There are getting to be a few traditions on my English soccer trips. One is…
Watching a Game at West Bromwich Albion
I have now had two great times watching games at West Bromwich Albion, and I think I am going to start encouraging more people to go there.
It’s such a terrific stadium for one thing, and a tremendous set of fans. My first time there, I was taken in by some locals and turned into a temporary baggie. This time in 2017, I was coming back for a League Cup game, and because I didn’t do a particularly good job of taking notes for my book the first time around. And hell, it was Tuesday, I was in town, and so was Manchester City.
I love the feeling of cup games — in this case the League Cup. It’s an almost pointless competition whose days would seem to be numbered. It gets less respect than the FA Cup, to the point where everybody just plays their reserves, except for the really small teams who figure they can at least get a piece of somebody’s big gate, maybe take a scalp from a higher-up team, and who knows, maybe make a magical run to Wembley.
But West Brom is one of these kind of funny clubs to me. They’re a classic in-the-middle club. As important as money is now, they aren’t going to win the league, unless they slide into the once-every-20-years, Leicester City / Blackburn Rovers / Nottingham Forest role. But that’s not much to count on. So, with all due respect, what’s it about at West Brom?
Or, put another way, why not go for it in the cups?
I guess their manager was thinking the same thing for this League Cup game, because he put out a pretty strong team. Or that could be because they were playing Man City, whose reserve team would probably finish mid-table in the Premier League.
Still, I just walked up to the ticket office and grabbed a seat for all of £20. Try that for a Premier League game sometime! Then I had my traditional walk around the ground, during which I finally tried “jacket potatoes”:
I had seen them around and always wondered what they were, so I went for it.
Now, admittedly, a football ground probably isn’t the best place to try any new cuisine, but still: based on the evidence, a jacket potato is a baked potato … full stop. I got one with cheese, and that was it: it had cheese on it. Kind of a damp squib of a meal, as Brits might say about some of the games I’ve seen.
I headed for my seat in The Hawthorns, which is bigger than it looks from the street, I believe because the pitch is below street level. It only seats 26,000, but it sure feels bigger than that. It’s also cozy but modern, and can get quite loud. There is even a Bible verse along the top of one stand, which apparently comes from a 1970s game that got moved to a Sunday because of electrical troubles at the stadium.
Anyway, it being a cup game, Man City had a whole end to themselves and nearly filled it, so it was a good atmosphere.
Elsewhere, I saw more kids than a league game would typically have, and more dates, so it’s a fun vibe. And while people want to win, nobody’s too worked up about it.
City came out and had the ball, it seemed, all the time. They’re really good, and the ball seems to dance around among their feet. Their passes are slick, their moves are dangerous, and everything looks effortless and stylish.
I was thinking about this when my neighbor said something to me, but I didn’t catch a word through his accent, so I just nodded. He said something else a few minutes later, and I nodded again. Then I decided this was too good a chance to pass up, so I went for it.
It’s almost like trying out my Italian or something, attempting some football chatter with a local, knowing I might say something kinda dumb, and with my accent I’ll probably have to repeat myself anyway. So I leaned in and said, “It seems like City’s had the ball for about 20 minutes.”
“Sorry?” he said. Figured.
I said it again, perhaps more slowly, and he said “Well, that’s what happens when you spend £250 million for the year instead of £25 million.”
So it begins.
I asked how long he’d been coming to games, and he said a few years — in a way that I knew was classic British understatement. Wasn’t long before he said he was at a Cup Final at Wembley when West Brom played City in 1970, and lost 2-1. “I was there in ‘68, as well,” he said, then added with a wink, “We won that one!”
“It sure is fun seeing them win something, isn’t it,” I said, then told him about Portland’s victory in the 2015 MLS Cup. When I told him we’re the team that has the guy with the chainsaw, he perked up and said, “Oh, I seen them!”
We went on to discuss the distances here versus there, like the fact that West Brom’s biggest rival, Aston Villa, is something like four miles away, and for us 170 miles is a local derby. We compared the fan experiences, the costs, the competitiveness, the level of play, and we agreed that Yaya Toure is a wanker.
Oh, right, the game: City scored in about three minutes, raising the prospect of a romp. But West Brom dug in. Their goalkeeper, who gets some time with the national team, was great. Their attacks mostly consisted of booming it up the pitch and hoping for the best, which didn’t work, but eventually the defensive effort told, and the game evened out, then West Brom got one! Now we’re having a game, alright.
There was singing from the home fans, and “We forgot that you were here” from the visitors, and Toure, the big wanker, went down like he’d been shot but miraculously recovered — heeeeeyyyy! — and then West Brom hit the crossbar and then City went down and Leroy Sane scored an amazing goal to put them back up. It was literally that quick. City are unreal.
Then West Brom really went for it, and brought on a couple of starters, and they really should have equalized. One guy had a pretty bad miss, and they hit the post in injury time, and City killed it off for a 2-1 win.
Along the way, City did a song about their manager, Guardiola, to the “Glad All Over” tune they sing at Crystal Palace. And they have a good one about Sergio Aguero, as well. West Brom also sang the Bible verse at one point, although I didn’t realize that’s what it was until I researched this post. I forgot to record any of these because I was having so much fun talking to my new friend.
Here are the official highlights from the game:
Once it was over, in typical English fashion, we immediately just shook hands and went off into the night. He said, “Enjoy the rest of your tour,” and I said, “I hope you get back to Wembley,” and I was off. I got some chips while I walked down to the bus station, and about 45 minutes after the final whistle I was lying in bed, feeling most grateful to be back on tour.