There’s been a fair bit about the growing contempt at top-level ticket prices this week. On Monday, Southampton fans were asked to stump up £41 to get into an evening game at Villa and in a few weeks, anyone wishing to watch Watford take on a team of over-awed kids at Fulham will have to pay £30 for the privilege. Big money certainly but that’s what you get at the top end of the pyramid. That right there is the best our blessed sport has to offer. If you want to watch football without the inflated pricing, all you have to do is embrace the grass roots of the sport and take your interest out of the Football League.
I queued up in the drizzle outside the Memorial Stadium, having reluctantly prepared to part with the £20 it took to get into the ground. I had balked at this cost when researching the game the day before, but guilted into attending by the host of Watford-related names and the fact I can see the ground’s South Stand from my toilet (literally, thanks to the controversial decision by my landlord to reject the notion of “blinds”) I had relented to pay the ferryman this toll to take me into my midweek haven.
There’s no idealistic point to be made, no outraged diatribe against modern football other than this: you really shouldn’t have to pay £20 to watch something call the Skrill Premier League, no matter the relative calibre of the teams.
I chose my stand from the unhelpful diagram by the ticket office and made my way in, only to realise that I had committed myself to 90 minutes standing in the only unsheltered area in the ground – a five metre long galley alongside a stand whose construction process can only be described as ‘plonked’. It stands like a monolith, towering above any other structure in the vicinity, and stretching for the central two-thirds of the pitch, as if halfway through building they simply ran out of money for the rest – a scenario that’s probably not too far from the truth.
Blinded by the ticket price, I had been fooled into forgetting that this was not a salubrious ground of the type I am treated to on my Watford travels. No London Road this. How ignorant of me to assume that £20 would get me something more than standing in the pissing rain at pitch level. My big-time attitude would end that instant.
Using my charm and wiles I was able to sneak into the cowshed of a home end. From there I could dry off and admire the Memorial Stadium for what it was. It’s by no means pretty, but there is a distinct charm in its completely befuddled nature. Opposite the statuesque leviathan described earlier was a main stand plucked from a racecourse, or maybe a pier’s theatre pavilion. Fronted by a small terrace the bulk of the stand is dedicated to boxes, dolled up in a Victorian fashion with a creamy façade to trick North Bristol’s moneymen into thinking they’re heading into some vaudeville.
And then there’s the cowsheds. Home to the great and the good. Like me.
Anyway. Football and Watford.
With Bernard Mensah starting on the bench for Barnet, my interest for the bulk of the game was firmly on Rovers’ lanky striker – Nathan Blissett. I must admit that the career of Luther’s nephew had completely passed me by until this evening. Signed a couple of years ago from Romulus, a Spartan League outfit in the West Midlands, by Kidderminster, he has spent time on loan at Cambridge and Hednesford before Rovers took him on loan last week, with a permanent deal in place for January.
This was Blissett’s home debut after he scored in his Rovers bow at Chester on Saturday. On this evidence, his lack of impact on the game at Conference level is puzzling. The 24 year old has a real touch of the Gifton Noel-Williamses about him: at six foot four he is a tall bloke, and was utilised well as a target man by the Gas, but does not play in the usual mould of a lower league big man. He is mobile as well as strong. He may not have the most balletic of movement, but he is able to awkwardly haul himself around the pitch, winning almost very header that comes his way, and on this occasion showed an ability to always move the ball on to a teammate. He only had one real chance to show his prowess in the box and his athletic, improvised overhead kick was only stopped by an even more athletic clearance off the line by the backtracking defender.
That clearance made me think about how weird partiality is. Standing in the corner behind the goal it was quite clear to me that the Barnet defender, Sam Togwell, put the ball over the bar with his head. The three thousand or so Rovers fans around me, however, disagreed, exploding as one in appeal for a penalty and red card. The referee, unsighted, was prepared to appease them, before noticing his linesman flagging for a corner, which after consolation, was awarded.
As possibly the lone neutral in the end it was completely evident that the correct decision had been made, but to the home support, desperate to see their team – on top and attacking relentlessly after going a goal ahead early on – pick off the league leaders, there was absolutely no question that they had been cheated. And they made that point. Again and again and again. They spewed no end of vitriol at the linesman: some poor bloke who had spent a Tuesday schlepping down the M4 to stand in the cold, pissing night, only to be shouted at for getting a decision completely right.
So blinded by ambition, and so distracted by injustice were Rovers fans, and thus their side, that they completely lost their way, never again having the dominant foothold in the game that they had held for the first half hour.
Something to think about next time a controversial decision goes against Watford. Though, in that case, we will almost certainly being cheated.
The Barnet side that arrived top of the Skrill included two ex-Hornets.
Lee Cook, winding down his career at North London started on his natural left wing, where he did very little. I liked Cook a lot when he was at Watford, and unlike most Watford fans, my good opinion of him didn’t diminish when he left for ‘better things’ at QPR, but he put in the performance you’d expect of an aging showman – happy to wave his white-booted feet in very short bursts of on-the-ball trickery, but also quite content to reserve his energy in a twenty yard circle in the opponent’s half. As the game went on and Barnet made changes he was moved into the middle of midfield where he played nice, short passes as the Bees failed to find any penetrating impetus, but did little else.
Andy Yiadom was quite the opposite. Released at the end of his scholarship in 2010, the striker turned winger turned full-back has carved out a nice little role for himself on the right of Barnet’s defence and has made over a hundred appearences since signing from Braintree in January 2012. Yiadom is clearly one of the better footballers at Barnet and has blistering pace. Unfortunately the sopping conditions and his debut keeper, Raphael Spiegel – on loan from West Ham and possibly the worst kicker of a football that I have ever seen – limited his effectiveness as a direct running threat from the back, but he was always keen to join in on attacks and get crosses in.
Bernard Mensah was introduced in the 60th minute, with the scores locked at 1-1 after Luisma Villa’s long-range free-kick had cancelled out Matty Taylor’s early strike for Rovers. The game had reached an impasse by the time Mensah came on, and the second half played out as a dreary affair with little cohesion from either side. Because of this it is perhaps hard to judge Mensah’s performance, but it was unimpressive nonetheless. There was very little conviction in his runs and his link-up play with his strike partner, ‘Big’ John Akinde – a battering ram with very little subtlety – was virtually non-existent. In his half an hour on the pitch Mensah maybe touched the ball five times, and showed very little energy to increase that amount, incurring the wrath of the Barnet bench a few times for his apparent lack of energy.
In his defence, by this point it was completely tipping it down, and in the cowshed it sounded as if a gang of local farmers had come to take back their property and were taking a bunch of chainsaws to the iron roof. As the game drifted into wet oblivion, it’s perhaps fair that Mensah’s performance did not show the flair and energy that we’ve seen from him previously. It certainly wasn’t evident in most players on the pitch.
That was until the 93rd minute, when Angelo Balanta – an ex-QPR wonderkid – bundled home a hurried Rovers corner. The ball cannoned back away from the goal, with the eyes of the ground following it, before the referee noticed the linesman on the far side flagging for a goal. The ground erupted, the Rovers bench emptied as subs and players stormed onto the pitch in celebration, and no doubt, in the stand behind the goal, the few travelling Barnet fans readied their apoplexy at the sheer injustice handed to them by a crooked official.