08 May 2006: 2-2 - And The Nationwide Tour Starts Right Here!
Sunday the 7th of May. For most British people on the fag-end of their weekend, a day to catch up with odd jobs around the house, wash the car, maybe, have a spot of Sunday roast either down the local, or cooked by the missus at home, even, but for a sizeable contingent of Baggie people, our Premiership swansong beckoned. What better place to sign off in the Greed League, then, than Goodison Park, that enormous living, breathing anachronism where their hierarchy have had in place for years all the infrastructure a wealthy Premiership outfit should have, but with one fundamental difference ? despite their lofty status, despite all their squillions, they?ve never once forgotten what it is that truly represents the heartbeat of their club ? its grassroots supporters.
?The People?s Club? they call it, even now; had it been any other Premiership outfit making that outrageous claim, we travelling Baggies would have mocked them unmercifully for the entire duration of the game, but with hand on heart, it would have taken a pretty miserable sort of person not to acknowledge what those Toffees supporters have going for them at Goodison these days ? so who am I to argue? Indisputably a fine old venue from which to bid the Prem a fond farewell, and what fun we had doing it, today. Not that the day began all that well for The Fart, mind; about 15 minutes before our scheduled start-time, we had a panicky phone call from the bloke. Public transport not behaving as it should in the Bournville area, apparently, hence our chum?s non-appearance at Chez Wright. Eventually, we did get him delivered to ours, and more or less in one piece, save that left ear of his immovably welded to his portable radio, of course ? beyond our control, that! ? so orft we jolly well went.
Normally, the last day of the season is one of guaranteed sunshine coupled with late-spring warmth, lashings of it ? but not today. Clearly, Mother Nature, silly old bat that she is, hadn?t read the script properly this year, so what we got instead were heavy rain showers, and temperatures more suited to early March, rather those of a month arguably considered by some to be the most beautiful in the entire calendar. Grey clouds, descending in increasingly-murky variations on that theme, were the order of the day on the M6; rain ruled OK as we headed up the northbound carriageway that morning. To be honest, I cannot for the life of me remember the last time we had an end to the season as miserable as this one. The gods themselves must have readily concurred with my overall assessment of the situation; around the Stafford area, the heavens opened with a vengeance, and didn?t really stop until we?d put the turnoff for Man United well and truly behind us.
And there was more. ?Of all the joints in all the motorways?..and you have to turn up in this one?..!? Not a posthumous reprise for Casablanca star Humphrey Bogart, just me spotting a very familiar-looking passenger in an overlarge ?Chelsea tractor?. None other than my old chum the Bluenose Butcher, I?ll have you know! Not heading in search of our very own last hooray, of course, but off in search of Bolton, Sam Allardyce, The JJB, and all who sailed in them. Shame they lost 1-0, really; never mind, at least it gives me something to get him really waving his chopper about next Tuesday morning!
Also on the way up, yet another intriguing sight ? that of a car bearing the legend ?T.C. Hayes Bearwood? on its sides and back, which was OK in itself, but for one thing ? well, two, really. A couple of Albion flags fluttering furiously from both windows, something that strongly indicated the delivery of TV equipment and electrical ?white goods? wasn?t going to be much of a priority that coming afternoon.
A few hold-ups through sheer volume of traffic aside, we still managed to make reasonably good time, and fetched up on Merseyside with around a couple of hours to spare before kick-off. Stanley Park was our anchorage for the afternoon; once we?d sorted that out, the next priority was heading in the general direction of the pub ? more about that later, but what really tickled me as we exited the park and headed on out along the street was my other half?s curious (and somewhat disconcerting!) habit of shouting ?MASOCHIST!? at any stray Baggies he happened to meet en-route. That set in motion a personal train of thought all of its very own: assuming attendance at today?s game to be the classical hallmark of a true masochist, could we then logically deduce that an Everton steward refusing Baggies entrance to Goodison for no reason was the classical hallmark of an out-and-out sadist?
And now for the very first surprise of what was to be many that afternoon. As per normal, the first of the away coaches sprang into view preparatory to parking in their designated spot about half a mile away from the ground: what wasn?t normal was the sight of SuperBob, no less, sitting in the front seat, riding shotgun in the place where a Baggies travel steward would normally take up post. ?Good on him for coming to this game?, we all agreed; even better was the news Sutton Baggie Amanda Miles gave us the very moment we first bumped into her on the corner of the street adjacent to the ground. Apparently, Bob hadn?t just been there doing the ?passenger? thing; the occupants of that coach were to be greatly startled by having Bob doing ?waitress? duties with tea and coffee! It?s not every day a living Albion legend serves you refreshments on the coach, now, is it?
More proof, of course, that Supes had long ago crossed the invisible line that normally serves to keep players and supporters neatly compartmented in their respective little worlds. Essentially, the guy?s now ?one of us?, a regular Baggies away follower. So it was with The King when he was well, now it is with the inheritor of the Astle mantle. Not all that many ex-players possess sufficient charisma to pull the same trick for themselves; were some of our current crop to try it, for example, they?d be instantly laughed out of court as hypocrites.
No, natural rapport with your followers, and, more importantly still, convincing evidence the relationship is genuinely mutual both ways, is an accolade only rarely bestowed upon former Albion players by our supporters. It?s a bit like a marriage, if you like, to earn true respect from all the other ?family members? you have to work at the relationship very hard indeed. In fact, despite enjoying quite respectable playing careers when with us, and despite wanting it very much indeed, a good many former Baggies players never, ever even once aspire to such stratospheric heights.
As I mentioned in my previous paragraph, the Sutton Branch mob had turned out in force for this one. Amanda I?ve mentioned already ? blimey, things must have been really looking up to see her travelling to an away game, albeit our very last Premiership one. Many mutual lamentations and collective gnashing of teeth going on ? and it was made immediately obvious as to why. We?d only just departed from bumping into Jeremy Peace and Tom Silk as it happened; not the best of times to gush forth with wildly-uncritical paeans of praise for our boardroom infrastructure, perhaps, but equally so, it would have been awfully rude of me to simply snub ?em on the street ? it?s never been in my nature to operate in that unmannerly way - so I simply confined activities to a simple handshake and a ?Greetings?, delivered via a rictus grin of enormous proportions. I was to learn from our Sutton chums pretty quickly that some of their number had also bumped into the same lot, but hadn?t been quite so diplomatic with it! Oh dear.
Best laugh to be had outside was the sight of one Fred Carter, late of South Birmingham Branch SC ? with missus Carol for once ? and wearing just about the most awful pair of impossibly-lurid shorts it?s been my displeasure to come across. Words momentarily failed me, bar for a reminder not to stand too near small children and irredeemably traumatise ?em! Eventually, I did manage to summon up sufficient strength to ask whether or not our cigar-smoking buddy had a valid licence to expose those anatomically-awful kneecaps of his to public gaze on a Sunday!
A quick tootle to the Dixie Dean statue, where many floral tributes to the great Brian Labone had found a loving home was our next stop; that, after a lengthy chin-wag with various Baggies of our acquaintance, then inside the ground. The pub? Well and truly closed when we got there, and what?s more, it looked as though it hadn?t been used since the time we came there last. Amazing ? a pub sitting slap-bang in the middle of Everton territory, furthermore one at which away supporters had always been made very welcome, a virtual licence to print money on matchdays - and the sodding thing was closed! What?s more, there was no viable alternative in sight, so we swiftly surrendered to the prevailing mood, and shifted ourselves inside the ground instead.
Once there, and under the main away stand, yet more rendezvous, clandestine or otherwise, took place. Just about everywhere you looked, there was a familiar face; clearly, this particular fixture had brought out just about everything that was good about these former regulars. One example of note was what looked like a gathering of well-zombified extras culled straight from the set of the cult film ?Dawn Of The Dead? ? or should I say an ?undertaker?, an ?Undead? of vague description and even vaguer leanings? Accompanied by The Grim Reaper himself that day, black cloak, hood, the works, in fact. ?Blimey, that lot looks like death warmed up!? said I, desperately trying to inject a little levity into the proceedings. Wheeeee, splash! Closer inspection revealed these fine upstanding corpses to be chums of ours, Kev Candon of Albion?s Disabled SC Branch doing service as an ?undertaker?, and Ritchie Ryan attempting to carry off a convincing attempt at being a zombie ? or was that just his normal matchday appearance?
Our relatively early arrival time meant a visit to the refreshment areas in order to grab some nosh while it was there. As we took in the multiplicity of familiar faces out there, it was time to make serious inroads on our pies. Surprisingly good they were, too, as was the hot chocolate I persuaded my other half to purchase. Also there once more was The Fart who, after a swift diversion to engage in a little pre-match conversation of his own, really put his finger on the pulse: ?A bit like going to a family funeral and meeting all those long-lost relatives you hadn?t seen for ages, isn?t it?? Yep ? got it in one, that man.
Time to find our seats, then. The Fart, having grabbed his ticket well in advance of ours, was located some distance away, but we had seats situated about in line with the goal-line at one end of the park, and the remainder of the ground sweeping away to our right. To our left, behind the goal there, was the home end, numerous Scousers shoehorned into it. And, once more, what an anachronism this part of Goodison seemed to be; wooden floor, ideal for sundry Villa-like clapping and stamping operations, coupled with wooden tip-up seats of indeterminate ancestry, a bit like those that used to be found in the old Rainbow Stand. So old, in fact, I strongly suspected that the only way of properly determining chronological age was by carbon dating methods.
Actually reaching our seats proved to be quite a hazardous undertaking, what with the multiplicity of rubber rings, Lilos, beach balls, and those T-Mobile blow-up ?hands? they were giving out at the ground not so long ago whizzing around at head height. Quoits, Madame, Albion-style? As per the pukka game, but played with plastic lifebelt rings, and using the heads and shoulders of those in front as the ?pegs? to hang them on! And wonderfully-black was the gallows humour, too: ?We?re all going to Southend, we?re all going to Southend!? ringing forth from our ?bit ? as we made our way along our row, pre-kick-off. And, another surprise: sat there was Marion Brennan, E and S reporter extraordinaire, and one known very well to both myself and The Fart. Here on an?official? basis, then? Apparently not, just as a plain ordinary Baggie this time round.
One late surprise; finding Sauce, complete with missus and small sprog, occupying the seats to our immediate right. This being very much a ?family? occasion, you?ll be pleased to hear that Albion?s unofficial travelmeister?s repartee was somewhat muted for the whole of the 90 minutes ? can?t think why for one minute! By now, the appointed hour was drawing nigh, and with the approach of kick-off came a change in mood, helped along by the old black and white footage being given an airing on their big screen. And as I watched the drama of some ancient Cup final or another unfold for the Evertonian persuasion, a sudden thought struck me ? now he?s of similar age to all that stuff, shouldn?t The Fart be turning up for games in monochrome as well?
Time for both sides to merge from the gloom within, then, and as they did so, there was an immediate outbreak of that old Albion standby: ?I go down, you go down, we all g down together?.? Sung with a fervour rarely experienced this time round, and a clear rallying cry for the faithful, if ever there was one, shortly followed by a mass-declaration of undying love for the club. All bitterness, all rancour, temporarily put aside as the final minutes of the 2005-06 season drew nigh; whatever had gone wrong over the course of the past few months, you certainly wouldn?t have guessed from the fervour of our support.
Before kick-off proper, though, there was but one task left to perform, that of remembering the recently-departed Brian Labone, one of Goodison?s better performers, and a playing contemporary of The King. For this one, Everton had come up with the idea of a short silence, then, after the introductory music to ?Z? Cars, a popular 1960?s police show set in Liverpool, and allegedly one of the former player?s favourite tunes, everyone would burst into applause. And, as the familiar theme music rang out around all four stands ? it?s actually a Fritz Spiegel adaptation of a very old folk-ditty telling the story of a young man called Johnny Todd, ?who took a notion for to cross the ocean wide,? as the very first verse tells us ? just about everyone present in the ground honoured Brian in the stipulated way. Was Laraine Astle there also, I wondered; after all, The King and Brian had been pretty good mates, so I was given to understand. Yet another wonderful crowd-pleaser gone to meet his Waterloo, and at such an unfeasibly young age, too.
And so, to the game proper ? and I make no apology whatsoever for giving complete priority to the away-end antics of our own, rather than what was going on Out There. Those players toiling away, their season was more or less over; only the fine details of the picture now remained to be filled in ? and besides, the wit, the sheer genius of impromptu lyrical composition really deserved to be appreciated for what it was.
Within minutes of the start, valiant attempts were being made to get a Mexican wave going; sadly, the desired effect petered out once the ?wave? hit the home supporters. Whatever happened to the famous Scouse sense of humour, I asked myself. Not to be easily defeated, our resourceful Baggie chums several rows in front then tried to get other parts of our support to get the ball rolling; as for the home end to our left, you could see complete and utter puzzlement writ very large indeed on their faces; weren?t we supposed to be relegated and indulging in a bit of old-fashioned mourning, or something? Their confusion simply begged for the cartoon-style inclusion of a giant question mark, right above their heads!
Meanwhile, back on the pitch, events were developing rapidly into what was to become ?The Pole In Goal Show?. With only five minutes on the clock, he?d already saved our bacon in short order, tipping the early Kevin Kilbane effort ? remember him, folkies? ? over the bar in fine style, then catching with ease the resultant corner - and there was undoubtedly much more of the same to come. As there was from ?Batman?, ?Robin?, ?Scooby-Doo?, ?Tweety Pie?, ?Sylvester The Cat?, all of whom by now starting off a splendid-looking conga line in the gangway in front! And yes ? still those jaws went a-clanging downwards in that home end; clearly they hadn?t seen anything quite like this happen at Goodison for a very long time indeed, if at all!
A continued spell of Albion pressure, roared on by an away following well in the mood for any sort of success, however Pyrrhic in nature it would ultimately turn out to be, finally brought results with only 15 minutes or so on the clock. It was Greening who supplied the left wing ?ammunition? for Gera, lurking with menace in close proximity to our near post, to convert with relative ease; before the Scouse persuasion knew it, they were one-nil in arrears, and absolute pandemonium breaking out in that away end. Having a bit of a laugh was mandatory, but seeing us actually hit the net was something of an unexpected bonus for our away following. Just what would they come up with next by way of celebration? The answer? Suddenly, it all became wonderfully, marvellously silly; within a minute or so of our strike, our contingent was busily engaged in musically-inspired declarations to the effect that Kevin Kilbane was ?an Albion fan?. Praise, too, and in heaps, for former favourite Bob Taylor, sitting amidst what had been his most loyal worshippers just a few long seasons ago, and featuring what had been his early nineties ?signature dish?, the ditty comparing his abilities with those of a certain Mister Bull, then located in the Wolverhampton area.
All hugely silly, and what amounted to a master-class in how to properly support a football club, and all laid on with a bloody great trowel for the benefit of the impassively-silent home crowd, whose facial features, as the game wore on, got to represent even more a faithful depiction of Kremlin big-shots during the old-style Soviet era, all of them watching the forward progress of enough rocket-powered hardware to turn most of the UK into nothing more than a strongly radioactive slag-heap, and within a very short space of time, too. Or was that just a description of what damage the Dingles could wreak when seriously angered?
And still Everton battled to get that equaliser; with almost two-thirds of the half gone, the Pole in Goal pulled off a top-drawer save once more, his agility strongly reminiscent of similar moments spent teasing one or other of my cats with a handy bit of string. There was clearly no end to the guy?s custodial talents, was there? To those home supporters abandoning ship in order to be first in their respective ?pies, pints and toilet? queues, we donated a generous burst of ?Cheerio, cheerio, cheerio!?.? just to prove they weren?t entirely forgotten!
When I was somewhat younger, one or other of my work colleagues had a favourite homily she used to trot out from time to time, the main thrust of its content being something in the order of the statement: ?You can?t improve on perfection, can you?? Normally, I would have agreed wholeheartedly with those sentiments, but the time was rapidly approaching when not only would The Pole In Goal have everyone gasping in sheer amazement, he?d then go on to do the same thing all over again. I refer, of course, to a wonderfully-agile double-save our Eastern European colleague pulled off just before the break. Was I really sure he hadn?t been crossed with a domestic moggy somewhere along the line? Whatever was the real truth of the matter couldn?t be determined with any real accuracy on my part, but I was sure as hell glad he was on our side, and not the opposition?s.
Mind you, there then followed a series of short sharp Evertonian attacks that put the issue in some doubt for a short while. Within minutes of our successful incursion, time, then, to put in one particularly nasty effort, drifting right above everyone?s head and completely eluding our best defensive efforts. All it needed was for someone to tap it in; that was the main reason the air rapidly grew thick with choice epithets for former Albion managers tasked with bringing the situation well under control, but simultaneously managing to stuff things up even more comprehensively for The Toffeemen. In an effort to sooth their troubled brows, our contingent chorally implored them to take life?s stresses and strains much more easily than they had ? and no, being told to ?Calm down, calm down?.? in what was supposed to be a Scouse dialect didn?t exactly do a lot to create an atmosphere of peace and harmony between both clubs? sets of supporters. Funny, that ? can?t think for a moment why they took umbrage so! Could it have been our ?follow-up?, I wonder, the one urging the whole lot of them to ?get a job??
During the interval, some amazing news about Spurs reached my delicate little ears; apparently, no less than EIGHT of their first-team squad, including both keepers, ending up with a rather nasty dose of food poisoning prior to their own game, on the outcome of which their European ambitions next season would depend. Upon hearing the tale, I turned to ?Im Indoors and jokingly suggested that perhaps the whole thing had been engineered with assistance from a tame bacteriologist, who would possess the wherewithal to ensure that Spurs? day wouldn?t be a particularly comfortable one.
Only jesting, I was, so imagine my surprise some two hours later, at the news that the Old Bill had been sent for, and were currently taking just about everything with food on it away for forensic examination. I do hope nothing criminal comes of this; no sooner had I learned there would be a police investigation, my immediate thoughts ran to speculation as to whether or not some betting syndicate or other was involved. Such is the amount of moolah swilling about the game these days, nothing whatsoever would surprise me, I reckon.
But back to Albion-Everton, then. Two minutes after the restart, a real ?nosebleed job? for our lot as we somehow contrived to go two in front! The strike, engineered by Gera?s header in the direction of new-bug Martinez, came courtesy of a Greening corner. Blimey, for the first time ever this season, we were actually two goals to the good away from home! ?Can we play you every week?? sang our glee-club merrily, as those home-enders seethed mightily once more. This wasn?t in the script, not by a long chalk, nor was our teasing chant of ?Six-nil to the Albion?, a direct reference to the 4-0 stonking we gave them on our own territory earlier that same season. That then closely followed by a naughty rendition of: ?You?re even worse than the Dingles!? A more savage insult to their collective pride I can?t imagine!
Eventually, around midway through the half, they finally swept the ball into the back of the net ? only to see the effort ruled out by the referee. Yet again, just like a wounded beast, their home and seethed, and once more, we asked ourselves whether their collective sense of humour failure would last or not! And, just to pile on the insults, another that must have cut to the quick. ?How the $*&! did you stay up?? was the next question chorally directed at our Merseyside counterparts. How glad they must have been to see the back of us come the final whistle!
With around 19 on the clock, yet another concerted effort to kick off another Mexican wave, with precisely the same result from the home end. ?You might as well join in!? was the concerted cry from our part of the ground, closely followed by a request of our gaffer to ?start the wave? instead ? which he did, apparently! Two subbings in rapid succession followed, Watson off, Hodgkiss on around the hour mark, then, five minutes later, it was Duke Ellington?s turn to sample the heady delights of the away dugout, Stuart Nicholson replacing him in the resultant Goodison quickstep. And still nothing was going right for Everton, as we loudly croewd: ?We?re all going on the Coca Cola tour!? a direct reference to our travels next season, with ?On loan to The Championship!? next on our ?play-list?. Not so sure about that one, mind ? I still think we?ll have a hellish time of it down there, but what the hell, time to worry about that one much later on this year. In the meantime, what better moment to inform all those scowling Evertonians: ?We?re just too good for you!?
And it got even sillier; suddenly, as if resurrected from the grave came the familiar strains of the old ?Smethwick-Brummie thing, with dim adumbrations also of the late 60?s ?Tipton-Smethwick? skinhead chant chucked in for good measure. Just one problem, guys ? if you can remember THAT one with reasonable clarity, you?re just like me ? too bloody old!
All god things have to come to an end, though, and with around seven minutes still to go, Everton managed to pull one back, to great amusement in the away end. For the first time ever, we actually heard some vocal support emanating from behind the goal, a development that was met with much ironic applause, shouts of ?Well done, chaps?.? Followed swiftly by the sung rejoinder ?We forgot that you were here?!? By then, we were having so much good, honest fun in there, it really didn?t matter.
Just before the end, though, in injury-time if you want to get all pedantic about it, and following a sustained bout of pressure ? trying to save their blushes, I expect - Everton somehow contrived to get a penalty. Not sure as to whether or not the shout was a valid one ? events came to a head in that part of the pitch distant from us ? but Martinez was adjudged to be the villain of the piece. Old man Duncan Ferguson ? was it a put-up job specifically designed to ensure he left Goodison on a high note, I wonder? ? took the spot-kick, which The Pole In Goal managed to stop; shame then about the rebound, which landed straight at the feet of the Goodson man, his instinctive toe-poke only getting a narrow beating of ? yer man? as it trickled past the line. Jammy Everton? Sure, but who really cared?
Never in my entire supporting career have I seen such a wonderfully-orchestrated send up of just about everything and everybody connected with the beautiful game. Truly Albion supporters at their vocal, humorous best, and for the Evertonians present, a wonderful example of just how to support a football club away from home, and have a laugh whilst doing so. Well worth the admission price, if only just for that! And as for our own leaders, yet more proof - if ever we really needed convincing on that score - that a football club is far more than ?just a business?. Far from it, it?s a living, breathing entity, whose soul lies within the very hearts of those who follow it ? not a concept that travels easily from away-end to boardroom, ?tis true, but a very vital aspect of Albion life all the same. Mess around with that, Albion, and you do so at your peril.
And Finally?. Amidst all the tumult of our final Premiership Sunday, a big ?well done? to ?Im Indoors (and ex-Baggies Tucka Trewick, Tam Mkandawire, Danny Carey-Bertram etc.) for Hereford?s creditable away draw in their first leg play off semis versus Morecambe. Battle will be resumed next Thursday night, at Edgar Street; with any luck, after some three seasons of trying and hitting a brick wall every single time, United will find themselves well and truly in the finals, to be held at Leicester City in around a fortnight?s time. Possibly a chance to let even a little ray of sunshine enter our lives, for once!
- Glynis Wright
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