The Day Before
Dear Reader, after a largely vagrant lifestyle following Blackpool all around the country (and across Europe), I have become somewhat of a hermit during lockdown. When the pubs reopened, I couldn’t remember what I needed to take with me. On one occasion I forgot my house key; on another I had to return home after leaving without my mask.
Over the last 14 months, I have only left Blackpool for a handful of matches at Northern Premier League clubs Glossop, Trafford, Colne and Chase. Tomorrow we were on a road trip all the way to London; to Wembley. That seemed an awful long way from home. What did we need to do?
I had spent half the week putting together a rousing Blackpool @ Wembley playlist to bang on in the car. I accidentally added my Driving playlist to my Wembley playlist and ended up with 59 hours of music. I managed to get it down to 37 but there were so many bangers on there, I couldn’t slim it down any further. Oh well – at least if we got stuck in traffic we’d be ok.
We went to Home Bargains to stock up on snackage for the journey. I couldn’t get a conclusive answer on whether or not there would be food available at Wembley Stadium and, besides, I knew their prices to be extortionate from my previous visit there in 2019 for Non League Finals Day. I therefore planned to stuff my face on the way down so I didn’t need food in the ground.
Now Home Bargains is brilliant and also Very Bad. They have the best sweetie aisle I have seen anywhere – and we never fail to fill a whole basket full of sweets. In our vain hunt for popcorn, we accidentally stumbled across the biscuit aisle. Dear reader, it’s almost as bad as the sweetie aisle. I mean, look at this.
In the end, I had to close my eyes and have Lee guide me to the checkouts unsighted.
One thing they didn’t have was my lucky Orange Aero. You know, the one that brought us all three goals in the second semi final against Oxford (I had my mouth full of chocolate during every Blackpool goal). I couldn’t go to Wembley without it!
We headed to Asda. None there either. As this is an elusive confectionery item, Lee determined that we were more likely to find it in a small convenience store (exciting little newsagents tend to have these more exciting items like Frys Chocolate Creams and Space Raiders). We found one, Lee darted out and soon returned with three Orange Aeros.
‘I had to spend £3.’
I wasn’t complaining. They’d get eaten.
Our final pit stop was to fill up the car with petrol (which we’d forgotten to do at Asda). Surely that was everything covered now?
Back home, I made some ham, salad and mustard sandwiches for the journey (so it wasn’t all unhealthy). We then settled back for a few hours relaxing with Netflix, getting to the end of Season 2 of Star Trek: Enterprise, whilst trying desperately not to eat all the sweets we had bought for the journey. NB The shopping we had delivered on Thursday contained our previous snackage order. I don’t know what we were thinking, expecting that to last until Sunday.
With an early start tomorrow – and that dreaded alarm clock set for 6am(!) – I retired to bed around 10pm.
I had set two alarms this morning ‘just in case’. It felt like we were going on holiday.
I banged on the playlist in the shower, adorned my lucky top, retrieved my sandwiches from the fridge and added them to my naughty bag, grabbed my phone charger and that was it – I was ready to go.
The sun was shining and it was forecast to be 22C at Wembley today. I was in two minds whether or not I needed a coat at all (ne’er cast a clout and all that) but my tangerine cagoul is only lightweight – and it has a secret inside pocket in which I could sneak my lucky chocolate into the ground.
Obvs Lee took a little longer to get ready, as is the norm, but we were on our way only 10 minutes later than advertised at 0710. I banged on the playlist and away we went, already singing our heads off by the time we hit the M55.
Even before we reached the motorway, we had spotted a handful of other Seasiders in their cars heading in the same direction. Lee remarked that, when Wembley was at full capacity, it was like a convoy of tangerine heading down the M6. It was a shame we wouldn’t witness that this year, but at least some of us were lucky enough to be going, which wouldn’t have happened last season – or even last month – due to COVID restrictions.
We had an emergency pit stop at Hilton Park to meet up with Lee’s son, who boarded the supporters coach without his match ticket and phone charger. There were several Blackpool coaches here – some double deckers – and it was lovely to see my old local service station awash with tangerine.
We stopped again at Cherwell Valley because I needed a wee after downing a big bottle of banana milk for breakfast and an even bigger bottle of Cherry Lucozade. Nice services, these. I wasn’t really sure what SAFC Blog meant when he wrote about enjoying service stations, but we did appreciate this one.
Nice layout, lots of outlets, hard to get lost…apart from coming out of the toilets, which is an issue I often have (usually in pubs). On our way back to the car, we were hailed by James, driving south in his new car. Like us, he was parking up at a station and getting the train in to Wembley. We arranged to get the same train in (albeit from different stations).
Historically (pre-boycott) we had a close-knit football family. We’d all arrange to meet up at the same pub pre-match and take it over. We’d drink, laugh, not talk about the football at all and then sit together at matches. That has all changed since the five-year match boycott. We’ve each been making new lives and new social groups and finding new hobbies and, when The Homecoming came two years ago, with our usual home pub having closed in the interim, we never really settled back into a routine of all meeting up. There are lots of clusters now. With everyone sitting on their own in the ground today anyway, there was little co-ordination between us. We’ve simply got out of the habit. I wonder if we have forgotten what to do.
But here was James, so we were going to spend pre-match together now and that was nice.
We headed off the motorway in the direction of Beaconsfield – very scenic – and parked up at the train station car park for £5.50. There were other Seasiders here who had the same idea. I chatted to one while Lee figured out how to pay for the parking.
When the train arrived at 1204, we masked up and boarded. I hadn’t been on a train for 14 months. I expected every other seat to be taped off for social distancing purposes, but there was none of that. The train wasn’t packed and we did feel safe, sitting next to a masked person.
Pre Match at Wembley Stadium
Twenty minutes later we pulled into Wembley Stadium. While we stopped to film a section for the match vlog, James strode off in search of Michelle, who he had arranged to meet.
As we headed towards the stadium, we encountered an open space just below, with benched seating. This was already brimming with Seasiders, basking in the sunshine, cracking open cans of lager. There was even a dog.
It was very relaxed and convivial. I eyed a roving cameraman with interest, noted he was from Sky Sports and promptly gave him a wide berth. I’m still very much slighted that they laughed at me on their podcast when I suggested that Blackpool were eyeing automatic promotion and saw the playoffs as a worst-case scenario – and they suggested we should be looking down the table, over our shoulders, and not up. Well fuck you, Sky. I was very pleased we hadn’t had to pay to watch any of these playoff matches on Sky, watching the first in the Armfield Club and the latter two in person.
It was here I bumped into Michelle, who was looking for James. Lee also found a friend and so it came to pass that we dawdled here longer than we had planned. We didn’t even know this place was here – nay what it was – but we just sort of fitted here.
James rocked up and I joined him and Michelle at a vacant bench while I waited for Lee to finish his chat ahead of us meeting our Lincoln friends Jake and the Lady Imps (which sounds like some sort of cabaret act, but isn’t) on the Wembley perimeter. James was heading off to the convenience store for drinks and asked if I wanted anything. I am nothing if not easily encouraged when it comes to drinking.
Meanwhile Lee had finished his conversation and was heading up to the Stadium perimeter. With James on a mission to hunt down refreshments, I felt I couldn’t leave at this point, so Lee headed off alone.
Within minutes James returned with two four-packs of lager. Well, beggars can’t be choosers and it was lager weather (I would have preferred black lager or a Timmermans Peche with ice, but we weren’t at a craft beer bar here). It was cold and it did the job. We drank, we chatted, we laughed, we reminisced, we got a little sunburnt – and it was lovely.
I was hoping Lee would meet up with Jake and the Lady Imps on his rounds. I felt guilty about not hunting them down but at the same time didn’t want to leave my friends here, when I saw them so rarely these days. I’m hopeless at directions so sent Jake a video showing where I was (which I’ve only just seen didn’t send!). I later realised that, once you’re on the Wembley perimeter, you’re not allowed out again. By the time I got up there, at 2pm, Jake had entered the ground. I felt super guilty because he had brought some Lincolnshire Plumbread for me – as, it later transpired, had the Lady Imps, who I hadn’t met with either. These Lincoln people are so, so lovely.
Blackpool v Lincoln City
The moment we entered the ground, Lee switched to anxious mode. Had his son got into the ground ok? Where was he? He wasn’t answering his phone. Where were our seats? Why weren’t we sitting on the same row? We had to sit on the same row so we could film ourselves together. Why’s he in my seat? You’re on the wrong row. What seat number does it say on your ticket? We’ve no chance without Ellis Simms. Where is he? Why is he not even on the bench? Of all the players we didn’t want to be without today, Ellis Simms is the main one. What a nightmare.
Football fans say that the match often ruins a good day out. Cue Ollie Turton with an own goal in the first minute – and another playoff record smashed by Blackpool. Cue Lee’s anxiety going through the roof. This was going to be a long match. I pulled out the lucky chocolate from my pocket but it had melted to the point where it was impossible to eat without licking it out of the packet and getting it all over my face and hair, which wasn’t going to happen. Hopefully its mere presence would be enough to pull us through this match.
Kenny Dougall had equalised by half time – and we had been the dominant side – but this was by no means a relaxing or enjoyable watch. This wasn’t helped by fans (wanting to stand up and not wear masks) arguing with stewards (trying to do their job). It wasn’t a pleasant atmosphere and I wasn’t really enjoying the match at all.
I headed to the concourse for a break. There was a short queue for the ladies, where the toilet monitor offered to hold my bottle of water while I paid a visit. That was a nice touch, I thought, but I kept it with me anyway. I’ve had a habit of taking my drinks to toilets ever since I had one spiked as a teenager. I then headed to queue for the free water dispenser which I wasn’t sure was completely COVID-safe (with people filling water bottles from a communal tap) but it was exciting and motion-activated (so technically non-contact) and I liked it. Behind me in the queue were fans grumbling about the stewards so I didn’t even get any peace and quiet down here. Perhaps I should have spent longer in the toilets.
I returned to my seat and placed my water bottle in the cup holder.
We were in the middle tier today (my preferred section) directly behind the goal, sitting in padded seats, with cup holders. The price of these seats? £35. It’s usually £100 for the corresponding seats on the halfway line. I don’t know why they were so cheap but I wasn’t complaining. What with the packed lunch, free water and the cheap tinnies pre-match, this was turning out to be quite the bargain day out at Wembley.
Kenny Dougall popped up with another goal – right in front of us – early in the second half to put us 2-1 up. I began to cry. Finally. Could we enjoy this game now? Were we going to do this?
We made a few subs, to give more players the opportunity to feature. I was surprised and delighted to see CJ Hamilton take to the pitch after months out injured. Having seen him named as a sub, I had assumed that he was just there to enjoy the occasion and be part of the squad for the day. It was lovely to finally see him play ‘in real life’ as opposed to on iFollow – and he managed to whip a couple of great crosses in during his short time on the pitch.
Of course, Blackpool being Blackpool, it remained 2-1 – just the one goal ahead, only ever doing just enough to get the edge. Heading into the final ten minutes, Lee went into full on meltdown mode and I began to consider moving my season ticket to another block next season.
‘Just keep hold of the bloody ball. Why’s he doing that? Just keep hold of the ball, Blackpool. No! No! Why does this referee keep giving them everything? He’s given us nothing today, this referee. Just keep hold of it. Why, Blackpool? Why do you do this? Every time! Just take it to the corner flag. Give it Madine. Why did he take Mitchell off? He was our best player. Oh he’s lost it again! Just pass it to a Blackpool player. Aw. Just keep hold of the ball, Blackpool. Four minutes of injury time? Oh no…’
At length, the final whistle blew – and again I cried.
We had only gone and bloody done it. Again! For the sixth time! We would be playing Championship football next season. This was really happening.
Here are the match highlights.
Dear reader, it has been such a strange season, watching on iFollow, occasionally BT Sport and only twice in person. It’s been cheaper than usual, the food has been markedly better, there has been no inclement weather and the transport has been a dream. But bloody hell it has been great to be back.
Chanting with fellow fans. Giving wanker signs when opponents blaze the ball over. Seeing so many familiar faces. Talking with people you’ve never met before who you already know are your people. Seeing fans in fancy dress and tangerine wigs. Making new friends. Patting strange dogs. Drinking things you wouldn’t normally drink in places you wouldn’t normally drink just to be with people you want to be with.
Breaking Lincoln’s hearts. That was the one downside to today. We all knew there could only be one winner. Speaking with Jake and the Lady Imps the previous day, I was welling up at the idea of Lincoln not winning, when I could see it meant so much to them after 60 years away from Championship level. And yet I knew that, if Lincoln were to win, it meant we wouldn’t, and of course I didn’t want that either. Of course I wanted Blackpool to win. But I didn’t want Lincoln to lose.
Meeting up with Jake and the Lady Imps after the match was never going to be an option, whatever the outcome. Wembley is not a place for losers. Fans of the losing side want out of there straight away. I know. I’ve been there (on the first train out of there). But the winners want to revel in the joy of the celebrations, the presentation of the medals, the lifting of the trophy, the spraying of the champagne.
And what joy that was! Jerry Yates downing champagne from the bottle on the pitch, living up to his image as the team pisshead. The players lifting a horizontal Critch above their heads and throwing him into the air. It was beautiful. And felt so much more intimate. Was that because there were so few of us there? Or because we feel so close to these players, having such an affection for them?
I don’t know how long we remained in the ground but eventually, reluctantly, we headed out. I stopped to pay a visit and (separately) fill up my water bottle for the train journey back to Beaconsfield. Outside, the Lincoln fans had all dispersed and we were surrounded by pockets of elated Seasiders. We chatted to people we knew and people we didn’t as we slowly ambled back to the station.
On the train back to Beaconsfield, I received a call from BBC Radio Five Live wanting me to be on their breakfast show at 0720 tomorrow. Now you know (or at least the BBC ought to by now) I’m not at my best in the mornings, but I agreed, on the condition she sent me the questions through in advance so I could prep (and not have to think on my feet in the morning, which is an impossible feat). She signed off with a cheery:
‘Enjoy your celebrations!’
Well, how can I now, if I’m on the radio at 0720? Grr.
We were soon back at the car, exhausted but happy, and headed back up towards home. I hadn’t prepared a playlist for a losing scenario but fortunately this wasn’t required, so I banged on the same one as before (37 hours long, so no repeats). And we sang our heads off all the way home.
We called back in at our new favourite services at Cherwell Valley to treat ourselves to a hot meal on the way home. I had my heart set on a KFC but the queue was very long, even before the coachloads of Seasiders arrived. I opted instead for a Thai Green Chicken Curry from Chow Asian Kitchen.
And I was very excited to find this in Smiths.
My phone was going nuts all the way home, with congratulatory messages from Lincoln fans, my friends at Chasetown, a Rotherham fan (who knows how I feel about them), the brick football community, former Blackpool players, former colleagues, people I’ve never met. It was bonkers. But brilliant.
It was around 2230 when we arrived home, tired but buzzing – and still singing.
All in all, a bloody marvellous day out. And who knew Wembley could be done on the (relative) cheap?
Home Bargains Snackage £20 Orange Aeros £3 Petrol £60 Car Park @ Beaconsfield £5.50 Return Train from Beaconsfield to Wembley Stadium £13.30 Pre Match Tinnies £3 Match Ticket £35 Drinks in Ground FREE Service Station Snackage £10 TOTAL £149.80
Here’s our video memory of the day.
Next stop Championship. See you there, fellow Seasiders…
UTMP & UTI.