My name is Tom and I’m a football addict



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 I have written about my travels in my as-yet unpublished book 92 Pies; an epic journey into the football unknown.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 O2 arena (the artist formerly known as the Millennium Dome) came into sight as my scruffy, unshaven old friend John and I stepped out of Charlton station into the pissing rain.

“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!”

“No recollection.”

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.

Eeek.

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Who ate all the pies? Well I did actually!



A few months ago a fascinating story caught my eye in my Metro newspaper on my then daily commute to London (now my commute takes less than 4 minutes from luxury bachelor pad on the waterfront in cool Copenhagen to the office – well during the week anyway!). It was a story about a mad chap who had visited all 92 clubs in one season and wolfed down a pie at each one – who would be so crazy to do such a thing? Well all of the TBIR team would have, and having picked up the hotline to HQ in Brighton I can confirm that the EFW team would be on that mini-bus too.

BOLTON PIE 1

Bolton Pie

After months of searching for our elusive pie-muncher I had to fall back on the excellent match making skills of Claire from Sky Sports Magazine, who is an Angel of the First Degree (the highest honour TBIR can bestow on anyone) who put us in touch with Tom Dickinson, the Pie Man extraordinaire and the rest as we say in this industry is gravy.

So here we go. Me, Tom and a plate full of assorted nibbles….

Obvious opening question – Best pie of the 92? Would have to be what’s on offer at Morecambe’s Christie Park. They’re supplied by a local independent company ‘Potts Pies’ and have more taste and depth than any of their rivals. I recommend the steak and ale.

Would you say you were a piexpert (new word created there and sent to Oxford English Dictionary) – could you pass the equivilant of the Pepsi challenge? I can bravely state ‘yes I can easily tell the difference between Hollands and Pukka in a Perpsi challenge!’ I might be less cocky if you had both in front of me though.

John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood

John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood

So next season lets say Tamworth are promoted – what will be your objective? I confess that the excitement of visiting a new ground is NOT about the pie. My journey was in all honesty more about seeing if I could actually visit the 92 grounds in just one season. The pie aspect was a bit of a gimmick, the ‘meaty glue’ that holds the 92 together.

It was about meeting the fans, seeing the different grounds and finding out what role these lower league clubs play in our society (and my adventure along the way)! That’s a bit long winded though so the press caught on to the pie aspect! I was bloody glad to see the back of pies after my 92nd match!   You park up, walk to the ground and pay your money to get in. What’s first – programme, match or pie? I tended to have it (the pie) straight away because clubs often sell out of them at half time, leaving you with a lukewarm grey slap of burger. Nonone wants that.

Any no-nos in terms of pie eating? I admit I’m a southern softy and use a fork. I can’t justify shoving it into my mouth. The more gravy the better! If I had my way I’d bring a hip-flask of gravy to the match and layer the pie in it to take the taste away.

TBIR like a game abroad or two as you know. Have you done a jaunt abroad yet looking for the foreign offering? The foreign pie – it’s something I (distressingly) am yet to encounter. I’m only 23 so I’ve got my years ahead of me to get to some foreign matches. I’m a Bolton fan, and I busted my balls to try and get some UEFA away tickets when we were in the competition a couple of years ago (particularly the Bayern Munich match) but missed out. If I can save some money then some European games will be on the cards sooner rather than later hopefully.

Maybe you can tell me though; do they have pies in the European stadiums? Are they in the bland English meat n potato mould or do they have a suitable slant in each country? Paella pies in spain? Sausage und sauer kraut pie in Deutchland? (insert other poorly thought-out European stereotypes here!).   I am still to find a decent offering abroad in terms of pies. Germany has its bizarre sausage and two rolls plate, Spain has its “bring your own bocadillo” and Italy just has ice cream. Here in Denmark it is your classic sausage and beer combination.

Frank Sinclair at Chester City

Frank Sinclair at Chester City

Have you had the infamous £5 Wembley pie yet? Yes! I have! I saw an England match and bought one. I am incredibly reluctant to say it was actually really good. I wanted to hate it but was proved wrong. Damn Wembley and their tasty corporate pastries.

So why did you decide to turn your back on a normal life and become a footballing hero? I decided to start my trek around Spring 2008, I had just graduated from uni and spent the entire summer working every hour to save enough money for the trip. I knew it would be a fascinating way to spend a year, and would provide a great story for people to read about.

Where did you start and finish? The 92 were all done between August 2008 (Charlton Athletic was my first) and May 2009 (ending at Bolton’s Reebok – to see my team at home for the first time that season!) I had to average between 2 and 3 a week, and often had to go to more, sleeping on floors and in my car all around the country! I became obsessed with meticulously inspecting fixture scheldules to see if it was possible, and (because of the big freeze in January and February) I very nearly failed!

As a world famous author (well so my daughters think) it would be rude not to ask – when’s the book coming out? Still in discussions with publishers but will hopefully be out early 2010!

Come on – confession time. What dirt can your exclusively reveal to the TBIR readers? I admit a couple of places didn’t have a pie, so I bought the nearest available substitute, think a gloopy meat pastry or something similar!

We are very in to our Non-League football at the moment – especially the Blue Square South. Has your planning reached down that far yet? Non league – again I was so obsessed with the 92 I have had little experience of the non-league sides, it’s on my must-do list of footy adventures though! Now my local side Luton have been relegated I’ve got 3 teams nearby (Luton, Stevenage and St Albans) that I need to get better acquainted with!

Accrington Stanley

Accrington Stanley

Ever need to use a pie as a weapon? No – but seeing 92 games in such quick succession in one season the quality often tired A LOT. At a certain few clubs (Chester, Walsall and Shrewsbury spring to mind) I certainly considered lobbing my pie at the players to get their arses into gear.

As a fully fledged member of the 92 (handing over special TBIR certificate made by Littlest Fuller), what is your favourite ground? I’m a massive fan of the old crumbly gorgeously shabby stadiums situated in the middle of a football loving community. Take your pick from Brentford, Exeter, Bradford, Fulham, I could name plenty of others. I’m very sad to see the back of Cardiff’s Ninian Park. I went to the new Cardiff City stadium last week, and whilst, yes, it’s big bold and brash it lacks any of the crappy romantic charm that their old ground had in abundance. Other similar bland new identikit grounds like at Colchester, Shrewsbury and the like get my vote as the worst. The best game I saw was either a 5-4 win at Peterborough, Derby’s first league win in an entire year (against Sheffield United) or Port Vale winning 4-3 at Huddersfield! All classics.

So what’s up next? My Scottish mate thinks I should do all the Scot league grounds as a follow up to ’92 pies’. 42 deep fried Mars bars perhaps?

And there we stopped, tucked into the pies and pasties and started forging a plan for sampling sausages in the Bundesliga. Many thanks to Claire for making this beautiful moment happen, and a big Football Friends Thumbs Up to Tom for sharing his stories with us.