The Diary

09 November 2008: A Tale Of Two Cities

Dearie, dearie me, what a complete and utter disaster was Saturday? and what made things infinitely worse for the pair of us was the dreadful, dreary, totally depressing experience of having suffered for the cause not once, but twice - and all within the space of about four hours, too. Much more of this and as a supplement to my usual back pills, I?ll be necking Valium in industrial quantities. (Mind you, that particular combo might well prove to be the perfect soporific, come seven days hence, when we tangle with the Stamford Bridge steamroller they call Chelsea. Legal or otherwise, anything to blot out potentially stark and painful memories of what?s likely to be an all-out assault upon our goalmouth, aerial or terrestrial, that?s what I say?)

How is it that eleven grown men, all of them chasing a smallish spheroid around a grassy rectangle, and getting paid for it as well, can possess the enormously-depressing capacity to totally ruin what?s left of my weekend by letting said spheroid slip through Teflon-coated custodial fingers, and into the rear of a largish rectangle, not just the once, but three times?

Not just that, but having seen one such outfit perform in similarly dismal fashion (although, being scrupulously fair to Hereford, nary an opposition strike did they concede yesterday afternoon, not even a disallowed effort), we then dashed back up the M5 at near-light speed, in order to see as much as we could of Game Number Two on our telly.

Yes, I know, Radio 5 Live had live coverage of the Anfield game going full-blast at that time, but for reasons I?ll be discussing further into this piece, listening to their commentary proved a very poor second-best. And that?s being charitable to the Beeb: had I been possessed by a far more vindictive mood, come yesterday evening, they?d have had it in heaps courtesy this column, believe you me.

Somewhere in the vicinity of the Droitwich radio masts, I swear I saw our dashboard clock slow down appreciably; classic proof of Mr. Einstein?s famous theories, and at infinitesimal cost, too, which puts us one up on the Yanks, who spent billions of dollars years ago trying to achieve precisely the same thing ? and got us home just in time to see Liverpool plant their second right in the back of poor Scott Carson?s net. Talk about taking sweetmeats from babes-in-arms and innocents: now where did I put those bloody Valium pills?

My sad little narrative began round midday, the moment we first set sail for Graham Turner?s forgotten outpost of cider-strewn empire ? but first, we had a job to do, one much closer to home, in fact. A pre-M5 visit to the Baggies club shop was called for: an impending birthday was the reason, but confidentiality precludes me from letting on which unlucky sod of our acquaintance is going to be the grateful recipient of such largesse from us. All will be revealed, and very soon, too: suffice it to say that once we?d settled upon a suitable gift for the aforementioned anonymous recipient, we then did a quick toddle around the place just to see what they had in stock for the forthcoming festive season.

That was when the urge to buy something myself became practicably unbearable, so I plumped for a tracksuit top, one very similar to the one my other half has been wearing to games, of late. Consider my conspicuous profligacy the first in a series of excitatory stimuli to an already ropey British economy: at least it sounds a damn sight better than simply admitting I spent it like water.

While my mini-splurge was going on, I had been vaguely aware of the presence of a number of coaches on the bit of asphalt adjacent to the Smethwick. All present and correct to convey our travelling faithful to Merseyside, of course ? and I?ll tell you what, it wasn?t half strange seeing them there, and knowing full well I wouldn?t be boarding. A gaping hole in my normal existence suddenly appeared; casual onlookers of hurtful disposition might well have diagnosed the sudden onset of such profound malaise as ?withdrawal symptoms?.

But no time to wail and beat breasts in funeral fashion, for suddenly, there appeareth among us a certain John Homer, teller of awful jokes to the gentry, and the Albion faithful?s Official Referee-Baiter-In-Chief (Halfords Lane Stand a speciality). Clearly, he?d been ?warming up? for some considerable time; we hadn?t been with him for more than a couple of minutes when he commenced cracking some of the most appalling jokes I?ve ever heard in my entire life.

It all began with the lad asking us both whether we?d enjoyed Thursday evening?s Supporters Club meet. Of course we had: anything involving Willie Johnson will ALWAYS be a sure-fire success, no matter what. Having let it slip that I?d devoted quite a few lines to mention of both the meeting and ?yer man?s? compering skills must have affected John in similar fashion to that of a bell on Pavlov?s famous salivatory dogs, because that was the precise moment when the area of our hero?s brain devoted to ?awful humour? switched on like a light bulb. WARNING: those of you particularly averse to some pretty ghastly attempts at ?humour?, look away now!

John, considering the possibility of the Beeb starting a new version of ?Mastermind?, involving players: ?Now ?ang on a minnit, in the specialist round, they?d ?ave ter answer questions on ?Themselves??..?

Then, as we were about to flee to our jalopy in order to escape being on the receiving end of the rest of the lad?s ? erm ? ?repertoire? :

?Now I know why ?Sultana? (what most of the country tends to call TV company Setanta, these days!) keep puttin? Baggies? games on the telly ? ?raisin? their profile, ay thay??

And that, dear reader, was the very same moment our cringing brains hi-jacked tortured nervous systems: to command hitherto quiescent leg muscles to ?get the hell out there, and quick?. Fearful for what little of our sanity still remained, we were about to shift from the ground like a bat out of hell, when the lad saved us the bother, courtesy a parting merry quip, and a hearty ?Heigh-Ho, Silver ? Away!? With that little lot still ringing in our ears, off went the Lone Homer to his Anfield doom. Admittedly, he did have to board his coach first, but you all know what I mean. Er ? do you?

Next stop? Edgar Street, GHQ of the aforementioned but horrendously-underperforming Bulls, at home to basement league Dagenham and Redbridge in a 1st round FA Cup tie that very same afternoon. We reckoned there might be considerable quantities of ?baggage? attached to this one, given that The Bulls whopped ?em by nine clear goals, back in the days when they were riding high in the Conference, and practically busting a gut trying to get out of it again.

What really got the natives going, back then? The fact that this complete and utter train-smash of a game was played on The Daggers? very own muck-heap. A more embarrassing dicking by anyone, never mind the Bulls, is practically impossible to visualise. No wonder Daggers everywhere started licking their chops like so many starving hounds discovering a pile of discarded offal, the moment both names emerged from the FA Cup hat, the day the first round draw was made.

No traffic problems making the 50-mile journey ?twixt Hawthorns and Hereford, but we did catch a brief glimpse of something that?s rapidly becoming a rare feature of British rural life: the sight of a brace of old-fashioned gypsy wagons ? readers of the Famous Five children?s books by Enid Blyton will immediately latch on to what I?m on about, here ? complete with horses grazing on the grass verges lining both parts of the main Hereford-Worcester drag, and the occupants seemingly engaged in cooking a meal upon a nearby open fire. Cue for what was to become something of a prescient remark from me: ?I do hope they?ve got those horses trained properly; looks like only a couple of them are tethered to the verge?? Prescient? You?ll see why later on.

?Im Indoors, being the expert on all things Bull, predicted a godawful gate for the cider-slurpers that afternoon. His reasoning? Their current woeful League position (worse than ours), the beginnings of the Christmas shopping period, and the highly-pertinent fact that being a Cup tie, season ticket holders had to pay to see this one.

And, as if that wasn?t enough, what with the national economy being just about dead on its feet, and locals rightly becoming fearful for their jobs ? as far as big employers go, in Hereford, there?s the Bulmer?s Cider brewery and Sun Valley poultry; small, non-heavy industry, and agriculture aside, that?s more or less it, unless you want to bring ?retail? into the equation - much belt-tightening was currently in progress in those there parts. In circumstances as grim as that, supporting a distinctly-ailing football team becomes even less of a priority than it had before.

Having just indulged in a short side-trip to a bijou local crafts centre, situated just off the main drag, we arrived at Edgar Street uncharacteristically late, showing up at the B Block turnstiles with around 15 minutes to go before the start. Not that this was an important issue, mind: as I previously said, United are really grateful for all the support they can get for home games, these days.

Then, as we sat down in our usual spot, we noticed something distinctly odd: no Mavis, mother of Nick Brade, United?s demon half-time draw ticket seller, and away match regular. Despite being a lady of somewhat advanced years, she still attends home fixtures with unceasing regularity: had she been taken ill, or something?

The real reason, when it came, wasn?t illness, thank goodness, but still pretty alarming from the Bulls? viewpoint: sheer apathy, born of any number of indifferent performances, thus far, had kept her away. If that was true of someone who really was ?Hereford ?till I die?, what was the attrition-rate among those with considerably less justification to commit?

By the time Mick arrived on the scene, the game had already started, but we?d been previously honoured by the verbose presence of ?Talking Bill?, of whom I?ve made mention before. Surprisingly enough, it wasn?t Bill that provided the bulk of the verbal humour heard that day: the really hilarious stuff came from a couple of guys in the row behind whom I?d never seen before.

It all started shortly before the kick-off, when the Edgar Street PA bloke solemnly intoned: ?There will now be a two-minute silence ?.? all part of the Remembrance Day ceremonials, of course. Quipped one of the aforementioned twosome, sotto-voce: ??.Closely followed by a 90-minutes silence?!? Stick around, guys and gals - there?s more to come!

This being my first visit to Edgar Street thus far this term (I?d spurned previous opportunities to do so because I?d either elected to watch our lot away from home, or been nursing a seriously-snotty cold AT home!) I hadn?t really known what to expect. Sure, my other half had filled me in on all the depressing little details, often enough, but even so, it still came as quite a shock to the system to see a side normally committed to playing attractive, entertaining football finding difficulty just getting the ball into the opposition box, never mind turn good scoring opportunities into ?proper? goals.

With every United chance wasted, distinctly-audible groans echoed around the ground; they were frustrated, and rightly so. But there lay the paradox: Watching the Bulls through neutral eyes, it swiftly became clear to me that there was nothing fundamentally wrong in the way they went about their task. Every single time they went into ?attack mode?, passes were being strung together in a cohesive way that had me absolutely delighted with the sheer quality of their play. Their big problem? Launching that all-essential ?killer ball? or, more pertinently, failing in the task of actually getting both striker and ball connected.

Sure, United did have a couple of attempts on goal come very close to fruition, that opening 45 (the Daggers? keeper was on top form ? and it showed) but for the most part, they might as well have spent the entire period sat inside the nearby cathedral, admiring the famous Mappa Mundi displayed therein.

The second half wasn?t much better either; as the game progressed, there came a rapidly increasing sense among the crowd that United had, once more, completely run out of attacking ideas: in their place remained sheer frustration, with nowt else to compensate ? and, again, it showed. Unsurprisingly, the visitors, sensing the increasing likelihood of an upset, stepped up their own efforts by a notch or three, and it was only good fortune on the part of the home side that kept them in it, come the end. Personally, I suspect it?s only postponed the inevitable; come the replay, Hereford will get well and truly dumped from the competition.

As for the home crowd, brought up by chairman Graham Turner to expect good-quality football as a birthright, almost, their reaction was an increasingly turbulent one, best epitomised by the couple of jokers seated right behind this column. As the game creaked and groaned into its dying minutes, one of them was heard to say, in rapidly-rising tones of despair: ?How do you get banned??

Then, not long after that, on hearing a feeble cry of ?Hereford ?till I die?? emanate $p from the Meadow End; ??.I think I?m already there!?

But it wouldn?t have been right to let that brace of newbies grab the best punchlines: that?s a job best left to an increasingly frustrated Talking Bill who, midway through the second half, went forth with a lone chant of: ?If you?re NOT going to Dagenham, clap your hands!? It wasn?t a solo effort for long, mind: within about 30 seconds, most of our bit of the stand was joining in!?

I have to say that the final whistle came as something of a relief for me. I really do fear for their chances when they go to East Essex for the replay; on this showing, their interest in this year?s competition will be but a fleeting one. Another word about the home crowd: come the final whistle, I faintly discerned a cry of ?What a load of rubbish? coming from somewhere, the very first time in the Turner era I?ve ever heard THAT chanted by an Edgar Street crowd. The really disconcerting feature of that chant? They were absolutely spot-on. Maybe the time is fast coming when Turner should think of delegating his first-team duties to someone a bit younger than himself?

That was Part One, now for Part Two. Because the vast majority of spectators had got the hell out of Edgar Street well before the final whistle (pathetic gate of around 1700, by the way), getting out of their vast car-park was a piece of cake, compared with the absolute nightmare routinely experienced in much-happier times. Away we went, tuned into Radio Five, and eagerly awaited the start.

Now for my big-time beef with the Beeb: their live match commentaries. Or rather the lack thereof. Sure, they had both a main commentator and a couple of former players in attendance, but what we most certainly DIDN?T get was what was stated on the tin, viz: a live commentary.

First of all, there were long, long periods early on where all three seemed more keen upon having a semi-private discussion, rather than inform listeners of what was actually happening on the park. No sooner had they finally concentrated upon the matter in hand, we then had the rugby to contend with; time and time again, the action shifted to the progress of the ?rugger buggers?, first of all the Scottish international side, then to Ireland; they were locked in mortal combat with Canada, of all places. Did you know Canada had a rugby side? I didn?t either, but I certainly do now, and in exasperating detail, too. Most infuriating of all, on one occasion, they actually cut away to the rugby just as Albion were about to take a corner!

And it wasn?t just that: the Beeb also seemed to have a horrible fixation on their commentator giving everyone the Premier League and First Division scores in their entirety, and at fairly regular intervals throughout that first half, wanted or not. Why? Anyone with a serious need to know would have found out by other means long before. By the time we arrived home, it was with a surge of profound relief I finally switched on our TV, tuned in to ?Sultana? then, in company with my other half, sat back to watch the game without further unnecessary interruptions of any kind well and truly getting our goat.

Despite all the numerous switches for the rugger etc. my main impression, on listening to the sound commentary, was one of Albion more than holding their own against the surging Red tide: fair play to them, most sides in our position would simply defend in depth, kick anything that moved, and hope for a lucky break. (Recognise yourselves, Stoke-lovers?) By the time we?d arrived home, we were already one down, but no disgrace, really, that?s what Liverpool do to sides like ours, and we weren?t expecting much change from this one anyway. What really did cost us, though, was godawful defending.

Robbie Keane was the chief perpetrator of the damage, grabbing goals in both the 34th and 42nd minutes respectively. The first of the two came courtesy of one almighty defensive error on our part, thereby letting Gerrard in to thread the ball through to his ex-Dingle chum: true, Carson had rushed out like an express train to try and prevent what was looking horrendously like the inevitable, but it was in vain. Over Carson went the ball, and from there into an empty and unguarded net.

Then, just six minutes later, the Scousers doubled Albion?s trouble. Maybe we shouldn?t be too critical of this one, as their second strike came direct from an Albion corner, from which the home side almost put into their own net: fair play to Mogga, he?d urged our people to carry on attacking, rather than engage in damage-limiting tactics, and it proved to be our undoing. Gaining possession, then threading a superb through-ball to the ever-predatory Keane was what did for us: our rearguard, all committed to backing up what had been an Albion incursion into the Anfield mob?s box just seconds before, were nowhere to be seen, hence the almost-palpable ease with which he performed the coup de grace.

Come the break, it was all over bar the shouting. Job done for Liverpool, end of. But we still stuck with our attacking ethos come the second half, so that?s a plus point, should you want one. And there was much Baggie goodwill, still, for Mogga, and the values he constantly adhered to: time and time again, we both heard the man?s name chanted by our long-suffering travelling support.

And on the whole, I think he?s got it right: it?s not Mogga?s fault he started the current campaign with a dearth of strikers to call upon. Again, you have to look at Jeremy Peace for culpability. With Luke Moore being the best we had by way of an alternative up front yesterday, when he came on again, the thought did enter my head that by bringing him on, this was Mogga unique way of making his own views known to Albion?s board and all who sail in them. We got the message ages ago, so when will they?

Liverpool?s third, coming right at the death, was a pretty cruel blow to a Baggies side that had truly given their all, last night. Arbeloa was the scorer, the chance coming courtesy of our lot losing possession in their own half, swiftly followed by yet another defence-splitting ball from the Reds. The strike came so deep in added-on time, just a matter of seconds after the restart, the ref whistled for time. 3-0 it was, then ? but on the other hand, it could have been much, much worse.

As for the lads, from what I saw of it, their performance was an absolutely creditable one, given the sheer magnitude of the task that faced them at Anfield. The downside, of course, is that of scraping the bottom of the table; with Christmas coming at us like an express train, and Chelsea and Stoke our next opponents, it?s sure as hell looking like we?ll be firmly stuck in the basement come the festive season.

Our last chance will be the opening of the transfer window, come the New Year, but even now, a horrible feeling is entering my brain that even if we do splash the cash come January, by then it could well be far too late to extricate us from this mess of our own making.

But don?t blame Mogga for this lamentable state of affairs: his quiet dignity amidst all the turmoil generated by failure happens to be our football club?s sole redeeming feature. A lesser man than he would probably have started calling in career-progression favours from former playing, now managerial mates, long before now. Being the best gaffer we?ve had in a long time, for goodness sake, don?t let anyone put the idea into his head.

MORE FROM LAST THURSDAY NIGHT?.. Joe Mayo?s favourite ?Willie Moment?? Quite some time ago, he?d arranged to meet up with Willie, and in what was the blindingly-obvious rendezvous-place, too - Willie?s bar, located slap-bang on the Kirkcaldy sea-front. What better could you wish for? And the great man had been really helpful, too, in supplying his visitor with the postcode for said bar, so our former striker could input it into his satnav, and let the little voice whispering sexy-sounding sweet nothings into his left lughole do all the work instead.

Well, that was the theory. A considerable time later, Joe was totally mystified to find that both he and his vehicle had fetched up about ten or so miles north of Carlisle. Unsurprisingly, given the fact that Carlisle is nowhere near either Edinburgh or the Forth Bridge, severe doubts were beginning to enter Joe?s brain by then, so he pulled over, and did the obvious ? phoned Willie, and obtained more precise information, right from the horse?s mouth, as it were. And that?s how Joe quickly discovered that Willie had sent him not the postcode for his boozer, but those for Gatwick Airport instead!

 - Glynis Wright

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