Who Stole my Level Crossing?
Bolton Wanderers F.C. vs. Norwich City F.C.
The University of Bolton Stadium [yes, honestly…apparently they have a Uni] - 16th February 2019
Getting to away matches is hard work at the moment, and paying for them is even harder. Coupled with that my best friend always seems to be away in China, India or some such god forsaken miniscule country. What’s wrong with good old Blighty I may ask mate, with its tedious politics and control by the bourgeoisie?
Last season we never even managed one new ground (my bad), so this season just HAD to embrace at least one, and with no love interest in either of our lives (this would normally be the weekend for Valentine’s Day meals…) we plumped for a trip to my old stomping ground of Lancashire to watch Mike’s beloved Canaries take on the Trotters.
This was my 71st club out of the 92, although I thought I’d done no.71 last season?
Whilst the end of a football season for many supporters is either tinged with regret of what could have been, laden with joy at a promotion or cup run, overflowing with the misery of relegation, or, more usually, bored into the stupor of mid-table anonymity, us (slow) 92’ers await an added dimension; walking a terrible tightrope of having to wait and see which of the 92 are thrown out of the club and which two are allowed to join it.
I write ‘allowed’ as it’s not a given, even in these days of so-called automatic promotion, because plastic pitches are still banned in the EFL so if clubs like Maidstone United, Bromley or Sutton United, the latter of whom almost made it in 2017/18, reach the promised land they will have a big decision to make.
I digress… the point being that my 92 count can go down (or up) at the end of a season through merely the vagaries of which malcontents were forced to exit through the gift shop, and who snuck in under the barbed wire fence. The rules of the 92 club (don’t even get me started on those!) mean that I can lose a club I have seen whilst they were part of the 92 (last season it was Barnet) and gain either of the risers IF, big if, I saw them when (if…) they were previously in the EFL (last season being Tranmere Rovers for me, but sometimes it is nothing). I am currently the owner of an inventory of nine clubs now outside of the EFL but whom I saw when they were part of the exclusive club.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with those rules, or most of the regulations, but my vast disquiet is peaked by a valid entry to join their bloody club having to include all 92 at their current ground when you apply to ‘join’ the said club. So, unless something really strange happens, like Morecambe suddenly abandoning their 6,476 capacity Globe Arena and walking back to their previously fine 6,400 capacity Christie Park ground (um, rather unlikely as Sainsbury’s demolished the latter, including the gloriously entitled ‘Car Wash Terrace’, but you get my point…), seeing Rovers play at the Goldstone Ground, Gay Meadow, Millmoor, Leeds Road and Layer Road, and watching Norwich at Ninian Park and the Boleyn Ground, plus watching Wimbledon at Selhurst Park, Spurs at White Hart Lane, and Manchester City at Maine Road, all now count for nada as they aren’t their current grounds (incidentally, I have been to a few of the new grounds of the clubs with now disallowed grounds…)
Old Bolton Ground – I am still annoyed that I visited this in 1904 and am now being forced by the ‘rules’ of the 92 club to visit their slightly newer stadium
I am happy to technically never join their club (yes, you can officially join and receive a tie – that ubiquitous bastion of fashion for your average football away traveller; a tie 😡) and to form my own club, probably called ‘The 92 Lite’ as I most probably can not, and more than likely will not, visit all 92 at the so-called right stadium just to say I’ve done that EXACT definition of ‘doing the 92’.
The meaning of football journeys to me is following (preferably) your own club, or at least a significant other (mine is Norwich) and encountering all the detritus of humanity along the way, not running around grounds ticking off a list, or (I hate this phrase) ‘ground hopping’.
I am NOT ground hopping; I am experiencing life in all its glorious forms, from a fancy dresser in Michael Jackson ‘Thriller’ clobber at Carlisle United, to the incongruous wafts of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral Symphony’ (No. 6) when emerging from an east end tube station and wandering to Dagenham & Redbridge.
In fact, amongst the plethora of blogs and books about ’The Fastest 92’, ’92 Craps in a Terrible Toilet [with panoramic photos]’, ‘The 92 Club Whilst Eating a Pie’, or even ‘The 92 Club Whilst Wearing a Tie’, I actually plan to write my memoirs up as ‘The Slowest Ever Journey to the 92’ TM – it’s 30 years so far, with probably a decade to go.
If football by footpath journeys are ever possible to all 92, then maybe I could do that as well, and I also have an idea to approach many via our once glorious canal network; you’ll be surprised how many are close enough to canals to turn it into something that is NOT a total shoe-horn project.
First sighting of the Stadium - bottom left [Photo by Martin Bull]
The kick off point for our Bolton journey can be one of three choices, assuming you want a pub at the starting line. The focal point of this journey is not the pub per se though, but the act of arriving from the west side of the M61, consciously avoided the moaning minnies who park next to a 28,000 seater ground and attached retail park, and then complain how difficult it is to get out after the match.
Of the three options, the Royal Oak Carvery, 480 Chorley Road, Bolton BL5 3ND
http://royaloak.carvery.miltonpubs.com/ is the shortest distance, but clearly a road side walk, so not really fit and proper for football by footpathers. It will get you away from the blandness of the stadium area, but only by transporting you to the banality of a carvery type pub and a short walk over am exhaust filled motorway junction.
It’s hard to find out exactly what The Brinsop, at 584 Chorley Road, Bolton BL5 3NJ, is. Is it a pub, is it a winey type bar, is it a bistro, or is it even a bird or an aeroplane…? As we drove past it still wasn’t clear and as we had a far better option waiting, it was not worth pursuing unless we had spotted a minibus in the car park emblazoned with the moniker, ‘Mensa Division of the Swedish Female Ramblers Cooperative’.
Some football walkers have cited it as a method to avoid the stadium area (via the road though), and added that they let you park there for just £4, but the latter in itself is a bizarre proclamation – the west side of the M61 is pretty much dead man’s land and undeniably a bit of a free for all. Why would you pay when there is parking abound? Yeah, well why is modern life so shit. #rhetoricalquestion
The obvious choice for proper walkers and beer fans is The Poacher, 1-3 Scot Lane, Scot Lane End / Blackrod. BL6 5SG, and although it did not live up to the internet review of “The best real ale pub for miles! aleays [sic] well kept, always lots of choice and really good prices!”, it was certainly a decent place for the curious.
Clearly a local’s pub, but not in a bad way, it turned out to be a Marston’s pub so in my book that’s not real ale with loads of choice. The offerings were distinctly average, kowtowing to the gross reductionist fashion to only offer frigid IPA style beers (even in winter), and it’s certainly not a food pub in any shape or form; I could only see scotch eggs and Lancashire Pork Pies advertised, both of which were discounted by me for reasons of pig’s lips, and discounted by Mike for reasons of a gippy tummy.
But as I say, it’s all fine and dandy, with loads of space, football on various screens, and, perplexingly, large wardrobes abandoned near the men’s toilet. Work that one out Poirot.
Just outside the toilets an intriguing row of old wooden seats lurk, some autographed, presumably from Central Park, Wigan’s old rugby league ground. A cursory look at a map brought it home to me that although we were off to watch Bolton, the Poacher is just a few miles from the dim lights of Wigan and history suggests that Blackrod inhabitants would have gravitated to Wigan RLFC (now called Wigan Warriors) as Central Park was just four miles away, twice as close as Bolton’s old football ground, Burnden Park, was.
Competition for the rare leisure time of the working class was also more limited than people may expect. Despite the assumption that every town up North had a big RL team and a successful football team, Bolton has never had the former, and Wigan’s main football club didn’t even reach the football league until 1978, playing in what many Rovers fans have labelled the worst away ground (Springfield Park) they’ve ever been to.
This is admittedly pretty rich language coming from us lot of vagrants!
So, park anywhere in the vicinity of the pub, and when fit and well, wander down to the main road and carry on South East past the grandly entitled ‘Mercure Bolton Georgian House Hotel’ until you reach a small gap in the terraced houses and a footpath sign. As this is the A6, previously one of the most important, and interminable, roads in the area, I love the fact that you’ll encounter asinine house numbers such as the ‘688 Chorley Road’ pictured here, although looking back I really should have quickly ran and found No. 666, if only to mimic the infamous A666, the Salford to Blackburn Road, which passes through these thar parts and is known internationally as ‘The Road to Hell’ [or Bolton, whichever comes first] 😊
|688 Chorley Rd [Photo by Martin Bull]|
This is where the fun begins and within seconds of wandering down the lane the stadium can be seen rearing up in the distance, as if an exquisite illuminated crown had been dropped by a giant onto the bucolic grasslands of antediluvian England.
Er, yeah… Whatever.
|Bucolic crown or whatever rubbish I just wrote [Photo by Martin Bull]|
Walk straight on down, through a field and a copse, until you come to one of the most pointless and defenseless kissing gates in UK history (pictured). Soon you’ll be out onto lush green grass, but as Newton observed in his Third Law of Motion ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction’; or, with great lush green grass comes great responsibility (who said that? Was it Mandela?). And today’s responsibility will be to avoid the cowpats strategically placed for drunken travellers to slide over in.
|Pointless Kissing Gate with hopeless fencing [Photo by Martin Bull]|
|Beautiful Brutalism [Photo by Martin Bull]|
From this bridge several small round lakes can be spotted in the fields you just came from, like crater lakes from a battlefield. The map indicates that a dismantled railway runs across this field and through the hotel (not literally…), although there is no sign of it in reality.
Unbeknownst to us this was not going to be our final bridge of the trip. On, no. Just when you think you are on a one bridge walk, in a one bridge town, ruled by a one bridge local mafia, up pops Mr. Health and Safety with his stinking hob nail boots to trample over your inalienable right to injure yourself in public.
Orwell wrote, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever”. And he must be right as he also wrote ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, although that isn’t actually about a pier. The first 45 minutes is a 4-4-2 report on the living conditions of working-class life in the bleak industrial heartlands of Northern England, whereas the second half is a more fluid and controversial diamond formation essay on socialism.
The OS map, despite being the most detailed possible, was not 100% clear about how the impending railway line would be transversed. It suggested a small tunnel maybe, with the fallback position of a foot crossing. But instead we were faced with a scene out of a Danny Dyer film – a channel of narrow, bright green fences leading us up and over a brand-new footbridge painted as green as a big greenie thing (pictured). Logically, of course, the gleaming overhead electric lines suggested (oh, and the sign…yes, that sign…) that the line had very recently been electrified, so the map maker hadn’t yet even had a free weekend without the sprogs to plot this new way not to die.
|Green Street maybe... [Photo by Martin Bull]|
|THAT sign [Photo by Martin Bull]|
So whilst this encumbrance may have appeared logical, in the middle of no-where it did seem rather perplexing, so my mind ran rampant with a vision of the Chelsea Headhunters (1st Rural Division) and the Bolton Bog Trotters indignantly facing each other down this restricted passageway, first poised to smite each other down with mighty blows, but then sniffing the untainted air and turning into country gentlemen; solemnly discussing red diesel, the appalling price of silage, and inevitably, that twat Ben Fogle.
By the time you visit the area around this swish bridge it may have been tidied up a bit, but the inchoate setting and the indistinct map momentarily led us to seek a way to cross the brook in front of us; a mistake that almost cost us our dry socks. Just stay to the right of the brook and almost all paths over this indistinct scrubby land will lead you safely towards the stadium area (there is also a great big white stadium you can use as some sort of navigational aid…). It’s just over 1 ½ miles overall.
With nothing eaten at The Poacher, it was time for a pasty in the stadium, or, more likely, whatever stuff they have up here in Northern land. I was hoping of course for something akin to the staggering Potato & Butter Pie I had devoured in 2015 at nearby Deepdale. This pie of the Gods is also known as Catholic pie or Friday pie, as an age-old dish centering on the Chorley and Preston area. The centuries-old custom of completely abstaining from all forms of red meat on a Friday meant that the large Catholic population would seek alternatives at the end of the week, hence the invention of butter pies, Happy Shopper sausages, and fish and chip Friday.
Preston North End had incidentally beaten Norwich just a few days earlier, and as I write this, in late April, with just the final game remaining, the PNE defeat (pitted against an old yellows manager in the form of Alex Neil) still remains as the Canaries’ most recent defeat.
The Bolton pie was horrific compared to the PNE pearler; and given its generous, nay wanton, interpretation of Trading Standards maybe the match result was a Karma pie? Bolton’s was advertised as a Potato and Onion pie, which very briefly got my hopes up of something akin to a Siamese twin amongst Lancashire pie births, but even a forensic investigation led by Gil Grissom himself would have struggled to detect anything other than a liquefied yellow goo inside it, of dubious origin. The pastry was good – well, I like it rather over cooked, but not everyone will...
As for the match? Well, it was possibly the finest display of liquid football seen since Joan of Arc walked the battlements of Orléans (caveat – as a Bristol Rovers fan my experience of skillful, flowing football is rather limited, as is my knowledge of the erroneously entitled Hundred Years’ War). What I do know is that it was a joy to watch and sadly brought home the reality of how wide the enormous gulf is between not just Championship rivals but more importantly for me, between them and League One teams.
|Stadium from inside [Photo by Martin Bull]|
Whilst the majority of football fans witter on about the gulf between the Championship and the Premier League, I can safely surmise that these days my team would barely survive an entire season there, even if on a huge high such as Luton Town are at the moment; they would probably relegate us at New Year and expunge the results…
Rovers did genuinely hold their own up there for two seasons in the early 1990’s, only faltering at the difficult third hurdle, and if they had managed to complete any of a trio of very serious promotion chances crafted later that decade, I feel they could have made a decent shot at it, but now when you see clubs like Sunderland or Ipswich Town unable to survive there (the latter after 62 years at that level, or higher, and the former ‘enjoying’ only their second EVER season in the third tier), it makes you wonder…
Of course, I realise that those two were cases of utter mis-management, and that a few have recently survived and done well for themselves (notably Bournemouth in 2013 and Brentford in 2014) but both examples have been funded by billionaires, and have brought with them a suitably special and clever approach to their football and recruitment.
For every Brentford there is a Yeovil Town, MK Dons and Rotherham United.
Burton Albion were the best statistical outlier for some time but after the reporters had left the melee they managed just two seasons, and are already ensconced in mid table League One drudgery. To be fair to Rotherham, although they’ve been up and down like the Assyrian Empire (four movements in the past six seasons), they did manage three straight seasons up there; the down side being finishes of 21st, 21st and 24th.
To put it in plain language Norwich flippin murdered them, utterly dominant from start to finish and almost embarrassingly refusing to rub it in beyond the four goals pilfered in the first 50 odd minutes of the match. Kenny McLean managed to send a pathetically unwise penalty directly down the middle on 63 minutes, the sixth Canary miss out of seven penalties awarded this season, and numerous chances were not quite dispatched past the most old school centre back pairing (David Wheater and Mark Beevers) seen since Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy graced the Halifax back line at the Shay.
If it hadn’t been for Remi Matthews, just weeks previously still a Norwich goalie, the scoreline could have been the proverbial Suffolk finger score (six, plus the thumb).
Strangely ex-Canary stopper Declan Rudd had also saved a penalty three days previously, when Norwich had visited Butter Pie Land (err, that’s Preston, not a Northern theme park, although now I feel I should trademark the idea, just in case…).
Teemu Pukki's sublime double proffered on him the strange statistic of having scored more league goals this season than Bolton's entire team combined (23 to 21), and 1,500 or so happy Canaries wandered out contently, some of them receiving their just reward for making the carbon copy journey just three days previous, only to witness their heaviest away defeat of the season.
The attendance was 14,006.
If only it had been 14,002, then I could have crafted a great closing line; something trite about the two amigos yomping off into the February dusk across a windswept moor.
I wouldn’t do that, would I…
|Whatever you do Lot don't look back... [Photo by Martin Bull]|
Martin Bull became a Gashead [Bristol Rovers fan] in 1989 and immediately fell in love with Twerton Park, standing near G pillar. In 2006 he wrote, photographed and published the first independent book about the work of the artist Banksy. Having been exiled for much of his past, away games have always been special for him, with 71 of the current 92 League clubs so far conquered, and having edited and published an acclaimed book, 'Away The Gas', which focuses on them - www.awaythegas.org.uk Martin now has eight books to his name, selling over 100,000 books; four on Banksy and four on Rovers, including translations into Korean and American. He also regularly writes philosophy for the Bristol Rovers matchday programme and the Bristol Rovers Former Players Association (BRFPA).