I TRAVEL a lot to watch football, on business and just for the hell of it. Mostly, I return home enriched by the experience, but sometimes, I am just thankful to be back. On occasion, football lets you down, but you pay your money and take your chance, as they say. It is part of the contract between the fan and the game.
In the space of a few days, I experienced the plus and minus side of following football at various levels. On Sunday May 21, I was at Wembley for Non-League finals day. What a great day’s entertainment, for just 25 quid. An excellent atmosphere, lots of goals, plenty of goodwill and I even had a message from someone via Facebook who recognised me at Wembley from my Hartlepool article in the NLP – there’s fame for you!!
The FA were really trying on Non-League Finals Day, installing real ale “pop-up” pubs in each corner of the ground. If you wanted to stereotype non-league football, you could easily categorise it along with steam trains and CAMRA disciples, and the number of beards and beer festival t-shirts on display seemed to add fuel to that generalisation. Somebody had clearly told the FA that if you plant a real ale bar in the stadium, the non-league fraternity will flock to places like “The Linden”. Like the day, it seemed to be effective, even if a fiver for a pint reminded us that Wembley is, after all, a commercial venture.
My pal and I came away from Wembley really satisfied with what we’d seen, and personally, I was pleased for York City, if only because my youngest son is a closet Minstermen fan after spending three years at University of York. And even the defeated fans remained in good spirit after the two games. You had to feel sorry for both Cleethorpes and Macclesfield, whose fans gave them tremendous support. The whole day was played in a marvellous spirit and I hope the FA consider it a success.
Four days later, I was in Stockholm for the UEFA Europa League final. It was supposed to be the high point of the season for me. I am not a Manchester United fan, but I am an admirer of Ajax Amsterdam, going back to the 1970s.
I always had this romantic vision of Ajax, dating back to my first encounter with them in 1971. With any club that enjoys mass support, you naturally get problems. If you are savvy enough, you know how to keep away from the wrong people – I went to enough Chelsea away games in the mid-1970s to learn that.
With security understandably high at the event, there was a set of barriers at the foot of the steps leading up to the stadium concourse. All ticket holders had to show their ticket for checking before being allowed to climb the stairs. My ticket was grasped firmly in my right hand. Then, as I was about to step forward, two arms held my shoulders, and as I adjusted my feet my ticket was whipped out of my hand. I had been targetted and successfully mugged.
Swedish police were helpful, but powerless to influence anything. Manchester United stewards, who had been brought in to help crowd control, also tried to help even going as far as trying to see if anyone had a spare ticket for the game, but my hopes were slipping away. The policeman managed to persuade the gate staff to allow me in to explain my situation to the ticket information desk, but even though I had my letter from UEFA with my order details, I was told they could do nothing.
I hovered around the area where my ticket had been stolen in a vain attempt to identify the criminal and in a last, forlorn hope that somebody might come up with a spare ticket. Finally, I cut my losses and left the scene of the crime.
There were thousands of Ajax fans without tickets. As I walked back, I must have looked a forlorn figure, just trudging through the mess left behind in the street where I was staying – ironically the UEFA fan zone was sited in that very location – I could not help thinking about how different I felt after watching the FA Vase and FA Trophy finals.
What a contrast, and if I needed any reminder why a lot of people reject big-time football in favour of the local game, it was surely found in the beautiful city of Stockholm on a balmy evening in May. At the same time, the events in Manchester a few days earlier put things into perspective – I had lost my ticket, not my life.
This article appeared in the Non-League Paper on June 4, 2017