Leaving the Armchair/Becoming a Martyr

Well, it’s been the craziest week of my life. A week ago today, I married my best friend and soul mate, Danielle and rather than ask my guests to raise a toast to my “beautiful wife” and all that stuff, I announced her as my “marquee signing” and handed her a Wales shirt with her new surname on the back. I then spent a good 3 hours of the evening of my wedding wearing a Spirit of 58 bucket hat – yes, I’m probably the first and am probably lucky not to be divorced already!

So as our short honeymoon has come to an end and the joys of working 9-5 continue tomorrow, I thought I’d post once again on The Armchair Supporter Blog, and I’m currently debating on whether to call the blog something completely different altogether, you’ll learn why a little later.
As most of you who know me or have read my blog before, I’ve always had two teams I’ve followed very closely, Arsenal (since I was a boy) and Cardiff (since I was old enough) but since the start of the year and my last blog post, there’s been a change to proceedings.

Ever since the Euros last summer/my first blog post, I noticed a lot of my followers on Twitter/people who’d liked my tweets were actually Merthyr Town fans. As I live in Bargoed and Merthyr is literally a 15 minute drive away, it got me wondering..

Then I saw it.. the Dial M for Merthyr football fanzine which Laurence of EatSleepFootyRepeat had tweeted about. I was completely intrigued and did a bit of enquiring and Mark Evans soon got in touch. Fair play, Mark or Wolvesy as he’s more commonly known sent the fanzine to me in the post along with a fixture card and on January 24th I took my first steps to becoming a Martyr and away from being a full-time Armchair Supporter!


I’d googled pictures of Penydarren Park and I was sold before I’d even visited the stadium. For me, the biggest disappointment I had watching Cardiff City was when the club moved from Ninian Park to the Cardiff City Stadium as I feel the club has lost identity ever since and that’s not just due to the farce of the rebrand a few years back. The fact Merthyr’s facilities i.e terraced stands, cheap food and a club shop next to the ground reminded me so much of the old Ninian Park, was probably the biggest selling point. I’m sure a lot of Cardiff fans who’ve watched Merthyr over the years probably feel the same.


The first game I watched against fellow play-off challengers, Banbury was a tense affair despite Merthyr seemingly controlling the game for the majority of both halves (from what I can remember), it was only late in the first-half where they broke the deadlock with striker Kayne McLaggon finding the bottom corner. Banbury then fought back and managed to win a penalty which seemed harsh from where we were stood but Merthyr’s keeper Oliver Davies pulled off an unbelievable save low to his right to keep a clean sheet and give the Martyrs the win! Not a bad start, a win, clean sheet and a penalty save!

Since then, I’ve only missed two home games, both in February against Chesham (when I was on my Stag weekend in Prague) and the defeat to Frome Town (because we went to watch Cardiff instead). Here’s a sneak peek of the stag (apologies for the bottom left):


So far, I’ve watched Merthyr 6 times and they’ve won almost every game. The only game they haven’t won was a 2-2 draw against Weymouth where Merthyr player Keyon Refell was harshly sent off. That game was probably the second most memorable because the Weymouth fans were probably the noisiest I’ve seen, well at Penydarren Park at least. Even ex-Cardiff boy Stuart Fleetwood got on the scoresheet for the Terras!

In terms of memorability though, it will take a hell of a lot to beat the St. Ives game the day before my wedding, mainly because I was royally stitched up by my best man, Geraint. Upon arrival, we made the decision to have a few pre-game beers in Webley’s, the supporters bar inside the stadium. As we got to the ground though, I noticed Geraint shiftily hanging around by the front entrance rather than walk towards the turnstiles, it was obvious at that point, that something (probably embarrassing/awkward) was about to happen. 

As we entered the bar, I was given the lovely surprise by Business Development Manager, Phil Jones that I was to be “today’s official mascot” at the ripe old age of 26 and would be walking out with the players and referee.


Rather than have a dignified walk out, I could not have looked any more awkward if I tried, feeling like a Vegan at a Hog Roast! In my defence, I think the Community Development Officer, Elliott was definitely in on the joke – the alarm bells began to ring when he told me I’d also be doing the coin toss! Oh and to add to the embarrassment, I was given an XL goalkeeper shirt to wear as I walked on to the pitch (which somehow looks quite snug on me). And who did they line me up next to? Oliver Davies, the goalkeeper! Even Captain and Player of the Year, Ashley Evans had to tell me where to stand!


If anything, this was a blessing in disguise because it made me hell of a lot less nervous when it came to declaring my vows on the Wedding day! Who would’ve thought 4 months ago that Merthyr Town would play such a big part of my marriage, eh? Speaking of the Big Day, here’s a photo of the bride in all her glory:


So after a nice little honeymoon in Tenby for a few days, Saturday arrived again and the Martyrs were home for the last game of the regular season and had already secured their position in the play-offs – a win would guarantee a home fixture in the play-off semi-final! To ensure I wasn’t a mascot for two weeks in a row, I made the conscious decision to have pre-match beers in the Park View, a small pub just around the corner from the stadium. The decision was the correct one as we enjoyed a few cheap beers and met some great people. The Park View has become an iconic part of the football club in recent times and although much smaller, reminds me of the old Ninian Park pub down Cardiff. The pub even has its own Twitter account, too! @parkviewmartyrs


Merthyr ended up winning 4-0, their form has peaked right in time for the play-offs and their defence has more clean sheets than Dot Cotton! Oh and look who made the match-day programme two weeks on the bounce (bottom left, big name).

So although I’ve only been watching Merthyr since the end of January, it does genuinely feel like I’ve been watching them for 10 years! Moving forward, I’m keen to get more of the lads to watch the Martyrs and I’m on to a decent start already because I seem to have recruited at least 7 of the lads to come and watch them against Hitchin on Wednesday. Not a bad start and I’m sure more are likely to follow.

Considering I created this blog based on my inability/lack of enthusiasm to watch Cardiff City, I’ve realised I’ve watched more live football during the past 4 months than I have in the last 4 years. I think it may be time to possibly change the name of the blog – after all, the only time spent in the armchair is when I’m writing a blog! 

If anyone has any suggestions, I’m all ears!

Despite my new found love, I will always have a special place in my heart for Cardiff and how could I not after Kevin McNaughton assisted my best man, Geraint with his wedding speech..


Hopefully Kev and Cardiff don’t find out I’ve been having an affair with Merthyr behind their backs though!

Until the next time..

#UpTheTown

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And the love kickstarts again..

So it’s been just over two months since I last posted on The Armchair Supporter blog and without making too many excuses, the last two months have probably been the most eventful yet exciting of my life. 

When it comes to retail therapy, most women end up treating themselves to new shoes, jewellery or perfume – not my other half, who whilst I was in France ended up buying us a house I’d never seen, at least not in person!

Almost exactly two months later and all the legal work done, we find ourselves with our first very own home although like most house moves we’ve had to make do with absolutely no wifi but today (still wifi-less and clinging on to the hope of a 4G signal), I’ve decided it’s time to post the 4th edition of TASB.

And what better time to start writing again than the day before Wales play Moldova in the World Cup qualifiers?!

I think a lot of people including myself were expecting the blogs to be fairly consistent after the brilliant feedback people gave about The Armchair Supporter Abroad: My week in France but I haven’t actually posted since with another reason being I was probably too hungover especially after that Belgium game. 

Whilst I’ve always had a passion for football and in my time have seen some incredible games mainly from a club level perspective, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like the joy and euphoria that game gave to not just football fans but the whole of Wales – the fact my mother even knew who Gareth Bale was, was a huge milestone!

Of course Hal Robson-Kanu was going to take the majority of the plaudits for that goal (and deservedly so), I don’t think I’ve ever been so chuffed for a player to score than when I watched Sam Vokes bury a header into the far corner in the 85th! Vokes has copped a fair bit of stick from fans on social media in the past due to his lack of mobility and the fact he’s never really played as well for Wales as he’s done at Burnley. So to see him send us through to the semi-final of the European Championships was nothing more than the big man deserved!

Since the Euros, understandably it’s been quite depressing especially during the build up to the new season and even since its return there’s been a huge Wales-shaped whole missing from our lives!

Being a Cardiff fan and with new gaffer Paul Trollope part of the Wales set-up during the summer, I was fairly optimistic about City’s chances this season. That of course was before I went to the first home game against QPR where the first shot on target from a Cardiff player was registered in the 95th minute which had followed to late goals from QPR that had brought me back to the reality of club football.

Then after three games we found ourselves a new cult hero in Shane Duffy of Blackburn Rovers who scored not one but two own goals and was later sent off in a bizarre performance which saw us win our first game of the season, still without a City player registering a goal!

3 days later, I found myself making my first ever football away trip as I travelled to southwest London to watch the Bluebirds take on Fulham. I was always intrigued and quite fond of Craven Cottage anyway. I love the old style grounds and I think this is why a lot of people have fallen out of love with football at club level in recent years. In a way it brought back a lot of memories of Ninian Park which I’ve recently started to miss quite badly (although of course the atmosphere at the cottage was nothing like Ninian Park).

Reflecting on the game though, it wasn’t just a first for me. It was also a first for the Cardiff players who finally scored a league goal with Joe Ralls and Anthony Pilkington scoring “screamers” in front of the away end. As Ralls’ strike hit the net, whilst celebrating I fell off the chair I was standing on and on top of a young lad and his dad sat behind us – never letting the moment get to me, honest..

Sadly though, the 3 points remained a myth as Fulham levelled late on with a belter of their own. Despite the late equaliser I didn’t go home too dissatisfied. From a club level point of view, it’s apparent that away games have a completely different atmosphere to home games which saddens me as the Cardiff City I used to love back when I was a younster are now a completely different club to what it is now. I do feel the move to the Cardiff City Stadium, rebrand and managerial merry-go-round has had a massive impact on the support but the fact Cardiff will never be the same club it was 10 years ago does leave you with a lump in your throat.

The way Wales performed in the Euros gave me a bit of hope that the fans would take some of their inspiration and come back to the CCS but if anything, it’s worse than last season.

So to win back the fans what do you do? Well, ideally anything other than sell two fan-favourites on the cheap prior to deadline day! In fairness, £2.5m for Fabio is probably justified although I felt the new formation suited him down to the ground but to sell first choice goalkeeper, prized asset and club legend David Marshall for a fraction of the fee they could’ve got in previous transfer windows is not far short of moronic. 

The club have since managed to repair (or at least try) some some of the damage by signing Rickie Lambert from West Brom – which to be fair would’ve been a class signing back in 2009! Hopefully he still knows where the goal is at the age of 34.

Back to Wales and tomorrow night where we take on Moldova and I for one cannot wait to dive in headfirst straight back into the magic of International football – something I could never imagine saying this time 10 years ago in the early Toshack era!

My only recent disappointment from a Welsh perspective is the lack of interest in our players post-Euros. Whilst Ashley Williams managed to sign for a bigger club in Everton, I was surprised that the likes of Joe Allen and James Chester didn’t have bigger clubs come in for them. Chester dropping down to the Championship seems like a kick in the teeth but maybe they’ll bounce straight back up.

Despite all the recent success we’ve had, I’m still expecting a cagey game tomorrow, very similar in fact to the Andorra game at home after we’d qualified for the Euros. A game which was basically a party version of a football game – I see this being no different as our fans are bound to still be on a massive high after the best summer of their lives.

Two notable omissions from the squad are of course Rambo and Joniesta so it’ll be interesting to see just who gets the nod to play in the middle alongside the two Joes. My heart is saying Emyr Huws but my head is telling me it’ll be Andy King. To be fair, Huws hasn’t played much football recently as he regains match fitness although I can see him having a massive future at International level and Chris Coleman has said he’ll be given his chance in the upcoming qualifiers after missing the cut for France.

I’ve seen a few people tweet about whether we’ll change system as teams know how we play with the 5-3-2/3-5-2 but let’s be honest, Moldova are going to play with 10 men behind the ball aiming for the draw regardless of what formation we opt for. Presuming this is the case, I’m predicting a cagey 1-0 for Wales with Sam Vokes grabbing another goal. I can see it being that type of game!

As soon as this is posted, I’ll be getting my Wales shirt, bucket hat and scarf ready for the occasion which will also see Spirit of 58 have their own stage inside the Canton stand with mod-influenced band The Riff and Svengali’s Jonny Owen playing a DJ set before kick-off. On second thoughts, I may leave the bucket hat and bring a parka or cagoule!

Until next time..

Louis

The Armchair Supporter Abroad

So it’s taken me slightly longer than I’d have hoped to get my third blog post on paper (well, online) but it’s been an incredibly busy week for me since I returned from France.

Considering I’m usually reluctant to leave Wales let alone the UK, myself and the lads planned this trip well in advance of the Euro 2016 fixtures being released. Whereas most Wales fans pitched up at the likes of Bordeaux, Lens, Lille and Toulouse, we thought we’d take a risk and book a Monday-Friday stay in Nice, mainly expecting there to be numerous games hosted in the south of France.

Incredibly, there were two fixtures in Nice – one the night before we arrived, Poland v Northern Ireland and the Friday we’d be leaving, Spain v Turkey. Not the best of starts but our blushes were spared when it was announced that Wales would be playing England on the 16th June in Lens! You couldn’t make it up, we were going to be in France the same time as arguably the biggest fixture in European International football history.. although I’ve since been told that Lens is about a four and a half hour train journey from Nice!

Regardless of the distance though, we’d been buzzing for months ahead of travelling and it was also that week where I made my debut on an aeroplane. Yes, in 25 years it was only this month I’d actually travelled abroad by air. To celebrate my first appearance as well as the occasion, myself and the lads also rocked up at Bristol Airport all wearing customised Wales t-shirts with a current/former Wales players’ face on the front. This was probably the first time EasyJet customers would have seen Ashley Williams, Gareth Bale, Gary Speed, Ian Rush, Joe Allen, Joe Ledley, Jonny Williams and Robert Earnshaw  on the same carriage!

Upon arriving in Nice, my first comments were pretty standard “it’s a bit hot here, lads!” -a sentence which would be used constantly throughout the following days. However, the view from the beach just a corner away from our hotel was outstanding, much more appealing than the €8 per pint it cost at the first and only beach bar we visited!

Our first night out was also a perfect example of what was to come throughout the course of the week, too! Fresh from their defeat to Poland on the previous day, we bumped into a huge group of Northern Ireland fans still in massively high spirits at the bar we’d eventually adopt as our new home. Myself and the 7 lads I travelled to France with were enticed to join in with the chants of “He’s 7 foot and he plays the flute, Kyle Lafferty” and of course now world-famous “Will Grigg’s on fire, your defence is terrified!” – a chant which has now quickly become the Vuvuzela of Euro 2016! Being big fans of football chants ourselves, we decided to get the bar involved in some Welsh chants with our renditions of “Ain’t Nobody like Joe Ledley”, “Gimme Hope, Joe Allen”, “Hal Robson! Hal Robson Kanu!”, “Viva Gareth Bale” and “Aaron Ramsey baby”,  I’m sure the anthem and “Men of Harlech” also made appearances, too!

The beauty about France is although you do pay over the odds for a pint throughout the day, you’ve usually got at least 2 hours of happy hour in most bars which results in purchasing treble the amount of pints you’d usually buy in that period. Now I’m not the best drinker in the CF81 post code and I’m not called “Spewie Louie” by the boys for no reason so it was inevitable that I would end up getting lost and crying down the phone to my other half, telling her I wanted to come home – cracking start! Luckily though the lads found me, arms hanging over the side of a fence and took me back to the hotel.

Our second day and first morning in France also gave us some clarification on one thing in particular – THE FRENCH CANNOT COOK A DECENT BREAKFAST!

After breakfast.. or lack of it we headed to the beach, myself factor 30’d right up to avoid a t-shirt tan and looking like a Welsh Kevin De Bruyne! Sunburn though was the least of our worries, even at 26 degrees as not one, not two but all eight of us nearly drowned in the sea.. in the shallow end too!

With life-threatening pebble beaches ticked off our to-do list, we went back to our hotel ready for our second night out in the centre of Nice and back to our bar – I seem to remember this night being a much quieter affair in comparison to our first night, which was actually very welcome – drank like a fish again and vaguely remember watching Portugal v Iceland. Nothing to report.

Wednesday brought a yet another below-par breakfast with the cafe/bar owner somehow guilt-tripping us for ordering bacon. This was also the day we made the decision to visit Monte Carlo on probably the rainiest day of the week. Whilst I imagine Monaco probably looks glorious in the weather we had on the previous day, I can honestly tell you it looks a lot more depressing after losing €50 in a casino!

After a mad rush back to Nice via train, we managed to get back to our hotel with time to spare to catch the last 15 minutes of the France v Albania game. Walking past the Fan Zone was a huge eye-opener for me especially with so many Armed Police surrounding the area. It’s not something you expect to see at football, you barely see any Police Officers at Cardiff or Wales games anymore so to see such high levels of security really was something I hadn’t experienced before and honestly, it was quite frightening!

We got back to the bar though as Antoine Griezmann scored for France and the town centre erupted, naturally I joined in as he was in my Dream Team! Minutes later, the bar was celebrating again as Dimitri Payet curled in his second goal of the tournament and France’s second of the game – another one who made the Dream Team.

After spending our first three nights at the same bar, we discovered an Irish bar around the corner which would prove to be the venue for us to watch Wales v England the next day so it was only fitting we’d meet a few Geordie lads there.

On our way back to the hotel, we found about 20 people (the majority Swedish) chanting in the middle of the street. Now I don’t know whether it’s the hair colour but the Swedes adopted me as one of their own as we sang the name of Zlatan Ibrahimovic for about an hour on top of a bin (which you can actually view on my Instagram page). Once the Zlatan chants had ended, all sets of fans (Welsh, English, Icelandic, Spanish and Swedish) came together to sing “Don’t take me home” – another song that seems to have taken over France since the start of the Euros. After around two and a half hours of chanting, we agreed it was time to call it a night, ready for the big one!

So it was the day, Thursday 16th of June 2016.. a day we’d been waiting for since the fixture was announced and for us Welsh fans, an opportunity to avenge the past results where we’d failed to make much of an impact. We made our way to the Irish bar to watch the game, about an hour or so before kick-off – bucket hat and home shirt with “Joe Allen 7” shirt with me and our “Ain’t Nobody like Joe Ledley” flag hung up under the TV. The bar was divided 60-40 in favour of England fans so it was all the more sweeter when Gareth Bale’s free-kick hit the back of the net. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be in the stadium in Lens that day but the atmosphere in that pub when that goal went in was unbelievable from a Wales fan’s point of view – we were 1-0 up against the old enemy and we were top of the group and sailing through to the last 16!

If truth be told all I remember of the second half was watching through my hands, getting absolutely drenched in beer after Vardy equalised and almost being reduced to tears when Sturridge scored the winner in injury time. I do also remember seeing England fans celebrating in the street as if they’d won the Euros! A slight touch of sour grapes from me whilst typing this. I do remember spending much of the night advising people on how good a player Joe Allen was though.

As Friday hosted Spain v Turkey, the one half of our group had opted to stay in France the extra day to experience what it would’ve been like in Nice on a match day. Little did I know that the Allianz Riviera stadium was about 90 minutes away from the city centre. As the other lads got their stuff ready to depart and go home, we also had to pack up as we were moving to a villa about 15 minutes away. As we got out things sorted, my best man for my wedding gave me an envelope which revealed four tickets to the evening game. What a gesture! I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a “Best man’s present” but I’m not one to complain.

After spending an hour trying to find a bus, taxi or any form of transport to the stadium it became quite clear that we’d have to walk. It took us another hour but as our legs started to give way luckily we came across the best Algerian since Riyad Mahrez as he gave us a lift to the stadium on his way home – WHAT A RESULT!

As we got into the stadium, the atmosphere between the two sets of fans was amazing and if one thing is certain, it’s that Turkish fans are absolute mental! Although sadly their players massively let them down on the night, especially Arda Turan whose every touch in the second-half was booed and jeered.

The game ended 3-0 with two goals from Morata and one from Nolito and as the final whistle blew, the Turkish fans decided to let off their flares and fireworks which understandably played havoc with my nerves.

Unfortunately, our Algerian friend wasn’t present to give us a lift back after the game so we spent almost two hours walking back to the villa – my feet have never looked so bad!

The morning after was our last in France and as we departed for the airport I felt a little sadness as our Euro trip came to an end.

Looking back I have to say though, I loved every minute of my trip to Nice..

except for the 93rd of course!

 

Thanks for reading,

Louis