Into the Lion’s Den… & Out of the Blue…

4 03 2011

Flicking through the pages of last Sunday’s red tops in the local newsagent (before buying something altogether more becoming – The Observer) a double page spread caught my eye in the sports section of The People. 

Chief sports writer, Dave Kidd, had just completed the full set of 92 current Football League grounds, which had apparently taken him exactly 30 years and one day.

He listed Fulham’s Craven Cottage as his favourite (but he is a fan) standing on the old Kop at Anfield as the best atmosphere, and Stockport’s Edgeley Park as serving the best pies (with mushy peas of course). Brentford’s Griffin Park gets a special mention as being the only ground in England with a pub at every corner. It has now been promoted up my ‘to do list’ !

Apparently only around 1,500 people have qualified to join the, quintessentially English, ’92 Club’. These include sheep skinned commentator John Motson (although I always think ‘Motty’ would be more at home in an anorak!) and veteran manager Jim ‘Bald Eagle’ Smith.   

Using Mr Kidd’s rate of progress as an indicator it will probably take me another 15 years to complete the full set  but I did chalk off another one on Saturday, The Den at Milwall.

The ‘New’ Den may have an exotic sounding address, Zampa Rd, but its location is less than enticing, tucked in, as it is, next to a railway viaduct and literally a stone’s throw from South Bermondsey railway station!

Apparently it is a vast improvement on the Old’ Den which stood on the ominous sounding Cold Blow Lane! Of course, The Den is so-called because of the club’s nickname, The Lions.

Aptly enough, the home supporters at the Lion’s Den are renowned for their aggression towards visitors and the previous week’s game against Middlesbrough had been held up when an assistant referee was pelted with ‘missiles’.

Originally from the Isle of Dogs, the club which traditionally drew its support from London Dockers (there is still a Dockers Stand at the ground) is celebrating 125 of history, this season, but during all that time they have won diddly squat.

Unfortunately, down the years, disreputable Milwall supporters have generated more headlines than the team and they continue to revel in their ‘hard’ earned reputation.

Forest’s promotion push has stalled of late (7 games in 28 days and a lengthening injury list haven’t helped) but we are still 4th and within striking distance of the top two. Against Milwall they enjoyed an astonishing 72% possession but, without being able to convert it into clear-cut scoring opportunities, had to settle for a goalless draw.

Once again the home fans vented their frustration towards the referee when they might have turned on the team but Forest manager Billy Davies acknowledged their passion and loyalty.

When things aren’t going well, patience and unqualified support are not always qualities in evidence amongst the City Ground faithful and perhaps he was alluding to this in his post-match comments: “They say many things about Milwall fans but they get behind their team. The crowd are right behind them from start to finish.”        

In my recent Cuppa Dreams post I omitted to mention the Carling Cup (formerly the League Cup) which, at Wembley on Sunday, was the first piece of football silverware up for grabs this season. It may be considered a ‘Mickey Mouse cup’ by those clubs challenging for the Premiership and pursuing European glory but try telling that to this year’s winners Birmingham City; it’s their first trophy for 48 years!

Birmingham, not the most successful of clubs, have often struggled in the shadow of their more illustrious second city rivals, Aston Villa. Sunday’s unlikely success against high-flying Arsenal should provide a great lift for a City team fighting for Premiership survival and their out of the blue victory (cue Brummie rock legends ELO) certainly confirms that the years of the gypsy curse are now well and truly behind them.   

Legend has it that when the club built their St Andrews home in 1906 it was on land used by the Romany community, who were forced to move out. Before leaving, the angry gypsies are believed to have put a 100 year hex on the stadium. Perhaps if someone had thought to buy a few pegs or a bunch of white heather it might have saved years of Brummie heartache.  

I’m not sure whether saddling the Blues with, life long celebrity fan, comic Jasper Carrott (he of the never to be forgotten ‘Funky Moped’) was part of the curse or not!

The fans have certainly needed a sense of  humour and have shown great loyalty  in  sticking with a club whose 1st World War anthem, ‘Keep right on to the end of the road’,  seems to sum up the years of drudgery at St Andrews.  Meanwhile Jasper has clearly been tearing his hair out!          

The gypsy curse  certainly proved to be pretty successful and has been taken so seriously that over the years many a City manager tried to remove it, but with little success.

In 1980 Ron Saunders tried putting crucifixes on the floodlight pylons and painting the soles of the players’ boots red, while in the early ‘90s Barry Fry (always one for any kind of publicity) urinated in all four corners of the pitch after a clairvoyant predicted that would do the trick!

The curse supposedly expired on Boxing Day 2006. Last season (2009-10), newly promoted to the Premiership, under Alex McLeish, Birmingham finished in 9th place, their highest position for 51 years and now, finally, a trophy to parade around the old gypsy encampment – surely the spell has been lifted?      

I’ve always had a soft spot for the Blues, since the ‘70s and my time in Brum as a student. I remember, very early on in my first term, a group of us visiting St Andrews for a 1st division match against Everton (1972).

I have returned many times  since and especially remember the tremendous atmosphere at a second city derby v the Villains, wedged on the terraces with 40,000 baying Brummies; Blues 3 Villa 2 (1976). I also saw the legendary ‘flying dutchman’ Johann Cruyff  playing for the LA Aztecs in a 1979 friendly .

Amazingly, I have managed to unearth the match day programme from that first visit, buried in the depths of my study.

Birmingham had a half decent side back then in what were, relatively speaking, halcyon days.

Meanwhile Villa were languishing together with Forest in the 2nd division.

City were able to put out a forward line that wouldn’t be sniffed at today. Playing up front were ‘super boy’ Trevor Francis (with the flowing locks), ‘bearded wonder’ Bob Latchford and mustachioed Bob Hatton. It could only be the 70s!    

Blues won the game 2-1 with goals from Francis and Latchford, who would both later play for England. On that day it wouldn’t have seemed possible to me that only seven short years later, Trevor Francis would transfer to Forest, as the first British million pound player, and I’d be sitting in  Munich’s Olympic Stadium watching him head the most famous goal in my club’s history, to win the European Cup. Fantasy football or what!     

Also on the Birmingham team sheet that day was one Kenny Burns who, following his move to the City Ground in 1977, was to become a cult hero for his swash buckling performances at the heart of our defence, as we lifted the League Championship and the European Cup (twice) in successive seasons.

Brian Clough – football genius!  Eat your hearts out Arsene(al), Chelsea, Spurs, Man City…      

Arsene Wenger might well learn from Cloughie: always build from the back (get yourself a decent centre back young man!) and always send your strongest team out in every game and every competition. 

He often referred to Forest’s first trophy under his management as vital to their later success, a crucial stepping stone to greater things.  In 1977 (as a 2nd division club) Forest won the little rated and long forgotten Anglo Scottish Cup Final (5-1 over two legs) v Leyton Orient. The rest, as they say, is history…

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