Monday, 15 December 2008

"Try pulling your eyelid down as far as it'll go..."

Away at Morecambe.

It's not quite often one of Britain's leading football bloggers can be tempted from his secret scribing facility somewhere in deepest Staffordshire (I've seen it: think your cool best-mate-from-school's Optimus Prime toy, but with more with more grounds under its belt) for a brief encounter between perhaps the two giants of the modern game - that's Morecambe versus the mighty Quakers to you.

Saturday's fixture at Christie Park presented just such a temptation, and our guest expert was kind enough to buy me a pint of Black Sheep into the bargain. For my part, I hope to bust my Brightonian cherry at Edgar Street in February. There may be foine coider on hand, albeit in very small driveable quantities.

Thanks to Groundhog for the company and continued tolerance, in any case.

And so on towards Morecambe through the mist and HGV spray, up the M6 and down the A5105 Coastal Road, passing en route through the mighty-sounding Bolton-le-Sands and Carnforth, of Brief Encounter (the real one) fame. All the while wondering if - like last year - this afternoon's game was somehow predestined to be postponed or abandoned.

Neither of us was too confident, least of all myself - and thus I delivered my finest Celia Johnson:

"If we control ourselves...
and behave like sensible human beings...
there's still time!"

If. And. Would we have a sufficient window to make Fylde or Squire's Gate - if the Gods were with us?

Speculatively, I fumbled the radio buttons for information. None was forthcoming from the once-rocksteady 693 Medium Wave (nowadays "the home of live sport," long vacated by "useful information delivered in a timely fashion.")

Alas, Radio Lancashire starts its football broadcast at the ungodly hour of 2pm, and so we listened respectfully to some homely programming about humble garden wormeries instead.

Happily, anyone familiar with last year's corresponding fixture - or, with the wormicide witnessed at the hands of Darlington's River Skerne a few years back - knows that this course of action was entirely appropriate.

In any case, Morecambe shows its best side when approached in the roundabout fashion. Last year I shunted through Lancaster's seasonal traffic for what seemed like hours (maybe it was just Lawro-on-the-Radio effect).

Taking the Coastal Road, on the other hand, lays the seafront before you like some magic carpet made of asphalt and salt water. It was high tide, and a winter murk hammocked the air, nearly abolishing the tonal difference between sea and sky.

Wading birds pottered around in the wet sands and standing water. Groundhog vaulted the concrete wall and ninja-rolled like Bruce Lee onto the promenade. Self-consciously, I probed for an ample gap to squeeze through. He is more athletic than I, despite his advancing years...

We stared out towards America, and contemplated its possibilities. Or those of Grange-over-Sands. Not for too long, though.

While we're here, I'm disappointed to learn that Morecambe's Jug-of-Tea is no more. And I keep meaning to go and see the Midland Hotel, but I'm sure its resplendence won't quite measure up.

Onwards to the ground, featuring a high-class chippy by the away end - om nom nom nom! - and with a whole would-be grandstand accounted for by the presence of an ARC car wash where the lukewarm pie counter should be. With a little under an hour till kick-off, we plumped for a short walk to the York Hotel.

Cantering briskly along, I liked the way that the intermittent terraced street was composed of short-then-tall house and shop frontages, looking a bit like the joined-up letters of a child's handwriting. Out and about in Morecambe, there's plenty of rambling shorthand for faded grandeur and past glories, but most of all there's a welcoming humanity.

The pub was ace, the bouncer very personable. The back room was what all "sports bars" should be and won't ever be, one day.

OK, so the big screen with Sky Sports is concessionably a necessary evil, but the walls - all festooned with the scarves of lower-divison and non-league opposition - rendered the place welcoming and inclusive.

Here's a place that feels like it belongs to Morecambe, full of the names of old mutual acquaintances you didn't know they knew: Bedlington Terriers, Droylsden, Farnborough Town, Kidderminster Harriers...

The ninety minutes were disappointing, Darlo losing 1-0 and slipping to sixth. "Never at the races," sighed the bobbing, twitching woolly headgear at the full-time urinals. And, having announced that I felt like some "atmosphere" we had taken our place behind the goal amongst fans who'd decided that referee Jarnail Singh's alleged resemblance to Monty Panesar was too hilarious to let pass. Much of the first half was spent warbling on about it. Wonderful. We were so going to get on...

But when all's said and done we've been here before. We've been much worse before. Good results, most fans understand, are far more exhilirating in adversity. In fact we've rarely been much good at all, ever since 1883. Who can claim honestly that the prospect of success is what it's all about? Though admittedly it is nice to have a decent team this year...

For me, the great thing about following your team away (and I think it's better in nearly every respect at this level), is that you spend time in all kinds of places you'd rarely venture otherwise.

Each season brings a new promise of peregrination. Were it not for the football, instead of Boston (a few seasons back, that one) you'd choose... well, would you ever need to make that choice anyway?

There, we sat in some pub on the old Lincolnshire harbourfront, a little spooked by the fact that a middle-aged couple were taking notes on us and exchanging giggles in a fashion they clearly thought clandestine. Like two kids at the back of the class. More likely stories on Boston here.

As often than not, there's a wonderful sense of place both outside and inside the ground (though this is changing, as I'm sure to discover at Shrewsbury).

Morecambe is a great example, but there's something to recommend every seasoned ground, even in the places that otherwise privilege grit and character over any ostensible charm - see Dagenham and Redbridge's pie and mash (and of course, liquor) shop and the beautiful 1930s pub round the corner from their Victoria Road ground (one that looks a dive from the outside, but which is stunning within).

It's not that the football isn't important. It's the fact that it comes embedded in the landscape, with such a rich hinterland. More on this in future posts, no doubt. But I think that's why I rarely go home disappointed.


David said...

Excellent post Mr Tom. It was a great day out. As I say after most Brighton away games, when we've lost in almost identical fashion to the Darlo at Morecambe, 'I'm glad I went'. Why that is is trickier but I think you were getting near the answer - I would be very interested in reading your musings on the matter. Good company, fish & chips, real ale, traditional ground - just a shame about the match. Hereford is February 7th. Start knitting.

Shane said...

You capture much that is important and gorgeous in rootling about the lower leagues. I particularly liked the line about '...embedded in the landscape'. That the scoreline should so often feel immaterial is the detail that would alienate many of the blunt objects that populate stadia of the more popular teams.

I'm reminded of a fantastic wintry visit to Scarborough, with Burton Albion and a charming young woman. A 4-1 defeat, a man sent off, 'everything' in town closed, and a general aura of ghost town... On which theme, I would recommend a mid-winter visit to Blackpool (not necessarily for football). The three or four mile walk down the promenade - when all is closed, as gales lash the sea onto the front, and as chill Irish winds remind you that you're not in Stoke-on-Trent - is a wonderful, embracing experience.