I do love a project, and my taking in a game every Saturday project has begun in earnest. If you don't know what I'm talking about, have a click here and see what I'm up to. Maybe you can help me out or hang out with me at a game sometime - that would be most excellent.
I know that I said I wouldn't begin my football watching challenge until September, but with me knowing in advance that I'll have to miss a couple of Saturdays in the Autumn because of work and family commitments, I thought it only correct to cram in a couple of extra games in August. And lo, the challenge begins. I performed in Devon at the Beautiful Days festival on Friday night (most pleasant it was too, even if my lack of dreadlocks, combat shorts and a vest made me feel so overdressed I was almost a square) and was booked to work in Bath at Komedia on the Saturday, so Bristol City's game at Ashton Gate was my choice.
In theory, that's a big old game. Wolves are far too big a club to be in League One, and Bristol City shouldn't really be down there either. As per my own rules, I became a City fan for the day. This decision was made easier by the man who manned the desk at my hotel in Portishead (the town, not the band. Beth Gibbons does not have a sideline in cheap rooms) the previous night, as he was both a) the nicest man in all of the South West and b) a City fan himself who couldn't go to the game because of work reasons. As he exchanged two 50 pence pieces for a pound coin for me at midnight so I could have a Yorkie (comedy is as rock and roll as you imagine), I decided that I would represent my new chum and shout my lungs out on his behalf. Hopefully whoever sits in my old seat at the King Power stadium is doing the same in my absence.
Miniscule Potential Problems For A Worrier
Ashton Gate is a proper stadium. I know we don't get standing at many grounds these days, but there's something charming about Bristol City's little ground. Some fairly new stands, some corners that look like they should be condemned, each side a different height. I'm never one for those "bowl" type stadia. Research told me that, in theory, there are two popular ends - fitting in with my rules of going where the noise and the fun is. My decision was made for me though, as the small area (1200 seats or so) that are allocated to home fans in the Wedlock Stand - more affectionately known as the East End - had sold out upon my arrival. Apparently this is where the "East End Ultras" congregate.
I have an issue with British fans using the term "Ultras". In Europe, Ultras are both massive in number and noise, with choreographed displays, enormous flags, flares and occasionally despicable political views. In Britain this just seems to translate as "the small section of the crowd where we've got license to act like knobs".
I certainly didn't see any such behaviour from the City fans on Saturday from the East End, but equally they didn't seem to be louder than the end where I ended up - the Atyeo Stand. Buying a ticket there led to my first problem of the day. As I queued up with the locals, I became incredibly aware that my accent is closer to Wolverhampton than Bristol, and also that I had no idea how to pronounce the name of the stand I wanted to sit in. This caused genuine panic for several minutes. Think about it. How would you pronounce it? I reasoned that AT - YE - OH was the best option.
I was wrong.
Luckily, the woman in the ticket booth gently corrected me - it's ATTY - OH - and immediately made my day by asking how old I was. When I replied with the genuine answer - I'm 35 - she giggled and told me that I looked 21. Maybe it's the lack of sunlight in my life, maybe it was the baseball cap covering my male pattern baldness, maybe she had glaucoma. She was nice, as was the woman who sold me a burger and the woman who sold me a pie, all ruddy cheeked 40 or 50 somethings with glorious west country accents and I imagine 3 or 4 well turned out kids each and a husband with a well stocked shed and a lot of tomato plants.
My panic over pronunciation led to me starting to fear other aspects of the game: Would I stick out like a sore thumb and be somehow rumbled as an interloper by a cabal of City fans? Even worse, could I check the Leicester score without looking like some kind of disheveled hooligan scout for a game that wasn't even on the fixture list?
Sometimes Shaking Hands Is All There Is
The Bristol club shop is, like many others, rammed full of club-based tat. I mean that in the nicest way, because it's unlikely that you'd wander into such a place and find a compendium of club approved poetry or anything like that (except maybe at Barnsley). They did have one item that intrigued me though, if not the fans as there seemed to be too much stock remaining. I speak of Bristol City branded jeans.
I'll let that settle into your brain for a second.
Regular jeans, slightly baggy fit, Bristol City badge embroidered on the back pocket. As a man who worked in fashion retail for many years, I cannot fathom who would find these jeans a sensible buy. Super fans who live in their Bristol City shirt will wear a club tracksuit, even at a wedding. So called "casuals" will be busy buying fake Stone Island or G Star jeans on eBay. I saw nobody wearing the jeans in the ground.
Also, why is every club shop called a Megastore? It conjures up images of a massive out of town development on a retail park, not a corner of the stadium with a few racks of shirts (and one rack of a bizarre denim based experiment).
Before the gates opened I had a bit of a wander. I love the graffiti on the outside of the East End (see picture above), I like to think that Ajax stole the idea from Bristol. I then walked past the Wolves team coach, and manager Kenny Jackett was signing a couple of autographs. As I approached, he finished up. All of a sudden it was me and him. I was probably staring a bit, and he made eye contact and smiled.
I had no idea what to do in this situation.
My brain knew what to do though. I nervously smiled, held out a hand - which Kenny took - and we exchanged a brief, firm, pointless handshake. I wished him luck and off he went. I had to check that nobody saw the whole exchange as I was blushing harder than I have since my teenage years. I suspect Mr Jackett has given it no further thought, but it does seem admirable that he'd just shake a dudes hand because I looked at him and couldn't think of anything else to do.
In We Go
Ashton Gate is another one of those grounds that doesn't have actual turnstile operators, just a barcode scanner. It seems sad really, especially as one of my earliest footballing memories is the old guy on the Family Stand turnstile at Filbert Street who gave me a humbug upon entry to my first ever game.
Once I was in, I stood - pie in hand, obviously - watching the final minutes of the Leeds vs Sheffield Wednesday game on one of many TVs on the concourse. I think we take these for granted now, but I also think they ruin the atmosphere a bit. When I was a lad (here we go...) we had to go into the ground, sit down and make our own amusement - like singing, watching the teams warmup like it was important and on at least one occasion, making a massive fleet of paper aeroplanes.
On my left was a grandfather and grandson. The younger of the two was hopped up on sugar and telling a steward that his favourite player was Wayne Rooney. The steward asked him who his favourite City player was, to which the kid replied that he liked the number ten - because it's Rooney's number.
On my right were two fiftysomething gentlemen with glorious west country accents. On a related note, I think it's truly brilliant that Bristol City are sponsored by a cider company. They were discussing the team's chances for the year, standard stuff. Both men very negative in their approach, no doubt a hangover from the previous season's relegation. I started to tune out until I heard the following exchange:
MAN A: I saw a poster in town the other day for that band we saw a few years back.
MAN B: Which one?
MAN A: We went to watch them in London?
MAN B: Primal Scream?
MAN A: No... The Wedding Present.
MAN B: Blinding, they were.
A wonderfully genuine and surprised smile spread over my face. Then again, my Dad is 60 and loves Mogwai and Sigur Ros, so maybe I shouldn't be so quick to stereotype that they only ever listened to the Wurzels.
Sat in my seat, I realised two things that will no doubt bother me during the course of the season:
1: All tannoy announcers at football stadiums have EXACTLY the same voice. They're like local radio presenters. In fact, saying that, there's a fair chance that's what they do the rest of the week. Only once have I heard a tannoy announcer with a properly broad local accent, and that was at Rochdale a few years back. Every time he read out a birthday request it felt like I was in Phoenix Nights.
2: When I'm sat on my own in a football ground, I will for at least a few games mistakenly think I'm watching Leicester and be looking out for friends and familiar faces. It genuinely took me half an hour to remember that I was sat in the home end of a club that I don't - asides from this one day - support, playing a team that I also do not support (and in fact, rather dislike thanks to Mark McGhee).
Ashton Gate really doesn't fill up until five minutes before the game, but as kickoff approached it filled up nicely. Was glad I wasn't sat all on my own, as the fans around me added insulation from the cold and rain that had decided to begin just as I had started watching football again. Happens every year.
The first half was not fun for Bristol. Wolves have filled their squad with eager, younger players rather than the bloated squad that took them down, and Bakary Sako - who I thought was excellent when I saw him in the Championship last year - was terrifying. Slightly more frightening was the lilac kit that Wolves were playing in, despite no clashes between their usual amber and City's red.
Two minutes into the game I realised that sat behind me was that fan. You know the one I mean. Shouts out a lot of stuff that I'm sure is hilarious in his head, but in reality the only reason other fans are laughing is because he comes across as a bit of a tit. Can't fault his desire and his effort, but his output was seriously lame.
A lot of the time it came down to choosing the wrong word. I mentioned the Wolves kit above, he shouted - not with intended irony or enforced effete camp - "nice outfit, boys" - at them. Outift? That's as ridiculous as calling socks "stockings". It's not 1952. Then again, I didn't pay too much attention to his outfit, maybe it included Bristol City jeans.
He also shouted as Sako - a chiseled, muscular, broad-chested adonis of a man - that he was, I quote, a "fat bastard". The man shouting this was the size of two of me, and I've already mentioned that I had both a burger AND a pie before the game and was, at that point, contemplating chocolate. I changed my mind, just in case this chap was some kind of proactive Weight Watchers coordinator.
Seems quite probable that Sako heard this jibe, however - converting a superb free kick on 22 minutes from 25 yards out. City keeper Frank Fielding had no chance, even though he looked like the smallest keeper I've seen since Kevin Poole. Wolves were all over City, dominating in every aspect of the game during the first half.
Sean O'Driscoll had to do something, and the first thing he chose to do was take off the woefully ineffectual Neil Kilkenny after 35 minutes. I've signed that lad on Football Manager in the past and he was quality. I can only presume in reality that he believes he is as good as he was in the game, because despite wanting the ball as much as possible, he couldn't even do the simple things right. Every pass went astray, and the home fans started turning on him after the first ten minutes as he repeatedly gave the ball away and then didn't work hard enough to win it back. Fans can accept if you're not very good up to a point as long as you look like you're trying.
Kilkenny looked like he was being asked to play the Makelele role that so many teams mistakenly employ, when City would have been better trying to run at the Wolves defense which we would soon see weren't as sure-footed as their attacking options.
Kevin Doyle won the freekick that Wolves scored from, and he annoyed the City fans constantly by falling over at the slightest touch. For a player with such a rough and tumble approach when attacking the ball in the air, he isn't half fragile when it's at his feet.
Half time, and City were lucky to only be one down - a fact the fans were aware of. The break gave me chance to observe two cool things. First off, they bring out two kids who are at their first ever game to meet a couple of injured players, walk on the pitch and get some signed goodies. All you have to do is ask. What a brilliant way to make those kids want to love their local club. Massive thumbs up.
Also, Age Concern put on a "walking football" match between two teams of pensioners. Every single player on either side could pass the ball better and worked harder than Neil Kilkenny. The fans got quite into it, although some of the players were clearly running - something that the crowd enjoyed pointing out.
As the second half got underway, I noticed a sign on one side of the Atyeo Stand that read "H Block Army: Drum and Bass On The Warpath". I have never seen a football team that has been backed by an entire genre of music before. This is something that urgently needs to be addressed.
O'Driscoll had clearly given his players a rollocking during the break, and City came out energized and looking infinitely better. It became a tale of the two number tens - Sako still skillful and full of running and endeavour, and now the previously outclassed Jay Emmanuel-Thomas coming to the fore for City. He equalised on 53 minutes after a mistake from Richard Stearman, poking home after unselfish work from Sam Baldock.
Baldock is excellent with the ball at his feet, and in the second half City realised this. In the first half they seemed insistent on pumping the ball up to Baldock, expecting him to win it in the air against the six foot plus Stearman and Danny Batth. Baldock must be 5 foot 8 inches, but to his credit goes in for every header like he believes he's a seven footer.
Now City pushed forwards, Carl Ikeme being called in to make a couple of good saves before Wolves pushed up a gear once more. The genuine belief within the Atyeo End was squashed as Matt Doherty converted a - you guessed it - Sako cross on 85 minutes. City then seemed to lose faith and tailed off in the final minutes, but the effort definitely increased in the second period.
One of the biggest cheers of the day was reserved for one of the worst misses you'll ever see, with Jake Cassidy chipping over Frank Fielding to give himself an open goal and then blazing over.
Whilst many of the City fans seemed to expect defeat on the day, they were excellent fun to hang out with, full of humour (bloke behind me excluded) and singing. This seemed best summed up at halftime when a guy firing t-shirts from a cannon into the crowd repeatedly messed up his one job in front of 14,000 people.
The man next to me nudged me as a shirt flew all of 3 feet from the cannon and said "typical City, that."
Bristol City 1 (Emmanuel-Thomas, 53) v Wolverhampton Wanderers 2 (Sako 22, Doherty 85)
Cost: Ticket - £21, Parking - Free (street), Burger £3 (outside), Pie and drink £4.80 (in ground)
Fun Rating: 7/10