looking focused at the kick off

Haverfordwest is the county town of Pembrokeshire and is dominated by the castle that towers above the town and the River Cleddau that runs through the centre of it. The original castle was established in 1120, but most of what now remains can be traced back to alteration works undertaken by successive Earls of Pembroke in the late 1200s. The town has long been an administrative and trading centre for south west Wales, and it boasted the second largest port in the country until the arrival of the railway in 1853.

To return to out trip. We left Cardiff at 12.15pm and made our way, under leaden skies, along the M4 and A40, the 100 miles to Haverfordwest’s Conygar Bridge Meadow Stadium. Pembrokeshire had seemingly escaped the heaviest of the rain that had affected so much of the rest of the UK over Christmas, and the pitch was heavy, but not nearly as wet as I’d imagined it might be. The wind, however – well, that was a different matter altogether.

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Checking the nets – they were a useful safety precaution to prevent players being blown to Carmarthen!

Whilst Haverfordwest might not be the most westerly point in mainland Wales, you can certainly see it from there. And when the weather aligns such that the wind comes in from the south west – well, let’s just say that it’s got a three thousand mile long ocean run up, and it tends to make full use of it! On this particular day, it was what my grandfather would have described as a particularly lazy wind – not bothering to take the time to go around you, it blew straight through you instead.

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The match day programme

The orientation of the pitch at Haverfordwest is such that the prevailing wind effectively blows in over the club house behind the goal at one end of the ground, sweeps the full length of the pitch, and then disappears off in the direction of Carmarthen beyond the other end. As Dan was the junior assistant (and therefore on the line opposite the main grandstand with its wind-protecting sides), we sat instead in the smaller and more open stand on the other side of the ground. We had hoped for some respite from the howling gale by sitting alongside the media box near the half way line, but this proved to be wishful thinking.

The match itself was very badly affected by the conditions. The pitch cut up quite badly from the outset, making it difficult to play any sort of passing game, and severely hampering attempts to get the ball down on the floor to counteract the wind. Haverfordwest played into the wind in the first forty-five minutes, and the ball spent long periods of time in their half. On the few occasions when the ball did make it into the hands of the Aberystwyth keeper at the other end, he was able to use the elements to send it 70 or 80 metres back down field with the easiest of swings of his right boot – a tactic that (in all honesty) neither side employed nearly enough in the circumstances. This was not a day for tiki-taka football.

Neither side was on the greatest run of form coming into the match, and this lack of confidence, coupled with the heavy pitch and strong wind, meant that this was never going to be a classic. Chances in the first half were restricted to a well-taken free kick by Aberystwyth’s Venables that cannoned back off the post; and a rasping drive from Haverfordwest’s Borrelli that was smartly tipped over the cross bar by the Aber keeper. There were a couple of half-hearted penalty appeals from Aber, but neither looked like they had much going for them from my viewpoint in the stand, and half-time arrived at nil-nil.

The second half followed a similar pattern to the first. Aberystwyth probably played the best football, and in Venables they certainly had the best player on the pitch. He looked calm and assured in possession and seemed to create time and space even when receiving the ball in what was often a congested midfield area. For all Aber’s possession though, they seemed unlikely to break down a resolute and determined Bluebirds defence until an attempted cross from young substitute Nicky Palmer swirled over the head of the Haverfordwest keeper and dipped dramatically in the face of the wind, to nestle in the far corner of the net. A total fluke, but ultimately the decisive moment in the match. Aber held on to win by the single goal, extending Haverfordwest’s winless streak to eleven games and leaving them rooted to the foot of the Welsh Premier League table.

This was a relatively easy game for the match officials, with very few flashpoints and no real controversy – just what you want on the day after Christmas. It was great seeing Dan in action on a Welsh Premier game for the first time, and both parents made the trip back to Cardiff feeling very proud!

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“Round you go, fellas” – the teams change ends following the coin toss at the start of the game

U’s, Shrews and Boxing Day (Dark) Blues

I’m not sure what the official qualification period is before a regularly repeated activity becomes a tradition, but as this was our third “Dad and Son Bank Holiday Groundhop” (and as plans are already taking shape for a fourth adventure over Easter 2015), it’s certainly beginning to feel traditional for Dan and me to set out for a previously unvisited league ground for a football fix around a major holiday weekend. This time, Oxford was our destination on a bitterly cold and damp Boxing Day, for the League 2 encounter between Oxford Utd (the U’s) and Shrewsbury Town. The keen follower of this blog will recall that our Easter 2014 sojourn had – entirely coincidentally – seen us visiting Shrewsbury for the then home team’s clash with Crewe Alexandra in League 1. Defeat for the Salop that day played a significant part in their subsequent relegation to the ‘old fourth division’ in May 2014

Some obligatory background colour about Oxford (courtesy, inevitably, of Wikipedia) before we get into the detail of the visit. Oxford is the 52nd largest city in the United Kingdom, with a population of a little over 150,000 people. Rather idiosyncratically, Wikipedia lists motor manufacturing ahead of education in the list of the city’s key industries, although there is no disputing that the University has a far higher world profile than the BMW plant at Cowley that is responsible for a fair chunk of the world’s Mini production. Poet Matthew Arnold first coined the phrase “the city of dreaming spires” to describe an architectural heritage that includes examples of buildings from every major period in English history since the Saxons. I’ve included a couple of examples sourced from Wikipedia here (you get nowhere near anything of any architectural merit if you arrive at the Kassam Stadium, as we did, via the M4 and A34!)

Oxford's architectural heritage

Oxford’s architectural heritage

Our trip to Oxford on Boxing Day morning started badly with the discovery that a known ‘slow puncture’ in the rear wheel of the family car had become a total let down in the 36 hours that it had been sitting on the drive since Christmas Eve. Stretching my mechanical engineering skills to the fullest extent of their competence (not far to be honest), the spare wheel was eventually fitted and we set off. It was an odd drive east along the M4 towards Oxford, in the sense that it rained pretty much all the way, but the road ahead was never really wet. It was almost as if we were dragging the rain clouds on a rope along the route with us. Nevertheless, the journey passed without incident and we arrived at the Kassam Stadium, the rather exotically named home to both Oxford United FC and London Welsh rugby union team, in very good time. Having parked (for free!) in the large football club car park at the rear of the East Stand, we commenced the mandatory walk around the perimeter of the ground in search of the club shop

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The first thing that strikes you about the Kassam Stadium is that it’s not really finished. There are three perfectly functional (if soulless) stands along two sides of the pitch and behind one goal; and a yawning gap where the fourth stand ought to be behind the other goal. What makes this all the more perplexing is the fact that the three stands that are there, are actually all quite big. The ground capacity is 12,400; this is 3,000 more than can be accommodated at Shrewsury’s Greenhous Meadow stadium, as an example, but the fact that the Shrewsbury ground is built with four stands makes it feel like a proper sporting arena. The problem with the Kassam Stadium as it is, is that you can look over the wooden fence behind the goal at the west end of the ground and watch people making their way into the multiplex cinema on the other side of the car park. Even worse, when Oxford Utd are not playing well (as they didn’t on our visit) and home supporters therefore leave early, the visiting fans in the north stand have a great view of the early leavers and can easily wave and chant “Cheerio” as they trudge away

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The other notable thing about the stadium is the fact that it appears to have been built without any provision for a club shop. There is a portacabin that might operate as an outlet for merchandise (although it had no stock and was not open on Boxing Day); but the main club shop is a five minute walk away across the large car park of the adjacent multiplex cinema and retail development, round a corner and next to a laser combat centre. To be fair, the shop itself was well-stocked and very efficiently run, but the overall impression is that Oxford Utd as a football club has an uneasy relationship with its home ground – being both part of the fabric but also somewhat separate at the same time

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To be honest, there was a general sense of malaise around the whole event this Boxing Day. At virtually every football ground I’ve ever visited (including some amateur league games where the total attendance could easily have fitted in a double decker bus), there has always been a sense of anticipation and nervous excitement around the place in the hours leading up to kick off. It’s what makes a visit to any live sporting event unique – that sense that anything might happen, that the script for the contest to come has yet to be written, that plot twists and moments of drama will be created on the fly as the players react to the conditions, the bounce of the ball, the vagaries of chance and misfortune, the passion of the crowd. This usually creates a buzz, an atmosphere, that causes the hairs on the back of the neck to stand up. I say ‘usually’ here because at least on this occasion, there wasn’t really any ‘buzz’ at all at the Kassam Stadium. If there was an atmosphere pre-match, it was one of foreboding and impending doom, rather than positive excitement

This may in part have been a realistic assessment of the chances of the home side against a Shrewsbury team that was flying high in the division having won 6 of their 8 previous matches and with a chance to head the table with a win at Oxford. In contrast, the home side had won just 3 of the last 8, and came into this match on the back of a disappointing 1-1 draw with bottom club Hartlepool the previous Saturday

We entered the ground at just after 2pm and made our way to the concourse area serving the upper south stand in search of the obligatory ground hop refreshments – a pie and a coffee for me; a burger and a beer for Dan. Now, I know that mass catering at sporting events is not a likely source of gastronomic delight, but it’s surely unforgivable to serve a cold beef and onion pie at a football match (especially when it’s pouring with rain and 3 degrees C outside!). It was a shame too, as I reckon it would have been half decent with a bit of heat applied. Dan’s burger was passable, however. Having watched the end of the Chelsea v West Ham game on the concourse TV (Hazard is just too good, isn’t he?), we made our way to our seats

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The match itself was effectively all over in the first 18 minutes, with goals from Collins and Ellis having put the Salop two up by then, and Oxford never really looking like getting back into the game. Indeed, the three Shrewsbury squad members sat behind us in a vacant section of the press box were confidently predicting the withdrawal of key team players at half time if a three goal cushion was established by then. In the event, there were no more goals in the game, but that owed more to Shrewsbury profligacy than to any stiffening of Oxford’s defensive resolve

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With the result effectively decided in the game’s first quarter, this neutral observer was able to watch the game more critically than perhaps would have been the case in a more evenly contested affair. The stand-out performer during the game was Shrewsbury’s Liam Lawrence. Lawrence had celebrated his 33rd birthday two weeks before this match, but he looked anything like the gnarled old professional in this game. It is often said of players who drop down a division or two towards the end of their careers that they have so much time on the ball that it as though they are playing whilst smoking a pipe and wearing slippers. That would be a grave disservice to Lawrence on this showing. He was so much more relaxed than that! Pretty much everything that Shrewsbury did that was good in this game (and there was a lot of it) involved Lawrence at one or more key points. He operated largely on the left side of midfield (although he popped up more centrally from time to time as well), filling the space between Oxford’s defence and midfield and seemingly always having time to pick a telling pass, or hold up the ball to allow others (notably Collins, but also attacking wing-back Demetriou) to press on into more advanced positions, safe in the knowledge that the ball would be fed into their path. The only surprise for me was the failure of Michael Appleton (Oxford’s manager) to task one his players with simply following Lawrence around the pitch in an attempt to harry him when in possession and generally to reduce the time available to him to dictate the pace of the game. The only blot in Lawrence’s copy book came towards the end of the match when a cleared cross found its way to him 18 yards out and just to the left of centre. With time and space to pick his spot, a third goal seemed inevitable, but a heavy first touch proved enough to allow Oxford to scramble the ball away, and the chance was gone

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Oxford looked tired and lethargic from the first whistle to the last. Their only real chance came within seconds of Shrewsbury’s second goal, when a sharp cross-shot forced an excellent diving save from Leutwiler, and the rebound was cleared away to safety. Having made it to half time only two goals in arrears, the home fans had every right to expect that their team would come out with a bit more fire and passion after the break. The fact that their only shot on target in the second half came in the 88th minute says all that needs to be said about how misplaced those expectations were

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And so the final whistle came (from referee Lee Probert, dropping down a division or two from his normal appointments in the Premier League) and we made our way out of the ground and back to the car for a long, dark and very wet drive back to south Wales. Was it worth it? It’s a tricky one to answer – any trip to watch live football is almost always preferable to staying in and watching it on TV, so in that sense, I’m not sorry that we made the effort to go. In fairness to Oxford (the city and the team), this match probably didn’t do either of them justice. We’ll have to go back when the weather’s a bit better and give them a second chance!