Six games into the Chesham United season without a win, the return of the rugby season was a welcome relief and a chance to go back to just watching and enjoying live sport without the distraction of having experienced, or being aware of, the behind the scenes activity that can so often distract from what sport should be – A release, and a source of entertainment. First stop: Newcastle.
Many Chesham United supporters will know that I have long held Saracens up as a shining example of how to get right all the “little things” that Chesham United have, historically, for many years, struggled with – Getting the kids involved, engaging with the community, making the matchday experience special, displaying respect and dignity, treating supporters with a sense of importance and good, honest, communication.
It was these traits that enabled my son to get me along to the odd game in the first place and slowly create some magical live moments (Marcelo Bosch’s last minute penalty win in Paris perhaps being the experience that took us from interested participants to totally obsessed supporters!) that have made us feel very much a part of the club. And I have written about these experiences many times in articles on this blog site and even in the Chesham United matchday programme, expressing how Chesham could learn, and how I could even help Chesham to learn, from my experiences with Saracens.
With this in mind, I felt a real sense of “Oh no, please don’t bugger it up” when Saracens seemed to let things slip with some poor communication to season ticket holders when they introduced, in some instances, huge price hikes for season tickets. There is a reality that as Saracens fans we have been lucky enough to watch some of the best players in the northern hemisphere on a regular basis and we have seen our team picking up Premiership titles and European Cups; in a stadium that only holds 10,000 there is an inevitability about the fact that, at some point, we are going to have to start paying a bit more for that. Understandable…but get the “little things” right, communicate it properly – Don’t let me down and make me look stupid for using you as an example on how to get things right!
The upshot is that there was a lot of unrest and ill-feeling over the summer amongst many loyal supporters, people who have been there long before I would ever have even contemplated attending a rugby match. I got off relatively lightly I think, my son’s ticket price has gone up a fair bit and mine a little, but there are many others not that far from our seats that have seen massive increases and either moved to cheaper seats, or not taken up their tickets this year. A real shame.
I sense there is still some ill-feeling, but others have turned the whole situation into a positive by congregating in a different area in the South Stand with a view to seeing it as an opportunity to create the same atmosphere at home as you tend to get at away games – A bunch of vocal Sarries fans sat together prepared to make some noise and have a bit of a sing-song. It works away from home…brilliantly.
So it was with a sense of trepidation that my son, Ben, and I set off for the first game. I hoped that the summer can be put behind us, hoped the club had learned the lessons and hoped that we can go back to making some fantastic memories in an era when it is clearly a good time to be a supporter of the men in black.
There was no need for the trepidation, the travelling Sarries fan were in a fine mood; and even happier when they left at the end of the game.
In addition to our season tickets Ben and I have become hooked on the away day experience, it started out as the odd one, but then that kind of kept growing to the point where this season we had put Gloucester and Newcastle as our must go to games, the only two Premiership grounds we have not yet visited. So, it was with great delight that Newcastle away cropped up as the first game of the season, and enable us to start planning.
A Sunday game was not great, but Ben was not back at school yet so I took the Monday off work and it enabled us to watch Chesham United pick up their first point of the season with a 1-1 draw at home to Wimborne – Not a classic, but you have to start somewhere. We went to bed Saturday with the intention of being on the road by 6.30am the following morning. Now, if “Mum” and Ben’s brother Tom were with us, that would probably mean we are on the road by 6.45am – However, Ben is much more like me, would rather be early than “just on time“.
It was 6.00am when we picked up our McMuffin’s from McDonalds at Jarman Park and prepared for the 267 mile drive to Newcastle. At that time of the morning the drive was a delight – No lorries on the road, light traffic and a sense of excitement for the new season ahead. At 8.45am we stopped at Wetherby Services for a coffee/hot chocolate and a slice of millionaire shortbread before getting back on the A1 and cracking open the jelly babies to get us through the rest of the journey – Yep, by 9.30am we had already eaten a McDonalds, chocolate shortbread and sweets…Newcastle away was never going to be a healthy one!
Just after 10.00am we pulled up into the car park of the Premier Inn near Newcastle airport, our home for the night. Far too early to check-in we made a trip to the local Tesco Extra where we topped up on emergency supplies for the room – Water, smoothies and Pringles – before heading back to the Premier Inn and setting off on the walk to the ground, via a meet up with the Sarries on Tour supporters group at the Twin Farms pub, less than half a mile from the Kingston Park ground.
Our Premier Inn hotel location proved to be perfect, a couple of miles walk to the pub meant that we could leave the car behind at the hotel and sure enough by just after 11.30am we were sat in the Twin Farms; Ben with a pint of Coke Zero and myself sampling a local ale. Soon enough the pub was awash with Saracens fans, leading to one Newcastle Falcons supporter at the bar commenting, “Blimey, is it an away match for the Falcons?” (Not sure how to type the exact words he said with the accent!)
The sun was shining, the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed as the excitement for the first game of the season began to build. At just after 1.45pm Ben and I set off for the ground, found our seats, topped up on drink ( a 2 pint plastic glass of Guinness!) and were ready for the main event.
Credit once again to Sarries On Tour – The concept of making group bookings, discounted at that, has been a complete masterstroke. It has brought together Saracens fans that might otherwise have been scattered around the ground (I know that the Supporters Association now also do that on behalf of the club, but before then an away day experience was very different) and it brings together a bunch of fans that want to give the team some vocal support, and enhance that away day experience.
It has worked a treat.
Northampton away last year was perhaps one of the best atmospheres I have been in with Sarries away, but Newcastle this week was again up there, particularly for commitment and originality. Yes, thanks in no small part to the supporter affectionally known as the White Helmet because, well, because he wears a White Hemet to games of course, the Sarries away support songs have grown beyond the monotonic “SAAARRIIEESS, SAAARRIIEESS” to include a complete range of original songs and chants that seem to be being appreciated by the players and fellow supporters alike – With several Newcastle fans commenting on the great support, originality and even said “could you write a couple of songs for us!”
It all adds to the occasion and Saracens went on to win the match with a bonus point (four tries) making the whole day even more enjoyable. As with the Chesham United blog, I won’t go into details about the match as you can read details of the 32-21 win all over the internet, but it is safe to say that once again the time taken by the players to appreciate the supporters was noticeable. It is only a little thing (oh those pesky “little things”), but it makes such a huge difference to your feelings when you leave the game…particularly when attending games with your 14 year old son.
At the final whistle players came over to the Sarries fans in the stadium, Ben grabbing a photo with Jamie George and Jackson Wray, before we headed around to the other side of the ground near the changing rooms where Richard Wigglesworth went out of his way to balance on a step for a photo with Ben, and then we also got Ben’s picture taken with Defence Coach Alex Sanderson who took the time to ask if we had travelled all the way up that morning? Yep, we had. “And were you sat over with the noisy crowd in the corner?” Yep, we were that as well. His genuine appreciation was warming, and in some small way it made us feel as though we had contributed to the opening day victory for Saracens!
When we left the stadium we walked back to our hotel and had a meal in the restaurant next door – Slightly over ordering with, what turned out to be, a huge chicken sharing platter as a starter before our steak and chips arrived! Somewhat bloated and jaded we retired to our room fairly early. The plan was to go for breakfast at 8.00am, and be on the road by 9.00am…
By 7.45am we had had breakfast and were joining the A1 for the journey home. A lot more lorries this time, and a broken down truck on the M1 made the journey seem a fair bit longer on the return, but after just over 4.5 hours we exited the M1 at junction 8, looking forward to getting home for a nice lunch, a wee and a rest…
…Just then the mobile phone rings, it is Ben’s brother Tom, we use Find Friends on the iphone so we always know, as a family, where each other is. “Hi Dad, I can see you are just about to pass McDonalds, any chance you could stop and pick-up…”
When we go to Northampton in a couple of weeks time I think I’ll pack Ben and I a salad and some carrot sticks for our food!