Monday, 4 May 2015
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 olés 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.