Cardiff/Blackpool - Awaydays
Tuesday, 16th Nov 2021 16:13 by Clive Whittingham
London to Blackpool via Cardiff across six days - whose bloody stupid idea was this?
Fit and proper
The Championship is a chancer’s waiting room.
The Best League In The World (c Keysie) has become so grotesquely engorged that ownership of its clubs now passes between billionaires, oligarchs and nation states. The days of a Jack Walker, local-boy-made-good, owner of the town meatsafe, buying the neighbourhood football club and elevating it to a league championship with a few million quid are gone. When Newcastle United goes on the block, the repressive, regressive state of Saudi Arabia is the buyer, and it costs them the thick end of half a billion pounds just to get the keys.
But a Premier League club can be yours, with a guaranteed £120m payment even if you finish dead last when you get there, for the much more affordable price of buying a Championship club and bunging Neil Warnock a few quid for some new players. Problem is, everybody has got the same idea – 14 of the 24 teams in this division are foreign owned. All 24 clubs lose money each season – QPR, keeping their losses hovering around the £1.3m a month mark, count as well-run at this level – and only three are promoted each May, with parachute payments giving the relegated teams a significant advantage. It is far more likely that you will come in, do your money, bump up to and/or through the profit and sustainability rules, and then become mired in a mixture of fire sales, work-arounds, fudges, points deductions and relegations. There are far more stories like that of Derby, Sheff Wed, Reading, Birmingham, Wigan, Sunderland, Ipswich and Bolton than there are Wolves or Leicester.
While presumably/hopefully not thrilled to death about this, the EFL seems unable or unwilling to do anything about its top division existing in this state. There is vague talk of introducing the German model, where a majority stake in the club must remain held in trust by the supporters, but it doesn’t feel close or realistic in this country. The lack of clamour for it, even as the Burys and Macclesfields stack up on the scrap heap, is really rather depressing. Football clubs that have been around for more than a century, that bring hope, identity and opportunity to their communities, that families have lived their lives by for generations, reduced to a betting chip, their futures existing entirely on the whim of one man or consortium whose only qualification for the role was having enough money to buy the thing in the first place.
Few trips bring this home than a six-day jaunt from London to Blackpool via Cardiff. It’s a 25-minute walk from our pub by the bay to The Cardiff City Stadium in Leckwith, and it’s only when we get 200 yards away from the place that there’s any clue a match of any sort is taking place here tonight. My first experience with a ‘Covid passport’ is not a successful one – there’s too many people around so the app won’t work. “Are you telling me I’ve come from London and I’m going to miss this match because I can’t get a signal?” Yes, says a senior steward. My mate has taken a screenshot of his (clever girl) and texts it to me. I show this, which isn’t mine, and doesn’t have the right name on it, and had already been seen by the same steward 30 seconds prior, and with that I’m in. Great system lads.
Cardiff had lost eight in a row prior to a weekend draw at Stoke, and even that was rather miraculously salvaged from a 3-0 deficit. They did the Warnock thing, and got a Premier League season out of it, but since that ran its natural course they have appointed first Neil Harris and then Mick McCarthy. In one of the worst football games it’s ever been my misfortune to watch they lose again here to QPR, thanks to the only moment of quality across the 90+ minutes, supplied by Andre Dozzell. Caretaker manager Steve Morison claims afterwards: “Everything was through the roof. Passing, accuracy, final-third entries, everything was better than it has been. The proof is in the pudding in terms of the data. Next step is to change the score column to a positive one to us.” For this apparent improvement (fuck only knows how bad they were before) he is given the job permanently – his first. This is not a club being run by anybody who knows what they’re doing and QPR have now beaten them four times in a row, scoring 11 goals.
The new stadium looked exactly the same as everybody else’s new stadium until they stuck another tier on one side of it – filled with red seats, of course, because at that point owner Vincent Tan was persisting with the idea that Cardiff should play in red in the same way the Allams insist there’s an enormous latent support for Hull City in the Far East if only the club was named after a fucking wild animal instead of a place. A century of tradition and local identity be damned. In all, 16,398 of the seats are unoccupied for our visit (one for every person who does attend) and the game plays out in total silence bar one lunatic waving an Italian flag around in the side stand, and a creditable following of 700 from W12 up in the corner. Interest is waning, hope isn’t far behind, and the locals that have stuck with it can do nothing but keep forking their money over and waiting to see what their owner does next – such is the model of this division, and the life of the majority of fans who follow it.
Blackpool couldn’t be more different. QPR are in the temporary side stand this time, mercifully now with a roof on a night that would have had Noah delaying the sailing until morning. Sprawled out ahead of us is a bright orange horseshoe wrapped tightly around the pitch, every seat in it is filled with a person, and every person there is making a racket. You could snootily venture that there’s more to atmosphere than banging a drum and singing ‘allez allez’ on a loop, but the home support is louder and more incessant than I can remember anywhere for a very long time. Compare this 90-minute wall of noise to one of our semi-recent Liverpool visits, for instance, where 40,000 people talked among themselves for 89 minutes before waving some big flags around and singing You’ll Never Walk Alone for the stoppage time while Japanese tourists filmed on their phones and Sky commentators creamed their knickers about the “famous Anfield atmosphere”. Partly through being cold and wet, partly because QPR are mostly crap and distinctly second best in the game, but mainly because there was little chance of cutting through, the away end is as quiet as it’s been all season. On the field Blackpool have a bright, enterprising, young team of academy cast offs, overseen by former Liverpool youth coach Neil Critchley. They look, and feel, like a team with a plan and an identity, that is really going places. Rangers are singularly fortunate to leave with a point.
Don’t forget though, this was the scene of an attempted murder. Convicted rapist Owen Oyston was allowed to transfer the majority of this club's Premier League windfall into his own bank account, asset strip it, and then run it into the ground as it descended through four divisions in six years. The EFL did nothing about any of this and it was only because this group of supporters organised and maintained a near total boycott of games, starving the owners out, and minority shareholder Valeri Belokon pursued them through the courts into bankruptcy that the club still exists at all. There’s been much talk online about how QPR fans go about creating a similar atmosphere to the one we experienced at Bloomfield Road last Saturday, and it’s completely within our gift to make Loftus Road hum like this place, but to a certain extent it’s a product of adversity. Theirs is a fervour born of snatching your football club back from death's door, and riding again with it after believing for so long that it might all be lost forever. The best I’ve ever experienced in W12 was the Oldham play-off semi-final, when a club that had been in administration with six players started fighting its way back with a vibrant, talented and passionate team led by a charismatic manager. Blackpool look, feel and sound a lot like that 2002-2005 QPR situation, and you can only congratulate the fans for their stubborn resistance and the rewards they’re now reaping for it. Cardiff, potentially, have all those dark days still to come.
As you travel around this league you frequently find yourself landing in places that used to be there for a specific thing, and that thing has now been taken away: Blackburn – textiles, Stoke – pottery, Barnsley – coal, Hull – fish, Middlesbrough – steel, Huddersfield – wool. What the place looks and feels like now depends on what, if anything, has come in to take its place and how well that’s going. I’ve experienced this first hand having been born somewhere in the grey area where Grimsby (fish) and Cleethorpes (tourism, well from Sheffield at least) merge into one. Suddenly, nobody had very much reason to go to either just as I was learning to tie my shoelaces. I did a harsh and demoralising secondary schooling in Scunthorpe, where the threat of the steel mill closing down, and what it would mean for an already desolate place, remains omnipresent today. Later, through work, I spent a bracing year in Corby, where once there was also a steelworks, and now there are 50,000 angry Scottish people waiting for The Corby Candle to open. #levellingup
Britain’s seaside resorts have been hit particularly brutally by this phenomenon. We used to come here as kids, in the car, across the Pennines, from east coast to west coast, past the house in the middle of the motorway, for our holidays. The grandmas, the inappropriately hilarious grandad, the aunt, the cousin, mum, dad, brother, and me, all over to Blackpool for the lights. It’s what you did. It’s what you could afford. A little nostalgic Saturday lunchtime tram ride up to the Bispham and Cleveley’s Kitchen for their “Moby Dick and chips” turns into a Panini sticker collection session with the guest houses – stayed there, stayed there, stayed there, stayed there, The Cliffs, The Doric, The Sheraton, The Norbreck… I stick a picture of the lights on the LFW Instagram and the first reply is from my cousin – “oh my God have you seen the rocket tram yet?” The rocket tram being something of a family obsession circa 1994. Then, suddenly, you could fly from Humberside Airport to Mallorca for 30 notes each, and we didn’t come to Blackpool anymore. Nor, it seems, did anybody else. When your specific thing is people coming to the seaside, and people don’t want to come to the seaside, that’s a tough bind. There were 4,561 officially recorded overdose deaths in the UK last year, the highest since they started counting in 1993, and ten of the top 14 hotspots on this dubious league table were seaside resorts. Blackpool has been top ten years in a row. The smack here is particularly moreish.
The first half of our, frankly ridiculous and not-to-be-repeated, six-day trip from London to Blackpool via Cardiff is spent in the Welsh capital, where there is stuff. I mean primarily it’s a giant pub for rugby fans to get pissed up in and then try to set fire to each other’s farts while basking in media-perpetuated fallacy that life would be so much better if only the football fans could behave as nicely. But there’s enormous development going on here - huge commercial units springing up everywhere the moment you step outside the station. There are shops you want to shop in, pubs you want to drink in, restaurants you want to eat in. We have a very convivial pre-match kicking around the bars of Cardiff Bay. We visit a Remembrance service at Cardiff Castle one morning and there are foreign tourists milling around while the veterans pause for The Last Post, including an Instagram couple who spend the entire ceremony taking somewhere in the region of 1,600 pictures of each other on a professional looking camera, so they’ll always have the memory of when he gazed off into the distance through his designer sunnies, and she poked her bum out and pulled a face like a trout in front of a plastic dragon, while 500 Welsh war veterans paid their respects in the background.
I can sort of see Cardiff as a place you might not have to be physically dragged to visit. And then, early on Thursday morning, we begin the long ascent to Blackpool and, look, I’d like to say by way of introductory remarks that there is now going to be a paragraph or two where I take the piss a bit. I am going to be using what we would call violent sexual imagery to describe Blackpool in a way you may consider the biased, snobby opinions of a soft southerner. Let’s all poke fun at the post industrial death of the north. But I would like you to bear in mind throughout that I went to a comprehensive school in Scunthorpe where you would be inserted into your own arse if you were ever caught admitting to reading a book. And anyway, the Awaydays were always meant to be funny pieces where we go to places and point at things and laugh at them, not somewhere to get all solemn about heroin death statistics. Blackpool and other places like it are built on the sort of wry, dry, northern sense of humour that I was brought up on and so it’s more ok for me, from Grimsby, to laugh along with them that it would be for an alternative me, from Islington, to laugh away at them.
That’s what I’m telling myself anyway as I recount in no particular order a bar/nightclub affair called Shenanigans, which we happen across bright and early on Friday morning. “Every night is St Patrick’s Night” at Shenanigans, apparently, and if that doesn’t grab you then it’s also promising “cool music, warm beer, and hot barmaids”. There’s a shop that simply markets itself as WE SELL FAGS next to a palm reader called Leanora Petulengro, who is doing well enough to have a permanent storefront, has had Ant from Ant & Dec in judging by the photographs on the door (probably should have warned him to get a cab home) and thinks QPR will probably get a point. There’s a whole chain of pubs called Ma Kelly’s, internet searches on which turn up a mixture of an enormous tax scandal they got nailed for a year or so back, and police appealing for information on a stabbing that took place there last month. Ma features prominently in the signage, a sort of Big Mo matriarchal character, and they’re so hot on this branding that they’ve even taken over and renamed the famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin up towards Bispham, where many a Whittingham had their first beer. This means the tramway now has a station called ‘Cabin’ but no Cabin to be found when you alight there. Feels like a marketing miss to me.
There’s a guesthouse called The Feathers – Beverley Macker tends bar. There’s a hotel called The Calypso advertising “all rooms en suite, colour TV, tea making, full English breakfast, evening dinner”. There’s a lift to all floors and when Carol’s leg pays out they’re going to get a jacuzzi. On Friday night we chance our arm at The Grand Theatre (it actually is pretty impressive inside) with something called Around The World In Eighties Days which is a sort of half-pantomime, half-musical, using (very loosely) the story of Phileas Fogg as an excuse to keep bursting into old Dead or Alive numbers. It swiftly crosses the line into so bad it’s good. Our lunch (which is fucking lush) at the Bispham and Cleveley’s Kitchen takes place under a framed picture of Bruce Forsyth. Nothing for a pair, not in this restaurant. RIP.
You can often rely on CAMRA to source you a decent pub in emergency situations, even if you only drink the Peroni when you get there, but on this occasion this tactic leads us down a flight of stairs and literally into somebody’s basement. That somebody is a geezer called Albert and he’s here, behind the small bar and a pile of kegs, listening to Sounds of the 70s on a low volume. There’s another lone gent, underneath the beachball which has been pinned to the ceiling in lieu of a disco ball, silently staring ahead while making his way through a pint of Murky Brown. There’s a black and white photograph of the Bee Gees on the wall and, look, I’m just going to post the picture. We enjoyed it immensely. There’s another pub, with a flat roof, called The Frenchman’s Cove, which has an eight-foot plastic pirate dangling precariously from an upstairs balcony, a Liverpool FC You’ll Never Walk Alone banner over the door, and a Play Your Cards Right night later in the week where the top prize is a gallon of beer. Avast. We make a note in the diary. In The Brew Room, which we like a lot, and visit more than once, a bay window has collapsed, and several large blue tubs are strewn around the place to catch the resulting intrusions which, on Saturday, when Hurricane fucking Delilah blows in off the Irish Sea, are plentiful.
But, look, what are you going to do? Middle class, white, 30-something (shut up), journalist, Clive, who lives in Whetstone, coming up to Blackpool and looking down his considerable nose at the place? Who wants to read that, or be that prick? There’s the standard “Blackpool’s a shithole, I want to go home” chant at the match, but it’s just mindless football ‘mega bantz’. After the game Lancashire Police, who by all accounts and for reasons best known to themselves treat Blackpool home games like the first Gulf War, blockade the road behind the away end with a mass of cars, motorbikes, and hired goons save for a tiny slipway at the top which allows the two sets of supporters to bump into each other anyway thus rendering the whole operation pointless while at the same time creating a dangerous crush on both sides. The locals are furious, and they’re absolutely right. Amateur hour. To escape we walk half a mile, in the dark, down some side streets, in the wrong direction, but to get back this means we have to turn right, and right again, onto the seafront, where the lights are on and, my God, suddenly I’m eight-years old again, forgetting how cold and wet I am, and geeking out when one of the illuminated trams glides by. It’s genuinely lovely, just like I remember it, and the hurricane has died down especially for us.
Somebody, somewhere, is trying. There’s some money being spent here: the whole seafront and tramway has been replaced since I was last around; there’s a tram extension and new complex being built at the railway station where the trains have been electrified and the platforms redone; all of Church Street outside The Brew House has been overhauled; there’s an attempt at creating a restaurant district going on down Clifton Street where we’re lucky to get a table at Michael Wan’s Mandarin, which has exceptional service, absolutely delicious food and a picture of Raymond Van Barneveld up outside the gents toilets attesting to these facts. Gives me a chance to recount the story of my step-dad making my mum do a sad cry over the festive turkey by naming Barney’s nine-darter as his favourite ever Christmas memory. There’s a flashy Beach House Bar on the seafront that you can sort of imagine taking the in-laws for lunch. The football club is coming roaring back, and hasn’t felt the need to ditch itself in some identikit, soulless new build out of town next to an Asda the size of the Death Star to do so. We finish the weekend in Churchills – a ghost of LFW’s karaoke past that has mercifully survived the plague. It’s advertised as “the friendliest little pub in town” and they’re not wrong. Two of them are coming down to The Crown for the return fixture, a pensioner in a pink two-piece suit wants to swap old Hull FC stories, and when one of our travelling brethren has too much to drink and gets caught out by a sharp key change in Duran Duran’s A View To A Kill he’s cheered down from the microphone anyway. Or, maybe that was because he’d finished. By that point in the night/day/week it was difficult to tell.
All in all, it was a bit of fun, and I guess when you consider what Blackpool’s ‘for’, it’s exactly that.
The hotel bar
Cardiff to Blackpool is not a short trip, or a convenient trip. The whole thing is, it transpires, a seriously bloody stupid idea.
We’re on the platform at Cardiff Central - a mainline, capital city terminus which seems to have gone out of its way to be as unimpressive as possible – by 07.30 Thursday morning. Given we were in a (really rather good) curry house called The Purple Poppadom somewhere in deepest Leckwith not nine hours prior this is an achievement in and of itself. A couple sitting opposite move away.
The first day-and-a-half of the voyage is with Arriva Trains Wales, and the route takes us from a country where non-face mask compliance is punishable by electrocution into one where the prime minister doesn’t feel the need to wear one while touring a hospital, which is an interesting juxtaposition to watch play out during the journey. We’re late into Crewe because while the scenery is frequently beautiful on a bright, cold and crisp autumn morning, the combination of falling leaves and ascents and descents through the Wye Valley means the train struggles to accelerate away from stations, or slow itself down approaching them – a tremendously reassuring experience a week on from the Salisbury rail accident. To be fair, as three large post-11pm Cobras slosh around with partly digested lamb rogan josh I’d probably take a swift fiery death at this point.
None of this, it turns out, is enough time for our next stop off point to have our rooms ready by the time we arrive and so we’re asked to spend some time in the hotel bar while we wait. We reluctantly accept this invitation. There we find, and hear from, Carol, and another 60-something woman whose identity remains hidden by virtue of her being merely a sounding board, rather than a participant, in the conversation which is delivered entirely in one direction, at an intrusive volume, and rapid pace, containing not a single word of any worth, value, interest or humour. It’s actually quite a miraculous thing to behold, like Grandpa Simpson on bad acid. It is a stream of consciousness, without ever a pause for breath, and as it was in my life while I drank a pint of Moretti and felt the will to live drain out of me for 40 minutes, I feel it’s only right that it should be in yours as well.
“…I said to her I’m not touching that phone until you’ve wiped it because you’ve been coughing into your hand. I didn’t tell her about you, you can tell her about your knees, I’ve been trying to build my knees up for so long. I am absolutely delighted with it, it’s gluten-free, wheat-free, milk-free. That’s me. Free of everything in my life. I am so looking forward to that meal. I’m going to use this again. So, anyway, they’re in Madeira. I was going to ask you where these people were staying in Madeira - we need to find out where he stayed. He said they were in a private park. So, you might be swept off your feet by your friend Carol, I’ll pay for you, we’ll be in Madeira this time next year. When she first started it was light and sunny, then it went dark and she couldn’t see them. I thought the guy was in the room it was that clear I could hear it. There was some land in Scotland but it’s too far. Anyway my coffee’s gone cold…” (It fucking will have done you haven’t shut up since it arrived – edit). “…they do winter stuff like coats and jumpers and they’ve got some lovely jumpers, I looked at the brochure and they will send these jumpers wherever you want in a special presentation box so this afternoon I’m going to order one for Sandra because whenever I’ve phoned her up when I’ve been off my head she’s always sent something in the post like cream and she’s sent me this step counter and this step counter came yesterday and I’ve done 1,568 steps already, but because I haven’t got any loops on my trousers I have to hook it on here, and I’m delighted with it. I’ll get one for you as part of your Christmas. It’s just under 2,000 steps on a normal day, she said you should be doing 10,000, I said you must be joking. It’s simple to use. Are you going to follow up those exercises for your knees?”
Maybe we should get her to write the Awaydays?
As it turns out it’s not just her, there’s something about the room. They’re pumping some sort of truth serum into the gaff through one of the vents. A couple of us are in there again later in the week taking the edge off and waiting for people to get their shit together before we head out and although somebody has seemingly, mercifully, taken Carol away to hold under some bathwater, now Debbie is here. Debbie is a friend of your mum who, when you’re introduced, immediately shrivels her nose up at the thought of living in “that London” because everybody is so “unfriendly and miserable”. Unfriendly and miserable in this instance being somebody who perhaps isn’t bothered by the thought of 20 minutes minding their own business with a paper on the Northern Line, as opposed to Deb for whom any small gap in any conversation taking place anywhere within striking distance is an invitation for her to interject and start feeding in fascinating anecdotes from her life.
Reluctantly, it’s dragged out fairly early doors that we are indeed up from London for the football on Saturday, but we seem to escape relatively unscathed from this. Gently but firmly, we’re able to retreat back into the conversation around our table about where we’re going tomorrow, what we’re doing when we get there, what time we’ll need to get up for the train, where we’re having breakfast, why Yoann Barbet is suddenly giving the ball away so much, and-“I was with an agency in London you know. I’ll bet you can’t guess which one.” Deb is back in play. Didn’t even wait for a gap this time, just chopped straight through the clutter from ten yards away like a conversational Mark Dennis. We try and guess the area of London said agency was based in but we’ve misread her purpose - the fucking agency could be on the moon, it’s not a geographical quiz. Deb wants it out in the open right now, cards on the table, that she served sometime as a Steffi Graf look-a-like model. It takes us half a dozen incorrect celebrity guesses before she puts us out of our misery, and if we were still there now I’m not sure we’d ever have got this right. She looks like Steffi Graf in the same way I look like the International Space Station. Off we go again, hearing about Deb’s photoshoot for Volkswagen which upset Graf because Deb was surrounded by muscly lads in their underwear, but there was no need for Steffi to be like that about it because in actual fact they were in cycling shorts down to the knees. Deb’s brought a sidekick (Bev), so whenever we don’t respond with sufficient interest she simply chucks it her way – “and I said to Steffi’s people there’s no need to be like that because in actual fact they were in cycling shorts down to the knees, didn’t I Bev?” – receives a textbook one-two “you did Deb yes” pass back and continues remorselessly towards goal. “Anyway, she knows of me, let’s just put it that way.”
We hear about Deb’s ex-husband, who’s run off with “some tart from Warrington” and they’re shacked up in a mobile home together – "he still texts me though, won’t leave me alone, can’t keep away can he Bev?" No, Deb, he can’t. We’re told forcibly, repeatedly, at every mention of Blackpool, that we’re wasting our time going there, and should really make the effort to go down to Lytham instead – That’s. Not. Where. The. Fucking. Football. Match. Is. Though. Is. It. Deb? There’s another interjection about our venue for dinner which is apparently a dreadful choice (“don’t bother, portions are too small”) and the Thai place up the road, where we really should be going, which could do with a refurb but does really super food. Bev is back with their drinks from the bar to reinforce this point – “I was just telling them about that Thai place Bev,” “Oh yes Deb, it could do with a refurb but it does really super food”.
Deb and Bev are heading there tonight as it goes, for a psychic evening. Deb doesn’t usually bother with these, because she has the gift herself. “I said to this man I met once there’s something very seriously wrong with you. I pursued him for days and forced him to go for a prostate exam. Stage three tumour. I saved that man’s life, didn’t I Bev.” “Yes Deb, saved that man’s life.” This makes psychic evenings pretty pointless, but she’s popping along tonight anyway for which I’m sure the host will be grateful. “They always come up to my table, I don’t even have to do anything they’ll just come over and say ‘somebody here is spiritual’, won’t they Bev?” “Yes Deb, they always come over.” At one point Deb goes for a piss - this is the best minute and 45 seconds of the week - but she’s soon back, via reception, where she’s given the girl manning the phone a quick reading about her dead mum. “I just get a feeling sometimes, it gives me a chill, right down my spine, look I’ve gone all cold and goosebumpy.”
Alas, Deb cannot, it seems, tell what I’m thinking.
Scores on the doors my darling
Cardiff: On the pitch >>> QPR performance 6/10 >>> Cardiff performance 3/10 >>> Referee performance 6/10 Off the pitch >>> QPR support 7/10 >>> Home support 3/10 >>> Overall atmosphere 2/10 >>>> Stadium 5/10 >>>> Police and stewards 5/10 In the pub >>> Pubs 7/10 >>> Atmosphere 6/10 >>> Food 7/10 >>>> Cost 7/10 On the train >>> Journey 9/10 >>> Cost 5/10
Blackpool: On the pitch >>> QPR performance 5/10 >>> Blackpool performance 8/10 >>> Referee performance 6/10 Off the pitch >>> QPR support 6/10 >>> Home support 9/10 >>> Overall atmosphere 9/10 >>>> Stadium 6/10 >>>> Police and stewards 2/10 In the pub >>> Pubs 5/10 >>> Atmosphere 5/10 >>> Food 7/10 >>>> Cost 7/10 On the train >>> Journey 5/10 >>> Cost 3/10
Totals, Cardiff 78/140, Blackpool 83/140
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