Originally, I’d got a ground hop at Charnock Richard planned. I’d already asked my nephew David if he’d wanted to join me, and if he fancied me stopping the night. That way, I’d be able to spend a bit longer with him, and get to see not only his missus Steph, but my great niece and nephew, Sophia and Benedict. He was more than happy at the prospect of both. I bought myself advanced train tickets for between Brum and Preston, and was all set. Charnock Richard is close to Chorley and so that would give me the opportunity to drink in the town. However, after chatting to Jude about a conference she’d been to in Charnock Richard on our way down to Swansea on the train, I decided to double check to make sure they were still playing at home. They weren’t. My first idea was to see if Chorley were at home. They weren’t. I then decided to see what the nearest game I could go to was. Bamber Bridge v Gainsborough Trinity was the standout option. I’d previously been passed the ground on the train and because of that, they’d been on my radar, but the biggest appeal though, was the social club’s reputation for selling real ale. I text David to let him know, and he was still up for it. Now I don’t wear colours on a regular basis. In fact, I hardly wear them, but I do still on the odd occasion, buy badges. The daft thing is, I very rarely wear them. I don’t know why then, I decided to wear one in the shape of the Blues emblem, but it was to prove quite useful. Although still on a natural high from the Buggies win the previous night, I was shattered getting the bus into town. Spotting Taffy on the concourse at New Street station heading directly to a member of staff, I grabbed his arm and joked that all trains to Wrexham were cancelled. Little did I know, what I’d uttered in jest, turned out to be true. Taff was not happy. I left him with his problem of what to do, and started my journey up to Chorley. Changing at Preston, unlike for poor old Taff, everything ran just smoothly for me. I never get tired of Chorley. It’s one of those places that seems to hug your wellbeing. I honestly don’t need much of an excuse to go up there. If nothing else, it’s got this place in the photo below.
“Bob’s getting bigger”
As long as the market is open, then The Bob Inn will be open. I’m not going to lie to you, Bob is one of my favourite places in the whole country. I just love its quirkiness. David was already in situ when I got there, and after getting a pint, we started catching up. From Bob, we moved onto The Shepherd’s Hall. Another of Chorley’s many great micro pubs, I knew, like Bob had, it too had expanded. (David keeps me updated with all things real ale in Chorley.)
“A window of opportunity to entice”
My Neph suffers mental health issues. He gets gets both anxiety and depression. On top of that, he’s diabetic and is also on the autism spectrum. It’s a black cloud of a cocktail that is never too far away from blocking out the sun. It’s a day to day system of coping. Something that became decidedly easier after he started his new job straight after Christmas. A job he loves, can get his teeth into, and sees a point to. His whole demeanour has lifted. Something that can only be good. The thing with mental health, is far too many people don’t realise and understand the issues they have, and decide to deny and ignore having them instead of embracing them and dealing with those issues. Seriously, never mind what your body looks like and how healthy you are, if you don’t look after the most valuable bit of your body, then you really don’t deserve to have it. A heart transplant you can have, but your brain is you, and can’t be replaced. I like Shepherd’s, but it’s no Bob. The last place we went before heading to Bamber Bridge, was BAAA 38. A new micro I hadn’t been in yet.
“Real ale or real prosecco?)
Although the range of ales was good, and it was well kept, the place had too much of an upmarket wine bar feel. Not the kind of place I like and feel comfortable in, but then, each to their own. We then got the bus to Bamber Bridge. Getting off on the main street, there was just one place I wanted to do before the ground.
“Back to business.”
Beer Box is a fantastic little micro. Going in for a last pint before the game, meant that we were to miss kickoff, but it was so well worth it. If I lived in Bamber, then this would be the place you’d almost always find me in. A place that if I could pick it up, tuck it under my arm and take it everywhere I went, I would do. It was the two Staffordshire Bull Terriers in there that David was attracted to. One was a resident of the pub. The other belonged to one of the regulars. Although both dogs liked people, one took umbrage with the other. I like dogs, but I could never own one. Regardless that I wouldn’t be allowed to keep one where I live anyway, they’re just far too much hassle. Looking after myself is a big enough job by itself. Adding a pet into the equation, really wouldn’t be a wise move on either side.
Drinking up, we left the pub to embark on the short walk to take in the main event. Now named The Sir Tom Finney Stadium, it’s better known as Irongate. Much as I like the fact it’s not some kind of corporate advertising sponsorship, it still feels false. Even if he was a bloke I would have liked to have watched play. On a side note, the very first Blues game I took my eldest nephew to, Tom was signing copies of his autobiography in the now long gone Birmingham bookshop, Dillon’s. I dragged my poor nephew Andy in there to get the great man to sign something. Tom, like the gentleman he was reputed to be, duly obliged. Unfortunately, I’ve no idea where that autograph went, but I know at the time that Andy wasn’t overly impressed by this old bloke who I was making such a big deal over. These days, I’m not one for going out of my way to get autographs, and I certainly don’t do selfies with the person. If I find an autograph, then it’s just a lucky discovery, and for me, selfies are intrusive. They’re purely for self promotion. ‘Look at me. Look who I’m with’ It’s crass behaviour as far as I’m concerned. I don’t see the need to prove who you’ve had the good fortune to meet. They’re just people. Keep the harassment to the bare minimum. I know I’ve met them, and I really don’t care if you don’t believe me that I have. As always with my ground hops and first visits, here we go with the photos of the ground. (I won’t ever get my head around calling it a stadium. Even if it is named after a Knight of the realm.)
With ground hopping, you do spend a lot of the time, especially initially, looking around at your surroundings, whilst also having one eye on the proceedings on the pitch. It was while I was still adjusting to the surroundings, that David drew my attention to the lineups in the programme, and one name in particular lept out at me. Had I not ducked, it would’ve knocked me clean off my feet.
“Go on, pick a name, I dare you.”
“Admittedly, it’s a bit fuzzy, but if you’ve watched him as many times as I have, you’ll know who it is.”
Step forward Clayton Donaldson. Yep, that Clayton Donaldson. A player that served the Blues well in 113 games, scoring 32 goals in the process. I’m not going to say that it was during a turbulent time, because it’s still turbulent now. With Blues, turbulence is par for the course. He was overseen by 4 different managers. The first being Lee Clark, who along with Malcolm Crosby, conned Clayton into joining us. It was something that would forever endear me towards all involved. Firstly, Donaldson turned down a better contract offer to stay, from his club Brentford, than the one he signed for at Blues. Secondly, Sheffield Wednesday who were extremely interested in signing Clayton, also offered a much better contract. The Yorkshireman turned that down too. Now here’s the nuts and bolts of why I will always defend Lee Clark and Malcolm Crosby. Clark and Crosby were having to recruit a whole team of players within a £5,000 a week per player wage limit. Obviously £5,000 a week is a lot of money in real life, but in the fantasy life of a footballer, it’s the equivalent of less than half the minimum wage. I’ve no idea how Clark and Crosby managed to persuade the Blues CEO of the time, Panos Pavlakis, to break the wage limit for Donaldson, or how they managed to hoodwink Clayton into signing, but he signed for £8,000 a week when he could’ve been getting £12,000 at Sheffield Wednesday. I believe Brentford even offered £10,000, though I’m not 100% sure on that, I just know it was bigger than what he signed on at Blues for. Now I’ve got to admit here, whenever Gainsborough got the ball, I did look to whatever Donaldson did. Although he didn’t score it, he played a big part in Trinity taking the lead. It was to prove to be the only goal in an otherwise, even first half. At halftime, we went and checked out the club shop. I love Non-League club shops. There’s none of the plastic feel you usually get with the professional game, and if you’re lucky, you find boxes or piles of old programmes. We were to spend the entire interval sorting through them. David was to be luckier than me, in that he was to find programmes of Non-League clubs from near to where he was born. Grounds that are no longer there, and clubs that no longer exist. His eyes were to light up at every new discovery. I wasn’t so lucky…or so I was to believe. I did manage to pick up an old Blues one, but I did find, well actually, David found it for me, but my small haul was to include a programme from Moor Green F.C. Moor Green were one of the clubs that were merged to create Solihull Moors. Solihull Borough being the other. Solihull Moors were created back in 2007. Back then, I was giving the Non-League scene no more than a cursory glance. In fact, up until the start of writing this blog, I’d not given the Non-League scene any more than cursory glances since the late 80s when I got bitten by the Blues bug. Much as I’m glad I got bitten by the Blues bug (Yes, there really is no hope for me.) I wish I’d not only taken more interest in Non-League, but also taken in more games and grounds. In mitigation. My personal life has only ever lurched from one drama to another, and my finances have just bounced along the bottom in tandem, but it still doesn’t stop me wondering what might have been, had I been even just slightly more focused. As the second half started, we queued up for something to eat. Something else you find at Non-League grounds, especially the ones in the North, they tend to use local produce. Sometimes it’s a good thing and the food is better than excellent, and let’s just say, sometimes it’s not. The peppered steak pie I had, might not have been as good as the pies in the Diggers, up in Edinburgh, but then how do you improve on perfection? It was definitely a 9/10 effort though. The second half was to prove to be as good as the first, but with a deserving equaliser for the home side. A draw was the right result. If I’m being greedy, I would’ve liked to have seen a few more goals, but if it had meant an inferior contest, then no thanks.
After the game, we went into the one thing that had really attracted me to visit for a ground hop, the clubhouse. David had been waxing lyrical about the carpet in there. Unfortunately, since his last visit in there, it had been ripped up. The other disappointment was the range of ales. I have to say, I was expecting better. However, the pint I had was local, and it was well kept. Besides, at least they had real ale on and it wasn’t just the usual mainstream fizz that’s on offer in a social club. They also had both the football and the 6 Nations game on the two screens they have in there. We positioned ourselves, so we could watch both. As Scotland took Wales apart in the egg chasing, we noticed the doors swing open to the connected kitchen. With perfect timing, the players of both Bamber and Trinity came in to be fed. The man himself was amongst them. Now I’m not one for hero worship, but I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to say hello. I didn’t want his autograph. Didn’t want a selfie with him. Didn’t want to engage him in conversation. I just wanted to shake his hand. Putting my pint down, I moved round to where he was. Thrusting my hand out towards him I said “Ado Clayton, how you doing mate?” A puzzled Donaldson shook my hand. Seeing the confusion on his face, I looked down at the Blues badge pinned to my chest (Not literally. I wasn’t naked. Now that really would’ve alarmed the poor bloke.) Pointing to it, I looked back up at a face now grinning with recognition. After seeing the expression of delight on his face, I returned back to David and my pint. Mission accomplished. Drinking up, we returned back to Chorley on the bus, and home to his missus Steph. Unfortunately, Steph had had to put the kids to bed, as it was passed their bedtime, but the consolation was that she’d made a Hotpot. I don’t care if it is clichéd, I love Lancashire Hotpot and I was in Lancashire. Surprisingly, it was Steph’s first attempt at the dish. Surprisingly, because it was absolutely gorgeous. With any luck, she’ll make it again, and I’ll get to eat it. We then spent a relaxing evening just chatting. Waking up in the morning, I decided to read all the programmes I’d got. Flicking through that Blues one I’d bought, I discovered it had been signed by both James Beatie, who although playing for Southampton at the time, went onto be Gary Monks striker coach, when Monk managed Blues, and also David Dunn. Players autographs on programmes actually diminish their value, but I’ve never seen it as that. Preferring to see it as enhancement instead. After spending most of the day with them all, including such an amazing reaction from Benedict as soon he saw me for the first time this visit (I can only think that it was a case of mistaken identity, and he thought I was someone much more interesting and exiting, but I’ll take it, as Benedict has severe autism and is ‘locked in’.) He was to hardly leave my side, right up until I left to get the train back home. Locked in or not, mistaken identity or not, it was great interacting with him, and seeing the contented happiness my visit had had ignited in him. Before I finally end this post, I’ve got to point out that the train I had booked myself on from Preston, was again cancelled, like it had been last summer when I’d stopped up there. Apparently, it’s a regular occurrence. If you’re looking for fingers to point over the industrial action the RMT are being forced to take, then point them at the inadequate and inept franchises that have been awarded contracts to run our railways in this country. The system does indeed need restructuring, because every single contract should not be renewed. The country needs a rail network it can be proud of, a network that is the envy of the world. A network that caters for everyone, accessibility for both families and disabled alike. Technology that doesn’t exclude the technophobe, but embraces them. Prices that a minimum wage can easily afford. Control of the network should not be beholden to the whims of successive governments, and its budget both inflation linked and protected. Same as the NHS and same as the education system should be. However, it’s not. It’s all about making money in this country of ours. Inequality is a quality to be financially exploited. Out of sight, is out of mind.