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Letters from Wiltshire #28
Written by wessex_exile on Sunday, 24th Jan 2021 18:18

It’s difficult to think about quite how to write this editorial, without appearing mawkish. On Sunday 17th February 671 people succumbed to coronavirus, with the 7-day average creeping just above 1,000 deaths. On that day, one of those was someone very dear to me, who died in Watford General Hospital of Covid-19 pneumonia. Idiots and conspiracy-theorists will tell you there’s no plague, or that masks infringe their civil liberties, or some other form of spurious non-science bullsh*t, so do me a favour – if they say this to you, please punch them on the f’cking nose for me, and say that’s from Wessex – thank you.

[b]Top 5 away-day football grounds[/b]

For those that don’t know, Watford General Hospital is on Vicarage Road, virtually right next door to Watford Football Club. I’ve been to Vicarage Road twice, once for our rearranged 1977 FA 1st round 2nd replay against AFC Bournemouth (we won 4-1 with goals from Steve Dowman and a Colin Garwood hat-trick, in front of just 2,230), and the following 2nd Round match actually against Watford (which we lost 0-2 in front of a slightly more respectable 11,907). Thinking about this connection, Letters from Wiltshire #28 will be my top 5 away-day football grounds.

This isn’t just going to be about the big fancy stadiums of our Championship years, and not necessarily those rare one-off cup clashes against top-flight opposition, but as much about the event itself, and the away-day experience overall. As I often say, context is everything – so let’s dive in, and as always, in reverse order.

[b]#5: Stamford Bridge[/b]

Haha – so having opened with “[i]…and not necessarily those rare one-off cup clashes against top-flight opposition…[/i]”, let’s start off with exactly that. Stamford Bridge was built in 1877, and began life as a vast more or less open bowl athletics track. Chelsea Football Club moved in on the day they were formed in 1905, and have stayed there ever since. Three times in the 20s it hosted the FA Cup final, and in 1935 saw an official record attendance of 82,905 watch a game against London rivals Arsenal (the match was drawn 1-1). Unofficially, it is estimated over 100,000 crammed in to watch a friendly against FC Dynamo Moscow, who were invited to tour the UK at the end of the Second World War.

Our trip to Stamford Bridge, for our first and currently only competitive match against Chelsea, was on 19th February 2006, in the 5th Round of the FA Cup. To accommodate the TV cameras, this match was switched to the Sunday, not that that discouraged the travelling U’s faithful, who snapped up the 6,000 tickets available in no time at all (and more than a few in with Chelsea too).

From a location perspective, it couldn’t have been easier to get to for me. We’d just moved to Warminster, having finally outgrown our Salisbury home following the arrival of Alfie 18 months earlier, but still a simple train journey up to Waterloo and short tube journey from there. Virtually a whole bunch of family before the match, we opted for pints at a pub in Parson’s Green before the match. I can picture it in my mind, but can’t for the life of me remember its name.

The ground itself was quite something – from the outside vast towering stands that dwarfed residential properties that surround it on three sides. The stewards were reasonably courteous, albeit somewhat overzealous in their confiscation of items that could be construed as ‘weapons’ (like small plastic ‘vuvuzela’ horns – although personally, confiscating those hideous things was fine with me).

Inside the ground was something to behold as well, not just the 2- or 3-tier stands on all sides, fully enclosed and giving a real bear-pit of an atmosphere, but the massed ranks of U’s fans already gathered and in full voice, and it was still half an hour before kick-off! Despite the throng, we did manage to get some fairly standard concourse food and drink before kick-off. We didn’t even bother trying at half-time, it was mobbed. The noise when Parky and the team ran out though was just deafening.

The abiding memory though, and one I know we’ll all share, is 6,000 U’s fans in full voice drowning out anything that Chelsea supporters did for the entire match – “Who needs Mourinho, we’ve got Phil Parkinson” booming out time and time again, and the goal celebrations when we took the lead, quite magical. That and balloons of course. Okay, we eventually lost 3-1 when Mourinho was forced to bring on Lampard, Cole and Crespo in the second half, but what a day, what a stadium and what a brave performance from the U’s.

[b]#4: Ashton Gate[/b]

Another bear-pit of a stadium, and this one much more old skool than the revamped all-seater Stamford Bridge. First off, there is a bias here I suppose – my Auntie Di was a Bristolian (lived in Shirehampton until she passed), I’ve always loved the city, still do, and for the last 30+ years I’ve lived in relatively easy reach of Bristol. We even opened a regional office there six years ago, which I visit regularly, and my eldest also lives there. Proximity has meant therefore many trips to Ashton Gate (and the Memorial Stadium) over the years.

Just to clarify here, I am talking about Ashton Gate before relatively recent redevelopment, when away fans were housed in the South Stand, which used to be known then simply as the Covered End. Away fans were given about one third of this stand, with some of the more lairy home support behind a fence in the remaining two thirds (reminiscent of the old Ninian Park for anyone who’s made that trip in the past).

Whoever you support, no one could deny that Bristol City supporters, a bit like (for instance) Leeds and Portsmouth fans, do make a heck of a lot of noise most matches. What I always loved about Ashton Gate was that the acoustics were excellent, which allowed even a paltry few hundred U’s fans to make quite a bit of a racket on their own. My son Sam (who has never seen the U’s lose on any of our football trips together) used to have to cover his ears when we all got going, it was that loud. There were pillars, which could obscure surprisingly large slices of the pitch at times, but that was kind of part of the experience to be honest.

I think also I have to give a big shout out to City (and Rovers) fans too – in all my visits to Bristol to watch the U’s, always in colours, I have never once had any grief from anyone. In fact, quite the opposite, more often than not I’ll find myself drawn into conversation, usually about football, sat around a pub table with 5-10 City fans, everyone buying rounds and just having a good time – and that includes in the infamous Wedlock Pub too – now sadly demolished and redeveloped for flats.

Curiously, given how much I enjoy trips Ashton Gate, we rarely win, but my special memory has to be way back on 8th February 2003, in front of 11,107 (including what must have been 3-400 U’s fans). The U’s took an early lead through Scott McGleish, City equalised just after half-time, and then in front of the travelling supporters, up popped Thomas Pinault to make it 2-1 with about 20 minutes to go – what scenes of celebration there were. Oh, and City’s equaliser was scored by Craig Fagan…

My last visit to Ashton Gate was in 2014, and with the old South Stand then demolished, work had started on replacing it. As a result, we were housed at one end of the Atyeo Stand at the other end, and whilst I still enjoyed my football away day to Ashton Gate, the atmosphere just wasn’t the same.

[b]#3: St Mary’s[/b]
Of the ‘new era’ all-seater stadia I’ve been to, I have to say that St Mary’s is probably one of the best designed. Graceful curves, fully enclosed, one continuous roof span, no pillars or supports getting in the way, for a relatively modest 30k+ capacity, it really is the dog’s danglies. Okay, so it’s set in a bit of an industrial wasteland for now, but what I also like about it is the heritage aspect – going back to the parish from which Southampton get their nickname The Saints.

That heritage aspect is also particularly important for me, as we provided the archaeological work to clear the site ahead of the development, which included a fair few dead Saxons, former residents of Saxon [i]Hamwic[/i]. In recognition of our support, once the stadium was built, the team were invited to a celebration meal at the stadium, which naturally included a free bar and tour of the stadium – what a pleasant evening that was.

Needless to say, the U’s haven’t played at St Mary’s too often, five times to be precise, but I have managed to be at every one of them, plus a more recent trip to watch the England U21s play a friendly against Norway. Given the gulf in class between Southampton and the U’s, our record at St Mary’s is surprisingly good, having won once, drawn three times and only lost once (and even that was a spirited narrow 3-2 defeat in the League Cup). Of course, St Mary’s was one of those grounds that some believed was cursed, when Saints went on a prolonged run without a victory after moving in (something we know only too well), so maybe we were benefiting from an aftertaste of that curse?

As far as abiding memories go, it can only be that victory at St Mary’s on 16th March 2007, our first and most glorious season in the Championship. The match was played on a Friday night, so me and a friend from work travelled down for the game after work. I can’t remember why it was played on a Friday, but it clearly had an impact on the travelling support, which I reckon was only around the 200 mark (it would have been at least double for a Saturday afternoon).

Not that we let that get in the way of our support, and the small band of U’s supporters just didn’t stop singing all match. Every time the home support found their voice to try and drown us out, back we came with an almost never-ending chant of “Georgie Williams’ Blue and White Army” – just relentless. It was certainly helped by the U’s on the pitch, who were magnificent in both attack and resolute defence. A neat bit of interplay between Izzet and Iwelumo allowed Cureton to blast us into an early lead, Saganowski finally equalised mid-way through the first half, only for Cureton to brilliantly restore the lead a minute later with a stunning volley from a Richard Garcia cross…and the fans sung on!

[b]#2: Brisbane Road[/b]

This one is all about the beer, and I’m not afraid to admit. Although not exclusively, this trip is usually one for leaving the kids at home, so the lads can get a bit lairy. As with any football ground in London or the Home Counties, it’s a straightforward train journey and tube/ overground there and back, always a bonus if beer is involved. The other bonus is it usually allows a stop at one of my favourite football trip pubs, Hamilton Hall at Liverpool Street Station – such as back in 2011 with my mate Jon and Alfie ahead of a forgettable performance on the pitch.

It would appear I’m not the only one that likes a trip to Brisbane Road either, and it is usually one of our better turnouts for away games each season – admittedly it does often bring out some of our gnarlier barsiders from back in the day too, certainly not something for the faint-hearted. The pre-match atmosphere in the nearby Coach and Horses, the usual watering hole for the U’s faithful is always excellent, with song after song raising the rafters at times.

There are some negatives about a trip to Brisbane Road, not least that there’s no alcohol on sale in the ground, albeit most have usually had enough by then anyway, and the queues for antiquated toilet facilities can be daunting (particularly if you’re trying to hold in a whole bunch of pre-match pints). PC Plod and the stewards are generally okay – providing you’re there to have a few beers and a good time that is, less so if you’re getting a bit antsy in your pantsy. I’ve never had any trouble from locals in all my trips, probably because I’ve never gone looking for any, just to meet up with mates and have a good time.

The stadium is compact, tidy, well-laid out, has generally excellent views on all sides, a good playing surface usually, and of course for the massed ranks, excellent acoustics. They don’t, as a rule, have much of a singing culture, so often it’s really only the U’s making all the noise – maybe that’s something to do with their support having a significant proportion who really follow one of the larger London clubs?

I’ve already featured my one trip to Brisbane Road that’s actually in my memorabilia collection (LfW#16) – the ill-fated match that would see Leyton Orient relegated to the Conference, finished in secret behind closed doors following a pitch invasion, and me and Alfie forced to get an Uber all the way back to Wiltshire after the match. For all the great visits I’ve had to Brisbane Road, this one has to stand out as the most notable for so many reasons – plus of course we won! (though we didn’t officially know that until we got home). I’ve already posted this YouTube link in the previous Brisbane Road blog, but I love watching it, so make no apology about doing so again.

…and finally…

[b]#1: Griffin Park[/b]

For any that know me, this probably won’t come as much of a surprise. A bit like Brisbane Road, this is all about meeting mates, drinking beer and having a good day out – only this time with perhaps slightly less propensity for the old skool Barside to show up as well. Perhaps the long tube and overground across London is a bit too much of a ball-ache for those travelling from Essex, but for someone living in the West Country it make a London awayday even easier.

Brentford has always held a kind of fascination to me anyway, from long before I ever visited following the U’s. It was always that ground you could see from the M4 Chiswick Flyover and think “what ground’s that then?”. At university I was introduced to the Brentford Trilogy novels by Robert Rankin, and his two central characters (drunken layabouts) Jim Pooley and John Omally, which I loved from the moment I picked them up. In more recent years, it was fascinating to actual identify some of the ‘fictional’ locations in his books, not least the former Bricklayers pub, [i]The Flying Swan[/i] and semi-permanent home to Poole and Omally in the books.

Sadly, this is one on my list that no longer exists (if you don’t count the demolition and rebuild of the Ashton Gate South Stand), but that’s progress I guess. What I will say is that the new ground looks first class, right in the heart of the community, and I sincerely look forward to my first opportunity to visit it following the U’s.

Back to Griffin Park, it’s another traditional smaller football stadium, bags of character and charm, perhaps more suited to hosting 3rd/4th tier football in look and feel, but which has undergone several redevelopments over the years. Many will remember we were originally housed in the two tier Brook Road stand, before the home supporters got roof envy and we were switched to the freezing open Ealing Road terrace. Then Brentford did some fund-raising to put a roof on it, and suddenly the home supporters wanted it back, so back we went to the Brook Road stand.

Traditionally, matches at Griffin Park are always preceded by a lap of the ground, with one (or more) starting in the Royal Oak, then clockwise to the New Inn, the Princess Royal and then finally the Griffin, which is where the U’s faithful usually congregate pre-match. Again, from a personal perspective, never a hint of trouble in all my many visits. The Brook Road stand has good acoustics, and I’ve been in amongst some noisy support at time. I’ve never been in the top tier seating, and of course I never will now.

The open Ealing Road terrace was considerably less welcoming, and on occasions I’ve been frozen solid and literally drenched to my skin watching the U’s (to add insult to injury, the latter whilst enduring a 4-1 drubbing), but it’s never really got in the way of enjoying my opportunities to visit Griffin Park.

Indeed, my favourite memory is indeed from standing on that open terrace with my mate Jon, watching Brentford play ping-pong on our goal line, before Iwelumo set Yeates free to run and run, bearing down on goal to drill the U’s into an unassailable 2-0 lead back in 2005/06 Championship promotion season. I’ve already featured this game (MoY#21), but the grainy video is worth seeing again.

For Jacki

Up the U’s

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