We were somewhere around Crewe on the edge of Cheshire when the spirit of the away day began to take hold. We’d barely pulled out of the platform when one of us decided it was time to start cracking open the Beavertown. It wasn’t even ten in the morning. So began one of the weirder days of the annulled season. Hanley Town away.
It was an ambitious away day, certainly. Like Skelmersdale, Litherland, and Cheadle Heath, the Hanley trip hinged on reaching a nearby settlement of larger size, and staying there until just before kick-off. Quaint little towns with enough quality watering holes to be worth a day spent in them are few and far between in the 9th tier. The ones we have are circled on the calendar from the moment the fixtures are announced. We cling to them, cherish them, and build our season around them. For good reason.
Hanley Town is not one of those days, but that wasn’t going to stop us either. The terrible weather over winter was just starting to ease off, and we were so thrilled not to have a full page of ‘P-P’ confronting us every Saturday morning that pretty much anything was going to be an away day if we wanted it to be. It’s probably worth pointing out here for clarity’s sake that, unlike Raoul and the good Doctor in the book I’ve borrowed the title for this article from, there were no drugs involved. No amyls or LSD or ether or anything else like that. Just alcohol, and excitement at being able to get a game watched. With a sense of anticipation that is probably worth marking for future reference given the lockdown in which I write this, we certainly had an appetite for something. A glint in the eye. A spark of potential. It was going to get a bit... odd.
Under these circumstances, we tidied away the empty cans of our chosen poisons – from alcoholic vimto to, y’know, actual beer – and hopped off the carriage as we pulled into Stoke station.
Now, I am not a Stoke aficionado. The sum total of my visits to the place up until that that day could be counted on one hand. Three trips through the centre of it caused by snarl-ups on the M6, and a wedding a couple of months prior. The wedding had been great, but wasn’t actually in Stoke so I can’t chalk that up as one for the positive column. Sorry.
On that occasion I’d stayed in the hotel opposite Stoke’s railway station, and had had to wait half an hour for the apparently sole member of staff to check in what felt like half a coach-worth of people that didn’t have their details to hand, and then spent the entirety of the following morning horrifically hungover and trying not to embarrass myself in Wetherspoons.
So; delayed, delayed, delayed, and then impatient and hungover. Not a hugely impressive CV so far for the Potteries, but one I was keen for it to improve on.
Imagine my scepticism then when we were confronted upon leaving the station with not just a view of the world’s slowest hotel, but a line of about twenty police officers. And if we looked at all confused, then they looked positively underwhelmed by the four of us coming towards them...
“Morning, lads. Here for the football?”
“Well, yes. But not the one you’re thinking of...”
Turns out Stoke were playing host to Charlton in the Championship that day, and the two groups of supporters didn’t get along. Or there was a tipoff. Or something. Whatever the reason, it meant that it all hands on deck for the blues and twos, except that rather than the massed hordes of Stone Island that they were expecting to have to shepherd straight to the ground, these poor bored officers were faced with four of us wearing green and blue replica kits.
Having received some advice from them about which direction to go in, we headed around the corner to a place called Bod in the arches of the station, dutifully ignored the “No Football Fans” signs, stuffed our shirts into bags or zipped hoodies up high, and took ringside seats for the first matinee showing of “Staffordshire Police eject Charlton Fans from a pub”.
Not wanting to outstay our welcome in the first pub, we wanted to move on to another which we knew would serve food before too long. Though not before being accosted by more bored police officers, similarly disappointed we weren’t Charlton fans there for a scrap.
The Glebe wasn’t open yet, so we kept walking, and then outside The White Star were more signs - this time warning just away fans to stay away. Though we were technically away fans, we weren’t Charlton fans, which we were pretty certain were the focus of the endeavour. We were no longer displaying any outward indicators that we definitely weren’t Stoke fans, so in we went. And then one of our party promptly undid all the subterfuge by proudly answering the landlady’s gentle enquiry of “not away fans are you, lads?” with an overly emphatic “yep!”
Fortunately, a quick chat later and she was just as understanding as the police had been. I’m still not sure what Charlton had done specifically to upset the locals, but by all accounts the place was usually accepting of away fans. Their loss, though, as the beer and the food were both superb. I have wispy memories of an oatcake burger. Or an oatcake in a burger. Or similar. Whatever it was, it was delicious.
With the place filling up with Stoke fans we decided it was time to move on again, this time to a pub I can’t remember. Managing to avoid any police attention for the first time that day, though we certainly heard some in the distance, we found that this place was heaving as well but we were at least able to watch some live football to whet our appetites whilst we continued to wet our whistles. Preston were playing, I remember that much by the reactions of the man sat in front of me who really hated Preston, but don’t ask me who they were playing. Or who was winning. Looking at a map now, I’m about 75% sure it was either The Liquor Vaults or the Bull and Bush, but neither name rings a bell at all. If I go back and there’s an 1874 sticker on it, or outside it, then that might be an indicator. Otherwise, I’m still clueless, and it’s another detail lost in the glitchy recollections I have of the day.
Fearing all the taxis would be tied up on trips to and from the Britannia if we left it too long, we jumped ship to Hanley, where I’m fairly certain the clubhouse got a decent visit. But only after seeing our cabs weave through some more of the police trying to keep fans of whatever persuasion out of the road as we left the centre – the Mr Hydes to the Dr Jekylls that we’d been approached by earlier in the day, threatening to let their spectre dominate the day if they had to. I'm sure nothing serious was happening, either there or at the stadium, but it’s extremely rare we see anything like that at our level of football at all, so it lent a surreal edge to the flashing blue colour of the scene.
I’ve had a little ask around the hive mind for the purposes of writing this summary, and, yeah... We really remember very little about the match. Outside of the goals, the highlights were Scotty tearing a strip off Parker after the latter had ruled out a goal by tapping in the former’s ‘supposedly’ goalbound slice from an offside position, the return of Lucas Weir, something I’m choosing to remember as a Tom Huddlestone-esque thunderbolt from Stuey Wellstead, and us sniping into the opposition full-back – somewhat affectionately dubbed ‘Shit Lid’ – with such reliability that their manager was forced to move him to the opposite flank.
I’m fairly certain it ended four-nil to us, but I wouldn’t want to bet much money on it. If anyone is reading this hoping for a match report then you have badly misjudged the situation.
I remember more about events after the match to be honest, especially as our return to Stoke saw us revisiting the location of my darkest hour in Stoke thus far. My locus horribilis. The Wetherspoons.
Months previously, when I’d visited it the morning after that wedding, it’s fair to say I’d been in a bit of a state. Most of us present at the time had. Sometimes you find comfort in being surrounded by other people suffering from a hangover inflicted at the same event that yours was. There is a grim determination to it. Grit your teeth, give one another a thin smile, and see it out together. Whose turn is it to put the kettle on? Magic.
There had been no such comfort on that previous time in Stoke Wetherspoons however. None at all. Maybe it was the fact we all had suitbags or hatboxes and suitcases with us, maybe it was the fact most of had rolled out of a gay bar only 6 hours previously, or maybe it was the fact that we were all so very far away from home comforts, but we were not in a good way.
Nausea and wretchedness seemed to move around the table like a Mexican wave. No sooner would two of us perk up again than another two would go back under with a groan and a forehead on the table marking the moment another wave of motion sickness reared its head to punish us for our excesses, forcing us to restrict movements and utterances to the bare minimum. And then after ten minutes and a sip of water, the moment would pass, and the next poor souls would have tendrils of overindulgence bubble up inside them like the physical embodiment of regret. A moan, a slump, and the sorry affair would continue anew.
Twice round the table at least went this slow motion hurricane of biliousness, leaving me with a lasting impression of Stoke Wetherspoons as a source of communal suffering and mass queasiness.
This time however, it was just full. The rugby was on, England were beating Scotland in some kind of monsoon by the looks of it, we managed to get a hold of some more booze and microwaved junk food, and crucially, I wasn’t hungover. There would be plenty of time for that on Sunday morning, but if you’ve got a place you hold bad memories of, turns out there’s a lot to be said about visiting it after a whole day’s worth of drinking. Apparently it’s just like pressing a reset button. All I can think of now is some kind of warped madness. Alcohol inspired pulses of hawkish laughter.
Again, I have vague memories of the police on the walk back to Bod for another pint before the train home, and even vaguer memories of there being some over-friendly Charlton fans being in there, but nothing concrete, and it occurs to me only now that what started as an account of the time we were to Stoke and we confused by the police sending twenty officers to escort four non-league football fans off the train has ended up just being an account of one specific time I got drunk on an away day.
But then, thinking on a bit further, what’s wrong with that? Isn’t that sort of the idea behind a good away day? To revisit the almost abandoned theme in the title, isn’t there something to be said about getting lost in the metaphorical desert, having a wild time, and then piecing together the memories from the hive mind the next day? There must be, otherwise we wouldn’t set out to do it.
Besides, these memories are all we have left of that season now. There were no accomplishments, in the end. There was no end. Great strides forward, no doubt, but nothing on paper. You can huff and puff about expungement and whatever you want, but bollocks to that. Matches happened. Records will be kept. Pints were drunk and days were had. And isn’t that the point?
Isn’t that the point of this one specific community that we’re eking out for ourselves in this little club of ours? A football club doesn’t just work with its communities it also creates them. Creates a hundred little communities and subsets that overlap, change, and evolve over time, full of people with different aims and changing objectives that they want to use the club to achieve. And right now, I want to create memories. More so now than ever before it is important to see the benefits of living in the moment, and remembering the times you did just that. Even if the memory is of a lack of memory, that’s still an intangible thrill worth seeking. If a global pandemic is going to deny us a chance at promotion then I’m even more grateful now for the times that we cut loose before that.
1874 Northwich in the 2019/20 season was a very special thing to be a part of. Maybe it didn’t mean anything in the long run, but it was. Stars were aligning, and it was hard not to get swept up in the spirit of it all, thinking that the energy of the entire club was focusing in one glorious culmination of energy yet to come. Our central memories of that season are going to be those crazy away days, those last minutes comebacks, and those goals against Winsford, because the denouement was taken away from us. The last chapter of a book torn out. When I waxed lyrical in Issue 003 about the importance of those little moments, I wasn’t expecting to be proved right so instantly by Gardner’s winner against Skem. I was expecting even less to be looking back on those moments as the pinnacle of a season cut short. I write this at a time I should still be looking forward to the last day of the season in Congleton – one of those circled days. Months of anticipation without a climax.
So here’s to those times when we were just living in the moment. When we saw Hanley (A) on a fixture list and went “yeah, sod it”.
When we went to Skelmersdale, to Avro, and to Padiham, and lived those events as waves that were breaking with ever greater height. Not ever anticipating they'd be the high-water mark of the season, but not really caring either.
Here’s to those slurred times when we weren’t nervously anticipating winning the league. When we’d just hammered Hanley away and felt invincible. When we were happy enough to not have to worry about the end of the season, because we’d just nonchalantly written the future off as a continuation of this current sea of success and good times; "we're winning the league, lads - whose round is it?"
When we were just enjoying ourselves in a whirlwind blur and didn’t care if that was a correct prediction or not, because the important part was the second half of the sentence.
Here’s to Stoke - when we felt reincarnated, and just drunk enough to be totally confident.