The big day was here – the HUGE game that could well decide who finishes 8th in the Premier League: West Brom v Swansea. Apologies for the sarcasm, but en route to Swansea’s game at the Hawthorns, it occurred to me that I wasn’t feeling my usual prematch anxieties and I speculated that this must be down to the fact that Swansea now have little to nothing to play for this season with European qualification secured with that glorious League Cup triumph. However, nothing delights me more than seeing Swansea win, so there was still that feeling to lose (and the financial incentives that come with finishing as high as possible in the league I guess!)
I made the now weekly trip to Manchester Piccadilly station, purchased a copy of the Guardian and a Starbucks and at 10:07 I was on my way to Birmingham New Street. I was riding solo down to Birmingham today, so it was great when a Sheffield Wednesday supporting couple, who were going to the Owls’ away game at Leicester City, came and sat by me and the hour and a half train journey was spent discussing all things football with my new companions.
By 11:45 I had arrived at Birmingham New Street and I made the short walk across Birmingham’s city centre to the Birmingham Snow Hill tram station. Before moving on, I must mention how much I like Birmingham city centre – it really is a lovely centre, something I don’t perhaps acknowledge enough on my visits to the Midlands. Getting the tram from Snow Hill turned out to be a more arduous task than first anticipated, chiefly because I couldn’t find an entrance into the station. The whole area was surrounded with construction work, so having made a lap of what I guessed was the station, I assumed that the station must be closed for some sort of redevelopment. The moment I gave up my quest to enter Snow Hill station, I spotted the small entrance in and I was soon on the tram to Kenrick Park. The tram actually stops at the Hawthorns, but of course I was not going straight to the game; I was heading to the Vine pub.
The tram took just over 10 minutes to get to Kenrick Park from Snow Hill and then just a 5 minute walk to the Vine (thanks to the friendly Baggies fan who guided me there). On the train down to Birmingham I had mentioned on Twitter that I’d be visiting the Vine, which prompted an outpouring of praise for the establishment from my ‘tweeps’. Jon Keen of the Football Supporters’ Federation tweeted me saying “It is superb – the best football pub in the country.” Big claim. However, after just 5 minutes in the Vine I had to agree with Jon’s boast – the place is glorious. The first part of the pub you enter is your standard traditional pub with one main bar and lots of small, cosy rooms branching off the main hallway of the pub. Extended onto the pub is a large conservatory-like room with another bar and with the one wall almost entirely consisting of a curry menu. The list is immense with any curry you can think of available to order. The last room that made up this cavernous pub was another large room which had its own barbecue… indoors! I was absolutely starving and I wanted some food sharpish, so instead of waiting around for a curry I opted for the chicken tikka kebabs available on the barbecue. The chicken was heavenly. I’ve decided that more pubs need to incorporate curry houses, kebabs and barbecues into their premises. It’s the future!
I should also throw in that food aside, Medwyn added that it was the finest pint he has had in all the land this season. Another big claim! Unfortunately, he’s unsure what ale he was drinking. My ale drinking New Years resolution has slid a bit, but I was to revive it later in the day.
Once I had finished my kebab I was joined by my fellow Jacks Medwyn, Iestyn, accompanied by his pal Zander today, and Russ and then shortly after by Rhiannon and Gareth and their children. There was a very strange vibe amongst Swansea fans today; I noticed people were not talking too much about today’s game and that there was a general air of relaxation amongst the Swansea faithful. I assumed this was down to the ‘nothing to play for’ attitude I alluded to earlier. In fact, most people seemed to talking more about our conquest on Europe next season, with flyers being distributed around the Jack Army giving contact details for someone who is organising travel around Europe next season (I lost my flyer so I can’t recall who the contact was).
With the clock past 2 o’clock, we decided to begin the walk to the Hawthorns, a walk I was told that would take about 15-20 minutes. The walk took us down the A41 and past numerous stalls selling the usual array of burgers, hotdogs and club badges; one stall even claimed to be selling the ‘best pork scratchings in the UK’. The ground was easy to get to with the floodlights of the Hawthorns in view and as forecasted the walk was no more than 15 minutes.
On standing outside of the ground, I did not quite know what to make of the Hawthorns. Clearly, the ground has undergone a lot of redevelopment over its history, but I was not exactly blown away by its beauty. It was pretty bland to put it bluntly. The location of the ground wasn’t great either with an industrial estate and a quite run down looking residential area surrounding it; nothing really of interest to wow groundhoppers. Although the ground’s location does give it one of its unique boasts: The Hawthorns is the highest ground above sea level out of all 92 Football League sides with the ground sitting 168m above sea level (I visited the highest ground in the entire English football pyramid earlier in the season).
The Hawthorns has been the home of West Brom since 1900, after the club had played at 5 different grounds in the first 22 years of its existence. When the club’s lease was up on their 5th home, Stoney Lane, the club looked to build a ground just outside of West Bromwich and the club settled on a site near Handsworth. The site they had chosen had to be completely cleared and supposedly there were a lot of hawthorn bushes to clear; unsurprisingly, this is where the ground takes its name from. The Hawthorns was the last football ground to be built in the country in the 19th century.
We navigated our way around the stadium to the Smethwick End where the Jack Army would be housed for today’s game. The concourse was small and compact and weirdly had a wooden floor – something you don’t see too often on stadium concourses. On arriving, there was still 15 minutes to go until kick off, so a bottle of beer was needed. I’m not quite sure what away fans usually get up to at the Hawthorns, but on queuing for my drink I noticed that the food/drink stand was behind what looked like thick glass. I decided to swerve the pies for today and instead just opted for a bottle of Carlsberg which came to an eye-watering £3.80. With my beer drunk, I headed up to pitchside ready for the match to kick off.
As mentioned earlier, we were sitting in the Smethwick End behind one of the goals for today’s game. The stand was divided in half with the Swansea fans taking one half and the most vocal of West Brom’s support, including a drummer, taking the other half of the stand. Opposite the Smethwick End behind the other goal is the Birmingham Road End (or Brummie Road to the locals) and just like the Smethwick End it was constructed in 1994 when the ground was redeveloped for the modern era. The West Stand runs down one side of the pitch with the East Stand (unsurprisingly) running down the opposite side. There were plans recently to demolish the West Stand and create a 10,000 seater single tier stand to boost the capacity of the Hawthorns to over 30,000. However, the plans have now been quashed for the foreseeable future. The East Stand is the club’s main stand which houses close to 9,000 fans, the ticket office, the club reception, the club shop and the usual array of executive suites and boxes.
I was particularly excited on hearing the team news to hear that former WBA striker Luke Moore was starting for the Swans. I’ve mentioned on a few occasions on this blog that I’m a big fan of Moore, although he’s certainly not every Swans fan’s cup of tea. Having scored the winner against Newcastle last weekend and the fact that it is almost compulsory for a player to score against his old club, I thought Moore was well worth his starting place today.
Swansea were the better team throughout the opening exchanges as they played their trademark passing game. Michu had a half chance to take the lead when Pablo Hernandez put the ball across the box, but Michu could only connect with a wayward volleyed effort. Shortly after, a superb exchange of passes launched a Swansea counterattack, only for Michu to shoot uncharacteristically wide with only Ben Foster to beat. The Jack Army were in great voice throughout the first half with the fans having plenty to sing about as the Swans exerted more and more pressure on WBA.
The Baggies first chance would not come until the half hour mark when Chris Brunt fired a powerful shot over the bar from just inside the box.
Swansea’s breakthrough would finally come in the 33rd minute. An inswinging corner from Jonathan De Guzman was met by Moore who cleverly guided his headed effort towards the far post and into the back of the net. 1-0 to Swansea and thoroughly deserved. I was particularly happy Moore scored and soon the Jack Army were launching into my new favourite chant, which apparently we stole off the Baggies fan when they use to serenade their former striker (to the tune of Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’):
“We’ve got Moore, Moore! Always believe in Luke Moore. He’s got the power to score, he’s indestructible! Always believe in Moore!”
I love it!
Swansea looked comfortable and the only player that had really looked like causing us any trouble in the first half was West Brom’s striker, Roman Lukaku, who is on loan from Chelsea for the season. I’ve obviously seen him on numerous occasions on TV, but on seeing him in the flesh I was very impressed with him; his work rate was fantastic and his strength was unreal as on a couple of occasions he simply shrugged Ashley Williams and Garry Monk off the ball, two players who are not exactly lightweight. Throw in the fact that he has excellent ball control and speed and you’ve got quite some player on your hands. 7 minutes after Moore’s goal it would be the big Belgian striker who would equalise for the Baggies. A cross from the right from Graham Dorrans would find Lukaku with a yard of space in the box to steer the cross past Michel Vorm. I felt the goal had come against the run of play, but soon WBA almost made it 2, as a typical Chris Burnt thunderbolt could only be parried by Vorm and fortunately the ball did not drop to any waiting WBA players.
Half-time: West Brom 1-1 Swansea.
On getting down onto the concourse at half time, most of the Swansea fans were aggrieved to have conceded a goal late in the second half, but everyone seemed confident that we would come out in the second half and take the game to WBA. My plan was to get a half time beer, but the queuing was ridiculous as the people working behind the food/bar stall seemed to be taking an age to serve the Swansea punters. I aborted my half time beer and headed back up into the stand for the second half.
From the opening minutes of the second half, Swansea never really looked comfortable and West Brom began to exert more and more pressure on the Swansea defence as the half progressed. After chances for Brunt and Lukaku, West Brom had their biggest chance to take the lead as Wayne Routledge was adjudged to have brought down James Morrison in the box. Lukaku stepped up to take the resulting penalty, but Michel Vorm lived up to his name of ‘Penalty Killer’ and got quickly down to his right to gather Lukaku’s poor sidefooted effort.
The close call prompted Swansea to make a change, as Moore, who I felt had done very little wrong, was replaced by Nathan Dyer. However, only seconds after the substitution, West Brom grabbed their second; Gareth McAuley’s header from a corner was cleared off the line by Angel Rangel, only for his clearance to unfortunately hit Jonathan De Guzman in the back and go over the line.
Laudrup made another two changes as on came Roland Lamah and Itay Shechter; Shecther’s appearance led to a series of groans around the Swansea away end, but overall I thought the Israeli had one of his best games in a Swansea shirt. As for Lamah, I’m still unconvinced by him, largely because of his poor first touch, but admittedly it is still early in the Belgian’s Swans career to form a thorough opinion of him. It was Lamah who would go on to create the game’s biggest talking point. Despite my criticisms of Lamah, the Belgian winger did well to beat his man as he ran into the box from the right wing; Lamah’s attempted cross deflected off Foster and McAuley and landed back at Lamah’s feet for him to finish from an acute angle. 2-2 and the Swans looked to have stolen a good away point at the death. Then amongst my jumping around I heard Medwyn say those four dreaded words: “The flag is up.” To my despair the linesman had judged Lamah to be offside. As I got to grips with the Swansea goal being taken away from me, I realised that the officials had made a huge mistake as the ball had arrived back at Lamah’s feet via two West Brom players. I felt that throughout the game Lee Mason had had a shocker, being overly-fussy with every possible decision, but this was the icing on the crappy referee cake.
Shortly after Swansea’s wrongly disallowed goal, the final whistle blew and the game finished 2-1 to West Brom, despite Swansea piling the pressure on in the closing stages.
In regards to my experience as a fan at the Hawthorns, despite finding the stadium a little characterless, I have to say that the atmosphere inside was good. The Swans fans had the best of the early singing but as the game unfolded the Baggies fans got louder and louder. Also, I should applaud the stewards, as I did not witness any of the ‘jobsworth-ness’ that I’ve witnessed at other Premier League grounds this season (I’m looking at you Southampton and Liverpool FC).
On exiting the Hawthorns, the gate I had entered the ground by was now slammed shut, meaning I had to work out a new route back to the tram station. Fortunately, after walking down the sloping path from the Hawthorns, I soon found myself at the Hawthorns tram station and on the tram back to Snow Hill. The lacklustre refereeing display from Lee Mason was further emphasised as two Baggies fans on the tram made a point of apologising to me for the disallowed goal, although we all agreed that Mason had done little to help either team or the game itself.
My train back to Manchester wasn’t until close to 8 ‘clock, so just as I had after my visit to St Andrews in January, I headed to the ‘Mecca of Real Ale’: the Wellington. Earlier in the day, I had lamented the fact that my ‘drink more real ale’ New Years’ resolution had slowly began to crumble, but there was no way I was passing up some real ale here. The second beer I had was particularly tasty, but it seems to have been too good for its own good, as I’ve completely forgotten what it was called.
I was happy to spot some familiar faces in the Wellington as a small group of Jacks had also decided to frequent the Wellington pub before heading home. I’d first met Eggy, Huw and Mark on my trip to Norwich last season and I seem to have bumped into them at every game Swans game since that day. After a few pints in the Wellington, I said my goodbyes and headed to Birmingham New Street with one last pub in mind: the Shakespeare – the home of football fan speed dating.
Anyone that has read this blog before, particularly my trips to Birmingham and Aston Villa, will know that the Shakespeare is the pub where I always seem to meet numerous football fans who are having one last drink before heading home (hence why me and Tom gave it its title of ‘the home of football fan speed dating’). However, today the Shakespeare, which is actually inside Birmingham New Street station, was barren of football fans and I appeared to be the sole football fan in the pub. It was whilst keeping an eye out for other fans in their ‘colours’ that I noticed that I was a garment short; I had left my favourite Swansea scarf in the Wellington. There was not enough time to rush back to the Wellington, so I had to call the scarf a write off. A real shame, especially after the hassle I got off the barmaids in Liverpool who were determined to steal it after the Everton v Swansea game.
I boarded the train back to Manchester and got chatting to two Aston Villa fans, who were in far more jubilant spirits than myself after watching their club win a crucial 3 points at Reading. By this time, I had been drinking for the past 9-10 hours, so I’m not really sure what I was rambling on about, but somehow I ended up discussing my desire to visit Leek Town FC, purely because they play at the brilliantly named “Harrison Park” (my surname is Harrison just in case you missed why that is brilliant). Strangely, the two men’s eyes lit up on me mentioning Leek Town, as it turned out that they were both on the board at Leek Town! Allan and Graham (that was their names) were quite the football people and amazingly Graham (Richards) had once been a commentator at Derby County (I even found a load of his commentary on Youtube). Perhaps more amazingly for me was the fact that Graham’s dad, Gordon, had once scored 6 goals for my hometown club, Merthyr Tydfil, against local rivals Aberdare in 1926; although he was apparently only credited with 4 after the ref went around the dressing room after the game asking who had scored and his pesky team mates claimed 2 of his goals for themselves. I still find it amazing that no matter where I travel in the country, someone always appears to have a link to Merthyr Tydfil. Its even nicer the fact that most seem to have very fond memories of my place of birth.
Overall, it was a strange day out. I found the ground quite bland to be honest (although I forgot to mention that I weirdly liked the floodlights) and the disallowed goal hardly help endear the place to me either. However, the Vine pub was the really winner on the day; I doubt I will visit a better prematch pub than that this season.
Highlights: The Vine (nice beer, kebabs, curries, lots of TVs and general nice atmosphere -what’s not to love?), Roman Lukaku’s performance – great to watch, the stewards were lenient, Luke Moore scoring, the Luke Moore song, another visit to the Wellington, West Brom fans were quite loud.
Low Points: Not the most interesting of stadiums, small concourse with long queues, Lee Mason, the disallowed goal, losing my scarf.