Monday, March 10, 2014

United in Sheffield

Five thousand Londoners stood side by side and in fine voice, united in rare hope of a day at Wembley as their football club embarked on taking apart the red side of Sheffield having already condemned the blue side to once again 'concentrating on the league'. Their football club is the mighty Charlton Athletic, perennial FA Cup underachievers.

A twelve o'clock Sunday kick off thanks to the fat walleted controllers of British Telecom would prove the smallest of barriers to cross as South London proudly boasted the largest away following of the weekend. A fleet of coaches and a stack of cars drove up on the morning whilst many made a weekend of it and went up the night before. We chose the latter, myself and Jim, as the thought of him clinging to the back of my scooter as we wobbled up the motorway struck me with the coldest and darkest of fears. No, men of our standing were going to travel and stay in the comfort we were accustomed to. Step up East Midlands Trains and Travelodge.

We met Saturday lunchtime at The Betjeman Arms at St Pancras to fill our bellies with familiar ale before the journey up. Without doubt the best two dressed gents in the establishment, we consumed fine Young's beer amidst the varied selection of Tottenham fans ready to invade Stamford Bridge later in the afternoon.

This set us up a treat, I bought a scotch egg at the station from a young girl who's sex I couldn't distinguish and stupidly addressed as sir, and we were off. The train journey was remarkable only for the old boy sat behind us with the strongest Yorkshire accent who got on at Derby. He was busily telling his disinterested wife that he was getting the earlier train as Millwall were at Pride Park adding a superb shuddering noise to emphasize this. I think she hung up on the poor fellow, a shame as I could have listened to him all afternoon. A top boy.

The trouble with an overnight stay is of course the paraphernalia involved as you attempt to travel light . One night on the beer followed by a football match shouldn't require hand luggage, but clean pants and socks have a part to play so on arrival in Yorkshire we found our accommodation and dropped the bag off to save losing it in a far flung Sheffield boozer. Now fair play to Jim, he took it upon himself to book everything and a fine job he did too, but McDonald's trainees have more stars on their name badges than Travelodge can boast in their brochure. The twin room was one bed and a disheveled sofa, whilst the heating was set at thirty degrees in an effort to kill off any bugs that may have lunched on the last occupants. What would Alan Partridge have made of this? I believe he upgraded from the Sheffield Richmond Travelodge to the Linton Travel Tavern for more reasons than it's accessibility to Norwich alone.

A short cab ride took us to The Fat Cat where we met Rod, Marco, Crispy and Bolts. A nice ale house where customers like to grow plenty of facial hair and eat their beer with fighting irons. From there Rod, quite expertly considering the alcohol intake, directed us to The Dada bar. I was a little worried as we walked in, a huge drawing of a penis with feet adorning the wall, but once again friendly bar staff, fine real ales and what should have been an eighties night had the DJ turned up made the experience superb. Turns out they have a Northern Soul night too, on a Sunday! There was just time for a curry before heading back to watch the teams around us all win and leave us bottom of the table on the BBC's Football League Show back at chez Partridge.

We may be bottom of the league, but we have games in hand and that's not just due to the state of our pool, but because of our continued advancement in the FA Cup. Oh yes, this was Sunday, there was the quarter final at Bramall Lane to get excited about, the purpose of our trip oop north. Feeling relaxed after such a good nights sleep (read fully hungover and a tad fragile), we checked out of our ring road residence with two hours to kill before kick off. There was no need to rush into a town full of closed pubs so we walked the four miles to the ground, enjoyeing the scenic suburban streets of a council estate with youths riding noisy motocross bikes up and down the road on the back wheel alone. The sun beat down on us, still dressed to the nines in fine coats and knitwear, as we dehydrated and fought that strong morning after urge for fried pig. By the time we reached the station we were almost hallucinating, it didn't bode well. A stereotypical northern cafe just a minutes walk from the ground (or seconds if you hadn't just trained for a half marathon) meant we finally dined on egg and bacon whilst the home supporters gorged chip butties.

And so we were there, a quick search on the gate as the steward peered at the dirty underwear in my bag, and we were inside the ground, side by side with five thousand others. Valley Floyd Road sounded as fine as it ever has, the hairs stood up on the back of our necks. This was going to be our year. What could possibly go wrong, we had beach balls.

Chris Powell interestingly picked a starting eleven that didn't include any of Duch√Ętelet's January signings from other outposts of his empire, Marcus Tudgay being the only starter that's been at the club less time than Roland. There would of course be rumours as to the reason for this later in the day, none of them making for pleasant reading. As it transpired, tactically we were inept and any plan the management team had for the fixture backfired monumentally. It seems almost unfair to pick out individuals but I suppose I must. United ran through our midfield unchallenged with more bravado each time. Diagonally they carved their way through the middle to box, Poyet, Morrison, Wood, all falling foul of their pace whilst up the other end Cousins looked uncomfortable out of his preferred central role and Harriott blundered frequently without any direction. The skipper puffed, his legs looking as shaky as mine at the time, and as for the reckless looking late challenge, what was he thinking? Tudgay really wasn't up for a return to his former rivals, Church chased as he always does but was then taken off with twenty five minutes still left on the clock. Chris Powell again seemingly failing to maximise the use of his substitutes. Two minutes later we were two down and our most likely goalscorer still putting his jumper on.

This is not me shouting Powell out. But I pay enough money towards this club every year to warrant being upset. Five thousand supporters bothered to turn up. Eleven footballers didn't.
Chris Powell said afterwards how goals change everything. Harriott had a chance, it didn't happen. United had them and took them. Underlying that though, they made their chances because they wanted to go to Wembley, they brimmed with confidence and they took the game to us. We looked like rabbits in car headlights, we froze on the day. If the incentive of Wembley doesn't fire you up I really don't know what does. Of course I'll be back, twitter was full of keep the faith tweets all evening long, but right now I feel I deserve to wallow in the disappointment of witnessing a fourth FA Cup quarter final defeat. Something is going to happen, have no doubt. Powell is still in dispute with Duch√Ętelet over footballing matters and that new contract remains unsigned, unrest reigns behind the scenes and as loyal supporters I expect us to go through more heartache before the tide turns.

An adventure that started for me in August in Chipstead as I watched Whyteleafe beat Epsom and Ewell in the replay of their extra preliminary round tie finally ended with a spineless no show. If I'd had a tin foil cup it would have found itself damp with tears and discarded in the waste paper basket of The Sheffield Tap as we solemnly drowned our sorrows waiting for the train back to London. It must be pointed out here that Sheffield United are a fine football club. They have a superb old fashioned football ground the atmosphere when full is bursting and the noise they made when they scored simply deafening. Nigel Clough is proving to be an equally adept manager as his father and I know it's commonplace to wish your conquerors luck, the phrase 'I hope they go on and win it' is so overused, but nobody can begrudge the red half of the city their day at Wembley.

That season ticket renewal pack will be through the post soon. There's a rather bizarre Crossbars package option should you choose to go that route. It's my opinion there won't be many paying an extra £230 on top of a possible League One season ticket. Many may not renew at all. Chris Powell included.

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