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.


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