The ECB came up with the perfect Valentine’s gift for County Cricket, one which expressed their feelings for it in no uncertain terms. There were neither flowers nor hearts here, instead a list of venues for Tests, ODIs, T20 Internationals, domestic trophies and the ECB’s much heralded, but rather less keenly anticipated, T20 Competition from 2020 to 2024.
The Test venues see a return to the traditional six venues – Lord’s, the Oval, Edgbaston, Trent Bridge, Headingley and Old Trafford – with recent hosts Sophia Gardens, the Rose Bowl and the Riverside missing out.
Credit where credit is due, this makes a lot of sense to me. The six grounds selected are the best for Test cricket in my opinion, although those who missed out after investing heavily to host tests, with the ECB’s encouragement, have reason to be less pleased. The other caveat is Trent Bridge missing out on an Ashes Test in 2023 as well as in 2019, which is a crying shame. Not only is there a great atmosphere at Trent Bridge Tests, but England’s record there in recent years, particularly against Australia, is excellent and why the ECB want to give that advantage away, not once but twice, is beyond me.
The ODIs and T20 Internationals are split across the Test venues, plus the three recent grounds that missed out, Sophia Gardens, the Rose Bowl and the Riverside, and the County Ground, Bristol. Two of these, the County Ground and the Riverside, will get an ODI each year.
The one glaring omission from the shorter formats is the County Ground, Taunton, which hosted its first T20 International in 2017. Somerset CCC have spent a considerable amount redeveloping the ground, in part for the opportunity to host international cricket. To have achieved that ambition in 2017, but then have future opportunities taken away is an almighty kick in the teeth.
The venues of the “As yet unnamed T20” competition, as it appears to be known at the moment while the ECB marketeers smooze potential sponsors, are no surprise at all: the six Test venues plus the Rose Bowl and Sophia Gardens. They are the ECB’s favourites, with Sophia Gardens thrown in so that the governing body can say that it has fulfilled its remit of “England and Wales”, while on the other hand taking Test matches away from one of the countries in its jurisdiction.
For someone looking in from the outside it would be hard to see how a selection that leaves large swathes of the country without a venue nearby, with 25% of teams in London and none in the whole of either the south west or the north east, has even considered where potential supporters may live.
The reason for this, of course, is the ECB was never going to risk upsetting the big boys, nor the likes of Sky who prefer the comfort of the bigger grounds. As for existing supporters, well, they are a bit of an irrelevance as the ECB is confident that the new competition will attract an entirely new audience. They want to get away from the ‘boozy night out’ image of the T20 Blast and attract families instead.
Does the new fanbase exist? We’ll only find that out in 2020 but grounds like the Oval and Lord’s certainly contain a good proportion of work nights out or similar for the T20 Blast and replacing them is not going to be easy, especially given cricket’s low profile. There will be some games on free to air (ten, including the final) to improve the profile, but this is not even a quarter of the games that Australia’s Big Bash gets in a country where cricket is far more popular than it is here (notleast because all cricket is free to air). Current County members cannot be relied on to attend, given they are broadly against the new competition, which devalues the County game by its very existence. Of course, some in the areas where the new competition will go along, but it will be a small proportion who pay over and above County membership to watch T20.
And so to the final betrayal in the ECB’s Valentine’s message: the domestic 50 over competition. We already knew that this competition would suffer by being played concurrently with the “As yet unnamed T20”, but with 100 or so players unavailable because they will be playing in the T20. To add insult to injury, the ECB’s list tells us that the final for this will no longer be held at Lord’s but at Trent Bridge.
Taking away the opportunity for players and supporters to experience a Lord’s final kills a bit of the game. Sure, it will still be a final but without the setting of Lord’s it won’t mean quite as much. I remember the finals I’ve been to at Lord’s, the incredible surge of joy when Gloucestershire have lifted trophies and the elation evident on the players’ faces: that will never be replicated at Trent Bridge. As Durham’s Chris Rushworth tweeted after the news came out:
“No final at @HomeOfCricket can’t imagine I’m the only cricketer that feels slightly gutted by this! Showpiece of a county players season IMO. I’m lucky enough to have played and won a final there, it will be a big loss on the calendar! “
There is no doubt that there will be many who welcome the ECB’s announcement, but they are within the media, the Counties who stand to lose least and the higher echelons of the game who will profit if it is successful. For the supporters it is simply a betrayal, the confirmation that the ECB cares not a jolt for County Cricket fans. Many of us have long felt that: we’ve seen the County schedule switched again and again, Championship matches pushed out to the extremes, and now a new competition which, if successful (and that’s a big if), could be a death sentence for the County game as we know it.
It’s a crying shame that supporters are far more cynical about the ECB than the County executives, most of whom voted the new T20 proposals through (with Middlesex and Essex voting against and Kent abstaining) in return for £1.3m. It didn’t take too long for things to begin to sour after that vote. In December, Elizabeth Ammon reported in The Times that the Counties who would not be hosting were upset that the model of ownership proposed for the competition (a subsidiary company of the ECB) was not what had been agreed (ownership by the Counties plus the MCC). This change could affect future changes to the T20 competition and freeze out the Counties.
I’d wager that there will be further betrayals to come, now that the votes have been bought and the tournament agreed or, to put it another way, after the turkeys voted for Christmas.
Warning: this is a political post. I don’t do these very often but sometimes the importance of a situation cannot be ignored. This is one of those situations.
Spoiler: I want a Labour Government and I want Jeremy Corbyn to be Prime Minister. If you are a Tory then this probably isn’t the post for you.
This time tomorrow we’ll be counting down until the polls close on General Election Day. After that, we’ll have up to five years of the elected Government ahead of us. A lot can happen in five years and plenty of it could be irreversible, which is why voting is so important tomorrow.
In many ways this has been an incredible campaign. Jeremy Corbyn has defied the media and become a cult hero. He’s on the cover of music magazines, grime artists are putting on benefits for him and people are queuing for hours to see him speak. None of that will win you an election, of course, but what cannot be disputed is that Corbyn has won a lot of people over, including some of his critics. Day after day the press, primarily owned by billionaires whose finances would be under far greater scrutiny under a Labour Government, has smeared Corbyn in the hope that people will believe their lies. Day after day, more and more people have supported him. That’s a victory in itself, but it’s not the one that Corbyn wants, nor indeed the one that I want.
The real victory would be stopping the hapless Theresa May and her Tory cronies tomorrow. I know this still seems a huge stretch – hell, it IS a huge stretch – but the only way of doing it is all of us working damn hard to achieve it. There are different ways to do that: if you have time and can help get the vote out then contact Labour and get out there – and if you can get to a marginal seat all the better. If you have to work or go to college then just do everything you can to get your friends and family to vote. Most of all get yourself out there and cast your vote: it really does make a difference; the higher the turn out, especially amongst young voters, the more seats Labour will win. If you are registered to vote and haven’t yet had a polling card then you can still vote and you can find out where your polling station is here.
I know there are still people out there, including Labour voters, who don’t like Jeremy Corbyn, and I know there are people who will never change their minds on that, but if you’re one of them then just ask yourself one simple question: “Do I dislike Jeremy Corbyn more than I would dislike another five years of a Tory Government?” If the answer is “no” then there is only one thing for you to do, and that’s to grit your teeth and vote Labour. Not doing so will have an impact, of that there is no doubt.
And to those people who have yet to make their minds up I ask this:
Do you value the NHS and want it to continue with the funding that it desperately needs?
Do you want schools to have the resources to buy supplies, to have the teachers they need and class sizes that mean children can all learn?
Do you want the most vulnerable in society – pensioners and those who are disabled, mentally ill, homeless – to have the help that they need and deserve?
Do you want to see an increase in social housing and rent security for private renters?
Do you want more police on the streets?
Do you want students to be able to go through university without fear of leaving with an enormous debt?
Do you want a fair taxation system and a genuine commitment to eradicating tax avoidance?
Do you want a deal for exiting the EU that benefits the whole country as much as possible, negotiated by people who respect European politicians and will earn respect in return?
Do you want national infrastructure investment?
I could go on, but if you have answered yet to some or all of these questions then aLabour government will deliver what you want to see. Want to know more? The manifesto is here.
The importance of tomorrow cannot be emphasised enough. It will dictate our way of life for a long time to come. Get out there, cast your vote wisely and encourage as many people as you can to do the same.
We all knew it was coming. However much cricket fans hoped the ECB wouldn’t get their own way on city franchises we knew, deep down, that they would. After all, the ECB have time and again shown themselves to be more concerned about money than the sport they govern, so, given that Sky clearly want franchises, that’s what we’ll get. The ECB also needs to do this before the next TV deal is negotiated, in order to maximise its revenue, meaning that the decision is being rushed through before the tender process begins.
Ostensibly there was a vote of course. The Counties and the MCC in a 16-3 “yes” decision to have a city franchise competition running alongside the existing T20 Blast (for now) with a short consultation first. If that sounds like turkeys voting for Christmas, well the turkeys were well rewarded to the tune of £1.3-£1.5m per county according to reports. Given the precarious state of many counties’ finances the compensation would have been hard to refuse, but in taking it then have they indirectly signed their own death warrants? And what of the members that (most) represent?
Most of the members of county cricket clubs that I know oppose the idea of city franchises. By and large they don’t have an issue with Twenty20 cricket, and many go and watch the T20 Blast, but what they hate is the idea of cricket being taken away from counties and put into eight franchises. How this is done, the compensation that counties will get, the way that the franchises will operate are all irrelevant; this is a fundamental opposition to the formation of eight “city” clubs.
There are lots of reasons for this. For a start, it attacks the very structure of professional cricket in the UK by focussing on eight cities, when the game has been organised around counties since the 19th century. This matters a lot to people: a Liverpudlian may be enthusiastic about watching Lancashire at Old Trafford, but tell the same fan that he or she should support a team called “Manchester” and you’d get short shrift. Sport in the UK is tribalistic, whether around a county in cricket or a city in football, with fans feeling an attachment to place, and teams have almost exclusively grown organically rather than being franchised to an area. It’s one of the key differentiators between sport in the UK and in other parts of the world, such as the USA and Australia.
Fans also look to the current structure of eighteen counties and the new proposals of eight city franchises. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that ten of the county grounds won’t be hosting any of the new competition. With teams likely to be based at the larger, test grounds (details are yet to be confirmed) then large swathes of the country will miss out. The beauty of the county system is its accessibility to so many people. The counties cover large areas and while they may be headquartered in a specific place, supporters will come from across the county to watch. Not only that, but you often find supporters from neighbouring “minor counties” (in cricket terms) supporting their nearest professional team: there are plenty from Devon and Cornwall who travel to Taunton to watch Somerset for example. Call me a cynic but I can’t see many fans travelling long distances to watch two franchised teams in a city that means nothing to them.
And then there are the players who will miss out. We’re told that players like the idea of city franchises and no doubt many see it as a way to make some cash in the short career of professional sport. No one would dispute that as a valid reason but the maths show that many young British players will miss out. If we assume that each county has a squad of 25 then you have 450 players and then if we assume each franchise will have a squad of 20 that gives you 160 players. That’s almost 300 fewer, even without the inevitable influx of foreign stars. The likelihood is that there would be about a maximum of 130-140 places available for the county players. The rest may (we don’t yet know) have the chance to play county cricket at the same time (although there would surely be resistance from those counties whose squads have been weakened most) or they may simply be twiddling their thumbs for the best part of a month during the season.
If the window for the new competition is given over to it exclusively then it isn’t just the
majority of county players that will miss out on cricket for several weeks of the summer. Many county cricket fans will also be without cricket should they choose not to watch the franchises (and I suspect that large numbers will so just that.) And not only that but test matches are also likely to be halted to give England players the chance to play in the new competition (and to allow Sky to concentrate on it): the ECB is prepared to shunt what should be its highlight of the year to either end of the summer.
Opposing the views of fans are many (but by no means all) of the media. The case for franchises (that they work in Australia and India) has long been espoused by some commentators and journalists, notably – and unsurprisingly – those contracted to Sky. The vested interest needs no explanation and this group has long tweeted, spoken and written about the need for a franchise based competition. Much of the chatter has been amongst themselves or small groups of people on social media and perhaps this has convinced them that there is widespread support for the idea; it is easy for likeminded groups to view themselves as a majority when, in fact, they are quite the opposite and social media amplifies the effect.
It would be fair to say too that many of these proponents seldom break out of the media bubble in which their views are rarely challenged. They are also often those who have come to their profession through playing cricket professionally and, as a result, they don’t have the experience of being a fan. That’s not a criticism – as a fan I have no experience of playing the game professionally – but it means that they lack the understanding of why and how support works in the UK. On the other hand, there are journalists who have direct experience of being a cricket fan and by and large their views on franchises have been more balanced.
What the proponents of the franchise system have failed to explain is who will actually watch the competition. I know of few, if any, existing county members who plan to pay to go and watch a city franchise that they feel completely unattached to. Some will, of course, but I suspect they will be in a very small minority. That means that the competition will need to attract existing T20 punters who are not county members and/or new fans. The first of these groups has potential in that some, but by no means all, of them go to T20 for a night out with mates. These people have little interest in the actual cricket or who is playing and so it doesn’t really matter whether they are watching a county or a city franchise as long as their mates are there and there are plenty of bars available. How many people fall into that category is another matter. In London there are plenty, in the other cities where the franchises are likely to be there may not be quite so many – and lets not forget that lots of the T20 crowds are county supporters too, regardless of whether they are members, and consequently they are far less likely to attend.
The cost of going to games is another factor for existing fans (whether they be members or not). People have limited budgets and going to watch teams in the new competition may well mean they are unable to go to the county T20 games or vice versa. This is amplified by the franchise games being in a block, meaning that the cost is concentrated into a month – it is no coincidence that the T20 Blast attendances have increased when the games (and cost) is spread across a longer period.
The second target group seems to me to be the one that the franchise proponents are counting on: the uninitiated. Quite how this will happen is unclear and there appears to be no reason why new fans would flock to watch T20 cricket simply because a team is named after a city any more than they would a county. The fact that the teams will have international stars is largely irrelevant – the counties already field many of these players – simply because of the profile of cricket in the UK. With all live cricket on pay TV (Sky) then the professional game has disappeared off the radar for many people. Whereas once kids and adults alike would be able to reel off the names of international players, these days even the England team can walk down the street without being recognised – and another competition on pay TV isn’t going to change that regardless of marketing.
Who will watch is the key question that needs to be answered. The counties have voted for further consultation, but the period for that is so short that it is nothing more than a
paper exercise. The ECB is simply looking at the next TV deal, which will further line the pockets of its executives, while the counties themselves look to the compensation they will receive while the media will continue to talk about how great the Big Bash in Australia is, without bothering to look at the differentiating factors between sport in the UK and Australia (see inset) or at competitions such as the Ram Slam in South Africa which are nowhere near as popular.
As for the counties, members fear that this is just the first step in dismantling a system that has been in place since the 19th Century. The is a concern that the ECB’s focus on the new franchises will marginalise the County Championship and further devalue other competitions and, in time, clubs may disappear. Given that county members are the bedrock of support for domestic cricket the implications of that have considerable reach.
Members are not, however, completely powerless either. Most counties are still members’ clubs (Durham, Hampshire and as of a week or two ago Northants the exceptions). Members generally have less power than they once did but there are mechanisms for calling SGMs or EGMs within constitutions and if ever there were a time to get the necessary signatures and call a meeting then surely this is it? The typical county member may not look like a revolutionary but they may just have to start thinking like one to save the game as we know it.
One of the things about lower league football is its never-ending ability to give you the opportunity to visit places which you would be unlikely to set foot in otherwise: Stevenage is one of those places. It may well be a town that serves its residents well, being within easy commuting distance of London while avoiding the capital’s cost of living, but a tourist destination it is not. Neither could Stevenage be called a beer destination with any hint of credibility, but on Saturday it did mark AFC Wimbledon’s last away game of the season and, with it, a chance to secure a play-off place (even typing that seems odd, who’d have thought it?)
We arrived at King’s Cross just after 11 to find the place swamped with supporters arriving for the annual Army vs Navy rugby match at Twickenham. While Waterloo naturally bears the brunt of the travel chaos on this day, every major station has thousands of fans arriving in the morning.
I made my way through the crowds to find tickets and train beer while Ian headed to The Parcel Yard to find Sean and Graham who had arrived a few minutes earlier.
The Parcel Yard
This Fullers pub is one of the most welcome improvements following King’s Cross station’s facelift, much like The Mad Bishop and Bear was at Paddington before it. Both replaced previous hostelries which were of the dingy, unwelcoming and distinctly lacking in decent beer style once so common on London’s train stations, and while the rose-tinted nostalgic may remember those bars with some affection, the truth is that they were pretty grim.
When I arrived in the pub, train beers and tickets in hand after a quick trip to Sourced next door in St. Pancras, it was heaving with the aforementioned Army and Navy supporters. I bumped into Tommy, who directed me to the bar where Sean, Graham and Ian were just about being served – by all accounts the number of rugby fans had been even greater a few minutes before.
I had a pint of ELB’s Jamboree, which was decent if not outstanding, and we found a seat. Joe had also arrived and joined us, along with Tommy and, a few minutes later, Charlie. Joe, Tommy and myself were discussing Untappd, the beery social media app, and the various badges that could be won by checking in different ales There were accusations of beer geekery while Graham suggested that with the badges “It’s like the alcoholic version of Cubs.”
We were all getting ready to get the 12.22 train when some fans across the pub shouted out it had been delayed. A further check showed that the train was so late it was no longer stopping at Stevenage so we made a collective decision to wait for the 12.52 rather than catch a slower service. Sierra Nevada was ordered and drunk (earning the Untappd NC Beer Month 2016 badge), and conversation turned to politics, the forthcoming mayoral elections, and the toxic campaign being run by Zac Goldsmith. Somehow this led to Joe telling us how his father had shown him an Observer Sunday Supplement in the 70s (or 80s?) featuring Tottenham’s most famous Marxist Keith Flett in the bath. I’ll leave that one with you.
A slightly different picture was painted when some Dons’ fans on the annual PISA final away game of the season day out passed by. This year’s theme was golf and as you’d expect there were some serious outfits about: colourful plus fours, pastel jumpers, golf caps…and Ali G. If you didn’t know that Ali G was a big golfer then you weren’t alone but with a tap on the nose Ali undid his shell suit just enough to give us a glimpse of his Masters (or was it Ryder Cup?) polo shirt. Clever Ali.
The 12.52 London King’s Cross to Stevenage train
We lost a few and gained a few on the journey up as Joe, Tommy and Charlie ended up in a different carriage while we found Collette and Dom. Train beers were consumed: Magic Rock Salty Kiss for me, Beavertown’s Neck Oil, Wild Beer Fresh and Five Points Pale for Ian, Graham and Sean. Conversation turned to the end of seasons’ past and, not for the first time to that game at Bromley. “The Ryan Hall goal was the first time that I used the word cunt in front of my dad,” confessed Graham.
We decided that as time was getting on we may as well get taxis straight to what would now become the only pre-match pub. And then we got to the taxi rank. No taxis but several people waiting. We looked up the rank, no taxis in sight. A bus pulled up on the opposite side of the pavement to the taxi queue. Someone noticed that it was a football shuttle and all paid a pound (return) and piled on; first (and only) stop The Lamex Stadium. As we got off Drive explained that the return bus would leave ten minutes after the final whistle and depending on numbers it may come back for a second trip. Dom went off to get his match ticket and the rest of us headed to the pub where he’d meet us later.
Our Mutual Friend
For a pub within walking distance of a football ground, and in Stevenage to boot, this is a very decent option: it has several ales on at any one time and is friendly for away fans. I ordered a Dark Star Hophead and others ordered an Oakham beer (the name of which I failed to note). In the outside area we found several Willoughby regulars and the usual pre-match discussions about tactics, possibilities and that crazy thought of the play-offs began. Then something strange happened. Graham started staring intently at the side of the table we were stood at. He pointed something out and Collette joined in. We moved closer. “It’s insect porn,” Graham explained, indicating two copulating ants who were seemingly unaware of their audience.
Stevenage Borough v AFC Wimbledon
By the time we got into the ground it was pretty full and we ventured to the furthest block to try and find some space to stand at the back. We managed it but all around us were people intent on sitting – yes, SITTING – in their actual numbered seats. Graham decided to push through to the middle while the rest of us stuck it out (for now) as the game was about to start. It was one of those days when much of the travelling support had one eye on live score updates on phones and the other on the game being played out ahead of them, all while maintaining an impressive vocal support. We all knew the permutations (equal or better Cambridge United’s score and we’d make it) and the need to see what was happening elsewhere was great as a result.
On the pitch there was early pressure from Wimbledon, with Elliott and Taylor both causing problems. Stevenage came back into it and forced Roos into an excellent double save but neither side could break the deadlock. Jake Reeve’s injury just before the break was a concern; you had to feel for him, picking up another knock so soon after his last enforced lay-off.
During the break we all shuffled along at the speed of tortoises towards the exit (and, crucially, the toilets). With only one way out and an away following of over 1100 this was a very slow affair indeed. When ten minutes had gone and we’d only made it halfway I gave up and having spotted Graham at the back of the central block abandoned the toilet idea and went to join the livelier section of the crowd. Joe and Charlie were also there, as was Alyson, and Dom joined us, together with several PISA golfers. Those who continued to the toilet (Ian, Sean and Collette) fared rather worse and found themselves in the front row when they returned.
The noise levels grew as Dons were urged on. Chances came and went, notably to Rigg, and then we heard that Plymouth had scored at Cambridge United. The celebrations in the away end weren’t far off those reserved for our own goals. Akinfenwa came on for Taylor, following the earlier replacement of Elliott by Azeez, and more chances were created and spurned.
We were fairly relaxed about this until to my right Dom suddenly said: “Cambridge have equalised.” A sharp intake of breath. Then, almost immediately, to my left, Charlie looked at his phone: “They’re winning, it’s 2-1.” Anxious glances were exchanged, phones were consulted, we saw that it was true, that Cambridge United had scored two in two minutes and we roared encouragement to the team while simultaneously willing Plymouth on. The final whistle grew nearer, there was no way through for Wimbledon. This was going to the last day of the season wasn’t it?
Suddenly someone, I’m not even sure who, saw it on their phone: an equaliser for Argyle. We erupted with unbridled joy again. The game finished, Cambridge United and Plymouth Argyle played on and on and on (had we known there was eight minutes added time there would have been a meltdown.) The team had come to our end of the ground to applaud the away support and then they started celebrating – was this it? We presumed it was and celebrated some more, and while it’s debatable whether the other game really had finished at that point, it would eventually finish 2-2 securing, yes, that unbelievable play-off place. There were hugs, high fives, limbs everywhere and probably a few tears too. We saluted Neal Ardley and the team below and made our way, still in a state of disbelief, to the exit.
Getting out was a repeat of half time and it was several minutes before we emerged to find the others. We decided that the football shuttle would be long gone and with no idea whether it would do a second run we decided to walk to the Old Town, naturally following Graham and his trusty map. We went down subways and out the other side, down the next subway and through a seemingly never-ending grey, unloved and unpopulated outdoor shopping centre. Still we followed Graham like his trusty disciples, down yet other subway and then, finally, we heard the sound of leather on willow: if a cricket match was going on then we must surely be in civilisation?
At this point a few of Graham’s followers asked if we were near the station. There’s a lesson to be learned from this: always ask the person you are following where they are going. We pointed them in the right direction and made our way to the pub that we could see in the distance. On closer inspection the words “Greene King” became visible – surely Graham hadn’t brought us all this way for a pint of Greene King IPA? He hadn’t and inside we found a range of other beers and ciders. Ian and I went for cider – the sun was out after all – while others chose some of the non-Greene King beers.
In the garden we found the golfers again. Small footballs were produced, kicked and predictably lost over fences. There were some impressive attempts to climb over and under to retrieve one ball, which were ultimately unsuccessful, leading to a “can I have my ball back?’ exchange with the pub kitchen. Somehow I ended up wearing some golfer hair, which Graham dubbed a Lady Di look.
The events of the afternoon were replayed again and again. Songs were sung. Alyson, as only Alyson can, called me Dad and then, twenty minutes later John was Dad. The sun started to disappear and we worked out how the patio heaters to keep warm. There were more songs and more lost footballs.
Eventually we decided that it was time to head back, well, bar Graham who stayed with the golfing community. We found another subway, asked someone for directions, went through several more subways in this national capital of urban tunnels and then, in the nick of time, came across the train station. A sprint across the bridge and we made the train with seconds to spare.
The Parcel Yard
We had come full circle and ended where we began. We found seats in one of the many rooms with the remnants of the Army and Navy rugby crowd. “Army,” I called out to one group, “what was the score?” “29 all,” came the reply. “Army won,” came another. “Navy won,” came a third. We gave up and went back to enjoying our own moment, together with some English tapas (crisps, nuts, pork scratchings) before slowly heading home.
This would have been the last blog of the season but now there will be another, from either Bristol, Accrington or Oxford. That there will be is testament to a truly amazing season that has surpassed the expectations of most – and full credit to the players and management for that. From now on everything is an absolute bonus.
Another week and another long trip beckoned, this time to Plymouth. The prospect of another super early start had led Sean and Graham to head down to Devon a couple of days early, while Ian and I travelled to Bristol on Friday to break the journey.
The stopover meant we were able to catch up with friends, including the inspiration for the matchday blogs, Stedders. We started off with Liz and Mark in Small Bar, with a Bad Seed Cascade, enjoying the quiet before the hoards descended on King Street later on, then we headed to The Lime Kiln to meet Stedders and Rose, which was hosting one third of the spring beer festival along St. George’s Road (along with The Three Tuns and the Bag of Nails). I started off with a nice but not exceptional SQUAWK IPA and we settled down to discuss the end of the League 2 football season – by this point we had been joined by Matt so we had an even 2-2-2 split of Wimbledon, Pompey and Bristol Rovers fans. We resolved that we all wanted to miss each other should we be in the play-offs and moved on to Fixed Wheel’s Blackheath Stout. Pub tips were exchanged as we strolled up to the Tuns and the next of the festival pubs. It was busy and after standing outside for a bit, only to be serenaded by a couple of folk musicians, we managed to find somewhere to sit inside, where Tears for Fears and the Stray Cats on the sound system were rather better entertainment. A comparison of Arbor’s The Ego has Landed on keg and cask was interesting – both very good but the cask edged it – and it seemed a good way to end the evening.
The 9.17 Bristol Temple Meads to Plymouth
9.17 still sounds early on a weekend for many people, but it was a good deal better than 7.27 when the same train had set off from London. There were plenty who had got up at a properly unearthly hour though and many of the travelling Dons were already making steady progress through several cans of beer and engaging other passengers in good natured conversation.
The journey to Plymouth, particularly the stretch that runs alongside the sea through Dawlish and Teignmouth, is one of the most spectacular on the railway network and it’s worth the trip just to look on at the stunning landscape – although, a day later, when storms led to the waves breaching the sea wall, it would have been rather more frightening than stunning.We reached Plymouth at 11.20 and wandered to the front of the station to meet Sean and Graham. A large group of Dons fans ventured out to the main road, looked around, debated and headed back to the taxis outside: unlike many trains stations Plymouth’s has no handy ‘Spoons (nor indeed any pub at all) just outside. Luckily, at this point we noticed Graham (and his trusty maps, which negated us relying on a helpful cabbie) and Sean, who was struggling to keep up thanks to a painful bout of shin splints.
Graham duly produced a map and we walked the slightly hilly route to The Fortescue on the Mutley Plain. It was one of the pubs recommended by Stedders the previous night and has won several Plymouth Pub of the Year awards. As we walked in Gazza’s version of “Fog on the Tyne” was playing and we all immediately thought of Joe’s earworm before the Hartlepool game a few weeks before: was this a bad omen? Let’s hope not.
We ordered Celt Bronze and RCH’s Pitchfork and settled down at a table. Graham and Sean had spent the day before in Falmouth and we swapped tales of pubs visited and notorious (alleged) gangsters in the Cornish town.
It was a very pleasant first stop in a friendly local but we decided to walk up the road to the next pub on the list.
Just up the road from the Fortescue, standing in the middle of a roundabout, is the 150-year old Hyde Park pub. That it remains a pub after all these years is down to the community, who rallied around when it was threatened with being turned into an estate agents in 2012. It reopened in 2014, complete with microbrewery, and judging from the Saturday lunchtime trade when we visited, it is thriving.
A happy pub story then (and I very much like a happy pub story) but what of our experience of the place? The first thing you notice about the Hyde Park when walking up to it are the retro signs: Double Diamond, Toby Bitter and Tetleys are all prominent from the outside. Inside it is a retro overload: everywhere there are vintage signs: beer, Player’s and Benson and Hedge’s cigarettes, British Airways and, somewhat bizarrely, one from Lloyds TSB. Now living in Hackney I’m used to retro – you can’t move for vintage shops around here – but this was like Hackney on serious acid. The theme goes further still: the pub has sourced actual Double Diamond (now brewed for the northern club circuit it seems, at a strength of 2.8%), although the Watney’s Red Barrel pump was actually dispensing Caffrey’s (by all accounts sometimes Red Barrel is available though).
I’m all for a bit of nostalgia but neither Caffrey’s nor Double Diamond was tempting me and along with Graham and Ian I ordered a Made in Mutley ale from the pub’s microbrewery. Sean ordered a Harbour Light Ale, but more of that later. The Made in Mutley smacked your tastebuds with a massive hit of vanilla. It was odd. Vanilla in pale beers isn’t completely unknown but this was way stronger than most I’ve had – Omnipollo / Buxton’s Ice Cream Pale and Howling Hops Vanilla Ice Cream IPA are both examples of balanced beers which give that ice cream hint of vanilla without it taking over. Still, we persevered and it seemed to improve – or perhaps we just got used to it.
But back to Sean’s choice of Harbour Light, which is usually a nice session beer. Sean’s face suggested that it wasn’t nice today and he pushed it to Graham for a second opinion. Graham’s face backed up Sean’s face and “the pint of mud” went back to the bar. The staff were happy to change it and Sean returned to the table with a new pint. This one, however, was rather watery. All credit to the staff though, the woman who had served Sean came up to us and said they had realised it wasn’t right and offered another replacement. This time Sean joined us on Made in Mutley and when it was brought to him he was told that he could have a further pint on the house – excellent customer service.
We’d considered getting some food – toast in Bristol seemed a long time ago for Ian and I – but the numbers eating and potential wait (together, it must be said, with the chips in pint glasses) meant that we decided to call a cab and head to a final pre-match pub instead. I’d definitely go back to the Hyde Park, although I’m not certain the on the house pint will still be waiting for Sean.
As we finished up the taxi called to check our location, a relief after the Wycombe minicab experience, which had scarred Graham so much he had delegated calling duties to Sean.
The decision to try a final pub proved to be a good one. Rose had recommended Bread and Roses (not just on its name) to us and Sean and Graham had also tried it out. It is a social enterprise and community pub / arts centre that was once called The Trafalgar (according to an old sign outside.) The décor meets both briefs: plants, paintings, artefacts, magazines and mismatched furniture. It had a good feel about the place: welcoming without being contrived. The beer range was encouraging too.
We ordered Rebel’s Surfbum (from Penryn) and Cornish Crown’s Red IPA (from Penzance). The Surfbum was a very drinkable session beer, though not really what I’d term an IPA. Graham found a New Age magazine advertising tantric awakening in Totnes although the idea of that being explored on the journey home later was swiftly dismissed. A final round was enjoyed of Harbour Session IPA (this time a Harbour beer without any drama attached), Firebrand Graffiti IPA (from Launceston) and Exeter’s Avocet. The Graffiti IPA was much more what you’d expect from an IPA and a tasty beer to finish on.
Another cab was called, again without any drama, and we made our way to Home Park in it.
Plymouth Argyle v AFC Wimbledon
Ian and I headed to pick up the tickets we’d ordered and as we stepped through the turnstiles heard what appeared to be God Save the Queen. This seemed an odd thing for a run of the mill football match and when we walked into the ground afterwards and found the others we asked whether we’d heard correctly. We had and there had also been some sort of prayers before it, perhaps something to do with the military, given Plymouth’s naval heritage. There were certainly some large groups of military personnel in the stand to our right, and like Portsmouth, Argyle presumably give away tickets to the forces. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but I always wonder whether other public servants are afforded the same opportunities – teachers, nurses, doctors, emergency services etc. – and if not, why not?
The game began with me still pondering this but before I had a chance to think too much the home team hit the crossbar with 30 second or less gone. Gulp. There were a few concerned looks amongst us as we all hoped this wasn’t about to set the tone for the afternoon. Then a drum started – as I’ve said before drums should lead to an immediate ten-point deduction for the club concerned and a banning order for the culprit – and I wondered why a club like Plymouth, which gets crowds plenty big enough to create an atmosphere, even tolerated it. There was limited moral high ground to be had though, with some of the songs from our own fans. Let’s just say that I think Tom Daley is a brilliant athlete and if he came from the city I’m from then I’d be very proud indeed.
But back to the football, Dons had put the crossbar incident out of their heads and worked well to gain some ball. The wind had become fairly strong and conditions were not the easiest as a result and it looked like hard work on the pitch. There were chances at both ends and then, after half an hour the ball was played out to Jake Reeves after a Plymouth corner. He played a sublime pass through to Lyle Taylor who slotted it past McCormick in the Argyle goal. 1-0 Dons and mayhem in the stand.
Half time came and went, and notably the bar (which sold cans of Tribute and Thatcher’s Gold) lost a considerable amount of money by only having two staff on leaving many travelling fans thirsty. The mystery of why clubs don’t plan these things better endures. Either side of the break Dons’ defence did well to resist the home side. Darius Charles is deserving of particular mention: he’s been improving in every game as his match fitness increases and it’s easy to see why he had been a summer target for Ardley. Roos made a good save just after the break, followed by one by the home ‘keeper to deny Taylor a second. The pressure was increasing though and 15 minutes in the equaliser that had been threatening came when Graham Carey volleyed into the net. Tom Hark came over the tannoy, in the way that it does at grounds all over the country. I sighed. Again, Plymouth Argyle have good support, and that can generate noise – why this unimaginative and artificial nonsense that just leads to synchronised clapping (and sounds incredibly tired to boot)?
Ardley made a double swap, bringing Azeez and Akinfenwa on for Taylor and Elliott with twenty minutes to go. It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, the windy conditions meant a change of tactics was needed, but it was one of those substitutions that causes a murmur of discontent, then ultimately brings utter joy. And that joy was to come right at the death when Francomb headed to Akinfenwa, who refused to give up on the ball and managed to loop a header of his own over McCormick. There was no Tom Hark this time and there was no need for it as 399 away fans went batshit crazy. Five minutes’ injury time were seen off and then the celebrations began again. Later on we would find out that Akinfenwa’s goal had also guaranteed his former club, Northampton Town, promotion, which was a nice bonus for him.
We walked back to the station and picked up provisions for the journey home, which would be in two legs.
The 17.54 Plymouth to Exeter St. David’s
This was a through train to London but prices meant that many Dons fans would change at Exeter for the South West Trains Service. For this leg though, we had luxury: first class at £3.30 each for the hour’s journey. There were more views of the beautiful seascape, this time bathed in the soft pink early evening light. Tim Hillyer had joined us and we discussed the dramatic end to the game and the final play-off spot that Wimbledon now occupied.
We had just about enough time to nip over the road to The Great Western between trains and downed RCH Pitchfork (in a reprise of the first pub of the day) and Exeter’s Ferryman before running back to the station.
The 19.25 Exeter St. David’s to London Waterloo
The midnight train?
We eventually managed to find five seats together and unloaded the provisions from earlier, enough to last us for the three and a half hour trip. The journey passed without incident (although there were some entirely understandable celebrations continuing) and most Dons’ fans got off at Clapham Junction. We carried on to Waterloo.
Sometimes, after a long day trip, “one for the road” seems like a good idea, and this was one of those times. It rarely is a good idea. On this occasion there was the added pull of visiting the fairly new Waterloo Tap, which was open until 11.30. We ordered Beavertown’s excellent Neck Oil and drank it as if it were the thickest, most syrupy beer in the world. Still, at least we’d visited the pub, which is likely to become a regular haunt when going in and out of Waterloo and has the customary excellent beer range of the Tap bars. It’s just one railway arch, so a tad bijou, but well worth a visit.
After two long away trips it came as something of a relief to have a relatively local game in High Wycombe and with it a chance to sleep past 6am on a non-work day. We had arranged to meet Graham and Sean at Marylebone Station at 10.30, and Tom and his mate Andy had also joined us. After working out that the various discounts available with Group Saves, Gold Cards and a host of other railcards were all much of a muchness – not least because the first of these now discriminates against those leaving London, who get a lesser deal than those coming into town – we sorted out tickets. Necessity number one sorted, we moved onto the next: breakfast.
I’ve often seen the café opposite Marylebone but I’d never been in there before, however Graham recommended it (with a caveat that there were “unorthodox breakfast options”) and who were we to dispute his claim? The number of people already in the café suggested Graham may be right (as usual) and the only problem was getting enough seats together. Tom decided that we should rearrange the furniture within a fairly tight spot. What ensued looked like a scene from a farce. Shuffle. Move. Shuffle. Oops. Backwards. Shuffle. Dead end. Tom was still determined, the rest of us were getting a little embarrassed. Gino appeared, waving hands. He asked another woman to move and moved two tables together with rather less chaos. And…breathe.
We ordered breakfast. Tom apologised: “I didn’t realise I was making everyone uncomfortable. You’re all SO English with your embarrassment.” At this point Andy looked like the most English of all the embarrassed English people. “And this,” he said, “Is why you never take Tom anywhere.” Tom, meanwhile, was on a roll of national stereotypes, “And the Italians, they love rearranging furniture don’t they?”
John appeared, complete with cup of tea. “Do NOT move that table,” we said in unison. Breakfast arrived. It was as good as Graham had promised and a calm descended.
Despite all the palaver we still had nearly half an hour until our train left and so we headed to the station bar.
The Victoria and Albert
In recent years some station pubs have improved, the Victoria and Albert is not one of them. In fact, I can’t really remember it ever changing much over the years. The beer selection was less than enticing. Greene King IPA, another Greene King offering and London Pride. Everyone plumped for Pride, which was in pretty poor condition. Tommy and Joe turned up and the standard Saturday fat was chewed. Thankfully Joe had not decided to reprise his Fog on the Tyne entertainment of a couple of weeks’ previous.
11.35 London Marylebone to High Wycombe
The three carriage service was busy, as it generally is on a Saturday, going as it does to the outlet village at Bicester. As we searched for seats we wondered why Chiltern Railways never put extra carriages on to deal with the crowds, but that would be all too sensible wouldn’t it? Luckily when we got to the final carriage we found that John had saved a table: result. We pulled out of the city and trundled along to the edge of the genteel Chilterns, where the houses are large and the voters (one suspects) mainly Tory. It always seems an unlikely area for football.
Once upon a time the pub opposite High Wycombe station was called The Flint Cottage (the building is, quite literally, a house covered in pieces of the stone) and it was a pretty grotty affair. A few years ago it changed into The Bootlegger and improved beyond all recognition, with Rebellion beers on draft and hundreds of bottled beers. This season it has improved still further, with about double the number of cask beers and a new set of keg taps behind the bar. We ordered a combination of Tring Pale Four (later described as having “Fairy Liquid in the brew” by Ian) and Mighty Oak Scrambler and, as the sun was out, we wandered into the huge garden.
It was glorious: warm sun, sofas, beer and good company. What more could anyone want for a Saturday lunchtime? Well, there was one thing, or so the staff thought at any rate: what we clearly needed on the hottest day of the year so far, was a wood burning stove (or more accurately a chimenea) lit right next to us. We tried our best to point out it was quite warm and very sunny but our protests went unnoticed. The stove was lit and a cloud of smoke blew towards us. This was not in the glorious category. Graham and Andy pulled the stove away. A few minutes later they pulled it away a bit further. Then a bit more. It was bearable although heaven knows why it had ever been lit in the first place. We spotted another, discarded, chimenea in a bit of waste ground fenced off from the main garden: maybe this had happened before and previous drinkers had moved the offending stove rather further than us.
More Dons’ fans turned up and the conversation flowed from beer to games past to who would play who in the forthcoming AFC Wimbledon Hollywood film. Tom and Andy nipped off to the Chair Museum – when in High Wycombe and all that. We drank Tickety Brew, Rebellion Zebedee and Siren Pompelmocello, a grapefruit IPA which was pretty much made for the weather. Tin Tin turned up and bemoaned his marathon training which meant he couldn’t indulge in the excellent range of beers. He tasted the Pompelmocello, swooned and almost cried that he was unable to have one of his own.
Stove aside the sun, beer and huge space for everyone to socialise in was making this a pretty perfect pre-match spot. Perfect, that was, apart from one thing that had been irking me: a misplaced apostrophe on a blackboard. I’d already tried to rub it off, as every grammar pedant surely would, but it was painted on. My subsequent search for a black marker pen had proved fruitless – until Tin Tin’s arrival. He produced a marker and I set about obliterating the offending apostrophe. Phew.
Tom and Andy turned from their museum trip. It had been a disappointment, a side room to the full museum. Still, they had learned that a chair was “a stool with a back” and seen a “Champion Chair of Britain” from the 19th Century. They consoled themselves with a game of crib instead (won by Andy).
Beerless Tin Tin
Wycombe Wanderers vs AFC Wimbledon
There was a long queue for the away end as we arrived, which Sean and Graham joined while Ian and I headed off to pick up our pre-ordered tickets. We asked a steward where we should pick them up, “Over there in that building,” he said, pointing at what looked like a modified phone box. Building was certainly an ambitious term for the tiny hut, but the tickets were there and as we picked them up we noticed that an extra entrance had been opened for away supporters with tickets. This hardly seems worth mentioning but such eminently sensible behaviour on the part of a football club is incredibly rare, so credit to WWFC.
We found a space (to stand, of course) and were joined by Alyson and Percy. A few minutes later Tom and Andy arrived, Tom having survived an inquisition about what he had in his pocket. When he explained that it was a crib board, a mutual love of the game was discovered as the steward exclaimed: “Excellent!”We found a space (to stand, of course) and were joined by Alyson and Percy. A few minutes later Tom and Andy arrived, Tom having survived an inquisition about what he had in his pocket. When he explained that it was a crib board, a mutual love of the game was discovered as the steward exclaimed: “Excellent!”
One thing that any supporter in League Two will tell you about Wycombe Wanderers under Gareth Ainsworth is that they are the most cynical team in the division. You’ll likely hear the terms “dive” and “cheat” as well: it’s a reputation that has been well-earned by the club and hated by supporters of every team that plays them. So when the chants of “You’re going to dive in a minute,” started soon after kick off no one was surprised. The first elaborate fall came on seven minutes. The home crowd showed their disapproval of this clear foul (in their minds at least), we heaped scorn upon the acrobatics – and so it would continue.
Ardley had started the game with three up front and in the 12th minute his boldness paid off. Elliott latched onto a Fuller pass in the penalty area and from our view at the opposite end of the ground it looked like the Wycombe ‘keeper tripped him. Before we could finish our cry of “penalty” the ball had broken to Lyle Taylor who duly found the net – cue mayhem in the away end. Once the celebrations had died down we noticed that the ref, assistant refs and fourth official were in deep conversation near the dug outs. We speculated that maybe the ‘keeper would be booked for what seemed to have been a certain foul on Elliott, and secretly all hoped that the goal wasn’t about to be belatedly disallowed for some indiscernible reason. The clock ticked, we grew none the wiser but the players were in place for a kick off, which was promising. Eventually the ref ran back onto the pitch, or rather “a” ref ran back onto the pitch – as this was, in fact, one of the assistant refs who had replaced the original (now injured) man in the middle.
The scoreboard, meanwhile, was still showing nil-nil. “Update your scoreboard, we’re winning one nil,” urged the away end, and after several minutes the score was corrected. There were more chances in the first half: Murphy hit the crossbar, a couple of chances went over it and Taylor forced a great save from home ‘keeper Allsop but as the whistle blew for the break it remained one nil to the Dons.
In the second half things continued in the same vein: Wycombe players fell over and flashed simulated yellow cards at the ref and Robinson hit the crossbar. Then, in the 57th minute Michael Harriman hit at shot from just outside the box that evaded Roos and put the home side level. It was a blow, and an undeserved one, and even worse it brought a drummer to life in the home end. In an ideal word drumming in football grounds would lead to a ten-point deduction and a lifetime ban for the culprit.
It didn’t take too long for the lead to be restored though. Murphy was pulled down in the box and, after a considerable delay due to the inevitable Wycombe protests and gamesmanship, Taylor got his second of the day. 2-1 Dons.
What was remarkable about this game was that it took until the 72nd minute for a yellow card to be shown, and then it was shown to Dannie Bulman. Fouls in the box, simulation, constant arguing with the ref had all gone unpunished (the game ended with a yellow count of 1 to the home side to 4 for the visitors, which was equally ludicrous) – it was as if the officials were existing in a parallel universe.
As the game went on a red kite circled the fields outside – the view of the Chilterns is certainly one of the better backdrops in the League – oblivious (I presume) to the atmosphere next door. Wycombe boss Ainsworth was getting a lot of grief for his, and his team’s antics, and even he was shocked that fans of his former club at turned on him. It would be nice if that shock translated into an improvement in his team’s tactics, but somehow I feel that is unlikely.
The home side had a bit of pressure but they were unable to breach the Dons’ defence again and at the final whistle three well-deserved points were celebrated wildly by the travelling fans – who included former Dons’ Jon Main and Mickey Haswell. It had been a really good performance, with Elliott man of the match, having caused the home team no end of problems all afternoon.
On the way out I was really pleased to bump into Shea, who was at her first game in years, mainly due to the arrival of two children in the meantime. I’d suggested earlier in the week that perhaps her trip could bring good luck and it seems it did. The campaign to get Shea to more games starts here.
Views of the rolling countryside apart Adams Park has little going for it. The one road in and out through a sprawling industrial estate is inevitably blocked for an age after every game, trapping those who have risked parking close to the ground. With the bars and tents on site selling such delights as Greene King IPA we walked down the lane to The Hourglass. It isn’t the worst pub in the world but is by no means the best either. We ordered unmemorable drinks and called a cab to arrive in 30 minutes. Ian noticed a dog hiding under the table – the poor thing was presumably embarrassed at being dressed in a Wycombe shirt.
We left to wait for the cab. And wait we did. Other cabs turned up, we waited. Likely looking vehicles drove past but did not stop, still we waited. Increasingly angry calls were made to the cab company (not least because Alyson needed to get back to Grimsby – missing her train would lead to a hefty additional fare and an overnight stay). We were told the taxi was a minute away, then on its way, then (15 minutes later) 20 seconds away. Half an hour after it was due a cab turned up. Alyson made her train with seconds to spare (and only because it was late) and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Pro tip: do not book Tiger Cabs in High Wycombe.
We walked to the back of the station and round to The Belle Vue. It was one of those pubs that it’s a joy to happen upon: friendly and welcoming, with several beers and ciders on, plus a good number of leaflets announcing an anti-EDL march the following week. We ordered Adnam’s Ghost Ship and West Berkshire’s Skiff and joined Tom and Andy, who had made it rather earlier travelling by bus. They were just finishing another game of crib (Andy won again) and we shared our taxi take before they headed back to town. A band began to set up next to us, prompting us to shift to the snug, and one of the locals told us that two of the musicians claimed to have been Wombles in Mike Batt’s backing band back in the 70’s and we were suitably impressed. The snug doubled up as a gallery for local artists, bringing out our inner critics. The band started to warm up next door: “1…2, 1….2, 1 2, 1 2, 1 2” came the voice over the sound system: “It’s the score!” we chorused.
The route to The Belle Vue
Anti-EDL march leaflets
We reluctantly left for the 9.14 train home, using the handy (and previously unknown to me) back entrance to the station.
Also known as the “one for the road” pub that we visited (maybe) as a tribute to Wycombe’s goalkeeper. We all drank Salopian Darwin’s Origin and mulled over the trip with a few other returning Dons fans: all in all, we concluded, it had been a very fine day out indeed.
Pub of the day: The Belle Vue
Beer of the day (for me, at least): Siren Pompelmocello
The Easter break, and with it the advent of spring, symbolises a time for new life, regrowth and renewal, or at least that’s how it’s meant to work out. In the week leading up to the bank holiday AFC Wimbledon fans could have been forgiven for thinking that the spirit of spring had been misinterpreted somewhat, as Boris Johnson decided to ignore both Merton Council and his own planning officers by thwarting the plans for Plough Lane, temporarily at least.
The news from City Hall had cast a shadow over the week for everyone so by Good Friday we were all keen for a resurrection of both our spirits and our play-off hopes as we headed on the long trip north to Hartlepool. It was (unsurprisingly) another early start, not least as the first leg of the journey involved a rail replacement bus. The omens were not good as the bus took a wrong turn, ended up doing a three point turn to avoid a low bridge (after a conflab with his colleague and map) but was unable to get back on the route proper by a “no right turn” sign. We were rescued by a second rail replacement bus, with a driver who actually knew the route, and made it to King’s Cross in time for the 8.02 to Hartlepool.
The 8.02 Grand Central Train – London King’s Cross to Hartlepool
This was the third time we’d booked tickets on Grand Central but the first that there had actually been a train to get onto: progress. When we found our seats the numbering throughout the carriage was all a bit messed up but one of our seats was opposite fellow Dons Florian and Clara and with a bit of negotiation with others (who also wanted to sit with the people they had booked with) we managed to secure a table of four. The carriage itself was an old first class one (masquerading as standard class) so we had the added luxury of extra room.
Conversations, as always on long trips, covered a multitude of subjects: Boris Johnson’s incredulous decision, Johan Cruyff’s genius, Berlin before and after reunification and snacks in the former DDR. The latter was inspired when a plastic container was produced. When opened two boiled eggs (coloured for Easter) fitted inside, along with a tiny salt shaker and two plastic spoons. This, Florian and Clara explained, was a relic of the past, when snacks were not readily available in the east and so people took boiled eggs out with them. Utter genius.
We carried on northwards and as we scoured Eaglescliffe for signs of birds of prey a passenger opposite explained that the local town was called Egglescliffe, but the station signwriter got the name wrong back in the 19th Century and the surrounding area eventually became known by the erroneous spelling. At Stockton-on-Tees we discussed Stephenson’s Rocket and Harold Macmillan: this was all getting rather cultural.
Finally, we pulled into Hartlepool. Wimbledon fans emerged from the carriages into the bright sun. The weather was certainly springlike, although our southern softness meant that we were compelled to survey the summer dresses, t-shirts and complete lack of outerwear of locals with horror as we waited for the rest of the group to arrive a few minutes later.
Sean and Graham arrived with Joe on the train from Newcastle, where they’d all stayed the previous night. Joe was singing Fog on the Tyne, his earworm for the day, which meant that we’d be hearing a lot of it over the next few hours – when in Rome and all that. Just outside the station we found Grimsby Alyson who’d had her customary 5am start and 10am arrival. She’d spent the time waiting for us strolling around the Marina but was disappointed not to have found the statue of the unfortunate monkey (hanged as a French spy during the Napoleonic Wars). We decided to head for the Brewery Tap after a short discussion – it was Good Friday and before noon but hopefully it would be open anyway.
Our optimism paid off, the Tap was open and several locals were already in and seated. I ordered a pint of Northern Line Stout (a collaboration between Cameron’s and Portobello), Ian went for Strongarm and Sean, Graham and Joe all plumped for Gold Bullion. All were in decent condition (as they should be in a brewery tap) but the stout was generally thought to be the winner in the taste stakes. Discussion turned, inevitably, to the injustice of Boris Johnson’s decision on Plough Lane. This would be brought up again and again all day: that’s not surprising, it is the only decision with planning granted “called in” by the Mayor in eight years and his own planning officers had said that “there are no sound reasons for the Mayor to intervene in this particular case.” It is incredibly frustrating and the implications of who may or may not make the final decision (dependent on when the hearing is) were discussed in detail. There is no crystal ball of course, so for now all we could do was wait and see what the club advised fans to do (or not do).
At midday sharp the staff brought out plates of fish, chips, peas and bread and butter to most of the locals. Alyson was intrigued and managed to procure a plate for herself at the bargain price of £3. “It may have been a pensioners’ special,” she explained, but the staff had been happy enough to sell her the lunch so she wasn’t complaining (and who would?)
The bar was covered in memorabilia from the brewery and we noticed a mention of “Hartlepools”, which led to the question of why the football team was once Hartlepools United, but now a singular Hartlepool United (but still nicknamed ‘Pools)? The answer was that the original name referred to the towns of West Hartlepool and Hartlepool, but when the two became one borough in 1968 both the “s” and “United” were dropped (the latter was restored in 1977). Who says football trips aren’t educational?
There was more to be learned too as we marvelled at the huge heads on the pints of Strongarm that the guys next to us were drinking. “They’re called bankers,” explained one of them. The impressive-looking (but ultimately inconvenient) heads are native to the north east (where sparklers are commonly used) and were, apparently, once lined up on bars in anticipation of the arrival of thirsty workers.
The Tap had certainly been entertaining but we decided it was time to move on and headed for The Causeway, which was around the corner.
The choice of beers at the Causeway meant that we all ordered Strongarm (the other options being a Hobgoblin guest and Banks’s bitter). There were bankers all round. We stared in wonder at the enormous heads yet again. Joe took a break from Fog on the Tyne and said that all the away games he’d seen this season had been wins for Wimbledon and we generally agreed that this was a good omen. Yet more friendly locals started to chat to us and we were all encouraged to partake of the bar snacks that were brought out: quiche, sausage rolls, sausages, cheese and tomatoes. “Don’t youse get this in London?” asked one old boy. I explained that The Willoughby was pretty good on snacks, albeit the locals brought them in, but commended The Causeway on its impressive range.
Graham and I strolled around some of the other rooms in the pub, with lots of original features and furniture. The landlady told us that they had purposely left one of the rooms with its smoke-stained ceiling and walls, as well as an enormous number of pictures and posters. I love pubs like this that you could spend hours in, reading and admiring and learning – and what was really nice was that the landlady clearly shared in her punters’ delight.
Interior of the Causeway
Proper pub furniture
Graham with some light reading
We arrived at Victoria Park and joined the queue at the the turnstiles. There was much muttering about the £25 price advertised above the entrance, but word soon filtered through that there was a piece of paper inside saying that the actual price was £20 (which is what the website says). This appears to be somewhat flexible though, one Northampton Town fan said that he was charged £24 recently – a figure that doesn’t correspond with any home area and as a result would be a highly dubious practice.
A minute’s silence was held following the attacks in Brussels and I found myself wondering why people would take photos (as several were) during what is meant to be a moment of reflection? I still wasn’t sure when the game kicked off and Joe’s renditions of Fog on the Tyne were replaced with some non too complimentary songs about Boris Johnson. On 21 minutes a bungled clearance led to a home goal and there we were again, losing to a team near the bottom. There were chances at both ends, the tributes to Boris Johnson continued, while the home fans (dressed, as Ian put it, in the highest density of tracksuit bottoms since Crawley) responded with something no one could understand.
Half time came and went (with some Stowford Press to dull the pain) and the second half saw a lot of Dons’ possession but little real penetration. Elliott came on for Murphy and made a difference to the potency of the attack but still there was no way through. We noticed that home substitutions were sponsored (but not the away subs) as were the officials’ details on the scoreboard – in short, Hartlepool were flogging anything they could to sponsors. Azeez and Akinfenwa came on, the possession continued, as did the lack of goals. At one point Bayo was pulled down by two home defenders, one of whom gripped him round the neck with his arm, but the sponsored officials saw nothing. It was not to be (again), Joe’s impressive away record was over, and 259 away fans trudged off having seen a pretty one sided defeat (with that one side not being the victors).
We’d noticed the Rat Race micropub on the station when we arrived, but it didn’t open until 12.02 (in proper railway timetable fashion). On the way back it was open so we squeezed – quite literally – in. We stood in what we thought was a queue until the landlady told us to sit down wherever we could and came around to take orders. We all went for the Mordue’s Amarillo, which was pretty tasty and like every other pub we’d visited incredibly cheap (especially when you are used to London prices). Sean mentioned that a Hartlepool manager was once rumoured to have paid ten pounds and a box of kippers for a player – we didn’t doubt that was possible. The pub had a capacity of 24 but a decent selection of beer and quirky details like old train seats for the customers to use.
Interior of the Rat Race
The landlady added more colour, at one point shouting out: “If anyone’s getting Grand Central it’s in,” to which some wit replied, “What strength is it?” The arrival of the London train saw most of the Dons’ fans (including Joe and Alyson) disappear, with a few of us waiting for the slightly later Newcastle service.
Northern Rail – Hartlepool to Newcastle
A journey only memorable for providing us with some much needed toilet facilities.
As we walked to our second micropub of the day the Boris Johnson songs emerged again. Newcastle needed to know about the vile man. The pub itself was housed in a railway arch, it felt almost like being in Hackney. It was quiet for a Friday night, with just a couple of locals in but they, like almost everyone else we met, were incredibly friendly and the place had an instant warmth about it. We ordered Three Kings’ Ring of Fire and Tempest’s Cascadian, both of which were good. We chatted to the locals about football and beer, then Graham and I had a game of Connect 4. I won. Graham suggested a best of three. I won again. “Best of five?” suggested Graham. He won. 2-1 to me. We played again. I got the all important third victory. SCENES.
After all that excitement Ian and I thought we’d better check in to our hotel, The Premier Inn where Graham and Sean were also staying. Or so we thought. When we arrived the receptionist explained that we were actually booked in to the brand new hotel up the road. She called us a cab and we all piled in. I told the cab driver where we were going. “There’s no hotel there, there’s only a cinema.” He replied. I showed him the address and explained that the hotel themselves had directed us (and him) there. He made a noise of disapproval and said that he wasn’t allowed to go there as a minicab. This seemed odd, it was in the city centre, but when we were just down the road he refused to go any further. Google maps got us where the cab couldn’t – or wouldn’t. We checked in and got another cab out to The Cumberland Arms in Byker (cue Ant and Dec gags).
This cab didn’t seem much better and after directing him towards our destination he stopped at the end of a road and declared he couldn’t go any further.
We trudged up to the pub, which had a beer festival on over the Easter holiday. We joined a queue of ten or more to get to the bar. It didn’t move. We waited some more. No movement. We decided to give up and head to The Free Trade Inn down the road. The beer and pub looked nice but long queues aren’t much fun.
We’d hoped to catch up with Dons’ fan Newcastle Tim (and Hugo the sausage dog) here but by the time we arrived it was past Hugo’s bedtime and they’d had to leave. The Free Trade Inn is very well known on the Newcastle beer circuit, and its reputation has been well earned and maintained. Well kept beer, great staff, comfy surroundings and a pub cat called CraigDavid. What more could you want?
Boris bad, beer good
There was the remnants of a London beer festival going on (brilliantly illustrated by “Boris bad, beer good” posters) but we avoided the southern ale and ordered Fyne’s Jarl and Roosters’ Roots, Rock, Reggae. The latter is a tropical (pineapple and grapefruit) IPA, but well balanced and not too sweet. The people on the next table got up to leave and as they left handed us a pile of beer mats and told us we must look after them. We agreed, and indeed I still have the beer mats – but for what reason I have no idea. More beer was ordered and I tried North Riding’s Black Horizon, an Imperal Stout which was perfect for the late hour.
The pub was emptying and as it was Good Friday we presumed it was closing. I called a cab from a number the barman gave me and he said they were still open until midnight. “Even on Good Friday?” I asked. “It’s a Friday isn’t it?” came the reply. Marvellous.
The Newcastle Arms
Our final cab of the night took us to the final pub of the day, The Newcastle Arms. It was quiet but friendly. We drank Sonnet 43’s Bourbon Milk Stout and discussed our day out. A fine one, we concluded, despite the football.
Pub of the day: a tough decision between The Split Chimp, Rat Race and The Free Trade Inn but The Split Chimp edged it.
It was one of those things that came up in conversation, as these things do. We were discussing Stedders’ blog of football trips and someone (Sean?) said: “We should do a blog of our trips.” So here it is: a trip to Morecambe, or, in search of butter pies.
The 7.30 London Euston to Lancaster
It was an early start, all of us up by 5.30 to make the 7.30am train to Lancaster. There was some reasoning behind this, it was cheap, very cheap, and plenty of Dons had the same idea. The younger fans were loaded with crates of booze but we decided we could wait for a few hours, there would be plenty of time for beer later on. We had bumped into Sean and Graham on the concourse at Euston and when the train was called we found a table in a fairly quiet unreserved carriage.
Peace was soon shattered when some more lads laden with booze staggered down the carriage: “I’m Leeds United,” shouted one to his mate in an accent that suggested he had never set foot outside London, “I’m not sitting in a two seat.” We felt smug at our table and relieved as they carried on in search of what they seemed to think was their god given right into the next carriage. The rest of the journey passed fairly uneventfully. We kept Graham amused with a moving Google map on an iPad and thick fog was good enough to descend and obliterate a certain city from view. I waxed lyrical (apparently to the point of obsession) about the possibility of finding a butter pie on our trip. I love a butter pie, surely somewhere in Lancaster would sell them? We arrived before ten and headed to the local ‘Spoons for breakfast.
The Sir Richard Owen
This was a breakfast stop before the pub crawl proper but Sean, Ian and I all felt that it would have been rude to ignore the Salopian Darwin’s Original. We were rewarded in our choice although Graham’s “Punk is dead” from Vale was in rather less impressive condition. We were joined by Northamptonshire Richard, whose journey had involved a similarly early start, a bus and three trains. Just as we were leaving Tim Hillyer, who had travelled on the same train from London as us, turned up having first gone to the other Wetherspoon’s in town, which was closed for refurbishment. Notable by her absence was Grimsby Alyson who had decided that crazy golf in Morecambe was a better prospect than a pub crawl.
We left the pub and turned left, following Graham to our first pub, The White Cross, which Richard particularly wanted to visit. Graham is the king of maps, so this made sense. But then a moment of controversy. “We need to go right,” said Richard. Gasps all round. “I definitely went right the last time I went there.” Graham produced his map. There was a discussion. Google maps was consulted. We continued to follow Graham who was outraged that Richard had called his map reading skills into question. Sure enough, in a few minutes we saw The White Cross’s sign ahead of us. “That’s not the pub I meant,” said Richard. A collective sigh. It turned out Richard had meant The Water Witch along the canal and his directions would have taken us to it. Still, we were where we were so we trooped to the door of the pub. It was locked. Richard and Graham fumed, their collective research had said the pub opened at 11am. We encountered one of the staff who explained the pub opened at 11.30, “Your website says 11am,” said Graham. “Really? It’s always been 11.30,” came the reply, “I’ll get it changed.”
The Water Witch
We trundled along the tow path and arrived at The Water Witch, which did open at 11am. “I will always love you” was blaring out. Five pints of Kirkby Lonsdale Monumental were ordered, which was generally declared to be very pleasant indeed. The landlord brought us over some pub maps of Lancaster, which Graham immediately compared with an earlier version he had. The website of The White Cross was checked and it stated that the pub opened at 11.30. A rare mistake from Graham, although Richard pointed out that the Good Beer Guide app was wrong and gave the opening time as 11am.
“Careless Whisper” came on. Followed by “I will always love you” followed by “Careless Whisper.” Sighs all round. Eventually the music changed, but not for the better. “Music that makes you want to stab your eardrums out,” noted Graham. He wasn’t wrong and, while we were enjoying the beer and the pub, we drank up fairly quickly. As we were leaving the pub Tim Hillyer turned up. This was getting to be a habit.
After we explained the music situation Tim decided to join our crawl. We strolled into town. I noticed Pound Bakery, a place given legendary status by my friend Gerald: think Greggs but with multiple items available for a pound. Or, on one case six sausage rolls for £1.10. This upset Graham who thought the place should change its name to the Pound Ten Bakery. I still craved a butter pie and there were none, for either £1 or £1.10, in the bakery.
We made plans to wander through the market after the next pub where there were rumoured to be local food stalls. We were heading to The Tap House and another disagreement about directions broke out. Richard pressed Google map’s claim, we followed him and there was the pub. Graham 1- Richard 1.
The Tap House
A collective sigh of relief as we walked in and found the pub free of bad music. Two of us ordered Hardknott’s Brownian Motion, a salted smoked porter, while everyone else went for the Hawkshead Pale. The Brownian Motion was a little salty but not overpowering and worth trying. Tim made an announcement: he was no longer going to tick beers due to all the special variations being produced for festivals and the like. It’s an interesting point, although I rather like trying specials – I’m never going to drink every beer out there and if tasty beer comes out of it then that’s a good thing.
We enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere in the Tap House but there were butter pies to find and other pubs to visit so we moved on. We passed Greenhalgh’s bakery, a place I’d also found online. They sell butter pies – but with cheese in. Now, I love cheese but a butter pie is not the place for it and this would not do. We walked down Market Street but there were no stalls of interest. Graham bought a pork pie from a Cornish stall but nowhere in this part of the market sold Lancastrian delicacies much to my disappointment and Richard’s – he’d been hoping for Lancashire Sauce and potted shrimps.
We headed to The Sun to cheer ourselves up. Richard and I went for an Early Grey IPA from Lancaster brewery but as I was on table seeking duty I failed to note what the others had. The pub was much busier than the others we’d been too, where we had been pretty much the only customers, but some old boys left and we squeezed into a space partly built into a wall. The Earl Grey IPA was nice, if perhaps lacking the bergamot hit I’d been expecting.
The Three Mariners
We decided that there was just about time to fit in a final pub and get a taxi to Morecambe so we took a brisk stroll to The Three Mariners. We were glad we’d made the effort, the historic pub, near the River Lune, was welcoming and comfortable. Ian and I went for a customarily good Oakham Citra, to much tutting from others who declared it too southern for the trip. They went for a Derbyshire beer (which I forget now). Richard ordered cheesy chips, only to discover when we found a table that he could have had potted shrimps had he seen a menu before ordering. We enjoyed what we thought would be the final pre-match drink before the taxi arrived.
Morecambe FC bar
The taxi was pretty quick and we found ourselves arriving at the ground with time to spare. A swift half of Cross Bay’s Sunset Blond and we trundled around to pay the £21 Morecambe were demanding.
The £21 entrance was a moot point. Morecambe have a terrace that away fans can use but they choose not to open it for most games, instead forcing supporters into the more expensive seats. This is within their rights but it leaves a bad taste. In the week preceding the game I’d emailed Morecombe FC about this, as had others. The answer we received was a stock one that suggested we complain to the Football League if we thought they were breaking rules (we knew that they weren’t – this is a moral issue). AFC Wimbledon always offer away fans both seating and standing accommodation, as do several other clubs who have the option, regardless of how many they bring – it would be nice if others could do the same. As it is, short term gain seems to be Morecambe’s goal, failing to realise that this may stop fans returning in the future.
As we made our way to the back of the seats (where we stood, of course: that extra £4 was well spent) I noticed a steward at the end of the unoccupied away terrace. Even though this wasn’t being used there were stewards in the area (granted, not as many as there would have been otherwise, but the saving was probably no more than one or two stewards.)
The game itself was another frustrating one. New signing Rhys Murphy started and while he looked understandably rusty, he managed to get the ball in the net (albeit disallowed for offside). I fully expect him to start to make a big difference when he gets a bit more game time under his belt though and he could yet be important to our injury and suspension ravaged side. Half time came with the game 0-0. I tried in vain to procure a butter pie (Morecambe are famed for their pies but they only had two options and neither was butter) and merely ended up with some Carlsberg that I tried to pass on to anyone that would drink it.
The frustration continued in the second half with ten minutes ultimately deciding the game. The defensive frailties seen in recent weeks led to Morecambe’s first goal and then Lyle Taylor immediately hit the post. It was reminiscent of the previous Tuesday when Dons’ had a chance cleared off the line at 2-1: crucial moments were going against us. Just like on Tuesday it got worse too. Sweeney conceded a penalty and was dismissed (the correct decision – although he had little choice we felt) and suddenly it was 2-0 and 11 against 10. The much maligned (not by me) Francomb pulled one back at the death but it was not to be. A second loss in a week and we were out of the play off positions.
Things are by no means over yet and a first midweek without a game in a month or so will be welcomed by a squad of pretty tired and jaded players. With Sweeney out on Saturday we’ll have to hope that the centre-back that Ardley has been targeting comes in on loan to shore things up in defence.
Final score: Morecambe 2 Wimbledon 1
We’d pre-booked a taxi back to Lancaster and planned to try one of the two pubs nearest the station. First up we walked into The Robert Gillow but a couple of dozen elderly women setting up music stands was enough to put us off and we hot footed it to Merchants 1688 instead. Set in the cellars of an old wine merchants this is an atmospheric pub full of interesting spaces for punters to congregate in. We spotted some of the northern Dons and conversation flowed: “It’s like The Willoughby [our usual home pub] away,” someone commented. And it was. Sure, the football is what we travel for but the company and conversation is what makes it a good day out. These two things also meant that I completely forgot to note down what anyone drank: I am a poor ticker.
The 6.41 Lancaster to London Euston
There was a procession from Merchants to the station just up the hill. The team were also on the platform and seemed to be having a bet about where first class would be, with half one end of the platform and half the other. The group nearest us lost out and had to troop past us, we encouraged them with comments about there still being plenty to play for.
We managed to get another table in an unreserved carriage with room for Richard across the aisle. There were more Dons throughout the carriage and several songs were sung. Conversations continued with Graham declaring that egg mayonnaise sandwiches “are akin to a rubber fetish.” We supped Red Willow’s Tilting Ale (produced for Virgin Trains) and generally put the world to rights. A trip to the toilet produced some rather unexpected “entertainment” as giggles, a hand dryer turning on several times and a voice shouting “get your foot out of my face” suggested that there may be more than a single occupant. I banged on the door in my best train guard manner and nipped down to the next carriage.
People departed at various stations. Lyle Taylor got off at Wigan and gave us a wave and a smile (Grimsby Alyson will be most jealous), Runcorn Simon was next at Warrington and Richard left us at the place that shall not be named, accompanied by a loud chorus of uncomplimentary singing up and down the train. We carried on to London where Sean decided to head home after a long day. Ian, Graham and I carried on.
Williams Ale and Cider House
The venue was host to a double birthday party for Orient supporting friends. The O’s fans were all in good spirits after a 1-0 win at Oxford and we were pleased for them: who doesn’t have a soft spot for Orient? We drank Lagunitas and chatted football, trains and politics until exhaustion took over and we left to get the 26 bus back to Hackney.
As Sean said the following day: a good day out ruined by 90 minutes of football (and the lack of butter pies).
One of the things that unites most of the cricket fans I know is a shared frustration with the administration of the game we love. For years we’ve seen the interests of fans sidelined in favour of the pursuit of power and money, with cricket suffering as a consequence, and in many ways it has felt as if the game is being wrested from us.
Earlier this week I went to see the film “Death of Gentleman”, which draws on that frustration through the journey made by Jarrod Kimber and Sam Collins, a journey that starts out by questioning whether and/or why test cricket is dying and ends up investigating the stench of corruption around those at the very top of the game. The end result is a thought-provoking film that makes you laugh at times but, ultimately, uncontrollably angry at the custodians of the game (if you weren’t already). It’s powerful stuff and I genuinely think that “Death of a Gentleman” should be mandatory viewing for anyone that loves and fears for test cricket. Excellence of the film aside (and I won’t spoil it for those that haven’t seen it yet, except to say that you can see my head in it at one point), it also has a crucial side effect of spawning the start of a movement for change.
Watching ”Death of a Gentleman” I was reminded of a time, over a decade ago, when a group of us (including Ian and Tom) started a short-lived cricket fanzine. It looked at many of the same issues being discussed today (it was around 2003 when Twenty20 first came on the scene), specifically within the UK, and one of the ideas mooted was some sort of a fans’ organisation. The idea behind that wasn’t akin to a competitor to the Barmy Army, but instead something that went beyond England and international cricket but represented supporters of counties too.
That idea never came to fruition – back in 2003 the Internet was nowhere near as omnipresent or accessible as it is now, and so geographical borders were still a barrier to a global movement, but here in 2015 it is a wholly different story. Now it is possible to see how the issues in county cricket are replicated at test level and how the administrators of both are intrinsically linked. For every English – and Welsh – cricket fan that has complained about the ECB’s Giles Clarke over the years there are hundreds in India who have railed against N. Srinivasan. Both have drawn on their own privilege to make domestic, and then international cricket, their own private members’ club in which they, together with Wally Edwards of Australia, pull all of the strings at the expense of the rest of the world’s cricket boards.
“Death of a Gentleman” focuses the mind on those similarities, as well as the scandalous pursuit of money ahead of spreading the global reach of the game – the latter is surely what custodians should be bound to do – and urges fans to work together for change. It’s early days but the changecricket.com website has a petition you can sign and on Thursday 20th August, the first day of the final Ashes Test, a three minute silent protest (one minute for each of the elite boards) is planned outside the Hobbs Gates at the Oval at 10am.
Why is this important? Well, if you live in the UK and have bought a ticket for an international match in recent years then you’ll probably have noticed that it was pretty expensive, the increases meaning that many fans have been priced out at the expense of corporates. The ECB will claim – on a technicality – that this is not down to them, but without going into the details, their bidding system to stage games is at the very root of the increases in test and ODI match prices. In turn, this expands the brand (yes, brand, it is so wrong for sport isn’t it?) that the ECB has built, and the growing number of series against the big draws of Australian and India (coincidentally the other two boards running world cricket). In short, it maintains and builds upon the power base that exists. Conversely, if you are a West Indies or a Bangladesh fan (amongst others) then you’ll have fewer tests against the big three, and the series you do get will be pushed into as short a period as possible. These things may seem a far cry from the deals that go on at the ICC in Dubai but they are the products of those handshakes and agreements, the consequences for you and me as fans.
Arguably neither a petition nor a protest outside a cricket ground will do much to change the power base of cricket, but the important thing for me is that it’s a start, and all movements need to start somewhere. I can’t be there myself on Thursday, instead I shall have to settle for three minutes of contemplation at my desk, but I hope that lots of fans do turn up and send a signal, however small, to those running the game. And more than that I hope that this is just the beginning, because a movement to try and change cricket for the better is something that I really, really want to get behind: let’s #changecricket.
With the Ashes only hours away it’s getting increasingly difficult to work out whether there is a circus coming to town or the cricket, such is hype and the silliness. News of an opening ceremony does nothing to quell this; has self importance reached such a level that a test series is masquerading as the Olympics?
Its unlikely that Danny Boyle has been brought in to curate the ceremony but the gradual shift from players simply walking out, to Jerusalem before home tests, to a whole host of anthems being sung, and now this, shows the clear direction of those marketing the game: razzmatazz first, cricket second.
In some ways this is echoed by the crowds at tests in the UK. Once the reason for shelling out on tickets was to watch the cricket, but, for what seems to be an increasing number, the main objective it is now to get on TV in a fancy dress costume or by building the biggest beer snake ever seen.
It’s not a phenomena reserved for cricket, Wimbledon too is having its moments. That was brought home during Andy Murray’s game against Andreas Seppi at the weekend: everyone is used to partisan crowds, and doubtless they help players, but suddenly there’s a group of twenty-somethings dressed identically in pink t-shirts, each bearing a letter of #MURRAY on their chest. It got them on TV, not just once but multiple times, but the problem was their order: first it was “AMURRY” then “#MURY” and then a whole host of different combinations, none of which was correct.
On the plus side this apparently illiterate but media-hungry group was in the back row and so they didn’t get in the eyeline of other fans, but that isn’t always the case. Come Saturday at the Swalec the likelihood is that some poor soul (and I hope it isn’t me) will be sat right behind a group of giant bananas in pyjamas and instead of a view of the pitch, gets a pointy, furry head in their face. Up in the Sky commentary box Bumble will wax lyrical about the costumes on show, but that’s easy to do from the comfort of a perfect view of the ground.
Even worse than the walking fruit, vegetables and cartoon characters though are the beer snakes and Mexican waves. Throughout the summer the TV cameras will focus on people – who have spent upwards on £75 for a ticket – putting all their efforts into stacking plastic pots and balancing ‘snakes’ several metres high for their own amusement. Anyone stuck behind the stacking and balancing will be less amused though, as they struggle to get a view of the match they have paid to watch, while those in front risk the thing collapsing on top of them (and, believe me, a shower of beer dregs is not a fun experience).
Mexican waves (not actually Mexican, but that poor nation has been saddled with the name) are another bugbear. If people want to stand up, wave their arms and throw torn up paper about then there are better places than a cricket ground. Like their own garden, or a park. But no, they do it in the ground, ruining the view for everyone else.
Is it all harmless fun? I suspect it is for those that indulge but everyone else has spent £75 for a ticket too and a bit of consideration for those that do want to watch the game would go a long way. Grounds have a role to play too; most have “No stacking” signs around the stadium to discourage beer snakes but, with the glorious exception of Lord’s, these rules are rarely enforced.
I have my own solution, which draws on the “no tolerance” seen at Lord’s but puts it to good use. First of all, fancy dress. If it doesn’t affect other spectators views of the pitch then it’s not a problem but if there’s a huge novelty head, which means those behind can’t see, then that head has to be taken off. Yes, I know they are now unlikely to get on the telly, but this is about cricket not a group of engineering students dressed as Tellytubbies. Anyone that doesn’t comply gets to wear their fancy dress down to the pub instead.
Beer snakes: three strikes and you are out. One initial warning, one final warning, then gone – before the thing reaches any height at all and disturbs other spectators. If it’s a group getting involved then they all go.
Mexican waves are the hardest to police but I’d take a hard line and throw out any spectator(s) starting one. In an ideal world it would be anyone participating, but there may not be enough stewards in the world for that.
Anyone thrown out for one of these misdemeanours gets their ticket confiscated and redistributed to families in the local area who can neither afford a ticket for the game nor the luxury of a Sky Sports subscription. In one fell swoop watching cricket is a much more pleasant experience for those in the ground and something that becomes available to those who wouldn’t normally get a chance to watch an international game. All I need to do now is get myself in charge of the game and sort this out.