So we move across to the industrial heartlands of the West Midlands…Peaky Blinders territory if you like. Plenty of clubs, plenty of history. Depending whether you consider Stoke part of the north or part of the Midlands, either way they will get in on this piece. But as is best practice in these articles we’ll start chronologically. Let’s go back to the Easter of 1990 and indeed shine the light on the title to this series.
The visit of course was to West Bromwich Albion rather than the Latin name for England. Again a proper football club to visit. This trip was notable as to being the only English match attended with my wife which let’s say had its moments. A 3-0 victory for Plymouth marked by a Sean McCarthy hat-trick watched by just under 10,000 of us was not able to dilute some of the wife’s madder utterances. She spent most of the match wondering who was going to pick up the litter on the the terraces. She was unable to compute how citizens of the everyday world became football fans and what the game did to them. The fact that she hasn’t been to one since says it all though we are still married. I will blow my own trumpet here and take any credit going for that.
Villa Park has that interesting mix of tree-lined tradition hemmed in by the concrete scream of the M6. But Aston Villa’s place as one of the big beasts of the British football barrels through. It is well worth taking an extra moment to absorb the stairs ascending to the red brick. In these days of the ‘new build’, Villa Park should be appreciated for its guardian role as one of the original patriarchs of British football. I believe most visiting fans understand this. Nevertheless, it was a dull and dank December Saturday in December 1991 when my future brother-in-law and I waltzed up to see Villa take on Manchester City on a seriously battered pitch.
The teams at that point were made up of various transient players typical of the clubs at that time, augmented by one or two club legends. David White scored for City. For Villa, it was good to see Midlands’ king Cyrille Regis and Dwight Yorke score for the home team. A stupendous volley by Tony Daley for the third goal contrasted against the previous goals (all headers). I still enjoy watching it on YouTube. It is a ground I would like to return to one day. Villa had always loomed large in my primary reception of English football and it was a pleasure to attend.
For some reason, I have always had a bit of a downer on Birmingham City who are their primary rivals. Not quite sure why but Trevor Francis aside, I struggle to think of any player or manager there who has engaged me and even he was a bit dull. A 3-0 defeat of Reading in August 1997 was my first visit there and of course, it was no surprise to see Steve Bruce score for the home team. I do remember it was a fairly grim game of football though. The fact that the ground was walkable from the centre of the city helped.
My second visit there was a lot more interesting. A nice, sunny day in April 2005 saw a 1-1 draw with Spurs refereed by Howard Webb with good Ulster representation in the form of Maik Taylor and Damien Johnson appearing for the home side. The ground at the time was in the now West Ham governance of Gold, Brady and Sullivan and had undergone major surgery from my visit eight years previously. The main interest of the day, however, was the sight of Birmingham’s Jermaine Pennant playing with an ankle tag due to some recent felony. As you can imagine the chants were imaginative and unique.
Before we move west to Wolverhampton I should mention Walsall. Unfortunately, I can’t really put Walsall’s Fellows Park on the list as I once sat in one of the guest lounges for a sales meeting. The reserve game on in the background had all attendees rapt, football fans or not. Molineux is probably the least attractive area that houses a ground in my English visits. But then again, it does pride itself in being at the heart of the ‘Black Country’ and the industrial parks and lack of aesthetic around the ground is pertinent. It’s not Fulham.
Perhaps to soothe my delicate sensibilities two goals inside the first five minutes got the game against Port Vale in early February 1999 off to a cracking start. At the time there was huge excitement about Irish youngster Robbie Keane who was tearing things up in League One. He duly obliged with the second goal before an 89th-minute penalty by Keith Curle wrapped up a 3-1 win. It was a fairly passionate place football wise; just as you would expect.
I have to include a Stoke City v Southampton game on the final Saturday of 2012 in my midland walkabout. On paper, trust me… it held little appeal but turned out to be one amazing game. 3-3 it ended. Stoke, 3-1 down scored a last-minute equaliser with a rocket off the bar from Cameron Jerome. I think it may have ended up second in MOTD’s Goal of the Season competition. A very youthful Luke Shaw was the star turn from Southampton but it was a memorable trip. The Stoke fans do indeed make a racket and one particular incident stays with me. A few weeks earlier, controversial referee Mark Clattenburg had been involved in an altercation with Chelsea player John Obi Mikel. He had claimed that Clattenburg had made a racial comment against him. This was unfounded.
This I believe was Clattenburg’s first match back from a break of a few weeks and he had cause to send off Stoke’s vigorous midfielder Steven N’Zonzi. Within seconds of the player walking towards the touchline, the Stoke fans were singing in unison the dubious
“You’re only off, because you’re black, you’re only off, because you’re black.”
Rehearsals…I don’t think so. How does such spontaneity happen so quickly?
So next we head south to the big smoke for our next trip around the grounds that I have visited. Join me then.