The trickiest part of a match report for me to come up with is often the bit concerning what actually happens on the pitch. I leave the house full of good intentions to take diligent notes of the players' movements during the 90 minutes of action, but invariably by kick-off time have a good couple of pints inside of me (read: at least four pints, and probably a bag of pork scratchings) and am enjoying the match-day experience far too much to step back from it and start scribbling in a note book, for Christ's sake. So, I will spend the next two hours singing and wailing at the top of my voice, sometimes paying more attention to the fat bloke in the away end with the big drum than to the intricate tactical manoevres/ mudbound clogfest thinly disguised as a football match being served up by the twenty-two players I have supposedly paid good money to watch ply their trade. On the way home I will retrieve the soggy notebook from my pocket and find that my 'notes' for the game read, in their entireity, '4 mins. Bramble. Big hoof. 10 mins. Bloke in funny hat calls linesman 'poofter'. The next day I will cobble together a 'match report' including detailed analysis of the half-time pies, interspersed with some cursory reference to events on the pitch (dazzing wing-play, 19-man brawl, full-back running length of pitch to smash thirty-yard last-minute winner into top corner) lifted wholesale from some other, more reputable source and added almost as an afterthought.
So now you know. Anyway, this is all by way of telling you that on Sunday, when I despatched myself to the wilds of Lancashire to take in FC United's away fixture versus Great Harwood, I had no such difficulties. We'll come back to that in a bit. First of all however, a lengthy digression concerning my journey to the ground.
It all started very bright and breezy. The kick-off was set for 2PM, and I arrived at Victoria Station in good time for the 11:06 to Preston, from where I was due to take a connection across to the venue for the game, the ground of Accrington Stanley FC. Most of the thirty or so FC United fans in attendance were forming a queue for overpriced victuals from the Java coffee stand. I marched straight past them, up unfashionable Shudehill, and into the Abergeldie cafe, where for £2.75 a waitress brought delicious bacon on toast and coffee made in one of those vintage hissing 1960s machines directly to my formica table with slashed red leatherette seats. 1-0 to me, I thought. slurping the last of the coffee before making my way back down the slope to Platform Three.
The train was standing ready to leave, but it wasn't going anywhere yet. At 11:03 a harassed-looking employee of Northern Rail came running down the platform. 'We'll be a bit late getting off this morning, lads', he announced to the huddle of FC fans waiting to climb aboard. 'The driver's taxi hasn't turned up- he'll be here in ten minutes'. Sure enough, a short fat man with uniform and suitcase (what do train drivers keep in those battered suitcases? Their sandwiches?) presently came wheezing along the platform to ironic cheers from colleagues and supporters alike. After a further short delay caused by a technical issue with the sliding doors- they were stuck fast so nobody could get in- we trundled off. It was 11:22- we should still just have time to make our onward connection.
'Just' was the word, all right. At Preston I sprinted the length of the platform and made the 12:09 stopping service for Colne as the doors slid shut. Surprisingly the bulk of the travelling support seemed to have drifted away, though; apart from a gaggle of excited teenagers off to the icerink at Blackburn, the carriage was nearly deserted. They must have all gone for a pint at Preston, I thought. As I would later find out, it was more likely they had been advised by mobile phone that a late pitch inspection was due, and with the overnight frost showing a reluctance to clear out in the wilds of Lancashire, there was some doubt the match would be going ahead.
Blissfully unaware of these troubling developments I alighted at Accrington, which at lunchtime on a Sunday was almost deserted. The only sign of life came from the taxi rank, where bearded Asian drivers leant gossipping on the bonnets of their Toyota Carinas. Pausing only to make a payphone rendezvous with my companion for the afternoon (a non-league football aficionado from the office who lives a stone's throw from the ground), I decamped to the nearest licenced establishment, the Imperial Hotel.
There was precious little imperial about it in there, let's say that for a start. There was a notice on the wall warning any troublemakers that the establishment was wired straight through to the Police station, a pool table covered with bulky Karaoke apparatus, and giant signs scrawled in marker pen advertising Exeter City versus Accrington Stanley on Monday night Sky . Behind the bar a regulation issue small-town fiftysomething hardman pored over the News of the World crossword, while in the darkness of a recess his only lunchtime customer- a bedgraggled, eccentric-looking pensioner with frightening teeth- carefully poured small helpings of Guinness out of a bottle into a half-pint glass. Behind him, an array of variously-shaped tea-pots- the sort you see advertised in the Sunday supplements as limited collectors editions, decorated with twee drawings of kittens and roses- lined every available surface. The disconcerting aura was topped off by the satellite TV, which for no apparent good reason was tuned into the London station Capital Gold. On the news, Ken Livingstone was enthusing over the Chinese New Year celebrations in Leicester Square. The clientele of the Imperial Hotel nodded in agreement with the Mayor's call for cultural enlightenment, then poured himself another helping of stout.
Leaving the Imperial, which would surely be discarded as a set for a League of Gentlemen sketch for being overly outlandish, I met up with Pete, and we made our way, by car and foot, to Accrington Stanley's ground, situated in a leafy suburb a mile or so from the town centre. We were within touching distance of the floodlights when we met a supporter coming the other way:
'You off to the game, lads?'
'Well you can forget about it- it's off!
Down by the turnstiles (well, we weren't about to turn back- we had come a long way, or at least I had) variations on this exchange were being repeated, in tones varying between hope, desperation and resignation. The word 'off' reverberated among supporters gathered in the narrow alleyway:
'Is it really off?
'Aye, it's off all right'
'Off? Did someone say off?
'He's never called it off? Off? You saying he's called it off?'
It was the frost, apparently- the referee had taken one look at the thin strip of white under the main stand and declared the surface unfit for play. As the news sank in, a lad with a cardboard tray sidled among us.
'Pies! A pound your pies now!'
But nobody was in the mood for discounted savouries. Gradually the crowd thinned, leaving us standing on the side terrace (Pete had given a nod and a wink to the turnstile feller), casting our expert eyes over the pitch:
'There's nowt bloody wrong with it, is there?'
'Nowt at all- come on, let's go and get a pint'.
Well there was nothing else for it, was there? So we headed back into the car, and across to the other side of town, where we stood gazing at another patch of grass, where until the 1960s had stood the ground of the original Accrington Stanley club, who were expelled from the League after falling into financial trouble. Not that you would know now they had ever been there; this grass was more fit for walking the dog than playing League football, and of the ground itself, only a single brick wall remained; apparently this had once formed the back of the dressing rooms, built into the main stand. You could still make out a faded inscription half way up:
'Erected by Supporters of Accrington Stanley FC, 1932'
Thankfully the neighbouring Peel Arms pub was still standing, and what's more, it was a damn sight more welcoming than the Imperial Hotel. A couple of choice real ales and some animated conversation restored the faith in human nature that had been rocked by the bungling referee's contentious late postponement, and by four o'clock I was being dropped off back at the train station. All was well with the world again.
There was a little bit of football in the end. The train wasn't due for another 45 minutes (read: there was a train due in two minutes, but I had developed a thirst and wasn't in any hurry to get going) so, resisting the temptation of a return visit to the Imperial, I nipped into the slightly-less-scary Nags Head and took in the first half of Wolves against Manchester United in the cup. On the way home the train was deserted again, except for that same gaggle of teenagers, now on the way back from the ice rink. Presumably their entertainment hadn't been curtailed by the frost- but you know what, I didn't envy them. After all who needs an actual match to watch when you can inspect two pitches, one of them disused for the best part of forty years, and sample the full range of pubs a Lancashire mill town has to offer? Oh yes, it had been a great day out at the football, even if there was precious little football to be had. I may return to Accrington Stanley one day- although perhaps I might give the Imperial Arms a miss next time out. I'm really not that keen on those collector's edition tea pots.