A day in the life
I am a proud dad of five wonderful children and have attended the birth of all but one of them. I put “poetry” at the top of my list of hobbies and interests. My favourite two albums are Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” and Joni Mitchell’s Blue. I put quiet nights in beside a good DVD and a warm fire high in a day’s priorities.
From that you can probably gather that I am quite an emotional – and maybe “romantic” – person.
But nothing in the 48 years I have spent on this Earth prepared my sensibilities for our day at the Racecourse! It was quite simply one of the most emotional days of my life.
It’s a funny old game football (sorry, but first and last football cliche in this piece) and I still can’t work out what it is about 22 grown men chasing a ball around a patch of grass which digs so deep at our inner psyche. At its worst football is responsible for mob violence, inane racist monkey chants and even senseless murder. At its best it creates days such as Saturday 20 November 2004.
From a personal perspective this day was a culmination of 37 years supporting my beloved Brighton and Hove Albion.
So what of the day………….?
We knew things were on track when at 9.45am when half way down the A1 we suddenly received a phone call from the Argus, asking for our comments on the day – remember the Argus, the local newspaper which had until Saturday run nothing at all on this Fans United event?
The day was bright and clear, the sun was shining uninterrupted through an azure blue sky, the air was still and only the temperature betrayed the fact that it was winter. Only the Pennines now stood between us and our destination in North Wales.
But this was something of a false dawn … the 1,510 ft summit of the Northern hills gave way to grey skies, frost, snow and a biting wind. Hardly inviting weather if we wished to gather as many disparate fans as possible for Wrexham’s life or death cause.
The journey across Manchester and along the M56 and M53 into Wrexham remained uneventful – only the damned weather seemed to get even worse. We turned into the capital of North Wales at just past 12.30 and parked the car in a comforting side street of well kept terraced houses some five minutes walk from the Racecourse ground.
Pulling on our stripes and collecting our leaflets, placards and balloons we opened the car door and stepped on the street. “It’s bloody raining,” my wife Ruth exclaimed “… and freezing cold!” We carefully wrapped up our small son in layers of winter clothes and set out to find what the day would have in store.
There was still almost two and a half hours until the ordained kick-off time but already the damp streets of the town were dozens of people wearing the traditional red of Wrexham. And in less than 10 minutes we were entering the warmth of our meeting point: Wetherpoons. Let me put it this way, if you have been to one Wetherspoons you have been to them all. This branch of this national obsession with franchise themed bars was no different … except for one thing …..
As we pushed through the street doors there was the immediate din of loud pub chatter and through the bar haze scores and scores of red shirts – some partly obscured by warm coats not yet disgarded until the winter chill had been thawed by three or four pints of Welsh bitter. Wrexham fans were deep in explanation and conversation with Bristol City die-hards. It was almost a private party!
But the gatecrashers had arrived!
We looked around for fellow interlopers and saw huddled by the bar some different colours. NSC’s The Northstander (aka Adey) stood proud in his blue and white next two two young guys in immediately recognisable Darlington tops and beside them was an older guy with a long ponytail and a Plymouth Argyle shirt! Smiles lit their faces.
We quickly joined them and I was just about to order some drinks when an unmistakable Welsh voice said: “Hi, Nic …. Hello Ruth …. How are you both?” I turned to be greeted by Neil (Glyndwr red wxmfc from Red Passion and NSC) – someone we first met at the Donny Rovers v Wrexham match some six weeks earlier. Quickly we were besieged by more and more Wrexham faithful holding out their hands to shake ours and talk animatedly about our respective clubs.
I suddenly caught a glimpse of something that will stay with me forever (a cameo in a day of cameos) my three year old son Nathan (attending his first proper football match) resplendent in his first Brighton shirt and glass of Pepsi in hand walking across the carpet towards a small boy of similar age draped in a Welsh flag. They looked, grinned at each other then ran to sanctity of their respective parents. I looked across at my wife and we swapped smiles. I wonder if these kids will remember that moment in 20 years … I am sure their parents will.
By now NSC regulars Hiney, Biscuit, Turkey and Bwian and a few friends and relations had joined our throng and we supped and chatted. The banter was broken temporarily when some so-called fans (I won’t disgrace their club by identifying them) tried to start some agro in another corner. Peer pressure and the boys in blue soon made sure they were driven out onto the streets – and hopefully into the back of a police van!
Time was pressing and we made our way to our next meeting point the Wrexham Lager Club and an introduction to some of the organizers of the Wrexham Supporters Trust (WST).
“Sorry guys, we are full and would breach fire regulations if we let you in,” said the doorman. Oops a first hiccup of the day – our Wrexham hosts seemed embarrassed but to us this was a good sign.
“Is the club normally full on match day?” I asked. “Hell, no” was the response.
Further on up the road we faced the same problem at The Turf (for those who have never been to the Racecourse this is a fans heaven: a pub attached to the outside of a footie ground! And the kind landlord has given over his side bar to the WST who use the premises as a shop to sell fund raising merchandise and act as a haven for the cause. In the shop I was introduced to a WST board member called Bruce and thrust a cheque for £100 into his hand – courtesy of The Large One and he NSC video auction. He looked a little gob-smacked, smiled broadly and said: “thanks so much”.
Outside the shop fans were milling everywhere – and it was not even 1.50pm yet! TV cameras and media personnel were busy capturing the day … and very soon one crew had captured Biscuit and the Northstander. It was only Sky News (nothing really important then!!!!). Our two comrades gave an exceptional interview, explaining why we were in Wrexham for the day – and interview which would later be seen by more than 6 million people!
Our band was not complete (where were the rest?) but all the time local people were coming up to us and shaking our hands … and in Nathan’s case thrusting handfuls of sweets into his!
“Reckon we should get into the ground,” suggested Turkey.
We all agreed and made our way into the impressive and new Pryce Griffiths Stand – usually reserved for home support. It had now turned 2pm and the ground was beginning to fill unusually early. A casual glance around and among the sea of red I saw and briefly met a Millwall and Blackburn Rovers fan – neither of their teams had a game and they said it seemed natural to be here! While talking to them I glanced and saw a middle-aged man in a Brighton shirt and his son making their way to the other end of the stand – still don’t know who they were, but many many thanks for coming and adding to the occasion!
But we had not pushed through to pitch side yet and had no idea what was in store for us.
As a group (now numbering about eight strong) we made our way to some seats half way up on the left side of the stand and discussed how we could best display the Fans United Millennium Stadium banner.
Biscuit – never shy at coming forward – was soon in discussion with a steward – we later found she was a supervisor and wonderful woman called Diane. She suggested placing the banner at the away end. We accepted the offer, with a little reservation and made our way around the pitch. But nowhere suitable could be found to tie the banner. Some hurried walkie talkie conversation followed between Diane and her superiors and it was suggested that a large empty pitch side hoarding opposite the PG stand could be used. We carefully carried the banner around the pitch side and were stopped in our tracks when a few score of Wrexham fans in the Sainsbury Stand rose to their feet and started applauding us.
My face flushed – I was genuinely embarrassed. And then before we had begun tying the banner to the hoarding, Diane stopped us again to tell us to take the banner onto the pitch and face it towards the upper tiers of the PGS and the assembled TV cameras …. more applause broke out spontaneously from other parts of the ground.
We turned and finished our task of tying the banner … but who was the guy in the black anorak carrying a tape recorder? It soon became clear.
“I’m from Radio Bristol, could you spare a few minutes for an interview,” he asked.
We obliged! After all we were becoming old hat at this TV and radio lark!
Time was flying and it was gone 2.30pm. Looking around the ground was filling fast. More applause greeted our return around the pitch to our seats. Half way round our progress was interrupted when a call of “hi guys … thanks”. It was Wrexham’s club captain Brian Carey (sidelined through injury). He gave us a big thumbs up and said “thanks again”.
This was unreal!
Back to reality ….
“I need a burger” said Hiney. We all agreed that in the haste of the morning we had all neglected to eat and food, coffee and Bovril was the priority. As a group we hustled down the steps behind the PGS and began queuing for our grub.
Biscuit tapped me on the shoulder. “Iv’e just been given this by a Wrexham fan who told us to buy a coffee each.”
He thrust a fiver into my hand. “whaaat?”
Another Wrexham fan – a guy in his early 30s – came over and handed me a £10 note. “Here, guys buy some pies, it is the least we can do”. I tried to object and he seemed offended. “Look I am buying you some pies, that’s all," he explained!” If I didn’t show gratitude I am sorry, but was genuinely gobstruck.
We placed our order and began devouring our food. But where we turned someone else was coming up to us to shake our hand or express thanks. One woman even hugged me!
We had been gone some 20 minutes and needed to get back inside to be ready for the game.
As we stumbled up the steps the occasion started to kick into gear. Wrexham’s average home gate had been 4,500 and even at 2.50pm it was clear that there were many more than the average.
Everywhere we looked fans were filling the seats – even the famed terraces at Wrexham’s Kop seemed almost full. And colours abounded. But the media had not had their fill – pitch side again for interviews for ITV News, then back to the stands for a to camera shot with a Wrexham/Brighton banner for ITV’s the Championship programme and another quick interview with an independent radio station – sorry I didn’t catch which one!
Our small group was now augmented by El Pres, Padders, Rod Thomas, Set of Tracksuits and a few friends – we stood 16 strong, but knew other Brighton supporters were elsewhere in the ground. We counted at least another seven. But that was unimportant because we also counted and met fans from Sunderland (a good vocal group of them in the Sainsbury Stand), Cardiff City and Swansea (at least a couple of dozen), Stoke City, Stockport County, Everton, Wolves, Telford (who went bust last year and lost their place in the Conference), Bury, Donny Rovers and even Chester City (Wrexham’s bette noir and our Palace equivalent!)
This was Fans United!
Back in our seats we began to blow up our balloons when a chorus of “We love you Brighton” echoed from our left. A group of a couple of hundred Wrexham fans were looking in our direction and singing and smiling broadly.
Then a besuited guy with a microphone grabbed our attention. From the centre of the pitch he asked the crowd to applaud the Brighton fans “who have made this day a reality”.
A chill ran down my spine, I looked around as thousands of people rose to their feet and applauded. More choruses of “We love you Brighton” echoed from all sides of the ground (except maybe the away end!)
Wrexham’s potential saviours – their two surviving directors the two Daves – were then introduced to the crowd – bit not before another female announcer again asked the crowd to applaud the “fans of Brighton and Hove Albion”.
But hey it was 3.05pm … what had happened to kick-off?
But this was an "event" and the ref for the day (even though he later lost his golden Labrador and white stick to award Bristol City an unreal penalty) had given the okay for kick-off to be delayed until 3.15pm!
More razzmatazz followed and we all breathed a corporate sigh of relief when the game eventually began.
I glanced at Hiney. “Glad you’re here?” I asked. “Too right, I wouldn’t have missed this for anything” he replied.
All around us the ground was full – only the away end betrayed more empty than full seats.
“What do you reckon … at least 10,000,” I asked the Northstander.
“At least that,” he replied.”
Five minutes into the first half it seemed the whole of the PSG was chanting “We love you Brighton”.
In high spirits we responded with “We love you Wrexham” and a few attempts at Brighton classics: “GOSBTS” “Bright Eyes” and “Mark McGhee”. Carried away by the occasion – and some abuse - we overstepped the mark and looking directly at the away end we began chanting “One Nil to the Albion!”
The abuse came back thick and fast. But the Wrexham cavalry rode to the rescue with a spontaneous: “Stand up if you all love Brighton”. It seemed the whole ground were on their feet!
The half passed in a dash of singing and back-slapping. And a few minutes before half-time our friend Diane was back … “you can carry the banner around the pitch at half-time,” she explained.
Dazed 10 of us began to follow Diane down the steps …. but we walked people stood and began applauding. The hairs of our necks stood on end … this was truly unreal.
Around the pitch side we walked. The game was still in progress, but as we walked each section of the ground rose and cheered and clapped – it was as if what was happening on the pitch was inconsequential.
Our collective hands were freezing but the adrenalin was rushing and we quickly had the banner untied.
We began the procession along the touchline – banner held aloft to crowd. El Pres was applauding the crowd, Northstander was waving, I held a clenched fist in the air (I didn’t know what else to do!), and as we walked thousands cheered and applauded. Spontaneous “We love you Brighton” echoed in our ears. Fans leant over the hoardings to shake our hands (I long lost count of how many hands I personally shook – it seemed like everybody)
Even the Bristol City fans were on their feet clapping and smiling (how I do wish we hadn’t sung One Nil to the Albion!)
But the best was yet to come.
As we reached the Kop end, there was gathered on the pitch about 100 Wrexham fans (including many children) hold a vast Save the Racecourse banner. As we walked past them we spontaneously shook hands, adults embraced and we shared smiles that will last many lifetimes.
Shaken, stirred and warmed we tied our banner back in position and posed for what seemed to be hundreds of photos. I walked over to Hiney (we are similar aged and have been following the Albion for a similar number of years).
“For fans this surpasses anything I have ever been to in football,” I said, “Only the last game at the Goldstone comes close”.
Hiney smiled broadly and agreed. “It is simply amazing” he replied.
We made our way back to our seats, shaking hands along the way. And as we approached the entrance at the end of the PGS a hefty “bovver boy” looking man in Wrexham red stood in our way. He looked menacing. But as I looked at him closely there were tears in his eyes.
“I just want to say thank you,” he said.
He thrust his giant hand into mine and shook firmly … and proceeded to ensure he shook all our hands …. Some 24 hours later I have nagging feeling that if one of us had objected we may not have lived to tell the tale!!!!
On the way back to the seats we stopped to ask stewards at the crowd numbers. They all said “at least 10,000”. It was amazing!
The second half seemed to pass even more quickly. News from Withdean was not good (we had lost 1-0) we all wondered how the day had panned out on the Sussex coast.
But for us this was a day we would never forget.
Even as we left – most of us a few minutes early to make a start on our long journeys home – and walked down the steps, more of the home support rose to applaud and say farewell.
Even back in the car – waiting for the roads to empty – people were knocking on my windscreen and door windows to say thanks.
This day was all about Wrexham, but I make no apologies for not restating again their case. This report is a personal perspective for how it felt to a Brighton fan at their party.
It was awesome and I just wish the tens of thousands who pay their £1,500 plus a year for their comfy seats at Man Utd, Chelsea or Arsenal could all have been at the Racecourse and feel for themselves the real heart of football.
Thank you to the people of Wrexham from my heart and good luck for the future!
There are just three postscripts:
1. Let everyone in Sussex know that we have a bond with the people of Wrexham, that I believe will last for years – and hopefully generations to come.
2. The official attendance was 7,800 – bollox!
3. Wrexham lost the game 3-1, but for most people the score on the pitch was unimportant. The score that mattered was Fans United 10,000 Hamilton 0 !