The best bar in the whole goddam world


“Best pub in the world, Stu” said Danny, wafting a printed sheet of A4 under my nose bearing a photo of an average looking bar.
“Says who?”
“Lonely Planet”, underlining the fact in the article with his finger, “That means we have to go there.”

I couldn’t really argue with Danny’s logic. It was after the best pub in the whole world as chosen by one of the most respected names in world travel. I sighed with resignation that this would happen. All that stood in our way was finding the right day and buying a bunch of petrol station flowers.

It look a good 30 seconds of research to find a suitable date and then a 2 minute walk down to the Shell garage at the bottom of the road to purchase the PSF’s. The Current Mrs Fuller was ecstatic at the floral arrangement, but quickly wised up when she saw the price tag and where they’d come from. Her first reaction was to suggest I had done something wrong. Once convinced I was not guilty of any crime she asked the follow-up question “So where are you going?”. I told her the plan and she nodded in silent approval before laying down two conditions. “Strictly no Guinness and no watching stripping Catholic nuns unless they are Margot Robbie”. The CMF is a wise judge of character.

18620654773_69423d400a_kWe had a deal and so that’s why we were fighting for elbow room at the bar of Wetherspoons at Gatwick South at 7am on a sunny Saturday morning. Whilst our port of arrival (and departure) would be Dublin, our final destination would be at the seaside in County Wicklow.

18612406154_738c04141a_zBray is a hidden treasure in that virtually all visitors to Dublin never venture further afield than St James’s Gate in the west of the city and thus it stays off the well-worn Stag/Hen party route. Just forty minutes on the DART from the carnage that is Temple Bar, Bray offers fresh air, clean beaches and of course football. As well as being home to the Harbour Bar, said best pub in the world, Bray was also home to Irish gold medal boxing Olympian Katie Taylor, new kid on the singing block Hozier and the quite frankly barmy Sinead O’Connor. I doubt we would bump into any of them in the Harbour Bar, The Porterhouse Brewery or The Carlisle Grounds, home to Bray Wanderers.

This was to be my final game of a long season which had started on the 5th July last year when Brighton & Hove Albion had visited Lewes. Eighty games later, having travelled to the other side of the world (twice) to watch games and I would be signing off for the campaign watching The Seagulls again, only this time the Bray variety. A long close season of 5 days was to follow before I began the 2015/16 campaign with West Ham’s first ever Europa League tie, against the Andorrans Lusitanas on Thursday. And they say footballers have it hard, what about us poor fans?

19208848236_3f75dfabb3_kOf course the football was really only a secondary concern on this trip.   The opportunity to sample some of the best beers in the whole of Ireland as well as a bracing 4 mile Sunday morning cliff-top walk were the main items on the agenda. My good friend Mr Air Miles had provided the flights, whilst the weak Euro vs the Pound meant it was cheaper to stay in a decent hotel in Bray than fill my car with petrol.

We hopped off the bus right in the middle of the Gay Pride march.  Fortunately it was heading in the same direction so we used it as cover to avoid the what seems like hundreds of people giving out leaflets on O’Connell Street for open top bus tours – unless someone had found scientific proof that gay people are more likely to take said trips than others, in which case it was genius marketing.  Our first venue was J W Sweetmans, a small brewery on the south bank of the Liffey which had launched its new summer beer the night before.  “Seven beers lads?” the barmaid asked us?  A bit familiar we thought until she placed seven “tasters” of all of their beers on a tray for us. Not a bad start to the weekend.

Next stop was Ireland’s best pub, no less.  The Brew Dock, almost opposite Connolly Station.  Within three minutes we could see why.  Galway Bay beer, including the rare as an Andy Carroll appearance, 8percenter Of Foam and Fury.  We could have stayed in there all day but we had a plan to maximise our time.  Forty five minutes later we stepped off the DART at Bray and braced ourselves for a slice of culture before the big match.

We checked into our hotel, went up to our room, found it was a double, went back to reception, explained we were friends but not that good friends, stopped ourselves combusting with laughter when the receptionist told us we were in room “230” (say it with an Irish accent) and that the bar closed at 9pm (really?  In Ireland?) and then headed out again.  We had the world’s best bar to visit after all.

I’m not sure what the chap from the Lonely Planet was on when he voted the Harbour Bar the “Best bar in the world” back in 2010.  It’s not bad, in fact it’s got bundles of character but the downstairs bar looked a bit like the Pheonix Club after the fire, with strange old objects on all available surfaces. I have nothing against old typewriters personally but I’d rather have somewhere to put my beer. You can’t argue that it had some decent beers and a great location, but I’ve been in better.  In fact by the end of the evening I would say it wasn’t even the best bar in Bray.  But we had to try it, just like we tried an untitled place almost opposite the ground which was full of very drunk men and women sitting alone at tables with beers double parked.

19047293280_e38eef7ce9_kThe Seagulls, or to give them their full Irish name, Cumann Peile Fánaithe Bhré, haven’t had the most successful of histories.  Their golden years, under the stewardship of the legendary Pat Devlin came back in the late nineties when they won the First Division twice and the FAI Cup.  Devlin has since stepped back into the managerial hotseat on no less than five occasions, although his services weren’t called for when Polish manager Maciej Tarnogrodzki was given the boot last month.  With off the field issues with the ownership of the club, coupled with a relegation fight it hasn’t been the best few months to be a Bray fan.  But fear not, we were here now – that was sure to make things better!!

Bray Wanderers 1 Sligo Rovers 0 – The Carlisle Grounds – Saturday 27th June 2015
When you are fighting for your lives at the wrong end of the table you will take any goal, and that is exactly the thoughts the 500 or so home fans will have come away from this game with.  McNally’s scrambled early effort which seemed to rebound off half a dozen players before creeping over the line lifted The Seagulls up to ten place, leap-frogging the visitors.

On the pitch there wasn’t much to talk about during the ninety minutes.  Sligo probably edged the first half and can feel unlucky that every time they had a chance on goal a Bray player somehow got in the way of the ball.  During the second half neither keeper had much to do as time after time the ball broke loose in midfield.

19047431600_15b5ab286a_kIt had all started so promisingly.  A €3 Seagulls key ring solved our craft beer bottle issue for later in the night, the chips with curry sauce were only marginally spoilt by a short, sharp shower that diluted the sauce and Danny got his picture taken with a giant seagull.  Best day ever you could say.  We even bumped into a ground of Finnish ground hoppers, one of whom sported a huge West Ham tattoo and smoked big, fat cigars like they were going out of fashion and regaled us of tales of fisticuffs the last time they came to England to see a game –  at Corby Town versus Hinckley United.  Obviously.

The Carlisle Grounds is a modest affair that wouldn’t look out-of-place in the Ryman Premier League.  One old terrace with some seats bolted on with a new temporary stand on the other side.  Both ends have been cleared awaiting some redevelopment, but with the club looking for someone to take them over it could be awhile yet before anything new appears behind the goals.

We headed out of the ground, excited for what lay ahead.  The Porterhouse was our destination of choice for the evening and it treated us well.  Too well some may say as we staggered back to our hotel at 11pm with a paper bag full of chow mein.  Sophistication is our middle name and the Chinese would be washed down with our beers we had left in the sink before heading out.

But there seemed to be a conspiracy afoot.  The bar in the hotel didn’t close at 9pm.  It was heaving, with a live band playing when we arrived. It appeared to be a private party but two young handsome Englishmen were more than welcome it seemed.  When they left, we were invited in as poor substitutes.  Danny was soon up on his feet, jigging around the room to the Irish Rover, then bringing the house down with his rendition of Danny Boy.

Sunday dawned first at 6am when our alarms went off.  Then at 7am and finally at 7.30am.  Were we really going to do the 6km hike up the hill and along the cliff walk in the rain?  We felt we should and as soon as we had ascended to a point where we needed oxygen (about 10 metres above sea level) the sun was shining and we were in our groove.  What better way to blow out the cobwebs of a superb night.  Bray had been a star.

Most people don’t come to Bray for the football. We did, sort of, and it was up there with our wedding days, probably.

If you want more details of a trip to Bray then head on over to our sister site, 24 Hours in the City.

A tale of two cities – Part 1 Dublin


15627072842_faf855b2e2_oEvery Saturday football fans from Ireland’s two biggest cities, Belfast and Dublin head off in serious numbers to support their teams. Unfortunately for the League of Ireland and the Danska Premier League that often means heading to the airport rather than the stadium down the road and jumping aboard the Ryanair express to Liverpool, Manchester or London where they will join the rest of the Premier League fans on the road to expensive, ultimate disappointment. The huge expansion of the budget airline network has meant that it is often as cheap and fast to fly from Dublin to Manchester than it is to get the train from SE9 to London Bridge using SouthEastern Railways. Back in the day when clubs considered foreign pastures exotic places such as Cork, Coleraine and Cowdenbeath, the scouts from the English top league were notorious for finding Celtic gems such as Alan Hanson (Partick Thistle), Frank McAvennie (St Mirrean) and Roy Keane (Cobh Ramblers). The backbone of the finest clubs in Europe thirty years ago was made from Irish rock and Scottish steel.

The expansion of scouting networks to the other side of the English Channel, and further afield meant that the reliance on players from Ireland in particular diminished. With it went some of the investment in the home leagues and so the downward spiral started. As soon as the likes of Ryanair and Easyjet started offering cheap seats across the Irish Sea clubs in Ireland had to start facing up to the bleak reality of having to compete each week with the Premier League for fans.

Tourism is the one growth factor in the Irish economy, ravaged by the global financial crisis and the bottom falling out of the property market. Whilst the budget airlines continue to drop their cargos of Craic-seeking tourists each week, few ever think about heading to a stadium to take in a local game. But not me! Oh no. Yes, there would be some Guinness and yes there would be a full Irish breakfast or two but I would be heading off to watch a game not only in Dublin but in a week’s time in Belfast too. If you are going to do your research, do it properly. First up would be a trip to one of Ireland’s most successful clubs, Shamrock Rovers.

An hour after losing the tourists at the airport we were hoping off the bus in Tallaght, not the traditional stop on the tourist trail. Our hotel was some way out of the city centre, but conveniently located opposite Shamrock Rover’s Tallaght Stadium. Funny that, said CMF. Of course I pleaded ignorance and blamed it on the corporate travel agent we use at work. We’d only been in the hotel a matter of minutes before a waitress in the bar spotted us.

“Look at you’se all. You need a full Irish breakfast immediate. Guinness with that for the adults?” Irish hospitality at its best. The Fuller girls had mapped a day of touristy things for me to do which conveniently avoided any pubs in Temple Bar and instead was to take us 44 metres up in the air, walking along the roof of Croke Park. Certainly one to enjoy for those, unlike me, who don’t have a morbid fear of heights, especially in the section when the walkway juts out over the pitch. “This is a cantilever design, meaning essentially there is nothing keeping us up in the air” Our chatty guide certainly had a way with words to put us at ease. Spending 90 minutes 17 stories in the air is enough to send even the most sober person to the bar.

15618248342_4e4ba5d97a_oFast forward two hours and I was sitting in a deserted Tallaght Stadium as the players of Shamrock Rovers and Limerick went through their warm ups. This was a dead rubber in terms of influence on the final shake up for the season. Shamrock could grab the final Europa League spot but only with a bizarre set of results, like those you see in Italy the end of a season. Limerick were firmly wedged in mid-table. However, all of the drama would be happening away from Dublin as just one point separated Dundalk from Cork City at the top as the two sides met in County Louth.

Whilst this would be the climax to the season that the League of Ireland would have wanted, they haven’t really enjoyed the best decade. Three of its most successful clubs, Bohemians, Shelbourne and Shamrock Rovers have all come perilously close to ceasing to exist, whilst others such as Drogheda and Cork weren’t so lucky and had to reform. The move to a summer league was designed to breathe life back into the league and take advantage of the lack of Premier League action from May to August. However, with average crowds in the top league of just over 1,500, it is hard to see how some clubs remain afloat.

Whilst today, Shamrock Rovers are the best supported side in Ireland, they haven’t always had the rub of the green. Huge off-the-field issues, changes of ownership and legal and financial wranglings dogged them in the late 1990’s and into this millennium until finally in 2005 they were relegated and faced financial meltdown, hampered by falling attendances in a ground they didn’t own. With a record 17 League of Ireland titles to their name as well as providing the national team with more players than any other Irish club, Rovers simply couldn’t die.

Once again, supporter power was the answer and a fan-ownership model saved the day, with. 400-strong group managing to wrestle power from the want-away owner. The fan-owned club achieved promotion back to the top league at the first attempt and have never looked back. Ten years in and they can call the 6,000 all-seater Tallaght Stadium home as well as two League of Ireland titles plus a couple of decent European campaigns under their belt including the 2011-12 season when after losing in the Champions League Play-off against FC Copenhagen they qualified for the Europa League Group Stages, the first time an Irish club has done so, taking in ties against Tottenham, Hotspur, Rubin Kazan and PAOK.

Rovers home form had been pretty good this season, and they came into the final game having won their last four at Tallaght in a run that stretched back to those long balmy summer nights in July. A must for any visitor to the Tallaght Stadium is to visit the ticket office. This isn’t your run of the mill office – it is a memorabilia-laden trip down memory lane. Well worth a half an hour of anyone’s time. Inside the stadium the two sided stadiums probably does the job in the warmer months, but in the dying days of October it was bloody freezing, with the wind blowing in from each end. The hardcore Rovers fans were all huddled together in the east stand, whilst the Limerick fans had arrived in fancy dress. Scooby Do, Super Mario, Osama Bin Laden and finally one chap who obviously got to the fancy dress shop late and had to take the last outfit on the peg, Katie Price. Actually he pulled the look off rather well and could probably earn a living as her body double and brain.

Shamrock Rovers 1 Limerick 0 – Tallaght Stadium – Friday 24th October 2014
The two teams took to the field with Erasure’s “A Little Respect” playing. Forty five minutes later the referee blew for half time and there hadn’t been much that had warmed our freezing cockles in between a Bell and a whistle (cryptic reference there pop pickers) with Limerick coming the closest to breaking the deadlock when Ian Turner’s shot hit the underside of the bar and flew back out. At least the fans tried to generate some real atmosphere, despite this being the last game of the season.

15597489006_8ce5818c65_oEven the most optimistic reporters around me were struggling to fill their word count for the match reports. Just after half-time the effects of my Irish breakfast were wearing off and so I ventured down to the chip van, which of course meant as soon as I was out of sight of the pitch the only piece of drama in the evening occurred. Rovers were awarded a penalty when Kilduff was adjudged to have been fouled by Oji. McCabe stepped up and scored. Typing and eating steaming chips doesn’t really mix so I relied on voice to text to complete my match report, which makes interesting reading, interspersed with phrases like “oooh hot” and “mmmm vinegar”. Hard to really factor those into the second half update. Fortunately I’d polished them off before anything else meaningful happened when Limerick missed a final minute sitter. Full time on the game and the season. A small mutter went up at the announcement of Dundalk’s win at home against Cork City, perhaps in irony at the fact the Dundalk manager was Stephen Kenny, sacked by Rovers two years ago, now a double winner. However, their real ire was saved for the Bohemians score, a 2-1 win over Derry City. They really don’t like the chaps from Dalymount Park in these parts.

15618787861_5897a6caf2_oSo what next for Rovers? The League of Ireland continues to be a very open league, with Dundalk becoming the fourth winner in the last five years.  Whilst European football brings in additional revenue for the clubs involved, it is interesting that the team who ends up winning the league are those who do not have the distraction of Europe.  Rover’s issue has been the lack of goals, scoring 30 less than champions Dundalk.

Sunshine greeted us the following morning as we headed out to see the main sights of Dublin, which were punctuated by numerous refuelling stops. My aim was to find and sample the three “lesser” spotted variants of Guinness – Foreign Extra Stout, Special Export and the relatively new Black Lager. Objectives achieved, Lewes and West Ham recorded wins in the early games and another Irish breakfast that Alan (Partridge) would have struggled to have fitted on his special big plate and I was a very happy man. Life was good. Hats off to Dublin for delivering on virtually every aspect of a great weekend – the actual match aside. Now, could Belfast step up to the plate?