LFW Awaydays – Birmingham, Villa Park
Saturday, 18th Feb 2012 21:34 by Awaydays
A rare midweek awayday in the Premiership took the LoftforWords travelling party up to Birmingham for a match with Aston Villa in January.
On the Pitch
Footballers like to play golf. In fact most footballers seem to spend more time playing golf than they do actually playing football – two hours of training in the morning, four hour round of golf in the afternoon. The England team Glenn Hoddle managed had more chance of winning the Ryder Cup than it did the 1998 World Cup given the respective times the players dedicated to both pursuits. < br> Occasionally, once retired, footballers believe they’re so good at golf that they can actually be professional at that as well. Julian Dicks is a famous example, and our own Roy Wegerle gave it a crack, or a swing, as well. But their efforts reminded me rather of QPR’s attempts to play Premiership football. There was talent there, and occasionally it would shine through, but in reality the people who’d been playing professional golf for years just had a consistency and level of ability that they couldn’t match. They were playing at it basically, and I’m beginning to wonder if our team is currently doing the same thing. Talking the talk, walking like an arthritic hippo.
Here QPR actually looked like a Premiership team for a while. They drove nicely off the tee and executed their short game better than they have for a while, surging into an early two goal lead thanks to a fabulous first goal for the club from Djibril Cisse and an own goal from Stephen Warnock so comical I was still chuckling about it on the tube into town three days later. For one glorious moment, from our position high in the side stand at the far end of the ground, it looked like Richard Dunne may have been the culprit which would have elevated him to second on the QPR top goal scorer chart for the season after his effort at Loftus Road. Alas, it was Warnock. Still funny though. You wonder about the thought process that goes into such goals. Anyway, if that’s not an excuse to have another look at this I don’t know what is.
But then, like golf, it becomes a game of basics and mental strength and the people who have been doing this for a long time tend to fare better when things boil down to this. Hold your nerve, hole your tricky eight yard putts, keep possession of the football, don’t drop too deep, don’t over think the situation just keep doing the basics of your job. Alas QPR were neither physically nor mentally strong enough to hold out against their opponents despite Villa being without a home win in five attempts, their fans getting agitated, and the confidence draining from their players. QPR gave the ball away with increasing regularity, and when the much maligned Rob Hulse went off early in the second half and left the burden of holding the ball in the Villa half entirely on the shoulders of a tiring Cisse, the ball retention and pass completion dipped to an embarrassing level for a supposed top flight team. This meant QPR sank deeper, and deeper, and deeper until it got to the point where Villa would have been entitled to charge the back four for seats on the front row of the Holte End.
Rangers failed to make it to half time with the lead intact, Darren Bent halving the deficit before the break, and surrendered the lead completely with ten minutes left to play. Again a lack of balls and leadership was evident. Stay physical, retain the ball, stay in shape, stay high up the field - QPR did none of this, and there didn’t appear to be anybody out there on the field telling them to do so.
Against a team out of form and low on confidence, managed by a clueless oaf so miserly he triumphed a 1-0 home defeat by Man City in which they failed to make it out of their own half for 88 minutes as a “well executed game plan”, QPR surrendered a relatively straightforward three points. For all the positives, and there were plenty in the QPR performance, I couldn’t help but think this is the sort of thing teams that end up relegated do.
Worth a note for the referee Neil Swarbrick, relegated from the Premiership list for a month after his abymsla handling of the QPR v Norwich match and then appointed straight back to Rangers for his first game back in the top flight on the say so of a sadist. He awarded QPR three free kicks in 95 minutes of football. Three.
Scores >>> QPR performance 6/10 >>> Opposition performance 6/10 >>> Referee performance 4/10
In the stand
“A waste of a club” is how I described Aston Villa in the pre-match rambles, and by God it’s that and so much more. Aston Villa are like that girl you see with the high IQ, cracking body and wicked sense of humour wasting away in the corner of a Wetherspoons in a baggy jumper while her Chelsea supporting boyfriend tells racist jokes that make his baseball-cap-wearing mates laugh into their pints of Carling and call him a “ledge.” You want to go over to that girl, pick her up by the shoulders and scream in her face: “What is wrong with you? You’re wasting your life you dizzy bint.”
But it’s not your fight to pick and, even if it was, the thought of being beaten into a bloody pulp by five Stone Island wearing chavs in the smoking area of a Wetherspoons doesn’t sound like my idea of a good time, even if the girl did subsequently look back on it as a turning point in her life. QPR have enough problems of their own without hunting down issues elsewhere in the country but for the love of God there’s a giant here waiting to be woken up by anybody with any imagination and ambition whatsoever.
As you walk down Witton Road from Aston train station it’s much like walking through any other inner-city slum in any other of Britain’s many shitholes. And then, as you emerge from the reinforced concrete underpass and the thin, toxic smoke floating out of the burger van drifts away into the night, there it is; Villa Park. You’re greeted first by the sight of The Holte, a beautiful old brick clubhouse that dates back to the nineteenth century and looks absolutely resplendent after a refit five years ago. History seeps from every orifice of Villa, founded 137 years ago, and The Holte is the perfect gateway into this famous old club. The Springbok it is not.
Once in the ground it’s hard to believe QPR are in the same league. There are more than 42,000 seats in the place, with the colossal Holte End towering over the field to the left of the away section which this season was located across two tiers of the side stand as opposed to behind the goal where we have been for recent cup meetings. Elsewhere in the city lurks a fine training ground and highly successful youth academy. On the pitch the manager picks Emile Heskey wide on the left.
Despite the fact that this is a club clearly being left to drift, with a team playing well within itself under the guidance of a manager who built his reputation in the park standard football north of the border and then somehow fell into this job despite two previous Premiership relegations when everybody else turned them down, 32,000 people came out on a freezing Wednesday night to watch the team play. And Tony Fernandes talks about potential at QPR.
“You are embarrassing,” the QPR fans sang when they led 2-0, and the Villa fans laughed and joined in. There’s a sense of humour here, these are the supporters who once prepared a banner for david O’Leary that read “We’re not fickle, we just don’t like you.” They are a little fickle though, these are also the supporters who weren’t too sorry to see the back of Martin O’Neill because they “only” finished sixth and he lacked the ability to take them further. O’Neill is now the success story of the year at Sunderland while Villa languish seven places lower in fifteenth.
Fickle or not, even when their team hauled it back to 2-2 you sensed the fans knew it meant little. In fact in the long run it will probably keep McLeish employed longer, allowing a mistaken belief that the players are fighting for him and showing spirit to fester in the minds of the club’s decision makers. They might, in the long run, have been better losing 2-0.
This is a club with the infrastructure, history and support to be a top six side in the Premiership. Everything that has been achieved at Spurs could easily have been achieved here with the same ownership and managerial appointments. Norwich, Stoke, Swansea, West Brom and Fulham are all higher in the league at the moment. Oh for somebody with the balls to pick this dizzy bint up by the shoulders and turn her life around.
Scores >>> QPR support 7/10 >>> Home support 6/10 >>> Overall atmosphere 6/10 >>>> Stadium 9/10 >>>> Police and stewards 7/10
In the pub
Glancing down the fixture list and spotting a midweek game in Birmingham, Neil and myself had long since resolved to take a half day at work and get the train up in the afternoon for this one. As the day drew closer that extended out to a full day off, then two days off to enable a session, then three days off and in the end I don’t think either of us bothered much with work at all that week.
This enabled us to start nice and early in the sports bar and grill next to Marylebone station where we found a re-run of the previous night’s action from the African Nations Cup. Now I find this tournament to be like a more physical version of the women’s game – good enthusiasm, poor fundamentals, abysmal goalkeeping. I’m told, possibly by a racist, that the paucity of quality African goalkeepers is because when they grow up playing in their villages it’s often on a patch of ground with no goals so a goalkeeper isn’t really required and therefore no Africans actually start playing there until their mid teens. Like I say, I can’t guarantee that wasn’t a dim and distant relation of John Terry, although as he didn’t try to sell me a line of coke, steal anything from me or shag me I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he wasn’t.
While we were sitting and watching 20 reasonable outfield players and two mentally deranged circus acts it became clear that the gentleman on the table next to us was in fact being interviewed for a job at the place. Now, job interview in a pub, how would you dress for that? He’d clearly thought about it, and ultimately thought about it for too long. He’d gone for a suit and tie as per etiquette, but tried to make it a little more relaxed and ended up with a purple shirt and pattern tie which made him look a little bit like the Meat Safe Murderer from the classic Monkey Dust series. He’d also gone with brown felt shoes the poor lad. Anyway I’m aware that I’m discussing outfits for a second successive awayday and having travelled everywhere with Neil and his webbed feet shoes this season I’m hardly in a position to judge so we’ll leave it there. Might pop in after our trip to West Brom and see if he got the gig.
After alighting at Snow Hill we found our way into the Old Joint Stock Theatre, a real ale pub with a wide selection of pies available. I would call the pies excellent, mine was certainly very good, but young Tom had a bit of an upset tummy in the night after his which means either his had been left out in the warm for too long or he needs a midweek training camp abroad to prepare him for future LoftforWords trips. I’m inclined to believe it’s the former for now, benefit of the doubt to the new comer there.
The Old Joint Stock is set in one cavernous room that is attached to an old Victorian theatre. It was built in 1864 and is grade-two listed, sitting in the shadow of the city cathedral just across the way. It’s one of those places you can’t help but think is a bit wasted as a pub – if any space can be wasted as a pub. It’s a Fullers pub so you won’t be surprised to hear it looked like an old railway station, smelt like an old toilet and used that weird pink spray that immediately turns to super glue once applied to a wooden surface to clean the tables. But it was hard to argue with the price and quality of the drinks and food or the look of the place though so maybe we’ll be back.
Scores >>> Pubs 6/10 >>> Atmosphere 7/10 >>> Food 8/10 >>>> Cost 7/10
On the road
It took QPR 15 years to return to the Premiership the last time they dropped out of it so who knows, if we fail to beat the drop this season then next time we play at Villa Park we might be able to get there in 12 minutes on a nuclear powered bullet train.
Personally I can’t wait for the high speed rail line and look forward to sweeping through what used to be a primary school’s playground in Greenford at 700 miles per hour although as ever it seems to have been under-costed and the benefits overestimated. The words ‘white’ and ‘elephant’ are being bandied around a lot but for me the more concerning elephant is that other giant beast loitering in the corner of the room while politicians debate this issue completely oblivious to its presence. Sooner or later somebody will surely realise the big problem with all of this which is; who in their right mind wants to get to Birmingham quickly?
I mean when have you ever heard anybody anywhere say “Oh I can’t wait to get to Birmingham me, if only there were a quicker way”? You need the two hours it currently takes on the normal horse drawn train just to prepare yourself for the horror of the place. Maybe the quick trains will only run one way, enabling people to escape at speed but approach the ‘second city’ with the same caution and reluctance they do now.
Anyway if the bloody thing ever does get built it seems likely that only the five richest kings of Europe and Colin Speller will be able to afford a ticket on them and so things are unlikely to change. People who know nothing about trains will pay somewhere between £30 and £70 to sit on a Virgin train to Birmingham from Euston, people who know what they’re doing will go from Marylebone for a tenner, which is exactly what we did here.
It’s slightly longer that way, but much cheaper and less crowded and we had important business to attend to anyway – selecting a worst ever QPR XI. There’s probably a future article in this so I’ll keep it brief for now but basically the rule was to select a player you had to have seen him play live in the Hoops which, as a group of people aged between 26 and 30-something, did rule out Gus Caeser and anybody earlier than him. I insisted that Karl Ready was included and wanted Matthew Rose in as well but Neil was adamant Georges Santos had to feature somewhere so thank God for Ian Holloway’s penchant for picking centre halves in the middle of midfield which opened our options somewhat. In the end I think only the goalkeeper spot was filled with a unanimous decision.
The team we came up with was: Ademole Bankole, John Curtis, Zesh Rehman, Karl Ready, Christer Warren, Tony Scully, Georges Santos, Matthew Rose, Paul Bruce, Sammy Koejoe, Mark Hateley.
The selection of Hateley was contentious, but he beat the likes of Brett Angell, Bob Taylor and others to the position owing to the importance placed on the signing at the time, the effect of it on the team and the amount of money it cost. Christ I still remember sitting behind the goal at Villa Park for a League Cup tie which Andy Townsend settled from long range watching Hateley warm up and thinking everything would be alright when he was fit to play. Anyway, many arguments and bottles of lager later we arrived in Birmingham Snow Hill.
Sadly the line had ceased to operate by the time we made it back to the city centre after the game so we were forced to bleed money through the nose (£20 as opposed to the £5 we’d paid to get there) for the last train of the evening back from Wolverhampton to London via the house of every single family that lives between the two places. A strange train this one – high speed, state of the art, running every night and yet absent from all departure boards at New Street, completely empty apart from a few stray QPR fans old enough to know better and never travelling faster than a walking pace the whole way home.
We’d come reasonably close to missing it despite having more than an hour after the match. Heading back to Aston station we found it locked, full and a throng of people queuing up outside loudly moaning in Brummie: “Whoi didn’t we soign Seesaiy?” They all seemed absolutely flabbergasted when I decided to cut my losses and hail a taxi for the group, a move that brought about more moaning in Brummie tones: “Wheres he gowin? A taxee, that’s gowin te set him back a bit.”
We had to get a taxi at the other end as well because even London shuts down sometimes and Euston was a pretty lonely place to be at 2am when we eventually trundled back into the smoke. Three cabs, two rough looking prostitutes, it was a tougher decision than it perhaps should have been.
Here’s a quiz question for you, name our taxi driver. He told Neil and I that he played semi professional for Hendon in the early 1960s and back then QPR would pick semi-professional players to play Division 3 midweek games when they were unable to raise a team. He said he’d played “five or six” times for the R’s and that he was Alan Mullery’s cousin. And Barry Fry’s cousin. And Bobby Moore’s cousin. I would say you couldn’t make it up, but then I suspect he probably did.
Home before dawn was a decent result all in all.
Scores >>> Journey 7/10 >>> Cost 8/10
Pictures – Action Images
Photo: Action Images
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