Saturday 21 December 2019

Blackpool vs. Shrewsbury Town

As Christmas comes but once a year, the season produces several one-off specials in celebration; from television programs and pantomimes to novelty jumpers and their once-a-year drinker wearers propping up the bar in your favourite pub (and being sick on it). So as a ‘Christmas Special’ groundhop of my own, instead of seeing a game in non-league, I’m going to see a game in The Football League as Blackpool host Shrewsbury Town in League One.

The last time I was stood outside Bloomfield Road, it was in 2016 as part of my doing the 92 book series. As I approached the ground, I saw a match-boycotting crowd outside the turnstiles, holding up banners and chanting for the club’s owners to ‘get out of our club’ – all whilst the Cher classic ‘Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves was being pumped out from the PA system. Blackpool were in a toxic state (which is putting it mildly) but eventually, through a legal intervention, the owners did leave (forced to sell) and disaffected supporters returned to see in a new dawn for their club.

So that’s why I’m here – to see how this historic football club is managing after a troubled time. Also, being late-December, I didn’t want to risk the possibility of a game being called off, so attending a league ground, with their professional set-ups, helps greatly with these odds. Okay, I might be here for the beer too.

I think in years to come, the Oystons’ reign will be held up as the example of how a breakdown in relations with the supporters can be the death knell for a club. Despite Blackpool rising from the depths of The Football League to the Premier League under their ownership, the potential of the club was somewhat suppressed from there. Key investments in the stadium, training ground and playing staff were not made (despite them making huge profits with TV money and player sales) and eventually, reality caught up with them and they were back in the fourth tier, just 6 years after being in the top one.

Due to their ostensible lack of urgency to reinvest profits back into the club to strengthen it for the long term, accusations of ‘asset stripping’ were directed at the Oystons by supporters. As you’d imagine, the owners didn’t take too kindly to this and they battened down the hatches, refusing to have any meaningful dialogue. The silence saw supporters grow increasingly frustrated, protests turned to boycotts and in the midst of these, insults were traded by both sides (the owners would take legal action against several supporters for libel, whilst chairman, Karl, would receive a 6-week ban from all football activity for labelling a supporter ‘a retard’ in a text message). These incidents ensured that any reconciliation was nigh-on impossible – lifelong supporters chose to not attend games, feeling that any penny they spend would go straight into the pockets of the Oystons.

I read an interesting comment from a fan whilst researching this story – if you weave yourself through too many loopholes, don’t be surprised if you tie yourself in knots. Ultimately, it was one of the Oystons’ business dealings that brought their ownership to an end. In 2006, Latvian businessman, Valeri Belokon, purchased a 20% stake in the club, promising supporters that his ambition was to see Blackpool in the Premier League within 5 years (they got there in 4).  Along with majority shareholder, Owen Oyston, Belokon would personally finance the construction of a new South Stand and South-West corner for the stadium. A year later, Belokon announced that he would be setting up a fund to provide the club with a transfer kitty to purchase players that would help them up the leagues. Keep these investments in mind.

Despite their one season in the Premier League being seen as a great example of how a club on a limited budget can go toe-to-toe with the big boys, alarm bells were ringing before a ball had been kicked. The club took pride in that none of their players were on more than £10,000 a week – indeed, Belokon told the Daily Mail that was the model going forwards. However, anyone with a fleeting knowledge of football economics would know that such a budget isn’t particularly competitive if you’re trying to stay in the Premier League – so were they collecting the TV money in a noble attempt to strengthen the infrastructure of the club, so they’ll be able to return stronger? The stadium (they had to switch their opening Premier League match against Wigan because their ‘temporary’ East Stand wasn’t built) and training ground were cited as major issues for the club throughout the next couple of years.

Fast-forward to 2015 and with Blackpool going backwards and questions being asked about the direction of the club, Belokon took legal action against the Oystons, alleging that they had ‘misused’ club funds. After Belokon resigned as a director of the club in August 2017, the following November saw a court determine that Owen Oyston and his son, Karl, had ‘abused their majority shareholding position in a manner that was detrimental to both the business and Belokontheir findings revealed that £26.77 million had been ‘illegitimately stripped’ from the club, paid to their other various companies. The Oystons were ordered to pay Belokon £31 million to buy out his shares – a sum that forced them to put the club up for sale.

With the help of Belokon-appointed receivers, the shares owned by Oyston (and Belokon himself) were sold to lifelong Blackpool supporter, Simon Sadler this summer, ending 31 years of Oyston rule. Promising a new era for the club, with intelligent investments in the infrastructure and squad – being a trader on the Hong Kong stock market whose work has helped to amass a hedge fund of $3.5 billion, it’s not difficult to feel positive about his pedigree and intentions with a club he genuinely loves.  This quote in his interview with The Guardian best sums this up:

Somebody had to step up and become the custodian of this club, to make sure that future generations can come here and watch a match, like I did with my dad” (Simon Sadler, Guardian interview, July 2019).

He understands that ultimately, a football club is there to serve the community it represents, not to solely provide businessmen with a means to feather their nests. Let’s not be naïve here; professional football is a business – and like any business, it needs to make money to be viable. However, good businesses do not alienate the vast majority of their ‘customer base’ and fellow investors just to make a quick quid. They value that customer base, listen to them and affect changes (make investments) that are geared towards improving their standing for the long term, giving their customers a ‘brand’ that they can attach themselves to and be proud to do so.

Speaking of alienating customers to make a quick, easy quid (this is how you do a segue, kids), the Northern train franchise have recently been indulging in some seasonal ‘banter’ to try and improve their own brand – and it’s about as welcome as a hole in a dingy. After a year of poor service and calls for the Arriva-owned company to be stripped of its franchise, temporarily renaming Blackpool North station as ‘Blackpool North Pole’ has been met with universal derision – especially when trains to said station continued to be routinely cancelled! I’m all for seasonal laughs but after the year they’ve had, this was a poorly misjudged attempt at marketing. Still, I make a hypocrite of myself by doing a chuckle and taking a snap of the seasonal signage as I disembark off the Avanti West Coast London-Blackpool service (only 35 minutes from Wigan, by the way – on time, plenty of seats and everything).

My first stop on exiting the (Blackpool) North Pole, was the ‘1887 Brew Room’ – recommended by Blackpool blogger and real ale fanatic, Jane Stuart. If you’re interested in reading about the experiences of supporting a League One club, drink and food recommendations (as well as latest going-ons in Coronation Street), then check out her blog. As a fellow beer ponce, the existence of The Brew Room caught my attention as soon as she started describing that the pub had its own on-site brewery and a plethora of external brews – being five minutes from the station, it’s the perfect first pit stop on your way to Bloomfield Road.

Originally known as ‘The Stanley Arms’ (more recently known as ‘The Blue Room’) it’s quite apt that I’m stopping off here on my way to the game, as Blackpool FC were formed as a result of a meeting here on the 26th July 1887. As you may imagine from a pub that hosts such meetings, it’s big and roomy – the antithesis to the average craft ale bar, which are small and tight, and hosted in spaces that were created for something else (such as a shop, storage or even a former public toilet, like the one I found on a visit to the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium earlier this year).

What the purpose-built pub brings, that the converted spaces mentioned above necessarily do not, is a snug, comfortable feeling – ideal for when you’re coming off the street on a cold, winter’s day. The welcoming atmosphere is being enjoyed by a range of people – from generic old men blowing the froth off a (craft) bitter, lads out on a pre-Christmas blowout, right through to a family partaking in a game of Battleships (the mum showing no mercy in sinking her son’s ships, whilst the dad looked on, nonplussed). After scanning the beer selection, I go for a pint of ‘Mince Pie Porter’ by Mad Dog Brewing Co (well, it is Christmas) – although it was perfectly palatable, the raisiny flavour was at a minimum, so the liquor slipped down easy enough, but without much fanfare.

Making my way to the stadium, I must congratulate the club for re-introducing the facility for supporters to print their tickets at home – offering a quick and easy way for you to purchase your seat for the match, it sums up the state that the club was in that an innovation like this wasn’t available until this season. (Although, a note to the club here – the margins in which you have to fold the paper could do with looking at; I had to fold mine in an unusual position to get the scanner to read the barcode!)

I’m sat in the Jimmy Armfield Stand, behind the goal, for today’s match. Named after the legendary right-back, Jimmy spent his entire club career at Blackpool, playing the vast majority of his 569 league games in the First Division. Moreover, he was an England regular for the best part of a decade – 43 caps and playing in the 1962 World Cup, as well as being a squad member in ’66. In fact, if it hadn’t have been for an injury at the end of the 1964 season that ruled him out of summer tour with England, opening the door for Fulham’s George Cohen to establish himself as England’s right-back, Jimmy would have been England’s first-choice for that position during that World Cup.

After his playing career, he moved into management with Bolton Wanderers – before replacing Brian Clough after his ill-fated spell at Leeds United. Doing a relatively decent job (including reaching the semi-finals of the 1974-75 European Cup when Bayern Munich – controversially – knocked them out), he was replaced as manager by Jock Stein in 1978. He never managed again – he worked as a journalist for the Daily Express for many years before returning ‘inside’ the game, working as a consultant for the Football Association. He would advise the FA to appoint Terry Venables in 1994 and was later involved in the appointment of Glenn Hoddle. Afterwards, he worked as radio summariser for BBC Five Live – which is how I best know him. 

I enjoyed his radio work, which is something he did up until his death in January 2018. He would talk about the technicalities of a game, whilst sounding like he actually knew what he was talking about – unlike many contemporary pundits (in my opinion). Thinking about this, it’s no surprise that he had such an erudite, well-rounded view of the game – he was a player, a coach, a manager, an FA board member and a journalist, after all!

What strikes me, as I sit down (aside from my arse hitting the plastic seat), is the number of positive affirmations dotted around the ground. These signs contain various BLACKPOOL ARE BACK messages – the boards behind the goal, facing us, telling us we’re 'BACK in this South Stand', [that we need to be] 'BACKING the players', and [we’re] 'BACK in Love'. These reinforce the message that for most supporters in here at least, THEIR Blackpool are back. The away shirts (and advertising boards in the ground) carry the message 'Get Vocal' – but whilst this is promoting a local government initiative to get people talking about their mental health, it can be seen to have a double-meaning, to literally get the supporters to be more vocal whilst supporting their team.

Being a marketing man (though, you wouldn’t think it), seeing things like this suggest to me that the new board and owner know exactly what they're doing – which makes a change. They value the importance of fostering positivity in the supporter base and getting involved with projects that affect the locality. Just to sum this all up, the footer of my ticket contains a #MakeNewMemories tag, which is no doubt designed to encourage supporters to think about the good times they’ve experienced at the club, whilst also joining the new revolution to create more good memories. I think it’s brilliant and I bet the supporters are extremely proud to have a club that puts itself at heart of the community once again – the whole point behind its formation in The Stanley Arms back in July 1887, after all.

The home supporters were certainly 'getting vocal' early on – positioned just outside the League One play-offs, a win would push their side into the top 6 going into Christmas, so those sat in the opposite stand to me busy themselves, willing their side to attack their goal from the first whistle. Except chances were hard to come by – although Blackpool were the better side in the first half, the best opportunity they created was a header from a cross that was tipped over the bar by the goalkeeper. Shrewsbury were quite content with sitting back and absorbing pressure; the best action their supporters had was a bit of banter with the home supporters (“Blackpool is a shithole…I want to go home” was countered with chants of “England…England, England, England”, in reference to the visitors’ proximity to the Welsh border). Here’s hoping for a vast improvement (on the pitch, at least) in the second half…

…and it was. First, Blackpool came within inches of scoring when Armand Gnanduillet’s header across the goal from a corner hit the post. Then the forward turned heel not long later as he handled the ball in his own penalty area from a long-punted free-kick. It seemed innocuous from my vantage point and everyone was shocked – the magic of the highlights showed that he punched the ball away whilst challenging for the header. After much remonstration, Fejiri Okenabirhie stepped up to take the penalty; he drilled the ball down the middle and despite Jak Alnwick getting a good portion of thigh on it, the ball nestled in the roof of his net.

The supporters around me are now urgently willing their side on to level terms; that Christmas play-off place slipping away. They have a great chance to grab an equaliser when they’re awarded a free-kick 25-yards out. “Come on…” whispers a chap behind me, the desperation clear in his voice. Sadly for him and 7,000 others, it was a terrible hit – the ball ballooning high and wide, bouncing on people and empty seats, eventually landing next to me! So I take it upon myself to get in on the action by chucking it to the ballboy (it went straight in his 'breadbasket’, by the way. A magnificent throw). I found the ball to be very grippy, very soft to the touch – I’d imagine this is an attempt to improve a player’s control of the ball. It’s just a shame that it can’t help them to take decent kicks!

Despite my rapid, accurate throwing, the home side didn’t help themselves – creating nothing of note after the free-kick. In fact, Shrewsbury should have had the game wrapped up late on, as a forward went clear of the defence, one-on-one with Alnwick, only to smash the ball into the Blackpool supporters behind the goal.

It finishes 0-1 and despite it (obviously) not being the result that these supporters wanted today, looking in from the outside, it's actually a good thing to see them being unhappy at events on the pitch again, rather than what's happening with the club at boardroom level. As an aside, I think it’ll be beneficial for them to stay at this level for the next few years so they can continue to build up the infrastructure, squad and positive outlook that can help them to stay and progress at Championship level – supporting Wigan, who do have the infrastructure (if not the squad), I know full well that the second tier has grown into a difficult level to stay and progress in.

It's freezing as the game finishes, so I call in my usual Bloomfield Road haunt, the Crazy Scots Bar, for a post-match pint. Just off the Promenade, this bar markets itself as a daytime family sports bar, evening party bar. So, being just after 5 pm, you can imagine that this clash of clientele makes for a very interesting experience. I like it in here as a) it's close to the ground and b) not many match-going supporters seem to come in here after the game. I notice it's now changed its name to 'Happy Scots Bar' ('crazy' doesn't seem to be politically correct?) Their beer selection has improved vastly since I was here last – they've got their own craft bitter and lager on, so I plump for a lager at just £1.90, it's an absolute steal. It's pretty good too.

Another bar that I wanted to make a beeline for was the Imbibe Tap Room. I collected a flyer for this place from November’s beer festival at Wigan Central (my go-to real ale bar) and was looking forward to trying it out – except a sign on the door said it was shut for two weeks for a refurbishment (at this time of the year?) I console myself with a few pubs on the way back to the station, having a few in The Counting House on the North Promenade, watching Liverpool win the World Club Championship with an extra-time win over Brazilian side, Flamengo; a deserved win, but extremely laboured.

My train back from Blackpool North Pole is done via a Northern train – and get this – not only did it set off on time, it was an electric train! I’ve not been to Blackpool for about a year, so forgive my excitement, but this was the first time that I’ve caught an electric train from there.

It’s 2020 in less than two weeks, by the way.

Anyway, I hope you have a Happy Christmas and a joyful New Year. Here's to more groundhopping, pints, pies and goalmouth scrambles!

Saturday 7 December 2019

Bamber Bridge vs. Mickleover Sports

We must be in that season again. As I’m boarding the train to a football match, I’m suffering from a slight headache, a sore throat and I’ve been to the toilet three times already this morning. Yes, I’ve got a hangover from an all-day Friday drinking ‘session’ – taking place due to the thinly veiled excuse that ‘it’s Christmas’.

Anyone who has read volume one of my doing the 92 book will recall that I was once sick on a train to Derby after a heavy Friday night’s seasonal drinking – but that was 5 years ago and I’m all growned-up now. I’ve hit upon the revolutionary idea of replenishing my body with water throughout a hard-drinking session to limit the effect of the hangover – like an ageing footballer who changes their diet or does yoga or whatever to prolong their career.

So, I’m in decent shape (for someone who was baiting heavy rock fans by putting reggae on their jukebox last night, anyway) – so I’ve made the short journey to Bamber Bridge to see them take on Mickleover Sports in the Northern Premier League's Premier Division. Being a fan of booze and local history, this trip was right up my street.

Located 3 miles away from Preston, Bamber Bridge is described as an ‘urban village’ – the name deriving from the Old English words ‘bēam’ and ‘brycg’, which are believed to mean ‘tree trunk bridge’. Hosting a population of just over 13,000, the locals refer to the village as ‘Brig’, whilst the villagers themselves are known as ‘Briggers’. In terms of trade, cotton weaved itself into the place; the first factory in Lancashire, dedicated to printing calico (a plain-woven textile), was opened in Bamber Bridge in 1764. This notability hasn’t been forgotten it seems, as a recent housing development in the area saw a street named ‘Calico Close’.

I arrive by train and the station has a level crossing right next to it, putting a stop to traffic on the main road of the village – it’s a rather odd sight when you’re not used to seeing one! There’s another train due in just minutes after my arrival, so I stay standing on the street to see the people and cars, standing still, ready for the train to pass and the barrier to reopen. As soon as the barriers go up, everyone makes like racehorses, running out of their gates – all-in-all, everyone seemed to be quite patient, despite the barrier being down for a good five minutes, with traffic tailing back.

This main artery of the village, Station Road, is filled with several shops, eateries and rather depressingly, a plethora of betting shops (so pretty much like everywhere else in the country!) What I do like about this street though, is that there is a lack of empty spaces and closed-down shops – the only unit that is (clearly) not currently operating as a business has been stripped back to its shell and core, ready for someone to take up residency. It’s whilst walking down here that I make a delightful discovery in 'The Beer Box', a micropub – so obviously, I indulge. As all micropubs are, it’s a tight, homely place with comfortable seating and a chatty atmosphere. I plump for a pint of ‘Wobbly Bob’ – a 6% mid-brown by the Phoenix Brewery – the bitter taste beautifully cleansing my palette of the water I’ve been drinking.

Making my way back up the road, I pass the town’s Trades Hall, and this place has a particular distinction for fans of Blackburn Rovers and Preston North End. Following relegation to Division Two in 1948, Rovers’ supporters buried a coffin in the Bamber Bridge Trades Hall cellar, signifying the ‘death’ of their club. Preston were relegated from Division One a year later and also buried a coffin in the cellar. However, North End would win promotion back two years later, so their coffin was raised to signify the ‘rebirth’ of their club – this is a tradition that has been continued by both sets of supporters ever since. The last time a procession was held was in 2018 when Blackburn won promotion back to The Championship – a parade is held in celebration and supporters take the opportunity to raise money for local charities. The bizarre brilliance of football supporter culture summed up right there!

Brig, like many towns and villages across the country, played host to American GI’s during the Second World War, as the country was used as a giant carrier for the Allies to invade Europe. They brought with them many things; laughs, cultural differences, nylons for the ladies – and racial segregation. The Battle of Bamber Bridge brought the violent reality of American politics into focus for a small area of North West England. The next pub I visit is the Ye Olde Hobb Inn – it was here where it all kicked off.

The village hosted the 1511th Quartermaster Truck Regiment (part of the Eighth Air Force) – a regiment made up, almost entirely by black men (save for all but one officer and military policemen, who were white). Before their arrival in the country, the soldiers were given a pamphlet, offering advice on how to settle into their new surroundings. The best of which was that [in Britain] a ‘great place of recreation is the pub.' Having never seen an American before (let alone a black man), the Briggers welcomed their visitors with much intrigue.

On the 20th June 1943, race riots kicked off in Detroit and nervous of the prospect of unrest, US officers asked for one of the towns three pubs to be defined as a ‘colour bar’ (shepherding them into one place) – all three pubs ignored the request and instead placed ‘black troops only’ signs on their entrances in support. With tensions high, the last thing you would want is a fight to kick off over something as trivial as last orders – but it did.

After being refused drink after time was called, there was a little commotion (moaning about last orders, basically), drawing the attention of an officer who in turn alerted passing military policemen. One of the soldiers, a Private Eugene Nunn, was collared for wearing a field jacket (instead of his uniform) and not having a pass. The resulting argument drew the ire of Nunn’s unit mates (and the locals), eventually leading the officers to get reinforcements and being ordered to arrest the perpetrators. What happened next is disputed – the soldiers claim that the MP’s threatened them, whilst a British special constable maintained that the MP’s approached the situation calmly – whatever happened, it ended with Nunn throwing a punch and an officer firing off a round that hit a soldier in the neck.

Despite attempts to calm the situation (by making use of the unit’s only black officer), several soldiers left camp to confront the MP’s – and both fired on each other, on the streets of Bamber Bridge. Starting at around midnight on the 25th June 1943, The Battle of Bamber Bridge ended with one black soldier, Private William Crossland, dead and four wounded (two soldiers, two MP’s). 32 soldiers were court marshalled for various crimes including mutiny, seizing arms, rioting and firing upon the MP’s and officers.

All sentences were reduced on appeal; the use of racial slurs and poor leadership were cited as mitigating factors, but it was probably the embarrassment of a ‘race war’ kicking off on foreign soil that was enough for the Americans to try and sweep the incident under the carpet. As a result, morale improved amongst black troops stationed in England and the number of court marshals and (crucially for the unmarried British women, by all accounts) sexually-transmitted diseases fell. What a place to leave this otherwise ghastly story.

The pub sits on the end of Station Road and with its thatched roof, looks out of time with the rest of the buildings nearby. This is no surprise, as the pub is 400 years old! I’m quite fortunate to visit here today, rather than at the start of the season, as it’s only just reopened after a year out, suffering from fire damage. Inside, it’s snug – there are several tight, cosy rooms with contemporary décor and tellies showing sport. I don’t have too much time to spend in here but everything I do see is impressive – from the politeness of the staff, the food menu and of course, the beer selection (I plump for a Moretti).

Located roughly half-a-mile from the centre of the village, the home ground of Bamber Bridge Football Club is named the ‘Sir Tom Finney Stadium’ in honour of the legendary Preston and England forward after his death in 2014. Previously known as ‘Irongate’ (taking its name from the immediate area), the club moved here in 1987 after spending the previous four years developing the derelict land they purchased. Today, it has a capacity of 3000, with 550 seats and 800 covered spots. Blackburn Rovers Ladies play their Women's Championship games here, so there's a reason for me to return for another look at the rest of the village('s pubs), at least!

The ground’s record attendance is 2,300 for a friendly match against the Czech Republic national team shortly before Euro 96 (the Czechs were using Irongate as a training ground). Fresh off winning the Northern Premier League, Brig played a Czech side with Karel Poborsky, Patrik Berger, Pavel Nedved and Vladimír Šmicer in their team – and were promptly beaten 9-1. Still, the Czechs got to the final of Euro 96 and took Germany to extra-time (before losing to the first-ever ‘golden goal’), so it was an honourable loss for the part-timers!

The club can trace its roots back to 1952, as a Bamber Bridge Football Club played in the Preston & District League. It wasn’t until 1974 and through a merger with Walton-le-Dale that the present Bamber Bridge FC were formed; the ‘new’ club playing in the same league as their previous incarnation. The move to their own home (as opposed to playing on council pitches) allowed them to grow and progress; several Preston & District League titles followed, their success and growth forming the basis of a bid to join the North West Counties League in 1990.

Progressing on to the NPL, their title win in ’96 should have seen them promoted to the Football Conference, but Irongate was deemed not suitable for the league and they were denied a place in the fifth tier of English football. Since then, they have been consistent members of the NPL, with league reconstructions now deeming its top division as the seventh tier, rather than the sixth. The club's highlight of the last twenty years was reaching the second round of the FA Cup in 2000, narrowly losing to League One side, Cambridge United.

This season, Brig haven’t made the best of starts – in fact, they’re down near the bottom end of the table and manager, Joey Collins, left his job in the week. The club have posted on their website that they expect to announce some news of a managerial appointment in the week but in the meantime, Director of Football (and former first team manager), Neil Cowe and goalkeeping coach, Stuart Barton, are taking the team for today.

I can’t describe the Sir Tom Finney Stadium as anything other than ‘tidy’; not just there’s a lack of litter about the place, but the layout of the ground and the facilities are neatly organised – as soon as I’m through the turnstile (£10 entry) a raffle ticket seller appears from thin air to offer me a strip (of tickets). My favourite part of the ground is seeing the balcony that overlooks one of the goals – people are stood atop it, pints in hand, watching the action. I take a seat in the stand for much of the match; the side-on angle affording me a great view of an entertaining first half as four goals were scored. Brig take the lead after just 6 minutes; a free-kick from around 30 yards out being whipped into the top corner.

I notice that Mickleover have an old, bald No.9 playing upfront and I immediately think ‘that can’t be Lee Hughes, can it?’ After the same player equalised from a rebound just a few minutes after the opening goal, it was confirmed it was him – the former West Bromwich Albion and Coventry City striker still knocking about semi-pro football at the age of 43. It’s been over a decade since I last saw him play – he ran rings around a ‘Premier League’ Wigan Athletic defence in the FA Cup and League Cup, whilst he was playing in League Two (and later League One) for Notts County. Despite him looking much better than the level he was playing at, at the time, I think it’s reasonable to say that he was considered ‘damaged goods’ by clubs higher up the leagues – his career was curtailed in 2004 after he was found guilty of death by dangerous driving and jailed for six years (serving three). Perhaps those lost years are a factor in him still ploughing up the pitches in non-league football.

Despite being pegged back, Brig push forward and almost go back ahead when a cross into the Mickleover penalty area is hit towards the goal, only for the goalkeeper to make a diving save. It proved to be a frustrating moment as a few minutes later, Mickleover take the lead from a corner – whipped in, straight onto a head, straight in the back of the net. Rather than feel down about it, as any side in poor form that has just lost their manager may do, Brig continued to put pressure on their visitors, as a header from a cross was a whisker away from dropping under the bar.

Just before the injury time is announced, and it seeming Mickleover will go in leading, Brig equalise. Alistair Waddecar cuts inside from the left, isn’t closed down by the defence and his resulting shot beats the outstretched hand of the goalkeeper to nestle into the corner. I pay a visit to the clubhouse during the break to have a nosy around, but mainly to have a wee. Like the rest of the ground, it looks a tidy place – plenty of space, comfortable seating, tellies, staff dressed as elves and good beers on tap. Suffering from the onset of heartburn and a night's drinking ahead, I forgo a pint and indulge in my water.

The ‘balcony end’ certainly plays its part in the second half, as the Mickleover goalie gets all sort of good-natured banter from the drinkers above. One particular cross is misjudged so badly that the keeper punches it back towards his own goal and needed a last-ditch clearance from a defender to prevent it from going in. From the resulting corner, Waddecar was again afforded space and this time he flicked a header across goal and into the far corner of the net, erupting the banter lads above.

Brig have a couple of chances to wrap the game up; a volley that dipped towards goal, hitting the top of the netting, and an effort that went wide of the post. Mickleover didn’t provide much threat; Hughes had been pushed out wide in the second half and was clearly lacking in legs before being replaced. The home side held on for a much-needed victory that gives them a bit more breathing space from the relegation zone – the players taking some well-deserved applause from most around the ground, especially those on the balcony, who I now suspect were also out on a few pre-Christmas drinks.

So, that was my trip to Bamber Bridge. All that remains is for me to get back on the train to Wigan – and do some more boozing myself. Changing in Preston, I get on a Virgin Train home for the final time – with their West Coast franchise ending at the end of today, the trains that took me to/from Preston already had their exteriors scrubbed bare. Apparently, new franchise holders, Avanti (owned by FirstGroup and Italian firm, Trenitali), have promised refurbished trains with all mod cons – like seating. We shall see.

I ended up meeting some mates to watch the Ruiz-Joshua fight – a masterclass in planning, technique and precision. No, not AJ’s unanimous points win, us putting into practice our strategy to get the best table in the pub to see the telly. With a bottle of water from the Morrisons in Bamber Bridge inside my belly, I’m ready for another night for boozing. Well, it is Christmas (apparently), after all. 

Bamber Bridge 3

Mickleover Sports 2

Attendance: 291

Saturday 23 November 2019

Stalybridge Celtic vs. Buxton

Aside from having a football team, most towns in the country will have something notable about it that provides some riveting conversation between you and someone from there (whilst you’re on holiday in Benidorm or wherever). It could be a trade they’re famous for, a gruesome moment in history, a celebrity who’s from there – perhaps their football club reflects the town’s notability in some way. 

For us groundhoppers, the opportunity to visit new grounds in unfamiliar towns allows us to immerse ourselves in these facts, to learn more about them and even join in with whatever it is. This is why I’m in Stalybridge this afternoon – and it was an absolute pleasure to arrange. I’m off to see Stalybridge Celtic in Northern Premier League action against Buxton – and to visit the pub with the longest name in the UK for a pint or six on a bitter Saturday in late-November. 

Yes, The Old Thirteenth Cheshire Astley Volunteer Rifleman Corps Inn being the longest pub name in the UK is the notable fact that Stalybridge should be famous for! Located close to the railway station (turn right, walk under the bridge, you can see the massive sign right away), the pub isn’t actually the first version of The Rifleman. The original, which held the Guinness World Record, closed in late-2015.

The Old Thirteenth Cheshire Astley Volunteer Rifleman Corps Inn, Stalybridge

Originally named ‘The New Inn’, it first changed to ‘The Thirteenth Cheshire Rifleman Inn’  – this earned it a place in the first edition of The Guinness Book of Records in 1951 as ‘the pub with the longest name’. It seems that they were involved in a tit-for-tat war with other lengthy-named pubs (such as The London, Chatham and Dover Railway Tavern, and the Ferret and Firkin in the Balloon Up The Creek, both in London) – the extra words added to the Rifleman name over the years saw the Cheshire pub grab the title back.

After securing a premises to open a new pub earlier this year, landlady, Sarah Farrer-Baxter, thought long-and-hard about a name. By chance, she was well acquainted with The Rifleman’s former owners who on hearing the news, offered her the use of the name in order to keep it (and Stalybridge) on the map. Whilst delighted with the offer, Sarah indicated that reality hurt a little bit when it came to paying for the lettering!

It’s a fantastic story, something that is so quintessentially British; a pub in a provincial town having to battle the big city for the honour of having the longest name, just to create some notability for their community. Thinking about it, there could be a good TV drama made from two pubs trying to outdo each other over seemingly trifling issues as ‘having the longest name’. As long as there’s a decent script, mind (call me, producers).

Brilliantly, as I walk into the pub at around 1.30 pm, there’s only one other customer in! Although they have a decent range of premium lagers on, there’s nothing in the way of real or craft ales (that I can see – apologies if there were) for us beer ponces to get excited about, so I plump for a pint of Amstel. It’s a smart, well-lit place but it doesn’t feel like a traditional pub – more of a modern ‘bar’ with its bright walls, lighting and second floor with a swirly staircase.

The lad who’s serving is very friendly though, pub name emblazoned on his back, as he’s clearing some glasses away, he apologises for getting in the way of viewing of the pub telly – which he didn’t. As I’m watching the end of the West Ham-Tottenham game (Jose Mourinho’s first game in charge of Spurs – which they win 3-2), the place fills up nicely; there are about 10 people in as I leave just after 2 pm. To sum up; nice place, decent beers, friendly staff, good-sized tellies to watch sport, just don’t expect a traditional pub experience.

Bower Fold, Stalybridge Celtic F.C

Aside from pubs, the other notable thing about Stalybridge is the football club. Formed in 1909 (although there’s some circumstantial evidence that it may have been formed in 1906), the club’s heyday was in the 1920s when for two seasons, they were members of The Football League having formed the Third Division North with 19 other sides.

They had a great first season – finishing 7th in a league won by near neighbours, Stockport County. Despite finishing 11th the season after, the club resigned citing that they ‘couldn’t get sufficient support to justify a Football League side’ – which sounds odd, considering their average attendance of 5,400 was some 2,000 more than Rochdale, who finished a place below them. Was this a ‘sliding doors’ moment? Rochdale have stayed in The Football League ever since and currently ply their trade in League One.

After spending the majority of their existence knocking about the non-league pyramid, Stalybridge are currently battling at the top end of the Northern Premier League (Premier Division) table; holding onto the final play-off place. Coached by former Coventry, Wigan and Tranmere striker, Simon Haworth (scorer of many a great goal, including a particular favourite of mine at the old Wembley – see below), the Welsh international is carving out a decent non-league managerial career after spells at Eagley and Clitheroe a level or two below – so I’m interested in seeing how he’s getting on.

The club’s ground, Bower Fold, is located just over a mile from the town centre and has a capacity for around 6,000 spectators. The record attendance for a match involving Stalybridge was when 9.753 rocked up to see them in FA Cup first round replay action in January 1923, as they lost 2-0 against West Bromwich Albion. In more recent times, a crowd of 3,312 attended a second round FA Cup tie against Football League Third Division Chester City in 1999. Despite Andy Scott’s extraordinary goal (see the highlights below, it’s well worth it), Chester grew into the game and scored twice without reply to send them into the third round – where they faced Manchester City (then playing in the First Division).

The record attendance at Bower Fold, however, is believed to be as many as 10,300 when the famous women’s side, Dick, Kerr Ladies beat a ‘Rest of Lancashire XI’ 10-0 in 1921, raising around £600 (£29.000 in 2018, when adjusted for inflation) in aid of the local hospital. I say the crowd was ‘believed’ to be that many, as in those days, they could never be sure – some say the attendance could have been anywhere between 12-14,000). What we do know for a fact, is that Bower Fold is the only football ground in the country where the pitch apparently faces a perfect north.

Whilst researching the club (seeing if the game was going ahead, in truth) I see that they put out a plea for supporters to attend the game in big numbers, as they’re struggling for money – although I’d imagine most clubs at these levels are struggling, Stalybridge not having a home game in the league since the 12th October hasn’t helped matters. The press release, urging people to attend, encouraged attendees to also indulge in a pint. So naturally, I did.

Passing through the turnstile (£10 entry), I immediately catch sight of the supporters club straight ahead. Inside, it looks a bit swanky; it looks and feels more like a wedding reception venue with its wide-open spaces, smart seating, vast white walls and one-or-two ornate decorations. I indulge in a pint of Kronenberg, poured into a doubled-up plastic container and sashayed outside with it, giggling to myself that I’m allowed to drink this pint of lager by the side of the pitch – the novelty still hasn’t worn off. The weather outside even cools my pint for me as I stand behind the goal, waiting for the game to start.

The mascot badger's shed at Bower Fold, Stalybridge

As I’m stood there, a bipedal badger walks past, handing out sweets to several kids who have been running around the terrace (as if they need more sugar!). What happened next took me by surprise – the badger walked to a shed, opened the door, ducked in and locked it. What’s going on here? It’s then I see that the shed is positioned in front of what (I assume) is the club’s old supporters club – the prefab building is locked, looking a little shabby and (the big giveaway) it has ‘Social Club Bar’ written on it. There’ve certainly upgraded with the wedding venue they’ve got now, anyway. A few minutes after the badger locked the door of the shed, it swings open to reveal a woman, a human woman – what’s she done with the badger?

Instead of reporting a possible badger murder to the police, I settle down to watch the match – supping my pint in the roofed terrace behind the goal. The home side make a decent start; passing the ball about nicely, looking for space in the Buxton defence – their first opportunity arriving courtesy of a shot-on-the turn that just cleared the crossbar. 10 minutes in, Ross Dent is the recipient of some more tidy play; he sneaks into the penalty area before opening out his body (not literally – it means 'turning your body into a comfortable position’) and guiding a centred-ball into the top corner of the net. Brilliant finish – one that certainly warms up the crowd around me, as the temperature continues to drop.

Buxton immediately try to put some pressure on their hosts and without a couple of timely interceptions at the back, they could have grabbed an equaliser. Stalybridge (or ‘Bridge’ as people around me are shouting) ride it out and could have even been two-ahead just before half-time as a volley-whilst-falling-on-your-arse (okay, an ‘acrobatic’ volley) smashed the crossbar and bounced away.

Half-time is spent in the wedding venue, as I sup on another cold pint to warm myself up (!) Early in the second half, Bridge do get their deserved second goal as Darius Osei seizes upon a loose ball in the area, turns and fires it into the back of the net. It’s a good job they have online match reports and videos – when it went in, I was finishing off my Kronie in the bar. Whoops!

I transfer myself to The Lord Tom Pendry Stand for the second half – named after the town’s former long-serving MP, this is the newest stand at the ground (built in 2004) and has over 650 seats. The main stand opposite has room for just over 700 people and was completed in 1996. Part of the reason why I chose to sit down for the second half was to get a different perspective of the match, the other because the regular supporters had moved down to the end where I was to watch their side attack the goal (so I lost my spot, due to babysitting a Kronie) and the final reason, was because it was colder than a White Walker’s heart now!

The -23 temperature (at least) didn’t bother the players much, as Bridge continued to control the game and eke out opportunities; a goal was ruled out for offside and Dent nearly bagged a second as his header was bound for the goal if not for the intervention of the visiting goalkeeper. A late chance sees a Bridge player go clear of the defence, but his chip over the keeper was just-about cleared off the line.

Stalybridge Celtic vs. Buxton

It finishes as a fully-deserved 2-0 win for the home side – Buxton unable to lay a glove on their opponents for the vast majority of the match. This win keeps Stalybridge in 5th, 7 points from top and automatic promotion. The crowd was announced as being 423 – which is up by 131 from their last home match in the league. Good news all round for the club, then!

I’m off back down to the town centre for a few more scoops – first stop is the Wetherspoons for some generic fish and chips. I then make a point of visiting ‘Bridge Beers’, which is a bottle shop and craft ale bar. The owner is friendly enough, guides me through the beers that were on tap – I have a pint of the pale ale Odin by Brightside brewery. I must say that I love a nice pale, hoppy blonde...ale. There’s a great array of bottles on sale behind me, but I decide to move on – 10 yards down the street to another real ale bar, The Craft Pint. This place is a bit more 'happening', as I walk in, I nearly bump into two greyhounds who are supping out of a bowl (water, before you worry – unless it was vodka?). My pint of choice here is ‘Deception’ by Abbeydale – sounds more like perfume than a 4.1% pale ale, but it’s something that I wouldn't mind wearing again.

Now there’s one fact about Stalybridge that I’ve left out until now (two actually, we’ll get to the next one in a minute) – not only does the town boast the pub with the longest name, It has the pub with the SHORTEST name too, located next-door-but one to the Rifleman! The pub is called ‘Q’ (technically it’s called ‘The Q Inn’, so it leaves it open for usurpers to steal the crown), and it’s fantastic. As soon as I walk in, the ‘traditional’ pub fixtures and fittings soak into your eyes, it’s tightly built, there’s a fire roaring and they have real ales on tap – the only thing that’s missing is a dog scampering around! I get a pint of their house beer ('Q Ale' - a 3.8% golden ale), which goes down rather nicely.

I round the day off with a visit to the Buffet Bar – the other attraction to Stalybridge that I haven’t mentioned. Apparently, this is one of very few remaining 'refreshment rooms' in the country and now mostly houses a real ale emporium in its narrow but long structure. With 20 minutes until I need to catch the train, I decide to grab a swift cider – but I didn’t account for the rowdiness of the lads, lads, lads that frequent train stations at 8 pm on a Saturday evening.

Buffet Bar at Stalybridge Station
Now, think about the penultimate scene in Brief Encounter. Imagine if Dolly Messiter was pissed on craft cider, unknowingly costing the two philanderers (which is ultimately what they were – Fred was a lovely husband, an absolute innocent who deserved better), their final moment of love. Well, that’s exactly what it was like, as the lads were ‘having the banter’ right in front of the bar, slowing down the queuing, preventing me from a treasured juicy delight.

However, unlike the doomed ‘couple’ in the film, I managed to shake off these Dollies, squeeze myself near the bar, get my pint and have it supped in time for the train. In other words, the refreshment room at Stalybridge is best visited on a weekday.

I’m definitely coming back to visit though. Cheers! 

Stalybridge Celtic 2

Buxton 0

Attendance: 423

Sunday 17 November 2019

Liverpool Women vs. Everton [Women]

YNWA at Anfield - Liverpool Women
International break weekend (at least for us hipsters who support teams in the top two divisions), is a welcome respite from the constant worrying about your side and instead offers you the enjoyment of a different kind of football – not just the internationals, but the opportunity to go and see local games in the lower leagues too.

This one is slightly different, however. As it’s the (men’s) international break, the FA are using the opportunity to promote the Women’s Super League, as part of a ‘Women’s Football Weekend’, with a few of the games taking place at the homes of the men’s teams. Playing in these big stadiums allows clubs the opportunity to promote their women’s sides, with attractive ticket offers aimed at families. So I’m at one of world football’s most illustrious venues, to see one of England’s most premier derbies – I’m at Anfield to see Liverpool Women take on Everton.

I say the international break doesn’t provide worries but there’s usually a sense of trepidation whenever England are involved – thankfully, the men’s side comfortably qualified for Euro 2020 with a 7-0 win against Montenegro on Thursday, rendering the game later today in Kosovo, a dead rubber. Whilst the men’s team are, according to some people, ‘going through the motions’ at the moment (yes, apparently a 7-0 win can be ‘boring’!) there has been some criticism levelled at the women’s national team recently, more specifically, at head coach Phil Neville. Since the semi-final defeat in this year’s World Cup, England have won just 2 games in 7 – the latest win coming earlier this week against the Czech Republic.

In a funny way, I think this can be seen a positive for the women’s game in this country – their performances are being scrutinised, pitched against their previous form and that of their peers. No longer are they receiving patronising praise, as if poor form ‘doesn’t matter’ because ‘it’s only the women’s game’ – they’re top professionals and being treated as such. Neville has come out swinging, defending his players and his own position, as you might expect, but (and without getting into the details of what may or may not be going wrong), it is heartening to see the press take him to task.

So with the national team receiving pelters for tepid performances and domestic sides playing the odd game in a big stadium (England’s recent friendly against Germany attracted a crowd of over 77,000), Women’s football is in a good place at the moment. Today’s derby can be said to be a ‘homecoming’ for both sides as neither Liverpool or Everton actually play their usual home games in the city – Liverpool play at Tranmere Rovers' Prenton Park over the water on the Wirral, whereas Everton currently play in Southport (although they are due to move to a new purpose-built ground at Walton Hall Park, a mile from Goodison Park, any time soon – ‘early next year’ is the latest news).

WFA - Women's Football Association logoFormed in 1989 as Newton LFC, the club that would become Liverpool WFC would first change its name to Knowsley United in 1991, becoming founder members of the National Premier Division; a league organised by the WFA. The WFA, incidentally, was a football association, independent of the FA, which was formed in 1969 to offer women’s clubs more opportunities for organised football – women’s teams were still barred from playing on FA-associated pitches at this time. Knowsley went on to reach two Wembley cup finals in consecutive years – in the 1993 Premier League Cup against Arsenal (which they lost, 3-0) and in 1994’s FA Women’s Cup against Doncaster Belles (a 1-0 defeat).

The summer after their defeat in the FA Cup Final saw Knowlsey link up with Liverpool FC, adopting their name and colours. The club spent the early part of the 21st century playing in the second tier of the Women’s Premier League system, but they would find themselves becoming founder members of the Women’s Super League in 2011 – a new division designed to professionalise and grow the women’s game, with clubs having to apply for licences to join.  It didn’t start too well for Liverpool, as they ended up finishing bottom of the 8-team division in its first two seasons – thankfully for them, relegation to the second tier (now called The Championship) didn’t exist at this point.

After more-or-less signing up an entirely new team, they went on to achieve another double – WINNING the Women’s Super League in 2013 and 2014. Their first title win was relatively comfortable – with only 14 games to play, they won the league by 5 points from Bristol Academy. The second title win was a little bit closer – they ended up winning it on a goal difference of 2 from their nearest rivals, Chelsea.

Whilst Liverpool were in the midst of winning their second WSL title, Everton were struggling – winning zero games and drawing four; their season of defeats saw them relegated to the second tier in 2014. Despite their success, Liverpool nearly followed them the season after – they finished second-bottom, avoiding the drop by 5 points, again, from Bristol Academy. Since then, Everton won promotion back and Liverpool have been mostly mid-table in what is now a 12-team league – so I’ve now got even less of an idea of what to expect at today’s match.

Bill Shankley statue at Anfield

I think it can go without saying what a great ground Anfield is – it was Everton’s move from here in 1892 that led to the formation of Liverpool Football Club and since then, it has grown to become one of sport’s most iconic venues. I’m sat in the Kenny Dalglish Stand (formally known as the Centenary Stand) and I have to say that it’s tighter than what old Scrooge would usually be next month. All tickets for the game have been sold or allocated, but the ground is (by design) half-full, leaving plenty of room to move around in the concourse – though I can imagine it being somewhat difficult to navigate through when it’s full. There isn’t much room between the rows too – at 5ft 10’, I’m no Peter Crouch, but I felt like him, having to manoeuvre my legs into an unnatural position to find comfort (luckily, there was nobody sat at the side of me).

In recent years, I’ve noticed a number of female teams changing their suffixes from ‘Ladies’ to ‘Women’ (apparently ‘Ladies’ is outdated) – Everton have taken this to a new level by dropping the suffix altogether. Simply known as ‘Everton’, the move is designed to create a ‘one club’ with the men’s team – which makes absolute sense, as they are part of the same club! Formally, they will still be referred to as ‘Everton Women’ to avoid confusion with the men’s side – I’m predicting now that the formal suffix ‘Men’ will be used for male teams soon, as more clubs from around the country form female sides and the women’s game grows. It’s only fair after the women’s game was hindered for so long, I guess.

The two teams enter the field to the atmospheric ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ (they play it twice, in fact – just before they entered and as they entered) – even in a half-full ground, the lyrics still make the hairs on the back of your arse stand up; ‘Walk on, walk on. With hope in your heart. And you'll never walk alone. A couple of scarves are held aloft, pleasantries in the middle of the pitch are performed and the game begins.

Anfield Road End - Liverpool Women vs. Everton

Liverpool are the better side for the vast majority of the first half; they dominate the ball without creating much in the way of clear-cut chances. The best oppotunity fell to Kirsty Linnet, who headed a penalty area-pinball towards goal – Everton custodian, Tinja-Riikka Korpela, doing well to get across and claw the ball wide for a corner. Linnet had another sight of goal not long later, but her long-range shot went comfortably wide.

The supporters, though encouraging to the team, have been largely quiet in terms of generating a collective atmosphere – which is understandable, with this being the first opportunity that many inside Anfield today have seen the women’s team play. I do find it bizarre that (both) clubs cannot find a suitable ground in Liverpool or at least somewhere a little closer than the Wirral and Southport – I get that both clubs may have strong support in these places, but being away from the city they represent has to inhibit opportunities for them to grow a regular supporter base for the women's team in some way.

There’s a couple of Everton fans here in the ‘home’ ends (one is sat directly in front of me, with his Everton bob-cap), but the majority are seated in the away section of the Anfield Road End, behind the goal – they’ve made most of the noise (with chants of ‘Everton, Everton’), but there’s none of the ‘poison’ of the men’s derby. On one hand, this is fantastic as you can relax and just enjoy the game in front of you, on the other though, it makes writing about my experience of the crowd difficult! Here’s hoping for a bit of ‘banter’ between the two sets of supporters in the second half.

Lucy Graham scores for Everton against Liverpool

Just as I was using the 1 minute of injury time to take a picture for the blog, Everton score! The Blues are passing the ball about nicely in midfield, but after a defender cuts out a forward pass, the ball falls to Lucy Graham around 25 yards out; she takes a touch, shoots and Anke Preuss in the Liverpool goal makes a hash of the catch, virtually dropping the ball into her net (the photo above is the moment she attempts to field the ball!) It’s a disastrous end to the half for Liverpool, who were looking good in possession – but as the old adage goes, it’s what you do with the possession that matters.

The Reds, as you might expect, came out for the second half with more urgency, typified by the introduction of pacey winger, Rinsola Babajide from the subs’ bench. She’s quick and tricky, immediately causing problems for the Everton full-backs, switching wings to get at both of them. A few of her crosses into the area had to be cleared in last-ditch efforts; Liverpool lacking a real striking presence in the forward positions.

A few more clearances lead to corners and it’s during these that I notice an interesting occurrence; with (how can I say this politely) women corner/free-kick takers not being able to match the kicking power of men (I failed), the ball hangs in the air for longer from a delivery. This delay creates time for a roar of expectation to air from The Kop; encouraging shouts from (mostly children) behind the goal, directed towards the ball, commanding it to find its way onto a Liverpool head. Sadly for them, it doesn’t.

Liverpool free-kick vs. Everton

In fact, it’s Everton and their counter-attacking football that nearly produces a goal; Molly Pike putting a late chance wide after a breakaway led by Graham. It didn’t matter in the end, as her team hung on for the win – an Everton win at Anfield. A rare thing to say, considering it’s not happened since 1999! The win moves them up to 4th in the WSL, whilst Liverpool are bottom – just 1 draw in the opening six games for them. It's still early in the season, mind, so there's plenty of time to turn it around – the team that lies immediately above them (on 3 points from 6) is, funnily enough, Bristol City (formerly, Bristol Academy!)

It was another interesting experience, watching a women’s game at the ‘traditional home’ of the corresponding men’s team – again, plenty of families were able to attend for cheap (a fiver for adults, free for children with an attending adult), as they got an opportunity to visit the ground, sing along to YNWA and cheer on a side wearing the shirt. I think Liverpool should have this arrangement in place more regularly – not only to get the team playing in the city but also because families like these here today, I'm sad to say, continue to be priced out of the men’s game. The women's game needs to keep pushing this advantage.

I make my way back via Sandhills station, get off at Liverpool Central and slip into Sanctuary (craft ale) Bar before my train home from Lime Street. It’s a decent place for beer ponces to stop-off just after/before catching a train – I sit in the homely-atmosphere downstairs and indulge in a nice pint of ‘Golden Warrior’ by Empire Brewing. Even on a Sunday night, the nightlife in Liverpool is bustling – karaoke sounding from the many Irish pubs in the short walk between Central and Lime Street stations. Apparently, there’s another bar called ‘The Sanctuary Tap’ near James Street station, about half-a-mile away. Looks like I’ll have to come back one day – here’s hoping Everton [Women] get that ground built soon! 

Liverpool Women 0

Everton [Women] 1

Attendance: 23,500

Thursday 31 October 2019

What If Dogs Formed A Football Team?

Great people have had their great thoughts whilst lounging under an apple tree, bathing in a tub of water, even whilst sat on the toilet. Now I’m not saying that I’m a great man (I’m more of a toilet), but whilst I was going about my business the other day, I saw a dog chasing around a plastic bag.

Aside from worrying about the impact that another helping of single-use plastic would have on the environment, I was impressed by how quickly the dog chased down the bag and brought it under its control. Imagine that dog playing in midfield, I thought.

Then another thought popped into my head – imagine a FOOTBALL TEAM of dogs. Dogs with their individuals strengths and abilities, creating the best football team that ever lived. So I did.

This blog will detail the team of dogs that I have created – not only will this help football fans who don’t understand dogs, to understand dogs, it will also help dog fans to understand football a bit better too.

It’s the article that you didn’t know you needed, but truly deserve. Or something along those lines.

A Dog XI

(Formation: 4-2-3-1) 

1. Great Dane

Big, a Great Dane can keep a lot out with those massive paws.

2. Husky 


 A Husky has got great stamina. Can bomb down that touchline, providing options and is able to press the opposition all day-long. 

3. Spaniel 


A Spaniel has got a good engine, has the physique to withstand pressure, has good left foots too to swing a ball in from deep. 

5. Dalmatian

A Dalmatian is long and elegant, can bring the ball out with relative ease and confidence, whilst having the height to contest high balls. 

6. Bulldog 


A Bulldog is tough and rough, provides muscle against opposition forwards. The lack of height is made up by the strength on the ground. We need a well-matched centre-back partnershipA Dalmatian and Bulldog fit the bill. 

Central Midfielder
4. Yorkshire Terrier


A Yorkshire Terrier is nippy, can get involved in a scrappy tackle, pressing the opposition and not giving them a moments peace. 

Central Midfielder
8. Jack Russell 


Also nippy, a Jack Russell can get involved in a scrappy tackle, though slightly more energetic than his midfield partner-in-crime so can be employed in a box-to-box role. 

Attacking Midfielder Right
7. Greyhound


A Greyhound has lots of pace, can run down that touchline and whip in a cross or cut inside at speed, leaving the opposition full-back for dead. 

Attacking Midfielder Left
11. Whippet 


A Whippet has bags of pace, can terrorise the opposition defence all day, cutting inside and leaving space for Spaniel the left-back to operate in. 

Attacking Midfielder Centre
10. Border Collie


Playing the No10 role, A Border Collie is just the right size to be slippery, has a great low-centre-of-gravity too. Quick and clever, one can slip a pass through the opposition defence easily. 

Centre Forward
9. Labrador Cross (more specifically a Labradoodle)


A Labrador Cross is unpredictable and therefore will give the opposition defence a nightmare. Playing as a False Nine, one will link up well with the Greyhound and Whippet out wide, and the Border Collie behind. Can also drop back into the midfield to provide some defensive solidity if needs be too.

So that was my Dog XI. If you have any suggestions (such as alternative dogs for any of these positions, a name for the team or just want me to get a life), leave them in the comments below or Tweet me @pints_pies.