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.