Monday, 11 December 2006

Train, plane or supprters' coaches?

When it comes to football grounds, one that I have never visited but have always wanted to go to is St James's Park. No, not the palatial home of Exeter City FC, but the massive and massively redeveloped home of Newcastle United.

The Geordies are rightly proud of this place and I rank it right up there with the Nou Camp - or Camp Nou (pronounced 'Now'), to put it how the Catalans put it - the San Siro and Vicarage Road. All world-class grounds which accommodate, ahem, world-class football teams.

When Watford got promoted to the Premiership in May (watch out for my account of that glorious afternoon at the Millennium Stadium), Newcastle away was one of the first fixtures I looked for.

And there it was: to be played on a Saturday afternoon, just like in the good old days. It was always going to be special. Never mind that it was going to take place a week before Christmas. What better time to notch up our first away win of the season!

So we started planning for it. Train, plane or coach? Hotel, B&B or come home that evening? Carling, Stella or something more exotic - Fosters?

Well, we couldn't possibly go by coach - that'd be criminal. A whopping day out, scuppered by the no-alcohol rule, no room to stretch your legs...and an hour wasted in some dive of a motorway service station, then being delivered to the ground with just about enough time for a pie and a pint before kick-off.

Plane? Not worth it for the price they were offering and the time it would take (by the time you factor in all the pissing about you need to do to get to the airport this end, from the airport that end, and to get on the plane itself, it soon becomes more bother than it's worth).

That left travelling by train as the best option, and it's always a good laugh.

I know I haven't mentioned driving - and with good reason. I'm not an alcoholic, but I do feel that where possible, the consumption of several beers on a matchday is an integral part of the football supporting experience, and driving to a massive away game just becomes a bit of a burden where that's concerned, especially when it's just lads involved. (Taking kids - well, that's quite a different story, for another time). And then there's the cost of petrol, who's going to drive and one or two other things to consider.

Like I said, going by train to this match was, for me and my mates, the best option.

Whenever you want to buy train tickets in England may I suggest the cheapest method may be to phone the National Rail Enquiries number (08457 48 49 50) more than once to see what's available. If you phone three times and tell them where you want to go and when, you may well get three different answers. That's fine of course - just pick the cheapest fare. However, the trouble is that, as far as I know, the people who work there are not obliged to offer you the lowest available fare, which I think is ridiculous.

For example, when booking to travel from London to Newcastle, I asked for two single tickets at ten pounds each, which I bought. However, I believe the lowest return fare on offer was much more than this. So it pays to do some research and/or spend some time talking to the enquiries number.

So close to Christmas, this was going to have to be a big day out, rather than a weekend away.

Unfortunately, this has since turned into a weekend away - in Torquay. I'm gutted. Gutted that the game is happening on this particular weekend. I would have dearly loved to have gone, but being a family man and this being the only weekend since the summer when there's been any sort of opportunity to go away with the wife and kids, I have to do the honourable thing. I've sold my cheap train tickets, so now I'll just have to console myself as I sit in front of Sky Sports News all afternoon.

I wonder if Torquay are at home this weekend...

Sunday, 10 December 2006

How embarrassing was that?

April 2003, and I'm on a train between Birmingham's New Street and Witton stations, all excited and on my way with lots of others to watch Watford play Southampton in an FA Cup semi-final.

We've all had a drink ("Leave it, it's not worth it...") and spirits, naturally, are a bit high. There's plenty of singing going on, a bit of banter between the two sets of fans on the train, and the songs were all Watford, mainly poking fun at Craig David and other Southampton folk.

And then I get the urge (I must have been on the Stellas that day. But then again, it was an FA Cup semi-final). Who can I poke fun at in a vaguely anti-Southampton song?

Now, you must understand that my voice is usually no stronger than the San Marino defence - I've lost it more times than Roy Keane. I don't even know if, at the ripe old age of 34, it's actually broken yet. Must have. Anyway, so far that day, it had held out.

So young Pazza decides to pipe up with an anti-Southampton song of his own, my first solo effort of the day. What can I sing, I ask myself in an excited (half-cut) hurry. Must be witty, even a bit clever...come on - think! - something that people will like and, crucially, join in with.

I had it! I just had to wait for the right moment: a very brief silence among a hundred drunken, high-spirited football fans, who would all swig from their cans at precisely the same moment, thus providing themselves with the opportunity to listen out for the next song they could join in with as we travelled towards Villa Park (we really sensed that that day could have been ours. Cardiff beckoned. We weren't very good during that season, but then this was Southampton - and with respect to Southampton, they are not Man United).

My opportunity arrived. I primed myself (I took another swig from my can - just like all the others, only I made sure I finished first), then I launched into...

"Who the fuck is Benny Hill?!"

Bad enough, I know - neither witty nor clever. What the fuck did Benny Hill have to do with anything?!

The real trouble, however, was that when I had confidently and loudly sung the words 'Who the fuck is...' my piss-weak voice collapsed - leaving me to squeal 'Benny Hill?!' and making me sound like a mouse under a duvet.

A hundred pairs of eyes turned to look at this idiot. What's Benny Hill got to do with a big match day like this? (He was born there. Like I said - neither witty nor clever, just very, very tenuous).

Fortunately for me, once all these strangers (plus my wife and a few mates) had finished gawping at me incredulously (I think I went a little bit red, I recall), they were quickly distracted by a very kind soul who started off another song almost instantly, leaving me to console myself with what was left of my warm ale.

And that was that. We were at Witton station, we got drunk in a pub car park, and the 90 minutes were the shortest I have ever known. And we lost. 2-1.

I won't be singing about Benny Hill again.