01 December 2008: Albion's Gloomy End, Shrouded In Wigan Fog
Having somehow lost an away game we should have won with minimal bother, the end result being entrapment in a trench whose rapidly enlarging dimensions threatens to challenge the dominance of Wookey Hole, come the new year, I had hoped for succour in the form of a half-decent FA Cup pairing, this afternoon. Should have known better, really; although we?re sticking to the confines of the Black Country for this one, try as I may, I really can?t enthuse over the likelihood of either Peterborough or Tranmere paying us an early January visit.
On the other hand, look on the bright side. With no less than seven non-league clubs in the hat for Round Three ? well done Histon for seeing off visitors Leeds United in some style, this lunchtime, by the way ? I really was fearful that the lovely, elegant and boring Mr. Brooking would pull out a real Woking-esque stinker of a tie for us, so we do have to be grateful for small mercies, I suppose.
Not so for Blues and The Dingles, who now find themselves pitted against one another that very same day (this being penned before either the rozzers, or TV requirements, claim the game as prime Sunday lunchtime fodder, of course). One of the few times you?ll ever see me empathise with the boys in blue tasked with policing, too.
The pairing of both these sides in the Cup must be the nearest approximation this country will ever see to nuclear warfare, albeit without benefit of either flash, heat-pulse, blast, radiation, or tell-tale mushroom-shaped cloud to inform you that, yes, diving into the nearest concrete reinforced bunker might have been a good idea, after all. Mind you, both sets of belligerents leaving a half-mile wide smoking crater in their wake, post-final whistle, also sounds about par for the course.
It was only when we?d tarried at Merry Hill for quite some time that we remembered that the draw was taking place that particular afternoon. Well, when you?re faced with one monumental distraction in the jovial forms of SuperBob and partner, what else can you expect? The reason why we were keeping the lad company in the first place was because of ?Im Indoors and the book wot he writ last year, ?Cult Heroes?. Waterstones and ?Know The Score Books?, my other half?s publishers, had previously arranged for Supes?s book-flogging presence at the scene of the crime, so being the writer responsible, ?Im Indoors had to be there also.
I found myself somewhat surprised that despite our early arrival at the store (11.30 am.), there was an embryonic queue there already. Not quite the incredible proportions of the one seen when my other half performed similar duties as part of the book launch last year, but still bloody impressive, I must admit.
Arrival was also my cue to wander off and do some Christmas shopping of my own: if there?s one thing I really can?t abide, shopping, of any description, has to be IT. The sounds of Muzaked sleigh-bells, twee chidrens? choirs ? most people go ?Ahhh, bless?.?, I simply reach for the vomit-bucket ? and artificial snow etc. are complete anathema to this column. But as family expectations trumped everything, it was off to selected shops I trudged, albeit unwillingly, it has to be said.
By the time I?d returned, bogged down with bags, a massive hole blown in my bank account, and having been rendered completely knackered in the process, the great man himself was there, seated abaft a table-cum-throne, black marker in his left hand (Bob?s a ?caggy ?un?, just like me!), both receiving supplicants and signing away in his usual genial fashion, as if the whole shebang was dependent upon piecework rates.
Slightly adjacent to The Kingly Presence was ?Im Indoors, nattering away to both Bob?s missus and an Albion-supporting chum like there was no tomorrow, so leaving them to it, again, I then proceeded to denude Waterstones of some of their literary stock: oh dear, ?twill be a sorry-looking bank statement I?ll be getting soon, I reckon. I also took the opportunity of grabbing a half-decent set of kitchen knives, plus block, a necessary purchase indeed, given we?d had our old set for around 20 years, now so blunt, even slicing butter was an act involving considerable difficulty for both of us.
But that was today; now for the Dirty Job That Has To Be Done, i.e.: sundry matters concerning yesterday?s abortive, frustrating ? nay, infuriating! - Wigan trip. If ever the prevailing weather could serve as a portent of what was to come, then the unremitting pall of fog casting its icy shroud over the entire M6, as we headed towards our destination, surely had to be it. Irritating, but not half as irritating as the little jape we unsuccessfully tried to perpetrate upon our wrinkly fellow-traveller. We?d carefully prepared the ground by introducing a replacement for our existing satnav ? but unbeknown to our chum, this one was a navigational aid with a difference!
Imagine, if you will, travel instruction and ?advice? given in the haughty, condescending tones of Margaret Thatcher at her irritating, snooty ?best?, and you?ve got our gizmo in one. The name given to this thing by its makers ? a Sat-Nag ? is also a dead giveaway, yet despite randomly activating the thing for almost the entire length of the journey, only once did the intended ?victim? ever pass comment on it! Oh, well ? next station stop for an electronically-generated laugh from the thing has to be His Nibs?s technologically-unacquainted mum, I suppose. Should it all merrily sail over her head and go ?splat?, with her sitting in the back seat, I reckon I?ll give up the will to live.
As for the fog, the last away trip I remember the stuff being as bad as yesterday was the one we undertook to Bradford, the year Megson succeeded in getting us back into the Prem, the first time of asking. A midweek fixture, it was, and no sooner had we crossed the boundaries of the Yorkshire city, my money was on the game being postponed courtesy the virtually-impenetrable pea-souper that now enveloped the place. As it turned out, the relatively lofty location of City?s ground, right among them thar hills surrounding the place, allowed the game to go on, but even then, getting a clear view of the action taking place in the opposite goalmouth was a feat worthy of Jodrell Bank, and that enormous radio-telescope dish of theirs.
Given both the awful conditions, and the mind-numbing tedium of the game itself, the only thing that made the trip worthwhile was the result: three points, sure, but all obtained courtesy of a bit of last-minute smash-and-grab worthy of a master-mugger/ram-raider. Given City?s financially-feeble state back then, the main emotion registering upon the brains of our travelling support, come the end, was one of embarrassment, pure and total.
It really did feel like going up to a small toddler unawares, then grabbing the poor mite?s lolly, and shifting away like the clappers with the spoils. A bit like the finish of the game we were there to see yesterday, in fact, but with the boot placed firmly on the other foot!
So, back to the JJB, then. Two seasons ago, when just The Fart and I made the journey to this ground, we?d accidentally hit upon one of football?s best-kept secrets i.e. the splendid bar The Latics have at their ground, and, more to the point, one to which away travellers are made most welcome. And so it proved this time round, courtesy the doorman?s welcoming arm pointing us in the right direction.
Because of the length of time since our last visit, I?d forgotten most of the details, but that didn?t matter: if anything, the place seemed somewhat larger than the last time round, probably courtesy a makeover of some sort or other. At one end of the vast room, a huge TV screen was pumping out Dingles v Blues, the Albion interest in this one being predictably large.
At the other end was a huge bar area, with a catering section that sold around five or six different variety of meat pie, with mushy peas by way of accompaniment. Having plumped for the steak and kidney variant on the theme, this column duly sat down to chomp upon the specimen in hand ? and I can really say, with hand on heart, that those Wigan pies were some of the best I?ve ever tasted at a football ground.
Goodly, chewable chunks of steak, a decent proportion of kidney to give flavour, all of which was moistened by a pretty tasty gravy. Had the pastry been a bit better, you could have passed ?em off for home-made, so well done, Wigan! As it so happened, when we finally sat down on the edge of the stage to chomp away, guess who was seated next to us? Our former neighbours, who were only too delighted to fill us in on the dodgy-sounding nighttime activities of the current owners of our former place.
Early-morning disappearances inside through the front door, then nothing whatsoever until very late that same night, with the arrival of a taxi to cart said occupants away. Coo ? all very mysterious, and giving rise to wild speculation on my part as to what they?d been up to in the intervening hours, and where their nocturnal taxi jaunts were taking them! Perhaps it?s all best left to the good offices of our chums, West Midlands Police, or something. Assuming they are acting illegally, of course ? for all I know, they could be carefully tending a long-lost maiden aunt by night, then sleeping during the day.
Now, where was I? Oh yes. Leaving at the end of the Dingles-Blues game, the location of the away turnstiles proved to be just a short jaunt away. And once inside, just like at Stoke the week before, we were once more ?serenaded? by the dulcet tones of ?Stevie Bull?s A Tatter? emanating from the bar area beneath the stand. Now for an appeal to all you lot who were singing it at that time; can someone please explain why this song is proving so popular with travelling Baggies, right now?
I?d understand a lot more had the appalling but insult-ripe Mister Bull been inside the ground, or something, but to the best of my knowledge, he wasn?t. ?Im Indoors has the theory that it?s a happy reminder of times when we Baggies were a much more unified lot. But there?s just one small snag with that one; when that song was in the ascendancy ? Buckley was in charge, back then - we were experiencing some of the worst times I?ve ever seen as an Albion supporter. So, come on, you lot, put Great Auntie Glynis out of her misery. What?s the explanation?
But that wasn?t the only connection with the past we experienced by any means. For some reason or other, the Wigan game seemed to have dragged former ?regulars? from their bolt-holes, and in astonishing abundance, too. Our former neighbours were just one small example of this phenomenon; both before and during the game, we also clapped eyes upon two former founder-members of Halesowen Supporters Club Branch (circa 1982), also Dave Knott.
A ?regular? ?tis true, is Dave, but one we hadn?t seen for yonks, as was Dubbsey (How?s the estate-agent stuff going these recession-hit days, mate?), and that well-known haunter of bars on pre-season trips abroad, Long-Haired Mick, the only bloke I know able to communicate with non-English speakers through the unlikely medium of pure Black Country dialect.
An academic?s delight, is Mick, whenever he demonstrates this remarkably successful linguistic trick ? and having seen the lad do this with my own eyes, I?m not joking, either. Since when has the Danish tongue had strong linguistic affiliations with that of Lower Gornal, or Cradley, I ask myself?
Then, the occupant of the seat to my left transpired to be yet another ?rave from the grave? ? the only male Baggie in existence to be turned down by a prostitute when on a pre-season trip to Denmark! Made the brace of blokes to His Nibs?s right sound positively tame by comparison; it only took a few brief words for all parties to realise they were old Civil Service acquaintances! Dearie, dearie, me ? talk about an ?old school reunion?.
Before the start, The Fart had slipped away elsewhere, to mysteriously re-appear shortly before the start. Some do say that he?d been eager to make the acquaintance of a Russian lady that contacted him via the internet recently ? but surely not? The only Russian females of his acquaintance are those he met during the Crimean War (in between the times when he was engaged with the Lady Of The Lamp in ?wick-dipping opportunities? you wouldn?t believe, of course!). Others do say that the very same female sent out about 10K similar mails in the same posting, so perhaps we ought to give our man the benefit of the doubt this time, eh?
Now for the bit I?ve been studiously trying to avoid for so long. The actual game, I mean. As far as the first half was concerned, the first ten minutes were spent thanking whatever gods we believed in for a deliverance courtesy Wigan?s unceasing inability to hit a barn door, even. A lot to do with a poor first touch on the part of the individuals concerned, perhaps, but their third attempt certainly owed something of the circus to its execution.
Poor Ish Miller. After a lumbering first-half performance, the successful completion of his goal, from open play for once, albeit from a comic-style defensive mix-up on the part of the home side, seemed to act upon the lad in similar fashion to a brace of defibrillator paddles erroneously applied to buttocks, and not chest, as per normal. As he trotted back to the centre-circle, you could almost see tendrils of brilliant-blue sparks coursing around his ample bulk, then terminating above his head, in true sci-fi fashion, and sending forth one message only: ?The Wimp is dead ? Long Live Cyrille!?
That was indeed the moment a small piece of Smokin? Joe?s soul entered Ish?s bodily domain for the very first time this season, and seemingly without knocking, too. After that, and for very long periods, thereafter, he genuinely looked the Premiership part, and was extremely unlucky not to grab a second.
Using sheer bulk to dispossess defenders, shielding the ball, using those massive shoulders to ?turn? opposing players, then head down and roar away, and, just like his illustrious predecessor, showing a hitherto rarely-seen hunger for the ball ? yup, that sure was the Miller we saw in patches last season. He?s learning, but whether he?ll be allowed to continue his Premiership education with us is another matter entirely, for the transfer window fast approacheth, and it may well be that others will have words in his shell-like ear, come the appointed time.
As for the opposition, they fielded no less than three ex-Baggies in their ranks, viz: Kirkland (whom Wigan should thank profusely and eternally for his India-rubber-limbed part in their eventual victory), Kevin Kilbane, and our temperamental old friend Jason Koumas, who quit the shores of Baggie-land no sooner the final whistle blew on our unsuccessful Wembley appearance, two seasons ago. A surprising subbing, that, as most sources the previous day seemed to indicate that he wouldn?t be featuring in this one. Trust me to get it wrong.
The Wigan comeback? To be perfectly honest, I hadn?t seen any danger whatsoever in the action that led to their equalising strike. Sure, I was watching from a distance, but long instinct for these things tells you immediately when something is well-covered, and to all of us, not just me, that indeed seemed to be the case. Until strident bellows of triumph from the other end told us the ball had gone precisely where it wasn?t wanted.
It later transpired that Robbo was the Baggie person primarily at fault, gifting a back-header to the lad Camara; needless to say, Robbo?s mistake was eagerly taken with much thanks on his part, but no thanks whatsoever from us, believe you me. As for The Fart, seated to my left, all I could hear from him were anguished shouts of: ?YOU NEVER LET THE BALL BOUNCE IN FRONT OF YOUR OWN GOAL?..? Perhaps our chum should take the trouble to bellow similar down the offender?s lughole, the next time he gets the chance?
The Wigan winner, achieved after we?d made most of the running that second half, would have been quite a sickener at any time, but what made this one worse was: a) The timing of the goal, coming just three minutes from safety, and: b) The identiry of the scorer, a certain Jason Koumas. Didn?t you just know it? Perhaps Mister Zuiverloon will treat certain Hawthorns ex-inmates with a little more respect, next time around? Assuming there IS a next time, of course.
It really was a pity that after all that hard work, we ended up getting sweet FA from the game. No sooner had the ball entered the opposition net to give us the lead, it was a completely different Albion side we were seeing, out there. Suddenly passes were being strung together in fine style, opposition defences split near-asunder; this truly was an Albion outfit firing on all four cylinders, for once. Eleven people were suddenly given the ability to believe in themselves, once more.
What a pity it took the daftest of errors to ruin it all for us; serially-shattered confidence is notoriously difficult to regain, after all said and done. Oh ? one other thing. Had James Morrison potted his own cast-iron chance, rather than embarking upon an emulation of a shopping trolley lurking around the forecourt of the megastore that bears his name, the tone of this piece would have been distinctly more upbeat than it is.
Our goal also had the much-needed effect of transforming a bunch of Nervous Nelly-type defenders into decisive performers at the back, at long last. It was good to see decisive tackles going in, for once, and all coupled with a seeming resolution to keep that ball in our possession, at all cost. A much-needed transformation that ended in virtual betrayal, courtesy those two costly errors, of course. Having seen those newly-emerging seeds of confidence instantaneously wither on the vine through carelessness and rank stupidity, can our manager effect any kind of re-growth next weekend, I wonder?
Now for the third aspect of yesterday?s game to be examined, i.e.: our support. We hit them quickly with the bog-standard ?This Ground?s Too Good For You?; not long after that (and after seeing their favourites miss three chances that would have buried us there and then had they succeeded), they hit back with: ?Who Are Ya?? Murmured this column, somewhat wearily: ?Come back when you?ve got a history?..? As you?d expect, following our opener, we not only bawled the place down, but maintained our prodigious output for the remainder of the game. What a pity our efforts were to prove of no avail.
Best chant of the afternoon? The alcoholically-inspired ?You?re Just A Wall In A Phone Box?.?, rendition courtesy of a gaggle of wobbly-looking guys seated to our immediate rear.
Best Comment of the afternoon? Baggie returning from toilet, to The Fart: ?Is this display better than last week?s at Stoke??
The Fart: ?ANYTHING?S got to be better than last week?s game?.?
Me: ?Having all my toenails ripped out without anaesthetic?s got to be better than last week?s game!?
Not so good, though, was the near-nastiness that took place outside the ground, after the final whistle. Much goading from the triumphal Wigan faction, with those of less-mature temperament rapidly rising to the bait. Mostly ?handbags at ten paces? from these idiot, testosterone-charged youths, but still necessitating the prompt arrival of the law on the scene.
The true source of unhappiness for our people was the result, of course, but being of a distinctly immature disposition, they currently lacked the ability to take adversity in a more philosophical manner. Having ?been there, done that, and worn the replica shirt? numerous times, many moons ago, the older generation simply shrugged their shoulders and walked away into the murk, but not so, those of more volatile sensibilities. Oh, well ? they?ll learn.
Matchday Stat Puzzle Of The Week?. How come is it that Wigan accreted more fouls (10) than we did (7), yet we were the ones ending up with two yellow cards? All answers on a postcard, etc. etc?..
OK ? before my other half lets this slip ?accidentally on purpose? at a Supporters Club meeting or something, I?d better ?fess up to something acutely embarrassing. No, I didn?t let off a corker at some important function or other ? that?s Brooksie?s methane-laden territory, NOT mine ? or let rip with a choice selection of four-letter words at poor Mogga, either; what I DID do, however, involved both an aerosol spray, and my peepers being still bog-eyed from recent arising.
Yep ? it?s not many people who manage to apply lashings of ?trainer-taming? chemicals to underarms, in mistake for their normal spray deodorant of choice! When my other half finally cottoned on to my error, all you could hear in our house were decibel-laden hoots of laughter, which had all three moggies fleeing in all directions pretty quick. But look on the bright side, I say ? it COULD have been spray-starch, couldn?t it?
Just the very thought of walking around the JJB looking like a pensioned-off Wild West gunslinger bereft of his sole means of defence, but still clinging to old habits and/or an automatic-arms-akimbo-reaction to threatening situations (not to mention the hordes of Albionites having a good giggle at my expense) gives me the willies!
As for the ?five loaves and two fishes? feast we?d planned for The Fart, that met with disaster also. I should have known better than categorically state ?we?ve cracked it? on Friday night. The Ancient Greeks always maintained that hubris (vain and arrogant pride) brought Nemesis (the agent of one?s own destruction) swiftly in its wake, and that certainly was the case with us.
Having carefully measured out all the requisite ingredients the night before, then set the timer to start and finish baking well before an expectant Fart rolled up the following morn, we could have screamed with rage a dozen times over at the finished result. Lovely yeasty aroma filling the kitchen (and the entire house, too) while it was baking, sure, but as for the finished product?.. Errr ? will ?floury and distinctly non-risen? do you?
All that, followed by the final insult, which truly speaks volumes: deciding to donate our culinary disaster to the local bird population instead, we were to discover, early today, that despite the freezing weather, only a brave few avians had elected to risk life and feather by grabbing a sample for themselves!
- Glynis Wright
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