Wednesday, 15 February 2012

20. Southampton FC

Crossing the railway bridge towards St Mary's, home of Southampton FC.
You know the old adage, "If you have nothing nice to say, then don't say anything"? Well, I'm a Pompey fan...

 ...well, go on, I'll try, but if it goes all snidey, please understand! A Saints fan writing about Pompey would find it just as hard to say nice things...

It's just the way of the world.

St Mary's, as viewed from Northam Road.
Southampton FC (2) 2 v 0 (0) Burnley FC
NPower Football League Championship
Saturday 11th February 2011
Admission: £29 (!!!)
Programme: £3 (generally a good read, although the manager's notes were of the vomit-inducing middle-management motivational skills variety: "We are healthy, we are strong, we are focused, we are positive" etc)
Attendance: 24,099
Club shop: Yes, a megastore.
Colours: Red and white stripes / Black / Red v All yellow
National Grid reference: SU4211 / SU4212
Video highlights: Yes, if you're quick, free on the BBC iPlayer!

The statue of local legend Ted Bates, which no longer resembles Milan Mandaric!
This was the hardest ground for me to visit - the one I'd been least looking forward to. The elephant in the room. The monkey on my back. The steaming dumpling in the ice cream.

It wasn't always like this for the supporters of Hampshire's Big Two. My grandparents (and many others) travelled up from Portsmouth to welcome Saints home after they won the FA Cup in 1976. They bought me a celebratory golden flag, which I still have. If the triumph had been the other way round in '76, people would most certainly have taken the train from Southampton Central to cheer Pompey's returning heroes. I very much doubt if that happened in 2008 when Pompey brought the Cup home to Southsea Common.

It was normal for people to watch one team at home one week, the other the next. The residents of both cities are similar - working class, salt of the earth and all that. I know, I've lived in both. For those who diss supporters of the other club, they might as well be shouting at their own reflection in a mirror.

The Northam End.
The violent rivalry only really started in the early 1970s. In a country where casual racism, homophobia and the like were normal, every day occurrences (and nobody really knew these were bad things back then), and drinking and fighting were healthy hobbies for a young man, mere dislike of anyone who wasn't like you and your gang regularly turned nasty. The biggest gangs of all met up on the terraces.

Pompey were on the way down in the 1970s; Saints on an upward trajectory. There was jealousy from the blue half of the county; condescension from the red and white half. Unpleasantness ensued, and it's never really gone away. Southampton became Scummers; Pompey (after several years of being the unoriginal Pompey Scummers) morphed into Skates.

From experience, when Pompey fans and Saints fans meet up one-to-one, they get on just fine. A bit of teasing and ribbing, but no fisticuffs. It's when the other side are an anonymous mass, an abstract concept, that the mutual fear and loathing starts. Working long hours every weekday for next to no reward, desperate to let your frustrations out, it's healthy to scream and shout, no doubt about it, and the "other side" are a better target than people of another race or sexual orientation, etc. For Pompey and Saints fans to tease each other is fine (so long as it's a two-way process and it ain't bullying), fighting isn't. Most of us know this. Numpties don't.

Spot the difference: The Chapel End.
The Dell was a wonderfully quirky ground, randomly designed by MC Escher, then constructed even more haphazardly by five-year-old builders with Duplo. Its impossible angles were filled by noisy fans, even for the most humdrum fixture against the likes of Luton Town or Oxford United. I went there several times (always supporting the opposition, obviously) and always came away knowing I'd been to a "proper" football match at a "proper" football ground. There may be antipathy between Pompey and Saints fans, but I'm sure most rival supporters would have had respect for the other's rabid support in their creaky old grounds.

There's only one creaky old ground left, and it isn't in Southampton.

Waiting patiently for the match to start.
And so to St Mary's, Saints' ten-year-old "new" ground. The charitable might say that it is just like Wembley with the top sliced off. The uncharitable may claim that it has all the character of the inside of a giant red toilet bowl (watch out, here comes Gulliver with his Toilet Duck! Quack quack! Squirt!).

The ground has been built with monetary optimisation in mind. Any ideas of individuality were binned at the design stage (see also just about every other new ground built in the last quarter of a century). The customer experience here is passive. You might as well be sitting on the sofa at home eating a microwave meal on a tray in front of the TV for all the interactivity with the tattooed millionnaires way down on the pitch below. Russ Abbott wouldn't have liked it - he loved a party with a little atmosphere, of which St Mary's is lacking. Holding a seashell to your ear to hear the sea would be more deafening than listening to Saints fans singing in the new stadium. I've known church mice that make more noise.

They do try to sing and shout in the Northam End, but the sound is deadened to virtual non-existence by the time it reaches the Chapel End. You need a fellow using sign language for the deaf on the big screens to understand what they're trying to communicate.

Mustn't disturb the neighbours, eh?

St Mary's rafters. Raised twice today.
Never mind all that, I'm supposed to be writing about the Burnley match here. I sat amongst the enemy, rebelliously wearing as much blue as I could find, as nervous as an orphaned baby zebra on the savannah, desperately hoping none of my Saints-supporting workmates spotted me and revealed me for what I truly am. One did see me, but he's a mellow old fellow - we exchanged nervous glances as we acknowledged each other's presence. He took his seat and nothing was mentioned.

I noticed several Nigel Adkins lookalikes in the nearby seats, which raised an interesting question, similar to the old chestnut about owners looking like their dogs - do football fans come to resemble their club's manager, or does the manager model himself on the predominant look of the club's support? One to ponder as I shave my hair off later and tattoo my own arms, Michael Appleton-style.

Burnley and Saints both like to pass the ball around on the floor, with Saints being slightly more interested in penetrating the opposition defence. The away team, dressed all in yellow, were as pretty as parrots with their passing skills, but about as effective as eleven sleepy kittens when it came to the final third.

The home side scored twice in the first half. A looping header by the excellent Adam Lallana, and a bizarre shinner/possible own goal which took several minutes to cross the line as the Burnley defence stood around arguing amongst themselves about the architectural merits of the new Titanic museum in Southampton city centre. Both times I was forced to stand and clap. I never really understood the concept of gritted teeth before, but after spitting out a couple of mouthfuls of ground-down enamel on Saturday, it's not something I would recommend.

Homeward bound after another satisfying home victory.
An easy win for Saints. They look hard to beat, so they could well stay in the top two until the end of the season. I don't expect I'll go back to St Mary's unless I'm there with Pompey or Havant & Waterlooville. I prefer the unexpected delights of the majority of the local non-league grounds to the bland corporatised matchday experience of St Mary's. Thank chuff Pompey never got their new ground built when they were rolling in Sky money. I would have hated it.

Comments are open for 14 days - after that, I have to approve them (it saves looking back at 50-odd postings for fresh comments). Any sensible comments will be kept. Ribald banter is fine, but any comments mentioning a certain species of flatfish will be deleted.

I'll be at another match on February 25th, weather and health permitting.

No comments:

Post a Comment