Saturday, April 20, 2024

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My Football (Watching) Career!

My Football Programme collectionAfter the last few weeks, I'm sure many of us are pretty fed up by now. Not only has Coronavirus led to dramatic changes to our everyday, normal lives, but it's also led to the word 'unprecedented' being used so much that I am now doing my best to use alternative phrases to make the point!


All jokes aside, the current situation is undoubtedly dramatic, and people will naturally be pining for things that we've never had to do without before. Whenever some form of normality returns, the fallout will prolong difficulties for some time, but we can only make the best of it and adapt. Football is just 1 commodity that has left a gaping hole in society, and so whilst I can no longer watch live football, I have taken the opportunity to look back at my own 'football watching career' for the 1st time...




The First Football Match I Attended


My first ever experience of being at a game came in April 1998, when a mate of mine from college suggested going to see his team (and my most local/accessible one) Reading FC. At that time the Royals were going through their final season at Elm Park, their home for the previous 102 years, and this unfortunately coincided with them battling, forlornly, against relegation from what was then Division 1.


The match itself was Reading vs Stoke City, which it turned out was the 1st one as the new Royals boss for the late Tommy Burns, who had previously been in charge at Celtic. We witnessed the home side getting their new manager bounce that day, as they secured a 2-0 win against the side that would ultimately be relegated with them and that finished their campaign 2nd bottom of the table. Strangely enough, The Potters had Chris Kamara as their manager, and the 1st goal of the game was scored by the on loan Michael O'Neill, the same one that's recently ended his successful time as the boss of Northern Ireland to concentrate on leading...Stoke City.


To cap it all off, when looking back at the archives, that result turned out to be the final ever home win that Reading achieved at Elm Park. Despite the initial hopes of making it a memorable, last season at the ground, 1997/98 was one to forget for Reading. In fact, aside from the win versus Stoke, Reading lost every other game out of their last 13 in the division. Despite that, my programme shows that the Reading squad wasn't actually that bad, at least on paper. Ray Houghton was nearing the end of his career, but there was a young Linvoy Primus who would establish himself in the Premier League with Portsmouth, plus club legends Phil Parkinson and Darren Caskey had better times to come.



My Version of the 92 Club


For those that don't know, there is an actual club (with membership) for those fans that have managed the none-to-easy, and impressive, feat of watching every club in the top four divisions of English football. Or as it says on the official website:

"Membership is only open to supporters who have already attended a first-team competitive fixture played at the current ground of each of the ninety-two clubs of the Premier League, Championship, League 1 and League 2 during those clubs' current period of membership of the League".


What with relegation and promotion to and from the non-league to League Two, this is a serious business that has to be kept on top of every season. When clubs move to a new ground, there is an immediate excuse, and necessity, to go travelling off to wherever you may need to in order to keep your membership valid.


Now, I'm nowhere near joining the gang, in fact I'm only about 15% of the way there. But I was interested to know, out of the 92 clubs that started this season (fingers-crossed for a Bury revival), how many of them have I watched over the years? And the answer it turns out is exactly 50%, which I don't think is too bad when considering that my normal priority is to get myself to as many Arsenal games as I can muster each season. If you check out our #FootballAwayDays series (links at the bottom), there's a detailed look at the new football grounds that I've visited in the past 3 years and those clubs that I've consequently watched for the 1st time, so I expect to improve my percentages as soon as is allowed.



First Time Watching My Team


Even though I've supported Arsenal since 1993, pretty much from the moment that I became aware of the beautiful game, it took me 14 years to finally take my place in the stands to admire the Gunners in person. Whilst I'll always regret not being able to get to see them at Highbury, I was still full of child-like excitement at the prospect of witnessing a Champions League group stage tie at Ashburton Grove.


The opponents on September 19th 2007 were Sevilla, who at the time were a fairly foreboding prospect. Under the management of Juande Ramos, the Spanish club had won the UEFA Cup for the previous 2 seasons, and were appearing in the Champions League for the 1st time in 50 years. The 2006/07 season had also seen the club win the Copa del Rey and secure 3rd place in the league, their best finish in La Liga since 1970! Needless to say, Ramos had achieved a monumental amount in just 2 years, which was why Tottenham of all clubs were keen to secure his services.


As for the game, in hindsight I had nothing to worry about, as Sevilla failed to live up to their newly acquired reputation and were soundly defeated 3-0. Cesc Fàbregas scored the opening goal in the 1st half, Robin van Persie doubled the lead on the hour mark and finally Eduardo added a gloss to the scoreline in stoppage time. The whole day was a resounding success, but when I look back at that result and the Arsenal squad, which still contained some of 'The Invincibles', it's sad to see how empty-handed they ended up when it came to silverware.


That 2007/08 campaign would end with Arsenal 3rd in the Premier League, a mere 4 points behind the champions Manchester United. In fact the Gunners lost just three times in the league all season, but crucially 2 of those came in the final 6 weeks, against the eventual champs, and the runners-up Chelsea. A case of what might have been. As for Juande Ramos, Tottenham soon got their man after sacking Martin Jol just a month later. The Spaniard's tenure only lasted approximately a year, and most Spurs fans will have little good to say about him, but the truth remains that he did manage them to a League Cup victory in 2008, the last trophy won by the club to this day.



Football Travels Abroad


Something I really need to address in the coming years, is soaking up the atmosphere of football matches outside of the UK. To this day I've only seen 2 games abroad, and they were both great fun. My 1st experience came in Barcelona of all places, to see the Frank Rijkaard era of that team face Deportivo La Coruña in the 2007/08 La Liga. The front 5 that started that day at the Nou Camp were: Eto'o, Ronaldhino, Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, and the rest of the team weren't too bad either!


A birthday gift from my then girlfriend (needless to say she's now my wife), Deportivo dared to score the opening goal after just 2 minutes. It was a great, 20 odd yard finish across the goal by former Barcelona youth team player Christian Hidalgo, and the reaction was a surreal, deafening silence within the stadium, and I swear it took them 5 minutes to update the scoreboard. The lead lasted until just before half-time, when Ronaldhino converted a penalty and the scoreboard already said 1-1 before I could turn to face it. Barcelona eventually got the winner, with 20 minutes to go, via a tap in from Xavi, but perhaps the biggest cheer of the night arrived when Deco came off the bench at the start of the 2nd half.


My wife was also responsible for the 2nd football trip abroad (she clearly knew what she was doing), for another birthday. And this time we went all the way to Athens and witnessed Arsenal taking on the notoriously difficult away fixture of Olympiakos, in the final round of group stage games for the 2011/12 Champions League. I wrote about how that journey went at the time, and you can read about Arsenal, the Acropolis and the rest here.



Some Football Watching Tales


(1) In all the games that I've seen over the years, I'm pleased to report that only once have I witnessed anything approaching hooliganism, and even that was quite comical. On the bus to the Madjeski Stadium, with the same mate that accompanied me to my 1st ever game, we were about to watch Reading vs Stoke all over again. Two Stoke fans were stood on the ground floor and the lairy one, keen to prove his bravado, smashed a light and declared that he was going to smash the bus up. His mate then calmed him down by stating that if they waited, they could smash the stadium up instead! Needless to say the threat was as hollow as they come, and there was no trouble at the ground that day.


(2) The most uncomfortable I've felt in a ground, is at Stamford Bridge. Not because of any trouble or anything like that, but simply because of the disdain that I had for all of the home fans! Our deputy Ed. invited me to watch his team late in the 2009/10 campaign, and the Premier League title race was still a 3 way contest between Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal. The stakes were high, but if the home side defeated Bolton Wanderers, they would be in the driving seat for the title. As I watched the game in the lower tier corner of The Shed End, I desperately hoped for The Blues to come unstuck and to see the vociferous fans around me drenched in disappointment. There was to be no such luck. Anelka grabbed the only goal of the game just before half-time, and Chelsea clinched the title by 1 point whilst Arsenal faded in 3rd.


(3) Finally, I can't help but mention my favourite football chant that I've heard at a game. Occasionally a crowd will swell up with a song that doesn't follow the same collection of tunes that tend to be recycled across the country, it may be something unique or witty, or as in my example, a chant that catches you out and makes you chuckle. It came at Bristol Rovers several years ago, when out of nowhere the home fans struck up with 'Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye'. The first 3 lines came as normal but rather than being followed by 'Goodbye', there came a comical pause and 'Bristol Rovers' was abruptly shoehorned instead. I was tickled by what I took as a deliberately ham-fisted version of the song, it's the simple things..!



There's just a few stories from my years of being a football fan, and with the return of the sport still to be decided, we can at least keep our love of it burning through our memories.



Click the link to read about each adventure in our 'Football Away Days' series.

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