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