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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.

Oxford United v Blackpool: A Better Defeat

I bounced out of bed at 5.30am on Saturday and sang along lustily to Aztec Camera in the shower.

The past is steeped in shame,

But tomorrow’s fair game

For a life that’s fit for living.

Good morning Britain.

Why was I so perky this morning? I was going to watch Blackpool play at Oxford.

The January transfer window had been a hugely positive one for the Seasiders, with 11 new signings. The only departures had been squad players (plus Curtis Tilt, who has had his eye on the door so long, I began to wonder if he’d caught his shirt in it on the way in). Thus we now have a far stronger squad than we started the season with. We have strengthened in every position such that we almost have an embarrassment of riches (we have five goalkeepers). We are therefore more than adequately equipped to tackle the rest of the season.

What’s more, the new signings are EXCITING! Connor Ronan is being likened to Wes Hoolahan; Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall’s name is impressive enough, not to mention his self-crafted wondergoals; Gary Madine is a mighty force up front; I fell in love with Marc Bola last season when he really stood out; and I’m super excited to see what Ben Garrity can offer. Garrity is the only player not to have joined us from a higher league, recruited from Warrington Town of the Northern Premier League (step three of the National League system, i.e. four leagues below Blackpool). But I am hearing good things about this explosive goalscoring midfielder, who is also a great header of the ball.

So we’ve been bumbling along all season with practically the same team as last season that wasn’t really very good. That has now changed. Finally. So let’s kick on and see if we can jumpstart our season.

Thus I was reinvigorated and excited about today’s match. After Tuesday’s woeful display at Wycombe, Larry surely had no choice but to make wholesale changes. He’d need to be investigated for throwing the match if he didn’t start with Samlesbury Hall and Gnanduillet today.

I always ask Siri what the weather’s going to be like prior to dressing for a match. Today was going to be windy, with the temperature ranging between 6C and 11C. Woo! No need to wrap up – just make sure I remember my hat.

I’d spent too long on a coach on Tuesday to face it again this morning, so I was taking the train today. I’d been organised and bought a sandwich and drink for the 4h journey. I was also ahead of schedule with Issue 4 of the fanzine, so I resolved to switch off and have a relaxing journey today. I’d more than earned it on Tuesday (with seven hours sleep over two nights combined).

Lee drove me to Blackpool North and wanted to film me departing, despite my insistence that my train was due in four minutes time. I waited while he got his camera and light set up (it was of course still dark) and squinted into the light as I delivered my introduction to today’s matchday video. After a quick goodbye, I darted into the station, looking up at the departure board before realising I couldn’t see it because I had spots in front of my eyes from Lee’s light. Instead I ran in the direction of some open doors and hurtled onto what I hoped was the train to Manchester.

I settled back at a table seat, pulled out my iPad, synced my Airpods, connected to the hotspot on my iPhone, charged my iPhone via the socket under my seat and settled back to binge-watch Good Girls on Netflix.

It’s a good show, this, about three middle class American women who inadvertently find themselves immersed into the criminal underworld.

As a radio presenter, I probably shouldn’t admit that I have hardly listened to the radio for years (possibly in protest at Rachel New leaving the breakfast show on Heart FM In the West Midlands). These days I tend to discover new music either through support acts at gigs or, more often, from soundtracks of films and tv shows. This morning I picked up a few gems from Good Girls, including Gin Wigmore, Two Feet and MGMT – all of which I have added to the playlist to accompany the novel I’m writing, to listen to as I immerse myself in darkness (hmm I wonder if I should start writing during Blackpool matches…).

About an hour into my journey, I felt a little peckish, so pulled out my egg salad sandwich (I’ve gone off sausages since I had a gristly one around Christmas).

Oh it’s gluten free bread. Come to think of it, the bread was a little dry…although it was particularly tasty. But – doh! – I’d forgotten to pack my chocolate raisins. I needed something sweet now. I’d have to pick something up at Manchester Piccadilly.

Now this part of my journey was covered by my train pass, as I commute to Manchester for work during the week – but I hadn’t bought a train ticket for the rest of my journey. This was partly owing to bad planning but also because I hadn’t liked the look of the ticket price. I’d looked in the week and it was £40.40. Then I’d looked again on Friday night and it was over £50. I wasn’t having that. I looked again now, knowing I’d have to pay whatever came up. Dear reader, imagine my delight when it popped up as £38.80! Result!

As ever, I found myself nodding off as the train approached Manchester. I really ought to start setting my alarm for this journey because I can’t quite believe I haven’t dozed though my station yet. I took the precaution of listening to Gin Wigmore at full blast as the train approached Piccadilly before alighting.

I headed straight for Sainsbury’s, where I picked up a rare red Bounty, before boarding the Bournemouth train on Platform 5. I had a reserved seat on this train but it wasn’t easy to find. The train carriages weren’t identified by letters on the outside, so I’d had to guess which was carriage C. I did this with surprising ease, but I couldn’t then find my seat. I’d requested a table seat by the window, but seat 19 was not only NOT a table or a window seat, but it was only reserved as far as Banbury. Confused, I sat in it anyway, before double-checking this train was indeed calling at Oxford. It was only later in the journey I realised that my booking (via the Trainline app) had awarded me the benefit of split ticketing costs, which seemingly had the side effect of only offering a reserved seat for part of my journey. Fortunately this was a fairly quiet service this morning, so I didn’t have to ensure the inconvenience of being booted out of my seat in favour of another passenger at Banbury, although this could prove a nuisance in the future. Once I’m seated on a train, I do like to be able to relax in the knowledge that I don’t have to move. Indeed reserving seats on trains comes in at #12 in my stress management handbook. I’ll have to keep an eye on this one going forward.

Whilst engrossed in Good Girls, I did make a point of looking up whenever I became aware of the train pulling into a station, just so I had some idea of where I was. I was struggling to comprehend quite how it was going to take three hours to get from Manchester to Oxford, if I’m honest. I find myself somewhat disorientated now I’m back Up North, having spent 21 years living in the West Midlands, where nowhere and everywhere was 2-3 hours away.

And then the woman sitting behind me pulled the blind down on our shared window, as the sun had been blazing through. Hmph. Was I now in danger of ending up in Bournemouth? I wasn’t happy about this. I was even less happy when I realised I’d forgotten my new Maui Jim sunglasses owing to a change of handbags this morning. Now now, don’t stress: que sera sera. Just focus on Good Girls. You’re enjoying that, aren’t you?

Now back in the pre-boycott days, I occasionally undertook pre-match pub crawls with my friend Chris. I couldn’t remember the last time we had done this so was delighted when he suggested we did so in Oxford today. This had the added bonus of involving zero organisation from me, as Chris was happy to prepare the pub map following consultation with the Good Beer Guide and other recommendations. I simply had to turn up, where I would be met at the station, follow Chris around various pubs and drink beer. That sounded great to me. And so it came to pass.

First up was St Aldate’s Tavern. Now I’d been here on my previous visit to Oxford two years ago on my mission to tick off the Kassam Stadium, which you can read all about here:

https://janestuart.co.uk/2018/02/07/moonlighting/

We were the only customers here this morning and I quickly placed my order at the bar before racing downstairs to check out the excellent facilities, stopping dead in my tracks as I spotted this door:

Dear reader, I resisted temptation. Having been convicted of witchcraft myself, I didn’t fancy my chances if there was a lion on the other side of that door. I continued my descent to the ladies, hesitating first by the tennis rackets on the wall and wondering how effective a weapon they would be against a lion. Perhaps I’ll ask Albert next time I’m in Blackpool.

https://allpoetry.com/The-Lion-and-Albert

The beers on offer here today were Shotover Oxford Porter (the one I had), XT Animal Hen, West Berkshire Good Old Boy, Hook Norton Hooky and XT 3. They also had Lilleys Peach and Tropical ciders. On draft were West Berkshire Renegade Lager, Beavertown Gamma Ray and Tiny Rebel Brew Crew Pale.

They served food here, too – and the confit duck leg with sweet potato purée, bok choi and chilli & soy dressing would have been my choice if I was ready for food again now, but alas I wasn’t, so onwards it was to the next pit stop.

The Bear was next: a cosy multi-roomed pub with a real fire that I could smell and feel but couldn’t see. This was a Fullers pub and I found myself reluctantly choosing between Fullers London Pride, Fullers ESB

and Fullers HSB. It was only after I’d committed to an HSB that I spotted the additional pump clips in the next room, offering…oh Fullers Olivers Island and Fullers Fresh Tracks.

The room we were in had framed ties all over the walls and ceiling, from rugby clubs from around the world. Well it was certainly different!

Next was our Pub of Choice in Oxford, Nicholson’s pub Chequers. I like Nicholson’s pubs; they offer good food and food beers and have character. You can read all about this one in the link above.

The beers on offer here today were Orkney Dark Island (I liked this so much, I had two), St Austell Tribute, Five Points Pale, Nicholson’s Pale Ale, Sharps Doom Bar, Thornbridge Jaipur and Sharps Atlantic.

The Blackpool Association of Supporters in London (BASIL) were congregated in here today. I love playing down south because so many of them are there. Today I caught up with Bruges Seasider, a dear friend who I don’t see nearly enough of.

It was time for food now and I selected the Root Vegetable Hotpot. Lee and I had been discussing hotpot in the week, debating whether it should have beef or lamb in it.

Seems like they couldn’t decide here and simply omitted the meat altogether. Now on a recent holiday to Rhodes, I visited the most wonderful little vegan restaurant (To Marouli, if you’re ever visiting) and the food was THAT GOOD, it again made me contemplate giving up meat. I toyed with this idea quite seriously once, before someone pointed out that I’d miss gravy too much and frankly that was the clincher. Oh but what was this…?

Dear reader, I didn’t notice the gravy at first, grumbling that the hotpot looked a bit dry. Upon spotting the little gravy boat, I not only squealed but also clapped my hands in delight. I lashed it on the hotpot and it truly made the dish. So it turns out vegan gravy is not only a thing but also quite delicious. Food for thought…

Whilst I could have stayed here all afternoon, it was soon time to continue on our crawl. The next stop was a pub we’d passed earlier but it was closed at that time. And boy were we glad we came back! This was the Royal Blenheim – and what a beer range it had!

But of course I could look no further than the Cherry Dark: one of the few beers I simply cannot resist.

Just after 2pm I checked my phone for the team news – and was happy with what I saw. We were in with a chance today: Samlesbury Hall and Gnanduillet were both starting. The new keeper, Chris Maxwell, was in too. Interesting. Larry meant business today.

A friendly Bristol Rovers fans we were chatting to at the bar provided excellent directions to the taxi rank (we had resolved that we couldn’t be bothered faffing with the bus, only to have to walk ten minutes at the other end anyway). The taxi office had an arcade and a cafe and I should have realised at that point that the wait might be quite lengthy. Their booking system had crashed too, so it was now a bit of a lottery as to whether we’d make the game on time or not. I wasn’t stressed about this as I might have been years ago, because (a) beer; and (b) Blackpool. But we soon found ourselves in a taxi and headed off in the direction of the Kassam Stadium.

Now inside the ground I had just enough time to check out the Ladies (alternating ‘hot’ and cold taps on each sink, all running cold) and the refreshment kiosk. Now I wasn’t really hungry after my sandwich, Bounty and hotpot but I wasn’t sure I’d get chance to have any food on the journey home so I needed to make sure I was full now to save getting hangry later.

‘Ooh can I have a chicken, leek and bacon pie please?’

‘I’m really sorry but we’ve only got chicken curry pies.’

I pointed out that no-one need ever apologise for offering me a curry pie – I was quite delighted and promptly ordered one.

Dear reader, this is up there with Sunderland for Pie of the Season. There was seasoning on top as well as copious delicious and spicy curry filling. The only thing letting it down was the fact that it had been overcooked. But then it was almost 3pm by this point, whereas the perfectly-cooked one I had at the Stadium of Light had been taken closer to 2pm. Was it therefore fair to compare the two, as they had been taken under different conditions? Also this one did seem tastier…

And so to the match. Well this one started much brighter than Tuesday, with Gary Madine (‘Goal Machine’) opening his account for the Seasiders after just ten minutes. And how well he took it too! Looks like we’ve got a proper striker on our hands there.

But Oxford equalised eight minutes later – and were leading by half time.

We were matching them, though – and looking like a decent football team today, starting with a strong 11 in a 4-4-2 formation. And Oxford were no mugs. They are the strongest side I’ve seen in this league this season (apart from us on our day – not that I can remember when our last ‘day’ was…two or three months ago easily). But we matched them. A draw would have been a fair result. Indeed Madine might have had a brace but it wasn’t to be today. We lost. Again.

But I didn’t cry today. And I wasn’t desperate to go home during the match. Indeed I might go so far as to say I actually enjoyed it. So sticking with my tradition of listening to my body, I am happy to report that things just might be turning round for the Seasiders now.

We’re at home to Southend last week. We played like magicians that sunny day in August at Roots Hall. How long ago that seems now. We were full of hope and honestly believed we would take League One by storm this season. Southend have not recovered from that whipping and only won their first home game today. Whilst I’m delighted for them, one wonders what next week will have in store. This match offers a chance for redemption – for the team to show us: LOOK, THIS IS WHAT WE CAN DO. But it also brings with it a huge amount of pressure on Simon Grayson. This is our first home league game of 2020 and he is yet to feel the full wrath of the Tangerine Army at Bloomfield Road. If ever there was a must-win game, this is surely it…

I caught the BSA coach home from Oxford to Blackpool. It was another long journey (four and a half hours) but I spent the time again immersed in Good Girls, getting to the end of season one and starting on season two. It helped me escape from both the football post-mortem and the journey.

Just as we were turning onto the M55, Lee called to enquire as to my whereabouts. He was struggling with editing today’s video footage that I’d sent through to him, as WhatsApp somehow managed to shuffle the clips into random order. As I’m now applying my stress management techniques to Lee’s life too (thus making both our lives less stressful) I began looking into solutions for this issue. Could we time stamp the video clips?

Lee collected me from the Waterloo and we were soon home. It took around 40 minutes but his mood flipped from stressing to singing, thanks to a combination of Google Drive, a head massage and a glass of Irn Bru. And now I could retire to bed after a long and tiring day. Dear reader I was in the Land of Nod the minute my head hit the pillow. Lee woke me as requested to view the edited video just prior to publishing – which you can now view here…

…and then it was straight back to sleep. I love my Saturday adventures but I’m always grateful for the subsequent lie-in and Sunday at home.

Enjoy your week, dear reader – and please be thinking of us next Saturday in what is surely make or break for our Larry.

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