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Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Some football grounds can be very intimidating for the away team. The famous ‘This is Anfield’ sign in Liverpool’s tunnel has sent many visiting players weak at the knees, while Millwall have the message ‘This is The Lion’s Den’ as the last thing anyone sees before going onto their pitch.
It’s not like that at Reading. On Saturday, Norwich City were flanked onto the field by a group of children carrying flags which read ‘Waitrose’.
Reading have a sponsorship deal with the well-known supermarket and that, together with the shiny purpose-built stadium on a business park just off the M4, makes it feel like the most middle class football experience going. This feeling is further enhanced by the professionalism of the stewards. It felt more like checking into a nice hotel than getting ready to cover a football match as they all knew immediately where we needed to park and collect the golden tickets that are Premier League press passes. The whole process was carried out with the minimum of fuss and a fair few smiles.
It sounds simple, but it was a refreshing change from the usual away day routine. At many grounds, winding down the car window and cheerily greeting the first high-viz jacket in sight with something like “Good afternoon, I’m Chris from BBC Radio Norfolk, where would you like me to park?” is just the start of negotiations. The most common responses are either a shrug, a reluctant muttering about having to call a supervisor, or a gradual turning of pages on a clipboard which you just know is going to end with “You’re not on my list”.
An afternoon at the Madejski Stadium is a reminder of how much top-flight football has changed since the influx of all that TV money which started with the advent of the Premier League in the 1990s. The cost of match tickets, the requirement for all-seater stadia and the growing number of hospitality boxes at grounds are just a few of the factors which make it difficult to hold on to the traditional notion of it being the working man’s game.
Some of those changes have been for the better. No one really wants a return to the days when testosterone totally ruled the terraces and a football ground was not a place for a family day out, but neither should it be a completely sterile experience.
When stadiums start to resemble the foyers at multiplex cinemas or a cross channel ferry on a still day, one longs for the character of the brick-built, roofless toilets at Barnsley’s Oakwell ground.
Many of the best travellers’ tales that fans like to share are born in having to put up with shoddy facilities and seeing the funny side of it. Supporting an away team shouldn’t be too comfortable an experience, but neither should it be totally unpleasant.
I realise there’s a huge dollop of irony in me, a Norwich City fan, pointing the finger at Reading for being all lah-de-dah and middle class. My team is owned by Delia Smith and has Stephen Fry as a director. Delia was shown on the big screen at Reading during half-time on Saturday, not in her trademark yellow and green scarf, but standing side by side with Heston Blumenthal in, you’ve guessed it, a Waitrose advert.
Carrow Road has seen much of the great change outlined above during a turbulent 20 years, but has managed to maintain its character. Or should that be characters?
Another striking fact on Saturday was the lack of atmosphere. It was a dreadful game, but long before it had 0-0 written all over it the noise levels were noticeably low. This was seen as Reading’s big chance to finally register a first Premier League win of the season. Usually such an occasion would be met with a raucous cauldron of noise. That would definitely have been the case if Norwich City had found themselves in a similar predicament, but at the Madejski it never materialised.
As the game meandered towards a tame stalemate it felt as if the home fans were thinking more about who they’d be voting for on Strictly Come Dancing.
No doubt they will have been looking forward to watching it while enjoying a plate of pesto pasta and a cheeky glass of mid-price Shiraz, bought from a certain supermarket.
• TURNER’S BUILT OF THE RIGHT STUFF FOR CANARIES DEFENCE
Having sat through such a low-octane 0-0 draw on Saturday it seems only right to concentrate on the art of defending.
This new-look solid Norwich City is taking some getting used to after Paul Lamber’s helter-skelter approach to the Premier League last year, which brought goals aplenty at either end of the field.
Chris Hughton, understandably, decided that his priority was to address one of the top-flight’s most generous defences, and, slowly but surely, he has turned the Canaries back four into the footballing equivalent of Ronnie Barker’s character in Open All Hours. There has been the odd stutter, but on the whole Norwich look as miserly as Arkwright was with his money belt.
John Ruddy had a defensive line in front of him on Saturday built entirely by Hughton. Steven Whittaker, Sebastien Bassong, Michael Turner and Javier Garrido have all been signed by City’s new boss and together they have already helped Ruddy overtake last season’s tally of three Premier League clean sheets.
Keeping a shut-out hasn’t been pain free and Turner typifies the lengths a defender has to go to if the opposition is to be kept down to nil. When he fell awkwardly towards the end of the Reading game after winning a header and momentarily lay flat out on the pitch clutching his shoulder I wondered whether he may have another knock to add to the black eye and dead leg received in recent games. Turner has quickly transformed himself into a defensive rock after a shaky start to his Norwich career.
I asked him after the game about his burgeoning catalogue of injuries and got the sort of response only an experienced centre back could give “Yeah, I’ve been in the wars the last couple of weeks. I done my eye and then... what did I do last week?” I had to remind him about the dead leg which forced him off during the second half of the 1-0 win over Stoke.
Central defenders are made of the same stuff as jockeys and speedway riders. Injuries that would put us mere mortals off the very idea of playing contact sport for life are shrugged off as being simply all in a day’s work.
Michael Turner might have single handedly emptied the Norwich physio’s first aid box by the end of the season the way he’s going, but that’s the spirit required to grind out Premier League points. As Arkwright himself would have said “Turner’s bleeding again, f-f-f-f fetch a cloth.”