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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.

Tranmere Rovers v Blackpool: Christmas is Cancelled

Once upon a time football was like a fairytale and all our dreams came true. We reached the promised land and the evil was defeated and our hero came riding in on his unicorn to save the day.

Now just two matches on 26th and 29th December have sapped away all our festive spirit and joy and Christmas already feels like six months ago. Humbug.

On the morning of the Tranmere match we were waking up slowly, safe in the knowledge that we had plenty of time to relax, breakfast and get ourselves organised ahead of leaving for the match at 12.30pm. With the two hours key/wallet/phone hunting saved thanks to Chipolo, we now had oodles of time to chill on the morning of a match.

I tell you now, dear reader, that will never happen when you’re living with Lee Charles.

We got onto the subject of breakfast:

‘McDonalds breakfasts are the best.’

‘I couldn’t say. I’ve never had one.’

‘YOU’VE NEVER HAD A MCDONALDS BREAKFAST?!’

‘Nope. You know I don’t like McDonalds and I don’t eat breakfast.’

‘YOU’RE TELLING ME YOU’VE NEVER HAD A SAUSAGE AND EGG MCMUFFIN?!’

‘Well no. Is that like square sausage?’

‘What’s a square sausage?’

‘YOU’VE NEVER HAD SQUARE SAUSAGE?!’

‘Never mind that. Get dressed. We’ve got half an hour to get to McDonalds before they stop serving breakfast.’

I set myself to turbo mode, frantically cleaned my teeth, had a quick shower, threw some clothes on, applied my make-up and was just adding mousse to my hair when Lee (pacing at the bathroom door) piped up:

‘What are you doing? You haven’t got time to do that. We’ve got to go!’

‘I’m ready now! By the time I’ve got my shoes on, you’ll still be looking for your…oh!’

Of course I’d forgotten about Chipolo. So out we headed and arrived at McDonalds with five minutes to spare before breakfast finished for the day at 11am. My hair was still wet but it was McDonalds and it wasn’t as if I had my slippers on or anything (not that it would have mattered if I did).

And so I tried my first ever Sausage and Egg McMuffin.

So, what did I think? Well you know I like my food moist so that was one box ticked. I like square sausage and I like egg (although that didn’t resemble any egg I have ever encountered) and I like cheese slices. I discovered this McMuffin meal also came with a hash brown. That wasn’t bad either – tasty and moist. Whilst eating I completed a survey on our experience at McDonalds this morning which took a good five minutes. However it did allow me to claim a Big Mac and Fries for my trouble. Of course I’ve never eaten a Big Mac either so it remains to be seen whether I will eat this or gift it to Lee.

Was the McMuffin the best breakfast ever, as promised? Well I might have it again; however – as always after consuming a McDonalds – I did feel dirty afterwards. I feel the same after eating a bacon or sausage sandwich (unless the ingredients are prime or very low in fat).

We returned home and continued getting ready for the match. I’d prepared a packed lunch the night before (including a sausage and marmalade sandwich) but that seemed superfluous now. I felt sure that the sweets and chocolate would get eaten, though.

I was determined to be fully organised for the match today – having forgotten my hat and scarf on Boxing Day. But wait! The scarf! By Jove that was it! The reason we had lost our last two matches! I’d not been wearing my lucky scarf! But where on earth was it? It wasn’t in the scarf pile. It wasn’t in the wardrobe. It must be somewhere! It was at this point that my ‘active stress reduction’ mode set in and I resolved to buy some coat hooks on which to hang hats and scarves so we can grab them on our way out of the door. But first I needed to find this scarf! We weren’t leaving for the match without it. Now I don’t lose things (or rather didn’t, until I moved into the Bermuda Triangle) so I knew I must have deliberately placed it somewhere. Eventually I found it in the box of fanzines by the front door, underneath my rucksack. Phew! We could set off now, safe in the knowledge that we weren’t going to lose again.

The drive to Birkenhead was smooth – and it was a beautiful day. The forecast was cloudy but the sky was blue and our sunglasses got their first airing in weeks. The roads were not quiet but there were no delays and we parked up by the ground just after 2pm.

En route we researched our away record at Prenton Park, which made for interesting reading We won on our first visit here in 1978…but have failed to win on 18 subsequent visits. That’s some record! Could we put that right today? We certainly hoped so.

It seems like an age since I’ve visited most league grounds, what with the boycott, but it was actually 2006 when I last visited Prenton Park. The main things that stick in my mind from past visits to Birkenhead are:

1. The train station made me feel like I was in a horror movie about to be murdered.

2. The pitch was beautiful – like a snooker table.

It is rare that I am struck by an exceptional pitch. Indeed I can tell you the only other two places this has ever happened: Swansea City and Trafford FC.

It was therefore heartbreaking to see how the Prenton Park pitch has deteriorated to an unplayable quagmire. There were pools of mud running the length of the pitch and it wasn’t even raining. I wondered if the club mascot, a dog imaginatively-named Rover – buried his bones underneath the pitch. I pity their kitman, having to launder those white-cum-brown kits. They really ought to be sponsored by Daz. Indeed Blackpool should send Tranmere a bill for their laundry. Jay Spearing looked like he had been down the pit by the end of the match.

I have witnessed a number of pitch inspections at Chasetown and have seen the match officials rolling the ball along the pitch to check it moves properly. Today the ball was frequently getting stuck in the mud. Therefore how was that pitch deemed playable? The pitch detrimentally affected the match. I know it was the same for both sides but that is not acceptable at non league, let alone League One level. The fact that this was the once-perfect pitch at Tranmere made this vision really quite upsetting. I can’t begin to imagine how their former groundsman would feel, seeing what a cabbage patch this pitch has become. It was hard enough for me to look at it.

The concourse underneath the stand was dark and busy. Still full from my breakfast, I ordered a Fanta from the refreshment kiosk, although did note that they had Chicken Balti Pies and some nice-smelling charred burgers (despite my penchant for moist food, I do like my meat burnt to a frazzle, albeit smothered in sauce).

Of course I made my obligatory toilet review stop. There were only four cubicles (when will clubs realise that their female fanbases are growing and their facilities never were sufficient anyway? Blackpool excluded, of course, as we have an abundance of cubicles in the Ladies). The cubicles had no sanitary disposal facilities but did have good old-fashioned wall-mounted cisterns above head height with a chain. This was certainly a ground with character. And of course no hot water from the ornamental hot taps.

The highlight for me was this poster, which taught me a great new word:

Such delightful imagery, fans being spewed forth from the underbelly of the stadium, being vomited up into the stands.

The match started well, with Blackpool taking an early lead somewhat against the run of play. We were hopeful of a convincing victory today, against a team struggling towards the bottom of the table. But Blackpool being Blackpool – and back in a dip in form in recent weeks – they failed to offer anything else whatsoever and ended up drawing. I honestly don’t know what Larry was thinking, starting with the two big men together up front. We simply offered nothing by way of penetrating the Tranmere defence today. We’d get to the final third and look absolutely clueless about what to do next. What do they do in training all week? Why don’t we have a crack or run at them? It can’t be through fear of losing possession because that is one area we are particularly skilled at in recent weeks.

Here’s our video memory of the day:

We left the ground feeling like we’d lost. Other than the post-match post-mortem, the journey home was painless. On the way out of Birkenhead I spotted this road sign:

Often as a passenger I notice exciting road signs but rarely can I persuade my driver to divert. Lee wasn’t having any of it today unfortunately. Silent Bill’s Drunken Fun House would have to wait for another day.

As we neared home I started thinking about comfort food and my suggestion of a Chinese was welcomed. Our local was closed so we set about locating another suitable Chinese in the area. My takeaway research involves checking the food hygiene ratings on the Scores on the Doors website – and this ruled out one straight away. I have eaten at restaurants with zero or one star ratings in the past – and believe me you know about it! Whilst tucking into an Indian banquet in Walsall many years ago, I couldn’t quite place the horrible aroma that was finding its way up my nose until I brought a forkful of prawn balti up to my mouth and realised the prawns were off. Hence I won’t go any lower than a three star rating now, when selecting a new eatery.

Lee has had Alexa as his constant companion in recent years and she provides much amusement as well as sometimes doing what she is asked. I have been making more use of voice-activated technology myself in recent months, occasionally dictating blogs, setting myself reminders and asking Siri to look things up online for me. Here is how helpful he was tonight:

Still, it was nice to be reminded of a win.

Tonight we headed to South Sea, a five star hygiene rated Chinese on Lytham Road in Blackpool. I was impressed with the menu and the service here. The waiting locals and staff were very friendly. We got chatting to some fellow Seasiders (who were also seeking comfort food) about today’s game and were almost reluctant to leave when our food arrived (not least because the comfy sofas were very hard to get up from).

So how was the food? The starters were lush! We tucked into the prawn crackers in the car on the way home and they got top marks. We opted for the mixed starter, with Sesame Prawn Toast, Spare Ribs, Seaweed, Spring Rolls and Satay Chicken Skewers. For the main I went for Beef Chow Mein. We enjoyed what we could manage of the starters (a Chinese takeaway for me lasts two or three days) before moving on to the mains. I thought the chow mein was a little dry but wondered if I was just being a bit picky. I decided to check out the reviews on Trip Advisor to see if this was an anomaly or a regular thing. Indeed it seems that I was not the first to find the chow mein dry and somewhat sparsely populated of non-noodle ingredients. But the reviews were certainly varied and occasionally hilarious:

Over dinner – whilst sporting paper hats that were too big for us from the crackers we forgot to pull on Christmas Day – we contemplated what had gone wrong with the football in recent weeks. Have the players been adversely affected by their Christmas party weekend bender in Newcastle? Are they being asked to play differently, no longer free to express themselves on the pitch? Have they got one eye on the transfer window? These performances are simply not good enough. And it is made all the more frustrating by the fact that I KNOW they can play better (I’ve SEEN it) – and that League One is so poor this season it is there for the taking. Why can’t it be ours? Why can’t we win the league this season? Through apathy, lethargy, spending 90 minutes playing on a mudbath and trudging off at the end with not a splash of mud on your kit? I do not and will not accept that. And I’m certain Simon Sadler won’t either.

I’m not in the camp calling for Larry’s head. This is not Larry’s team. He arrived on the eve of the season, inheriting players signed by Gary Bowyer, Terry McPhillips and the interim board. I hope Larry will be allowed to go to town in the January transfer window. The club signalled their serious intent to improve things on the pitch in October, with the appointments of Tommy Johnson as Head of Recruitment and Jonathan Gibson as Head of Technical Scouting. January is going to be a very interesting month and could prove pivotal to our season. Hence, whilst being a bit cross right now, I am far from giving up hope.

I know we should be grateful for all the positive improvements we are seeing around the club these past six months – and we truly are. But I also know that what happens on the pitch is vitally important – and key to everything. In order to sustain the growth of the club, crowds must increase – and that will only happen with the advent of sustained sexy successful football. And what we are watching at the moment is far from that. The fans are responding with their feet, with crowds for average home games now in the 7,000s – a drop of 50% from the homecoming in March and 4,000 less than for the opening game of this season. Those supporters will come back but clearly simply having a club to support again is not enough per se. We need sexy football back – and we need it soon before yet more people drift off back to whatever it was they have been doing with their Saturdays these past few years. Simon, Larry – over to you. UTMP.

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