Brian Viner: A very English day out, even if it was in deepest Wales

No one has convinced me the play-offs are fair, but a play-off final is still a hell of an event
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The Independent Football

There is a pub in Cardiff called the Cayo Arms. It is named after the late Julian "Cayo" Evans, leader of the Free Welsh Army, who was jailed for his part in setting off three incendiary bombs during the investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1969.

Old Cayo must have been whirling in his grave like a dervish on Saturday lunchtime, as supporters of West Ham United and Crystal Palace converged on the place, the vision of an independent Wales almost certainly not uppermost in their minds.

Nobody has yet managed to convince me that the play-off system is a fair one. In the match programme, the chairman of the Football League, Sir Brian Mawhinney, wrote that the play-offs are exciting because "an entire season's work hangs in the balance".

That is precisely the reason they should be scrapped, or at the very least made fairer, so that the higher finishers are rewarded in some way, maybe with a goal's start or with home advantage in a one-match semi-final.

Otherwise, as poignantly in the case of my local team, Hereford United, who finished 17 points ahead of third-placed Shrewsbury Town in the Nationwide Conference only to see Shrewsbury leapfrog them into the Football League via the play-offs, that entire season's work is made a mockery.

But - and it is a biggish but - a play-off final is a hell of an event. West Ham v Crystal Palace was my first, and it was my first time, too, at the Millennium Stadium. What an arena. And what seats we had, just in front of Hammers devotee Ray Winstone.

Remember the 1979 film Scum, in which Winstone played a hard nut borstal boy whose idea of gentle coercion was to threaten someone with a sockful of snooker balls? Well, I snuck a look at his expression shortly before the end and blow me down if I hadn't seen it before, at the ABC in Southport in 1979. Two disallowed goals for, a dubious goal against, a solid claim for a penalty denied, and most painfully of all, a dreadfully underpowered performance by their team ... it was not a good afternoon for Winstone and 35,000-odd other West Ham fans.

The reason I found myself among them was that my good friend Mark Johnson - who bleeds claret and blue, and is doubtless still bleeding this morning - had secured tickets, gawd bless him, for my nine-year-old son Joseph and me.

We caught the 10.23 train from Leominster to Cardiff. It might have been the 10.23 from Poplar to Cardiff, judging by the number of West Ham fans on board. Four geezers across the aisle discussed the match, their perception sharpened by 30 cans of Carling Black Label. A visitor from overseas would have concluded that the Hammers midfield was the all-Turkish quartet of Faq, Faqer, Faqin-el, and Faqim. At Hereford, a genteel young woman got off with a faint look of relief. She told me she was on her way to the Hay Literary Festival.

Our match tickets included lunch beforehand in the Marriott Hotel, which was Joseph's second favourite bit of the day; his favourite bit was the display by the two keepy-uppy artists before kick-off. It was in the Marriott that I first saw a sharp-suited Winstone, scarcely able to get his boxer's gait from one table to the next without signing 50 autographs and posing for a dozen photographs. And it was in the gents at the Marriott where Mark's boy, Harry, gave a spontaneous delivery, in a sweet treble voice, of "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles". Grown men wept into the urinals.

Between the Marriott and the stadium there was immense good cheer. The Palace fans were mainly round the other side, but those there mingled happily with the West Ham fans. Neither before nor after the game was there the faintest whiff of aggression, and I couldn't help thinking of my late father, who would no sooner have taken me to a big football match when I was nine than thrown me to the lions in Chester Zoo. Times do sometimes change for the better.

On the esplanade beside the River Taff, at the West Ham end of the ground, the cleverer of Cardiff's entrepreneurs were selling claret and blue chequered flags. The less clever ones were selling flags with the West Ham crest. The cleverer ones already had half a mind on next season: Aston Villa in the FA Cup final and Burnley in the play-offs, that would suit them nicely.

After the match - as I trailed out of the stadium behind a man wearing a vast claret-and-blue wig but also the mournful look of one whose house has just burnt down - I thought about those entrepreneurs, and about the pubs and hotels around Cardiff, and how they will feel it economically when these big football occasions revert to Wembley. "Absolutely bloody typical of the English," is how Cayo Evans would have put it. "They use us while it suits them, and then they bugger off back home."

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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