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Jane Stuart – Writer

Writing about real life Up North: football, ale, food and mental health – with a good dash of humour.

I confess I have had little interest in Blackpool FC this season, with my passion for my hometown club ever-dwindling. However, January delivered two irresistible away fixtures that brought me out of my Seasiders retirement in my quest to complete the 92 current Football League grounds: Oxford United and AFC Wimbledon. Attending these grounds would lift my current tally to 90 – all watching Blackpool.

It was not without some sense of disloyalty to Chasetown that I decided to forego the Alvechurch home match and head to the Kassam Stadium for the Oxford v Blackpool fixture. I had no interest in the match itself but, having attended so many matches as a result of a psychological trap over the years, I found myself still unable to resist the lure of my 89th ground. This was also an opportunity to catch up with my Seasider friends, who I used to see weekly (sometimes twice-weekly), share Christmas dinner with, explore the country with, go on holiday with, celebrate with and grieve with – these people were my family for over 20 years but I had not seen them all season and it would be a joy to see them again.

Having been completely out of the awayday loop for some years now, I had forgotten to book my train tickets three months in advance and just bought them on the day. I arrived at New Street station, grabbed my Breakfast of Choice (veggie brioche and rooibos cacao – such a treat to have quality station fayre, courtesy of Pret) and boarded the train to Oxford. I was wrapped up in my thermals and prepared for a freezing January afternoon.

I arrived in Oxford to glorious sunshine. Thankfully my handbag contains an all-weather protection kit so I reached immediately for my sunglasses and began my stroll through town. As I waited for my friends to arrive from all over the country (and Scotland), I sought refuge in a delightful little hostelry called St Aldate’s Tavern. The heating was on full blast and I was already beginning to regret my choice of clothing. Oxford isn’t that far away so as to have a different climate – and yet there was a pitch inspection taking place at Chasetown (I was secretly hoping for a postponement so I wouldn’t miss). I took my (big) coat off and settled down on a sofa by the window with a Christmas ale and my book. Ah! It is not often these days I attend a match for leisure and it was nice to be able to relax and unwind (despite many messages pertaining to said pitch inspection at Chasetown).

My friends soon arrived and I went to join them at Chequers Inn, a Nicholsons pub with an interesting story (courtesy of https://www.nicholsonspubs.co.uk/restaurants/southeast/thechequersoxford):

“Much of the interior of our pub dates from the 1500s when an old tenement belonging to a moneylender was rebuilt as a tavern. The chequerboard was the symbol of the money-changer, having its origins in the checked cloth used by the Romans in their calculations – hence Chancellor of the Exchequer. Our pub once exhibited strange animals discovered by 17th Century explorers and technological marvels of the age.”

Today was 6th January and the inn housed a very sad looking Christmas tree, no longer adorned with decorations and listing to one side at a good 45 degree angle. On the bar there was an orange afloat in a jar of water, with the contents of the jar on offer to anyone who could successfully balance a 10p piece on the bobbing orange. I wonder if this is impossible, even with the use of Superglue – but nonetheless it provided a moment’s entertainment for what was quite possibly a tips jar in disguise.

It was lovely to catch up with friends old and new before heading to the Kassam, a ground distinctive for having a car park for an end and selling decent real ale (Shotover Prospect). £2 for Bovril seemed a bit steep. The ground is situated miles away from town, but there are plenty of buses servicing the ground. As for the match itself? I do find it odd watching teams other than those I watch regularly as, for example, when a free-kick is awarded, now I expect Langy to pop up and take it – but of course he wasn’t there today! Indeed I hardly knew any of the Blackpool players, although I was told that the goalkeeper played for DR Congo, which was quite exciting. Blackpool did, however, offer the frustration that I have grown to expect from them and, despite playing the prettier football, failed to back it up with anything of substance and lost 1-0 to a late goal. As the goal was conceded, I emitted a little sigh but did not feel the gut-wrenching pain that I used to, once upon a time – a surefire sign of my detachment. I reached for my phone to check how Chasetown were getting on and saw that we, too, had conceded a late goal to go 1-0 down. This did sicken me and I immediately left the ground in a huff to beat the rush to the bus back into town. I found my physical reactions to the two goals interesting – even my gut reactions are rejecting the club that rejected me (and so many others like me).

A fortnight later – still seeking the Holy Grail of the 92 Club – I headed to London to tick off Number 90: The Cherry Red Records Stadium in Kingston Town, current home of AFC Wimbledon. What particularly excited me today was the fact that their mascot is a Womble. I love The Wombles and I readily confess to having their Greatest Hits in my music collection (Wombling Merry Christmas is my favourite Christmas song – so uplifting!).

Again having failed to book my train three months earlier, I opted for the cheapest pay-on-the-day option, which meant taking the London Midland rattler, which adds about an hour onto the journey as it stops everywhere. This wasn’t so bad on the way down, as my friend and I enjoyed a catch up and of course there was the anticipation of seeing our friends and a good day ahead of us. On the way home, however – with the added (dreaded) element of having to run to catch the last bus home at the end of the journey – the extra hour seemed like three.

As the train passed Wembley, fellow passengers squealed in delight much as I always have (it’s almost as exciting as glimpsing Blackpool Tower on trips back home). This time, however, I felt a tinge of sadness as I recalled my last visit to Wembley, to watch Blackpool in the play-off final last year. The whole day felt wrong – with so many staying away in protest and apathy – and the match itself almost feeling irrelevant (although in retrospect it might have preserved Blackpool’s League status). I was swept away in the excitement of the play-offs and was always in two minds about going. I dressed it up with a weekend in London and a visit to London Zoo – giving myself something to look forward to that weekend, which I shouldn’t have had to do – the football was always enough in the past. I didn’t feel how a final is supposed to make me feel. Where has the depth of passion gone?

Ever since the day I boarded the wrong train to Fulham on my one and only attempt to use the Tube unsupervised, I have been met at Euston station by a Tube-savvy friend and escorted to my destination. Today was no exception; however on this occasion I paid attention to where we were going and I think next time I might brave it alone. I have, after all, travelled all over the country on my own and – apart from a scary encounter in a subway in Devon the one time (I can unequivocally state that I will never be able to navigate subways) – have always reached my destination with no trouble. I hope I don’t come back as a mole in my next life, because underground navigation does appear troublesome for me (although that will save me money on contact lenses).

We changed at Vauxhall – a station with an interesting story attached to it (courtesy of David Fathers at https://londonist.com/2015/10/vokzal):

“In the 17th century a large, popular pleasure garden was established in Vauxhall, close to the Thames. The garden was a multi-formed entertainment area that hosted dance, singing, trapeze acts and hot air balloon displays, plus all kinds of victuals. It was available to fee paying customers. One visitor to the Vauxhall Pleasure Garden was an English theatre manager, Michael Maddox. Maddox had experience of running theatres in Russia and he decided to export the concept of the pleasure garden to St Petersburg, Russia in the 1780s. The new St Petersburg pleasure garden was called ‘Vokzal’, after the location of the London gardens. In 1837 the first Russian railway ran from St Petersburg to the Pleasure Gardens and the station was called ‘Vokzal’. And this name became the generic word for all Russian stations.”

We soon arrived at Kingston Town and headed for the agreed rendezvous point of The Albion. This was a fine establishment with a great selection of ales (cask and craft). I enjoyed the First Chop Pod, a deliciously quaffable vanilla stout – and the company of 30+ Seasider friends – a number of whom were attending their first match of the season (and a couple of whom who weren’t even bothering with the match itself). Being surrounded by my friends like this, it really was like the good old days, when we used to do this every week. How lucky we were to have those days and those memories. Blackpool remains the tie that binds us together – and if offering little else at the moment at least still offers us a meeting point on a Saturday afternoon (albeit rather as an occasional treat rather than a regular thing these days).

The ground was close by and walkable in 15 minutes from the station. The away stand was full by the time we arrived and the away terrace was packed with Seasiders – again reminiscent of the good old days. The Bovril price was still a little on the high side at £1.50 but this was London, after all. We were very close to the pitch – however, being a short person, if I wasn’t at the very front, my view was somewhat limited to say the least.

Again I left the match early – Blackpool were 1-0 down and I was hardly interested. The Chase match had been called off owing to a late, late flurry of snow, so I didn’t even have that to distract me. I was secretly pleased not to have missed them today – it feels wrong when I do. I had some good Step 4 chat with another lapsed Seasider who now watches Northwood in the Evostik East. It’s fascinating how far we have spread as we find ourselves displaced and widely dispersed amongst other clubs. Football gets under your skin, in your bloodstream, in your head – and there is no getting away from it. Blackpool remains our spiritual homeland – but will we ever return?

Anyway, that’s me on 90/92 current League grounds. The two I am still missing? West Ham (because they have recently relocated) and Forest Green (who could get me up to 91 if they fail to retain their League status). I suppose I ought to get counting my non-league grounds now…

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