Japanese football fans are, on the whole, great. Sometimes, there’s just nothing quite like home, though…
Since I arrived back in my hometown of Brighton there was only one subject on everyone’s lips.
After over 14 years without a permanent home my local team, Brighton and Hove Albion of The Championship, had a new ground – the spectacular Amex Community Stadium.
Work began on the venue just before I moved to Japan, and each visit home since had revealed it in a slightly more completed form.
This time it was ready to go, and driving past one night I pulled in to have a closer look.
I was stopped by a security guard who introduced himself as ‘Shrek’ (he was bald, apparently used to be a lot fatter – he was still an impressively built gentleman – and had a tattoo of the character on his right forearm).
I explained my business and rather than being asked to get off the premises I was greeted warmly and soon found myself involved in conversation about the club.
A week or so later I was getting a cab home and within 10 seconds was asked by the driver if I had been to the new stadium yet. No need to specify which stadium or even check and see if I had an interest in football – I was in Brighton, the club had a new ground and it was where everybody wanted to be.
At that point I hadn’t been, but I informed the cabbie that I had my ticket for the weekend’s game against Blackpool and would be making my debut then.
Saturday rolled around and my friend Ben picked me up on the way, after which we collected Joe – President of the local bowls club – and his wife (sadly I didn’t catch her name, so I hope she won’t take offence to being referred to as ‘Mrs. Joe’).
As we cleared a hill on the approach to the ground and it came into view, Joe proceeded to tell us of his days walking to their old stadium, The Goldstone Ground, 58 years ago, and exclaimed that he never thought he’d live to see the day that his beloved club moved just ten minutes from his house.
Mrs. Joe then explained with a chuckle that every time they had driven past during the stadium’s construction Joe had cheered and instructed her to do the same.
Inside the ground the atmosphere was fantastic, and after an absence of over two years from English matches it didn’t take long to be reminded of the biggest difference between Japanese football grounds and those back home; the banter.
Initially there was rivalry between each stand of home fans. The West Stand (where I was seated) began with “We’re the West Stand, We’re the West Stand, We’re the West Stand Brighton Boys!” – challenging the North Stand, behind the goal to our left, to do better. If they succeeded we came back louder, if they weren’t loud enough we jeered.
Once everybody was in fine enough voice, the attention turned to the Blackpool fans who had started to sing, with us taunting “We forgot that you were here!”
Another contrast to Japan is the absence of fan leaders – everything happens naturally and spontaneously. Although some people are self-appointed chant-starters, anyone can stand up and start a song or yell some encouragement or abuse at the players or officials.
This, too, can provide much amusement. As well as enabling anybody with a passionate or witty streak to get the crowd going, it also offers up the opportunity for people to make absolute fools of themselves.
My next trip to the stadium served up the perfect example of this, with a guy behind me deciding at about the 30-minute mark that the referee was not very good.
He spent the next hour-and-a-half (Brighton beat Sunderland 1-0 in extra-time) hurling abuse at the man in the middle, seemingly oblivious to the fact that his team was in the process of beating a Premier League side.
While everybody around exchanged glances and smirks at his outbursts nobody really minded though, and such strange characters are part of the wonderful tapestry of English football stadiums. In a strange way, I’ll miss him once I’m back in Japan.