Cardiff - The Millennium Stadium Experience
Following the excellent evening at Upton Park, when West Ham beat Ipswich 2-0 to qualify for the Division One play-off final, it was full steam ahead to sort out arrangements for the final. My mate Clive had already faxed off an application for two tickets for us, so we had to hope that the ticket office managed to get everything done correctly.
On the Saturday before the game, Clive phoned me to say the tickets had arrived, but there was a major problem in that his father-in-law was terminally ill, and could die at any time, so he didn't know whether he would be able to make it. If the worst happened, Clive said he would endeavour to make sure he got my ticket to me if he couldn't make it.
He phoned again on the Thursday with bad news. His father-in-law had died, so he wouldn't be coming to the game. He was going to pass the tickets on to a mate of his (Ken), and Ken would ring me on the Friday to sort things out. I spent most of Friday getting more and more stressed waiting for the phone call, which eventually came early evening.
We arranged that Ken would come to my place, and I would drive us to Cardiff from there. Come the Saturday morning, we were on our way by 7 o'clock. I chose to use the M40/A40/A48 to get to Wales rather than the M4, as this would be packed solid with fans from both teams.
This was a good decision, as we made very good time, even having time for a relaxing stop for a bacon butty and cup of tea alongside the Severn estuary, while we kept hearing reports on the radio of heavy traffic on the M4. We didn't hit any problems until we were near Cardiff itself. Even then, there wasn't much to slow us down.
I intended to use the park and ride facilities for the final stage of the journey. The routes into these were sign-posted quite well, except that I must have missed one somewhere, and got lost in Cardiff. Trying to find a way back to the West Ham park and rides, we found ourselves in the area of the Crystal Palace ones. I stopped to ask a copper if he could direct us back to where we should be, but for some reason he was deliberately unhelpful.
We continued to drive around, and by a stroke of luck, happened across a multi-storey car park that had been set aside for West Ham fans. This turned out to be only about ten minutes walk from the Millennium Stadium, and the car park attendants were handing out little maps on how to get to the ground, which was a good idea.
We were in a pub before 11 o'clock, and were able to observe and enjoy the build up of atmosphere in the streets. This was the best part of the day, as both sets of fans were in top form, especially the West Ham ones among whom we spent most of the time. There was no hint of trouble between the two sets of fans that we could see, even though they were mingling quite freely.
West Ham fans were in top form in the streets surrounding the stadium. Fans were arriving in stretch limos, with people hanging out of the windows and sun roofs singing choruses of "Bubbles" and other West Ham songs. Great fun.
After consuming a few drinks and something to eat, we made our way to the stadium. It is a very impressive construction, putting the old Wembley to shame. Let's hope when the new Wembley is built, it can at least match the Millennium. The only criticism I'd make is one that applies to every sporting arena I've ever been to, which is that the toilets are simply too small to cope with the amount of people wanting to use them at busy times (half time for example).
We located our seats, which were almost at the very top of the upper tier. It was a very steep climb to the top, and left some fans, including me, gasping by the time they'd managed all the steps. However, because it was so steep, it meant that you weren't too far away from the pitch, and the views were very good.
After visiting the stadium bars for some more refreshment, we returned to our seats for the start of the match, by which time the crowd and atmosphere were cranking up nicely. Then the game kicked off....
....and that's where the whole day took a turn for the worse. West Ham just couldn't get going, and were off their game all over the park. In the first half, Bobby Zamora was put clean through but his poor shot gave the 'keeper a straight forward save. In the second half, Palace took the lead after Bywater had spilled a shot in front of Neil Shitterly, giving him an easy tap-in. West Ham then had two goals correctly disallowed for offsides. Those aside, we never threatened to equalise, although Carrick did appear to be fouled in the penalty area, but the referee (Graham Poll - who has been dodgy against us before) didn't give it. To be fair, it would have been an injustice if we'd got back into the game, as we were definitely the poorer side.
The final whistle put us out of our misery, and all we had to look forward to was the journey home. Strangely, outside the ground, it was the West Ham fans that were more vocal, Palace fans being rather muted considering their team had just reached the Premiership. The return journey was uneventful. We came back up the M4, and were home in good time.
Now I've never been keen on the Welsh as a race, but to the people of Cardiff I say a big thank you for helping the day go well. All the pubs and eating places around the stadium seem to have things organised down to a tee, and everyone we encountered (barring the idiot copper I mentioned earlier) was friendly and helpful.
Also major thanks go to Clive for managing to get ticket arrangements sorted when he had far more important things to worry about, and to Ken for getting my ticket to me and for his company on the day.
To sum up - it was a top day out, spoiled by a football match in the middle of it.