Great as it is to be able to watch Blackpool again, televised football simply isn’t the same as being there. Thus, when the Seasiders don’t have a midweek game, we will find a local match to attend in person. Are these unique times breeding a new form of hybrid football fan?
Squires Gate v AFC Fylde
On Tuesday night we headed down to School Road to watch Squires Gate take on AFC Fylde. Despite them being local to us, I had never watched a match there before, although had attended for a charity football tournament last summer. It was therefore technically still a new ground for me and I was looking forward to properly exploring it.
The 7pm kick-off took us by surprise and Lee and I arrived at the ground a little later than we would have liked at 6pm. The car park was already full, so we found some street parking nearby. As I got out of the car, I cursed myself for forgetting to bring the fanzines I’d promised to bring for a couple of fellow Blackpool fans I had arranged to meet at the match.
On arrival at the ground we were presented with our match tickets, which we had purchased online in advance. Tonight’s game – against local opposition three divisions higher at Step 2 – was a sell-out.
Lee set about his business setting up his camera and interviewing volunteers, while I took a leisurely stroll around the ground in search of items of interest to share with you, dear reader.
Time for the loo review! There were two taps on the sink – a rare sighting at non-league grounds. Scarcity of hot water is not, in fact, restricted to non-league. I still vividly remember the time I went to Ewood Park and there was a sign on the toilet door apologising for the lack of hot water. I remember thinking ‘hot water at football is a thing?!’ I had been watching lower league football for 11 years and this was 2002. I remember thinking how wonderful Jack Walker was and how he looked after the Blackburn Rovers fans so well. In fact, this is a basic facility, right? Can you imagine going to the theatre (remember them?) and there being no hot water?
At Squires Gate, the hot tap runneth cold. I left it running for a while just to check if it needed time to warm up, but it remained cold. Bonus point for two taps, half a point docked for dashing my hopes for hot water. There was also handwash and a hot hand dryer. However this was all inside the cubicle and you then had to touch the lock and door to exit. I know the toilets weren’t designed with COVID in mind and I had some hand sanitiser in my handbag, so that was ok. There were also sanitiser stations around the ground.
Next stop was the clubhouse. There were confusing markings on the floor that I think were intended for customers to keep their distance from the bar, so I kept a good metre away from the bar. There were no beer pumps on the counter.
I asked if they had beer. The barmaid turned to the waist-height fridge and began listing various lagers and beers. At this point I would have found it useful to peruse the contents of the fridge myself, but (a) I often have to stand on my tiptoes to see them when I’m standing at the bar; and (b) I was a good metre away from the bar, so therefore had no chance. I stopped her when she got to ‘John Smiths’ and ordered one of those. She poured it into a plastic pint glass and this cost me £2.50 (cash, no cards taken here). Non league grounds are the new micropubs – always ensure you have cash before entering!
I took my beer outside and continued my circuit of the ground. There was a decent amount of covered seating. I tried a seat out for size but the pre-match music was blaring from huge speakers, so I quickly moved on.
It started to spit a little, so I made my way back to the seating area behind the goal. Here I was delighted to meet non league dog Ralphie.
Beer duly drained, I headed back to the clubhouse for another. This is a distinct advantage of attending a match as a writer as opposed to a vlogger. Alcohol does not adversely impact on the finished product. Indeed, it often enhances it.
On exiting the clubhouse, I recognised a friendly face from the Blackpool matches from years gone by, who now volunteers at Squires Gate instead of going to Blackpool. He said he feels more valued and more at home here and I fully understand that. There really is something very special about non league football. You really feel like you’re part of a community in a way that gets lost in the corporate machinery of the EFL.
I then met Ruth, founder of @nonleaguedogs – a Twitter and Instagram community that celebrates dogs at non league football. Despite being a cat person all of my life, this has actually succeeded in getting me enthusing about dogs.
The match itself was very entertaining and ended 4-3 to Squires Gate. Lee’s video from the night includes interviews with a particularly fascinating volunteer, match action including the goals and post-match interviews with the managers.
Food & Drink
It was my birthday this week, which seemed a perfect excuse to head into town to discover some eateries. The Blackpool restaurant scene is all new to me, having lived away for over 20 years, and I have already been pleasantly surprised with the standard of food. Blackpool does get bad press, but there is more to my hometown than fish and chips and kebabs.
To date, I have enjoyed Bank, the top-rated restaurant on Trip Advisor, where the service is excellent. Gulshan in Layton serves quite possibly the best Indian food I have ever tasted. Baby Kingfisher made me cry with their deceptively hot food (although I must take some responsibility for choosing to ignore the word ‘naga’ in the description).
The first stop this week was Akash Tandoori on Topping Street. I had perused the menu online prior to my visit and knew exactly what I’d be having – and had been salivating at the thought of it all week. Chicken Chat, Chicken Tikka Jalfrazie (sic) and Chana Rice. Anywhere that offers chana (chickpea) or jeera (cumin) rice gets bonus points from me. There was coconut rice on the menu here, too – always a go-to when having a Chicken Tikka Masala.
The service here was excellent, with attentive, friendly waiters. They did perhaps border on the over-attentive at times, as they interrupted our conversation on a couple of occasions to the extent that I lost my train of thought. They were so lovely, though, that we didn’t really mind.
There was a very friendly (and perhaps slightly tipsy) man at another table who was keen to engage us in conversation, too. He and his wife were visiting Blackpool on holiday from Kent and remarked that Blackpool had transformed since they last visited over 20 years ago. They had stopped visiting because town had become overrun with stags and hens but that really isn’t an issue at the moment.
The food really was very good – and packed with flavour. You can tell when Indian food has been made with love, as the flavours are really infused into the dishes. The portion sizes were enormous too! I really enjoyed the food here. They even had Boddingtons on the drinks menu, so I was happy. I know they say lagers are a good accompaniment to Indian food, but surely the smooth creaminess of an ale is better to soothe the palate if you encounter a powerful chilli?
The icing on the cake was when we were offered a spirit of our choice on the house at the end of the meal. Ooh a Baileys for me please! That is just the sort of lovely touch that will win repeat custom from me.
After dinner, we headed to Brew Room for a few beers. I find pubs’ individual interpretations on the COVID safety procedures fascinating. Here there was a one-way queueing system for the bar, card only payment (terminal situated on the bar) – and the doors to the Ladies and Gents (not the cubicles) were fixed ajar, so there was no need for customers to touch the doors on entry and exit.
I like this pub very much. It has the best selection of beers in Blackpool and it is a pub in which I feel very much at home. It is spacious and I felt comfortable in here in the current environment. However, I did shudder when I glimpsed a photo of Simon Grayson right next to where I was sitting. We immediately moved.
I stuck to the Oyston stOut, which is brewed on site by the West Coast Rock Brewery. I was surprised by the distinct lack of blueberries, which I now learn have been removed from this beer. It was still delicious, but very different to what I was expecting.
The following evening we went to Hungarians, which offers ‘contemporary cuisine with a Hungarian twist’. Pre-COVID, I enjoyed travelling across Europe and tried to tick off one or two new countries every year. I rarely return to the same destination, but I have been to Budapest three times, such is my love for the city. It was such a treat to discover a little corner of Hungary in Blackpool. Topping Street seems to be the go-to place for a variety of cuisines.
Hungarians offers an early bird menu, with two courses for £12.95; an a la carte menu and a Hungarian menu. I decided to mix and match tonight.
Dear reader, I cannot put into words how delicious the food was here (my photos really don’t do it justice!). Every single component of each dish was exquisite: the bread, the butter, the pate, the onion marmalade, the melt-in-the-mouth steak, the port gravy… Steak and gravy was a new one for me, but it worked really well and I’ll definitely be trying it again.
The service was delightful (and less obtrusive) in here, too. Dessert was a cherry palinka (a favourite, if lethal, tipple I discovered in Budapest – safe only in small doses!).
I cannot recommend this place highly enough – nor can I understand why we were the only people dining at the restaurant when we visited. Please get down here and try Hungarians. I promise you will not be disappointed because the food and service really is exquisite.
I remain delighted and constantly surprised by the excellent food to be found around Blackpool. Whilst this is not good for the diet (my waistline continues to expand), it is an absolute treat for the palate and the soul.
Blackpool v Swindon Town
For the first time in six months, 1,000 supporters were allowed into Bloomfield Road to test out the safety procedures, ahead of a larger complement being allowed in (hopefully) next month. The selection criteria was apparently the first 1,000 people to have purchased a season ticket. Lee and I didn’t fall into this category but, as season ticket holders, we did receive a code to watch the match free on iFollow.
I didn’t allow myself to dwell too much on the selection criteria, otherwise I could get quite angry. I appreciate that the number had to be arrived upon somehow – and any selection process would have upset some fans. Length of service of season ticket holders cannot be an option, as many boycotted for five years. I have been making sure any away tickets I bought were noted against my account, such that I might be given priority at games with restricted capacity (assuming away games, not expecting this to be an issue at home games!). But, que sera sera. At least I was able to watch the match on iFollow, so it wasn’t as if I was missing out really. Also, Lee and I have really been enjoying hosting our live watchalongs and I will miss that interaction with other fans from around the world when we do go back to matches.
Today’s match was great! I like to think having the fans there provided a boost for the players and spurred them on to their best performance of the season. Blackpool were brilliant from the off. Teams are going to hate playing against us this season if that performance was anything to go by! They battled for every ball (on one occasion missing and kicking their player in the head – oops!) and were so fast and lethal on the attack. CJ Hamilton scored two great goals. Demetri Mitchell impressed me very much with his rampages forward from the left back position. I like an attacking full-back very much and he looks to be exactly my kind of player. I am even starting to relax when Chris Maxwell comes out of his area to control the ball; we are in safe hands with him in goal this season and being given the captaincy seems to have improved his confidence and his game even further. I like him very much – I think more than any other keeper I have seen at Blackpool in the last 30 years (including Joe Hart).
In stark contrast to our mood after last week’s defeat at Plymouth, we were buzzing tonight. Football really can lift your spirits and it is wonderful to have it back in our lives – albeit in a very different way. As highlighted in last week’s blog, there are positives to be taken from watching football on tv. But I will continue to watch live football for as long as I am able, because that’s where the real human contact and real emotions can be found. I do fear for the short-term future of non-league football in the event of further lockdown measures. And I’m making damn sure I fit in as much football as I can while I can, because I know life is not the same without it.
Next stop: FA Cup Q1.