To sum up the past few days they have been fast and furious with highs and lows.
Covering WBA training in the Oxnard sunshine in California was great. Not because I was in a sunny climate, although I do appreciate the sunshine after as I have mentioned on previous blogs, spending the past three European summers in the winter of Africa where it was cold, sometimes very cold to the point of shivering was a welcome thing.
ALL the players are so nice. Saying my customary ‘hola’ to Spanish defender Pablo Ibanez everyday (that is the limit of my Spanish) to having little conversations in French to Peter Odemwingie and spending great times with the ever friendly WBA training staff makes the trip far more enjoyable.
I have been really made to feel welcome and part of the set up. My only complaint was the local Police telling me in no uncertain terms to drive around the University College at 3mph as they had clocked me going 5mph.
Albion played a friendly match against local team Ventura County Fusion winning 2-4. Again the way the home side welcomed everyone of us was amazing. I will never forget them.
The next day was an Albion golf day. Most of the players competing on the amazing golf course in the grounds of their wonderful hotel in Ojai, just North of Ventura. Following the players around and documenting them playing golf was a bit nervy during the first 20 minutes but as the players relaxed they welcomed me playing their shots on the oh so green course.
Many of the players giving me their personal email addresses and requesting that I sent them pictures of them playing golf whilst others pestering me in wanting to know when they would be able to see the said images on the Albion website.
Albion left to their next destination of Portland via Long Beach Airport. I said my goodbyes to the staff at quite possibly the friendliest bunch of hotel people I have ever encountered. I got up at 4 and checked in at LAX airport at 5.55am. I went through security and had a muffin and some orange juice and hang around until my flight was called.
I decided to start this blog originally so that my friends back home can see what I do day to day as often they do not understand. Many think airports are the first point of freedom when escaping their 9-5 jobs. I personally dislike most airports and consider it an obvious necessity in having to travel.
Today I had a nightmare.
Just prior to boarding the plane, an eagle eyed American Airlines staff noticed that my ticket was in the name of Alison Ashton. Who she is I don’t know! Who actually checks EVERYTHING when checking in? I certainly don’t. I will in future. The bottom line was the I could not fly. My bags were instantly taken off the plane, resulting in it being delayed and I had to go back to the American Airlines ticketing desk a 15 minute walk away in the massive Los Angeles Airport.
If I was beginning to have a bad day, then I acknowledged that there are always people worse off as I met a Swedish man in tears. He had driven through the night to Los Angeles and had forgotten his passport – it was still in his hotel. He was faced with a return journey and having the expense of renting another car. If that was bad enough, he then had to call home to get more money to pay for supplement charges to have a new ticket.
Americans are nice friendly people mostly but have an absolute zero tolerance of absolutely everything. Only in America. This would never happen in France or Italy. A passenger would receive compassionate remarks from airport staff and try to help all they could. These Americans were the true meaning of being a bastard towards someone.
I spent over two hours, first queuing and then trying to get through to the most stubborn people I have met in a long time. Eventually they re-issued my ticket – or so I thought. I was made to feel that I was the guilty person and that everything was my fault even though I was no Alison!
Upon trying to check back in to a flight – now with Alaska Airlines; these friendly bunch of people did nothing but swear and curse and make phone calls to American Airlines complaining that my details on the computer was a mess and that they had not done one thing according to procedure.
The kind soul at the Alaska desk quite literally hacked into the database and changed my details so that they could issue a ticket. However I was faced with a potential 11 hour wait to get to my next destination of Portland.
Here I felt that things were turning for the better as I was selected to get the last seat on a midday flight which meant that I could travel with the Express and Star journalist who is also covering the Albion tour. However again when I was going to board the aeroplane, I was not allowed on. This time, for some reason the computer flashed up and said that I was traveling with a child. I had no child with me! Again the Alaska Airlines people changed the files so that I could finally travel and depart from LAX.
By now I was so tired. I slept all the way to Portland waking up with a stiff neck. The first hire car we got had no coolant in it. I still do not know my plans for when I depart for Chicago and so I was told of an extra supplement to pay should I drive to Seattle and get a flight from there. My costs on this adventure are rising by the day. Apart from getting to LA where I found my bag had split and I lost some clothes and a shoe – I now have a nice new bag but apparently I have to pay $50 instead of the $25 for some reason. American Airlines keep adding charges as if they make them up but again its totally my fault as I should have read the terms and conditions. Normally I do not mind, but considering that I booked direct with them, upon agreeing a final price I simply was not made aware of the fact that in the US passengers on some carriers have to pay to check in bags. One trip here, one trip there is not an issue, but with 11 internal flights I am adding an extra 20% to my transport costs. Not happy!
Back to being Matthew and no longer Alison, I put everything behind me and we found our hotel in Portland. The last time I came here was in 1999 covering a US game against Chile. I always harp on regarding how wonderful Portland is and I won’t change my tune now. In the UK we see US Cop shows in LA, Crime series in many American cities and made to feel that Florida, New York and possibly Washington are the places to go.
My travel advice is simple : Visit Portland!
Firstly they LOVE their soccer. People were roaming the streets in their Portland Timbers shirts. Everyone was excited about the arrival of WBA. Apparently they have played Ajax which they kept talking about as though it was yesterday.
The stadium had been transformed from a wonderful early 1900’s baseball park into a modern football arena. Unlike the other stadia it so had character. Metal sculptures on every corner, branding that would make UEFA smile and a colourful exteria that made you want to go inside.
I was warned about the growing number of beggars on the streets and its new cosmopolitan look and within the first five minutes of walking around before the game encountered lots of homeless people and saw a gay male couple snogging against a door of a theatre. Almost every man above 50 has long hair and wore grunge T-shirts with arms covered in tattoos. Record shops sprawled the wonderful streets. Jucing bars are the rage. Student T-shirt shops are more common than the cell phone shops as seen in New York. Bars upon bars and little gig theatres coupled with the amazing river with its bridges that flip up and even lift up to allow boats to travel under make this a wonderful place.
I went for a meal with a retired couple who follow WBA everywhere. They too enthused about this great place and made the point that their travels were not just about the football but exploring places that they would otherwise not visit.
My highlight of the day was walking on the free trams and coming face to face with a goth girl wearing a Simple Minds shirt. It was a pity when she got off at a stop as she was just telling me on how she loved the early music from the punk era of my favorite band.
The people in Portland were great, especially the people at the Portland Timbers Soccer Club. In their inaugural season in the MLS all their games are sellouts with an ever growing list of fans wanting season tickets. This list currently stands at 5,000 – a contrast to the New York Red Bulls who quite literally give away tickets from what I can make out.
The officials from Portland were superb. Perhaps it was because I was in an official capacity working with WBA that I did not encounter any problems with stewards at this match. My theory that if you are working on a level higher than a person who can create problems for you, then you have a problem free day – seems to be coming true. The ‘photo-manager’ man at the Timbers needs to come to England and show how lovely PR skills make the job more enjoyable. Nothing was a hassle for him. He was there to serve and serve he did. Salad, drinks on tap, cookies, amazing wifi connections to making sure there were enough seats for all the photographers to sit on – he was the complete opposite to some of the characters that I met when covering the Gold Cup here last month.
The fans never stopped singing. They never stopped dancing for almost 20 minutes making a mockery of my love for the fans in the J-League. Why this place has such amazing support is a mystery but I for one was not complaining.
With Albion going 1-0 down on the artificial pitch, the fans singing songs mocking them about playing in the “EPL” – English Premier League.
Before the game I had seen a log behind one of the goals. OK it was the Portland Timbers and perhaps the log was some sort of lucky mascot being their name was the Timbers – but just like the New England Revolution when celebrated their goal with a bloke dressed as a Pilgrims Father firing a live gun in the stadium, I was equally not prepared for what happened when the Timbers scored.
A man called Timber Joey revved up a mega chainsaw and began cutting the timber log. I mean a mega chainsaw. The Americans have bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger everything – including bigger chainsaws!
He then held the cut slice above his head with cheers that would rival any major pop star entering a stage for a concert or indeed any winning goal in a football match.
After that throughout the game I could hear him rev up his chainsaw with the crowd going wild. Health and Safety in England would never allow this!
But as much as I question the American ways, this was simply brilliant. As one Albion fan said, he hoped the Timbers scored more as all he wanted to see was Timber Joey do his stuff again!
Portland did score again! Timber Joey lapping up his fame as I began to wonder if he would have to get a new tree to last the end of the season!
The second half belonged to Albion though. Coming back from two goals down to win in quite literally the last minute of injury time to make it 2-3. I have only been with Albion for just over a week but everything that they had practised in training paid off. It was actually really nice to see. Players do learn, the do practise and the passing movement installed by Roy Hodgson on the training ground resulted in goals.
Despite my descriptions of amazing singing by the home fans, the biggest cheer was when it was announced that Manchester United had defeated local rival Seattle 7-0. The people here could not understand that Albion to Wolves is 20 minutes. They could not understand that there are two clubs in Liverpool with a mile separating the stadiums.
Yet they showed the familiar feeling seen in most other parts of the world on what it is like to lose in the final minute of the game. They were gutted! Totally gutted! This would have never happened in Houston, Washington or LA – probably not even New York at the Red Bulls. It was warming to see.
Here in the small city of Portland, for one simple reason I fell in love with the MLS again. For as much as I have totally slagged off the American public and the way they have culturally changed soccer into their own brand, it was a fitting place to say goodbye to the lovely people of West Bromwich Albion as I will now follow the fortunes of Manchester United and Newcastle United. I should have got here using Untied Airlines in keeping in with the football theme as I will never go with American Airlines again for as long as I live.
For the first time in 6 days I can have a bit of a lie in. I am very tired. Although I am in Portland I am still yearning for Ventura and wanting to sit in the Californian sunshine for a day doing absolutely nothing. But I can’t. I’m here to work. I need to start another crazy voyage to another destination. To save lots of money, I’m driving to Seattle for a flight the day after to Chicago for Saturday’s game with Manchester United.