Thursday, January 27

I wanna go home…

Birmingham 3 West Ham 1 (Carling Cup, after extra time)

It’s a long walk across the urban wasteland of Birmingham to get to St Andrew’s from the Holiday Inn, but like a member of the SAS I want to know my escape route. Riot police are everywhere and outside the stadium there’s some trouble kicking off already.

DC’s pulled out due to work commitments, but Big Joe’s there with his brother-in-laws Stuart and Kev. There’s a good atmosphere in the away end and a Bobby Moore banner drifts across the Gill Merrick Stand.

In the absence of Sullivan, Gold and Brady, we wonder what would happen on The Apprentice if the manager of a team failed to turn up for a task. Surely even Stuart ‘The Brand’ Baggs might actually elect to be there. Don’t they realise the fans have a lonely trip home to Essex if we lose too?

We play really well in the first half. As we’re in row three it feels as if we’re playing too, and you can feel the pace of the game and the commitment of both sets of players. Tomkins and Upson are dominant at the back, Bridge looks like a proper left back, Boa gets stuck in, Hines has a couple of efforts saved, Cole blazes over and Noble, Parker and Spector are running midfield.

After 31 minutes Cole lets the ball run past two defenders and wallops a fantastic strike into the top corner and I find myself high-fiving with a stranger who looks like Smithy from Gavin and Stacey. Always believe! 3-1 up. Surely we can’t blow this?

Hines hits the post after a clever turn and you just feel that if we can get a second that will be it.

But it’s not over at half-time and Birmingham will be getting the McCleish hairdryer. I tell Joe that I have a feeling bloody Lee Bowyer will score at some stage, as all our ex-players inevitably do against us.

Birmingham bring on the ten-foot tall Zigic, who makes Peter Crouch look the height of David Sullivan. Sure enough he nods it down for Gardner to strike the post.

It’s route one, but we struggle to cope. Green makes a couple of great saves, but when we half clear a corner the ball falls on the half volley to Lee Bowyer who sends a fantastic strike into the top of the net. Why couldn’t he ever do that for us?

It’s getting really cold. The home fans are noisier and horribler than ever now, singing their theme song about the end of the road. It’s an intimidating cauldron despite our best efforts with Bubbles and sure enough, after another corner, Johnson gets ahead of Upson to power home a header. Why can’t we ever defend set pieces?

Grant makes a bizarre substitution, bringing off the pacy Hines for Kieron Dyer, who hasn’t played in weeks. “Dyer to save us?” I text to Matt in disbelief, which, for the record, he later tries to spin into a prediction, which it wasn't, Your Honour.

Matt is suffering a long night of the soul in the Lucky Pub sending texts like “ Dyer is useless… crap team manager and owners we will lose and we deserve to… why can’t grant sod off so we can have a manager who can coach a team… when are we better after half time? when do his subs ever come off?”

By the end of the night he may well have completed his great text novel, a sort of West Ham version of Under the Volcano.

It’s level, but we still know that another Hammers goal will take us through. Scotty scoops wide and for all Faubert and Spector’s crosses from the right we can’t create that chance.

Riot police with shields obscure our view for the last five minutes as Birmingham hit the inside of the post again. Spector goes down the wing and something almost happens but is obscured by a policeman’s backside.

So it’s extra time. You’ve lost it once lads, now go out and lose it again. Sure enough on 94 minutes Gardner fires home from the edge of the box. It’s a fine strike but the otherwise immaculate Green knows he should have got to it.

A mournful dirge comes up from the away end: “I WANNA GO HOME! I WANNA GO HOME! BIRMINGHAM’S A SHITHOLE! I WANNA GO HOME!”

Yet if we could peg it back to 3-2 we’d go through on away goals at the end of extra time. The ball breaks to Dyer on the edge of the box and he wafts a delicate volley over the bar. Great chance and symptomatic of his Hammers career.

We know it’s over when Grant brings on Benni McCarthy for Specs. Green saves excellently in a one-on-one with Murphy, and Cole has an overhead kick saved fairly easily.

Jerome stamps on Tomkins at the end, the riot police surround the pitch again. And it’s all over with an explosion of home noise and group hugs from Bowyer and co.

It gets worse after the game. Rather than keep us in the stand the police kettle us behind a row of police vans in the street and keep us there until 11 o’clock — long enough to miss the last train to London.

Birmingham have plenty of decent fans, but not the Herberts who, even though they’ve just got to Wembley for the first time in 50 years, still want to fight us. A few come through a small gap between two police vans and there are skirmishes with some West Ham fans. A coin hits my shoulder as missiles rain down on us and we’re regaled with “cockney bastard” insults. Police helicopters sweep the streets with searchlights in an Orwellian vista. It all seems as out of date as Andy Gray and Richard Keys’ views on women.

As we freeze outside, a text arrives from Nigel: “Just as well we pre-registered for the final.”

“I see Sullivan and Gold have laid on the Bentleys for us,” quips Joe, as we wait forever by a train embankment. “But at least we don’t live here.”

What if Piquionne and Obinna hadn’t been suspended? What if the second leg had been at Upton Park? Would it have been us who got the third goal? But no, we didn’t deserve it on our second half showing.

Eventually we’re released. We search for Joe’s brother-in-law’s car in an estate, but can’t find it and it looks like we might be marooned in Helmand Province forever. But finally we find the motor and escape into the night.

I’m dropped off by the set of Blade Runner (or is the Bull Ring?) and get back to the Holiday Inn, unfortunately in time to see the highlights, but at least it’s warm. A boiler/nuclear reactor/aircraft engine rumbles above my bed until 4 am, almost as if it's a disgruntled Hammers' fan.

A few other pallid West Ham fans emerge for breakfast, where they’re playing, appropriately, Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of.

Oh well. At least we can now concentrate on the FA Cup and cementing our place at the bottom of the league.


matt said...

And of course it is the ground where we last got relegated. To those who suffered on both occasions, I salute you. As for the Dyer text, I saw it just after he fell over and they went on and scored, and just before he missed the open goal that would have taken is through. Suffice to say, we have probably never had a player with a more appropriate name.

I hope we play the reserves on Sunday, and concentrate on Blackpool. See you in Ken's.

Pete May said...

Seventeen arrests and quite a bit of aggro according to the Guardian website - although the whole police operation created an intimidating atmosphere from the start. And why they couldn't keep the Irons fans in the ground at the end is baffling. Birmingham is officially my least favourite away ground.

Steve Rapport said...

How do you spell gnnnrrr?

Pete May said...

Michelle comments via email:

Nice one, Pete. It would have been comforting to know that you were there in the kettle, and we could have given you a lift back to London!

royston hammer said...

Outside after the game felt like I had gone back in time - especially when I bumped into Shane Barber!

Pete May said...

Shame Barber - now there's a name from the past, Presumable On a Mission...