"As for Maidenhead, the conga (which was amusing) aside, quite a strange bunch really – some the oddest chants I've ever heard at a football match" ~ localboy86, Amber Planet forum, 26th April 2015

Sunday 9 October 2011

Away Day Diary: Oxford United 3-0 Bristol Rovers (08/10/11)

Upon the announcement of the npower League Two fixtures, both Macleod (M) and the wife expressed interest in accompanying me to a Rovers game or two. The former is keen on increasing the number of league grounds he has visited, so early season fixtures at Macclesfield and Morecambe were highlighted, only to be ruled out as they clashed with a wedding and a birthday, respectively. The wife was luckier (or unluckier, depending on your viewpoint!) - having enjoyed our day out at Brentford last season and being a fan of Oxford as a place (she's been to two hen parties there in the previous couple of years), the Pirates visit to the Kassam Stadium coincided with an otherwise free weekend in our busy social calendar (three 30th birthday parties in the last month, with more to come). It would be another case of a 'good day out ruined by 90 minutes of football'. Or, as the wife was to point out, a 'good day out slightly stained by 90 minutes of football'. Trust the women in our lives to put football into perspective!

After I had watched England's abject defeat to the French in the egg-chasing World Cup and the wife had taken the cat to the vets, we caught our train from Maidenhead in good time. A quick change at Reading and we were in Oxford in little more than an hour. I have been past Oxford on the train before and - I think - changed trains there (plus I've seen a Get Cape Wear Cape Fly gig at Oxford Brookes University), but this was the first time that I'd pounded the historic streets of one of England's most famous cities. As aforementioned, the wife had been before, so she was my guide as we walked over a bridge and past a pub - thronged with Rovers fans inside and riot police outside - towards the main shopping centre.

After locating the relevant stop for the 106C bus to the out-of-town Kassam Stadium, we entered the nearby Old Tom to kill time with a couple of rounds before our 13:50 departure. The 'pub' part of this venue was small, and the Thai restaurant part was more sizeable. It was busy with, perhaps unsurprisingly, a 50/50 mix of tourists and students. There was also an eye patch-wearing older man (drinking real ale with a navy rum chaser) who would scorn at my ordering of a Mixed Fruit Kopparberg - saying that cider should come from apples and nothing else - plus a Jamie Jarvis-lookalike Geordie, who could barely stand and for whom another pint of Scrumpy Jack was definitely ill-advised!

There was a reasonably-sized queue at the bus stop, opposite an impressive-looking Christ Church, containing more than one group of 'merry' Gasheads. One of these groups began talking to those behind us in the queue. The conversation would continue when they all sat in front of us on the surprising single-decker (and therefore unsurprisingly full) but reasonably priced Thames Travel 'football special' bus. It transpired that the three 'other' gentlemen (who hadn't met previously and just happened to be standing next to one another in the queue) that the Rovers group were talking to were a Danish scientist, an American academic from Albuquerque - both of whom were en route to the Kassam, for their very first experience of live English football - and a German businessman from Nuremberg who didn't like football and was merely returning to his hotel, which happened to be next to the ground.

As we passed Magdalen College, the Roger Bannister running track, Littlemore Psychiatric hospital and other sights - whilst winding our way out of the town - the Rovers group continued to talk with the foreign visitors. I was, at this point, reminded of times when I've travelled on public transport to football games in Germany, particularly the occasion when - during my Stag weekend - a few of us were returning to Düsseldorf city centre on a packed train following the Bayer Leverkusen vs Werder Bremen match at Fortuna Düsseldorf's ground. A bespectacled Werder fan (pictured below with my brother) mistook our bemusement - at the loud, alcohol-fuelled banter between the rival fans, allowed to travel together - for fear and attempted to re-assure us with the now-immortal line - "Don't be scared you Englischer fans".

Both the wife and I lived in Bristol for several years. I love the place. And the people. And the accent. I love the accent. However, I can't help but feel that, sometimes, the accent can make a person sound slightly less intelligent and sophisticated than they are. I couldn't help but smile, wondering what the Dane, the American and the German made of it all as they were bombarded with questions (some insightful, some not) and invited to join the Rovers lot for a pre-match pint. The American - who, unsurprisingly, was the most extroverted and talkative of the foreigners - let on that he had a ticket for the home section, which he was repeatedly encouraged to swap for one in the away end. At various points throughout the journey, he was also serenaded with lusty renditions of the theme tunes to Happy Days, Dallas, Mork & Mindy and other American TV shows, plus 'The King of Rock n Roll' by Prefab Sprout (as aforementioned, he was from Albuquerque).

I think he was secretly relieved when it was announced - by a bearded member of the Rovers group, who was wearing a St Pauli t-shirt (one of two that I saw on the day!) - that, as the roads leading to the stadium were completely jammed, so the journey was taking longer than it should, the pre-match drinks would have to be postponed. Why the main roads to a purpose-built, out-of-town stadium don't have a designated bus lane is beyond me. As it was, the driver let everyone out early - with the bus still marooned in traffic - and we walked the rest of the way. As we neared the ground, I was again reminded of Germany. Twofold. Firstly, the paths seemed to disappear, forcing us to walk on the road itself - and on grassy verges - not unlike when the wife and I went to Eintracht Frankfurt vs 1. FSV Mainz 05, and we had to trek through a forest to get to the Commerzbank-Arena! Secondly, a pub to our left (called the Priory) had seemingly erected a marquee in their garden and put on a BBQ for the away fans. Beer and sausages in a tent outside a football ground? Germany in a nutshell.

Macleod (M) had already been to the Kassam (with Willie to see Exeter City) and had mentioned that the ground was three-sided. Inexplicably, I had thought he meant only three sides were covered, not that there were only three sides! As we walked through the car park of the adjacent Vue Cinema, you could see - because there was only a wooden fence behind one of the goals - the seats of the three stands quickly filling up. This game had been nominated as a 'Gas On Tour' match - an 'if you're going attend one away game this season, make it this one' type of thing - and so a large turnout from North Bristol was expected. And it wasn't hard to fathom where the designated away end was, as almost half of one of the stands was already a mass of blue and white.

After paying £20.50 each for an adult ticket (Murdo had mentioned that the Kassam was expensive - and I knew the price before departure - but handing over two purple notes plus coins for two tickets brought home how ridiculously over-priced football is in this country), we took our seats ... or someone's seat. Everyone was sitting (or standing) everywhere and anywhere they could. And the Gasheads kept coming. Not long after kick-off, the black tarpaulin covering a swathe of seats between the rival fans was moved - I'm not sure whether by Rovers fans and/ or the stewards - to make more room. The hitherto continuous chants of "Goodnight Irene" and "If you all hate City ... " stopped as sections of the away support charged across (some half-jokingly 'offering out' those beyond the police line, others not half-jokingly). The police seemed happy to stand there and record images using their hand-held video cameras.

The opening goal of the game came almost instantly, quelling any further disturbance. Up until this point, Rovers had controlled the game without looking overtly threatening. That said, it had taken a superb reaction save by ex-Gashead Ryan Clarke to keep debutant on-loan striker Scott Rendell's effort out and the scores level. Then, with 15 or so minutes gone - and the away end only recently expanded - an Oxford midfielder (Simon Heslop, it transpired) began a snaking run towards goal. Rovers' defending was poor; at least three players had a clear opportunity to tackle (or foul) Heslop. Instead, the ball ended up at the feet of the prolific James Constable inside the area, and he made no mistake with a fine left-footed shot across the keeper.

There were over 1,600 in the away end - it was said that double this would have travelled if the form had been better - and the noise was decent. However, going one down seemed to knock the enthusiasm out of the fans and the players. The most vocal amongst the travelling hordes spent the rest of the half sporadically bellowing "Oxford's a sh!thole, I wanna go home" to the tune of 'Sloop John B', rather than getting behind the team, whilst the players withdrew ever further into their figurative shells. Oxford United, featuring former Fisher Athletic player Damien Batt (less than impressive) at right-back, appeared as mediocre and uncertain as Rovers.

During the early stages of the second half, I became frustrated by the Maidenhead United-esque tactics repeatedly employed by the away side: lump it forward and see if 5ft 9in Scott McGleish can win headers against Michael Duberry, a centre half who - although much-maligned - has played over 100 games in the top flight and cost more than £5M in combined transfer fees. During one exasperated "stop hoofing it onto the head of their centre half!" plea, the bloke sitting in front of me turned around and began to agree. He would miss an Oxford player being put clean through and then scythed down in the box by Rovers' whole-hearted but error-prone centre half 'Lord' Byron Anthony, who was playing out of position at right-back. Anthony could've walked but was instead merely yellow-carded. Former FC Franchise man Peter Leven expertly dispatched the spot kick, and the game was all but over with more than half an hour to go.

I saw Rovers twice last year. They lost both times. They played well away at Brentford and were unlucky to lose to a disputed penalty. At home to Exeter City, however, they were out-played and comfortably beaten by Paul Tisdale's pass-first, hoof-second side. In the former fixture, they had the rotund but powerfully built Rene Howe leading the line. Against the Grecians, they had the 5ft 7in Jo Kuffour playing centre forward. Co-incidence that they performed better with a bona fide target man upfront? I think not. Of course, everyone would like their team to play delightful football and win. But, given the choice of playing sexy football and losing or playing ugly and winning, I'm sure we'd all prefer the latter. If your players are of limited ability - and/ or you only have 'meat and potato' defensive midfielders such as Stuart Campbell (easily Rovers' best player on the day, incidentally) and Craig Stanley fit and available - then I see nothing wrong in playing long ball tactics. But you need to have a big lump up front!

The irony is that, in summer signing Matt Harrold, Rovers do have a reasonably decent big lump. Yet Harrold was on the bench on Saturday, apparently being rested by increasingly unpopular manager Paul Buckle. After the second goal went in, cries of "Harrold, Harrold" and "We want Harrold" became louder and increasingly prevalent. There was a chorus of "You don't know what you're doing" when the promising Northern Irish wing-back Michael Smith - for Anthony - was the first substitution made. Harrold would replace the ageing McGleish not long after - and unsurprisingly caused the hitherto imperious Duberry some difficulties - but the damage had already been done.

Oxford visibly grew in confidence as the game wore on - another ex-non-leaguer, Alfie Potter, causing the Rovers defence problems after coming on as a sub - and they went close to stretching their lead further before the impressive Constable (who, IMO, should've been awarded MoM instead of 'had it easy' Duberry) notched his second, and Oxford's third, with five or so minutes to go. It was then well and truly open season, as far as the away supporters were concerned. Many of those who remained (a load - who upped and left not long after the second goal - had, judging by the looks of them, a pub to 'take' and riot police to occupy) turned on the resident scapegoat, Chris Zebroski. Unfortunately for him, he was playing right-wing and occupying the flank directly beneath us. Now, the away fans were understandably annoyed - whilst Zebroski doesn't seem to be the most appealing of characters and does resemble a lower-league Theo Walcott (pacy, albeit with suspect control and little or no footballing nous) - but the rather venomous atmosphere didn't do anyone any favours, IMO. The final whistle was, predictably, greeted with much booing from the away end. To their credit, the players (led by Campbell) and manager did come over to recognise the travelling support. The feedback wasn't positive, however. 'Poisonous' would be strong, but you get the gist.

Some of the Rovers fans were held back by those in high-vis vests outside the away end, but the wife and I were allowed through (another advantage of taking her to the football!). After finally working out which bus stop we should be standing at (on a grassy verge!), we would catch the 106 back to town after a short wait. This journey proved to be one of the more entertaining parts of the whole day: the Kerthney Carty-lookalike driver of the single-decker was determined to get everyone who was queuing onto the bus, which meant that it was well over capacity when it finally got going (after the driver had deliberately stalled ... twice!). The Rovers faithful on board were in good spirits, calling for those standing to duck when we drove past multiple riot vans outside the Priory in case the police stopped us on grounds of elf 'n' safety!

Back in the town centre, the wife's local knowledge again came into play as we enjoyed drinks in historic pubs - the Chequers and then the Crown - before dinner at Chez Gerard (the Camembert starter seemed like a good idea at the time, whilst the bloke sat next to me displayed a humongous wad of £20 notes when paying ... his bill, not ours!). There was just time for an alcopop/short and an unproductive go on the quiz machine at the newly-refurbished Duke's Cut (the pub that we had passed - full of Gasheads inside and riot police outside - earlier in the day) before the 21:50 train home.

In conclusion - and as aforementioned - a good day out slightly stained by 90 minutes of football. We will hopefully attend at least one more Rovers game before the season is out (and I wouldn't mind a night out in Oxford). Paul Buckle, meanwhile, needs to sort out his tactics (put a big lump upfront if you're gonna play long ball, don't go with two defensive players in midfield if you're gonna try and keep it on the deck), stop playing guys out of position (e.g. centre half Anthony at full-back, full-back Gary Sawyer at centre half) and cease the incendiary remarks in the Press. Otherwise, this blog title - Go Mad or Stop Caring - will rather rapidly apply to even more of the hardcore Gas support than it already does.

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