Sunday, 10 May 2015

Watching with the excitement of the long distance fan

This post was written by exiled Blade Giacomo Squintani a couple of months ago at my request. I wanted something that would tell what it is like to follow the Blades from afar, with only rare live viewings, hanging on the words on social media, fan forums and the briefest of highlights on The Football League Show.

You could say that Giacomo was lucky. He doesn't get dragged down by the week in week out performances and results. You could argue that in terms of the game he attended he was lucky, but going into the second leg at Swindon, maybe we need to approach it with the excitement of a long distance fan and realise that, like at Giacomo's game, a surprise can happen. Anything can happen.

Photo Copyright : Sam Cunliffe

Valentine’s Day. That commercial creation designed at shifting flowers, chocolates, cards… perennial source of teenage embarrassment and adult whinging (it’s always too much or too little, isn’t it?)… A right waste of money!

I solved the problem by proposing to the now Mrs S on February 12 (2005, that is). That way we have our own anniversary and don’t have to faff around with any of that malarkey. It also means that, when the fixtures threw up United at Ashton Gate on February  14, it was never going to be a challenge to secure a pass!

Ian has kindly invited me to jot down some thoughts about the day, from the perspective of an exiled Blade. Because, having made the mistake of leaving Sheffield for a second time in 1998, following my initial extradition (aged six weeks) to Italy in 1976, that’s what I am. When Saturday comes, I follow the rituals via Twitter: the pilgrimage, the hydration, the build-up inside the ground… rituals I remember well. Rituals by which I could once set my watch: whatever the weather, whatever the traffic, they always seemed to take place at the same time. Just like, regardless of the length of the Bible passages and the sermons, handshakes and communion seem to when Sunday comes.

But it’s different when you’re a lapsed stadium-goer. When Bramall Lane is 178 miles away, yet Ashton Gate is just eleven, but still you’re only going to cover that distance to watch Dem Blades. You no longer go through the rituals automatically: you need to think about your order of service and work out those milestones. And, if you’re me, odds are you’ll get them wrong.

I cautiously caught a bus just before 1pm, a time not dissimilar to the one when my late Grandfather would have turned the key and set the car in motion along Sharrow Vale Road. But back then we had to find a parking place, walk over and allow chatting time with the familiar faces. Here, it’s a five-minute walk from the bus stop to Ashton Gate, not being Mourinho I had no bus to park… so I found myself in Bedminster with what felt like an age to spare. Took a lengthy wander around Greville Smyth Park, finding time to sit on a bench for my first instalment of homemade sarnies… and eventually the time felt right to walk through the gates.

Ever the fashion guru, I was sporting my black-and-red 1997 AVEC sweater. It’s a good dozen years younger than the green polo I wore when Ian and I first met up in 2013, after all! But there was never any danger of aggro: like it or not, I could easily have blended in with the locals, most of them seemingly turning to red and white scarves. Having never seen that much white on Bristol City shirts, I did occasionally wonder whether we’d taken over Bristol. But such thoughts were… premature.

As I took my place in the Atyeo stand, I recognised a few people. Don’t ask me for names: but quite a few faces looked familiar. I must have seen them at The Lane, maybe outside the ground or maybe in the proximity of one Michael D. Rooker, or on the road. All I knew is that I’d seen them. And suddenly I felt at home. Because, for one day a year, the accent in BS3 sounds… local.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but even infidels will concede that ‘The Greasy Chip Butty Song’ is one of the finest, its blend of pride, passion, history, humour and self-mockery quintessentially Sheffield and quintessentially United. I could be anywhere on this planet singing it out loud with fellow Blades and I’d feel at home. Bedminster was no exception… and then we were off!

For a detailed match report, read here. My abridged version:
1. Down 1-0 at the break: unlucky.
2. Didn’t panic, kept playing football. Done looked quality.
3. Were denied a penalty shortly before Done’s equaliser.
4. Deservedly went 2-1 up as City never really increased the pressure as you’d expect the League leaders to do at home.
5. Jamie Murphy to seal it in the 82’ minute. 3-1. Three points. Job’s a good’un. And Done IS quality.

Not being able to drive and living in the UK’s largest town without a train station, away games are a rarity for me. Which is a shame, given my track record in recent years (with Wembley obviously not counting as ‘Away’):
25/04/2011: back from 2-0 down to end a disastrous away record under Micky Adams by winning 3-2 at Reading. A truly bonkers experience.
05/05/2012: 2-2 at Exeter: not quite the party that a few weeks earlier we thought it might have been.
23/11/2013: Roberto’s first (and, so far, only) game – and we nicked it 1-0 at Ashton Gate

Sincere apologies to the faithful Blades who travel up and down this country in weather far worse than we had in Bristol a few weeks back, for whom the elation of Ashton Gate is a rare feeling… that’s ten points from four for me! And we’d all but won in Exeter, but that would have been the most pointless win ever…

During the second half at Ashton Gate I’d got talking to the Blade next to me. He was a fellow exile, having driven up from Yeovil. Beyond the spoken words, there was a silent appreciation of this rare privilege of watching The Blades, accompanied by the chagrin that it was indeed a rarity. Least that’s how it felt for me: maybe he was just wondering what the traffic home was going to be like. I should have asked.

At the final whistle, having set off at that leisurely, post-match place, I made a run for the bus stop. There was an orderly queue: in fact, there were about three. Not quite sure if I joined the right one to secure one of the four available standing places, with some of the many home fans who’d left ahead of the final whistle having got on earlier to but fill the bus: but I got on there alright. I’d earnt the right to leave a few Robins behind. Well, Dem Blades had won it for me. Lots of red and white on the bus back to Portishead, but I was the only one smiling! And I duly celebrated with my second lot of sarnies. That’s how I roll.

No post-match pint(s) for me: best part of an hour on a bus, two minute walk to my front door and quickly got ready to go to dinner at friends’. I kept on my 125th shirt, but it was lost on them, neither big on football. Ah well.

So, there you go: some thoughts from an exiled Blade. A Blade who grew up in exile, in Italy, returning to Sheffield in 1994 only to leave a second time in 1998. My first departure was justifiable enough: my parents lived in Italy and clearly thought that I should grow up with them, Mum only having travelled back to God’s Own County to deliver me unto an unsuspecting world. But second time round… that was a mistake, and one that I look back upon every day. A mistake greatly influenced by an uncle’s passing comment that I should leave Sheffield for London upon graduating: I always regret not giving job-hunting in Sheffield a month or two. 

Driving back from Exeter in May 2012, that same uncle suggested I shouldn’t try to run a 10k, that it would be too much for me: and, as some of you may know, that’s one piece of advice I ignored. Had I done so first time round I’d probably have been a season ticket holder for almost two decades by now! As it stands, I have to make do with a couple of games a season. And I don’t just miss The Blades: I miss the whole experience, each and every ritual. Which is why, whisper it quietly…

…I would never begrudge my sons becoming Bristol City supporters. Just like United is my hometown club, City is theirs. So, whilst part of me hopes they keep wearing their Blades kits for the rest of their lives, I won’t deny there’s a part of me that would be happy for them to develop their own matchday rituals with their own friends and to live them out at least once a fortnight. Is that sacrilege? At least the scarves would look right…

So, Valentine’s Day 2015… how was yours?

Mine began with a 5k personal best (where I overtook a Bristol City fan late on to set the tone for the day!), ended with a nice meal with friends and featured a surprising (well I was!) but wholeheartedly convincing win at Ashton Gate. Good football, made the League leaders look like some frustratingly inconsistent side: so yes, true role reversal. If for just one afternoon. As I told my wife, it was the best Valentine’s Day of my life. 

Saturday, 2 May 2015

The Time To Judge is Later

So that's the regular league season over. A United View has been quiet for a while, it's been hard to know what to write and even harder finding the time to write it. Watching United in recent months has been one of the most frustrating things I have done in that time.

Like teaching a child to ride a bike without stabilisers, you encourage, you urge them on and they briefly succeed, with apparent ease, before crashing back to earth with a bump. Then it's as if they've forgotten what to do. You know they're capable, but they can't put all the different aspects together. Failure, another failure, then they manage a good start before a major wobble and they land with a bump.

The difference being that with a five year old you hide your frustrations. You keep consoling, keep smiling, keep encouraging. With your football team you vent. You rant in your seat, in the sanctity of the pub, on the radio, or on social media.

To be frank, this league season has been disappointing. There is no masking it. Whilst for many clubs 5th place and play-offs would be an acceptable achievement, for a club with United's resources, larger than any other club in the division, it is not good enough.

This isn't just arrogance or being dismissive of other clubs. It's about having seen what these players are capable of and not seeing them deliver it on a consistent basis. It's about seeing a team chopped and changed, yet consistently play without leadership, drive and urgency.

For a manager tasked with promotion it is now left to the fine margins of 270 minutes of football, maybe with another 60 minutes on top or a penalty shootout or two.

I could talk about squad size. I could write about comparisons with Bristol City. How the comments about the number of matches played don't fully stack up. I could question the number and extent of the club's injuries. I could pick apart the unbalanced squad and the manager's apparent inability to know his best eleven after 46 league games. But now is not the time. That post can come at the end of the month, hopefully with a theme of "in spite of all this....".

Nobody wants Nigel Clough to fail. By inference that would mean United have failed. I did not agree with recent calls for him to go. Those writing on Jim Phipps' Facebook wall and tweeting him demand change but if pushed would've struggled to suggest who should replace him. For me Clough has not failed until the season ends and promotion has not been achieved. Only when the final ball has been kicked, hopefully at Wembley can we say whether he has achieved his objective.

I really hope he proves me and the other doubters wrong, I really do. Just because we doubt, doesn't mean we don't support, don't shout, don't sing, don't encourage. Nothing stops that, but the cold hard facts of this season say we were the 5th best club in League 1. We have scored fewer goals than any of the team's around us. On average we have conceded at least a goal a game. Our run of form going into the play offs has been dire.

Previous play off heartache means nothing to this team, but it still burns hard into the collective memories of supporters. It can have no impact on the outcome, only in preparing fans' expectations. My concerns are only emanating from the recent past; the last 46 league games.

To cling to hope means to think of the great cup performances over the last 18 months and how the team have raised themselves. Three back to back results are required. Accepted they don't need to be 3 wins, but the last time we achieved that was February.

Thursday's team selection will be interesting as injured and rested players should return. Collins is once again available; the only fit centre back we have following his return from loan. The excellent ticket pricing should mean a decent crowd and a lot of noise; hopefully positive backing and a result to leave Swindon chasing the game at home.

Let's hope we can truly be saying Up the Blades in 3 weeks time.