Thursday, 16 September 2010

Sheffield - Part Two - The Football

We were told not to have breakfast.

It wasn't that the food on offer was sub-standard, but rather that there was a buffet planned for us at 1.15. We were going to the football. To Hillsborough to be exact, to see Sheffield Wednesday's League One encounter with Carlisle United.

All of Emma's family on her dad's side are Sheffield Wednesday fans except for her Uncle Ray. To his great credit, Ray tolerates football at an even lower level by supporting Rotherham United. He does so avidly, and whenever we meet his main topic of conversation is the Millers, although I never fail to be impressed by his knowledge of rugby league and in particular, the goings on at Saints. Ray's my kind of man.

But this was Sheffield Wednesday and so Ray was not in attendance. On arrival at the stadium there was a lengthy debate about car parking. The club had informed us that we would be able to park in the car park just outside the club shop, but had issued us with a pass for a completely different car park. We were informed of this by a slightly dozey and bog-eyed young chap who clearly felt that it was more than his job was worth to turn a blind eye to officialdom. He did at least allow us to unload the cars while the drivers moved on to the right car park.

We met back at the club shop. Emma was looking for something to buy her new niece or nephew who is expected to arrive into the world some time in October, but she clearly hadn't found what she wanted. As I rolled around I browsed only half-interestedly at the replica shirts, tee-shirts, socks, hats and so forth on display thinking that you would have to be a real fan to buy any of this. It's not like in a foreign country where you can buy merchandise from say Barcelona or the Tampa Bay Rays as a souvenir. Being English, you cannot be seen in the colours of any other English side, lest you be arrested and hanged for treason. Someone once told me that watching another team was like cheating on your wife.

I haven't got a wife, but then I'm not buying a Sheffield Wednesday shirt either.

Another striking thing about the Sheffield Wednesday club shop is that, this not being the most successful period in their history, there are not too many recent highlights playing on the numerous monitors dotted around. There's myriad clips of David Hirst, Benito Carbone, Paulo Di Canio Warhurst in their pomps but not too much sign of Marcus Tudgay, Chris Sedgewick, Tommy Spur et al.

From the club shop we were led around the corner to a small door. An official and portly-looking man in a suit greeted us and led us into a window-less room with white walls. It had the feel of a prison cell, or at least my idea of a prison cell from watching Cell Block H and The Bill. This was not the kind of room you would want to be alone with Jack Bauer in. Not unless you find Jack Bauer attractive and are absolutely certain that you are not a mole behind a massive terrorist plot.

I'm not exactly sure what was on offer at the buffet but I stuck to garlic bread and potato balls. I was also still recovering my poise from the previous night's shenannigans and so decided to drink coke. There would be plenty of time for alcohol later. Soon after other families started to enter the room, all chomping on the buffet (I think it was chicken now I think hard enough) and downing a few pre-game lagers. Little did I know that you would need a stiff drink inside you if you were about to watch Sheffield Wednesday and the result could decide whether or not you had a nice week.

I should have known. At kick-off time Wednesday sat top of League One, but this was still Wednesday after all. This is a club which was in the top flight a decade ago but which has hung around in the lower reaches of the Championship for the last five years before finally succumbing to another relegation last season. Financial mismanagement has crippled them. It is only days since yet another threat of administration and of a winding up order has been staved off.

The view from our vantage point inside Hillsborough was first class. They have a ramp to ensure that wheelchair users are not left with a restrictive ground level view, and so from a position about half way between the half way line and the goal you can see most of the action clearly. Emma's only beef was that she was sat in a seat behind me as opposed to next to me. The row I was on had space only for wheelchair users, and initially she didn't seem happy. I remembered this happening at Castleford once and thinking the worst. My only other visit to Castleford resulted in my car window being smashed by youths who thought my car was that of referee Stuart Cummings so they are not happy memories.

Yet after a while we settled into the game which was, in all honesty, pretty average. Limited skill levels are more visible in the flesh than they had been on television during Wednesday's 1-0 defeat at Brentford a week earlier. At times it seemed like park football but with much better facilities and smarter kits. Carlisle had the better of it for the most part, with goalkeeper Nicky Weaver forced into two excellent one on one saves in the first half. Yet he could not stop Craig Curran from curling in from the left edge of the box as Wednesday players stopped to debate the thorny issue of whether or not to attempt a tackle.

Carlisle edged a similarly scrappy second half but could not add to their tally. There was a humorous moment when a Wednesday defender almost drove a screamer into his own net but apart from one close call at the end from a James O'Connor shot, Wedensday never quite looked like getting back into it. The majority of the entertainment came from the crowd, from the little boy sat next to me who constantly pleaded for the referee to give Wednesday a penalty regardless of where the alleged offence took place, to the man next to him telling Wednesday manager Alan Irvine to 'sowert it art!' at regular intervals, this was an unsettled crowd.

Wednesday's defeat saw them slip from top to sixth in the early snakes and ladders table. Despite their chants of 'We are top of the league' Carlisle's victory left them second, behind Peterborough on goal difference after the latter had enjoyed a thumping 5-0 win. For us it was back to the cell with Jack, for more tea and a post-mortem. Wednesday's former Wigan and Derby midfielder Gary Teale took most of the blame and it has to be said that his performance was one of perfect ineptitude. If Wednesday have serious designs on a quick return to the Championship, they need to show far more than what was on offer here.

And yet we are already making plans to go again. Despite the low quality of football, despite the white-walled, windowless cell and despite the car parking mix-up, it was a thoroughly enjoyable day. For the first time in a while I could actually see a reason why thousands of fans turn out to watch teams like Wednesday (and Ray's Rotherham) every other week. Suffering is all part of it.

They go to Tranmere on Boxing Day. But I'm having my breakfast that day.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Sheffield - Part One

Orlando was exotic, York less so but still respectably grand, so where better to continue this downward spiral than Sheffield?

On the occasion of Emma's something-somethingth birthday we decided to spend the weekend in the city of her birth. She has family there, and if you are still not convinced about our reasoning then how about the fact that one member of said family works at one of the city's Holiday Inn hotels and can therefore get us cheap accommodation? As my mother's son, there is a part of me that would buy two Jim Davidsons if one were free.

None of which was necessary as the Holiday Inn turned out to be quite a decent place to stay. Disappointingly for this column there were no access issues, and so the only thing to moan about was the South Yorkshire weather and the fact that going away for the weekend means you're missing the cricket. Still, I had a coat and the current England v Pakistan one-day cricket series is as predictable as an episode of Lie To Me. There was no excuse.

We'd done our research and to tell you the truth Sheffield does not rival York for it's tourist attractions. The principle reason for leaving the hotel on Friday afternoon was to visit the Wheel Of Sheffield. Or, should I say, the Hallam FM Wheel Of Sheffield. Yes, just like everything else with even the remotest market value, the Wheel of Sheffield is sponsored. As a consequence of this, the in-ride commentary comes from one of Hallam FM's dullard disc jockeys.

Fortunately you don't really think about the commentary when you are up in the skies overlooking the city landscape. This is no London Eye (that's according to Emma whose been on, I would just be making an arbitrary estimate), but though it lacks the Tower of London and Westminster, it does have Cathedrals and the Crucible Theatre, home of the World Snooker Championship. The view remains exciting and interesting enough to keep your attention.

All of which is a bloody good thing, for if you were to listen to the Hallam FM Wheel Of Sheffield commentary brought to you by Hallam FM in association with Hallam FM, Wheels and Sheffield you would be immediately reminded of Mike Smash and Dave Nice. Not half, but not really a reassuring or even an informative voice when you are hundreds of feet in the air wondering why your pod appears to be rocking. That is not a sentence I expect to be writing again in the very near future, but it is accurate nonetheless.

The Hallam FM Wheel Of Sheffield is somewhat quicker than it's London counterpart. For your £6.50 you get to go around five times (though some debate this suggesting that they have been on when it has been only four), and takes about 15 minutes of your time. Emma tells me that the London Eye ride lasts for the best part of an hour. For our part we definitely went around five times, but the pod only stopped for any great length of time on the first cycle. It is this moment which makes the whole thing worthwhile. It's a bit scary, but the scenery from that kind of vantage point really is breathtaking.

The other item on the 'to do' list from our research was the Winter Garden. As we dizzily exited the Hallam FM Wheel Of Sheffield we stumbled towards an even dizzier information guide who assured us that the Winter Garden was just a 'couple of buildings further down' to the right. Despite being advised that we could not miss it, we missed it initially. It wasn't until we had been moving for around 15 minutes and past several hundred couples of buildings that we noticed a sign for the city museums. It had to be that way, surely?

It was. So what delights does the Winter Garden hold? Well, to be honest you might be a little underwhelmed. That is unless you are an enthusiast of someone called John Ruskin. Ruskin has an entire exhibition devoted to him here, the bumph on which explains that he wanted people to acknowledge the power and beauty of nature and to themselves use nature to be more creative. I find that Ruskin's own contribution to this honourable goal is a little lacking in substance. I still can't work out whether he was an artist or a scientist or both, but I do know that he must have talked a lot to inspire this kind of tribute.

The Gardens themselves contain exactly what you would expect, lots of indoor plants. This time the blurb explains that these particular plants (the name of which has already escaped me) were the main source of sustenance for dinosaurs. However, whereas the dinosaurs died out in the meteor blast, these plants survived and evolved. Yet the philistine in me will always point out that their longevity and startling evolutionary capabilities do not preclude them from being as dull as a house plant. Or even as a Hallam FM Wheel Of Sheffield commentator.

A friend of mine had told me to sample the cakes in one of the small eateries in the Gardens, but time constraints and Emma's diet rather put paid to the idea. They looked nice though, I will concede. As many people were sat sampling their delights as were strolling around the indestructable greenery.

Once Emma's family joined up with us we decided to head for an Italian restaurant called Antibos in the city centre. By now I had lurched from worrying about the cricket to having seizures about the rugby. Saints were playing their first play-off game at home to Warrington at about the same time I was tucking into my enormous pizza. I have to admit to checking the score on my phone a little more often than might normally be thought of as socially acceptable at the dinner table.

I overdid it on the food aswell, and felt shockingly sick by the time Emma and I got back to our room. I'd preceded the pizza with a piece of garlic bread as big as Kent, and followed it with something resembling chocolate fudge cake which I ordered through sheer bloody mindedness and a determination to keep up. With a big day ahead I needed rest and besides, it was all I could do not to regurgitate the whole lot by then.

On the plus side, Saints won........

Friday, 3 September 2010


'There's cat shit on the floor in here' said Emma as she looked into what used to be our conservatory and is now a chaotic laundry room.

From my angle and with my 7.00am blurry eyed goggles on I couldn't see what she was talking about. I wasn't taking any chances though, and there followed a brief 'exchange' on the subject of who might have left the conservatory door open and who should therefore clean up the mess.

Thinking no more of this episode other than to resolve to remind Emma to shut the door next time, I went about my usual business. A full day's work, an evening meal, an hour-long soak in the bath, and a two-hour visit to my mum's house. It was Thursday, and my mum's house is the only real safe haven from Private Practice, Grey's Anatomy and Third Watch.

I got back late to find that Emma had already gone to bed. It was after 11.00 and so I put the television on with a view to having half an hour of the tennis and then retiring. James Blake's second round match against a man whose name I can't even recall now was never going to hold my attention for all that long, and so I headed towards the bedroom. As I did I could hear what I thought was something or someone shuffling around in the kitchen.

I called Emma's name. No answer. I tried again, no answer. Finally I approached the kitchen to investigate, and found that Emma was nowhere to be seen. Yet I could still hear something shuffling around. It sounded like it was coming from behind the washing machine or the fridge freezer but I couldn't be sure. And so I did the only thing that any rational man would do in this situation. I woke Emma to help me investigate further.

Emma's not at her best when she has just been involuntarily woken up, so it did not help my cause when she followed me into the kitchen to find that the shuffling had stopped. There was nothing. Deathly silence, and no sign of any living thing other than ourselves. We looked around hesitantly for five or ten minutes, decided there was nothing to see, and went to bed. It was well after 12 by now and we are not great at getting up for work at 7.00 at the best of times.

A short doze followed, but by around 1am I was awoken by what I thought sounded like the fluttering of wings. I now downgraded my initial assessment which had been that there must be a mouse or a rat on the loose, and decided instead that it might just be a moth at worst, and at best a butterfly with a seriously flawed sense of direction. Emma put the lights on. The noise stopped again. If he hadn't been dead for at least five years I'd have been waiting for Jeremy Beadle to pop his head round the bedroom door.

A moment later the shuffling noise returned, but it was much louder. We were still in the bedroom but we could hear it coming from the kitchen area. Emma shot out of the bed, opened the door and announced;

"Shit! There's a hedgehog in the house!"

It was pure Victor Meldrew from then on. I literally did not believe it.

When I got out of bed I found the proof. The hedgehog was there behind the sofa next to the telephone wires. We'd obviously startled it because it had decided that the only way out of this prickly predicament would be to curl up in a ball and do nothing. All of which meant that Emma had to physically roll it through the front door with some kind of cleaning implement. I sat guarding the living room in case it roused from it's stupor and made a run for the other sofa. Fortunately it did not and she managed to manouver it on to the ramp at the side of the house. We've found hedgehogs on the ramp before, but this was the first time one had managed to infiltrate the four walls of our home.

Before we returned to bed we contemplated the fact that, in all probability, the 'cat shit' from early that morning had in fact been hedgehog shit, and that therefore our spikey little intruder had spent the whole day somewhere in our house. The crafty little bleeder had managed to go 18 hours undetected. It is more than likely that he spent most of that time curled up and motionless, what with hedgehogs being mostly nocturnal creatures. They only wake up when Babestation comes on.

The whole affair is just incredible. We left the house this morning pleased to note that there was no more shit around, and that the hedgehog had left the ramp area. It must still be alive then, which was a relief to Emma who was mortified at the prospect of murdering an animal with a mop. A colleague of her's has warned us that hedgehogs are territorial creatures and so it may try to come back. He has advised us that if it does we should drive it at least one mile away and release it in a field or a park somewhere. Fine, just as long as it doesn't release any of it's waste in our house again any time soon.

I don't believe it.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The Tony Blair Interview

For those of you who have been unable to tear yourself away from Ultimate Big Brother in recent times, I'm afraid I have to inform you that Tony Blair is about to release his memoirs.

You BB fans remember him, right? Great big toothy smile, softly spoken, never wrong about anything? He'd fit in well as a housemate were it not for the fact that his IQ is significantly higher than 30. Still sketchy? Ok, he used to be the Prime Minister. Got him now?

Ahead of the book release Mr Blair has given an hour-long interview to the BBC's Andrew Marr, screened earlier this evening (Wednesday) on BBC2. If I didn't know that all the book proceeds were going towards the British Legion to help those affected by the war that HE caused, I'd suggest that Mr Blair's interview is a shameless plug for the aforementioned tome. But I do know so we'll crack on. There's still plenty to complain about.

As I alluded to earlier Mr Blair is never wrong. Well, rarely by his own admission at any rate. This is a recurring theme in Marr's 60-minute examination of the man who held office for a decade. He was absolutely not wrong to stay on for a third term of office despite agreeing to hand on to Gordon Brown after two, absolutely not wrong to push ahead with plans for ID cards, tuition fees or foundation hospitals, and of course absolutely not wrong to authorise an illegal war in which the death toll continues to rise some eight years on. He's sorry about the latter, but he's not wrong.

The explanation of the decision to take military action in Iraq is somewhat confusing. Previous forays into Sierra Leone and Kosovo had brought about successful regime change. As such it came to pass that the removal of a despot was a good enough reason to start a war. All well and good so far. Perhaps Iraq and maybe even the world is a better place since the death of Saddam Hussein, but where's the consistency in that? Zimbabwe, anyone?

Mr Blair concedes that it would not be possible to go into Zimbabwe to remove Robert Mugabe and effect regime change, but doesn't explain the difference. This is where Marr misses a trick in not pushing for a more satisfactory answer. Perhaps both men think that the answer is obvious but, and you can call me thick if you like, I don't know the difference and I would have appreciated some elaboration on that. I'm plucking this from nowhere, but it might just be that Zimbabwe is a nation more capable of defending itself than Iraq, which has itself inflicted enough bloodshed on us. No PM wants to preside over a British version of Vietnam.

Mr Blair does express mild regret about fox hunting and freedom of information. He confesses that having looked futher into both he can now see that legislating on both was a bad idea. Suddenly fox hunting is not just 'a lot of toffs running around hunting foxes' but actually an essential method of pest control. Pity we didn't have someone around to control him when he was being a pest, which was almost always post 9/11.

He calls legislation on freedom of information a 'disaster', arguing that it became impossible for government to discuss issues frankly, lest they fall foul of the potential to offend the public. What he seemed to be saying, unless I needed to adjust my television set (which by the way will be digital whether I like it or not), is that politicians can only make informed decisions if there is no chance of anyone ever finding out what has been said in arriving at those decisions. Mr Blair would have you believe that the whole political process is in danger of falling down if some lilly-livered careerist suit is too afraid to say what he thinks, just in case the public find out about it later on.

It's only when Marr moves on to the latter days of Mr Blair's Premiership that you fully realise what has happened to the former PM. The wild-eyed (actually he's still wild-eyed), ambitious left of centre Labour man of the people of 1997 has morphed into a tyrannical, opportunistic egomaniac whose facial expressions throughout remind me of the demonic villains portrayed by Tim Curry in that Musketeer movie with Kiefer Sutherland. By his own admission Mr Blair has turned completely to the dark side, although the way he phrases it is that he is not a Conservative or even a conservative but a 'progressive' politician.

'You can't run the country in 2010 like you did in 1950' he pleads. He may be right, but I'm pretty sure you can keep the Labour Party sufficiently left wing to be both true to it's values and electable in the space of a decade. So far has Mr Blair travelled ideologically since Things Can Only Get Better And All That in 1997 that he couldn't even bring himself to launch an attack on the present and shambolic coalition government.

'I don't want to start attacking David Cameron' he said;

'Why not?' asked Marr, not unreasonably.

Maybe because they are not that different now and he recognises a lot of himself in Mr Cameron. Yes the current Prime Minister has gone a little cut-crazy in the face of the financial crisis, but essentially he's an extension of Mr Blair. All spin, monumentally self-satisfied despite his propensity to commit astonishing gaffes, and more than a little too concerned by legacy and his place in history.

The sad thing is that Mr Blair, unlike Mr Cameron perhaps, started from a much better place. His new memoirs could have been so, so different.......