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From the Bernabeu to the Galpharm Stadium

March 2, 2010

SOCCER-ENGLAND/CUPAs I huddled deeper into my jacket at the Galpharm Stadium on Saturday, watching Huddersfield Town play local rivals Leeds United, I regretted having made scoffing remarks about the overhead heaters in the stands at the Bernabeu.

I’m lucky to be able to visit Real Madrid’s iconic arena regularly through my work, reporting on La Liga stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

I’ve joked to friends that the gas heaters in the roof add to a slightly surreal atmosphere there on chilly nights, when Japanese tourists in their replica shirts rub shoulders with cigar-chomping businessmen and fur-coated wives, while waiting to be entertained instead of getting behind their team.

A trip home on the weekend took me to a different planet in West Yorkshire, where, under lead grey skies and a steady drizzle, I watched two of the sides pushing for promotion from League 1 (the third division) roared on by passionate crowd.

Lee Novak and Jermaine Beckford don’t have the profile of Ronaldo or Messi but Huddersfield said 21,764 fans packed into their ground with its distinctive orange-segment shaped stands – only four games in the Spanish top flight could boast a larger crowd.

On the pitch, it was physical and fast-paced, with Huddersfield deserving a 1-0 halftime lead for getting the ball down on the ground and playing a neat passing game.

Leeds hit back with two quick goals, prompting 4,000 visiting fans to start chanting ‘Leeds are going up’ to the tune of KC and the Sunshine Band’s ‘Give it Up’, only for them to be silenced when the home side netted a deserved late equaliser.

Huddersfield’s mascot Terry the Terrier looked like he was going to join in the action at one point, getting so close to a Leeds player at a corner I thought he was going to have a go at him. Real Madrid don’t have a mascot.

I winced at some of the full-blooded challenges where the referee simply waved play on. In La Liga the game would have stopped with the player rolling around looking to gain an advantage by earning the tackler a booking.

While I much prefer the ‘honesty’ in English football and a less fussy approach to refereeing, when I later heard about the injury suffered by Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey I wasn’t surprised after what I’d seen earlier.

Off the pitch, there were fewer tourists and fur coats. Scuffles broke out in the stands and the hostility and hatred between fans was a level above what I’m used to seeing in Spain, even at Madrid derbies.

Maybe I’ve lived abroad too long. English football has always been more of a contact sport than in Spain, but it was the aggression off the pitch which I felt uncomfortable with, especially with my 12-year-old son sitting next to me.

Those doubts aside, it was a cracking match, better than many of the one-sided affairs I witness at the Bernabeu, where the only doubt is whether Real Madrid will score four or five….but I did miss those heaters.

PHOTO: Leeds United’s Patrick Kisnorbo celebrates after beating Manchester United in their FA Cup soccer match in Manchester. REUTERS/Darren Staples

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