Tuesday, 30 April 2019

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]
We then reached the architectural pinnacle of the journey, a brutalist concrete bridge over the gushing M61 motorway.  Not surprisingly we did not encounter even a solitary human being (or an Ipswich fan) during our walk, suggesting that this may not be a suicide hotspot and thus clarifying why the truncated railing was deemed allowable, even if it did rather make me feel slightly sick (see photo – fortunately no sick involved).

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). 

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Boatcakes and Bingo - Potters vs. Canaries

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 all any of the research (the back of a fag packet is far too gargantuan for my blue sky thinking) I suspect a surprisingly large amount of grounds could be visited that way, especially if allowed to walk ‘inland’ a fair distance.

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

Monday, 17 August 2015

Can anything good come out of Yeovil?

football by footpath - Yeovil Town F.C.

What better way to celebrate avoiding the deluges affecting other parts of the country than taking a sunny trip into the deepest darkest depression of Somerset.

I have always been suspicious of Yeovil and indeed have never bothered to visit the town in any guise; not even the football ground, amidst the delightful trading estate that surrounds it, despite it sometimes being one of my closest away days.  My suspicion is based purely on looking at a map of Somerset and feeling that somehow Yeovil, like Sherbourne, belongs in Dorset.  And if it belongs there, then it must be a cuckoo in the nest of the land of skull cracking cider, coastal mud, amazing music, and tales of Avalon; a Quisling of the West Country; a low down, sneaky, whistle blowing, snake in the grass.  Yeovil strikes me as the kind of shifty place that makes its own moonshine, marries off pigs in nocturnal sky clad ceremonies, and could well wake up one day and unilaterally decide to declare independence, or become a Rutland style state, dwarfed by its more serious neighbouring counties.  It’s just not right to be forced to witness this underbelly on the map of Somerset, like a fat man dragging his testicles and semi-liquid paunch along a floor.  Its quite unbecoming of a proud county, one that my father almost died for in Cyprus. 

Even though I love Somerset, the county I was born in (or was I? Avon and Wiltshire complicate things; don’t ask, all I can say is that I’ve had an identity crisis ever since entering this cruel world), and could quite happily hug a stranger from Portishead, Watchet, Shepton Mallet, or even the wonderfully entitled Marston Bigot, I’ve never felt any attachment to Yeovil at all.  And although I won’t trot out the tired and rather condescending cliché of Yeovil not being a place of any particular interest, it is a simple fact that whilst Yeovil has three buildings with Grade I listed status, the City I spent most of my youth in, Bath, has over 600 such exceptional structures. 

I am slightly reminded at this point of a certain incident around 2,000 years ago.  Readers who went to Sunday School may recognise the following passage from John’s Gospel [ch 1, v 43-46], albeit with a few geographical amendments.  “The next day he [Jesus] wanted to leave for Clifton. Jesus then found Philip and said to him: “Be my follower.”  Now Philip was from Bath, from the city of Andrew and Peter.  Philip found Nathanael and said to him: “We have found the one of whom Moses, in the Law, and the Prophets wrote: Jesus, the son of Joseph, from Yeovil.”  But Nathanael said to him: “Can anything good come out of Yeovil?”.  Philip said to him: “Come and see.” “

Birds on a wire - Near The Carpenters Arms

My admittedly jaundiced and intolerant assumptions of Yeovil probably weren’t helped by bypassing it as a kid.  I have fond ‘memories’ of Minehead, where I won ‘Best Baby’ at Butlins in the early 70’s (I suspect it was a walkover, and that my parents had accidentally booked us in for the over-60’s week).  I can still feel love for Cheddar Gorge, despite the cheesy touristy tat, and have memories of adequate days out at Weston-Super-Mud, amidst swathes of Brummies.  I have climbed up Glastonbury Tor, yomped on Exmoor, and had a wazz at Taunton Deane services.  But Montacute House is the closest I’ve ever been to Yeovil.

I also hold Shepton Mallet in high esteem, mainly for many happy days at agricultural shows at the nearby Bath & West Showground, but also for the free gift that kept on giving; the drive past the Jeff Koons-esque Babycham fawn that seemed to jump and prance from the roof of the Showerings factory as the car rattled it‘s way down the hill into the Mallet.  And how could I almost overlook bouncing on beds at the J.R.Haskins showroom, THE place to go before Ikea ripped up Eastville, imposed their cultural hegemony on a proud nation built by Mr. Chippendale (no, not those Chippendales!) and crushed the humble furniture retailers of Britain in their massive Viking hands like a moderately portly man sitting on one of their dreadful £6 chip wood triangular side tables (probably called ‘Bumtings’ or ’Fartburst’) painted in an oh-so wacky colour that gets your wife’s pretentious friends talking as they stick their obnoxious noses in the bottle of Farm Foods Irish Wine that you told them was a Waitrose Zinfandel - God knows how they got the cat to sit on that bottle.  They couldn’t tell the difference, but I bet they think they could. 

 The Babycham fawn as it is now, next to the factory [Photo by Wurzeller - via Wikimedia Commons]

But Yeovil was always bypassed, until today.  Any journeys beyond the Shepton Mallet area were invariably heading for the South Coast, and there was definitely no reason to stop on the way towards leaping into the sea, sand and sunshine of Weymouth and Bournemouth, both proper Dorset destinations.  Yeovil existed in this twilight zone of nothingness, betwixt and between.  Even Albert Camus and J.M.Coetzee would find it impossible to find any existence there at all.

My ‘football by footpath’ mini adventure starts from The Carpenters Arms on the edge of Chilthorne Domer, at the crossroads of the wonderfully entitled Vagg Lane and Tintinhull Road.  The official postcode is BA21 3PX, but if you’re a satnaver try BA21 3PY, which actually drops you closer to it.   It’s just one mile from Huish Park and avoids the traffic / parking and lack of pubs that Pirates always protest about.  If you prefer double the walk you could start at the more prominent Halfway House Inn, on the A37 itself (Illchester Road, BA22 8RE) which lets you sample the delights of a walk through Chilthorne Domer village itself - more of that later.

The Carpenters Arms has an adequate car park, adequate beer, adequate food, above adequate staff and describes itself as “…sympathetically restored and modernised…"; you mean made to look like every other airy but bland restoration job, more akin to a Jif commercial than somewhere to feel truly at home.  Molson Coors’ Doom Bar (only partly from Cornwall these days) seems to be the regular ale, with a guest on the other pump.  Today it was a rather cloudy, and slightly sour Glastonbury Hedge Monkey, which according to its maker, is "Brewed in honour of Glastonbury’s many free-spirited cosmic visitors (hippies in other words!)".   I wonder how the French say cliché? 

The 20 minute walk to the ground is straight down a single country lane, so getting lost is virtually impossible, and as the lane is a no-through road, it’s more akin to a private path, with probably one tractor a day, a few cars per week and a young herd of Holstein Friesians occasionally being moved around.  The lane passes through the gorgeous hamlet of Thorne Coffin, with various curiosities to arouse the inquisitiveness of polymaths like myself, and presumably would be a great place to film a zombie slasher epic?

Apologies for the poor photo; a bog standard mobile phone doesn’t like strong light contrasts

There is a herringbone stone wall [see photo above] the likes of which I’ve never quite seen before, a Jubilee Hall which looks more like it should be on a Dorset beach [see left], and the stunning Thorne House, which could almost pass for an Elizabethan Manor House if it hadn’t been built in 1882, by Sir Thomas Graham Jackson one of the most distinguished architects and scholars of his day, being remembered mostly for numerous work in Oxford, including the ‘Bridge of Sighs’ that joins two parts of Hertford College over New College Lane.
Thomas Graham Jackson's 'Thorne House'
Thomas Graham Jackson's 'Bridge of Sighs' in Oxford  [Photo by Chensiyuan, via Wikimedia Commons]

The barely visible clock tower suggests there is a stable block behind, and the incongruous ’Conference’ sign was thankfully pointing away from Huish Park!  There is no way we want to be going in that direction ever again.

Finally the tiny 14th Century ‘Church of St. Andrew’, a grade II* listed building, is worth a quick gander, with a charming North porch dated to 1613 (apologies for the poor photo).

As this lane finishes, walk straight over the road, down a path and you are suddenly into the Trading Estate where Huish Park lies.  They even handily put the away end at the North end, just for us football by footpathers.

There isn’t much to say about the ground.  I don’t mean that in a bad way; it’s just that we went to a football match, and then left afterwards.  That’s about it really, except for the curious sight that greeted me in the toilets [see below], and the wry comment of a fellow visitor who mused “Hmmm…maybe we need some more paper towels?”.  Oh, and when hurriedly entering the ground I’m convinced a steward asked me if I had “any spices or bottles”, as if cinnamon sticks and massive nutmegs had recently become the sophisticated hooligans weapon of choice, mirroring the ubiquitous rise of pulled pork in a brioche roll, all served by some bearded, inked up Hoxton twat, necking a craft beer or a flat white.

The game was… well, adequate.  A sign seen later in the day, at Nunney Castle, would have actually been better off nailed to the away end, as us Gasheads were slightly climbing the walls wondering if we would every get one past Artur Krysiak; yes, the very same Artur Krysiak who was being scouted by Billy Smart’s Circus every time we used to play Exeter City.  Go figure.

If there had been cries of ‘bring out your dead’, then at least half the Yeovil Town team would have qualified.  As my mate opined, the bottom line about pre-season is that you get players fit.  Becoming tactical geniuses at the same time is merely a bonus.  Yeovil haven’t even managed to produce a fit and healthy team, whereas we mainly have.  Glovers fans must be extremely worried at three losses on the trot and the spectre of a triple relegation.  Hopefully Dan Cabell, the febrile Glovers fan who held up a distinctly home made sign live on TV just over a year ago, stating ‘Could be worse we could support Bristol Rovers #non-league’, will have kept his Magnus Opus and with a few amendments can be shown the error of his ways later this season. 

 Revenge is a dish best served cold   [Photo by Gareth Davies / Pinnacle]

Whilst Yeovil were utterly woeful, unfit, and loaded with enormous donkeys front and back, Rovers need to be given credit for sticking to their task, mainly trying to pass the ball around, adapting to change, and showing far more desire than the Glovers.  I lost count of the amount of times The Beard, Ollie Clarke and even Chris Lines nipped into to steal the ball off a Glover, or win the ball back after momentarily losing it.  67% possession, 11 corners and 16 shots (half on target), tell a story of persistence, even if the final decisive ball was often lacking, and the formation seems to be confusing some of our players.

A wander through Chilthorne Domer village afterwards was a bonus although sadly we missed a mid 18th Century six seater privy that was in regular use until 1939.  Yes, a privy - an outside toilet, crapper, W.C., bog, loo, stinkpit, oval office, little room, dunny, thunder box, house of ease, latrine, necessarium, long drop, brick sh*t house, porcelain throne, lavvy, khazi, the poo room, los servicios, the swanie.  Call it what you like, it’s a Grade II* listed structure, meaning it’s in the top 8% of listed buildings and of “more than special interest” in our green and pleasant land.

The similarly Grade II* listed Parish Church of 'St. Mary the Virgin' has 13th-century origins and is easily spotted from Main Street (BA22 8RD).  It has two beautiful pathways of shaped Yew trees, intriguing gargoyles, and a eye-catching oblong bell turret, which is apparently very similar to the one at the Church of St. Andrew at nearby Brympton D‘Evercy, that one being in the illustrious company of only 94 Grade I listed buildings in South Somerset.


The churchyard contains the poignant grave of Piers Simon who tragically died in the Indian Ocean tsunami on Boxing Day 2004 whilst visiting his brother Luke in Koh Phi Phi in Thailand.  His family have set the Piers Simon Appeal up in his honour, with the ‘School in a Bag’ a particularly noteworthy initiative.  Luke Simon tells the heart rendering story here…

The War Memorial by the entrance to the Church Yard includes an inscription for 25 year old Lieutenant Richard Madden of the Light Dragoons who was killed in Bosnia on 28th January 1996, alongside two other Dragoons, when their Spartan combat reconnaissance vehicle hit a mine at Titov Drvar whilst on peacekeeping duties with the Implementation Force (IFOR).  Overall 59 UK service personnel died helping to bring peace and stability to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Lest we forget.


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 68 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