A grand day out?
By Tony Wallis
And so another new season begins with a trip to relegated Premiership opponents. Not one to travel regularly to away games, the opportunity presented itself to visit a new stadium, the endearingly naffly-titled Walkers Stadium, formally opened by our friend Jug Ears the previous week, so the rather attractive programme informed us - they've even named one of the stands after him - yuk!
The ground is certainly impressive from the outside. Filbert Street, only a few yards away and still standing, looks very poor in comparison. As an old timer being used to grounds about a hundred years old with stands built as and when over the years, the most strikingly different aspect to this ground for me was that the stadium is outwardly very symmetrical with no gaps between the stands around each side of the ground - each side of the ground being seemingly identical to the other. Inside this breaks down, with executive boxes and journalists facilities on one side of the ground, but the roof and seating is contiguous right around the ground, even into the corners.
Now yes, the corners. Call me old-fashioned but I thought away fans were supposed to sit or stand behind one of goals. All the Horns fans, some three thousand of them in a crowd of over 31,000 (ground capacity I'm told is 32,500) were in the north-east corner of the ground, with vociferous Leicester fans on either side - and Leicester fans occupied the areas behind both goals. Horns fans, not noted for their ability to make noise since our days in the Premiership, certainly out-sang our opponents until the goals arrived, but it's hard creating an atmosphere from one corner of a stadium.
On one side, the now usual half dozen seats were covered by tarpaulin between the fans, but on the other, fans were only separated by a waist-height metal barrier. As the banter developed between Horns and Leicester fans, the number of ejections of Leicester fans by the stewards seemed to reach epidemic proportions - one idiot tried to get on the pitch but the others seemed to be for the heinous offence of carrying a bottle with a lid on it into the stadium. Apparently the bar ran out of bottled beer at half time, so alcohol cannot have been the only excuse. More seriously, one ejection appeared to be for throwing something into the area occupied by the wheelchair-bound Horns fans. The Horns fans, without exception, were good humoured in their exchanges with the Leicester fans - although one may have been ejected by another over-zealous steward for a similar offence. I fear for the Leicester games with more vociferous opponents, the combination of heavy-handed stewarding and close proximity of the fans to each other could result in more than ejections. There doesn't seem much scope for having that many more away fans in the ground either, whilst this might not worry Wimblestein, many more Derby and Wolves fans may be as disappointed as the Horn fan who phoned 6:06 having failed to gain entry to the ground - yes, it probably was a sell-out for away fans.
Enjoyment of the game was also somewhat spoilt by what Leicester would probably put down to teething problems. Many of the stewards appeared to be visiting the ground for the first time and certainly didn't seem to know how home and away fans behave towards each other. The PA was excessively loud in our section - perhaps to drown us out? - and they only appeared to have two or three different songs to play. The scoreboards at either end were very rudimentary, showing two lines of about sixty characters, one of which continually scrolled. The Leicester team was announced using it, and it took about ten minutes. The Watford team wasn't even granted this luxury, the only opportunity to discover that Stephen Glass, Neil Ardley and Richard Lee featured amongst the subs, unless you recognised them warming up, was a hasty announcement on the PA just before kick-off. The Vic also has one feature missing from this 'new' stadium, there being no video screen - and nowhere obvious to put it when and if they buy one either.
Before I'm criticised for being too negative, the refreshments available to away fans were excellent, albeit that the choice wasn't vast, and the loos were a pleasure to use, for once.
So what of the game? Others will have reported in more detail, but my general impression was that no Horn had a bad game but that only Alec Chamberlain had a good game. First half was pretty even, perhaps the Horns edged it as Leicester looked rather nervous. The Horns defence was sound but unspectacular and in attack Foley and Smith played well on the break. We even had a penalty shout which convinced most of the players, we were too far away to pass judgement. The key period was the first ten minutes of the second half. We went to sleep and a combination of slack marking of Brian Deane and failure to cut out strong runs down the sidelines from Summerbee and Scowcroft on two occasions were punished and Leicester never looked back. We just didn't seem capable of scoring. The most heated moments for the rest of a game were poor fouls by Leicester players, Dickov on Chamberlain and Izzet on Tommy Smith, both of which produced yellow cards for the offenders together with a scuffle involving most of the players for the first of these.
The defence looked competent but occasionally gave the ball away cheaply. Marcus Gayle played okay as a central defender - as the pluses, he was seldom beaten in the air and his distribution was good, but he needs to work a better understanding with Robbo and the man he spent most of the game marking, Brian Deane, scored both Leicester's goals when loosely marked in the eighteen-yard box.
For me, the key missing part in the Horns' jigsaw was the midfield. For too long it was just anonymous, when the ball was won it was often cheaply given away, frequently with the midfielder not on the ball out of position to defend the Leicester counter. Ray Lewington's stated intent of closing players down quickly was present in patches, but for Leicester it was rarely absent, we were simply not given enough time to play. Two-nil was probably a fair result, based on the second half performance. I wouldn't put money on Leicester for automatic promotion: they were good but not great and they'll face stiffer tests at home this season. The 'Premiership quality' of their players appears to have worn off quickly.
And so back home again. The ground was pleasantly easy to vacate, we were outside within a minute of leaving our seats. The Leicester and Horns fans mingled without any apparent problems on the way home other than the usual good-natured banter. We were back on the road by 5:15 and on the motorway by 5:30. Perhaps we won't bother next season - perhaps we won't have to.