My latest guest blogger is Mikee Evans AKA @EvoBoozySaddler, who loves Walsall FC and has a great rule about not being able to walk past a pub without going in…
What’s better than watching your football team play at home? Watching your team away with a decent boozer before kick off. Football is great. It causes joy, mostly despair if you’re a Walsall fan like me, but it’s brilliant for your social life. Meeting friends, having a few jars, watch the match then more beer is what you need after a week at work.
Now I’m not flush with cash so have to pick the away games carefully. Normally, when the fixture list comes out, you look for first and last game, festive period fixtures and of cause the Grade A away games. A decent pub can make the difference between a team’s grading. Knowing a great pub awaits certainly helps you decide to go away. Think Dutton Arms in Blackpool, The Fortunes Of War in Torquay, and the devastatingly now closed Church in Rochdale. You don’t turn down these trips – although I’ve not been to Rochdale since we lost The Church, even though another great pub, The Cemetery Hotel, is nearby. Sometimes you don’t want the starter if you know the main course isn’t coming.
I have a horrendous reputation for missing kick off at home games. My school reports used to always have mentions of how easily distracted I am. If copy and paste was a thing back then, every subject would have said this, but it still happens now when I’m in the Bescot Bar. Alcohol and fellow Saddlers distract me easily.
It can happen away, too. Our Mutual Friend, a great pub by Stevenage’s ground, was having a beer festival when we visited. By 2.50 everyone off our minibus had gone but I was still thirsty. I was the last football fan to leave the pub that day. Fortunately there were a couple of Stevenage fans just about in view for me to follow to the ground. Before one night game at MK, our minibus driver dashed into the pub – not near the ground and the name of which escapes me – to advise us that it was five minutes to kick off. He found us all up the bar ordering more beer. After being informed that ‘kick offs are overrated’ and ‘when you’ve seen one kick off you’ve seen them all’ he called us all ‘barmy’ and left us in peace. I have no recollection of how we got on that night (not booze related honestly, it’s just been a few seasons).
Back in my early days of away games, I’d go on the official coach, so you’d have to find a pub near the ground if time permitted after the cops had made you wait in a lay-by for 40 minutes with the tantalising sight of floodlights in the distance. Trains, cars and minibuses, however, took over – then the away town is your oyster so get to the great boozers. One such pub is the very welcoming Peel Park Hotel right next to the site of Accrington Stanley’s old ground. This was a planned visit, by the way. We didn’t go to the old ground by mistake – unlike one coach driver who took us to Eastville about 20 years after Bristol Rovers had vacated it.
Of course pubs by the ground are good and tend to be full of atmosphere as it’s where most fans go – but not everyone always appreciates this. We went to The Jolly Sailor in Fleetwood before an FA Cup tie in 2010. The pub clearly underestimated the number of Walsall fans that would travel. It took me about 10 minutes just to get in the door, and there was one cute but very stressed looking barmaid serving. Just two more bar staff and they’d have taken millions. The pub is now closed.
A later trip to Fleetwood – this time in December 2015 – and we were in the Strawberry Gardens: a real crawl wrecker of a pub, it’s that good. It was an absolutely foul day and when the announcement came in that the game was postponed meaning we could stay in the warm pub, a bigger cheer than if Walsall had scored went up.
Other close to ground pubs that need a mention include The Shay, right by Halifax’s ground, hence the name. This place had a list on a noticeboard of everyone who was barred and why. I’ve been in over 1000 pubs and I’ve not seen this anywhere else.
The four pubs on the corners of Brentford’s former ground Griffin Park were always good – and I’m glad I did all 4 in one go on my penultimate visit. Sadly, on my last trip, one of them (The Princess Royal) had closed. I still did the other three and had an extra pint in The Griffin to compensate. In cycling there is an event called ‘pursuit’ where two competitors start on opposite sides of the velodrome and go round until one catches the other. I’d always liked the idea of starting in one pub at Griffin Park, and having a friend in the one diagonally opposite, and we repeatedly go around all four, having a pint in each until one of us catches the other. I’d fancy my chances at winning gold in that event.
Sometimes the pubs are that good, you don’t make the game. This happened at Chesterfield in 2015. We were having such a great time on a 10-pub crawl we kind of forgot the match. It happens.
I tend to be less keen on grounds that are new builds, away from pubs and facilities, so they tend to be lower on my list when choosing games. Northampton in 2017 was picked purely because at the time I was doing a snooker 147 pub challenge. Seeing boozers in the town called Old Black Horse and The Black Prince, meaning I could add 14 points to my break meant this had to be done. I did get the 14 points, but despite taking the lead Walsall never looked like getting any. And didn’t.
Occasionally great memories are made at a pub nowhere near the ground. On the way back from Swindon in 2007 after we had won the league, we stopped at The Air Balloon in Birdlip, Gloucestershire. The coach carrying the players approached and the manager told the driver to stop upon seeing so many Saddlers fans outside. The players came in the pub but were mobbed and had to escape through a window. But they hung around outside chatting and posing for photographs. Amazing times.
So please, COVID, kindly do one. Let us have pubs and football grounds back open. It’s what the fans want.
Want to hear more from Evo? You can find him on Twitter @EvoBoozySaddler.
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