I’m short, fat and ginger so I tend to stand out wherever I go.
I’m also not the most popular person in the world and never have been. It doesn’t help that I try to turn every conversation into a debate and I’m useless at small talk, so I try to replace that with attempts at humour which often fall flat since I’m the only person on the planet that thinks my jokes are funny!
“In my world a former player is dragged onto the pitch at half time to mumble replies to the same weekly questions from a stadium announcer that does the very best with the tools they’re given – a PA system made of chicken wire, asbestos and tin foil. He could read out that nights winning lottery numbers and we’d all wake up non-the-richer in the morning.”
So, imagine how much of a sore thumb I looked in a room full of suits at a corporate networking event at St Andrews prior to the Middlesbrough game earlier this week…
Contrary to some murmurs on social media, myself and fellow Fat Lad Chris Pugh were not there as “guests of the club”. We did not break bread nor share a steak with Mr Cheng and the only famous faces we saw belonged to Troy Deeney (who popped in for 30 seconds to say “hi” to a friend) and Jeremy of AccessiBlues fame.
We attended the event as guests of Stationary & Print Centre and whilst their owner spent the night networking, Pugh and I had more simplistic goals:
Win a quiz.
Sadly, we only completed one of these objectives and whilst I don’t wish any real harm to come to ‘Table 1’, I do sincerely hope that they each stub a toe or stand on a piece of Lego over the next few days. Second place is a travesty, but we will dust ourselves off and go again!
Anyway, the reason I offer this background info before getting into the crux of the matter is threefold.
Firstly, who doesn’t love a bit of table-setting fluff? Secondly, I wanted to put any rumours that Eddie and I are besties to bed whilst reiterating that my opinions on the whole BSHLOUT campaign have not waivered at all. Thirdly, I want to talk about the sheer disparity between the upper classes at Blues and the common man.
Now, brace yourselves for this but… The folks over in the corporate seats are treated well. Very well.
I know right! Pick your jaws up off the floor, grab a large brandy and strap yourselves in for one hell of an exposé!
Seriously though, once through the Kop reception security procedures (which could give Heathrow Airport a run for their money) we were shown upstairs to our superbly decorated function room – complete with signed, framed International shirts from the likes of Jose Dominguez and other past legends.
(As a side note, it has literally just dawned on me that we were in the International Room, hence the International shirts… Should have been obvious really. Maybe there’s a reason we didn’t win that quiz…?)
On every corner there’s a staff member with a smile. There’s a friendly nod, a “hello”, a side-step to allow you to walk the corridors freely. There are no stewards, no gatekeepers and no K2 staff with heads in their laps.
This wasn’t my world.
I wish that it were and maybe if I’d have spent more time focusing on University studies than football, music and girls then it could have been. But no, I was trespassing on an experience far removed from my usual trip to St Andrews.
My world has leaking urinals. My world has grunts and groans from underpaid staff. My world has queue durations longer than the half time interval and dirty, sticky floors that cause you to wipe your feet on the way OUT of the ground.
In my world a former player is dragged onto the pitch at half time to mumble replies to the same weekly questions from a stadium announcer that does the very best with the tools they’re given – a PA system made of chicken wire, asbestos and tin foil. He could be read out that nights winning lottery numbers and we’d all wake up non-the-richer in the morning.
Over in the posh seats I was having the time of my life. Drinking, laughing, sitting in the comfiest seat of my life with the best view I’ve ever had at a football stadium. The performance on the pitch was dire but a non-entity in the grand scheme of things. This was a corporate jolly, but it also highlighted the disparity between the haves and have-nots.
The club and more specifically Ian Dutton are undoubtedly listening to fans, but are they really hearing us? Are they understanding us? Are they experiencing what we experience?
Are they queueing to stand in piss-sodden toilet blocks then washing their hands with ice cold water before shaking them dry like a dog emerging from a river because there aren’t suitable facilities to dry them?
Are they paying over the odds for a bang average pint that must be downed in one because the second half is about to kick off? Or are they syphoning petrol out of their cars to pay for an overpriced burger that’s been heated under a hairdryer for 20 seconds before belching their way through a fizzy drink because bottle tops are a lethal weapon in the hands of a football fan?
Or are they being treated with respect, dignity and good humour by some of the best hospitality staff I’ve had the pleasure of meeting?
Over in corporate, names are remembered, the purchase of a pint comes with a free smile and staff take the time to throw in a quick one liner or two.
Whilst I wasn’t a “guest of the club”, if this is the experience offered to those invited few then it’s not hard to see how their opinions on the club’s ownership can be easily softened.
Whenever I talk to Stationary & Print Centre’s Mike Jabbari, he always goes out of his way to praise the staff behind the scenes that we don’t know the names of. The people running the day-to-day operations. He tells me that he wants me to see this side of the club and witness their passion and support for Birmingham City FC.
Mike is right.
It’s clear as day that there are some very good, very competent staff aboard that BCFC ship and they deserve recognition. As does Ian Dutton for a series of ‘quick wins’. But these are not now and were not ever the problem.
The problem is hiding in Hong Kong. The problem is bigger than the faces we recognise at St Andrews and I urge every single person reading this to follow Dan Ivery’s ongoing work.
The match day experience may have been lifted somewhat by some nice new banners, a lick of paint here and there and some gourmet street food but there is still so much more that can be done.
This week I saw with my own eyes the level of standards Blues can achieve in this area and whilst I’m not naïve enough to suggest that the corporate treatment should be the norm, the difference between the two worlds is astounding.
I’m not suggesting that the corporate day out be diminished in any way, and I don’t wish this to be read as a complaint about Main Stand, Gil Merrick, Tilton or Kop staff either. But if just a small fraction of the money that’s been spent on that lovely, clean, welcoming part of the ground were to be spent elsewhere then EVERYONE’S day would improve dramatically.
The challenge for the club is to raise the day out for the common man and whilst I will happily give credit to Ian Dutton and his staff for the small steps taken so far, there is still a long way to go.
I, for one, am sick of relegation scraps on the pitch and the ownership situation keeps me up at night. They are separate issues that must be dealt with ASAP, but the match day experience is where things really hit home at the moment.
The only thing I enjoy about St Andrews currently is the company of those inside of it. The building is dirty, worn and falling apart around us but I thank the Lord for the Brummies and Bluenoses that are willing to share that experience with me.
As stated earlier, the club HAVE started to make improvements, but I wonder how long these basic customer service/sanitation/quality of life issues would take to be resolved if they were occurring over in the posh seats…
By Mark Watson