Sunday, August 02, 2009

Havana spot of trouble staying up...

The first of our two guest pieces found Jonathan reminiscing about a time when the prospect of finishing lower than fourth in the Premier League seemed calamitous. In the second, reflecting how the once-fairly-mighty fell, Tim recounts his desperate attempts to follow goings-on in the fateful final game of the 2008/9 season, via a dodgy internet connection and Spanish TV while on holiday in Cuba.

* * * * *

Having been given notice of a "proposed restructure" at work at the end of April, I blew some of my upcoming redundancy on a trip to Cuba at the end of May, hoping that the home games against Portsmouth, Boro and Fulham would see us safe from relegation before the last day of the season.

Goalless against Pompey but could have been worse. The anticipated drubbing at Anfield met expectations, but the Boro game (3-1) gave hope, although nothing would be decided until the last day of the season regardless. Then the "must win" Fulham game (must win for destiny to be in our hands) - radio commentary as there was no TV coverage. I tried to stay calm by distracting myself with some gardening, but at 1-0 down at half-time, weeding turned into disaffected weeding turned into staring into a pond hoping that if a fish appeared in the next 10 seconds we'd score in the next 20, turned into hacking the bejesus out of an overgrown forsythia as the fight-back failed to materialise.

So to Cuba and the prospect of trying to find a means of tracking whether we could fare better at Villa than Hull at home to ManU. Things have moved on considerably in Cuba, particularly where tourism $s have an influence and apparently our hotel had sports channels and wifi. But the game wasn't going to be shown live on any of the available TV channels (Mexican ESPN was about it for sport) so I figured the best bet was online commentary.

Kick-off was 11am local time and the only place for wifi was the bar/reception area, so I got set up and ready for two hours of anxiety in a slightly too public area, only to find that the connection lasted a couple of seconds at a time which put paid to any streaming audio. Next best was the BBC's live scores page, but again it was only "live" when I could connect for long enough for the page to update before getting booted out again.

I wasn't planning on calming my nerves with rum-based cocktails, given I'd tried to keep pace with but lost out to Ernest Hemingway the night before, and I didn't want to spoil the holiday for my partner by being drunk and emotional - she still hasn't forgotten what happened after Graham Fenton's two late goals for Blackburn in April 1996.

Last time we dropped out of the top flight Willie McFaul's master-plan of employing Dave Beasant and Andy Thorn to hoof the ball up field to 5ft nothing strikers meant we were certs for relegation by Christmas, so there was plenty of time to get used to it. While the odd flirtation with relegation had become a theme in recent seasons, I, as well as whoever's responsible for not putting relegation clauses in players' contracts, didn't think that particular relationship would get close to consummation.

While there was hope we could salvage something against a Villa side with little to play for, surely Hull would beat Fergie's embryo XI (the fledglings apparently needing a rest ahead of watching the Champions League final). So, bereft of optimism, technology and alcohol I stared at my screen.

Nothing for a few minutes then a flurry of updates - Arsenal well up in a few minutes (yawn). A couple of chances for Newcastle, maybe there is hope? 20 minutes gone, ManU score! Darron who? Who cares, never doubted Fergie's saplings for a minute, we might do this, long way to go, don't get carried away, calm down, better have a mojito - make that a mojito and a cuba libre.

Another 10 minutes of Arsenal scoring at regular intervals then something else beginning with "A" rolled unravelled itself across my screen. "Aston Villa 1 Newcastle 0". B*gger. Bet it was Milner - that would be typical. Hold on... "Damien Duff" - maybe they've got it wrong, the Beeb often correct things on these pages... "o.g.". That’ll be two more cuba libres then.

Ten minutes to half-time but nothing happening from what I could gather, apart from some frantic reconnecting and refreshing on my part in a desperate attempt to invoke a change or even word of a chance.

At half-time my partner wandered up from the tranquillity of her sun-lounger via the room to report that some football was on the TV – "might be ManU" - in Spanish. Following online was not only annoying the crap out of me but was obviously playing a significant role in our being a goal down and therefore worth trying something else. So I returned to the room – at least there were no fish to try speculating on there – armed with a couple of clubs of the Habana variety. Although the Hull-ManU game was showing, surely they'd be flitting between both matches, that and fearing the worst, removing myself from public view would be less embarrassing.

ManU on their part were cruising, with few opportunities for Hull to put it out of our reach. There must be an almighty Toon onslaught at Villa Park, all we need is a goal, but why haven't they gone there, and why haven't they shown a league table as it stands? The commentators seemed to be having a chat rather than describing the Hull game, that's how easy it is for ManU. Then I heard some words I recognised, "Arsenal quatro"... some scores... think that was still 1-0 but don't know the Spanish for "nil" although what they said after "Newcastle" wasn't the same as what they said after "Villa" - well at least they’ll be giving it their all, plenty of time left. But nothing, absolutely nothing.

I found myself staring at a screen again urging something to change, my eyes burning holes through the screen, out the back through the aerial up onto the roof, into the atmosphere over Fidel's house and back across the Atlantic to Villa Park to urge them on, but nothing... nothing... going... going, all over at Hull. Phil Brown shakes hands with Fergie and looks around nervously – we must still be playing - FINALLY a change of venue but it's all over there too, WHAT'S THE SCORE!!?? Difficult to be certain from the players’ reactions but straight back to Hull and it's all too clear now from the orange-faced man jumping up and down.

So that's it, that's... it.

I didn't move much for about an hour - taking inspiration from our players that afternoon (apparently) - trying to comprehend what I hadn't seen happen, as well as how I’d convey the result to my partner in a way that would look like I was over it already, so as not to require a sympathetic response which would almost certainly lead to public tears and jumping in the pool to hide.

After Bramble, Bellamy and Faye helping nudge us towards the trapdoor (why is it that OUR players don't score against their former teams?) I'd been expecting Milner to score the goal that tightened the noose ever since March. But it was another player Keegan had wanted that effectively sealed our demise: relegated by a goal scored by a stand-in left back.

I almost, almost for a moment wished that I didn’t have to... but then I thought about being back in the Premiership with a team and players to be proud of. I tried to think what it would be like to actually win the FA Cup – I couldn’t do it – that’s how fantastically brilliant that would be and that’s why that moment was no more than that.

My partner offered some solace by saying "at least they might win a few more games next year" - I almost had another Blackburn moment but held it together. The prospect of new owners, fresh players, different opposition (particularly not Wigan) and fewer former players that weren't "good enough" scoring against us cheered me up a little - that and beating the Germans (actually Brits) to the sunbeds one morning.

Two months on and just two weeks before the start of our new campaign in the Championship, no sale, no manager, no signs of desire or hunger from our overpaid players (although one of those "committed" to the club has an appetite for a few pints followed by something battered at McDonalds), Owen scoring as frequently as Lembit Opik for ManU and a strip that looks like a fricken deckchair.

Even so, I've got money on promotion - that and Darren Ambrose scoring a last minute winner against us for Palace.


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