With the season disappearing faster than the increase in the minimum wage, I headed to Maidenhead desperately trying to get one last game in. I felt like I did when the original lockdown happened and the season was brought to an abrupt halt. The game wasn’t to be the last one of the season for me, but it still felt so similar. With the increase in the cost of living, any plans I have for the summer keep shrinking. Travelling by train round the country like I do and watching as many games as I can, hits the bank account heavily. I’ll admit now that all the money I was able to save when no one was allowed to attend games, has well and truly been wiped out. I’m not moaning, it’s my choice, but summer is going to be fairly quiet for me. I suppose it would help if I allowed advertising on my blog. It would probably pay for my away days and ground hopping, but being as stubborn as I am, I believe there’s too much advertising as it is without my blog adding to it. The previous Bank holiday had been surprisingly nice, weather wise. Not so this one. This one was much more standard stuff. We always plan and long for a nice bank holiday weekend. What transpires is usually the opposite of what we’d like. The vast majority of jobs we do make us feel imprisoned. Slaves to the whine and grind. We daydream about warm sunny Bank holidays as we emerge from winter. Those dreams are almost always dashed by drab, dreary, damp weather. This one wasn’t damp, but the threat was there. The truth is, we’re doomed to be stuck toiling at work, whilst we look longingly at the sun through factory skylights, or shop and office windows. Construction workers may look like they’re getting the benefit of the sun and the heat because they’re outside, but they’re not. They’re still having to wear heavy hi-viz PPE. Their lungs still getting slowly filled with the dust that is par for the course in construction. Don’t forget when you look upon their efforts with jealousy during the summer months, that you’ll have that feeling of smugness when it’s freezing cold in the winter. I never look too enviously at people in other professions these days. Certainly not like I used to as that kid just starting out in work. The grass on the other side of the fence isn’t as green as it looks. Regardless of what you do to bring a wage in, it still comes with its own unique set of problems. I used to hold a disdain for management, because I viewed them as ‘lucky’ as they didn’t have to physically exhort themselves. Sat in their meetings, drinking coffee all the time. But the pressure is different. It’s more intense. Bizarrely, they’re more slaves to their jobs than us minions. As I’ve grown older, I’ve realised that there’s actually benefits to being a mere minion. Once I’ve clocked off, I haven’t got to worry and fret about work. I can mentally and physically completely switch off. I’m not ‘on call’, and never will be. Imagine that? Never ever being able to fully relax? They’re welcome to it. They may get paid more money, but it’s relative. I know I’m liked and respected for who I am by my peers. They can’t say the same thing. That eats at your mental wellbeing, and your mental wellbeing is the most important thing in your life. Mental strength is everything and it’s far far too fragile to mess about with. Anyway, where was I? Oh, that’s right, getting on a train to Reading. I can’t say I like Reading station. It’s got a soulless feeling about it. Some would say that about Reading itself, but I’m not that harsh a person. After all, it’s subjective. In all honesty, this blog is full of it. (That’s subjectivity, not what you’re alluding to.) Reading is going to be connected to the London Underground system soon. The end of May in fact. It means that when I land on my long suffering sister Val for a visit, I can use the tube from either Marylebone or Euston all the way to West Drayton. Initially, the expansion project was called Crossrail. It’s now been given the name ‘Elizabeth line’, and has actually run over time. It’s therefore both appropriate and ironic that it’ll officially open for the Platinum Jubilee.
After changing at Reading, I touched down in Maidenhead. Whenever I’m visiting a place I’ve never done on my ground hopping trips, I research an itinerary. It takes at least a couple of hours to compile so at least I’m not walking round blindly trying to find pubs that sell real ale, and thus maybe missing the good ones. Sometimes, a place can be that good that you have to sacrifice not going to different pubs due to just not being able to physically visit them all. Sometimes a place can be that bad, that you wish you hadn’t bothered, and will vow not to ever do it again. A Bank holiday can be a bit hit and miss in terms of opening times too. Sometimes a pub that is usually open on a Monday, will take the opportunity to ‘have a day off’ so to speak. Some will open at their usual time, and some will see it as a chance to open even earlier due to customer demand. As I’ve stated before, I don’t do social media, but the Camra Whatpub website puts links to a pub’s Facebook or Twitter account where available. Some pubs update it daily, some lay dormant. Even then, I’ve fallen foul with opening times. They can virtually change over night. Heading out of the station and into the town, I followed the directions I’d got written down to the first on my itinerary, The Lord Grenfell. No relation to the late, great, wonderfully funny Joyce, and so George wasn’t doing what ever he did in the corner. (Look it up if you’re lucky enough to be too young to know what I’m on about.) The pub was a little bit out of the town, but it was well worth seeking out. Being away from the centre, it was with trepidation that I approached it. Was the walk going to be in vein? Relieved, I sat down with my first beer of the day.
Definitely a ‘community’ pub, half was given over and aimed at the food menu, and half was given over to an easy feeling drinking area. It wasn’t going to be my favourite of the day mind. I headed off back into the town centre to the next. The Vine when I found it, looks quaint from the outside. An old pub tucked in between new build offices. A Brakespear brewery outlet, I was disappointed to find both cask clips turned round. Not even bothering to find out why, I walked straight back out. Say what you want about Wetherspoons and there’s plenty of people who will be disparaging about the chain, it’s nothing if it’s not reliable. That’s the thing with a Wetherspoons. Some are good, some are rubbish, but they always always stick to their opening times, and they always have real ale. The other thing you can guarantee, is that the prices are cheaper than anywhere else. Like I’ve said though, although all of their outlets are formulated, and you’ve got a fair idea of what to expect, there are good and bad ones. The Bear in Maidenhead is the only Wetherspoons in the town. In all honesty, the town isn’t big enough for it to vindicate opening another one, but the one they have got, is ok. It’s nothing special. It’s pretty standard for a Wetherspoons. I would’ve liked to have seen the place in its pre-Wetherspoons heyday, but that would involve negotiating with whatever incarnation of the Dr is, to get them to drop me off in the Tardis. Again, I’ve been in worse ones though, and they are either targeted for improvement and if there still isn’t any, closed down. Just for the record, the worst one I’ve ever been in, is now no longer a Wetherspoons. If you’re interested, it was one in Kidderminster. Something called either the Penny Black, or Roland Hill. I can’t actually remember which, but it was truly awful. Love em or hate em though, you can’t ignore them. They have a place. I suppose a trip to Maidenhead just had to include a visit to the Maiden’s Head. From the outside, it looked like a traditional pub. Inside, it has obviously been refurbished several times over the years. Although both the beer and the music was good, the decor was bland at best. Maybe I’m being ‘picky’, but I think it’s missing a trick. The food menu looked good, but again, the decor was such that it wouldn’t entice you to eat there. Would I go back there? I wouldn’t make a habit of it. Maybe I’m being harsh on the place, but seeing the links to the town’s name, I just feel that it should showcase the history and sense of community. Instead, it gave me the impression it mirrored the town’s status as a ‘dormitory town’ for nearby Reading and the capital. With time knocking on, I still had two more on my pre-match itinerary. The service in the first, Off The Tap, was that bad, I hadn’t the patience to wait any longer than I already had to get served and left. Greatly disappointed and not a little annoyed at the incompetence of the bar staff, I headed for the last place on my itinerary. Talk about polar opposites. Because the place was a lot further out than I would usually go, I almost didn’t take in the Craufurd Arms. What a fantastic place. The Craufurd Arms rightly deserves it’s entry in the GBG. Firstly, when I got there, the front door was shut. Crestfallen, I forlornly looked through the window and was spotted doing so. The bloke unlocked the front door and told me that they weren’t actually open until 3 o’clock. He went on to apologise and inform me that they were cleaning the pub and would I be ok to drink in the garden. Effectively, he was opening the place specifically so I could have a pint. Something I’ve only ever experienced as a ‘regular’ at a pub. I have to say right now. Thank you. Just from that small act of consideration, because he had been totally entitled to turn me away had he wanted to, my impression of both the pub and the people of Maidenhead softened greatly. Whilst I was there, the bloke running the pub made an appearance, and after seeing me sat with a pint, instead of admonishing the barman for opening before time and making a ‘big deal’ of it, he completely took it in his stride as if it was nothing. He just grinned and nodded at me. Drinking up, I had just enough time to get to the ground.
So why a visit to Maidenhead United then? Well firstly, the town of Maidenhead lies on the railway line between London Paddington and Reading. As does West Drayton where the younger of my two long suffering sisters lives. Whenever I’d stopped at Val’s and gone to watch Blues at Reading, I’d passed the ground at York Road on the train. I’ll admit, I’ve always been a sucker for a football ground. From the very first time I remember seeing the Molyneux floodlights from the bus as a small child to now, I still get a kick out of seeing a football ground. I can’t help myself but stare at it until I can’t see it anymore. Now this is going to come as a massive shock to you. That even includes seeing Vile Park, and I actually have to walk passed the ground to and from work. Obviously thoughts turn to the inbred, twelve toed, knuckle scraping, troglodytes that follow the club, but I still find myself drawn to the ground like a moth to a flame as opposed to the flies that are drawn to the manure that play on the pitch.
“Yep, the ground is this close to the railway line”
“That’s enough photos of the ground”
Now for a bit of history. The ground at York Road is the oldest ground in the world that has been continuously used by the same club since that clubs formation. Bramall Lane is older, however, Sheffield United didn’t start playing there until 1889. Maidenhead United were founded in 1870 and the year after, they moved into York Road. As a traditionalist, I’d hate it if Maidenhead United were to ever move from where they are. I’m sure it’s been talked about due its close proximity to the railway line. There’s no real room for expansion. Revenue can’t be huge, but with only a small fan base and the towns proximity to both Reading but more importantly London attracting fans away, it may be that they’re just happy to stay where they are. Either way, I think they should make more of the ground’s place in football history. Anyway, on to the game itself. I’ve been privileged to have watched some high scoring Non-League games this season. They’ve been some good games too. I’m not going to moan that it’s been at a stark contrast to games involving Blues though. Watching Blues always has the emotional attachment of wanting to see them win. Don’t get me wrong, I still want to watch good football, but it’s Blues I want to see play it, and I also find that I don’t completely appreciate goals scored against them. In fact, unless they’re goal of the season standard, I only ever remember how badly we’ve defended the goal. With ground hopping, I’m all intents and purposes, neutral. I can be much more objective. Now I’ve written all that, you’re probably thinking I’m just about to describe the most boring game I’ve ever watched. That’s if I hadn’t bored you into a coma with ‘going round the houses’ as it is. What I’m badly trying to say, is that I’ve really enjoyed the ground hopping aspect of this season. I remember as a kid Aldershot being in the Football League. But for a brief sojourn in the League since, their fortunes haven’t been great in the last 25 years. Maidenhead United on the other hand, are at their highest point during my forty odd years of following football. The Shots had quite a substantial following for this one due to a perilous position in the table, and being an ex-league club, it had attracted a few more in the home end. It gave the feel of the Telford United F.A.Cup games I’d watched way back in the 80s. The Cup tie atmosphere led to a Cup tie game. Mid way through the first half, the home side struck with a perfectly executed free kick. It was a really good goal that had James Ward-Prowse scored it, he’d have had Sky sports commentators gushing lyrical about it for the rest of the game. The quality of the goal may not have been immediately equalled, but the lead was. The instant equaliser might have knocked the stuffing out of the home side, but it just seemed to make them more determined. A towering header from a corner restored the lead for the home side, but they were able to hold onto it for longer than a minute this time. They were even able to hold it going into halftime. I had a bit of a walk round the ground during the interval.
“As you can see”
With the teams out, I wandered back to nearer where I expected most of the action to be. it was definitely nearer to where the atmosphere was. It was to be one way traffic in the second half and I’ve got to say, I haven’t a clue how Maidenhead didn’t add to their lead. Desperate defending? Appalling finishing? Devine intervention? Extraterrestrial forces? Something was defying the laws of physics, because the goal was just not forthcoming. Situations like this are set up especially for the pessimist inside us. Don’t forget, I’m a neutral, I’m just there to watch a good game, and more importantly, goals. There was no reason, no indication that an equaliser would be scored, but for that nagging doubt that grows. Sure enough, a breakaway goal ensued. Don’t get me wrong, I hadn’t grown any attachment to Maidenhead. That’s despite the Telford Cup feel that had transported me back to the 80s, or the pressure that Maidenhead had exuded on Aldershot. It just seemed so inevitable that it would happen. It was harsh on the home side who had had far more of the play, and had deserved to win the game handsomely given the chances they’d created. Football can be a cruel mistress at times and this was definitely one of them. Anyone from Aldershot in attendance who is honest by nature, will know that they were feeling fortunate travelling back to Hampshire after watching their team gain a point from the game. Like I said, I was a neutral.
After the game, and although I fleetingly toyed with going back to the Lord Grenfell, there was only one place I was going to head to. Yes, you’ve guessed it, Off The Tap. Like Hell, I was going back there. After the excellent and friendly service I had had at the Craufurd Arms, it was only courteous I went back for another pint at least. It may have been a bit of a walk to the pub, but it is more than worth the effort it takes. Sitting down with my pint, I noticed an empty plug socket. Unless the place I’m in is busy, I always ask permission if the pub is new to me. I don’t know why it should’ve surprised me, but the barman who had originally served me earlier on in the day, even offered to put it on charge behind the bar. I thanked him, but said I’d got my charger on me. If I wasn’t impressed with the Craufurd Arms enough before, it rose even further. it was definitely a ‘tuck it under my arm and take it everywhere on my travels’ pub. They had the football on both TVs. Fulham v Luton was being shown. Now as you know if you read this rubbish on a regular basis, I have nothing but disdain for armchair fans. Just like it doesn’t bother me who a person supports just as long as they go to games, so the same applies to ‘armchairs’. There were about half a dozen Fulham fans in the pub watching ‘their’ game. One even had a black and white bar scarf draped round his neck. Now if you’re thinking, well at least it’s only Fulham and not one of the usual suspects, then remember Fulham were at home, it was a Bank holiday, and most importantly, Maidenhead has a regular train service to a nearby London. The club is even on the same side of the capital city to Maidenhead. There wasn’t an excuse for not being at the game. Harsh? No. Maidenhead isn’t as easy to get to for a Birmingham living ground hopper as London is for a Maidenhead living Fulham fan. Take the scarf off and bin it, you’re a disgrace. Travelling home, yet another ground ticked off, I reflected on the day. The two best pubs were both on the outskirts of a fairly nondescript town. Even with it having a bit of history to the town, it’s not enough to attract you to want to live there. It gave me the impression that it would be ok if you only lived there because it was cheap, and you commuted for your job. You could afford to live in the nice houses and shop at the nice places of the town. There’s a two tier social aspect to Maidenhead though. The ‘haves and not haves’ with a chasm in between. It shows in the shops themselves. Right next to the up-market, you have the bargain budget. Like a shiny new sports car parked next to a rusty, scratched and dented old banger. Glad I did it? Yes. Would I go again? Nope. Do I recommend a visit? For the two pubs and the ground? yes. For any other reason? Nope.