Wednesday on a Saturday

My original plan was to come to Liverpool for the Merseyside derby on May 4, but a couple of weeks ago the league decided to push the game back a day to put it on “Super Sunday” (the other game on the 5th was Chelsea – Man U). So with an extra day, I had a chance to watch the final day of English Championship Football (the league below Premier League). In checking over the schedule I found that Sheffield Wednesday were at home to Middlesborough, and decided to kill two birds with one stone, as I was already planning to visit Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield as part of my research.

A Sheffield pub in the city centre before the match.

A Sheffield pub in the city centre before the match.

On getting there, I realized how much the game was going to dominate the city that day. Everywhere were the blue and white jerseys of the Owls (Wednesday’s nickname). Walking to the stadium I passed pubs packed with fans getting ready for the game (this is England pubs are generally packed, even in the morning). And there were more and more police as I got closer as well, including mounted unit patrolling around the major entrances and at the Leppings Lane gate, where the visiting fans enter. ALthough I’d seen a handful of ‘boro supporters hanging out around the entrance, I talked to one of the stewards and he told me that they were waiting for 14 coaches of ‘boro fans to arrive. A police escort brought them in a few minutes later and many emerged singing their songs ready for the game. Before going in I got a few good shots of very welcoming signs warning that anyone entering certain sections wearing visiting colours would be asked to leave or expelled from the grounds – they were very clear as to where the ‘boro fans had to sit.

Leppings Lane Entrance for the away fans

Leppings Lane Entrance for the away fans

The Kop filled very quickly prior to the game, they had the banners, but at the very back they also have a brass band and drums played by some of their more fanatic fans throughout the game. Along with the band, the loudspeakers play the Wednesday anthem as the players come out, it’s a ’60s song that has had the chorus lyrics changed to, “Hi Ho Sheffield Wednesday!” Sounds fun with 30,000+ singing along. Songs went on through the whole game, perhaps helped by the first goal a few minutes into the game and then another later in the first half. With it 2-0 a new chant started breaking out around the grounds: “We are staying up! We are staying up!”  And by the end of the game, yet another chant made the rounds for a team that wasn’t even playing that day:

The city is ours, the city is ours,

F*** off United, the city is ours.

This of course would be for their rivals Sheffield United, who play across town.

I noticed in the programme that there was a warning asking all fans to remain in the stands following the conclusion of the match, and starting from the 85th minute there was a very nice voice reminding everyone that they were to stay in the stands following the match. This was at the same time as the Kop started moving right up to the stewards and packing the bottom of the stand – with mostly young males right at the front. At the final whistle, they didn’t even hesitate, they streamed right past the stewards and right at the tunnel. After getting a good video of it all, I headed down and joined them. The way the officials finally managed to restore order and clear the field wasn’t through the stick, but by the carrot, another announcement came on that players would return to the pitch for a tribute to the fans once all fans were back in the stands.

On the tram back into town and through the rest of my day the overwhelming sentiment of those who did not go the game was that it was better that Wednesday won, as it made for a happier bunch of drunks than a loss would have. Wednesday chants continuously broke out around the city and in pubs for the rest of my day there, and even on the train, a good number of riders had been to either that game or another somewhere else in Yorkshire. The whole of Saturday in the country is defined by the games and they are inescapable. Even at 10:30 on the platform in Manchester waiting to catch a train to Liverpool, people were starting football chants and very drunk men were vomiting onto the tracks (being cheered on by friends through a football chant “He pukes when he wants, he pukes when he wants…”).

That was Saturday, and that was Championship. Sunday and the derby was still to come…

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Pitch Invasions

Stoke City Fans invade following promotion to Premier League in 2008.

Stoke City Fans invade following promotion to Premier League in 2008.

Craziness will rule the soccer/football world for the next month. Between now and late May, the season will draw to a close and all of the promotion/relegation battles of Europe will be sorted out.

Some of these are far less dramatic than others: England, Scotland and Germany have all crowned their champions ridiculously early by any standard (Man U, Celtic, and Bayern Munich respectively). But there remains a large number of other domestic leagues and the entire pyramid of subordinate leagues that are still in the process of determining who goes up and who goes down. Yes this may seem like a foreign concept to the North American sports fan, but if a team has an horrible, terrible, no good, very bad season then they get sent to the league lower down. Rather than rewarding poor performance with a good player, they just kick the team out of the league and replace it with the winner of the next best league.

But I digress, what I really want to write about is the importance all the games take on for the various battles that are part of promotion/relegation. For many teams, promotion was never really the goal – they just got promotion to their current league, weak crop of players, financial limitations, stadium restrictions prevent promotion anyway, etc. They may have more to fear from the other end of the table, which makes that moment they escape relegation feel like they’ve just won a trophy.

In contrast to the solo pitch invasion earlier this season during the Manchester derby, the massive “we (didn’t get relegated/won promotion) pitch invasion” works entirely differently than the aggressive assault on the opposition players that occurs at other times. Now part of it has to do with timing, in that the celebratory invasion takes place at the final whistle, rather interrupting the match itself. A proper pitch invasion should also occur during a home game, it isn’t really possible to flood the field with visiting supporters in most cases. If the visitors did invade the pitch, it would no longer be construed as a celebratory act, it would be the invasion of the home side’s space, and could not be well-received by the home fans. So despite the fact that these mass pitch invasions involve hundreds to thousands of supporters, the incidences of hooliganism (which has resurfaced over the last two weekends in England) are not really there – people are too happy to fight. Well, most of them.  The invasion itself is a transgressive act – the stewards will still try to stop the first few before they beat a hasty retreat, and the act itself is reserved for the most important occasions – trophies or promotion. It is a moment where the fans actually possess the space that they’ve been defending all season, despite never being allowed on it. It is there moment of unity with their team, where both can share the field (even if the players usually flee for the changerooms as the whistle sounds).

Here are Barnet’s fans celebrating. (Language NSFW) What are they celebrating? Not promotion, not a trophy. This pitch invasion is to celebrate that they aren’t being relegated out of the English Football League 2. Note in the video, the drama is enhanced by a last minute penalty save, and that the steward still tries to stop the cameraman from entering the field. Much of the celebration then takes place outside the entrance to the tunnels where the Barnet fans sing to celebrate finishing 20th in a 24 team league. Barnet’s Underhill Stadium capacity is 2302 seated , which isn’t overwhelming, but consider that this stadium was packed to watch a team near the bottom of the 4th division of English football to get an idea of how popular the sport is.

Now to turn it up a bit, Cardiff City FC secured promotion last week, and this isn’t just promotion, but entry into the Premier League. The big show (with a massive TV payout to go with it). This video makes the Barnet invasion look quaint, as Cardiff City Stadium holds 26,000 fans. Watch the players and officials flee, even the stewards make a run for it, and within a minute the crowd has emptied onto the field. Again, the singing and celebration of the moment, without much of the stupid side of soccer that non-followers know all too much about.

So the ground that is taboo for most of the season then becomes for these few moments, the place where fans can celebrate together and celebrate “their” victory for the season, however big or small.