Sitting With The Saints, Viewing With The Villa – 5 April 2013

We have all been there at some stage in our lives, whether by fault or design. Sitting with the opposition, sometimes there is just no alternative, sometimes it just works out that way and the big test is how will you react, will you be able to keep your emotions in check, will you be able to keep your head when all around you are losing theirs?

It could be said that sitting with the opposition once a season might be considered unfortunate but perhaps a necessity when all other sources of tickets have been explored and exhausted but to do it twice in consecutive away games could be viewed as simply careless!

As ever the ‘away day’ experience is quite different to the home fixture and in many ways there is something special about following your team away, whatever sport it might be. The general camaraderie and bonhomie associated with rugby and cricket trips is in stark contrast to the more urban tension and grit of football, at whatever level. However, they all have their place in the rich tapestry of tribal following in British sport.

The away trip always seems to have more of a build up, more of a sense of excitement as there is always an element of entering into the unknown and unexpected, even more so when having  a seat in the ‘home’ end.  The buzz and anticipation starts long before kick off. Normal Saturday morning activities and routines are eschewed as travel plans take centre stage. In view of the location of my seats, my blue and white hooped scarf, my only usual outward display of my allegiances, is ditched in favour of the ‘man for all seasons’ woollen multicoloured variety.

The weekend train journey is always a fascination. These are not workers going about their daily commute, but those on a journey with a purpose, going somewhere for a reason, for an activity, an event or an adventure. The train to Southampton fulfilled many of these criteria for me and as the train headed south some of the younger Rangers fans started passing round a few cans and making themselves heard. There was also a smattering of red and white scarves, reflecting the wide catchment that the Saints draw their support from. At Southampton Central the train emptied, the Rangers fans stretched their legs, cleared their throats and broke into song. The non football folk looked bemused.

One of the great benefits of going to a match with the ‘locals’ is that they know exactly where to go for pre-match nourishment and refreshment and my Southampton friends did not let me down. The White Star Tavern in Oxford Street was a jewel, a gastro pub of the highest quality, and sitting with the Saints on a big table by the window was perfect for pre-match discussion and banter.

The St Mary’s Stadium, being one of the new modern arenas, is a little soulless and lacking in character, but as we took our seats high up in the stand opposite the dugouts, the scene looked a picture. The spring sunshine enveloped the ground and the blue and white hoop shirted Rangers’ fans behind the goal away to our left were bathed in glorious sunshine awaiting the arrival of ‘our Harry’.  Much had been made in the run up to his fixture about the Harry ‘effect’, returning to his former club and whilst his arrival was accompanied by the anticipated chorus of boos, there was little malice, certainly not where I was sat. Having a new bigger ground and having just reached the Premier League again after many years in the wilderness, Southampton have had to reach out to the wider locality for support and accordingly many of the supporters in this section were families and members of the local business community so that booing Harry was purely for entertainment purposes rather than being fuelled by hatred and venom. The bark was certainly worse than the bite.

And so to the match. With no programme, internet connection down on the mobile phone, as always seems to be the case in stadia these days, and missing the announcement of the teams in favour of an extra bottle of Singha, yes thai beer being served at Southampton FC, it took a few moments to work out our team and set up. Worse still was not knowing  what weaponary Harry had up his sleeve on the bench. Where was Adel?

A few wagers were staked amongst us to add to the entertainment and I for one was certainly not anticipating a goal as early as the 14th minute, let alone it coming from Rangers, having only scored one goal in February. However, a goal did arrive and much to my surprise, it was to Rangers. As Loic Remy’s right footed effort crashed into the roof of the net I could feel my right fist clench and arm rise in mini celebration, yet suddenly realising where I was, I quickly returned it from whence it came. As much as I wanted to jump up in celebration at this wonderful strike, I remained rooted to my seat and just watched the scene unfold excitedly as Loic stood in front of the Rangers’ faithful and milked the applause of the 3000 plus fans who were leaping around in uncontrolled joy.

Yet when the boot is on the other foot the feeling is completely reversed. As ever Rangers’ culpabilities at the back seem to manifest themselves at the very worst moments and just when you felt that the half time ‘cuppa’ was going to be enjoyed with relish than the Saints equalised, a goal which seemed avoidable yet somewhat typical of Rangers’ season. The red and white scarved and shirted supporters around me rose to their feet.  I followed, yet only in the vain hope of seeing that the linesman’s flag might be raised for offside but alas it was not to be.

The mood in the Stadium changed and the murmurs of discontent from the home support suddenly gave rise to hope and optimism. What a difference a goal makes! My half time prediction of 0-0 was updated to a 1-1 full time prediction, as ever the optimist! Life is all about managing expectation and with only two wins all season, any win has to be a bonus, and certainly cannot be expected. Furthermore, there seems little sense in predicting a Rangers win when with the ‘locals’ as you are only there to be shot down, it is simply not worth it.

The second half was certainly tense yet lacking in real quality, perhaps to be expected by two teams in the lower reaches of the Premier League. Saints were being urged on by their supporters but the decibel levels were low and there seemed a lack of real conviction and belief all round. Everyone had forgotten about Harry by now and the game began to meander until Rangers, arguably slightly against the run of play, scored the decisive goal.  A goal following an inspired piece of ‘harrying’ by Ji-Sung Park, arguably the best thing he has done for the R’s all season, and Jay Bothroyd’s tap in ultimately stole the victory. My fist clenched again but remained in my pocket this time. A contented smile was all I could muster, for there remained work to be done and after conceding right at the end of the first half, the R’s really could not afford for lightning to strike twice.

Yet with still ten minutes to go, the rows around me slowly began to empty. Why oh why? Many of the locals had clearly seen enough but there was still plenty of time for a Saints’ equaliser, indeed possibly a winner. Had they not seen the Rangers play before? It was bizarre as there was still so much to play for and as Robert Green made a quite unbelievable reaction save from Yoshida’s header, the three rows in front of me were almost empty, quite incredible. Oh thee of little faith and maybe a reflection on the newer modern day supporter, who demands instant success and is quite happy to throw it all in when things are not going their way. Maybe it is the world we live in but good things often only come to those who wait, and sometimes you have to take the pain to then enjoy the victories when they come along. Sport and life as one again.

The final whistle brought joy to the Rangers’ travelling support, rare joy it must be said when away trips have invariably ended in disappointment, Stamford Bridge excepted. As the remaining Saints’ fans around me scurried to the exits, Harry bestrode the touchline and in a rare show of emotion hailed the Rangers’ faithful, a photo which subsequently adorned the Sunday papers, particularly poignant after the Dubai furore of the previous few days. The team, the manager and the supporters seemed at one. The train ride home was a pleasure.

Fast forward two weeks and the trip to Villa Park was even bigger than the Saints fixture. Even Michael Owen had tweeted that this was massive, the game of the day. Since beating Saints, Rangers had cast aside Sunderland with a performance of style and verve and all of a sudden the great escape was looking something of a possibility, and Rangers’ plight not appearing quite as forlorn as two weeks previously. Could Rangers win three on the bounce? Certainly the mood emanating from the camp was one of quiet confidence and expectation.

It reflected my feelings too as I made my way to meet two staunch Villans, season ticket holder’s both, for the customary pre-match meal, this time in Aston. Aston itself bears a passing resemblance to Beruit and a place to be generally avoided. Furthermore, a rather imposing looking traditional brick built pub at a large traffic interchange would probably not be on most peoples’ list of idyllic lunchtime venues but The Bartons Arms was an absolute joy. The immaculate dark wooden panels, decorative tiles and stained glass windows gave the feeling of a traditional English dining room from the 1940’s and the local ale and Thai food was exquisite. It transpired that one of the Villans I was with had been coming here since 1979 for his pre-match fare. Local knowledge is a wonderful thing.

Villa Park is similarly from a bygone age, is a magnificent traditional stadium and, like The Bartons Arms, has a wonderful imposing presence. As I took my seat in the upper tier of the North Stand behind the goal alongside the Villans, the view was inspiring.  The Rangers faithful were seated away to my left, just visible through the gloom and rain circling this part of the West Midlands. As the two teams emerged from just beneath me to a cochony of noise, it felt good to be there. The atmosphere was electric and it was the only place to be, even if sat with the enemy. With the floodlights on, Rangers looked resplendent in their famous blue and white hoops, Villa similarly in their famous claret and blue, both illuminating the grey misty scene.

Yet again the Stadium announcer refused to introduce the Rangers’ team to the crowd, showing a complete lack of respect for the opposition and a protocol which seems to be increasingly frequent at Premier League grounds this season. Indeed it further enhances the ‘them’ and ‘us’ feelings at football matches and does seem so unnecessary and a little inciteful.

Rangers were simply excellent in the first half, continuing the confidence of the two recent victories and playing with a style, commitment and shape that Villa could not handle. Jenas swept home the opening goal at the far end and whilst I kept my feelings in check with no fist pumping or displays of outward joy, there was a warm feeling inside of deep satisfaction. My team had come into this cauldron and had literally silenced the natives. The hard core Villans in my area were stunned, their ‘boys’ were being torn apart by the hoops and if it were not for some world class saves by Brad Guzan in the Villa goal, it could have been all over. Indeed Rangers should have been home and dry by half time.  

The Villans surrounding me were becoming irritated and began to direct their vitriol at their lethargic players who were showing nothing, lacking in all inspiration and direction. Tempers were beginning to fray, the language was becoming more coarse by the second, frustration was mounting and just as the clock ticked towards the final minute of the first half and just as the Villa supporters were about to deafen their players with a chorus of half time boos, disaster struck for Rangers. A lack of concentration, seemingly Rangers’ achilles heel this season and an aimless ball into the area suddenly found an unmarked Agbonlahor and it was 1-1, Villa’s only effort on target in the whole of the first half. Everyone around me went up, yet I couldn’t move, I cannot recall feeling so devastated at an opposing team’s goal for such a long time, it felt so unjust, so unfair, so undeserved, like a dagger through the heart. It felt as though those around me must have spotted that I was not sharing in their joy, but maybe in their celebration they did not notice the ‘lone ranger’ in their midst. You can feel very self conscious in situations like that but invariably no-one ever notices, so wrapped up are they in their own celebration. I could hardly speak. How can you make pleasant positive half time conversation after that? I consoled myself that it was only half time but the effect of that one goal felt like it was going to be massive, it felt like the damage had been done. Could the Rangers players pick themselves up, for they must have been feeling equally dumbstruck?

The whole atmosphere around Villa Park changed in an instant. Just like St Mary’s two weeks previously, the mood reversed, but here at Villa Park, to a much greater extent. Villa are a big club, they have pedigree, they have history, the famous old stadium has seen a few comebacks over the years and you could be sure that their supporters would sing their hearts out and get behind their team. From being battered, Villa had received an unlikely lifeline, a sort of ‘get out of jail free’ card and they were not going to let this opportunity pass.

And so it proved, those around me roared their team on from the first minute of the second half and the Villa looked a completely different team, confidence surging through their veins like men on a mission. The volume around me became deafening as the Villa tore into the Rangers, who suddenly resembled lambs in the slaughter house. It was horrible to see. I kept thinking what might have been but my thoughts were being drowned by booming Brummies, not the most congenial accent at the best of times, but when their team were suddenly 3-1 ahead, it was particularly galling.

At this point it was time for the Villa to start goading the Rangers’ support, always worse when you are sat amongst them, and to witness a young lad of no more than 10 sat in front of me giving the Rangers’ fans the one fingered salute made my blood boil, but maybe that’s what football does and really is a sad inditement of our modern society. Fortunately I kept calm, there was nothing to be gained from voicing my opinion, and being sat where I was did not augur well for a safe exit if I had done.

My calmness was rewarded with a slightly fortuitous goal for Andros Townsend for Rangers and I grabbed my friend’s knee in excitement. Goals can do strange things to grown men and all of a sudden it was game on. Adel was on and started pulling the strings as Rangers searched for an equaliser. Those Villans around me sensed the tide changing again and their previous optimism was being replaced by a sudden nervousness and fear. As Rangers piled forward, the crowd became more restless and fidgety, checking watches and imploring the referee to bring the match to an end. The crowd whistles grew louder and louder, many were on their feet as the clock ticked down and, as Rangers’ final effort flew wide, the match was all over.

The Villans all around me breathed a collective sigh of relief, a feeling quickly replaced by one of joy as they all got to their feet in celebration and cheered their heroes off the pitch. I could bear it no longer, something had to give and I slammed my programme down on the back of the seat in front of me in frustration. Losing was bad enough, being sat with the joyous Villans simply made it feel so much worse. How can you mourn defeat when in the company of the victorious ? 

Like the Rangers players before me, I trudged disconsolately from the scene, my head bowed in disappointment. My double header of mixing it with the opposition was over. It was hard going at times and having to withhold all emotion whilst watching two matches of such significance and feeling was an exercise in great restraint and not to be recommended on a regular basis. I can only conclude that sitting with the Saints was satisfying and viewing with the Villa was vile. Fortunately I did not follow with the Fulham!

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