Monday, 4 May 2015

Bolton


We turned into the stadium car park and drove towards the spotty-faced teenage parking attendant in a fluorescent orange jacket. We wound our window down.

'Where do you want us to park mate?'

'...err, yer ova there....in't Mixu Paatelainen zone'

Ok, remember guys we're in the Mixu Paatelainen zone, we don't want to be walking around the Alan Stubbs zone looking for the car after the match like amateurs.

I whacked four packets of beach balls down my trousers and we made our way towards the Macron.

One of our lads was struck with grief, periodically shaking his head and tutting aloud like a survivor of the Somme, wistfully staring into the distance, full of remorse. His girlfriend had bought him tickets to the meerkat experience but he'd opted to come and watch the stupendous mighty blue machine instead.

'F**k the meerkats, there's no more football till the end of August. Come with us to Bolton. It's the last game of the season. You could probably bring the meerkats with you as part of the fancy dress to be fair'.

We'd convinced him to come.

'I just hope it's a good game, I'm missing the meerkats for this.'

I don't know about the meerkat experience, but I wasn't quite sold on the Macron experience.

Loads of people have spoken at length about these new stadiums built on motorway entertainment complexes, some like them, some don't. It just feels a bit rubbish to me. Feels like you're going shopping.

I imagine it must be great if you fancy nipping in Frankie and Benny's for a calzone, stopping off in B&Q for a pack of screwdrivers, catching the match, then getting away quickly...but a day out at the football shouldn't be as sterile as that. Not in this idiot's opinion anyway.

As we got in the ground we walked past Blues fans dressed in all manners of fashions. Three giggling lads jogged by dressed as giant crayons, a fat bloke dressed as the statue of liberty was lifting his skirt as he walked along with a pint in his other hand ensuring he didn't trip over in his sandals. A Chris Kamara, with his head inside a DIY cardboard television was laughing by the bar. A bunch of Gary Rowetts decked out in blue V-neck jumpers were filling in betting forms. A guy dressed as Michael Fabricant, the Tory MP for Lichfield, was chatting to a steward. We took our seats next to a Super Mario and a dinosaur.

I looked to the front of the stand  and all of a sudden the gate of the disabled section swung open and a Dalek with a walking stick hobbled in. 





Seemingly everybody else had brought along inflatables.

The Blues fans were in a party mood. A dingy floated along the lower tier. Beach balls were bouncing around the away end like balls in a bingo machine. A blow up shark and a palm tree narrowly missed my head.

'Get your beach balls out'

Naah, not yet. I'm keeping my powder dry. I could see the Bolton stewards perched in between the sponsor boards, like Japanese snipers, waiting for beach balls to bounce over onto the pitch, then they'd jump from their hiding places and stamp on the inflatables, popping them, then taking the deflated rubber away down a side alley.

We did have a hero in the shape of Maid Marian. She was walking onto the pitch, collecting the balls the stewards missed and returning them back to the partying fans in the stands. 

It was weird, any other supporters trying to get on the pitch were instantly seized by the authorities, but our Maid Marian was allowed to encroach onto the playing surface at will. It was almost as if her fancy dress was too good and the nobility of her royal position meant the stewards waved her through, bowing before the Princess of Northfield, allowing her to do as she pleased.


The game started and was played out in an 'end of the season, neither team has anything to play for' manner. 

Bolton have a great team....for Premier League 02-03 season, in truth it now looks like a masters' team. They didn't have anybody who could carry the ball, run with a bit of pace, instead they played this slow, deliberate, tippy tappy possession football that lacked the intent of the better footballing sides, it seemed born not from any sort of philosophy but on sheer necessity - these players were too old and decrepit to run, so they'd just tap the ball around instead.

It made for a first half where chances on goal were at a premium.

The half empty home end were inert in silence. They'd seen better days. You couldn't really blame them for their apathy, they're about 15th in the league, nothing to play for, it was a 12 o'clock ish kick off [always saps the atmosphere] and Lennon had constructed a boring, functional side.

A Blues corner was floated in, after a few sliced clearances, Tesche bundled the ball in and the 3600 Brummies punched the air in celebration.

Half Time came and Michael Fabricant went for a piss. Suddenly the Bolton fans burst into life, they started celebrating and cheering and stamping their feet...it was time for the Chiquito-sponsored half time game where one lucky Lancastrian could win a family sized Taco pack. Arriba!

Three podgy blokes were picked out of the crowd and given sombreros. Four footballs were placed at varying places around the pitch, each contestant had 30 seconds to run to the footballs and kick them into the goal. The one who could kick all four footballs into the goal the quickest won the Tacos.

The first guy dispatched his three footballs with ease. He then came running to the football placed on the half way line and booted the ball towards goal. He turned away and started dancing, making Mexican gun fingers, boogieing in delight.....only for the ball to halt to a stop 2 yards from the goal line.

WAHEY, the whole ground chuckled away. Hubris had cost this lad a delicious taco experience.

Every other guy stacked it as they ran to the footballs and landed face first into the turf. One Bolton guy became a ball of denim, and sombreros as he rolled towards the penalty spot.

The now muddy Bolton Mexicans were escorted off the pitch and the second half was underway.

Blues were much better. We looked better than Bolton in every department. We were physically stronger, Tesche and Davis [when he came on] were knocking their midfielders off the ball with ease and reclaiming possession. The Blues fans let out the ol├ęs as Rowett's men put together 15-20 pass moves, in what was becoming an increasingly comfortable afternoon. 

Bolton were on the beach now, and as the minutes trickled away they showed no real desire or urgency to get back in the game, instead they were content with just passing the ball around and holding on to possession without any purpose.

The ref blew for full time and the depressed Bolton fans scarpered out the stadium without even glancing to look back at the pitch. If Bolton's players were to return for a lap of [dis]honour, they'd be waving to empty seats.

The Blues players walked up to the fans and showed their appreciation. The Blues fans roared back with approval, thanking them for their efforts since Rowett took over. Rowett himself saluted the traveling hordes and bowed down to us in a gesture signalling how much he appreciates the backing he's received since coming home. Demari Gray was the last player to walk away from the fans, he just stared into the ground for ages, looking troubled, in the end another Blues player put an arm around his shoulder and took him back to the dressing room.

My paranoid mind kicked into action. 'Was that a goodbye?' 'Did he seem a bit downbeat because he knows that was his last game? Or maybe I'm imagining it.'

I hope I'm wrong because for the first time in my life Blues have produced real quality through the academy. We should be off our seats in excitement, wide eyed and in awe of our attacking play as Blues rip sides apart with a Redmond / Gray wingplay combo.

Redmond's gone because of the ownership problems at the club, I do hope it's not a similar story with Gray. The guy is only young, has his whole career ahead of him, there is no reason to rush into a quickfire move and end up sitting in the reserves of a top club and being loaned out.

Blues could be bought out in the summer, with real investment, stability behind the scenes, Rowett could build something big here and Gray could be a vital part of it. 

The perfect summer would see Blues wrap up Gray's contract situation, get bought out by some decent owners, give Rowett enough resources to build for promotion, secure Tesche and Fabbrini on permanent deals, but perhaps I'm asking for too much. We'll see.

A final word on Rowett. 

There will be innumerable blogs and articles out there praising the guy for the job he's done, and in truth you could write another blog entry on everything the guy has achieved in the short space he's been here, but I'll quickly summarise by saying - Where once we couldn't buy a home win, St Andrews is now a fortress. The average home attendances have gone up by 3000. We're taking 4k fans to Bolton, 5k to Fulham. Rowett's got people interested in the Blues once more. He's brought in the brilliant Morrison, a proper centre half, and fixed the defence. In attack we're a team that has blistering pace, we've got players who glide past the opposition for fun, it's enjoyable watching the Blues again.

Somebody said to me the other day that if you look at the table when Rowett took over and you look at the table now, pretty much everybody else is in a similar position. Watford and Bournemouth are the top two, Blackpool, Millwall and Wigan are in the bottom four/five...but Blues have gone from the relegation zone, to 10th.

Had Rowett started as manager of Blues in August, on our current averages we'd have finished with around 78pts, battling for a play off place.

How's he done it?

Well there's been no great spending of money, just a couple of well researched and scouted loan players brought in to great effect.

But more than anything, the dour cloud of negativity has been lifted on the pitch. Rowett's imported this sort of positive management focusing on encouragement and trust.

The team selections have been consistent. Everybody knows where they are, what their role is, what's expected of them. Players are no longer frightened to try new plays, make mistakes, they won't be immediately dropped for the next game.

So heres to Mr Rowett and his backroom staff.

Thank you Gary and the team for breathing life back into the club and giving us our pride back. 

Two Bolton May away days in the space of 12 months, last year we were fighting for perhaps our very existence, this year we celebrated stability, and next year? Who'd bet against a promotion party? Well, let's just see what the summer brings first.




 

Sunday, 8 March 2015

The Ramathon




Everything of worth in Derby seems to be in a straight line separated by about 5 miles. Almost as if the town planner was some cretinous 10 year old playing SIM City for the first time and didn't know the buttons.

'This game's rubbish. I've put the train station in the middle of nowhere, a good half an hour walk from the town centre, and I've placed the football ground even further out in the middle of an industrial estate.....ah well, I'll run with it.'

With that in mind, as the entourage and I emerged from Derby train station at 12 o'clock we had the choice of turning right and walking into the industrial estate 3 hours before kick off, or turning left and trying to find the town - we opted for the latter.

A few dirt tracks, river crossings, and stinging nettles later and we entered Derby town centre.

It's a bit different to Nottingham is Derby. The wrong side of the tracks. All the people look like they've had hard lives, multitudes of plastic bags float and dance in the air, every other shop was 'To Let'. You got the impression the land of the Rams had seen better times and was in need of a lick of paint and a bit of love.

We found a scruffy pub and fancied a drink. It looked like a 'homer' pub, I wasn't sure this was a good idea. 

'Yeah, yeah, it'll be alright. Look at the sign. It says 'luxury garden in the back' '.

Fine. The luxury garden was the deal clincher. We walked through the saloon-like swinging doors.

Immediately you were hit by the stench of stale smoke. As you looked around the pub it could have been a coal miners' social club. The thin, brown stained wispy curtains produced a dull light. The carpet was all shades of green and mustard with bits of chewing gum added for a bit of texture. One-armed bandits stood in the corners like bouncers facing the bar.

Everybody in the pub looked at us the nano second we walked through the doors. All of them in Yorkshire-style flat caps. All nursing pints of mild, Guinness, with the odd effeminate guy [perhaps wearing shoes] holding a Stella.

A dog was sitting at the bar. A man with one eyebrow checked us up and down. A man with black fingers was delicately fiddling with a pile of bar mats. A toothless barmaid smiled...

'What yer drinkin' ducks?'

I went for the tried and tested JD and coke costing £6.50 - more expensive than lovely Fulham, down by the lovely river.

They knew we were Brummies and whacked the price up, surely. We'd been busted already. Bail! Bail!

No, keep calm.

We opted to test out the luxury garden. Out here was a bit of astroturf, with a few tables and chairs dotted around a television, surrounded by four brick walls. A few Derby fans were taking in the morning Sun. We sat down.

'Eh? Is tha futball on?' snapped a Derby fan in our direction.

We looked over to see a guy with a slash mark down his cheek. He was in a shiny black tracksuit, had a tattoo on the back of his neck. His beady sunken eyes were fixed on us.

'Err....yeah mate it's Bradford/Reading, just on that screen there' we replied.

'Aye...and who's winning?'

'Err...it's 0-0'.

The Derby scout immediately jumped out of his seat, looked back at our table and marched back inside the pub.

This was weird. The guy was sitting in front of the TV, he could quite clearly see the football was on and the score was 0-0. What was he doing?'

'He's testing us for our accent, and now he's gone inside to tell the rest of 'em' an entourage member panicked.

Shit. It did seem like that.

Either that was the case, or this guy was off his tits on some substance that he didn't know what was going on.

'We need to drink up and go' 

I eyed up the luxury garden, soon to be the garden of death, for an escape route. A doberman patrolled a balcony above. But in the corner there was a fire exit.

'We could bail out the fire exit'.

We debated, and we waited. Suddenly a bunch of middle aged, rotund gentlemen in flat caps stepped outside...

This time though, the flat caps were different. More refined. Polished. They had small, perceptible, Blues logos on the front.

They gave us a nod. We nodded back. The unspoken language that we were now under the protection of the Peaky Blinders.

The Derby scout stepped back outside. He took one look at the Peakys and scuttled off again, down a side alley.

Our group started baiting one another in Inbetweeners style. 

'You panicked, you proper panicked.'

'F**k off, you were about to kick through the fire exit because somebody asked you the football score'

'You said he was testing us for our accent'

'Naah. I was joking'

We finished our drinks, and after a quick pit-stop at Walkabout for some food[which was weirdly rammed with all the usual Blues characters at the away games like Fingerless Frank, Dan et al], we ran through an EDL protest and got to Pride Park [or whatever it's called this week] about 10 minutes before kick off.





As the game progressed the atmosphere intensified. 

Derby had stuck their ultras section right next to the away fans and the verbal interchanges were becoming increasingly heated.

Derby, like Forest, tried to wind us up by chanting 'Yam Yams'. I once again tried to get 'Dirty Yorkshire bastards' going [if they're going to take liberties with geography, why can't we?].

Derby hyped up the WUMmery '4-0 in your own back yard', Blues retorted 'Top of the league and you f**ed it up' referring to the season when Blues pipped Derby to automatic promotion a few seasons back.

The Derby fans were becoming increasingly desperate and started screeching at the ref.

Derby's game is one of high tempo. Quick closing down. Nibbling at your ankles. Sticking legs in, nudging you in the back to knock you off balance. Cotterill in particular struggled with this speedy pressure, as a guy who likes 5 seconds on the ball to try something Hollywood, he didn't quite like getting 0.5 seconds before having to release the ball or face being tackled.

Of course such quick closing down results in lots of free-kicks when the Derby players apply too much force. The Rams fans didn't like it, and they started screaming indignation and chanting that the ref was a Brummie.

Moments before half time, Derby tried a big boot down towards our goal. Ince raced towards Randolph. Both jumped. Randolph won the header fairly in the 50/50 and Blues collected possession. Except Ince stayed down, and started holding his face Busquets style and was rolling around.

The Derby fans were almost climbing over the sponsor boards, wanting blood. Blues kicked the ball out so Ince might receive treatment. Except Ince jumped to his feet miraculously and started gobbing off at the ref.

When Russell collected the ball and motioned to pass it back to Blues [as per the unwritten rule of sportsmanship], he instead opted to boot the ball into touch, out for a throw in, in an incredibly dangerous part of the field for Blues.

The Derby fans cackled with delight.

Luckily Blues managed to clear the danger and the half time whistle blew.

Rightfully, Rowett was incensed on the sidelines.

What's the point in kicking the ball out so the opposition can get treatment, if they then kick the ball into dangerous field territory?

Rowett had to be held back from Paul Simpson's arrogant sneers.

The Blues were riled. Derby would ultimately pay for these antics.

But first, Derby raced into a 2-0 lead in the 2nd half as Grounds' lack of pace was finally exposed and he allowed Ince to get in behind him. Instead of then showing the dangerous winger the outside, he allowed Ince to cut inside and open up the whole goal. Randolph had no chance, and the Derby fans were wheeling out the identikit Crystal Palace-style, drum-backed chants.

They then turned their celebrations into more Blues goading. 

'2-0 on your big day out'

We were sitting not far from the police cordon and all game I noticed a thin, spotty teenager in the Derby end. He had a Rupert the Bear-like scarf around his neck. He was a full-kit type, and he had a Mr Beanish quality to him.

With his stick thin arms he was offering out the Blues fans from behind the police. He started rubbing his eyes and making crying gestures after Derby's 2nd went in.

The Blues fans had had enough. I turned to see a small man, no more than 5 foot 7, in his 50s, with a hint of the Frank Sinatras about him. He had his Peaky Blinders flat cap on, and his quilted Barbour jacket. His eyes had glazed over from a mixture of intensive drinking and sheer anger. He tried to scale the seats and stumbled backwards. Moments later I noticed him in the distance trying to climb over the segregation net to get to Mr Bean and friends, but within an instant he lost his footing and was tumbling down the net like a whizzing yo-yo of Barbour, and tartan, rolling all the way to the bottom of the stand.

A Blues fan, reddened in the face was being carried out by the police. 

Mr Bean was giving everybody the middle finger.

He and his clique were cupping their ears and chanting... 'Why the f*** are you still here?'

BANG

Blues were awarded a penalty.

The Derby end quietened down and turned from the Blues fans, and nervously looked at the pitch.

Paul Caddis stepped up and smashed the penalty into the back of the net.

The Blues players grabbed the ball and placed it on the centre spot. 

Ready to restart.

Tom Ince took one look at the ball and blasted it into the stands.

The Derby antics were continuing.

'I would love it if we got an equaliser against these ****s, love it' a Keegan-like lament was being uttered relentlessly from the Blues end.

'COME ON' the Blues fans chanted.

Derby were panicked.

They could see their chances of automatic promotion taking a huge dent here.

Being 2-0 up on the 91st minute and failing to win would not only help out their promotion chasing rivals, but it'd be a huge psychological blow.

Mr Bean was biting his nails.

Donaldson was bundled over outside the box.

The Derby fans reacted furiously again.

Randolph was stirring. He got the nod from Rowett. The keeper was up. This was shit or bust time.

The freekick was floated in. It landed to Spector, the beast of Illinois, he flicked the ball towards goal.....time seemed to stop...it was going in.....the keeper used his frame and deflected the ball out for a corner.

'COME ON' the Blues fans could smell it.

Cotterill floated the ball across. Randolph jumped. The ball skimmed off his shiny bald bonce and sailed harmlessly wide.

Damn. It would have been great to wipe the smirk of the Derby faces after their behaviour today.

But hold on.

Wes Thomas appears from nowhere. He bends his body like a contortionist and over-head kicks the ball to the back post. The Derby keeper wasn't expecting that, and is now out of the picture.

The ball hangs in the air for eternity. Under it are three Blues players and one Derby.

I'm looking at the ball. The players are looking at the ball. Rowett and Simpson are staring at it. Time has stopped.

The ball drops.

Donaldson nudged the ball towards goal.

It's going in. It's only bloody going in!

But wait, there's a Derby player on the line. He sticks a knee out, surely clearing it...

No! Not enough power.

BAM

The ball hits the back of the net.

The Blues fans melt into a bubbling fit of celebration. 

People are screaming, giggling, laughing, falling down rows of seats. The Blues players run towards the traveling Brummie hordes and join in with the euphoria. The Derby players sink to their knees in desolation.

'2-0 and you F***ED IT UP, 2-0 and you F***ED IT UP' belts around the stadium.

The Derby fans are silent. Motionless.

Mr Bean collapses into his seat and weeps.

'Why the f**k!? Why the f**k!? Why the f**k! are you still here!'

The Blues fans return the earlier taunt with gusto.

The hubris of Derby had come back to bite them in the ass.

Full time.

The Blues fans celebrate. The Derby fans are rooted to stillness.

All of a sudden the emotions are too much for one Derby fan who emerges from the East Stand. Runs onto the pitch and darts towards the Blues end.

He's decked out in a grey tracksuit, and he has his hood covering his face. One steward tries to bring him down and fails. Two stewards latch onto him but end up being dragged as this Derby zombie continues towards the Blues fans. Three stewards. Four.

It reminded me of the 2nd Lord of the Rings film where they're defending the walled city, and that pig thing carrying the gunpowder runs towards the wall to blow it up, but none of the arrows will bring him down.

The fifth steward managed to knock the zombie off his feet and almost certainly save his life.

The Blues fans continued to party. 

As we left the ground the air was permeated with the constant sound of police sirens. In every corner of the industrial estate people were squaring up to each other, pushing, shoving.

The locals weren't happy.

The Blues hordes marched out of the away end and continued the '2-0 and you f**ed it up chants'

Derby fans attempted to pull down the metallic wall separating home from away.

I can't remember much else as we walked back towards the train station. I was too busy laughing at the demise of Mr Bean, and how you can never count your chickens until they've hatched.

Especially against the Blue Machine. Because as Bolton and Arsenal will tell you....we're Birmingham City, and we always, always fight till the end.









 

Thursday, 5 March 2015

The Tragedy of Jack Lane






The cold was biting. It was one of those St Andrews nights where a freezing mist seemed to linger. It was half time and Blues had edged to a dull 1-0 lead at home to Blackpool.

'Yo! Youse. Yo! Make some noise for Jack Lane. Played for Blues in the 50s ennit' barked the arrogant young purveyor of 'chip and win'.

'WHO!' shouted a Parka-clad Oasis fan in the stands before being congratulated by his Carling-swilling gurning pals.

An elderly figure slowly emerged from the tunnel.

The frail former Blue trundled onto the St Andrews tundra.

Silence

The disinterested crowd barely lifted their eyes from their trays of chips and ipads.

The old man let out a tentative smile.

'How d'yu fink they played gramps?' blurted out the arrogant young DJ reading out the generic questions quickly scribbled on the back of his WH Smith reporters' notebook.

The old man coughed and replied 'Not the best performance but Brummagem are winning, and that brings joy to my heart!' turning to the crowd triumphantly.

Two young moms decked out in pink and white Kangool tracksuits had their backs turned. They were stamping their feet impatiently, their garishly golden gypsy hooped ear-rings were jingling and they were indignantly chewing bubblegum open-mouthed as they yapped to one another about 'Moesha's new album'.

The old man continued with tears in his eyes 'I grew up around the corner. A true Brummie lad. I remember over there, at the Railway Stand the smoke from the passing trains would billow over onto the pitch. We had a great team in those days. Fantastic days. They'll stay with me forever.'

Lane was beaming with nostalgia. 

He remembered the Arthur Turner and Merrick era when Europe feared the Blue Machine, Inter Milan and Roma were put to the sword.

In the stands a youngster was playing 'Angry Birds' on his iPhone.

'Shit man, i can never smash the wood with the red birds'.

The silence persisted.

The arrogant young DJ snatched the microphone back from the elderly former player.

'Yeah yeah. Jack Lane everyone.

...SO! Now it's TIME! Who wants to play Chip and Win and take home a wheelbarrow full of Lidl vouchers!?'

The ground burst into life and roared with approval.

The foundations of the stands were shaking as supporters danced and stomped their feet with excitement, punching the air triumphantly. The blue shirts in the Tilton twirled and swirled in a whirlpool of emotion.

The old man hobbled off the pitch towards the tunnel, and faded away.


Faded back into the darkness.