My name is Tom, and I’m a football addict.
You may have seen my interview with Stuart on this very blog a couple of weeks ago. I’m the nutter who did, quite literally, eat all the pies. Or more precisely a pie at all 92 league clubs in 92 matches in 92 stadiums, in just one season. Even the most hardened football fan (which as a reader of this fine blog I’m sure you are) would question why on earth anyone in their right mind would want to do this. So here’s my story.
After graduating from university I didn’t know where my life was heading. Whilst considering what to do as a year out I thought somewhat outside the box. Many of my friends were travelling around the world, exploring exotic paradises in deepest South America or losing their inhibitions in East Asia. There was no frolicking in the Thailand jungles for me. The nearest I got to a tropical beach was Grimsby Town’s Blundell Park on a pneumonia-inducingly cold winter evening.
I travelled across the country, driving the equivalent mileage of England to Australia and back in my ropey old Peugeot 206, all in the name of the beautiful game. I knew there was a different story to tell at every single ground, figuring out what makes the clubs and their passionate supporters tick. I have written about my travels in my as-yet unpublished book 92 Pies; an epic journey into the football unknown.
There were some memorable highlights and lowlights along the way. I experienced a bloody mass brawl at Stockport v Oldham, saw a championship trophy lifted at Brentford (with a subsequent pitch invasion!) and drove for 6 hours to Crewe Alexandra only for the match to be cancelled. Once I even went to 7 matches in 7 consecutive days (at Port Vale, Blackpool, Wolverhampton, Wycombe, Oldham, Macclesfield and Hull since you asked. Mmmmm, the glamour).
I even took my ‘football-indifferent’ girlfriend Annabel a few times, somehow managing to convince her that excursions to the likes of Watford and Coventry City would be romantic. Her patience was well and truly tested when I travelled to watch an FA Cup tie in Swansea by myself on Valentine’s Day. The bunch of £4.99 ‘forgive-me’ flowers from a petrol station only made things worse.
Generally it was all a truly wonderful experience, but I certainly reached a massive low point around January when, in the midst of the coldest winter in living memory, I traipsed around some pretty shabby stadiums with the most painful tonsillitis I could have wished for. Shivering on Carlisle United’s Brunton Park terraces with tonsils the size of testicles isn’t something I would like to ever revisit.
The entire trip had made me become slightly detached from reality. I would cancel evenings out with friends to stare at fixture lists, I would sleep nights in my car, and obsess over the lower leagues I previously cared little about.
My favourite aspect of the journey was the variation. I went to Accrington Stanley’s Crown Ground one Saturday and Anfield the next day to see Liverpool beat Villa 5-0. Both were brilliant, but in very very different ways. The disparity between the 92 was incredible.
As for the pies, 92 is a lot to take in, but I always forced myself to get one no matter how ill I felt. Over the course of 9 months I got lost in a football food-fuelled adventure, culminating in a tour of an actual pie factory before my last match at my beloved Bolton. It was surreal! A bit like Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory if Roald Dahl’s imagination was slightly more grimly-realistic and Lancastrian. Anyway, I thought I would share with you some titbits of my ridiculous adventure last year as a world exclusive for the Ball is Round faithful. Starting at the beginning of my quest, all the way back on the opening day of last season. All bright-eyed and empty of pie I was, unaware quite what I was letting myself in for….
GAME 1 – CHARLTON ATHLETIC
CHARLTON ATHLETIC 2 (Hudson 3, Gray 85) SWANSEA CITY 0 – 9th August 2008, 3pm, The Valley, Charlton, South-East London
“The Dome was a load of old rubbish wasn’t it.” I grumbled.
John stared at me with his bleary hungover eyes, “I dunno, I can’t remember.”
“Yeah you can, we went on that school trip back when we were 14!”
My shoes were acting like a sponge to all the rain. Every step I made sounded like a comedy ‘squelch’ sound you get in a cartoon.
It was the first day of the season. What a day this was! If you discount the FA Cup 3rd Round weekend and the play-offs, this day is as good as it gets in the football calendar! Normally about now I would be moulded into the sofa, slippers on, kettle boiled, waiting for Jeff Stelling to kick off the new season with his non-stop barrage of beautiful puns. Watching intently for the first goal of the season, the first red card of the season, the first opportunity of the season to hear Chris Kamara scream ‘unbelievable!’ It was always a glorious day of armchair viewing.
Yet here I was, battling a monsoon at Charlton Athletic, about to watch them play Swansea City in a match I would normally have very little interest in. It was the start of my quest. 92 grounds in one season. Beginning today. Gulp.
We had arrived at the rain-sodden Valley early, so quickly found our seats and took out a newspaper. I’ve been to the Valley a few times before and am quite fond of the ground; it keeps the noise in well and I’ve always found the Charlton fans fairly agreeable.
The paper had a preview of the upcoming Premier League games, including my team Bolton’s opening fixture against Stoke. A picture of Gary Megson (AKA the ‘Ginger Mourinho’) bellowing and pointing adorned the pages, some slobbery chewing gum visible in the back of his mouth.
“How uninspiring is this man?!?!” I gesticulated towards the paper. “We need Sam Allardyce back pronto.”
“Big Sam is the worst manager ever to grace the Premier League.” John said, just to rile me. He knows how much I love that man. “He’s an idiot. Remember that season he played Henrik Pedersen at left-back?”
I wasn’t going to rise to John’s attempts to bate me.
“Under Megson though it’ll be another season flirting with relegation with pathetic football in front of a half-empty Reebok,” I moaned.
“You could look at it as a half full Reebok,” John pointed out. He’s forever the optimist.
Becoming a Bolton fan was never something I was destined to do from birth. With neither of my parents supporting a team I didn’t have a club to grow up with. At the age of 10 I turned to my Bolton born-and-bred Godfather Chris for advice.
“There’s only one team to follow young Tom,” Chris wisely said to young me in his softly reassuring Lancashire accent, “and that’s Bolton Wanderers.”
I nodded in enthusiastic agreement. Wow! Bolton Wanderers. They sounded so exotic. I made an oath that day to follow Bolton through thick and thin, but in retrospect perhaps I should have made a couple of checks first. Like the fact that Bolton is over 200 miles away from my home in Hertfordshire. Or that the team had just finished bottom of the Premiership with a record low points total.
Chris took me to see Bolton play for the first time at Oxford United’s Manor Ground in November 1996; a creaky, dilapidated old terraced barnyard that has since ceased to exist. Despite having such luminaries as McGinlay, Sellars and Frandsen in the team, Bolton drew 0-0 on a truly freezing and dreary night. Inexplicably, this was the day I fell truly and utterly head over heels in love with football for the rest of my life.
And here I was 12 years later, waiting for kick-off at the Valley, my stomach filled with doubts. Why was I at rain-sodden Charlton when I could have just as easily been slumped on the couch listening to Jeff enthusiastically ramble about it instead? At least it saved me having to look at Phil Thompson’s face I suppose. I was nervous about this project, was it really feasibly going to happen?
“Come on, let’s get your first pie, that’ll calm you down” John said, sensing my apprehension. I bought a steak effort, which looked bigger and tastier than I had expected. I took a bite and a dollop of brown splodge fell on my shoe, my stupid spongey shoe, which was wet enough to begin absorbing the brown splodge into my sock. This wasn’t getting off to the best of starts.
Moaning to John about my sloppy shoes, we re-took our seats; the impending doom of Carmina Burana was playing on the PA system, suggesting that either the apocalypse was nigh or the new football season was about to begin. The rain had calmed down and my mood was beginning to improve. The players had lined up and it was time for kick-off. The first kick of a ball of a season that would last 42 weeks, during which fans across the country would experience every range of emotion as their team battles their way towards championship contention, relegation or mid-table mediocrity.
Three minutes into the match Mark Hudson scored for Charlton, a powerful header from a corner. Fantastic! Even better was that Hudson was making his debut for Charlton, as captain! This was a Roy-of-the-Rovers style fairytale happening right here right now in front of my eyes. The pie-gloop on shoe catastrophe was long forgotten; I was back in the football zone.
Even though the match wasn’t a classic, I was having a blast. John and I were enjoying the rather questionable banter between the Charlton and Swansea fans, with a huge amount of anti-English or anti-Welsh sentiments. Can you be xenophobic against the Welsh? I’m not sure if it technically counts as racism, but Charlton fans definitely made their opinions well known about what gentlemen from Wales get up to with sheep in the cold lonely valleys.
“So what was actually in the Dome then?” John asked me as Charlton’s terrifically named 16 year old midfielder JonJo Shelvey received some treatment for a knock.
“It was dancers and trapeze artists, and side attractions about science being fun and stuff.” I said trying to remember anything of note. “You remember you got your picture taken with E.T.?”
“What was E.T. doing there?”
I racked my brains for a minute. “Probably watching the dancers and trapeze artists.”
Glancing at the big screen I saw that during a televised advert a fish swam across the screen to a huge chorus of ‘Feeeeeeeeeesh’ from the Charlton fans, which I guessed was in reference to Mark Fish, the former Charlton and Bolton cult-hero defender. I remembered the days I spent shouting ‘Feeeeeeeeeesh’ myself from the crowd at Bolton games, and felt a spurt of warmth towards the Charlton supporters, who had in general been fairly quiet.
After a dull second half it livened up in the last ten minutes when Swansea captain Garry Monk got sent off and Andy Gray scored Charlton’s second goal to seal the victory. It was a slightly subdued afternoon, almost as if the supporters knew, despite the win, what an awful season 2008/2009 would be for Charlton. The rowdiest section of the crows was two boys of about 8 or 9 sitting directly in front of me, who spent almost the entire 90 minutes chanting “Alan Pardew’s eating salami!” which was as confusing as it was inaccurate. I was almost certain that there was no salami consumption occurring in the Charlton dugout.
I left the Valley feeling relieved I had successfully started the mission, and both nervous and excited about what would lie ahead in the coming weeks and months.
“This is it J. I’m going to do it! I’m going to bloody do it!”
“There’s no way in hell you’ll manage 92 of them in one season,” John laughed, being a man with low tolerance for lower-league football, “that one was painful enough! I would bet you anything you like that you can’t do it. I even would get down on my knees and admit to you that Sam Allardyce is a misunderstood tactical genius.”
Now there was an incentive. I was going to do this.
1 down 91 to go.