Review – The Twelfth Player, Northampton Town FC and the Royal and Derngate at the Sixfields Stadium, Northampton, 23rd June 2017

12th PlayerDo you remember the great heatwave of 1976? Of course you do, we all fled to the beaches and the parks, tore off our clothes and went lobster red for the summer. How about the great storm of 1987? The one Michael Fish didn’t predict, where trees were uprooted, roofing tiles were flung about with gay abandon, and we all took the day off work. Well, if you’re a Northampton Town FC fan – and of a certain age – you’ll also remember the great season of 1965-66, when the Cobblers played in the First Division; their one and only year in Football’s Top Flight since they were founded in 1897. To be fair it wasn’t that great a season as they only won ten matches out of forty-two (although they still finished higher than Blackburn). But for our little club it was the stuff that dreams are made on.

Dad in the showerThe Royal and Derngate have got together with Fermynwoods Contemporary Art and Seven Sisters Group to create The Twelfth Player, an original and interactive tour around the Sixfields Stadium. In groups of no more than four – and two would I think be preferable – you’re given an iPod which guides you round some familiar and some unfamiliar areas of the stadium. You walk around, at the pace directed by the iPod, and whilst so doing you follow the story of a mad fan family who keep popping up on your screen. You may also see some ghosts of the past in “real life”, and, if you’re lucky, bump into Clarence, the Cobblers’ mascot. The story weaves some significant figures of the club’s past into its present to give it an extra dimension which will probably appeal to true devotees of the club more than just your average visitor.

12th-Player-prod6What it does provide is an opportunity to go “backstage”, as it were, and see the places you wouldn’t normally visit – the changing rooms, both home and away (I was really surprised by how small the shower areas are); the laundry area, and the famous “tunnel” which takes the players on to the pitch. You get to walk all around the pitch (sadly not on it) – although some guys were tinkering with some machinery at the corner of the pitch and I definitely got the feeling we were getting in their way, which slightly disrupted the illusion of the event!

ClarenceThere’s no doubt that this is a unique entertainment, approximately 40 minutes long, and I think you’d get the most out of it by being a big fan of the club or (even more) a child who is a big fan of the club. The technology is very clever and entices you in to the extent that you may occasionally forget to keep taking a good look around you, and not just concentrating on the screen! I was accompanied by Mr Flying the Flag who is a Northampton Town Nerd (he won’t mind me saying that) and he did point out that there were a couple of factual inaccuracies in some of the historical data given, which I guess is a shame. Not that I would have known. Primarily it’s a great chance to see the places only the professionals go; and I’m never going to come under that category! It’s on until 12th July – but not every day, so make sure you book ahead!

Our Olympic Experience No 1 – Men’s Football, Japan v Honduras and Senegal v UAE, Coventry Stadium, 1st August 2012

Olympic FootballAs I’m sure you’re aware, dear reader, deep down Mrs Chrisparkle and I are very sporty types, so I put our application in for the ballot for Olympic tickets on Day One, what seems like many years ago now. Like nearly everyone else, we were completely unsuccessful in all of our choices. But that meant we were entitled to go for the Sad Losers’ Repecharge, and subsequently obtained tickets to three sports, totally unrelated to the six of our original application. Still, once we got them, we held on to them, and on Wednesday we sampled our first taste of Live Olympic Glory.

JapanCoventry was the perhaps slightly unlikely location for this momentous event, as some of the football events are being held at the Ricoh Arena – I mean the City of Coventry Stadium (close shave with the Branding Police there!) We arrived at the station courtesy of our London Midland train on perfect time, and were greeted by about a dozen joyful volunteers whose sole job seemed to be to say hi and welcome and point to where the complimentary Shuttle Buses were waiting. Within 60 seconds of getting off the train we were sitting on the bus – you can’t say fairer than that. And very soon we were off on the first leg of Glory.

HondurasAt the stadium, we were asked to take everything out of our pockets and put them into a clear plastic bag that they kindly provided; any small bags could be taken straight through, but any larger ones had to be security checked. “This counts as small, yes?” said Mrs C to the friendly lady, pointing at her handbag. “No. That needs to go through security.” But the procedure was about as speedy and pleasant as it could be. We were rapidly whisked to a nice lady who asked permission to open Mrs C’s bag, agreed that everything inside was perfectly valid and non-terrorist, and then put her bag into another large clear bag, tie-twisted it up with an enormous security tag that could have restrained an oak tree, and we were cleared to enter. A friendly lady asked if I wanted to buy a programme. Yes please. But there are £5 and £10 programmes, and the lady went into careful detail to explain the difference between the two. I opted for the fiver.

SenegalMore friendly people waved us towards the turnstile entrances, with “hello” and “welcome” and “have a nice day” and it all sounded really genuine and welcoming. It’s a pity Life can’t be more like the Olympics, really. Mrs C and I were separated at the turnstile into “men” and “women” queues so that we could be same-sex-frisked (“Don’t mind if I pat you down, sir?” politely enquired the presumably G4S security guy) and then it was a quick scan of a barcode and we were inside. They say in advance to expect airport-style security. They are wrong; it is hugely more friendly and polite than any airport experience I’ve ever had.

UAEOnce inside there is a vast array of food and drink outlets – more than enough to deal with this crowd you would have thought…. (see later). We established which would be the best one to offer a gluten-free meal for between the matches. Nearly every one was offering steak pie, pasty, cheese and bacon slice, etc and we thought uh-oh this doesn’t look promising. I distinctly remembering reading on some London 2012 site that they had put a lot of thought into providing for the sustenance needs of people with food allergies. We kept looking. Eventually we found two outlets that were offering Chicken or Vegetable Jalfrezi, with rice and naan. We had already thought that a glass of pre-match wine would be a good idea so ordered two London 2012 Chenin Blancs and asked whether the Jalfrezi was gluten-free. After some backstage consultation the lady came back and said yes! We said great! We’ll be back later. The Chenin Blanc was just about cold enough but very tasty and we stood in front of a screen and watched Bradley Wiggins coasting home to victory, to a huge cheer from the others also watching.

Japan and Honduras National AnthemsI’m pleased to say there is plenty of toilet provision, which is always a Good Thing. For the gents, a veritable plethora of urinals; I reckon at least 300 people could use them at the same time, and that was just on our side of the stadium. Ladies were also well catered for, I understand. However, Mrs C’s enjoyment of the toilet provision was marred by the overzealous actions of the Branding Police. I had noticed in the Gents that the name of the company supplying the hot air dryers had been masking-taped-over. Didn’t give it a huge amount of thought to be honest. Mrs C, however, complained that not only did they do that in the Ladies with the hot air dryers, but also with the soap dispenser, the Sanitary Towel bin and most ridiculously of all, with the names on the vending machine. So you couldn’t tell if you were buying an urgently needed tampon or a tangerine-flavoured condom. She came out speechless with annoyance about it, finding it an insult to her intelligence. So much so, gentle reader, and don’t tell anyone, but, aggrieved by the wrong done to the sisterhood, she returned back inside and removed the masking tape from the vending machine. As she pointed out, if you had bought the tangerine-flavoured condom by mistake you would be more than narked. A little civil disobedience from time to time is just something that has to be done.

Our excellent seatsThe first of the two matches we would be seeing was Japan v Honduras. Not a lot of Honduran shirts or flags in evidence, but, my, what a lot of Japanese! Every other person had a red dot on a white oblong painted on their face, loads of people wrapped themselves in large Japanese flags, ladies were in sporty kimonos, guys were dressed in full Samurai warrior outfits. The atmosphere was tangibly exciting. They were really throwing themselves into the spirit of the event in a way that I hadn’t expected.

Japan v HondurasWe took our seats; and they were great. East stand, more or less in line with the front end of the penalty box, about fifteen rows back. Everyone of course is currently concerned with Empty Seat Syndrome, but I didn’t think the ground was looking that bad. People kept coming in and going out so it was difficult to gauge the attendance but it looked to us about 75% full. The teams came on; we had the National Anthems. Everyone stood in respectful silence for both anthems (apart from the Japanese who sang along, which was only right and proper).

Flags of all footballing nationsAnd from then on, it got a bit boring. The match wasn’t very exciting – both Japan and Honduras were already through to the next round so there wasn’t a great deal to play for apart from a bit of honour on the day. I’m certainly not saying they did a “Badminton”, they just weren’t very good at finishing. Or starting, come to that. At half time we were thrown big bouncy balls to play with. That was good. Second half came, still not a lot of action, but we hang on till the final whistle to mark the end of the thrilling no score draw.

Senegal v UAEThere was a good hour between the end of the match and the beginning of the Senegal v UAE match so we thought there would be plenty of time to queue for a Jalfrezi. Actually Mrs C had suggested we leave five minutes early to queue, but we decided that ought not to be necessary. Wrong! When we eventually got to the outlet in question, there was a very long queue. Should we join it, or come back when it has gone down? We joined. After half an hour we were close to the counter, but then – disaster struck. They ran out of pies. Everyone else was desperate for pies, it seems, and they were waiting for fresh supplies to go in the oven. But instead of trying to find out if anyone wanted anything else to eat, they just stopped serving. And waited. They would serve people who just wanted drinks, but that was all. Eventually extra pies arrived, but not before some people had got unsurprisingly very arsey and tetchy about it. In fact I was surprised at the amount of good grace and forbearance most of the customers showed. After 45 minutes of queueing we were finally able to order. Two Vegetable Jalfrezis and two glasses of your Finest London 2012 Tempranillo Shiraz, if you please. I paid for it all (£22.40 – judge for yourself if that’s good value or not). First one Jalfrezi arrived. The server scampered away. Then two little bottles of wine were plonked on the counter – no glasses. The server scampered away again. A guy waiting for a pie admired the fact that they served wine by the neck – we agreed it was a classy joint and no mistake. Eventually another Jalfrezi appeared, which we grabbed quickly. “Have you got any glasses for the wine please?” No – but we could have the polystyrene cups they use for coffee. So we found a quiet corner – not – and ate our Jalfrezis (very nice actually) and drank our wine (surprisingly delish). The naam bread turned out to be pitta but because of the stupid time it took to queue and get served we missed the first 15 minutes of the next match and so I certainly wasn’t in the mood to question their Trades Descriptions.

Fewer attendees second match Our late return was a shame because it was much more exciting than the first match. Senegal and UAE were really at it hammer and tongs, especially in the second half, with lots of near misses and agonised oohs and aahs from the largely non-partisan crowd, Senegalese drum beats notwithstanding. There were a couple of goals though, both at our end of the pitch, so it was very rewarding to watch. The 1-1 draw was fair I thought. The majority of the Japanese supporters had gone home after the first match so the stands looked much emptier but it didn’t spoil the atmosphere. The official attendance was 28,652 – apparently Coventry City’s average home crowd for 2011-2012 was 15,118. So that’s all good then.

Senegal attackWould the trip home be as seamless as the way in? Absolutely. Vast swathes of farewelling volunteers pointed us towards the shuttle buses and there really were a helluva lot of those too. They must have rounded up every stray bus in Warwickshire. Considering we left the stadium at around 9.40pm we were back at Coventry station at 10.20pm – that’s pretty good service. On arrival at the station we were still being welcomed, goodbyed and missing-you-alreadyed by volunteers and got on an extra train that those nice people at London Midland had provided that arrived at 10.23pm.

UAE defendA really enjoyable day. Highlights: atmosphere, organisation, friendliness, goals. Lowlights: food queues and overzealous Branding Police. You may read that the Olympic powers that be don’t want you to take bags into football arenas. Our advice would be, bring your own choice of food from home and enjoy it picnic-style – although no drinks of course, you’ll need to get those from the well-stocked bars. There is a big Marks & Spencer just outside the stadium, which was calling Mrs C’s name as we arrived, so you could also stock up on eatables there. Do that and you’ll have a much more relaxing – and probably tastier – time. Anyway, what’s with this “no alcohol inside the ground” rule? Why is it safe to drink it in the outside areas, where people are milling around and bumping into one another, and not safe to drink it when you are sitting down? The bizarreness of this rule became very obvious at half time in the second match when we all got up to go out and encountered a poor man trying to get in with two hot coffees in either hand with which he was desperately trying not to scald himself as tons of us bombarded past him. If he had been carrying alcohol and it got spilt, it would have only resulted in tears not bandages.