Where next? The Hawthorns, West Bromwich Albion.
Where are we seated? Behind the goal in the North End, The Smethwick End. The allocation is 3,000 seats priced at £40. Sold out as it is, was and ever shall be.
What`s It Like? The Hawthorns is a unique stadium. A well worn piece of trivia tells you it`s the highest ground above sea level in the football league. It holds 28,000 and has been completely renovated in the last 15 years, meaning all sides are now enclosed. The atmosphere in the away end is very easily generated as the Smethwick End is a steep, one tiered stand. Plus, the stand is split with home supporters away to your left. This always lubricates the vocal chords.
Access and aggress to the Smethwick End can be troubling though. The stand is housed at the bottom of a long, sloped footpath. There is a quicker way to access the stand that eliminates the need to use the slope, but it`s usually cordoned off with a metal gate for reasons that are not readily explained. So on your way down to the turnstiles, you have to walk like a penguin to avert a comedy tumble. On your way out, smokers and comfort eaters are easy to identify as the level of panting can reach Alsatian levels when you climb the hill. If it`s an evening game, it`s even more fun. The pathway is shrouded by trees and is not lit in any way. So you have to orienteer your way up a steep hill with 3,000 people in pitch black. With an afternoon kickoff in mid May, on this occasion it shouldn`t be an issue.
What are the facilities like? In the Smethwick End, the facilities are pretty dire. The concourse is probably the most cramped you will find in the Premier League. There aren`t many staircases which take away supporters from the concourse to their seats, so 3,000 people cram into a space that would probably best serve about 1,000. It`s a bit like going on a caravanning holiday with the Brady Bunch. If you suffer from claustrophobia, have a brown paper bag handy. Just make sure it`s not from a local fast food outlet. They won`t let you bring it in.
If you have a nervous constitution, give the pies a swerve. They`re bloody awful. The hot dogs are only any good if you`re conscious about your love handles. The frankfurter to bread ratio is akin to sticking a pinhead into an A3 envelope. The alcohol on offer comes in the shape of plastic bottles of Carlsberg, pints of Tetley and Strongbow. So that`s the worst lager, the worst bitter and the worst cider. Inside, seating is cramped but the steepness of the stand means views are good pretty much everywhere. In my experience, everybody has almost always stood throughout the game.
What are the home fans like? The Baggies are quite typically Brummie in their darkly ironic outlook. (Their official club season review for their 2005-06 relegation season was called ‘Making God Laugh`). West Bromwich was described in the Domesday Book as “the little village on the heath of broom” and their town motto is “work conquers all.” Despite becoming a large, cosmopolitan borough in the West Midlands, the West Bromwich folk maintain their cheerful community feel. (A curious number of comedians support West Brom, which tells a story).
In terms of atmosphere it`s nothing special. Like most Premier League grounds it depends entirely on how well the team are playing, but Baggies` fans rarely turn on their own team with the same viciousness that others do. Perhaps that`s partly to do with the demeanour of their fans and partly because being the archetypal yo-yo club of the 21st Century has given them a decent level of perspective.
How to get there? Train links are pretty good. You can either go to Birmingham Snow Hill and take a metro straight to the Hawthorns station, five minutes away. Or else if you go to Birmingham New Street, regular overground trains will take you to Smethwick Rolfe Street, which is about ten minutes from the stadium. From what I`m told, parking is sparse. On your way off the A41 towards the ground, you`ll exit the M5 on a road that looks like a helter skelter. On this occasion, me and mine are staying in Birmingham on the Saturday evening.
Any historical landmarks in the vicinity? Around the ground there are the Jeff Astle Memorial Gates. I`m told that he was some kind of cabaret singer on Baddiel and Skinner`s Fantasy Football Show. Between the Birmingham Road End and East Stand, there is an ornament of a throstle standing on a football, as seen on West Brom`s badge.
If you`re an architecture buff, there`s the West Bromwich town hall. Other than that, like most satellites of big cities, there`s not a great deal to get the Tourist Board`s phone lines buzzing.
Where to drink? The Vine on Roebuck Street is the recommended away pub, about 15-20 minutes away. But whenever I`ve been for a drink pre West Brom I`ve used the Royal Oak. It`s about a mile and a half away from the ground. If you travel via the stadium, take the Birmingham Road and chuck a right and The Royal Oak is about half a mile away. It`s not the biggest pub, but the bar staff are very quick to serve. It`s reasonably priced and on a nice day, there`s plenty of room to stand outside. Obviously the pub is aptly named for an Arsenal fan. LD.
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A Vital Guide To…The Hawthorns
Where next? The Hawthorns, West Bromwich Albion.