Boatcakes and Bingo
Stoke City F.C. vs. Norwich City F.C.
The Britannia Stadium - 13th January 2016
Getting to football matches on Saturdays is hard work at the moment, and paying for them is even harder, so my 69th club out of the 92 was joyfully going to be an evening in Stoke-on-Trent (you don’t hear that phrase often…) and when all that was required to get into the away end at the Britannia Stadium for a Premier League clash with my best friend‘s team was a frankly outlandish £15 I was all over it like a tramp on a discarded bag of chips. 1,275 other Canaries obviously also agreed with me.
Whilst this may not be a ‘football by footpath’ of the ‘yomp over Dartmoor’ variety, it’s still worthy of a small write-up, as we did find ‘another way’ to arrive, and consciously avoided the moaning minnies who park next to a 28,000 seater ground and then complain how difficult it is to get out after the match. Rumour has it that bears do still sh*t in the woods, even well trained ones.
As Mike and I have travelled to away games all over the country for the past 25 years we have talked some complete flimflam in our time, and in scenes reminiscent of Alan Partridge’s infamous ’Monkey Tennis’ stream of consciousness, we often brain storm on what could make good away travel topics, or even future books. One that I have championed since walking up the Coventry Canal to get to the Ricoh Arena for the Sky Blues’ 3-0 humbling of the Canaries in September 2006 would be visiting grounds via our once mighty canal system. Admittedly it could be a bit of a slow quest, but doing the 92 by barge could be one heck of an interesting trek, and without having done
After a peek at a map I came up with a parking spot on Old Whieldon Road (ST4 4HW) just off the A500 dual carriageway that dissects Stoke into east and west; or as it is know by locals, grim and grimmer. A wander along the Trent & Mersey Canal then takes you straight to the ground. It worked a treat although it is worth pointing out that there are other places in the general area that are a shorter walk and will also offer the avoidance of the madding crowd and the A50. If time permits a pub can be added to the walk - the only one in the surrounding Mount Pleasant area though is the 1930’s art deco ‘Regent’ further down Whieldon Road (ST4 4JG), and that would rather negate the canal walk, as a simpler stroll from the Regent is down Grove Road and across the playing fields.
As the South of England was dry I stupidly hadn’t bothered to look at the forecast. I stomped along a soggy towpath in the near dark getting wet on top and also wet down below, as my shoes were not designed for 20 minutes or so of Northern puddles. Although the towpath is mainly tarmaced it could hardly be expected to resemble a freshly laid motorway. My fault entirely. It is probably a relatively pleasant walk in dry daylight but to be frank it was a drag in freezing rain and almost pitch blackedness.
I had read about two canal barges that float near the stadium, one selling oatcakes and the other beer. As our off the beaten track route obviously didn’t have any shops ion it I prayed they were there and as we got closer we could just make out a barge in the distance and a neon sign winking ‘open’ at us. It was just a solitary barge, but that was better than nothing, and if truth be told I needed the oatcake barge more than I needed a beer barge.
Mike wondered how a Scottish style oatcake could be much of a fast food meal, so I tried to explain what a Potteries oatcake was like. One fall back explanation was of course a pancake or a crepe, and I could also throw in the Ethiopian injera ‘pancakes’ I have devoured a thousand times, as I used to work / live there, and my wife is also of that persuasion.
My (Staffordshire) oatcake experience goes back to 1997 when I worked at a dead end job in Bath and two new managers were imported down from the Stoke branch. One was named Idris and as the only ‘Idris’ reference point I had at that point in my young-ish life was the Muslim jazz funk drummer Idris Muhammad, imagine if you can my surprise when on his first day I came face-to-face with a booming big Welshman with a ‘tache like a Russian shot putter and a voice like Jones the Steam. Idris and Craig went on about oatcakes every bleeding lunchtime and would sometimes agree to bring a packet down for me if they were going ‘home’ for the weekend. I rapidly became a big fan although unfortunately I’ve only managed to snaffle any to eat a couple of times since. They aren’t easy to find if you’re not from ‘round those parts.
‘The Oatcake Boat’ (now sagaciously renamed ‘the Boatcake‘) sells through the hatch almost aping the way many houses and small businesses used to in the Potteries. The last remaining such business, aptly called ‘the Hole in the Wall’, apparently closed in 2012, if that bastion of factual correctness, Wikipedia, is indeed accurate.
After two cheese and mushroom oatcakes for the princely sum of about three groats I was refuelled and ready to face the extra five minute tramp to the stadium. I would have liked one savoury and one sweet one but there were no sweet options and I later found out that sweet fillings are frowned upon by the oatcake police. I wonder if such a seller could be charged with Grievous Bodily Honey, or Assault and Buttery?
I’ll get my coat…
Just up the path from the barge a man sold the Stoke fanzine ‘The Oatcake’ in the increasing rainfall. I really should have stopped to buy one; I don’t know why I didn’t as I do usually try to support anyone who’s a DIY writer / publisher, especially when standing in the rain. Seemingly there used to be another Stoke fanzine, with the even more deliciously clever title of ’A View to a Kiln’. I would swim through hot treacle for that title.
For the game itself I invented a game of Norwich bingo. Every time an apt, pre-decided phrase could be used for a player, it was a bingo moment, although it wasn’t played to any particular degree of gravity. I must admit the £15 ticket, the long journey and the slightly peculiar Wednesday kick-off had gone to my head, like a bottle of Robinson‘s ‘Old Tom‘, and it felt strange to think that the same three points were on offer as they would be at a more traditional Saturday match for double or triple the price.
Therefore on this occasion the travelling really was more important than the arriving, especially after Gary O'Neil’s utterly bizarre scissor tackle from behind after half an hour rather ruined Norwich’s chances; and all for a ball harmlessly running out of play. I hope a plethora of bets hadn’t been piling in on him, as a 32 year old collecting his first Premier League red card in over 200 appearances would have raised more eyebrows than a Roger Moore promotional video on a continuous loop. #stupidestfixinhistory
Sebastien Bassong’s bingo word was ‘just’ because he makes a habit of ‘just’ winning the ball, or ‘just’ making a howling error. ‘Ungainly’ could probably be his other bingo moniker, which could also be mutually shared with Alex Tettey. Tettey’s main slogan was ‘unorthodox‘ as he rarely seems to do what most midfielders do, instead preferring to, say, head a ball near the ground, or use a flying star-fish jump to win a ball in the night sky. Russell Martin rapidly became ‘oh my God’ as he looks painfully out of his depth at right back. He has all the physique and lack of culture of an old school Centre Back and should probably stick to being one.
As an admirer of super Johnny Howson I would give him ‘sweet strike’ or ‘driving run’, the former of which would certainly have scored points this wet night as he clobbered in Norwich’s equaliser to shock a Potteries crowd who had probably assumed that 1-0 up against 10 men was almost job done. Sadly the equilibrium only lasted another 12 minutes before Joselu’s strike gave the initiative firmly back to the Ramblers. By now ex-Canary loanee Peter Crouch was on the pitch, raising a chuckle with me as I recalled Bristol City’s alleged interest to tempt him into becoming a Championship relegation battler instead. If there ever was a club as arrogant and deluded as the sh*t I’ve still yet to find it.
If Martin Olsson was playing I would have ‘woeful defending’ as his bingo phrase. I realise others will applaud his efforts higher up the pitch, but the space he leaves behind is often dangerous and brazen, especially if left with a tortoise like back three of Bassong, Ryan Bennett & Martin. Bennett suffered the ignominy of a headed o.g. for Stoke’s final goal, and was on the receiving end of a witty and thoroughly mischievous Potters rendition of “He scores when he wants, he scores when he wants, Ryan Bennett, he scores when he wants“.
Olsson’s replacement for the time being is Robbie Brady who sadly would have had ‘wasted’ as his point scoring word. Not for any negative reason, but because his obvious skills are wasted when asked to play as a traditional left back; nay, almost a ‘left back in the penalty area’ given the amount of defending he had to do. When released forward later in the game his noticeable ability made him one of the contenders for man of the second half; if only football was as simple as that though...
Martin Bull became a Gashead [Bristol Rovers fan] in 1989 and immediately fell in love with Twerton Park. In 2006 he wrote, photographed and published the first independent book about the work of the artist Banksy. Five more books later and he’s just hit sales of 100,000 real books, 70,000 of them via his own publishing efforts. Having been exiled from Somerset for much of his past, away games have always been special for him, with 69 of the 92 League clubs so far conquered, and he recently edited and published an acclaimed new book, 'Away The Gas', which focuses on them - www.awaythegas.org.uk