Jane Stuart – Writer

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

Dear reader, you may be under the impression that I haven’t quite got the hang of this travelling to matches quite right, having been spoilt with matches I can walk to (or get the club coach to) in recent years. You’d be quite right, of course. I need more practice. The trip to Blackpool for the Fleetwood match had been organised weeks in advance, so that was all going to go smoothly, right? Now you know me well enough to realise that simple journeys are no fun…

I had found my lift to today’s match through a recently-formed Facebook group called Tangerine Travel, set up to connect exiled Seasiders and promote lift-sharing. When it got to Sunday evening and a time and place hadn’t been arranged for pick-up, I messaged said stranger to finalise arrangements…only to be told that he was terribly sorry but something had come up and he now couldn’t make the match and had forgotten to tell me. I was relaxed about the whole thing and simply posted another message to the group appealing for an emergency lift. Within five minutes I had a replacement in place and all was right with the world…

…until I started planning my transport to the agreed pick-up point. Not wanting my lift to come too far out of his way up the M6, I suggested that he pick me up near where I used to live. After all, I could get there easily enough on the bus. Except apparently I couldn’t today, it being a bank holiday – and my first bus wasn’t scheduled until 9am(!). I point blank refused to pay for an Uber, so resolved to walk the two hours to the pick-up point. After all, I’d undertaken a two-hour walk ahead of the Chasetown match on Saturday. Google suggested the fastest route was down a disused railway line. Whilst that sounded interesting, I did fear for my life somewhat. I was therefore relieved when Pam offered to give me a lift to my rendezvous point on the morning.

I arrived early at the rendezvous point and took a seat in the bus shelter, where I could pretend I was waiting for a bus, as opposed to waiting for a stranger to pick me up in his car. Here I got chatting to a different man who tried to pick me up in a different sense:

‘Pretty dress, isn’t it?’

This Indian man tried hard to engage me in conversation – but I was relieved to see that his bus was due in three minutes. I could cope with his flattery for that long.

‘Your glasses are pretty. You’re very pretty. These English…they don’t say when they think a girl pretty. I prefer to tell them. You’re a pretty girl.’

He had a fair point there (why aren’t the English up front about these things?).

As the bus sailed past (because my new friend wasn’t paying enough attention to hail the bus) I realised I had another 20 minutes of conversation ahead of me. It proved quite interesting, as my Punjabi friend told me how he couldn’t read or write but could speak and understand English well. It is hard to learn a new language, so I’ve every respect for anyone who can do that. Whilst I can read a bit of French and Russian (blame Belokon for that one), speaking and listening is so much harder.

After I’d seen my new friend safely on the bus, my lift arrived. Despite us never having knowingly met before (although we soon realised we had both been in Valeri Belokon’s sports bar in Riga in 2008, following Blackpool’s match at FK Jurmala), we chatted about all things Blackpool (and Step 4 football, which we’d both been watching in recent years) all the way up the M6 and M55. I was suitably despatched outside the ticket office 15 minutes before it was due to close at noon.

Ticket business concluded, I headed up to Rowleys to meet my friend who had my ticket for today’s match. Now dear reader that was a bit of a faff to find! The woman on the door to the hotel entrance pointed me inside and said I’d have to buzz the intercom. That I duly did and the doors to the hotel were released. Ok, so where do I go now? Remember I’ve not been here for upwards of five years – and get lost in big buildings at the best of times. I took a gamble and called the lift. I stepped into the lift, fully expecting to find some sort of directions inside. Nope – nothing but blank walls. Ok well I know it’s quite high up so I’ll press the top floor. Wait. Wait. Wait. Ping! Peer out. Penthouse. Nope. Definitely don’t want that! Press floor 2. Wait. Ping! Peer out. Rowleys. Yes! Step out, meet friend, pick up ticket, have some players pointed out to me that I don’t recognise in the slightest, see they have food, realise I haven’t eaten yet, make a hasty exit in search of sustenance.

Of course the destination was the new Pub of Choice – The Waterloo. I wasn’t sure if it served food, but I knew it served beer, so it was a suitable destination. As the pub appeared in sight, I saw signs for food on the side, so headed straight on in.

‘Ooh a pint of Setantii please. Are you serving food?’

‘No. But there’s a burger van outside – he’ll be here about half 12 – he’s very popular and serves currywurst and all sorts.’

‘Aye that’ll do nicely – thank you.’

I took a seat with my friends who were sitting in the window, overlooking the bowling green. It really was just like we’d never been away, as we laughed and caught up and talked about the football for a bit but mainly took the piss out of each other, because that’s what we do. It’s a sign of love, for sure. We’ve missed each other very much.

But back to the burger van. Wow this was good! Bugerhain serve gourmet burgers and German sausages on brioche buns as well as gourmet chips. I went for the gourmet cheeseburger with caramelised onions and salad – and it was delicious, not dirty or greasy in the slightest – just a delicious burger. Look out for these guys and give them a try.

I got chatting with my friend Steve, who I hadn’t seen in goodness knows how many years, but used to stand with in the South Paddock back in the day. As we caught up on what we’d been up to these last few years (during which we’d lost touch), he assured me we had time for another drink, as half two was plenty of time to be leaving to get to the ground on time.

Pah! It wasn’t! The queues outside Bloomfield Road were phenomenal – and it was around 3.05pm before I got into the ground. I was relaxed though, safe in the knowledge that I probably wasn’t going to miss anything. I felt the club missed a trick here by not selling bottles of water to the queueing thousands on what was a scorchio day. As it was, there were no queues for refreshments by the time I finally entered the ground (the game having kicked off), so I nipped in for a bottle of water before taking my seat in Block M. Now dear reader I’m undecided on where to make my home now I’m back at Bloomfield Road…but I felt a bit out on the periphery here, so I don’t think I’ll be returning there.

Still, the match wasn’t so bad, was it? Joey Barton’s Fleetwood were predictably physical and, whilst Blackpool’s play was a bit hoofy to avoid playing on the dodgy surface, the Seasiders came out on top, ending the match with a man more than Fleetwood (what a leg-breaker that was!) – and a 90th minute winner. Blackpool do like a late, late goal! The atmosphere was rocking throughout the match and it sure was good to be home!

At half time and after the match, I saw and caught up with friends I hadn’t seen for years in many cases. There was the man with the Mohican who always referred to Stephen Crainey as ‘Crazy Legs’ (remember Crazy Legs Crane from the old Pink Panther cartoons?). There was Birdy (no relation) who gave me my first job after I explained in my interview how Blackpool had managed to qualify for the second round of the Auto Windscreens Shield, despite having lost 1-0 to Hartlepool (it was a round robin to start with, and Hartlepool had lost 8-0 in their other match). There was Steve and Dave, who I’d been on the BISA committee with, back when that organisation was independent (hence no ‘I’ now) – and before I was told I wasn’t welcome on the committee because I didn’t live in Blackpool (despite never missing a match in those days).

Post match I met up with Phil, who was transporting me (and a very large BFC print he’d acquired on eBay) to Leeds after the match. The traffic on the M55 was very slow, Blackpool being a popular destination on a sunny bank holiday weekend, but we were perfectly ok with this as Radio Lancashire kept us entertained with footage from Blackpool from not only today but also back over the boycott and the day we returned home to Bloomfield Road, followed by an interview with Gary Bowyer (who I don’t think I’d heard speak before). By the time the programme moved on to the history of Great Harwood FC, we lost signal and focussed our attention instead on the stunning scenery as we crossed the border into Yorkshire. We could soon smell and see the smoke from the nearby moorland fire.

I was despatched at Leeds railway station, where I was to catch a connecting train to Sheffield, my home for the night ahead of my visit tomorrow to The Crucible Theatre for the World Snooker Championships (one from my bucket list). As I made my way across the station, I remembered how tricky it was to keep my balance in my Skechers, which have little traction on smooth surfaces. I waddled into Sainsburys, where I picked up a Be Good To Yourself Chicken Salad Sandwich (and a red Bounty and a big bag of Fruit Pastilles – shh!), before making my way to Platform 9b. As I tucked into all my food in the waiting room, I heard the announcer asking passengers not to run on the station, in the interests of safety. Run? I could barely walk on that slippery surface! As I finished my bag of Fruit Pastilles, I began to get excited at the prospect of seeing Blackpool lad James Cahill play World No.1 Ronnie O’Sullivan at the snooker tomorrow. I couldn’t be that lucky, surely? But I checked my tickets against tomorrow’s schedule – and it looked likely that it would be the conclusion of that match that I’d see. I daren’t get too excited just in case, but I was enduring a sugar rush now and I was buzzing!

On arrival in Sheffield I was becoming a little tired, so I bypassed The Rutland Arms (one of my all-time favourite pubs) – despite it being on my way – and headed instead in search of my accommodation for the night. Now, this turned into a bit of a quest (you know nothing’s straightforward with me). I was staying in an apartment but I needed to pick up the keys from a convenience store. Yeah I know. So I trekked halfway across Sheffield – passing The Crucible and the Fan Zone outside, which was showing today’s action on a big screen – to said shop and, after some confusion with the shopkeeper, he finally presented me with a set of four keys but not the promised directions. I found the address on my original booking confirmation and tapped that into Google Maps and headed off down the road. Having reached the general area, all I could find were bars and restaurants – no sign of any accommodation. I now referred to an email I had received from the property, which had a Dropbox link to a set of detailed directions, including photos, which revealed I had to pass through a gate between a bargain booze shop and a bar, before heading up some metal steps at the back of a Chinese into the apartments. Dear reader, I survived all this without being murdered (although there did appear to be a shadow following my up the steps).

The apartments were certainly different but they did the job. My block had its own lounge/dining area, which I walked through before reaching my apartment, which comprised a bedroom and en suite bathroom. The room was boiling so I opened the window before calling up Corrie on ITV Player and completing my evening toilette. As I was removing my make-up, I was sure one of the pre-Corrie personalised adverts addressed me by name and I did a double-take, staring at my phone. Sure, I’d seen my name on personalised ads before, but addressing me from the toilet lid was something else.

I found something that I hoped was a fan and not a heater (and was relieved to find that was the case) and lay back and relaxed as Corrie came to an end. Still not much cooler, I resolved that I needed to sleep with the fan on and window open. Now I’m not such a light sleeper as I once was (thanks to a combination of stress management and the antihistamines I take to manage my migraines), but tonight was a most unsettled night, as I woke seemingly every ten minutes gasping for water and disturbed by passing trams, drunken revellers (at one point shouting ‘JANE!’, which spooked me again, revving engines – and the overpowering aroma of the local kebaberies. Finally, as birdsong replaced the nocturnal noises, I resolved to turn off the fan, close the window and get some proper sleep for however long I had left in bed (I never check the clock because I like to imagine it’s hours, even if it’s only five minutes).

When my alarm went off, I didn’t know what day it was (who does over Easter?) or where I was for a moment or two before I came round. Cue Derry Girls playlist (some top tunes there) and a revitalising shower. It didn’t take me long to get ready so I took some time to catch up on football admin (since I now have two jobs – in addition to being Match Secretary at Chasetown, I’m now Assistant Secretary for the North West Counties Football League). But soon it was time for breakfast, so I hunted down a cafe round the corner, Lunch Stop, which turned out to be a sandwich shop, but I was so determined to have a breakfast here, I ended up eating a full English out of a box with a tea in a polystyrene cup perched at the counter. As I studied the menu on the wall, I saw they offered a ‘special sandwich’ with ‘magic sauce’. Alongside was a sign that read: ‘Please speak to our staff about the ingredients in your meal when making your order.’ I much preferred the mystery element and now wished I’d ordered the ‘special sandwich’ with ‘magic sauce’. Next time, dear reader!

And now it was time to head to The Crucible to find out if I was going to watch the match I really wanted to see (please please). I checked my overnight bag into the cloakroom and headed up the stairs to the foyer, where there was a screen displaying the order of play for the day. 2.40 session: yeah, yeah, scroll on. Evening session: not bothered, come on, come on. 10am session: Table 1 Stuart Bingham v Graeme Dott, Table 2 (yes, yes, my ticket’s for Table 2) Ronnie O’Sullivan v James Cahill. Yes yes yes!! How lucky was I, landing the final session of a match between the first amateur to play at The Crucible (and a Blackpool lad at that) versus the world number one – and the best player ever to pick up a cue), Rocket Ronnie. Dear reader, excited is not the word! Not only that, but Cahill was in the lead. Was it possible he could pull off the biggest shock in world snooker history? Well the answer is YES because he only went and bloody did it! I’d never watched live snooker before and the tension and excitement was tangible, with my heart in my throat for most of the session. Whilst I enjoyed Ronnie’s skill in potting pretty much anything he put his mind to (and scoring a century in one frame today), I was really rooting for the Blackpool boy – and was so thrilled for him.

I left The Crucible exhilarated – and with three hours to kill before my coach home, my feet took me to the Rutland Arms, a delightfully quirky pub that is home to dinosaurs, artists, fine ale and great food. I settled down into a sofa with a pint of Severn Ruby Porter and a lime and chilli battered cauliflower, coconut curry sauce and sauerkraut barm. What a great day this was – and a great couple of sporting days for Blackpool.

En route to the bus station, I called in at the train station to pick up a bag of celebratory sweets from WHSmith before my feet carried me to Sheffield Tap, the Thornbridge pub on the station. Here I was tempted to take a Mother Earth Cali’ Creamin’ (smooth ale brewed with vanilla beans) and sat in the beer garden, basking in the sunshine, as I enjoyed my ale and Jelly Babies.

The journey home was mercifully uneventful (truth be told, I’ve been writing this all the way home and I’m still an hour away from home). This had been a cracking couple of days on tour Up North (on both sides of the Pennines again). I’m loving being immersed in my sporting travels right now and don’t want this season to end (although I need it to, so I can have a rest!). Join me next weekend for the penultimate adventure of the season…

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