For this season, the fixture God’s decreed that once again, Blues would be playing away on Boxing day. Never mind rail strikes, no trains ever run on a Christmas or Boxing day, and it’s always been that way. Blues’ Boxing day fixture is probably the first one I look for, after the first and last games of the season. The fixture God’s chucked us Burnley at Turf Moor. Had it been Blackburn at Ewood Park, I’d have been doing cartwheels, but no, it was to be one I would’ve actually liked to have done. No trains meant I was stuck for public transport, and as I’ve now done most of the local grounds, I was now in a bit of a quandary. Would my Sister Val and Brother-in-law John be able to put up with me for the second year in a row. Remarkably and commendably, my long suffering Sister Val’s answer was an unflinching and exited yes. I would now be able to land on them, knowing I’d have a great Christmas, (Nobody does Christmas like Val and John do.) be able to fully relax, be spoilt by my elder sister (Bizarrely, although reciprocated, Val absolutely adores me.) and I’d now be able to take in a ground hop somewhere in London. (Both the buses and Underground run on a Boxing day.) The only puzzle was deciding which game I would do, and as I’ve done a fair few grounds in London now, which clubs still actually had their own ground. Several clubs in the London area have sold their grounds and now lodge, just so they’ve been able to keep going. The other thing, as you’ve grown to understand if you’ve ever read this rubbish before, I like to ale trail. Something that isn’t so easy to do on a Boxing day. Not only is it a Bank Holiday, but it’s one that is more keenly observed. Whereas most pubs will open, not all will. After one of Val’s amazing full English breakfasts, they dropped me off outside Uxbridge Tube station, on their way to go and watch Shrewsbury Town away at Cambridge United. I was asked if I wanted to join them, and although it’s been fully thirty years since my one and only visit to the Abbey Stadium, I do like to ale trail and it would’ve been unfair of me to drag them to half a dozen pubs. Off I headed on the Underground to Rayners Lane. With overcrowding in London a problem, the building of the Metropolitan line was a solution. Little villages sprang up along its route, served by the stations that were built. The phrase ‘Metroland’ was coined. Rayners Lane is one of those names I’d only ever seen on the station’s roundels as I’ve been passing through and also on an Underground map. The place does though, have a Wetherspoons, and so it was at The Village Inn that I started. As Wetherspoons branches go, The Village Inn is definitely one of the better ones. Rayners Lane itself may have now lost its village persona, but the pub is definitely doing its best to generate a community feel. Although it had the usual brand stamp, and without any of the outstanding features you can get with some of the Wetherspoons branches, I was still impressed. From Rayners Lane, I was back on the Tube, this time to Harrow-on-the-Hill. Harrow is famous for its public school. Hey, I’m a member of the public, I went to school (I may only have afforded it the bare minimum of concentration, but I still went.) I didn’t suppose it would be much different. Wrong. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
“Seriously, how is this a school?”
It lists amongst its exalted illumni, Sir Winston Churchill, Stanley Baldwin, John Profumo, Lord Byron, Cecil Beaton, Terence Rattigan, and Sherlock Holmes (Well, Benedict Cumberbatch anyway.) But unfortunately, also John McCririck and James Blunt too. The school that spat out me, produced someone who made it into the West Bromwich Albion reserves and….err…..well, that was it. To say where the school is, is posh, doesn’t begin to describe how out of place I felt. When faced with this kind of circumstance, the working class oik in me, grows a chip on my shoulder, the size of Wales. The Brummie accent becomes more pronounced, along with the swagger in my walk. It’s purely down to an intense feeling of inadequacy. I have worker’s hands, and a bank account to match. Same as my parents, same as my Grandparents. I might as well have been on the moon, I felt that out of place. The irony that Harrow was one of the schools represented at Cambridge University when the original twelve rules of Association Football were thrashed out and drawn up, wasn’t lost on me mind, but the real reason I was there was a pub, and that’s where I headed.
The Castle is Fullers owned and if I’m being honest, not worth the hassle of finding it, although it does look inviting in the photo. I like Fullers. Some of their pubs are excellent. I suppose though, given the area and resultant clientele, it’s more about presentation than actual quality. It’s a place you go to eat that ‘pub lunch’. It’s just not ‘Chicken in a basket’ on the menu. Pint finished, it was back on the Tube to the next. Touching down at Ickenham, I went to the Coach and Horses. Had I known it was much more geared towards food than I’d anticipated, I probably would’ve gone to the Tichenham Inn, Wetherspoons instead, but time was rapidly moving on, and with still wanting to take in one more pub before going to the game, and that involved two more rides on the Tube, I settled for the C&H. Back on the Tube, I touched down in Ruislip. I had been in the Hop and Vine before a ground hop at Wealdstone, and been impressed, but I was even more so this time.
“Excellent little micro pub”
Very much a community feel and very friendly too. If I’ve got one criticism, is that it’s on the small side. Yes, I know that’s the point of a micro pub, but they’re doing so well, they could easily move into bigger premises and still retain that feeling of intimacy, friendliness and community, without losing the high quality of beer and service. The folks at the Rock and Roll Brewhouse in Brum have done it, and I reckon the folks at the Hop and Vine would be just as successful if they were to move, as they too, have got it nailed. The inhabitants of Ruislip are truly lucky to have got themselves a gem of a place. It was back on the Tube one last time to get to South Harrow and the game. Unbelievably, I’d timed it just perfectly.
You know when I said that my ambitions were very few and extremely insignificant, well whilst still in the same month as the last, I’ve only gone and completed another. Earlsmead was to be my 200th ground. I don’t boast, and I’m not bothering to here either, but I didn’t expect it to be such a satisfying feeling. 200 really does feel better than 199. Why, I don’t know, as it really is only one ground more. What’s that? Will I just be concentrating on Blues now? Are you mad? Absolutely not. Hence the first bit of the subheading. I intend to carry on hoovering up ground hops, train strikes permitting of course. As one of my lowly ambitions involves Blues, I’m not giving them up either. So yeah, I’ve now done 200 grounds. It’s only took me 45 years. That actually brings me round to the last bit of the subheading. It alludes to the fabled ’92’. I expect I’m going to complete the 92 at some stage, but I’m in no particular rush. I’ll pick them off, if and when the opportunity arises. Why? Well as I write this garbage, Everton are building their new ground at Bramley Dock. Once built, it goes on the list to complete the 92. I need to visit 6 as it stands, although 4 of them are clubs who have moved into new grounds. It’s why it’s so illusive. 45 years ago, my first game was at the Molineux, a ground that except for the colour scheme, has changed beyond all recognition. Even the pitch has moved, because the stands have. Because of the lay of the land, the Waterloo Road stand was squashed in. It’s why when the new John Ireland stand was built, it was built behind the original so they could reposition. As time went on, and situations at the club changed from good to bad, back to good again, both the South and North Banks were rebuilt, along with the Waterloo Road stand. The John Ireland stand was renamed, The Steve Bull stand, The new Waterloo Road stand became The Billy Wright. Even the South and North Banks got renamed. Indeed, the North Bank has since been replaced again with something much bigger, with plans for the rest of the ground too. And that’s just the first ground I went to. I could mention a whole list of clubs that have moved grounds where I’ve revisited. Ok, here’s a few off the top of my head, Millwall, Shrewsbury, Manchester City, Derby County, Wigan Athletic, Walsall, and West Ham United, but there’s more. There’s clubs where I missed out on their old ground, but have since visited their new one. Again, there’s more, but off the top of my head, there’s Southampton, Chesterfield, Middlesbrough, and Sunderland. Then there’s the clubs that have since dropped out of the EFL, amongst them, there’s Wrexham, Notts County, Chester City, Southend United, and York City. Chester City are one where I’ve only done their new ground, and York City their old one. I really could go on and on. (Don’t worry, I won’t.) When I first went to a game, it was pay on the turnstiles. None of this having to buy a ticket in advance. None of this registering to be a member rubbish. It’s why I’m in no rush to complete the 92. Arsenal, Tottenham and Brentford are 3 of the 6 I need to complete the set. Have a look on the tinternet, see how easy it is to get a ticket for their next home games. Finding a needle in a haystack isn’t even a challenge compared. In fact, after half an hour of frustration on the tinternet, finding that needle would be an absolute joy. White Hart Lane may have been ‘All ticket’ when I went there, but both at Highbury and Griffin Park, I was able to pay in, the first time I went to either. That’s all without mentioning watching games played on grounds that weren’t the home clubs. I watched Blues against Charlton when the Valiants had one season at Upton Park, I watched Blues twice at Macclesfield when Chester City were lodging there. Not forgetting when I watched Telford United play their 3rd round F.A.Cup match v Leeds United at West Bromwich Albion’s Hawthorns. Come to think of it, I watched Telford United in an F.A.Trophy final replay at the Albion too. Not forgetting the Playoff final last season at West Ham’s athletics stadium. The thing is, us ground hopping weirdos all have our own criteria. For instance, to qualify as a visit, the game I watch has to be a competitive game. Friendlies don’t count and nor do testimonials. Steve Whalley only counts Blues games and so counts friendlies. Steve Mundy has a set of criteria that is impossible to adhere to. Russell when he was he was completing the 92, included the Associate Members Cup (Papa John’s Trophy.) As Premier League academies are allowed to compete in the competition, I won’t include it. To be honest, it’s because they allow Premier League academies to compete, I feel it’s devalued it. Here’s the quandary though. I’ve kept a record of all the competitive games that I’ve seen Blues play in, and that includes the short lived Anglo-Italian Cup, but also the Associate Members Cup too, although well before they allowed the academies to compete mind. If though, Blues were to get relegated into League One and then played in the Papa John’s Trophy (Or whatever it would be sponsored by), would I baulk at the chance to watch Blues in the final if they got there? After all, the only time I watched Blues at the old incarnation of Wembley was in the same competition, and having missed out on the League Cup final, it would probably be the only chance of seeing Blues at the new incarnation. This is where I know I’m just as big a weirdo as the rest. I won’t go to the new incarnation of Wembley, until Blues get there. The truth is, we have our own individual set of criteria and we can’t disparage anyone else’s. All I’m going to say is, I’m carrying on doing what I’m doing, because I enjoy it so much and it’s my ying to my yang. The one day of the week that gets me through the other six. So to the reason I picked Harrow Borough. Well firstly, the obligatory photos.
“There you go.”
Back in the early 80s just as Telford United were embarking on their famous F.A.Cup giant killing run, they played and beat Harrow Borough in the two legged Semifinal, on their way to beating Northwich Victoria in the final of the F.A.Trophy at Wembley. For that reason, and that reason only, the name has been one that evokes that period of time. I suppose you could say it was a kind of loose end. The opposition I’d watched before. In fact, the memory of negotiating the way into the Met Plod’s ground, was still fresh enough to want Harrow to win from the start. As the contest began, the difference between the two sides showed. I know that Metropolitan Police f.c. isn’t exclusive of serving officers anymore, but they still give you the impression they are. Maybe it was my ingrained biased view of the force, (An opinion that has matured over the years.) but I am at best, wary of the police, and for the most part, suspicious of their intentions. And that’s from someone who is law abiding. Simply put, I just don’t trust them. I suppose in the context of this game, my impartiality was very much tarnished. However, I had the initial feeling that it resembled a police roadblock versus a carnival. The Met Plod were stoically methodical, whereas the physically smaller Harrow, were imaginative and skillful. The first half was a close affair, and it was still goaless at the break. I’d found a club shop just as the game had kicked off, and I returned to it to raid it of any Blues programmes I could find. Giving over double what I was asked for, I was happy with my purchases. I walked round what was an inclusive home support to watch the second half. Unfortunately, given that I wanted Harrow to win, Met Plod scored early. I consoled myself that at least I’d seen a goal. Having now got a lead to defend, the away side became even more physical. A pleasingly skillful Harrow were finding is increasingly more difficult to get round an immovable defence. The more ingenious skill Borough tried using, the more camped in the Plod became. Several times Harrow got close to scoring as the away goalkeeper’s orders were barked out louder and louder. As in life, so this game resembled it. The Met Plod scored what was an undeserved second. It was harsh on Harrow. Their style of football was entertaining. Whereas the Metropolitan Police were formulated.
With 200 grounds now completed, I returned to the station and headed via the Piccadilly line to Rayners Lane, Metropolitan line to Baker Street, Jubilee line to Green Park, and Victoria line down to Brixton. After all that chopping and changing on the Underground, I was to discover that the pub of choice was shut. I had researched to make sure it would be open, having not found out, but because of its location near to the station, and having mistakenly, expected it to be open, I had headed down there anyway. After travelling all that way down from South Harrow, I decided to go in The Beehive. A Wetherspoons that I had actually been in before, but was prior to watching Warwickshire versus Surrey at the Oval in the County Cricket Championship. The stigma of the riots that occurred in the 80s and its documented historical problems with linked drug use and weaponized gang warfare, still hangs over Brixton. In truth, the area has and does, work hard to dispel this stigma, but it still makes you wary when you visit the place. It really shouldn’t, but it does. In truth, a bar such as the one that had attracted me to head for Brixton in the first place, wouldn’t have moved there at the height of the area’s notoriety, and that’s how much Brixton has cleaned itself up. It’s been multiracial and multinational for 70 years now, and that wariness I felt has no reason to exist anymore, but preconceptions don’t wear down overnight though, so another trip down there to visit the Craft Beer Co is a must for me. I just won’t go down there on a Boxing day because it’ll be shut. Thankfully, all the chopping and changing on the Tube, fell my way on the way back to Uxbridge, and I didn’t even have to wait long for the bus back to Yiewsley and Val’s. Being a Boxing day, I had left over Turkey and a sprout free bubble and squeak to look forward to.