Soapbox: feeding the habit


The English always announce the arrival of winter snow in astounded tones, yet every year it snows. So sang Sandy Denny. Pete made the most of what was left of Saturday’s cup-restricted, weather-ravaged football, and caught a thriller. Thawing out, he muses on the declining allure of Premier football and wanders whether we might even be able to snatch something at Arsenal…..

A week without that rising tension in the pit of the stomach as you begin to think about Saturday’s game.

A week free from looking to see which black shirted buffoon will spoil the game on Saturday.

A Saturday away from trying to forecast the best combination of results that will enable us to entertain another glorious attempt to scale the foothills of the Premier League. A day where you can look at copious non league fixtures and choose the most esoteric available.

Unfortunately, a heavy snowfall put paid to the latter. I had thought of driving up to Kelso to take in their cup clash with the mighty, mighty Selkirk, but reports were that the snow had been so heavy that even Black Bob stayed in his kennel and refrained from rescuing people.

So, it was to the Northern League that we repaired, only to find out that the excellent and invaluable postponement line was listing the games that were ON rather than the games that were Off. By 1.15, it was Hebburn v Esh Winning or Penrith v West Auckland. It was beginning to look like an afternoon watching assorted toffs chasing an egg shaped ball in front of 60,000 French and Scottish toffs. For a Rugby League man and class warrior like myself, it was too much to take.
Radio 5 Live beckoned.

But Hebburn bucked the trend and a phone call to their Sports and Social club elicited the vital information: game on!! When I got there it was to be greeted by a perfect pitch and a crowd made up of groundhoppers, journalists and a relieved Blyth Spartans manager, who had been threatened with bathroom tiling if he had to stay in.

Hebburn and its environs make up an area where support for the Good Side is balanced by those who have a tendency to the dark side over the river. A cursory head count identified slightly more Umbro/Boylesports jackets as opposed to Adidas/Northern Rock gear, so that was already a good result.

I had seen Hebburn on the Wednesday night in a dismal 0-0 draw at Horden, so my expectations were not great and they seemed entirely justified as Esh strolled into a three-goal lead after 17 minutes. “Game over” was the general consensus from the football experts on the terraces, but by half time, Hebburn had pulled two back and within 10 minutes of the restart they were a goal ahead.

Another goal gave them a cushion and despite Esh pulling one back, Hebburn held on to win 5-4. A most entertaining and enjoyable afternoon, with each goal “costing” 35p each. The quality wasn’t great, but there were oodles of commitment and bags of entertainment.

Can we say that about the Premier League? There is considerable disenchantment among many people about the product on show and the attitudes behind it. When clubs appoint managers and sack them before the season is two thirds of the way through, or when managers become embroiled in desperate arguments with the owners of their clubs, can we say that there is any integrity in the game at this level?

My good friend, and Irish travelling companion, Peter Horan, a supporter for 40+ years is not renewing his season tickets for next year, citing complete disenchantment with the bloated and self satisfied Premier League. By his own admission, he has contributed to this by his Sky membership. But he is not prepared to go back on his decision.

Quinny’s reduction of season ticket prices reflects this growing feeling. It is an honourable attempt to get people into the Stadium and fill it up, but you sometimes wonder whether the product is all that good. How many exciting, outstanding games have we seen in the last season and a half? Is survival all we can aspire to? This was the season we were supposed to kick on, but once again, we are playing to remain in the League rather than to win anything.

The whispers coming out of the club suggest that Ricky Sbragia has stabilised a potentially difficult situation. Chimbonda and Diouf shipped out, Kenwyne signing a new contract and a couple of decent defenders brought in as cover. If we can pick up two or three points from the next two away games, that should see us OK as I am reasonably confident that we have the firepower to outscore the likes of Wigan, Hull and Spurs.

The Emirates on Saturday is not the daunting prospect that it was last year. Arsenal are vulnerable and if we can balance our defensive responsibilities with some attacking flair, we may well be facing a happy journey up the A1 on Saturday night. But I can guarantee,it won’t be as exciting as Hebburn v Esh Winning – or as cheap!!

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