Ni hao ma? Wo hun hao!
This article was written for the Birmingham City v. Spurs match day programme for Saturday 30th January 2010.
Deadline: Sunday 16th August - 13.30hrs. Years had gone by since my last visit to Old Trafford. Of course, the first game of the season meant the first match back in the Premiership for all of us, but it was even more special than that; over the last ten years my fingers and toes allow me to count the Blues matches I’ve attended. This is not for lack of desire; the first decade of the twenty-first century has seen me first living in Moshi, a Tanzanian town under the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, and now in Suzhou, China.
Having been a Birmingham City season ticket holder until I left Brum in 1976 and having witnessed the truly great forward line of Francis, Latchford and Hatton score something like seventy-five goals between them in a single season and watched Trevor Francis score all four goals against Bolton Wanderers whilst still an apprentice, I was bound to be hooked. Personal favourites include the Blues 6-3 win against Portsmouth in the mud, having been 2-0 down, and running around the pitch with Roger Hynd after the last game of the season. Since then it’s been a matter of getting to matches whenever I could.
Somehow, some way, we all need our fix of the Blues; it was easier in Tanzania than China. South African satellite beamed in all the live matches featured on Sky and as an added bonus the Saturday 3.00pm fixture was shown as well. The Blues, having featured in the League Cup final against Liverpool in Cardiff in 2001, were just coming though a run of three consecutive play-offs to get into the Championship, they succeeded in 2002, as I watched lions and zebra in the Serengeti. It wasn’t possible to watch the Blues week after week but generally once or twice a month.
Moving to China in 2004 meant some new tricks had to be learned, not only was there less coverage, but the language barrier created an additional hurdle. My first premiership match of that season was in November, when Birmingham visited Anfield. The venue was an oddly placed TV screen on a street corner in Shanghai, perched on a stool and surrounded by twenty Chinese chefs who had just finished work. They were having a hard time working out quite why I was so entranced and also confused as to why I wasn’t a Liverpool supporter. They left the game on until the end, way after they would have normally left, and a one-nil win for the Blues washed down with several Tsingtao beers seemed extremely satisfactory in the circumstances!
It was hit and miss trying to watch matches until some of the Suzhou bar owners latched onto the huge potential for additional beer sales if they featured games. By 2006 the dam had burst but events conspired against me; relegation is not only a disaster for a club, it’s doubly disastrous for an overseas fan; the Championship isn’t shown at all! A sequence of only seeing losses on TV in 2005-06, was followed by seeing none of the Championship wins in 2006-07, followed by watching many of the defeats in 2007-08 and then seeing none of the victories again in 2008-09!
Since the start of the 2003 season the only games I’ve actually games attended were against Chelsea at St. Andrew’s in 2007-08, at home again for Sheffield United and away at Bristol City in 2008-09, this season’s opener at Old Trafford and the second match against Portsmouth. Five games, three wins and four Blues goals in seven seasons!
We were a couple of months into this season when finally a more satisfactory solution became apparent; WIN TV was finally available on satellite; a Chinese channel that features all Premiership matches. Not that this is an ideal solution, the commentary is over-dubbed by two excitable Chinese presenters sitting in a studio somewhere in Guangzhou; one interesting facet of their approach is to giggle hysterically at any foul!
The other downside with WIN TV is that it is impossible to access their schedules in anything but Chinese. Only the matches starting at lunchtime are on at a reasonable time here. The 3.00pm matches are shown at 11.00pm and evening matches are at 4.00am! Staying up on the off chance that a game will be featured is a gamble.
Watching live football in China would be one way of one way of passing some time, but it’s pretty dreary stuff. Generally the Chinese Super League matches have been of a lower standard the English Championship League, although they are beginning to improve. One particular match that stands out as being dreadful was a Shanghai United versus Wuhan game with almost as many players as spectators. Shanghai United ended up merging with Shanghai Shenhua, who until the end of the 2006 season played as Shanghai Shenhua SVA Smeg FC with SMEG emblazoned across their shirts. I’ve always wanted to get hold of a few "Smeg" 2005-06 shirts.
My wife and I took a trip up to Tianjin to watch England play the USA in the Women’s World Cup. As Andrea is American it was somewhat disappointing to lose that one 3-0, all the goals coming in a twelve minute spell in the second half. We arrived at the game late and a visit to the loo was called for before taking our seats. In the W.C. Andrea asked a fellow American what the score was and the answer, “I’m not sure, this game is so complicated” has amused us ever since, particularly as it was nil all at the time!
The news that Birmingham are planning to visit Hong Kong and China for a pre-season tour is fantastic and would of course provide an opportunity to see a couple of games. Unfortunately the one time of year I’m regularly away from China is in July and early August, so it seems this window will be missed also.
September seems a long time ago. I don’t suppose any one remembers now, but in five matches from the start of September to mid-October not a single Blues starting player scored a goal; the only two we got were from substitutes. Chinese friends would shake their heads and ask "Who are this team?" and "Why are they in the Premiership?" Now, in the middle of January we’ve seen both Chelsea and Man U held at home and St. Andrew’s filling out again; well you lot have seen them, we ex-pats have not! Interest is beginning to stir in China, finally more than a few locals will admit to having heard of Birmingham City!
Obviously with the recent run of results, unbeaten in fourteen, winning eight of those and having attained the dizzy heights of eighth in the table, a visit to St. Andrew’s is essential! Not being in the same income bracket as Carson Yeung this proves tricky, a fortnightly visit is not on the cards, an excuse had to be found! Fortunately we’re on a brief trip back to look for new jobs and to catch up with friends and family, this presents the opportunity to watch a couple of games; the away match at Chelsea on Wednesday 27th January and the following Saturday against Spurs at St. Andrew’s. Six points would be nice!
If you want to drop a line or two of sympathy to a frustrated Blues fan, stranded in Jiangsu province, you may do so on my website, which can be found at www.marquemywords.co.uk
Come on the Blues!