Jane Stuart – Writer

Writing about real life Up North: football, ale, food and mental health – with a good dash of humour.

Non League Matters: Chasetown v Halesowen Town – FA Trophy

Weekends off are a rare treat these days – and I always find ways to fill them. This fixture had been in my diary for months, with Blackpool on an international break and my former club Chase playing in the FA Trophy.

My last proper awayday on the train was Oxford in February 2020 – too long ago (I’m not counting Southport because it was one-way, quiet and the masks made it weird and uncomfortable). The train is the best way to do an awayday. Why? Well, you never know who you’re going to meet and there’s the drama element of train delays and missed connections.

Lee dropped me at Blackpool North ahead of the 0724 train. I was this early to save myself paying double the £63.60 fare. As I made my way towards the platform, I cursed as I realised I’d forgotten the bottle of cream soda I’d decanted for the journey. I mechanically turned around – knowing Lee would have already gone – and saw something that reminded me of my powers of witchcraft.

There was a shop just there, inside the ticket barriers.

Dear reader, I had never seen this shop before. I swear it just appeared, right when I needed it. I tottered over. Hmm chocolate, hot drinks, cakes… I grabbed a KitKat and joined the queue, ready to order an Earl Grey to go with it. That would go down a treat.

But the queue – of two people together – was not moving. I tapped my foot. I had a train to catch in eight minutes. At length they moved away with their refreshments – but where was the woman who had been serving? I peered round the counter to see her tending to some bacon on the grill. Well who was that for? There was no-one else here but me.

‘I’ll be with you in a minute.’

‘No, that’s ok.’

I’m so English sometimes. It wasn’t ok. I wanted my brew. I shot a glance at the time. Five minutes until my train departed. This was getting tight. I grabbed a bottle of water. God knows how long a tea would have taken.

‘Sorry about that. There’s so much to do.’

‘Oh don’t worry about it. It’s a stressful job. I wouldn’t want your job.’

I’ve often thought that when waiting in line for breakfast orders. How do they remember who wants what? And hungry people get hangry and don’t like it if their bacon’s not crispy enough or their egg’s not runny enough or they’ve got red sauce instead of brown.

‘I don’t want it either. I’m leaving in two weeks.’

‘Oh.’

Good for her. I hope she gets joy from her new job.

I scurried off to board my train: the first of three on the outbound leg of my journey. I found a seat and tucked into my breakfast.

I’ve been enjoying a little more time on trains lately. I had quite forgotten how much I enjoy the ‘me time’ on board: writing, reading, listening to music, watching tv, catching up on correspondence. I spent the entire journey down completing part two of my Football Tourist’s Guide To Hull.

This was a sexy new Northern train which I knew to have plug sockets between the seats, so I charged my phone, safe in the knowledge I could work away on it without worrying about draining the battery (usually a worry on train awaydays).

I changed at Preston – which hadn’t changed a jot and was grey as ever – and I was pleased to find my train already waiting. I trotted towards the end of the platform, nestled into my reserved seat and continued writing. No charging point on this Avanti West Coast train but I was still fully charged and I wasn’t on it for long so I wasn’t concerned.

My final change was at Crewe, where I had a half-hour wait for my connection. No bother, though, as my train was already in AND had the doors open, allowing me to board. Is this a new thing? Normally I’m waiting on a cold platform until about two minutes before the train departs. I could get used to this. Again I boarded immediately and continued my writing almost uninterrupted, my phone charging away on this London Northwestern service (are they new? I don’t like the billing).

At Lichfield Trent Valley I was being collected by my friend Wendy (and her new husband Daz). Remember Wendy’s hen night in Blackpool? She’d messaged to advise she was waiting in the car park. But could I see her?

‘Is there only one car park?’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you sure? There is another exit. Can you see me? I’m looking lost?’

‘Are you sure you’re not at Rugeley?’

I took a photo as evidence.

We eventually concluded that there was indeed another car park so I made my way over there. After collecting Karina at Lichfield City (how many stations does Lichfield need?), Daz despatched us by the side of a field in Burntwood.

Bradshaw Brothers Farm Shop

We were at a farm shop for breakfast. Mainly because the pubs weren’t open yet. Plus we did need to eat. I had been up for four hours now so was just getting hungry.

I gazed across at the alpacas and goats. I love goats. That’s why I’d readily agreed to come here. I love their odd eyes and the comical way the kids run.

As Wendy remarked how tasty they looked, I ushered her through the door of the cafe and farm shop.

We tried hard to avert our eyes from the shop. Even the pies look inviting and I don’t like pies. But we knew we had a two-mile walk ahead of us after breakfast and didn’t fancy lugging food and booze around with us all day.

The staff were very friendly and breakfast was good. Although I was disappointed at the size of the milkshake.

As we tucked into a Full English we discussed Slimming World, which planted a seed in my mind. My weight was beginning to spiral out of control and it did need addressing. Should I rejoin? That was one to ponder tomorrow and not let ruin today.

We were at least walking off our breakfast. A mile into our walk to Chasetown, Wendy spotted her favourite pub. And it was just past opening time. It would have been rude not to call in. Remember what I said last week about bad influence friends (not that I’m any better…)?

Sankeys Tap House

Table service remains in place at this micropub but we were allowed to the bar to survey the pump clips.

I had none of these and ordered the Wye Valley Stout (on keg).

‘Ooh you’ve been here before, Jane – on 23rd December 2017.’

Karina was stalking me on Untappd. Wendy chirped up.

‘That’s my birthday. Where was I? Who were you here with?’

I needed answers fast.

‘Er…I think I came with Evo? Yes! It must have been on our Christmas crawl of Chasetown. That was an epic night. Blimey was that four years ago?’

It must have been. That was, of course, pre-COVID – and also pre-Homecoming, when I was still working at Chase. How time flies.

It wasn’t until I’d ordered my beer that I noticed the little buttons on the tables. I was dying to press one but didn’t want another drink here.

‘Press it anyway.’

Wendy urged me on. But I was scared of the stern-looking landlord, so I didn’t dare.

I spotted a very exciting jukebox on the wall that you could control from your table via an app. That’s brilliant. You can put all sorts of cheese on with no-one knowing it’s you! Plus there’s no need to spend ten minutes away from your friends while you ponder over what tracks to select; you can just sit staring at your phone like usual.

I was too scared to get up and photograph that so we made our way onwards towards Chasetown.

We hadn’t intended to do a pub crawl today but it just sort of evolved organically.

Crown Inn

As we walked past this pub we noticed it had been done up and promised ‘real ales’ plural.

‘Should we pop in and see what it’s like? If there’s just Doom Bar we can always walk straight back out again…’

We entered the pub and were immediately greeted by the pubdog, Zoe, who seemed delighted to see us.

There was no sign of anyone serving and the beer offering wasn’t that exciting.

We were considering leaving when a helpful local pressed the bell to gain the attention of the staff. Ok we’ll stay then.

I ordered a half of Hobgoblin Gold and we went to sit in the comfy sofa seats.

This pub was unrecognisable from how it was before. I actually liked it before as well; on my last visit (on 17th December 2017) they’d had free little mince pies on the bar as well as (I think) free shots of something Baileys-esque.

We were soon joined by Zoe, who hopped up onto the sofa and snuggled up to Karina.

We liked it here. There was a pizza menu too but we had just eaten so didn’t partake.

But we had somewhere else to be: the piece de resistance.

Uxbridge Arms

The pub on the corner of Church Street (the nearest to the ground) had had a huge revamp since my last visit. It was now part of the Black Country Ales chain of pubs.

My old local in Walsall (Black Country Arms) was part of this chain – as is The Wellington, my fave in Birmingham – so I knew this to be an excellent chain. I couldn’t wait to see this pub.

Dear reader, it was unrecognisable to the extent that it gave me a headache trying to figure out what was where before the makeover. It had gone from a traditional two-roomed pub – with a small bar area on the right and a dining area on the left – to one room, with walls knocked down and bars removed or moved. I spent a lot of time looking round the room with a puzzled look on my face. At one point, I was on the verge of grabbing a pen and paper and trying to draw what I thought it had looked like before. But I eventually figured it out. I think.

The beer board was somewhat easier to navigate.

Half a porter please.

I followed that up with a Pig because you know I love a mild.

Whilst I had tended to avoid the house ales when I’d lived down here, it’s a rare find these days, so I took this opportunity.

The pub was buzzing and becoming busy with home and away fans alike.

I was drawing quizzical looks. Today I was wearing my FC Brickstand shirt, with the intention of inviting questions from puzzled football fans on the train. These hadn’t been forthcoming on the journey down – as I hadn’t encountered many people at all, let alone travelling fans. On my way out, someone called out:

‘Up The Toon!’

I’m not quite sure who he thought I supported.

I was surprised and delighted that the girls had decided to join me at the match. Both Wendy and Karina had only attended one match in their lives previously. I hoped they’d enjoy it.

Chasetown v Halesowen Town

As we walked down Church Street we found ourselves surrounded by dozens of others heading in the same direction. This wasn’t usual. I’d heard that a second turnstile had been installed for this match: the first time since Chase had hosted Cardiff City in the FA Cup third round in January 2008. Attendances have shot up at The Scholars Ground from 150-250 pre-COVID to hundreds more this season. The corresponding league fixture against the Yeltz this season (which Chase lost 4-1 in a midweek match) attracted a crowd of 637. But this was the FA Trophy – and an international weekend – and a much higher crowd was expected: possibly as many as 1,000, according to Kev on the gate.

I entered through the new turnstile (£9 in) for novelty value before taking the girls on a guided tour of the ground. I had planned on doing my traditional non-league pre-match circuit of the ground. However this was not possible today because of the density of the crowd and the number of people – friends who I had not seen in a couple of years in many cases – who I stopped to chat to.

The first person to stop me inside the ground created a lot of confusion in my head. It was a Blackpool fan. What? What was Steve doing here? I looked down at his shirt. Ah! Halesowen Town. I knew Steve from my old West Midlands Seasiders days, when we’d taunted him mercilessly for his love of non league football (little did we know back then how great it actually was). He threw a right strop on the way back from one Blackpool match when Gareth (our driver in those days, probably 20 years ago now) quipped something about Shepshed Dynamoes.

I was making my way round to the new refreshment kiosk (which opened for the first time today) to check out the food and beer offerings. When it was almost in touching distance I got chatting with Nigel and Dave the Kitman before being greeted by another surprise guest:

‘Are you Blackpool Jane?’

‘Yes I am. And you are?’

‘Simon Wright from Twitter.’

It was lovely to meet my Twitter friend for the first time. Simon posts excellent football photos from days gone by and it is wonderful to see these memories of old times and grounds and players and fans and fashions captured on camera. However, before we had time to say anything further to each other, the whistle blew for kick off and we had to scurry off to take our respective positions, probably at opposite ends of the ground.

I escorted the girls to back behind the other goal, searching in vain for a gap in the pitchside railings where three short ladies could gain a decent vantage point of the match. I bought a bottle of water from the burger van – which appeared to be a permanent structure now, although I’m willing to be corrected here – before we took a position in the slightly elevated covered area behind the goal. The view wasn’t great but at least we could see the goalmouth.

I knew a number of the Chase players from my time here. I’d signed up Jack Langston, Curtis Pond, Ryan Wynter and possibly Alex Melbourne, as well as Oli Hayward, who I visited in hospital when he broke his leg a few years back. But many were new to me. I learned that centre half Kris Taylor had played previously at Manchester United and Walsall and was still going strong at the age of 37. I was also impressed with right winger Dilano Read.

It was 0-0 at half time but Chase had done well, with a lot of attacking possession without really looking like threatening to score. It was a bit like watching Blackpool.

We relocated to the stand behind the opposite goal for the second half. En route I was excited to snap the new scoreboard.

Once I’d got the girls settled in the seats, I went to check out the new refreshment kiosk. It was ace! Not only were they serving pies, pasties, cobs (the West Midlands version of barms) and beer – but the service was excellent. Even Steve the Chairman and his family were working hard behind the counter to ensure that everyone was being served. They even got gravy in for me but sadly the next batch of pies wasn’t quite ready owing to high demand. I was satisfied with a bottle of Badger Golden Champion. The girls went back later and secured a Pukka pie, which looked and smelled (and, so I’m told, tasted) amazing. Why can’t we have Pukka Pies at Blackpool? They are the best (the magnificent gourmet pies at Palace notwithstanding).

Back in the stand, we enjoyed much of the same in the second half: Chase going forward well but failing to get off the mark.

As the clock ticked on, the pressure and excitement mounted. This tie had to be settled today. If the scores remained level after 90 minutes it would go straight to penalties.

And penalties it was, with the score remaining 0-0. I knew Pondy was good at saving pens so I was confident of a Chase victory.

The pens were to be taken at the opposite end of the ground (I think it’s the Crown Highways Stand but I call it the ‘burger van end’). The Yeltz fans were already congregated over there, as they had been attacking that way second half; now the Chase fans went over to join them behind the goal. We decided to stay where we were at the ‘PA box end’, moving forward to stand by the perimeter wall, slightly to the side where we could see round the players congregated in the centre circle.

Both opening penalties were tucked away before Chase hit the bar with their second, to wild scenes behind the goal. Pondy saved Halesowen’s second before immediately stepping up to despatch a pen himself (he fancies himself as a striker). Yeltz stuck one wide (come on Chase!) and Langy stepped up to fire Chase through to the second round. Get in!

What a match! I felt privileged to be there. The Scholars Ground is always buzzing after a home win but tonight was another level. And now it was time to head into the clubhouse to check out the refit.

Oh. My. Word. Kev hadn’t been exaggerating when he said he felt like taking his shoes off before he stepped inside. It was stunning: a complete refit, including spotlights on the ceiling and new matching furniture. It was buzzing, too, filled with beaming faces and hugs and pure, pure joy. I was delighted to catch up with John – my mentor during my time at Chase – and get a hug from matchwinner Langy. The only thing I was not so keen on was the queue for the bar but even that was a good thing, as it meant the club was thriving. It was lovely to see Julie behind the bar when I got there, even if we didn’t have time to chat.

By now Kayleigh had arrived so I didn’t feel so bad leaving the girls to their own devices while I caught up with my Chase family. It is always tricky taking non-football friends to a match – something I haven’t done for a few years – and I hope I got the balance right.

Miners Rest

The crawl continued as we headed to the Miners (a Joules pub) for tea (they had pizza). I think I might have sipped at a Joules Pale in here but it was a week ago and I have no photographic evidence, nor did I check into Untappd. It’s a nice pub, though and I apologise for remembering little about it, but I’d had a boozier day than I had intended…

Karina’s dad kindly picked us up and despatched us at Lichfield Trent Valley, where we went our separate ways.

I was travelling back via a different route, changing once, at Manchester Piccadilly. Would my journey home run as smoothly as my outbound journey? Well, that was never going to happen, was it? This was the British rail network…

On the first leg of my journey I tucked into a train burger while catching up on last night’s Corrie. Train burgers are surprisingly tasty – and lovely and moist, which is how I like my food.

At Piccadilly, I was surprised at how many people were on Platform 14. It seemed like they were football fans. This was a stark contrast to the southbound journey, when I had observed no football fans, despite hoping to lure them into conversation with my FC Brickstand shirt.

As soon as I sat down on the Blackpool North train (on time, still running smoothly), I found myself surrounded by curious Bolton fans.

‘Oh Lego – I love Lego! What team’s that?’

FC Brickstand. They’re my Lego team.’

‘Lego team? How does that work? What league do they play in?’

‘They’re in Buildersliga Three. They just got promoted.’

‘I’m confused. Do they actually play matches?’

‘It’s probably best if I just show you…’

I called up the @FCBrickstand Twitter account on my phone and talked them through it. I’m not sure how well I got the message across – given that alcohol had been taken – but they seemed very excited by the idea and I was handed two phones to find and follow @FCBrickstand for the curious Bolton fans. They loved the shirt, too, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember where I had got it from. I didn’t think to look on the actual shirt itself for the kit manufacturer (Kit and Bone).

The inquisition stopped when the Bolton fans alighted the train in Bolton and it became a lot quieter. I stuck Corrie back on, as I still had time to get up to date before getting home.

As if by way of punishment for a friendly encounter with Bolton fans, the train windscreen was struck by an object whilst we shot through Leyland at 90mph. It must have been terrifying for the driver. We remained stationary for some time before eventually crawling into Preston station. The train was cancelled according to the Trainline app – and I even received an email confirming this – but this didn’t appear to have been communicated to the train manager, who announced that they were waiting to see if the train could continue with its journey. I disembarked and scampered over to Platform 1 to catch the next train.

I arrived back on the Gold Coast just half an hour later than billed, very tired after my first all-dayer on the train for yonks. I have lost count of the number of these I have done over the years – the journey home always longer than the outbound journey. This is what I do. This is where I belong. Thank you, football, for facilitating this wonderful life.

Next up: A Football Tourist’s Guide to Nottingham

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