Monday, 30 May 2016

One Hull Of A Weekend

Sheffield Wednesday have been crap for years. Which is easy to say for a Liverpool supporter. For people like us reaching (and losing) two major finals represents a disappointing season. Though Liverpool haven't won the title for 26 years and have rarely even threatened to do so, it's still only just over a decade since we last celebrated being champions of Europe. We have one of the most sought after managers in world football and a sense of entitlement that is so heightened that we can afford to leave a £32million striker on the bench and have a good laugh at his ineptitude when he does play.

Sheffield Wednesday know nothing of this. They were relegated from the Premier League in 2000 and haven't been back since. They slipped into League One soon after that and only returned to the Championship when they beat mighty Hartlepool in the play-off final in 2005. I was there that day in Cardiff due to the footballing allegiances of Emma and her family. Since then I've watched them battle it out with the likes of Carlisle United (twice), Blackpool, Tranmere Rovers (now a non league outfit), Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic.

The 2015/16 season has been a vintage one by Wednesday standards, certainly in the time I've been following them since meeting Emma. After years of plodding along in mid table without the prospect of either promotion or relegation they were good enough to secure sixth place and a place in the play-offs. Even then expectations were low that they would overcome a Brighton side which had finished third in the table, especially not over a two-legged semi final. But overcome them they did, booking a place at Wembley for the Championship play-off final where they would face Hull City for a place in the Premier League. It would have been rude not to take the opportunity of a weekend in London for Wednesday's big day.

With a 5.00 kick-off on Saturday afternoon we could have driven down there on the morning of the game but decided to go straight from work on Friday. Previous experience of staying at the hotels near to Wembley Stadium told us that it would be much more cost effective to stay elsewhere and get the tube across to Wembley on the day. That meant battling with the Friday post-work traffic and saw the journey take five hours, but better that than spending Saturday morning parked on the M1 and risking being late. We chose Canary Wharf because we have been there before and knew that we could get around London easily from there.

We were placed on the 13th and top floor of the Brittannia International hotel, which would have been very interesting in the event of a fire. Still, after such a long time on the motorway I wasn't prepared to challenge it. In any case, in all the years I've been travelling around the world, staying in the hotels of varying quality both with Emma and with the basketball team I've only once experienced the spine tingling awfulness of a broken lift. That was in Chester some years ago when I chose to solve the problem by descending two flights of stairs on my backside. These days I'm not sure I can do 13 flights, especially given how dramatically my fitness and all around health has regressed since my time as a pretend athlete. But it was late. I just wanted a beer and something to eat. I was happy to take this risk.

These meanderings serve a purpose other than just logging my travel exploits. Whether anyone reads this or not (and sometimes I think I could use this space to reveal my darkest secrets or confess to a string of murders and nobody would be any the wiser) it acts as a reminder to me of all the interesting experiences I've had, good or bad, on my travels. It allows me to tell the stupid stories I manage to be part of with such regularity. It's also meant to inform others who use wheelchairs about any access issues they may encounter if they find themselves in the places I visit. Well better that than reading reviews on tripadvisor maybe. You don't know the people who post those so how are you going to know whether to trust them? You can have more faith in what I tell you. Even if you are reading this and thinking what a pleb I am. Either way, you have your answer on whether my recommendations hold any sway for you. What I'm saying is that what follows is the practical bit.

If you have an arse that is any wider than mine, or if you have difficulty transferring in and out of your wheelchair then room 1302 of the Brittannia International is not for you. There was just enough room to get my chair in to the bathroom so that I could use the toilet, but closing the door behind me was not an option without vacating my chair. The door swung away in front of the sink on the left hand wall, thus blocking me from using said sink. Leaving my chair outside the bathroom didn't help as it meant that I was sat on the floor so had no chance of reaching the sink. Washing was strictly limited to taking place in or over the bath as was brushing my teeth. How the other half live. You people. You don't know you're born. Thankfully there was more space elsewhere in the room. It not being a disabled room we were spared that all too common indignity of twin beds. You'd be surprised how often this happens. Or maybe you wouldn't. The implication is that the only person your biff arse is sharing a room with is your carer.

The plan for Saturday was to have breakfast late and then get to a pub near Wembley called The Green Man. We'd have a few pints and wait for Emma's mum and dad and their Wednesday-supporting friends to arrive. Before we get there some more advice. Not access-related but if you're having breakfast in Canary Wharf do it at Wetherspoons rather than at All Bar One. The latter's offering is twice the price and half as enjoyable. Also, Wetherspoons are unlikely to have young, attractive bar staff running after you and shouting 'DO YOU WANT TO GO TO THE TOILET?' when they see you heading that way. Acquiring my own radar key hasn't yet taken all of the ignominy away from basic bodily functions, it seems.

It's fully 18 stops between Canary Wharf station and the one at Wembley Park. That sounds like too many to bear but they are quite closely bunched. The entire journey takes around 35 minutes. Wembley Park's platform is not totally accessible but helpfully Canary Wharf's platform has a clearly marked boarding point for anyone using a wheelchair travelling to Wembley Park. The platform is long enough that we had to let one train go because we hadn't quite reached the accessible boarding point, but the regularity of tube trains and the lateness of the kick-off meant that this was never going to be a major problem. Wembley has two tube stations but for access reasons we needed Wembley Park. We did see a couple of Hull City fans get off around Baker Street to get on the Met Line which Emma reckoned might be quicker but isn't accessible.

Everything had gone virtually to plan then until we got off the train at Wembley Park and began trying to find The Green Man. Emma had 'Googlemapped' it so had some idea of where it was. Except she didn't really. We spent the first few minutes going up a steep hill in the wrong direction before realising our mistake and turning the ship around. The journey was supposed to be around 17 minutes and for the first few of those once we'd turned around I was lulled into a false sense of security. It was all downhill and I didn't have to do a thing except slow myself down a little on the slope. And then it flattened out. And then the path started to climb uphill. Not only that, but it was sloped horizontally aswell as vertically. A double whammy that is a killer for most wheelchair users, let alone one whose last athletic endeavour was 10 minutes on a hand cycle four years ago.

Frustratingly, we passed two or three bars on the way but we'd arranged to meet at The Green Man and so had to press on. Those bars looked a bit dingy and empty, but it's surprising how little that mattered to me at the time. Two minutes battling the double slope had given me quite a thirst. They must have been expecting plenty of business at those bars anyway because there were security staff on the door. Helpfully they pointed some other fans in the direction of The Green Man. Unhelpfully their instructions were to carry on down the road we were on. Up the hill, on the path with the sideways slope.

It's a good thing that there were plenty of other fans heading to The Green Man, otherwise we might never have known to take the left turn we took up another ludicrously steep hill. We'd long since given up on Google Maps and besides, neither of us had a hand free to operate a smart phone since we were now both helping out with the pushing. When we reached the top of the ludicrously steep hill we discovered another one where the fans we were following started to head. We were both gassed by then and loudly cursing whoever came up with the idea of meeting at this particular pub. We crossed the road towards the latest (and thankfully last) slope and were asked by the security staff at the bottom of the drive whether we were Sheffield Wednesday fans. Of course I'm not, but after clumbing Kilimanjaro I wasn't going to tell them that. It was only a small lie anyway. I was supporting Sheffield Wednesday that day and I'm certainly not a Hull City fan. Football has now become so uncivilised that they have to allocate entire pubs to one set of fans or the other on occasions like this. This is not what I'm used to as a rugby league fan. When Saints played Wigan on Good Friday I went for a few beers before kick-off at a pub in town called The George. Every single regular in The George is a Saints fan but that didn't stop hundreds of Wiganers from getting in and mixing with us. I was quite happily chatting away to a few of them as we watched the Hull derby on the television. Yet apparently that sort of integration is not possible in football, which is undeniably sad and a bit of an embarrassment to the sport.

The lawn outside The Green Man was already covered with fans when we got there just after midday on what was now an absolute scorcher by British standards. There were no empty seats inside but getting served at the bar was still reasonably easy. We took our drinks back outside and enjoyed some well earned refreshment as the crowd built up. As it did so the accessible entrance became the stuff of myth and legend, doubling as it did as the fastest route to the ladies toilet. From quite early on and for all of the four hours or so we were there the queue was constantly backed up outside the door. Having a wee was going to be a challenge as it would mean battling through the throng of weak-bladdered Yorkshire women. I have enough trouble getting in my own bathroom ahead of one weak-bladdered Yorkshire woman. I was seriously contemplating leaving it until we got inside the stadium but Emma would see to it that I wouldn't be doing that. Probably for the best. I didn't get stage four kidney disease by treating my bladder kindly.

It wasn't long before we got talking to the obligatory chatty bloke. There's always a few people on these occasions who, despite being a total stranger, will chat to you as if they've known you forever when they've had a pint. Truth be told I'm probably one of them. Or at least I was before even I got sick of myself. This one was called Richard, and he hadn't slept for four nights waiting to find out if he'd got tickets for today in the ballot. He mustn't go to very many Wednesday games. We got our tickets based on the fact that we had accrued a small number of points from the few games that we have been to over the last few years. We had to get Roland's friend Norman to pick them up for us but the point is we qualified without the need for entry into a ballot. He seemed confused and slightly miffed when it came up in conversation that we had driven down from Liverpool last night, but Richard was not a grudge holder. He was going to have a good time come what may and he told me several times that I would too.

To that end his was one of the loudest voices joining in with the unofficial Sheffield Wednesday play-off final song. They all knew it word for word and they sang it incessantly. As a consequence I know it word for word. To the tune of Billy Ray Cyrus' Achy Breaky Heart they sing;

'We've got Bannan'
'Barry Bannan'
'I just don't think you understand'
'The wee Scotsman'
'Is better than Zidane'
'We've got Barry Bannan'

There's something pure and wonderful about a set of fans so joyously celebrating something as mediocre as Barry Bannan. It's almost self deprecating, which is something that seems totally absent from fans of the traditional elite clubs. Glory hunting has plunged such depths that I recently read a tweet from one Asia-based fan which expressed disbelief at ending the 2015/16 season as a Leicester City fan before going on to proclaim 'WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS'. The capital letters belong to the person writing the tweet, not to me. The message is clear. That individual was going to support whichever team made off with the Premier League title this season and will probably adopt the same philosophy next season. There is nothing in this world less valuable than his kind of glory and it's something which speaks loudly about the modern Premier League. Yet here we all were waiting to attend a game for which the prize on offer is a place in that very same, soulless cash-fest.

At around 1.30 Emma got a call from Roland. They'd arrived but couldn't get in to the pub because the security people were now employing a strict one-in, one-out policy. We decided to stay firstly because we weren't confident of getting in anywhere else at that stage and secondly because we didn't fancy negotiating more hills in the quest. So Emma went back down the drive to collect our tickets from Norman. I was left making small talk with Richard and his mate Dave (no really) but not for very long. The next person I saw that I recognised was not Emma but Susan, her mum. She wasn't alone either. Roland and Norman were there along with Norman's daughters Lisa and Jenny and Jenny's young son Dylan. Clearly there were enough people leaving the pub to make room for everyone, which was a relief really because the whole point of pushing up those 17 hills was so that we could meet up with everyone.

Inevitably the time came to address the toilet situation. A couple of pints of watered down Fosters will do that to you. Still I was happy to hang on but Emma couldn't. Not wanting to get in the massive queue she made me dodge my way through the weak-bladdered Yorkshire women so that she also could use the disabled toilet facilities. I was pretty put out by this but on reflection I'm a bit more philosophical about it. There aren't many advantages associated with being with a man like me so I suppose you take what perks there are. To be fair the female population of Yorkshire were more patient and accommodating than I'd imagined. Nobody got angry and nobody batted an eyelid when we both went into the disabled toilet together. Sometimes having everyone assume that you can't wipe your own arse can come in handy. It's no less humiliating for all that, mind.

Three o'clock ticked around and so time for Saints to kick-off. They were also playing Hull, specifically Super League leading Hull FC at the KC Stadium. Current form suggested very little chance of a Saints win and when the first Twitter update reported that Luke Walsh had left the field injured and that we were already 6-0 down that chance all but evaporated for me. I was cheered slightly by rumours of Wigan arsehole John Bateman bottling one of his team-mates on a night out, but a loss is a loss even when your rivals are beating each other up. In the end we lost 32-24 with Keiron blaming most of it on the referee. Whatever the reason for it finding out that my team had lost to a team from Hull seemed a pretty bad omen.

The Green Man closed at 4.00. That seems odd in the age of 24-hour drinking but was actually quite handy. It takes the gamble of having just that one more pint before you leave out of the equation. As we made our way back down the hill towards the stadium the fans were still chanting about Barry Bannan (or Gary Balloon in Susan's case) and spirits were still very high. Perhaps Richard was right and we would all have a great day no matter what. As we rolled on down Wembley Way I veered off the road to allow a slow-moving car to pass me. It's progress was being held up by the hordes of fans in the road but that was just giving the man in the back seat time to film the scene on his phone. As he passed me I turned to find that the man poking his head out of the window was former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan. Vaughan is the poster boy for celebrity Wednesday fans now that Roy Hattersley and David Blunkett are yesterday's news so it was no surprise that he was at Wembley, despite having been working for BBC Radio on England's test match with Sri Lanka at Durham. It's a long way from Durham to Wembley, but Roland had been listening to the radio earlier on and heard Vaughan say that he had a helicopter picking him up to take him to the Wednesday game. All of which was all Susan needed to run up to his open car window and ask as to the whereabouts of said helicopter.

On the way up to Block J I bumped into an old basketball team-mate. I knew he'd be here as he's a regular at Wednesday but it still felt strange seeing him in a crowd of 70,000. We were led through a gate and made our way to section 134, coming to rest in our seats at the back of the first tier directly behind the goal where all the Wednesday support was assembled. From that moment, right up until the final whistle those fans were relentless and unfailing in their support. That's all the more remarkable given the low quality of their team's performance and of the game in general. If this were Saints playing this poorly in a game this bad it would be all of five minutes before the bitching and moaning went into overdrive. It goes back to that sense of entitlement again. Wednesday fans just don't have it. They love their team unconditionally. The media talk a lot about the best fans in football being those in Liverpool or Newcastle or Glasgow but this lot are right up there.

The atmosphere dipped only slightly when Mo Diame scored the winner from out of absolutely nowhere with about 20 minutes left. It seemed a decisive blow even then. Wednesday were creating very little in terms of goal threat and the decision by manager Carlos Carvalhal to use the lumbering and useless Adte Nuhiu as a substitute before the gifted Lucas Jiao seemed like an admission of defeat. Over 90 minutes Gary Balloon proved beyond doubt that he was not better than Zidane or even Kilbane, and there were those who couldn't keep up the pretence as the clock ticked down to their timid defeat. One lad sat directly in front of me had spent almost the entire game singing and chanting, hitting me on the head with blue or white balloons (probably Gary's) at regular intervals. But when Diame scored he sat down quietly, resigned to his team's fate and scarcely even able to watch.

Before time was called there was one half-hearted shout for a penalty for handball and one wasted opportunity which the inept Jeremie Helan stroked over the bar, but in truth Wednesday didn't do nearly enough to avoid a painful defeat. Despite their low expectations there was palpable disappointment in the Wednesday end and it was hard not to get a little caught up in that dejection. Particularly if you're a miserable bugger to begin with. This was a whole season's work that had come to nothing and done so without much of a fight. The more philosophical Wednesday fans might reflect that this is a side which isn't quite ready for the big league but in the context of Leicester City winning the thing this year that may no longer ring true. Another year in the Championship could help them develop and come back stronger, but equally there are no guarantees that they'll get this close to promotion again any time soon. Wednesday's loss is probably the Premier League's loss too. I've certainly seen enough of Hull City's yo-yo act over the last few years to believe that they won't add much more to it than another scrapper aiming only for survival.

We said our goodbyes to the others when we met outside the ground. None of them were staying in London for the night so understandably wanted to get away. It was well after 8.00 by the time we got away from the stadium and we were held up further by the police limiting the number of fans getting into Wembley Park station at any one time. We got off the train at Westminster so that we could visit the Red Lion, a small pub around the corner from the Houses Of Parliament. It's a place that oozes character. You sense it's history. You can well imagine many a political strategy or big decision being mulled over here by prominent political figures over the years here. It's unlikely that those politicians were drinking bottles of San Miguel when they considered the country's fate, but there's enough in the d├ęcor and the layout to give it the sense of history that is slightly diluted by what they now sell.

Sadly they don't sell it for very long these days. We got there at around 8.35 thinking we'd have time for a couple before heading back to Canary Wharf, but for reasons best known to the management they closed at 9.00. Nine o'clock on a Saturday night! I don't remember this being the case on our last visit but it certainly has made us think again about coming here when we're back in London next weekend for the Bruce Springsteen gig. For now we made our way back to the station, making sure to take a photograph of an illuminated Big Ben looking resplendent in the fading early summer light. Certainly a lot more attractive than a couple of the selfies I had posted earlier in the weekend, one an ingenious in-joke with a friend who's partial to a car selfie, and the other an altogether better affair rescued by Emma's presence.

We finished the night back in Canary Wharf at a bog-standard, tourism-proof Slug & Lettuce. We made plans for next week while I tried not to vomit at the sight of self-adoring football superpower Cristiano Ronaldo scoring the winning penalty for Real Madrid to beat rivals Atletico in a Champions League final shoot-out. Theirs is the highest honour in European club football but it's highly doubtful that it meant as much to them as the day they went to Wembley meant to the insomniac Richard and the rest of the Wednesday faithful.

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