Last night I told my landlady that I wouldn’t be in for breakfast as I had an early bus to catch. By virtue of a 1-0 win over Wycombe Wanderers last month Preston North End was visiting Ipswich for a third round FA Cup clash. Ipswich is on the opposite side of the country in Suffolk and the supporters’ buses leave at 8:00am for a round trip of around 600 kilometres. After checking the overnight cricket scores from Sydney online I set off for Deepdale, buying a Daily Mirror from the Bangladeshi man in the corner shop. Half an hour should be enough to get there.
As I walk along Church Street in the dark I contemplate the present status of the FA Cup. Paul Lambert, manager of Aston Villa, has come under fire for saying that the Cup competition is a “distraction” from his quest to preserve his club’s place in the Premier League. Even Simon Grayson, Preston’s manager, confirmed on the club website that yes, he wanted to win the Cup fixture but might have to rest a couple of lads with aches and sprains following last Wednesday’s victory over Port Vale. Another telling factor is that the admission price to this FA Cup round is less than what the punters pay at the turnstiles for a normal league match. Shades of the NAB Cup.
While I am considering all of this I notice that the street I am strolling along is unfamiliar to me. This is not Deepdale Road. Call it complacency, call it a lack of awareness of my surroundings, I soon realise I am in trouble and in danger of missing the coach. Rather than retracing my steps I decide to cut through back streets to get on course again. The stadium must be somewhere to my right, I reason, although I can’t yet see the light towers over the roofs and chimneys of the houses.
I remove my beanie, coat and fleecy jacket and run for it. Surely I’ll make it and once I emerge onto Deepdale Road I can flag the bus down if necessary.
My steps echo down empty, darkened streets. I’m hot! Why? It’s the thermal top I’m wearing beneath my flannelette shirt. Soon my breath is rasping in my throat and I’m becoming increasingly desperate. I run into a cul-de-sac at a railway embankment. What’s a railway line doing here?
Breathless, I emerge onto a main road. A young Muslim man wearing a white cloth cap is standing on the kerb.
“Deepdale Road,” I gasp. “Is it just around the corner?”
He looks at me in puzzlement.
“No,” he replies. “That would be New Hall Lane. It’s back that way.”
He points back in the direction I have come from.
I stagger into the carpark at Deepdale at about ten past eight. There are about ten empty cars on the tarmac and the buses are nowhere to be seen. There are many things that are true of the English and one of them is that they are a punctual people. To make matters worse I have accidentally dropped my newly purchased Preston North End beanie somewhere. I hope a fan finds it and gives it a good home.
I catch my breath and assess my options. Train? I can always hop on the bus to come home. On the way back to the station I realise my error. Instead of veering left at the prison I continued my course along Ribbleton Lane. It won’t happen next time. I ask the man in the ticket office at the station whether it’s possible to catch a train to Ipswich and arrive by kick-off time at three. I know there is no direct rail route between Lancashire and East Anglia.
“Brace yourself,” he says. “If you go by London you can get there by ten past one but it will cost you 118 pounds.”
That’s over two hundred dollars plus the hassle of getting from Euston to Liverpool Street Station in the capital.
There are definite limits to my devotion.
I walk through the door of the Ashwood Hotel. My landlady is surprised to see me.
“Hi Marjorie, any chance of getting breakfast after all?”
After breakfast I take some time to decide how I should spend the rest of the day. I visit the beautiful Catholic church of St. Walburges, just a couple of streets from where I am staying. It dominates the skyline with its spire, the second highest in England. The church is named after St. Walpurgia, a female missionary to the Franks in the eighth century. She was known for being a miracle worker.
I decide to catch a game anyway. It has to be local. Rochdale? Accrington Stanley? Oldham Athletic? Bolton Wanderers are at home to Blackpool in an FA Cup tie only half an hour by train from Preston. Both clubs are in the Championship, with Blackpool sitting in twelfth place and Wanderers eighteenth on the table.
Bolton started out as Christ Church FC in 1874 and was formed by the Reverend Thomas Ogden, schoolmaster of Christ Church. After a dispute with the vicar the club looked for a new home but had some difficulties in finding a permanent venue. Hence, they changed their name to Bolton Wanderers in 1877. They started playing at Burnden Park in the centre of the city in 1895 and stayed there until 1997, when they followed the lead of many English clubs in constructing new purpose built all-seating facilities on open land and industrial estates on the fringes of their cities. Reebok Stadium is now their home. It’s about 10 kilometres out of town at Horwich Parkways. It’s a magnificent sight, with the pattern of white steel girders above the stands resembling the tracks of a theme park rollercoaster.
The club is in serious debt. At the beginning of the season they owed 136 million pounds, 125 million of this sum owed to majority shareholder Eddie Davies. He has graciously negotiated terms with the club whereby it has ten years to pay up following his formal demand for repayment, which he is yet to exercise.
Blackpool are known as the Seasiders, or the Tangerines, on account of the distinctive colour of their shirts. As befits rival clubs residing just down the road from each other, supporters of Preston North End and Blackpool FC hate each other. This rivalry is known as the M55 derby, on account of the motorway which links their communities.
When my train, which terminates at Manchester Victoria, arrives at platform 2 there are plenty of Blackpool fans aboard. They are boisterous, but reasonably well behaved, apart from one boy who flagrantly smokes a cigarette.
I am stunned when I alight from the train at Horwich Parkways. I thought the English had pretty much overcome the violence that plagued their game in the sixties and seventies and made it more family friendly.
There are four fluoro-vested policemen on the platform when we arrive. Outside the station there are another 20 policemen and women standing in a row along the footpath to the stadium as well as four more mounted on horses. Two squad cars and two tactical assistance vans are parked alongside. I am in the midst of the Blackpool supporters and we are escorted along the street to the main road that passes in front of the stadium.
Then the chanting between rival fans begins. They are mostly teenage boys. The police take no chances. Every group of them, whether Bolton or Blackpool, receives a personalised escort from the police.
There are more mounted police on the concourse outside the stadium. Next to one of the ticket windows is an honesty box for guilty spectators to dump their flares.
I happened to buy my ticket at a gate for home supporters, so I was seated with the Bolton crowd adjacent to the section reserved for the visiting fans.
Even before the game commences the Blackpool supporters are chanting “We hate Bolton, we hate Bolton!”
This is met with cries of “Fook off!” and raised middle fingers.
The Blackpool contingent is surrounded by a phalanx of yellow fluoro-vested police and orange fluoro-vested stewards. The stewards in front of the visitors have their backs to the action on the field and never take their eyes off the barrackers in the stand. Stewards at the back search vainly for the culprit who activated an orange flare.
When David Ngog scores for Bolton in the twelfth minute youths scramble across rows of seats to get closer to their Blackpool counterparts in order to taunt them with various insults and chants of “Wanky, wanky, wanky!”
The Blackpool fans endure the tirade in silence.
Paradoxically, the players on the field are a model of civility. Both teams applaud their followers when they walk onto the pitch at the start of the game. Even though the contest is extremely physical I witness a number of instances when players such as Bolton’s Jermaine Beckford apologise to an opponent who comes off second best in a contest and assists him to his feet. I don’t observe any sledging between players and there is virtually no dissent expressed toward the referee.
There is controversy on the cusp of half time when Tom Barkhuizen equalises for Blackpool. The linesman’s offside call is overruled by the referee and the goal is allowed to stand. The Blackpool stalwarts sing “Suck it in, suck it in” to the tune of “Here we go, here we go” to the clearly disgruntled hometown fans.
In the second half an errant kick lobs the ball my way.
“Mine!” I yell, throwing my match program away and putting up both hands to take the mark. I actually get to touch the ball before a boy behind me punches it out of my hands towards the sidelines.
“Ooh!” exclaims the crowd.
I learn in conversation with the boy that this is what you should actually do if the ball comes your way. You don’t try to catch it like you’re at the cricket, rather you punch it. His mate tells me proudly that he actually got to do a header at a game a couple of years ago and was applauded by his fellow spectators.
The group of teenagers in front of me is warned by stewards about their behaviour. Eventually a number of police and stewards arrive to escort the ringleader from the arena. The Blackpool supporters are filled with malicious glee. At first the boy looks mortified, but as he is manhandled toward the exit he grins broadly in a display of bravado. One of his companions scrambles after him to take a photo on his mobile before he disappears down the steps.
Jermaine Beckford breaks the deadlock for Bolton to make it a 2-1 victory for the hosts . I wish the boys behind me good luck for the fourth round. Enjoy the rest of your holiday they say.
I emerge from the stadium to a scene like martial law has been declared. Eight police march by in columns of two. I can hear police dogs barking in the darkness in the direction of the railway station. There are more mounted police at the point where departing fans use the pedestrian crossing. Then there is a line of constabulary shoulder to shoulder for 100 metres, all the way to the station. Only fans heading in the direction of Preston are allowed to enter the station and cross the bridge to the opposite platform, because the police don’t want opposing fans facing each other across the rails. The Bolton army heading the other way will need to wait outside the station until their train arrives.
“It’s the smaller clubs who give you all the trouble, you see,” offers one man.” Millwall, Lincoln City, York City. They’re the worst. The Millwall fans! They spend the whole time just taunting you.”
I ask one policemen whether he likes being on duty at soccer matches, given that he is able to see at least part of the game.
“Like it! No, I hate it,” he replies. “Most people are fine but it’s just the idiots who spoil it for everybody else.”
I arrive back in Preston and cut down Corporation Street to the Corn Exchange, where I try one of their speciality cheesy vegetable pies for dinner. I discover that Preston has drawn one all with Ipswich at Portman Road, thanks to a first half strike by veteran Kevin Davies, a former Bolton player.
This means the match is being replayed! Tuesday night, January 14 at Deepdale! There’ll be no slip-ups this time.
Maybe St. Walpurgia’s reputation for miracles is well-founded.