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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.

Gillingham v Blackpool: The Quest Continues

Ah Gillingham away on a Tuesday night – what a treat! I do understand why our games against Gillingham are midweek, with the clubs not wanting to ‘waste’ a Saturday with a low away following, but it is tough on the travelling fans. An 0930 start and an 0330 arrival home is some trek!

Of course I live in the Midlands so it is a little easier for me – and I set off for this match at noon. I traipsed across Birmingham, almost keeling over backwards with my heavy rucksack, laden with fanzines and my overnight bag. I added to my baggage with some food for the journey. I know I need to start eating more healthily on matchdays so I grabbed some falafels, chilli & coriander prawns and Mexican chicken from M&S. However I couldn’t resist the chocolate raisins on the way to the till. Since the season started I lack discipline and willpower when it comes to food and I need to retrain my brain. I will do this. 

The train to London Euston was on time and the journey uneventful. I find London trains rather staid and way less fun than trains going North.

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I spent the journey catching up on fanzine correspondence. Blackpool FC are my life once again and I’m absolutely loving being absorbed in the club and talking to people about the club and making so many new friends. I love this club so much. 

I was surprised to find I actually enjoyed my time in London this afternoon. Without the crowds and the stress of the Tube (another thing I am determined to overcome) it really is a great city. I strolled across to Kings Cross St Pancras, passing the British Library and St Pancras Hotel, before enjoying the grandeur of the station itself. I paused by a shirtless man and his dog playing the piano (the man, not the dog – that would have been a Britain’s Got Talent winner for sure) before almost reluctantly boarding the train to Gillingham. I could have spent hours on this station, enjoying the music, the food, the shops, the jukebox, people-watching…

Strangely relaxed by my London experience, I settled back on the train with my Kindle to continue ‘The Phoenix of Florence’ by Philip Kazan. I heartily recommend this man’s work if you are a fan of the arts and/or historical fiction. 

On arrival in Gillingham I consulted Google Maps to help me find my accommodation for the night (I had no intention of travelling back tonight!). As I headed up Priestfield Road I saw the ground emerge at the end of the road, floodlights and all. What a beautiful sight! They don’t make them like that any more (more’s the pity). 

Now do you remember my trip to Sheffield for the snooker, when I had a quest to find my accommodation, following a series of complex instructions that took me via an off licence, down an alley and round the back of a Chinese restaurant?  Here it is if you want a recap.

Well it seemed I had a similar quest to find my room for tonight. Upon booking, I received the following set of instructions:

To check yourself into the property follow these steps:

1) To the left of door, there’s a key safe pull top centre lever down.

2) Set pin code as XXXX (redacted for security reasons)

3) Pull down black button to the left of key safe and at the same time pull down door of safe from the top door opens with key inside.

4) Use key to open front door and replace in safe.

5) Scramble up numbers on face of safe and shut safe.

6) Your room number will follow in a separate message 

7) Your room key and house entrance key are behind your room door.

Sounds complicated, right? Now I was already here but had not received my room number as promised in point 6, so I wasn’t feeling confident. It was a good job I was arriving early so I had time to faff as required. 

Mercifully the access to the property was not at all difficult. But now I was in, how did I find my room? I was pleased to hear a key in the door and hoped it was the landlady here to greet me. No, it was another guest. Still, he was helpful and pointed me in the direction of a room that looked ready, with the keys in the door. Right, I’ll take that one, then. Toiletries unpacked and territory claimed, I looked around for the bathroom and saw my room wasn’t en suite. Now I’m not averse to a shared bathroom so I set off in search of it and was pleased to find it next door to my room. When I had washed my hands I realised there was no towel. I returned to my room. No towel there either. Hmm. Now that won’t do. I headed into the communal living area (lounge/diner and kitchen) and found a clean towel folded over the back of a chair. I’ll be having that then. Not sure if it was meant for me but it was mine now! I snaffled it and squirrelled it away in my(?) room before heading off to the pub. 

Now I’d brought my coat today because it was a night match and you never know, do you? However I was already sweltering in the sunshine so I had left my coat in my room. I sauntered back into town, down the High Street and into a micropub I had found online: Past and Present. I love micropubs – they are full of character and characters and also have great beer. One of the locals helped me out with the beer board (‘beers on the left, ciders on the right’) but my eyes were already locked on the Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout, which I duly ordered from the friendly innkeeper, who appeared from nowhere. There wasn’t a bar, just a mystery room that appeared to lead to somewhere cool (perhaps a cellar?) where the beers were kept. As she presented me with my beer, something dawned on me:

‘I don’t suppose you take cards, do you…?’

‘No we don’t, I’m afraid.’

I was salivating by now as the beer was winking at me. I asked for directions to the nearest cashpoint and asked the innkeeper to hold my beer as I scurried across to HSBC. The ATM here was out of order. Nooooooo! I tried the door to the bank (it was still early, after all). It was locked shut. My eyes searched desperately for another bank. Ah! There’s Lloyds across the road! Is the ATM working? Please please? Yes! Boom! Funds withdrawn, I tazzed it back to the pub, claimed my beer (which had been returned to the mystery cool room in my absence), paid for it and took it out into the beer garden so I could spend some quality time alone with it. 

Now I don’t know about you, dear reader, but when I’ve spent a few hours on my own, I sometimes find it hard to acclimatise to company. A friend once surprised me with an invite to the pub on a Sunday teatime, when I’d spent all weekend alone and, as I struggled to make conversation with her, she suggested:

‘Why don’t we sit at separate tables and text for a bit.’

I laughed but knew that would have actually helped me adjust!

Alone in the beer garden I posted a pre-match video to Instagram (yet something else I need to master) and Twitter before checking my emails. I suspect it will be some time before I stop getting Chasetown-related correspondence and tonight I was asked for a pass for tonight’s game at The Scholars Ground from one of our neighbours in the Northern Premier League. I called Club Secretary John to arrange the pass and confirmed it with the requesting club – also confirming their new point of contact now I’ve left. 

At length I finished my delicious beer and made my way back out to civilisation (well Gillingham), stopping for a quick chat about beer and pubs and football with a man sitting by the door. He recommended I go to the Frog & Toad after the match, as this pub closed at 7pm. I thanked him and remembered that was where we used to drink on previous visits to Gillingham. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been here. The last few years seem to have lasted an eternity. 

I strolled across to join my friends in The Ship Inn, walking through a delightful park and passing a cat on a gatepost (which I of course paused to review for @thecatreviewer).

There was a pocket of Seasiders in the corner of the pub and I went across to join them. After a bit of football chat I noticed empty chocolate and crisp packets on the table. 

‘Did you buy those here?’

‘Yes – from that vending machine through there.’

A vending machine selling exciting snackage in a pub! Get in! I shot straight over there and paid £1 each for a bag of BBQ Beef Hula Hoops and a bag of Maltesers. I told you I had no willpower these days. I washed them down with a pint of something with a rude name (Ship Faced, I think). 

We strolled across to the ground and struggled to locate the away end when we got there. I asked a steward for help:

‘The away end? See that house there? Go down the alley next to it and the away end is down there.’

Gosh I love quirky old grounds! This reminded me of Luton, where the away end is in a row of terraced houses. I love Wycombe, too, where I once saw a woman doing her ironing through the window of the house on the corner of the ground. 

Now I wasn’t really hungry but I seem to have taken on the role of Chief Pie Taster for you, dear reader. I was lured across by my nose to the refreshment kiosk by a delicious aroma that I couldn’t quite identify. I surveyed the extensive menu and ordered a chicken balti pie, having been after one all season. You can’t go wrong with a chicken balti pie, can you?

It turns out you can. The aesthetics were poor for a start. I mean, look at this:

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The pastry was so dry. The filling wasn’t the best either. Again it was mush. I am beginning to wonder if (a) it’s the way clubs cook the pies that is the problem; or (b) I simply don’t like pies. Whichever it is, I am quite unimpressed at the general standard of food on offer in League One so far. Goodness knows I ate better than this the last couple of seasons in the Northern Premier League! Granted I was in hospitality every game but even when I ate from the food kiosks there was leftover chicken chasseur, corned beef lobby, delicious burgers and chips and gravy. Where’s the variety and the good food in League One? Do we need a revolution – a movement – to get decent grub to matchgoers? Or are you folks happy with your lot? 

The match was a rollercoaster! Blackpool didn’t start playing for half an hour and we weren’t enjoying what we were watching. Then all of a sudden the tide turned and we played like Brazil, coming back from 2-0 down to equalise bang on half time. We continued to play well in the second half and we thought we’d go on to win, but Gillingham came back to dominate for the last 15 minutes, which proved as painful as the 90 minutes against Oxford on Saturday. But this team does defend very well, withstanding constant pressure. They are also exciting going forward. Many players impressed tonight. Sullay Kaikai was back on form, Liam Feeney was a constant threat, Armand Gnanduillet (hey my autocorrect knew that one – phew!) was a handful, keeper Jak Alnwick performed heroics once again – and Callum Guy looks a player. 

After flogging a few fanzines to the BSA coach party to pass the time on their long journey home (I didn’t envy them that!) I sauntered back to my guest house to phone in my post-match summary to Lee for tonight’s match vlog. I’d been sending him video footage of my adventures all afternoon and evening and he was now taking over the baton and busy editing the video clips to produce a video memory of the night. You can see the final cut here:

As I prepared for bed I noticed a few suspicious stains on the bedding (this wasn’t quite the St Pancras Hotel) but I managed to find a pillow with one clean side so I laid my head to rest on that. As I closed my eyes to the sound of a caterwauling cat and a barking dog, the landlady arrived on the premises, talking loudly and banging things around. Mercifully, thanks to my long journey and stress management, I dropped off to sleep without delay and woke up fresh as a daisy at 0615 the next morning. 

As I was awake early, I checked my train ticket to see if I could avoid the Tube on my northbound journey, but alas I was booked on set trains and had to go via London Victoria. Boo. I got up early nonetheless and was ready with an hour to spare until my train was due. On my way out I called into the kitchen to see if there was any food. I was sure that they said breakfast was provided. And sure enough on the counter were some eggs, bread and cereal. Nice! Well that saved me hunting down a caff. I unpacked the jam, marmalade and butter I’d snaffled from my room (together with the hot chocolate, which I can never leave behind), put some bread in the toaster and popped the kettle on before running back upstairs to grab the tea from my room. Together with the provided reading material, this made for a pleasant relaxed breakfast. 

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The journey home was painless – even the Tube from Victoria to Euston worked well. I’m getting better at this London lark. I had my head buried in this blog most of the way back to Birmingham…but was forced to look up from my phone when I heard a familiar yet out of context sound. Now what was that? My eyes were drawn to my left, towards the man in the seat across the aisle…who was shaving his chin with an electric shaver. On the train. Honestly it’s a good job I’m relaxed around poor personal hygiene, else I’d have had PTSD after this trip. 

My next interruption was a more pleasant one, in the form of The Sportsman wanting to interview me for an article on Blackpool. I happily answered their questions (any excuse to enthuse about The Seasiders) and the finished article can be found here:

https://www.thesportsman.com/features/a-view-from-the-fans-how-league-one-table-toppers-blackpool-brought-the-good-times-back-to-bloomfield-road

All in all the round trip had taken 24 hours. I was a bit tired but I will get used to the travelling within a few weeks. The start of the season always was tough – especially with all the midweekers. But we’ve got our club back and we’re top of the league, dear reader – and I wouldn’t change any of it for the world. Well maybe the pies…

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