Southend away was going to be a big day for me. It necessitated the earliest possible start, a very long trip – and it was going to be my league debut vlogging about the Blackpool awayday experience. I’d been in training for weeks in advance, getting kitted out with the right equipment and sending practice videos to the boss (Lee) so I could be ready for my big day. The night before I probably ought to have had an early night but instead I went out on the town…
Friday evening began at Katz (The Victoria), a magnificent ‘proper’ pub in Walsall that I don’t visit nearly often enough (that said, I have lost a stone and a half since frequenting pubs less often). Word had reached me that there was a new beer board up in here – and wow it stopped me in my tracks as soon as I entered the pub. I was dumbfounded and agape.
My eyes stopped scrolling as soon as they got to the Church End Gravediggers Mild, which is quite possibly my favourite beer of all time. Certainly I cannot contemplate drinking anything else in Katz because this is so delicious. It’s also not very strong and incredibly quaffable. I had set myself a strict limit of two pints tonight, but was that really feasible…?
I met up with my friend Evo for a long-overdue catch-up. We always have a hoot when we go out – and tonight was to be no exception. We of course began with football chat because we are both so enthused by our respective clubs right now. Evo is a Walsall fan and, like Blackpool, they have a new owner after decades of suffering under the previous regime – and it’s all just so exciting, to have hope again and be looking forward to the season ahead and beyond. Football can be such a beautiful thing and bring so much joy. Does it make all the years of pain worthwhile? Did we need to suffer to really appreciate what we have? For sure we value what we have now so very much and life is well and truly joyful.
Both of us being real ale drinkers – and enjoying one now in a fine alehouse – conversation switched to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), both of us having served on committees for the campaign previously. Whilst I do still imbibe on occasion, I don’t live the beer life any more and have let my CAMRA membership lapse for the first time this year. I met some great friends through the campaign but, after the recent (in my view disastrous) decision taken by the campaign not to broaden its scope to support the popular craft and keg beer market, I do fear for its future. We were soon joined by another former committee member, Dennis, who is always good value. Now Dennis isn’t one for biting his tongue (especially after a beer or two) and tonight he offered his critique on my blogs:
‘Yes I’ve read your posts: “I got on the bus and I spoke to a lovely kitten”.’
Me and Evo started howling with laughter at this point (that summed me up so well) before I continued the conversation:
‘Don’t you find it relaxes you, though, stroking a kitten?’
‘Not when I have to bury them. I’ve got four cats and five squirrels in my garden.’
‘Yes. The kids keep bringing them to me to bury. You can’t just put them in the bin – you’ve got to have a proper ceremony in the garden. On the plus side, my garden grows very well.’
Of course I had to stay for a third pint now – I wasn’t going to leave at this level of entertainment. I bought the lads (and myself) another pint each. So I had failed on my beer limit, but I was still determined to have a relatively early night and targeted a 1930 departure from the pub to our next port of call, which involved food (there were only cobs in the pub).
Tonight we were visiting Walsall’s Romanian restaurant (every town should have one): Zaraza. Now I went to Transylvania on holiday last year (there is a draft blog somewhere that I must dig out for you, because it was a great trip) and I had spotted this place in passing on the bus at that time, but this was the first time we had got around to visiting. I smiled at the spring window display of sheep and bunnies and knew already I was going to like this place.
We had heard stories of live music and dancing and were looking forward to a night of revelry (actually on the night I had quite forgotten about this, and was more focused on a sedate early night). However, as we arrived at the top of the stairs, we realised that we were almost alone in this fairly large restaurant, with just two couples and a family dining here tonight. Well it was early, we supposed.
The menu was extensive and alluring – it was very difficult to make a choice. Evo was tempted by the tripe soup and I was leaning towards the stuffed cabbage rolls (a firm favourite of mine). However we ended up going for the Traditional Platter, which contained lamb pastrami, chicken liver, traditional sausage, chicken breast, traditional potatoes, polenta with fried egg and traditional cheese. Now I’m not going to lie, we were both a bit scared of the polenta (I remember experiencing a similar fear in Romania) – not least because we weren’t really sure what it was. I looked it up on Wikipedia:
‘Polenta is a dish of boiled cornmeal that was historically made from other grains. It may be served as a hot porridge, or it may be allowed to cool and solidify into a loaf that can be baked, fried or grilled.’
Frankly, if anything, we were more scared of it now – and this despite it being cloaked in a fried egg, which we are both fans of. We each took a cursory (small) forkful but focussed our attention on the meat. I’m a big fan of chicken livers since eating a lot of them in Riga. The sausage had a very unusual smoked flavour that I couldn’t figure out if I liked or not (I had to keep trying it). The potatoes were the highlight of the dish – and I could have eaten them on their own.
Now I’m not normally one for puddings – unless the dessert menu is particularly alluring, which this one was. I dived straight in for the creme brûlée, which frankly didn’t look like a creme brûlée and would have benefited from a liaison with a blowtorch. I resolved to bring my own if I came back here again (which is likely). Evo couldn’t resist the Romanian Doughnuts – and oh my what an inspired choice this was!
Hang the creme brûlée and the blowtorch – I’m having these next time!
Well, after a night of belly laughs, three pints, a good feed and a couple of Rennies, I knew I would sleep well tonight. I ordered an Uber to take me home as quickly as possible. As I tracked my driver on the app, I was dismayed to see him driving in the opposite direction, although my interest was piqued by the Nottingham Tabernacle he was parked outside. What is a tabernacle (apart from a great word)? Wikipedia was no help whatsoever, other than to clarify that it was something religious. Does anyone know? Finally my cab arrived and I was home and tucked up in bed almost at my target time of 10pm. Zonked, I fell straight to sleep.
My alarm went off at 0430 and, as I bumbled about with my phone to shut it up, I came across a video message from Lee, reminding me about the techniques he’d taught me and telling me that he knew I’d do well on my debut vlogging mission. Suitably motivated, I sprang out of bed and into the shower, singing along to The Bluetones at the top of my lungs. God I couldn’t wait to see The Mighty today after last week’s strong performance against Bristol Rovers. Could they keep the momentum going? Of course they could!
It didn’t take me long to get ready, as I had packed the night before, and as I opened the front door at 0515 I saw to my dismay that it was raining. Great – a bad hair day for my first video! Well there was nothing to be done other than to stick my brolly up and head out. I toyed with the idea of wearing a coat for a fleeting second before remembering it was forecast to be 24C in Southend today and, besides, I hadn’t worn a coat for weeks (apart from at Barrow when I borrowed Lee’s coat because the wind was biting). A hat? Would look daft without a coat. So just the brolly then.
I boarded the bus into Walsall at 0530 and buried my head in my latest book, ‘F**k It Therapy’ by John (and Gaia) Parkin. This book is a life-changer. These past few months I have already produced a fanzine, started vlogging, bought a car, put my flat on the market, started writing a novel and quit my two football jobs. What on earth am I going to do now? This book basically encourages readers to spend less time doing things they don’t enjoy (‘f**k it’) in favour of building a stress-free life doing things they do enjoy. Sounds great, right? I’m already on my way there but who knows how far this book is going to push me? I’m excited to find out!
I arrived in Walsall in good time to meet my connecting bus, which was to take me into Birmingham. Now the trains from Birmingham New Street to London Euston had been shafted since Thursday night and, if I’m honest, I was a bit reluctant to check the Trainline app to see if they were still a mess this morning. I did, however, have a Plan B just in case (the train from Birmingham Moor Street to London Marylebone). I was banking on the former train, though, as I have a phobia of the Tube, in that I just don’t understand how it works or what train I need to catch or how the lines work and frankly I don’t like being underground and not being able to see landmarks (this stems from growing up by the sea and relying on that as a navigational tool). I had been to London regularly for courses over the years, for which my London friend Liz drew me a map and gave me detailed directions of how to get from Euston, via Euston Square, to Liverpool Street Station (which was also where I was meeting my friends for breakfast today). But that is the only tube route I am comfortable with. Getting the train to Marylebone would stress me out and I wouldn’t know what I was doing at the other end. Mercifully, the trains were back running normally this morning, so I wouldn’t have to face that stress…or would I?
I’d already started filming bits and bobs for Lee and pinging them over to him via WhatsApp. I was now starting to think like a vlogger (that man has a lot to answer for) so I sat upstairs on the bus so as to get better footage through the upstairs windows. The best seats at the front had already gone, so I moved a little further back, before realising the window frame was in the way. I ended up sitting three seats from the back of the top deck. Now I don’t like sitting upstairs on the bus at the best of times. I find it a bit sinister. But today – in the name of Lee Charles TV – I found myself seated two seats in front of a scary looking character dressed all in black, with his hood pulled down and his collar pulled up, covering his face almost completely. Was he going to stab me? I tried to push him out of my mind and concentrate on points of interest through the window (athletics stadium, dog track, etc.). About halfway through the journey I smiled as I heard a rhythmic sound emanating from behind me – the man seated at the back was snoring his head off! That was why he was all snuggled up in his clothes – he just wanted to settle down for a good snooze! Phew!
On arrival in Birmingham, I popped into the newsagents for a bottle of water (it was too early for food) before boarding the train to London. I settled back in my seat, got my Kindle back out and relaxed. I was a little annoyed that my seat was on the wrong side of the train to capture Wembley through the window but there’d be other opportunities for that throughout the season.
By the time I had arrived in London and was scampering across from Euston to Euston Square, I realised that, despite me sending videos over to Lee for the last four hours and 135 miles, I hadn’t heard a peep back from him (the video message had been sent the previous night when I was in the Land of Nod). Now on one of the Blackpool fans messageboards, Lee has been accused of taking all the cushy numbers (corporate hospitality at home games) while I’m sent off to work in the back of beyond in harsh weather conditions (Longridge and Southend, where 50MPH winds were forecast today). Indeed Lee had been compared (quite harshly, I had thought) to a 19th century mill owner, working his staff to death in insufferable conditions. I knew full well that, despite my 0430 start this morning, Lee was still tucked up in his nice warm cosy bed. I must admit I was a little miffed at this thought, so I dropped him a cheeky message:
‘Are you not up yet? I’ve been down’t pit for three hours!’
No reply. Nonetheless I continued with my…oh what’s this?! Euston Square is closed!!! What do I do now? Apart from stress!!! Oh this was not good. I was due to meet my friends from BASIL (Blackpool Association of Supporters in London) at Liverpool Street at 0900 and I only had half an hour to get there. How did I even get there now? I knew I’d have to face the underground at Euston and I really didn’t want to, but what choice did I have? I skulked back to the station, followed the line of people down underground and my eyes scanned the walls desperately for signs telling me where I should go. Come on, woman, you can do this! But I really couldn’t. The maps all seemed irrelevant and the lines meant nothing to me. I desperately sought out someone – anyone – who could help. It seemed like an age before I located an official looking person and I queued up impatiently to plead for help. Finally, I got my chance.
‘Liverpool Street? Take Platform 6 to Bank, then the Central Line.’
Easy when you know how, eh? I followed his directions and was at Liverpool Street in no time, where I immediately bumped into John, Jim and Christine from BASIL. By now I was all of a fluster – and hyperventilating slightly – but I had made it! Go me! I now reverted to ‘following people mode’ (my default mode for London) and could finally relax. We headed up the stairs to the Wetherspoons, where we sat down for breakfast. My ‘small breakfast’ was just that, with one sausage, one bacon, one egg, one hash brown and some beans. I clearly hadn’t been paying full attention to the menu (wot no toast?). I’d need to eat again later.
It was lovely to catch up with friends I hadn’t seen for quite some time and it felt like we were properly back today. The back end of last season was all a bit sudden and surreal but now everything just feels right and good.
We caught the 1011 to Southend Victoria, which took around an hour, landing just after the pub had opened, so we didn’t have to wait around outside (this does happen more often than it ought to!). En route to the pub, Jim exclaimed: ‘Pigeons kissing! Get that on tape!’ so I stopped to film the courting birds. This vlogging bug was catching!
The pub was magnificent, brimming as it soon was with happy Seasiders. There were many familiar faces, a few I vaguely knew and some friends I was meeting for the first time today. It really was like being in the heart of a family – but a happy one, full of love and smiles. This was such a joyous occasion. There is so much hope and belief and love and who knows how far this can take us? For it got us to the Premier League last time, did it not?
Having spent a good 90 minutes filming and selling fanzines and trying to overcome a few technological difficulties, the boss (now finally awake) gave me permission to relax and enjoy myself with an hour or so off vlogging duty. I heaved a sigh of relief and headed immediately to the bar, where I wasn’t allowed to buy myself a drink and instead was told to sit down and I’d have my beer brought to me. Cue a lovely interlude being waited on hand and foot by fellow Seasiders, who were even selling fanzines for me in the pub. It was a good fanzine day today, with people approaching me and asking for them all day. Just as well, as I didn’t have time to think about selling them amidst all the filming!
It was quite a long walk to the ground and one of our party was carrying an injury, so we were planning on getting a taxi; however he was in such good spirits and excited about watching the Seasiders that he decided ‘f**k it’ and marched off in the direction of Roots Hall (at a greater pace than me with my little legs). The book I am reading does say that love and good vibes can create ‘magic’ and encourage positive things to happen. I quite believe it.
On arrival at the ground at 1445, I headed straight for ‘The Blues Food Bar’ – a canteen-style room with a counter where you could order food, a number of tables and chairs and plenty of plug sockets where you could charge up your mobile phone. What a lovely little set-up! In the absence of Chicken Balti pies (they had sold out), I ordered a Steak & Kidney Pie, a KitKat and a bottle of water before making my way with them to the stand, where I rejoined my friends.
And so to the match. Wow! What can I say? The Seasiders were incredible from the off, with two goals in the first 15 minutes and 3-0 up and coasting at half time. I thought they were impressive last week but my goodness they were electric today! The whole team was buzzing and in turn the crowd was buzzing. This was just so, so good! Sullay Kaikai is simply the most exciting player I have seen since Martin Bullock (who had me on the edge of my seat every time he got the ball). The Fonz is totally revitalised and playing at his best. Liam Feeney is exciting too. Oh I could list them all if only I knew all their names but I don’t yet!
The game turned around on the hour mark when James Husband was dismissed for an ‘overenthusiastic’ challenge on a Southend player on the corner flag. It was completely unnecessary but – like the rest of the team – Husband was completely hyped at the time and unfortunately his energy was channelled a bit wrong at this particular moment. With Pool down to ten men, Southend came back into the game, but the Seasiders defended heroically – they weren’t going to be beaten today – and loanee keeper Jak Alnwick had a great game, including a Hollywood save towards the end. All in all, a magnificent team performance from the Seasiders. What a difference Larry Grayson has made! And the Simon Sadler effect. And the roaring of a happy Seasiders following. We sure are in a good place right now…
…and that place is top of the league! Woohoo! We skipped out of the ground and in way we thought was the direction of the station. En route we got chatting to a couple of Southend fans, who offered to give us a lift, which we accepted without thinking. We had been discussing earlier today how, during the boycott, we have learned to embrace the wider football family and now really don’t understand the tribal element of ‘hating’ other clubs. Football is a wonderful game (more than a game) that brings people together in quite a unique way. It bonds people. We meet fans of other clubs – complete strangers – on holiday and can chat away with them as if we have known them for a lifetime. Indeed a Middlesbrough fan I met on holiday this year was in touch recently asking about Marc Bola (I gave him a glowing report but really are we missing him now? Well I know we will when Husband is suspended…).
Back at the station we quickly checked the train times before factoring in a cheeky pint in the 20 minutes we had to wait (the pub was right outside). As we skipped across to the pub, Paul was excited about seeing the league table on the big screen.
‘But I’ve already shown you the league table on my phone. We’re top!’
‘Yeah but it will look more impressive on a big screen!’
Back in London, Paul walked me back to Bank station, where I had changed to get here this morning, so I was confident of getting back to Euston when he headed off and left me at the entrance to the station, instructing me that I needed the Northern line. I followed the directions on the wall to the Northern platform…but it was gated off! Noooooo!!! I walked around aimlessly, not knowing where to go and not being able to find anyone to ask. I pulled out my phone but of course there was no signal down here – and I was almost out of battery anyway, what with all the filming I’d been doing (the portable battery I brought with me wasn’t working grr). I headed back up to the street and asked Google how to get back to Euston. Northern line from Bank, apparently. BUT IT’S GATED OFF!!! However Google did offer an alternative solution: Uber. Of course! I ordered an Uber and hoped it would arrive before my phone died. It did, and I arrived back at Euston with minutes to spare before my train. I legged it down the platform and now I was on my way home. Phew!
I called at the buffet car for some food – I didn’t care what by this point because I’d had beer. I picked up a chipotle chicken panini (tiny and very hot), a bag of Mini Cheddars (I’ve still got these – I wasn’t as hungry as I thought), a bag of Haribo (demolished immediately, obvs), a can of Camden Pale and a bottle of water. When I settled back in my seat (as requested, a table seat in the window with a power socket), I was dismayed to find that the plug socket wasn’t working (it wouldn’t hold the plug). Of course I wasn’t having any of that, practically being on zero charge now, so I bothered the woman opposite (no power there either) and the man on the table opposite (still no power) before abandoning the carriage altogether and bothering a man in the next carriage who DID have a working plug socket and proceeded to drape my charging cable over his legs while my phone charged. I will be better prepared with a working portable battery next time!
As the train was pulling into Birmingham New Street, I stood up and made my way to the doors. I was here for a while as we waited for an available platform. I was standing by the toilet and was surprised to hear the toilet talking to the man who had just gone in there. Now I am used to hearing a woman’s voice in train toilets, telling you what you can and can’t flush, etc. But this was a new voice. It was Matt from Manchester, who was announcing to the man in the toilet that had won a competition to be the voice of the train toilet. I laughed and asked the man next to me who on earth would enter such a competition (whilst secretly thinking it was probably something I’d do!). I then got chatting with him (the man next to me, not the toilet) and discovered that he was an Everton fan and he told me all about their new ground which is being built at the docks – it all sounds very exciting.
When we finally pulled into New Street, I scuttled out of the station and across town to catch my bus home. I watched last night’s Corrie all the way home before collapsing into bed within 15 minutes of getting home. Because we live in different time zones, Lee was of course now wide awake and had spent the evening working his magic and editing my video footage into a whizz Lee Charles TV production. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology – and a full day’s work from the video tag team of me and Lee – the video was completed and uploaded to YouTube just before I fell asleep. Here’s what we came up with – I hope you enjoy the video account of my awayday at Southend: