Living the low life away from the Canaletto Club

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The Independent Online
MY EXPERIENCE of Stamford Bridge has until now been privileged, as over the past year a good friend has given me tickets for the Canaletto Club.

Who is Canaletto anyway, and what did he ever do for Ken Bates? I, for one, have no idea, but the seats are situated at just the right height in the East Stand, with a cosy little bar available for those patrons willing to pay in excess of pounds 1,000 a season. That's for home games only, mind you, and doesn't even include Europe - hardly the greatest bargain of all time. But it's a good spot for the neutral, and away fans can be heard but not seen.

Last Sunday I became one of the unseen. As my dad is now coaching at Bradford City I managed to get a few tickets for City's visit to Chelsea, forgetting that I would be an away fan. The Chelsea away "pit", as you may have experienced, is possibly the most claustrophobic vantage point in the whole of Premiership football.

One of my companions was the Canadian rugby captain, whose muscle-bound frame looked distinctly uncomfortable compressed into the plastic seats. Perhaps it was his discomfort that prompted him to tell us about stadiums in North America which have screens fitted on to the seat in front so fans can watch replays - and, no doubt, commercials, too. And every chair has armrests. In patriotic, if imaginative, mood I responded by telling him that the new Wembley will have bunny girls serving the drinks.

The Bradford fans weren't the noisiest ever, but the low ceiling creates a very intimate feeling - one is almost afraid to shout anything at all. It felt like a small Third Division ground. Of course, a low ceiling wasn't going to stop the vociferous chap to my right whose tactical advice was delivered with colourful language - but never heeded, oddly. Only the stewards' inability to understand the Yorkshire dialect prevented him from being ejected.

But it is not just the difference in clientele between the East Lower Stand and the Canaletto. Being so low down (I think it used to be a tube station) gives you a manager's point of view, if not a manager's insight. After years of watching football from the gods with the aid of aerial cameras, working out formations from below sea level is not the easiest thing to do. The pace of the game seems quicker, the tackles more physical. I can fully appreciate the trend for managers to sit in the stand in the first half and survey the action from on high.

Even that approach has its disadvantages. At the Stadium of Light last season, a frustrated Peter Reid left his seat before half-time, got stuck in a lift and missed a goal as he attempted the treacherous journey from directors' box to touchline. Promotion to the Premiership was a breeze by comparison.

If you can get a lift that works or a staircase that's not blocked, watching half the match from the stands is an option preferred by George Graham, David O'Leary and Gordon Strachan, to name a few. I don't know how Strachan, in particular, can restrain himself - it must be 45 minutes of sheer hell for one so normally energetic. It makes you wonder just how much impact managers really believe they have during a game. I mean, if they're not missed in the first half why bother coming down at all? We've all seen them ranting and raving, screeching instructions to players who rarely turn their heads, let alone follow their orders.

It seems that managers are under no illusion about just how effective they are.

"It's our way of joining in," my father explained. I'd have suggested he play for a pub side on Sundays if he wants more action, but Christmas is just around the corner. The only foolproof way of changing the way your team is playing during the match is to make a substitution and let him be your carrier pigeon.

John Gregory will be a reluctant stand manager for the next 28 days following his suspension for abusing the fourth official at Aston Villa's game against Liverpool a few weeks ago. After his subsequent assault on an innocent medical kit at Goodison Park last Saturday, it is perhaps best for John - and all inanimate objects around him - that he takes a break from the dug-out. Meanwhile, I'll happily take my place in the Canaletto next time, if they'll have me.

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