This is what it’s all about. For the first time in over two years, I managed to blag my way into a press box. And for a decent game as well, not the York City-Leeds United pre-season love-in I covered from the hack seats for the Non-League Paper last time round. Sure, it meant returning to a Sports Editor position for a campus newspaper – meaning an endless cycle of moving apostrophes, cropping pictures and stalking sporty people on Facebook to find out the correct spelling of their impossibly convoluted surnames – but regular free football isn’t something to be sniffed at. At York, I ran the sports section of the mighty, multi-award winning Nouse. Now, it’s the slightly more modest Forge Press at Sheffield but, although there’s work to be done, I hope we’ll get near Nouse standards by the end of the year.
I’d been to Bramall Lane plenty of times before but, with Boston at home (and going top of the league!) I faced a blank afternoon that had to be filled. The chap with me, Pulasta (whose match report is a brilliant effort), was experiencing his first taste of English football and this six-goal thriller was a great place to start. By the end, he had broken just about every rule of press box etiquette – jumping around in disgust at the flying challenges, leaping in delight when United scored and generally trying to blend in with the moaning locals in the rows beneath us – but you had to admire the enthusiasm, which was infectious. Though I did draw the line at papping Gary Speed on my shitty iPhone camera during the post-match conference. We’re journalists, not tourists!
I obviously had a glorified view of such press areas, God knows where from, and expecting some sort of sumptuous banquet or Michelin star á la carte cuisine I had skipped breakfast and lunch. The cups of tea were copious, but by the time we arrived, the sole complimentary tray of egg and cress sarnies had been decimated by the regulars and a sizeable and obviously gluttonous travelling press contingent from Lancashire. I made the mental note to get there earlier next time – perhaps half twelve should do it.
While Pulasta, with his football personality homing device, networked with Iain Dowie (he did get some advice and his e-mail address, so fair play) I puzzled with the local reporters over Gary Speed’s selection and tactics, which were just the complete opposite from everyone’s expectations. Dowie was there for that Jeff Stelling Show (not Countdown) and no doubt described all six goals in classic full-facial, eyes-bulging, high octave, High Definition glory.
We had a great view from our seats, plus a television feed, though you know you’re not more than a student reporter when you’re allocated what can only be described as the press overflow area. When you can tell the filling of the bloke-in-front’s pie from the smell wafting back at you, you might as well be sitting with the fans. Last time I was here, for the single-goal defeat by Newcastle United last season, the atmosphere was electric but it was reflective of United’s poor start that splodges of empty red seats were visible in all four stands, even the Kop, which was very subdued. With the gusto of a gaggle of old folks at a funeral, they rabbled through Annie’s Song (I sang the Boston version) but then slumped back into indignant silence.
The game was gripping, even during a scoreless first-half. Burnley, backed by a sizeable and vocal contingent from across the Pennines, missed two golden chances through Andre Bikey, their commanding beast of a defender and striker Chris Iwelumo, whose slide and miss of a low Chris Eagles cross was reminiscent of that sitter he missed for Scotland last year. Man. United should have thought twice about parting company with Eagles, who was omnipresent and infinitely skilful here. In other words, easily as good as Darren Fletcher, Darron Gibson or that Bebe guy.
But the real drama would follow in the second period: the Clarets built a two goal lead thanks to Dean Marney’s flick-header and Eagles’ penalty. On both occasions, the scorer rushed towards the delirious away support. Pulasta turned to me, taking in the scenes: ‘Wow, is that football hooliganism?’ Nah, nothing of the sort - that’s just a few pepped-up hoodies being squashed against an advertising hoarding.
There looked to be no route back for United, but they seemed to take heed of the sniping in the stands and bossed the remainder of the match. Daniel Bogdanovic robbed Tyrone Mears of possession for a gift of a goal and then sub Matt Lowton equalised. Those around us – you know, bona fide professional journalists with final whistle deadlines - started ripping up their copy, praying there wouldn’t be more twists.
They were mistaken. Jay Rodriguez restored Burnley’s lead in the 90th minute and the ground started to evacuate. The journos cursed and ripped up their copy again, re-writing leads with frenetic fingers. There was more. Mark Yeates, who was outstanding throughout, equalised in the 94th. More cursing, and with steam visibly wafting from their ears, those high pressure articles were re-drafted again. The bloke behind me bawled amendments down the phone. And this is the profession I want to enter... Course it is!
Next Match: More press box blagging at Sheffield Wednesday vs. AFC Bournemouth on Saturday