Jane Stuart – Writer

Writer on beer, football culture and Blackpool FC.

Blackpool v Gillingham: The Storm to End All Storms

You see the trouble with Southend United is that they make Blackpool look like world beaters. Which is great on the day. But all the more disappointing when the bubble is burst shortly thereafter. Southend United give us hope that everything is going to be ok. And it is the hope that kills you. But you need hope as a football fan, or else what’s the point?

My main hope for the day today was that the match would be called off. Storm Ciara had been raging wildly since Saturday night and I was beginning to wonder if the world was coming to an end because Blackpool had won a match and put something badly out of kilter. That wasn’t supposed to happen. They need to keep losing until Grayson finally does the decent thing and resigns. He’s making too many people unhappy. It needs to be put right.

The storm was showing no signs of abating. In Manchester the wind was as ferocious as it ever is in Blackpool and the weather flicked between blackness and violent hailstorms and brief moments of respite and sunshine. But always the hail would come back and pelt you furiously about the face. Going to watch Blackpool feels a bit like that this season. I feel like a boxer stepping into the ring time after time only to come out feeling like I’ve been repeatedly punched in the head and the stomach. But I keep bouncing back and stepping back into the ring because…because I can’t live without it, dear reader. Oh you know I’ve tried. And you know how that worked out. Now at least there is the hope of a bright future in the medium and long term. But the here and now is pretty brutal.

My train to Blackpool North was cancelled. I ought to have seen that as an omen. Don’t go. You know you’ll have a better night sitting in the warm, reading your book (Adam and Eve and Pinch Me by Ruth Rendell). But what did I do? I jumped on the Edinburgh train, which meant a change at Preston, but it would actually get me into Blackpool sooner than the direct, stopping train.

Now this was a nice TransPennine Express train. There were helpful, easy to understand colour-coded lights indicating available seats, which I particularly loved:

The train manager was bright and chirpy (calling himself ‘the dragon with the wagon’). It’s always lovely to encounter friendly people who enjoy their jobs and try to spread joy. I’ve been dubbed ‘Joyful Jane’ at work but confess it has been hard to remain upbeat since Christmas. When you’re watching Blackpool every week it cannot help but affect your mood.

But I hate changing at Preston. I have wasted hours – probably days – of my life on Platform 1 waiting for my connection to Blackpool. It’s a grey and horrible platform with no waiting room in which to shelter from the elements. And Storm Ciara was still raging with a vengeance this evening. But what could we do but remain there and take it? At least at the match we can protest and chant ‘Grayson Out’ and cry on camera and plead for action and at least HOPE that Simon Sadler knew very well what was needed and the hunt for a new manager was already well underway and the Gazette’s witch-hunt against Grayson is at the club’s behest in the hope he will succumb to constant pressure and resign. But there was nothing we could do about this storm.

I tried to ignore it. I took advantage of the ten minute connection time to grab some food, much as I begrudge paying Preston station prices for food I wouldn’t particularly choose under non-restricted circumstances.

My left hand – the one holding the surprisingly-full (if not for long) Grab Bag of Skips – soon became very cold and was bright red by the time I got to dessert:

I’ve started playing a little game to keep my mind occupied on train platforms, which involves studying the contents of the vending machines and picking which item I’d have from each level. What would you go for?

For me it’s Mini Cheddars (only by dint of them being half the price and more filling than the jerky), Toffee Crisp, KitKat, Tango. Oh do you see how badly I’m looking around for entertainment on a matchday? I really shouldn’t have to be doing this…

I buried myself in my book on the Northern (but not for much longer since THEY’VE been sacked) train to Blackpool and continued reading it on a bench inside North station while I waited for Lee to collect me. I wasn’t waiting outside in this weather, no siree.

I sought reassurance from Siri about tonight’s weather:

‘Expect wind STARTING tonight?!’ Was he having a laugh? The storm had been tearing off rooves, blowing children down the street, causing power cuts and making light work of the sea defences for three solid days now. Oh Siri…

I was supposed to be selling fanzines before the match tonight but I really couldn’t face it in this weather (why hadn’t the referee called the game off? Did he have no consideration for EVERYONE who would far rather stay at home in the warm tonight? I didn’t even know who he was but I didn’t like him already).

It was nice and toasty in The Corner Flag. And there was beer. And friends. Karen was waiting at the bar with a couple of these from America for us to sample and review:

And – ooh what’s this?

‘Do you fancy some chips?’

‘No thanks. I’ve just stuffed my face at Preston. But I am tempted by that curry though…’

Dear reader, these are the lengths I go to not to be tempted into eating anything at Bloomfield Road these days.

Of course I couldn’t eat it all, but it warmed me up nicely and set me up for the night. Along with two bottles of my preferred tipple:

Was I ready to face the match now? Frankly, if they had been showing it in The Corner Flag, I’d have been tempted to stay put. But I forced myself off my stool, back into my body warmer, coat, scarf and beloved woolly mittens and trudged across to the South Stand.

It actually wasn’t that cold in the ground. Apart from forgetting the flask and blanket, there was nothing more I could have done to insulate myself against this storm. And it wasn’t uncomfortable. Well the weather wasn’t, anyway.

Blackpool even went 1-0 up after seven minutes, with an individually-crafted goal from Armand Gnanduillet. Who knew he could do that? That was 18 from him now this season. And yet this player epitomises Blackpool right now, in that he offered little else for the rest of the game. I’ve done my bit now – show me what YOU can do, teammates. No, Armand, YOU show us what YOU can do for 90 minutes and let the others follow your example. We want to see that effort, that level of determination ALL THE TIME. Why aren’t these players motivated? What has happened to them?

Connor Ronan was the one player who stood out for me tonight. He’s a sprightly little bundle of energy and I hope that doesn’t get sapped out of him over the coming weeks.

As my attention began to drift away from the pitch – as it is wont to do these days – I noticed the Gillingham manager, who looked like a bloke who had won a raffle in the pub before the match to be ‘manager for the night’.

This at least served to detract my attention from Larry’s shiny bald head and my incredulity that he STILL wasn’t wearing a hat, despite the storm raging about him. I guess he must have some sort of phobia or superstition around wearing hats.

As the game progressed, Blackpool slipped back into their norm of dancing around the edge of the box and passing the ball away from goal and failing to capitalise on their opportunities. And thus we found ourselves 2-1 down (both goals coming while we were eating the – clearly incredibly unlucky but also very tasty – KitKat). Here we go again. But then we somehow equalised in the last minute, The Fonz again having an impact from the bench, a positive reaction to losing his place, which is what we want to see: a bit of resilience, a bit of fight.

Dear reader, Gillingham won with the last kick of the game. Another punch in the head to go home with. Thank you very much Blackpool.

It really had now got to the stage where Larry simply had to go for the sake of the mental health of so many of us. We should be buzzing on a matchday – and I can’t remember the last time I was. Now I mechanically get up and go to the match simply because that’s what I do on a Saturday or a Tuesday, much the same as I go to work Monday to Friday. There’s precious little enjoyment in the match itself – and often more pain than pleasure.

Whilst it is not directly comparable with the terrible off-field events at the club over the last few years, at least back then I could go some way to pushing that to the back of my mind, by attaching myself to another club (Chasetown, who also sacked their manager this week, 20 minutes after an away game when he was then expected to travel back on the coach home with the players and fans). Living away from Blackpool at that time, I didn’t have to think about Blackpool every day (although I probably did). Now I’m back at Blackpool, on-field events have been plaguing me not only every matchday but also affecting my mood and temperament every hour of every day during the week because I’m always either remembering the last match or looking ahead (if not forward) to the next one. I’m also living back in Blackpool so there’s no getting away from it.

It has been painful writing this blog, as I know it was painful for Lee replaying the footage for the video (which you can see below).

We want to tell the world how wonderful it is supporting Blackpool and quite frankly it has been hard to find positives from what has been happening on the pitch recently.

The sense of relief now Larry has finally gone is palpable. It needed to happen. They say never go back and it is a shame that our happy memories of Larry are now tainted. It was a dream last time, when Larry was young and fresh-faced and given the opportunity of his first job in management. Perhaps he had the respect of the players back then because he was one of them and could relate to them – and perhaps that’s something he’s lost over the years. Who knows? But something clearly wasn’t right this time around – indeed performances have been steadily deteriorating for months. The risk of the new players having their enthusiasm sapped out of them was very real.

It’s too soon to say I’m looking forward to the game on Saturday but hopefully that will come as the weekend nears. At least we can now be hopeful that things will improve on the pitch and maybe, just maybe, we – and the players – can get our mojo back and start enjoying our football again.