Sunday, 26 October 2014
The fortress of St Andrews stood imposingly on the horizon as we walked towards the home of the Blues. The sun-light bounced off the glass windows and reflective paneling, the rooftop flags danced in the wind, twisted fences of metal surrounded the perimeter.
This was one of the toughest places to go in football.
Just three seasons ago, when Hughton reigned, Blues were unbeaten in 22 of their 23 home games. Even in the days of the Premiership, the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal rarely escaped the ground with their dignity intact [the latter losing two titles on the hallowed Birmingham turf].
The chubby Spaniard - Rafa Benitez - piled up the greatest riches the sport had to offer whilst manager at Liverpool. Yet even this Anfield legend failed to taste a single league victory at the Blues.
From the isolated, cold, wind-swept, Northern fishing villages of Newcastle and Sunderland, to the farms of Norwich and Ipswich, all and sundry feared the St Andrews fixture.
As we got closer to the ground, it became noticeable that the streets were half empty. A palpable silence floated through the air, only broken by the sizzling of the unsold burgers now burning on the grills of the food stalls. Nobody was here.
The metal fences had started to rust. The once powerful royal blue had faded to a sickly grey. The walls were peeling, crying out for a new lick of paint. I looked down at my feet, I found myself standing on a pavement comprised of crumbling bricks which seemed to whisper ghost-like personal messages from deceased Brummies. "Make us proud, remember we're Blues, never forget what we stand for."
A shadow blinked in the corner of my eye, a Blues fan scarpered from an alleyway and then vanished in an instant, like a mouse hoping to escape attention by racing into a hole in the floorboards.
The shutters of a window flapped in the distance.
We entered the ground. In the thoroughfare a bunch of Blues fans had gathered. These were gaunt men with worn faces, standing in contemplative silence, defeated people bedraggled with fatigue. Ten years ago these were monsters, warriors, Spartans ready to raise the roof off the fortress and create a hostile cauldron of noise fueled by working class aggression. Now they were meekly nibbling cheese and onion pasties and playing Candy Crush on their iPhones.
We emerged from the dark, cavernous thoroughfare and were blinded by huge waves of bright blue empty seats which splashed against pockets of supporters huddling together in the crisp October air.
As I looked over to block 21 where me and my dad sat from 1995 to 2013, where we'd experienced every emotion as football fans over the best part of two decades: feeling the highs of thrashing the Villa 3-0 on that famed September night; the intense drama as we never gave up against Ipswich in the semi-finals of the league cup as the whole stand literally shook in excitement; and finally the heartbreak of shock play-off defeats at home to Watford and Barnsley. I now saw an abandoned block, with no life or movement except for a plastic bag blowing in the wind underneath a 'Hollywood Monster' sponsor board.
Gone were me and my dad. So too had Sue and Dave vanished. And the four Zulus who used to come late every week and miss kick off. And that guy with the goatee who made everyone laugh. And Brian. And old man Larry who would offer everybody a sweet from his bag which never seemed to empty. They were all ghosts of a bygone era.
The few Blues fans left in the stadium were haunted figures. Sitting in silence, awaiting their fate. They reclined in their chairs, and stared at the sky, with glazed eyes and miserable countenances.
Many lacked the energy to speak, or even react to the events on the field, as if they were characters on an Antarctic film, had got lost and were slowly freezing to death.
Bournemouth scored. The frozen, older Blues fans remained unperturbed, still staring at the sky, inert with indifference.
Small bands of younger Birmingham fans started abusing the Blues players. Jeering every misplaced pass. Booing bouts of poor play. Shouting and swearing in high pitched voices, creating an atmosphere of panic, negativity and hostility.
The Birmingham players reacted by actively hiding from the football. Treating it like a hot potato. They let the indignant screams of the hotheaded younger fans get to them and started making foolish mistakes.
Bournemouth scored again, and scored again. The half time whistle blew. The angry young Blues fans snarled and spat boos. The zombified Birmingham fans rose in synchronisation.
The half time entertainment started. An awkward Birmingham fan had to chip three balls into the net from varying distances without the ball bouncing in order to win some prizes. As the tubby contestant chipped the ball around, wry smiles broke on the faces of the Birmingham fans - light relief from the torture of the football.
Yet these smiles were soon wiped out as the players re-emerged for the second half. The zombies in the stands sat down and resumed their fixed positions and the younger hate-filled Birmingham fans returned from the bars and food stands with bits of pie and pasty splattered around the corners of their saggy cheeks.
Many Birmingham fans had fled the ground at 3-0. Many more abandoned the once impenetrable fortress when Bournemouth's fourth and fifth went in.
On Bournemouth scoring their sixth and seventh the sky went an ominous black and the clouds swirled in disarray.
Young babes and children in their parents arms let out a piercing, bloodcurdling scream, and begged their parents to take them home and never bring them back again.
Women swooned in the stands. Men fell about with grief, pounding the floor with their fists, begging for an end to come quick.
The Bournemouth players were throwing up on the sidelines.
Eddie Howe, the Bournemouth manager, burst into a flood of tears. Unable to comprehend the horrible and tragic event he was witnessing.
He wanted Bournemouth to win today, but not at the expense of destroying one of the nation's most-loved and respected sides in such a comprehensive manner.
Two Birmingham fans, totally shattered and broken, in a last ditch effort, invaded the pitch, burst past the BIH agents and hurled their season tickets into the air before being caught and taken into the dark, torture cells in the abyss of the St Andrews basement.
Malcolm Crosby escaped out of a side-door.
At the full time whistle Bournemouth had scored eight, and what was once the great and feared St Andrews was now nothing but a patch of grass.
The Birmingham fans scarpered out and hurried into their cars, as they zipped past, the sound of Tom Ross sighing from the radio became audible to all who lined the dusty roads out of Small Heath. The smoke from St Andrews billowed into the air.
As I got home, my dad was sitting on the sofa watching 'Beauty and the Geek: Australia'.
'Blues were shit then?'
'Yeah' I replied, hanging my coat up.
'I dunno why you still bother.'
'Yeah..me neither, but hey ho, it's something to do I suppose.' I shrugged.