I realised reading back over my accounts of my trips to Hereford’s Edgar Street and Fulham’s Craven Cottage that I spent about half of those write ups babbling on about the weather, in particular the rain. Well, the weather played a key part in setting up my latest groundhopping expedition as the whole country was hit by varying levels of snowfall. Snow is arguably the ultimate enemy of the football fixture calendar and predictably on Friday evening, games for the following day were already being postponed up and down the country. I had decided the weekend before that I was going to go to a non-league fixture this weekend, but with the non-league fixture list devastated by the weather, I elected to head to a league game instead. But where to go? I whittled my list of potential league fixtures down to about 6 and I decided to head to Manchester Piccadilly station and make a final decision there. 10am on the Saturday morning, I found myself sitting in the Starbucks in Piccadilly station still deliberating where to go; I put it down to Twitter to decide – the first club to tweet that they had passed a pitch inspection and whose game was announced as definitely ON, would be my destination. The first tweet I saw was:
(Birmingham City FC) @BcfcDotCom: Today’s game at home to Brighton & Hove Albion is ON.If you’re making your way to St. Andrew’s please allow plenty of time for your journey.
To Birmingham I went.
After spending an hour and half train journey listening to the past escapades of a band of Oldham Athletic fans who were on their way to Coventry and who had clearly enjoyed the ‘Madchester’ years a little too much, I arrived at Birmingham New Street station just before midday. With little idea where Birmingham’s ground, St Andrews, actually was, I headed to the Windsor pub (where ‘Lost in…Aston Villa’ began) to gather my bearings and to carry on my New Year’s resolution of trying to drink more real ale instead of lager.
Tragically, my Google Maps App was determined that I was somewhere near Macclesfield, so I had to try find St. Andrews the old fashion way: asking people and road signs. A policeman told me it was about a 25 minute walk from city centre and pointed me in the general direction. At the top of a small hill, I spotted St Andrews in the distance. With the ground in sight I thought walking there would now be easy, but I seemed to be repeatedly halted by a series of dead end streets and my walk to the ground through the Bordesley district became very much a ‘zig-zagged’ affair. I’d also noticed that there was virtually no signposting for the ground and with the area I was walking through resembling a ghost town, I began to wonder whether I was going the right way or even if there was a game there today. However, after about 30 minutes trudging through the Brum snow, I found myself at the bottom of the hill with St Andrews perched atop. It turned out that I was approaching the back of St. Andrews and the part of the ground housing the away support. I still had not seen a single fan, or anyone at all for that matter, in the streets around the ground, so I was relieved to spot a lonesome steward walking outside the ground. As I approached him to ask for the whereabouts of the ticket office, the steward began to make a snowball – I feared that the snowball was heading my way, but when I said “I thought that was coming my way for a moment,” the steward replied, “Na mate. I’m saving them for the away supporters” – sounds like some Brighton fans might have had a frosty welcome to Birmingham. The steward told me to walk up the road and take the first left to the ticket office; I followed his basic instructions accordingly, but I was greeted by a dead end; it was then I noticed that a gate into the St. Andrews was open, so I thought this must be the way to the ticket office. I wandered through the empty concourse, past various stewards unhindered, but with no sign of the ticket office I approached an important looking man in a suit and asked for directions to the ticket office. “How on Earth did you get in here. You need to leave!” As I explained that I had simply walked through a gate, he began to put his hand on my back and gently push me back towards the exit – I was not happy and told him that I was sorry for walking into the area, but I could quite easily walk towards the exit myself. Behind me, I could hear the balding, mustachioed man in the suit berating the stewards around him for letting me enter the stadium so easily. I’ll admit, I’ve had nicer greetings to a new ground. Put bluntly, I thought the man was a massive twat about the whole ‘Gate-gate’ fiasco.
Eventually, I found the ticket office around the other side of the ground and having paid my £27 (today’s game v Brighton was a category B game apparently) to sit in the Tilton Road Stand, I went in search of a nearby pub. Ideally, I wanted to find a pub that welcomed both home and away fans and had a welcoming atmosphere, as I was still unsure of what Birmingham City’s stance was towards Swansea City fans, so this made me skip past the Blue-orientated Royal George (certainly didn’t look like they’d welcome away fans) and The Roost pub further up the road. I’d heard the Cricketers Arms mentioned as a good pub near the ground, so I opted to head there. The Cricketers Arms looked very small from the outside and inside the pub was a tight squeeze, especially as 2 o’clock approached and more fans piled in for a prematch pint. However, despite it’s a dinky setup, the pub had a nice atmosphere and there was a good mixture of home and away support over the four small bar/lounge rooms that made up the Cricketers Arms.
Something that made the Birmingham v Brighton fixture particularly attractive to myself was the fact that Brighton had signed two former Swansea players in the summer, Andrea Orlandi and a personal favourite of mine, Stephen Dobbie. I began chatting to some Brighton fans about how the two had been doing on the south coast and I was given a glowing report about Orlandi, and a not so good one about Dobbie. Dobbie had not even been getting on the bench in recent weeks for the Brighton and disappointingly for myself, it sounded like I would not be seeing the Scotsman in action today. I carried on chatting to my new Brighton pals, father and son, Scott and James, about all things football-related (and giving this blog a few plugs) and they were great company for my early afternoon in the Cricketers. Quote of the day arose when a Brum fan walked past James, who was wearing Brighton’s illuminious green and black striped away shirt, and exclaimed “Sorry mate, couldn’t hear you then. Your shirt is too loud.” Classic. The Brum fan and his mates continued to talk to us and kept referring to me as a Brighton fan – I decided to chirp and declare where my support truly lied. “Swansea? I could introduce you to the Zulu Youth (Birmingham hooligans that would like to have a few words with some of Swansea’s boys.” It soon became apparent that Brum fan was joking (I hoped) and he politely informed me that he thought I had ‘balls’ walking into a pub full of the fans of two teams I have no affiliation to and to then begin casually mingling with them. My new Brummy friend, Andy, along with his mates Vince and Glyn talked us through what is going on at Birmingham City at the moment with the fans at daggers with the board and with the team languishing precariously above the Championship relegation zone. I had a great afternoon in the Cricketers and would recommend it to any fans visiting St. Andrews, especially away fans, but it was now approaching 14:30 so I began the short 5 minute walk to St Andrews and back to the Tilton Road end of the ground.
Birmingham City came into existence in 1875 under the catchy name of Small Heath Alliance. The club would become the first football club to become a limited company years later, as they became Small Heath Alliance FC Ltd. In their former guises, Birmingham played the majority of their football at Murtz Street, before the club moved to the newly built St. Andrews in 1906 having adopted the name Birmingham City FC in the previous season. It was Birmingham director, Harry Morris who persuaded the club to seek a new ground after he felt the club had outgrown Murtz Street. The wasteland that Morris chose to build the ground on was supposedly home to a band of gypsies, who, football folklore has it, put a 100 year curse on the new ground. Former managers have even tried to exorcise the curse over the years with Ron Saunders placing crucifixes on the ground’s floodlights and football crackpot, Barry Fry, infamously urinating on all four corners of the pitch.
I went through the turnstiles of the Tilton Road Stand and onto the concourse. It was strange walking onto the concourse and having the pitch way down below me already, as I had not gone up any stairs. As far as football ground concourses go, this was a cracker! There was plenty of room as the concourse curved it’s way around the whole Tilton Road Stand and there were virtually no queuing for any of the food/drink stalls with plenty of staff manning them (although the lack of queuing was probably helped by the small attendance at today’s game). The best thing about the concourse though was the fact that the gaps in the wall/fence where the steps headed down to the seats, meant that you could enjoy a pint on the concourse and still watch the game. Before heading to my seat I decided to go for a £5.80 pie and pint combo, but was disappointed to be told there was no curry pie left. The steak and kidney pie (Peters’ Pies) I chose instead was disappointing with the flimsy, pathetic pastry letting it down the most.
My seat was situated right in the middle of the Tilton Road Stand behind one of the goals. To my left was the club’s two-tiered Spion Kop stand, which was linked onto the Tilton Road Stand, with the two stands combined surrounding half the pitch. The two stands were part of a large redevelopment of St Andrews in the mid 90s with the Tilton Road Stand opening in 1994 and the Spion Kop opening in 1995; at the top of the Spion Kop Stand were the club’s executives boxes and director boxes. Directly opposite me behind the further goals was the Gill Merrick Stand, named after the club’s record appearance holder. The stand was also two-tiered, but peculiar in the way that the top tier overhanging the lower tier was notably small. It was also in this stand that the away support were housed and where I had inadvertently wandered into earlier in the day. Finally, the stand to my right was the club’s former Main Stand, now known as the Garrison Lane Stand and the only old stand left in the ground. This stand was also two-tiered with another row of executive boxes running along the middle of it, although it’s safe to say that this stand looked quite out of place next to the other three larger, and more modern looking, stands surrounding it.
The teams entered the field from a tunnel in the far corner and after the usual handshakes and coin-tossing, we were underway. Many of the Bluenoses around me were already up in arms at seeing the starting lineup as they lamented Birmingham manager Lee Clark’s decision to play without a real out-and-out striker, instead choosing to leave Marlon King and Nikola Zigic on the bench and play 19 year old Robert Hall and the highly touted Nathan Redmond as their main attackers. Since the arrival of Gus Poyet at Brighton, they’ve forged a reputation as a good passing team, but despite some moments of tidiness, Birmingham were stopping the Seagulls building up any real momentum. In the 18th minute, a Birmingham corner led to the opening goal as captain Steven Caldwell rose above everybody else in the box to power a header into the far corner and to score his first goal since 2009. However, the lead was to be short-lived as Brighton equalised 6 minutes later. Andrea Orlandi did well to keep hold of the ball out on the left wing, before delivering a cross to Ashley Barnes, who made room for himself before firing a powerful shot into the bottom corner past Jack Butland. Birmingham had a few efforts in an attempt to retake the lead with Callum Reilly going close with a 20 yard effort and former Cardiff winger Chris Burke only denied a great goal by a fantastic Tomas Kuszczak save. As half time loomed, Brighton’s Wayne Bridge delivered an inch perfect cross to the far post for David Lopez to hit a rocket of a volley under Butland to make the game 2-1 to Brighton, which it would remain until half time.
The second half was greeted with thunderous applause by the Blues fans as Clark took off Wade Elliot for the 6″7 Serbian striker Nikola Zigic. “A striker!” came many of the shouts around me. During their Premier League stint, I thought Zigic was woeful for Birmingham, but he really impressed me in this game, winning everything in the air (obviously), but also holding the ball up well and bringing his team mates into play constantly. Zigic almost set up a goal as he played Hall in with a header, only for Kuszczak to rush out and deny Hall just as he was about to pull the trigger. The game was being played at a much faster pace now with both teams struggling to keep hold of the ball for prolonged periods. Orlandi almost scored with a powerful volley, which was blocked by the Blues defence, and then went close with a 25 yard free kick that Butland just tipped over. Clark went all guns blazing by bringing on Marlon King in the 70th minute, much to the delight of the Blues fans who entered into choruses of “He scores goals, Marlon, he scores goals!” The last 20 minutes were frustrating for Birmingham as they could not get through the Brighton defence and the game looked destined to finish 2-1. The game was deep into stoppage time when a King cross was put straight onto Zigic’s head, but his effort was hit straight at Kuszczak; the fans around me groaned in frustration only for the Polish keeper to let the ball slip through his gloves and into the net – a howler worthy of a blooper DVD, as Birmingham secured a point in the strangest of fashions. Full time score: Birmingham 2-2 Brighton.
I was never his biggest fan for Swansea, but Man of the Match for me was former Swan, Andrea Orlandi. He hardly gave the ball away and always looked to create something. I was told before the game that Orlandi had been hitting some form recently and he certainly looked very confident throughout the game, maybe as he is now at a club where he is considered a first team player. All the best to him.
In regards to atmosphere, I thought it was poor, especially in the first half. This was clearly affected by the attendance, which made the ground looked sparsely populated. There was much more chanting in the second half and the Brum fans began to rally on their team, but nothing that was particularly ear-thumping. Predictably, with Brighton in town, the Brum fans pulled out the usual songbook of chants that serenade Brighton’s reputation as the UK’s ‘gay capital’ and that follow Brighton around the country, whichever ground they travel to: “We can see you holding hands” “Does your boyfriend know you’re here” and one I’ve never heard before “If you all love fanny clap your hands”.
After taking a few post match snaps of the empty ground, I found making my way back to the city centre was much easier now that I had a crowd of bodies to follow and within 20 minutes I was outside the Bullring. I decided to hang about for a bit before getting the train back to Manchester and with my New Year’s resolution in mind I headed to the Wellington pub on Bennetts Hill, a pub described on the Football Ground Guide as a ‘Mecca of real ale’. There was a whole host of ales on offer, so I just asked the barmaid to give me whatever was most popular today. A host of Brighton fans had also decided to sample the plethora of ales on offer in the Wellington pub and naturally we soon got talking about the game. When I mentioned my South Walian links, one of the Brighton fans added “hope you’re not from Merthyr Tydfil!” When I confirmed I actually was, I questioned why he had made such a strange statement. It turned out that one of the Brighton lads, Lee, had a strong bond with my hometown as it was also his wife’s hometown. Lee told me a number of stories about his trips to Merthyr and he clearly had a lot of affection for the town in the South Wales Valleys; he even had one single badge pinned to his jacket: a small Merthyr Tydfil FC badge. With my best mate’s stag do being in Brighton in March, Lee, as a former bar owner in Brighton, offered to sort us out with recommendations of places to go and entry when we hit the south coast. Top man! We said our emotional goodbyes (the drink had clearly got to Lee as he told me he ‘loved me’) and I headed back to the train station for one last drink in The Shakespeare pub inside Birmingham New Street.
We visited this pub after Villa away and it was here we met a whole host of football fans passing through the pub – Tom and me named the pub the home of “Football Fan Speed Dating”. Today was no different, as firstly I bumped into Lee and his mate again (more ‘I love yous’ as he departed for his train) and then got chatting to another Brighton fan and a Rochdale fan. After the Brighton fan had departed, chat between the Rochdale fan and I turned towards what players I had been impressed with on my Lost Boyo travels this season. I spoke at length about how impressed I’d been with Dale midfielder Michael Tutte on my visit to Spotland and my Rochdalian friend was soon talking about Rochdale, but using the term ‘working for the club’. In my confusion, he declared to me that he was not a Rochdale supporter at all, but he actually worked for Rochdale and in fact was their Chief Football Scout; he was on his way back up north after watching Northampton v Burton. Mr. Rochdale Scout, Larry, and me then exchanged numbers and I was told that if I spot someone on my travels, to give him a call. I did not expect my day to end with me claiming a unofficial scouting role for Rochdale!
Highlights: The Cricketers Arms and the fans I met in there, St. Andrews’ concourse, Andrea Orlandi, The Wellington, meeting a Merthyr-loving Brighton fan, my new unofficial scouting role for Rochdale FC.
Low Points: no signposting for the ground (as far as I could see anyway), the ‘pushy’ bouncer, not the greatest game, poor atmosphere, poor pie effort.