A dreaded sunny day – The City Ground and Vicarage Road

This year, I’ve become wary of attending football matches on a surprisingly sunny day. You’re caught off guard, carrying a heavy coat, sweltering in your polyester replica shirt straining to see past the blistering ball of light that’s blanketed the pitch in front of you.

With football operating as a weekly scapegoating session, we find ourselves making all kinds of excuses when our team lose. “I don’t like early kick-offs on a Saturday”; “It’s no luck for us when the ‘keeper wears that neon orange top” and so on.

Recently, I’ve had two sunny days that can definitely be tarred with the unsuccessful brush. I was so despondent after my visit to Nottingham Forest that it took me ages to write this post, and when I did, the draft didn’t save. Up in smoke. So football in the pouring rain and howling wind, that’s what I’m all about now.

My trip to The City Ground back in March had all the trappings of a great day out. I’d got really cheap tickets up to Nottingham, the train was on time and it felt all positive and shiny to be getting out of London on a sunny day. Even when I got temporarily lost in a mazy housing estate and had yet another Partridgesque moment wandering up the side of a busy road, things were still looking good.

NFFC looked glorious on the approach – the pubs by the ground were packed and spilled out onto the grassy verge by the River Trent. You know what it’s like on days like these – everyone’s in high spirits (the greatest time of my weekend is nearly always 2.45pm). I took my place for the standard away end view – somewhere halfway between the goal and the corner flag, about 15 rows back. Unfortunately for me I’d managed to get saddled with a woman who was an even bigger gobshite than I am. Her piercing screams of inane rubbish were causing loads of people who were rows in front of us to turn around and have a look. I’m sure they all thought she was with me…

Boro were toothless in attack and half-arsed in defence, mixed with a whole load of scrappy in the middle of the park. You could say they looked like a team who’d lost their mojo, still wincing in the memory and the shadow of the FA Cup defeat at Arsenal back in February. It had started to feel like the shine had worn off – we’d had loads of fun winning all those games and scoring all those goals, but the pressure of the top was starting to play on us now.

Mere minutes after a loopy, wayward cross had found its way into the back of the Forest net, the home side had equalised. The gobshite woman really came into her own at this point, coming out with total gems like “WELL IF WE WANT TO WIN NOW BORO WE’RE GONNA HAVE TO SCORE ANOTHER GOAL, AREN’T WE?” I wanted to sink into my seat, but we all know you can’t sit down in the away end. It’s illegal.

I got a bit lost coming out of the ground, so asked a police officer the best way to get to the train station. Without a hint of a smirk, the officer told me to head along the dual carriageway and take a left at Hooters. Turns out Boro weren’t the only tits in Nottingham that day then… Nottingham Forest 2-1 Middlesbrough

The City Ground
Forest was not fruitful for the Boro

Ahh, Vicarage Road, my old friend. Or should that be foe? I’ve been to Watford three times now and seen my team lose two and draw one.

It was nice to see that Watford’s Sir Elton John Stand had finally been completed, as last year it was just a big pile of sand and rubble with a few diggers knocking about in there. Getting there was a bit of a trial even though I live in North London – bank holiday engineering works meant that a 15-minute train ride turned into a 50-minute one, stopping at the arse end of everywhere. This limited the time I had left to hang out in Watford and meant for a brisk stroll straight to Vicarage Road rather than hanging out for a bit on the high street. On Saturdays you’re quite likely to see two distinct groups of people hanging around in Watford – those going to the football and those off for a magical time at the Harry Potter World. It also means that idiots like me are given licence to wang on about “magic performances”, “midfield wizards” and “spellbinding runs” in my writing.

Both sides fielded the top-of-class line-ups that you’d expect, all powerhouse defences and menacing front lines. As you might expect, though, given the height of the stakes, the match wasn’t the greatest competition. I was a bit worried about a Darren Bent beach ball-style incident after numerous blow-up objects blustered around on the pitch. Boro’s strike-force were similarly flyaway when faced with Watford’s burly centre-backs – we didn’t really get a sniff. Troy Deeney put Boro on the back foot with his 80th Watford goal and Ighalo sealed the Hornets’ win by catching the Boro defence off-guard with a pearler from the edge of the box. It was the kind of meltdown that Boro fans have witnessed far too often this season – to the point that Watford didn’t really have to even play that well. They just had to tick boxes and get the simple stuff right to go top of the league.

Suffice to say the rest of my Saturday was spent thinking up Elton-based puns to find something to smile about (my particular favourite being Promotion Seems To Be The Hardest Word). Watford 2-0 Middlesbrough.

Watford 2-0 Middlesbrough
Don’t let the sun go down on me…

Despite actually spending the weekend in rainy Berlin, I had people looking at my salmon-pink arms and asking if I’d been somewhere tropical for the Bank Holiday. Just Watford, was my reply. My outlook was less than sunny for the rest of the week, though, it’s got to be said.

The travails of the football supporter…

Next up: Craven Cottage is on the cards for what could be a real “six-pointer”… Fingers crossed for rain.

Griffin Park – Bee lucky

My adventure continued apace as we approached the end of what felt like the longest January ever. What better place to lift your spirits than a fixture at Griffin Park, a ground famous for having a pub on each corner and old-school terraces to boot? Indeed, it’s a stadium that The Guardian loftily labels the “most refreshing” in the world.

This wasn’t my first time visiting Brentford – I went back in 2010 with my good friend Paddy Jones, a fervent Sheffield Wednesday fan who now heads up the New York Owls stateside supporters group. Wednesday lost 1-0 in a game that’s lost to my memory, but we did go for a consolation pint in the The Griffin.

Drinking wasn’t on the cards for me and my brother, both parched from the previous night’s pub trip and put off by the 12.15pm kick-off. As our Piccadilly line train pulled into the platform at King’s Cross I spotted some lads in puffer jackets; I knew from looking at them that they were Boro fans. The carrier bag of lager cans and the flat vowels confirmed it. As the train carried on towards Heathrow Airport, passengers emptied out and were eventually left with “the Boro tube” – people actually talking to each other in that faux-aggressive accent. We got off at South Ealing and made the straight-up, 20-minute walk south to the ground – a decent mix of London-based supporters and the red-eyed, on the coach at 5am bunch.

The covered terrace at Griffin Park isn’t a bad way to while away a Saturday afternoon. We took our positions, loitering behind a dark red handrail that wore a faded Tranmere Rovers sticker. Despite the away end selling out for this fixture, there was tons of space in the back half of the stand as Boro fans squeezed into the front section, their aim a fleeting appearance at a corner ball on the Sky Sports cameras.

Both sets of fans were in good spirits, despite the early kick-off which often gives a subdued feel to the atmosphere. Boro fans were particularly raucous given the club’s recent heroics in the FA Cup and solid shifts in the Championship that had pushed them up into the top three. However, Brentford had the first half firmly in their grasp – quick out of the blocks and tenacious when Boro rarely got the ball, resulting in frustrating long balls up front to nobody in particular. They’d have been going in very happy chaps at half-time if it wasn’t for one of those long balls running away from Boro striker Patrick Bamford and Bees ‘keeper David Button subsequently bringing him down in the box (for a B league the Championship really is littered with “B”s).

The penalty may have seemed harsh on Brentford but the yellow card that Button received as last man surely wasn’t. Grant Leadbitter put the spot kick away with aplomb and Boro unexpectedly enjoyed a slight reprieve from what would have been an angry Aitor Karanka at half-time.

The second half was better, a more evenly matched competition and a super-tense final 10 minutes (as they often are when you’re on a slender 1-0 lead), but Boro held on to clock up another vital three points in the chase for promotion. Karanka and the rest of the Boro bench charged onto the pitch, arms aloft, as the Boro fans pogoed their way out of the Brook Road stand. Brentford 0-1 Middlesbrough.

Griffin Park
The Bees lost their buzz just before half-time

Top-flight football is always the dream and the aim, but if we do get there it makes me feel a tiny bit sad that away days like this will largely be long gone (unless Brentford come up with us too).

Home and away fans mixed warmly on the streets and in the pubs afterwards, the whole set-up just testament to what a great match-day experience you’ll find at Brentford. Even the ground staff are ace – one steward wagging his finger as we left, “we’ll get you next time!”

I know I’ve got a long way to go to get through the 92 but Griffin Park can definitely be assured a place in my top flight.

Next up: A springtime Saturday at Nottingham Forest

A Christmas turkey and a belated surprise gift

Ok, first up, an admission: the whole idea behind starting this blog was that I would go to more football matches, do some writing about the experience and post my thoughts up in a timely manner. This has not happened, mainly because I’ve been a bit lazy. If I wanted to make excuses, though, I’d blame Christmas, and New Year! And January malaise! The dog did eat my homework as well, I promise.

So, what did I get up to since I last wrote? Well, I went to a couple of Middlesbrough home matches. I didn’t write about those because they are my team, the stadium I’ve been to more than any other and also other people have done it much better and without any Juninho-tinted gegs on.

I also made a valiant, nay futile, attempt to visit Rotherham United at the New York Stadium, footballing venue of choice for erstwhile oddjob men The Chuckle Brothers. Tickets in the Middlesbrough away end sold out rapidly given the easy access via the M1 for Teessiders so my pals attempted to sneak some tickets in the home end. Rotherham rightly foiled our sneaky plans and cancelled the tickets. This just made me even more determined to visit some new grounds in December.

Come on down Portman Road – an old-school stadium with a rich history, team riding high in the Championship and just a 90-minute train ride away. The ideal day trip for the Saturday before Christmas, wouldn’t you think? Hmm, not quite. The grand plan was to hop off the train well over an hour before kick off so I could have a little wander around Ipswich, see the sights, maybe have a look at what local cakes they sell in their branch of Greggs.

No. There was a signal failure when the train had barely shuffled out of London and we didn’t move for well over an hour. Home and away fans alike charged off the train at 3.05 and jogged round the corner to Portman Road. Similar failures were seen on the pitch for Aitor Karanka’s Middlesbrough as the travelling faithful were treated to two (count them) shots on target and a half-arsed attempt at the team showing some willing. Mick McCarthy’s blues were dominant throughout, Boro unable to get their heads round his tricky long ball game. It has since proved to be a bad day at the office and now goes down as just one of two games that the Smoggies have lost in the last 24.

In fact, the best bit about the whole afternoon was meeting another Boro fan, 54-year-old Mark, stood next to me at the back of the away block. He’d been on the same train from London as me and had hoped to get a bit of Christmas shopping done in Ipswich before the game. Good one… He empathised on the downsides of London living: expensive pints, inability to find decent cheesy chips and so forth. When your team have had a bit of a nightmare it’s nice to have someone to share the pain with. Ipswich 2-0 Middlesbrough.

Ipswich 2-0 Middlesbrough
A sorry day out for the Teessiders

Christmas came and went, and although I didn’t head out to a game on Boxing Day, I set my sights on the fixtures of the 28th December. My friend Natalie (who has been to a few London matches with me before) and I got the fixture lists up on our phones, quickly dismissing the Premier League games and scrolling down to League One, League Two, the Conference. In the end we plumped for AFC Wimbledon, a team whose FA Cup dalliances had landed them a plum tie with Liverpool at Kingsmeadow just a few days later.

I couldn’t resist: AFC are the phoenix rising from the ashes of one of the most-celebrated clubs in football history. Oh, and possibly the chance to see Ade Akinfenwa in the flesh. We were not disappointed upon arrival – The Cherry Red Records Stadium’s own bar was a welcome host for home and away fans alike, the home fans in particular enjoying Southampton teasing Chelsea in the televised early kick-off.

When it came to the match, AFC ruled the roost, netting three goals before “The Beast” Akinfenwa took to the field and sealed the deal with a thundering finish. Glorious. We were threatened with a crowd-surfing womble as well, but thankfully Haydon resisted so I didn’t need to worry about a womble boot to the face. The AFC fans were in fine fettle in the main terrace, delivering a range of lyrical chants with gusto. The Exeter goalkeeper even faced a diatribe from one loud-mouthed fan, telling him exactly how far down the pecking order he must be to be wearing the number 23 shirt. AFC Wimbledon 4-1 Exeter City.

AFC Wimbledon 4-1 Exeter City
A bright performance at Kingsmeadow

This set AFC Wimbledon up a treat for their meeting with Liverpool, a fixture shrouded in cult and magic smoke since 1988’s FA Cup final, where nobody-bad-lads The Crazy Gang played out of their skins to win the trophy, much to the consternation of the press (but not the rest of us who bloody love an underdog). As an aside, some of you may enjoy watching BT Sport’s documentary on The Crazy Gang. I quite liked it but you do feel like grabbing hold of a huge pinch of salt, especially when John Fashanu is speaking.

In short, I didn’t do too badly, but I must do better. Starting 2015 as I mean to go on by booking train tickets, match tickets and promising to do some writing as well as Instagramming.

Next up: I head to Griffin Park and high-flying Brentford to watch them tackle high-flying Middlesbrough. Expecting vertigo…

It’s a funny old game…

As I write this, my first post on notmybackyard, I’m watching Match of the Day. Once a show that I might catch the very end of with bleary eyes as I brewed my post-pub cuppa, these days it’s becoming a milestone of my week. I come home from the pub earlier so I don’t miss it. I get an empty feeling on Saturdays during international breaks when it’s not on telly. Football is becoming a bigger obsession for me as I get older and I’ve developed a bit of a fascination with “ticking off the 92”. In fact, it doesn’t even need to be “the 92” – just football clubs. On my last count I’ve been to 18 Football League grounds but now I want more.

Today, Sunderland lost 8-0 away at Southampton. Wow. Coming from Middlesbrough stock, I sometimes impart the odd smirk at Mackem misfortunes but today’s result made me wince. And what was it that the pundits commented on most? The plight of the Sunderland fans, all 2,500 of the poor sods who’d made the 12-hour round trip to the south coast, expending time and money to be presented with a pitiful performance.

Maybe it’s coincidence that I planned to start this blog today but it got me thinking even more about the psyche of away fans. As a Boro fan living in London, a great deal of the Boro games that I attend are at other people’s stadiums. The Riverside, standing brazenly on the banks of the Tees, is the grand family manor, visited a handful of times a season. More often than not, I’m eating my tea off someone else’s table.

I’m sure this isn’t a trait seen at my club only but Boro fans LOVE their away days. Hordes of coaches put on by the club and fans (including the wonderful Twe12th Man supporters group) haul the hardcore up and down the country every other week. London games in particular are relished, the bright lights of the big city shining even brighter after numerous cans of lager on the way down. We take thousands to Brighton, as we did today. The M1 and the M62 are our oysters.

But why do people go to away games? Isn’t it enough to see your team once a fortnight if you live close enough to do so? Some might say that it’s the most ardent fans who make this commitment, going above and beyond their season ticket to factor in expensive travel and challenging fixtures. Far from strength in numbers, it’s often the smaller gangs that sing louder and harder to make their presence felt.

The Football Supporters’ Federation runs an annual Away Fans survey which, last year, picked out Cardiff and Swansea City as the best away day experiences; a different country for most football fans in the Football League. Distance of travel was cited as the most important factor in helping fans to determine whether to go to an away game or not; likelihood of winning came last. This makes sense in our upper leagues, where teams are clustered around heavily populated cities. It’s no surprise that the bottom three destination results for League Two are in the south west, with Cheltenham, Bristol and Exeter adding up to heavy mileage for many clubs’ fans.

My interest in the homes of football clubs extends beyond my own team’s fixture list. I spent many Saturdays during my time at uni in the stands at Huddersfield Town, then following them away to Bradford, plus a couple of fun afternoons watching Sheffield Wednesday in and around London. One of my favourite visits to an alien stadium was to the Lokomotiv Stadium for the “lesser” Moscow derby against Dynamo Moscow. The football itself was negligible but the atmosphere and self-management of the crowd’s support was incredible. The singing never stopped and the waving of flags was highly orchestrated. It’s also the first time I’ve ever had to walk past tanks and lines of stony faced army cadets to get to a football match.

Abysmal performances at Crystal Palace; happy hangovers at Charlton; hundreds of Tony Mowbray masks on topless torsos bobbing around with joy at Peterborough; finding Teesside steel on the platform at Gillingham station after a rainy Tuesday night cup tie. What’s apparent to me is that it’s often the incidents off the pitch, little nuances of the day and stories overheard that live longer in the memory than the action on the field, and it’s these that I wish to preserve here. Or maybe it’s just my terrible memory, which is another reason for me keeping this blog.

I might tell you these stories one day. The romance of football will never fade. Now, it’s time for The Football League Show and the weekly wait until almost 1am to see a 30-second clip of your club – win or lose.

Next up: I head back to Yorkshire to take in Rotherham United and the New York Stadium