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Bristol/Birmingham — Awaydays
Wednesday, 2nd Feb 2022 22:31 by Clive Whittingham

A Christmas double header on the road provides sliding doors moments, a Stone Island tear up, the best pub of the season, the worst, and six more points for the mighty Rangers.

Heeeeeeeeeeeeeere’s Nahki

Here, with a minute to go, comes Nahki Wells. Cue much eye-rolling and here-we-bloody-go-againing at the back of a packed away end.

Nahki Wells scored against Queens Park Rangers before he joined them, for QPR while he was there, and against them since he left. He was on target in Bristol City’s 2-1 win at Loftus Road last season behind closed doors, and then in more heartbreaking circumstances right at the very end of the same fixture this season. To a certain section of QPR’s support base the club’s failure to pay what both he and Burnley wanted for his permanent signature in January 2020 was a mistake and showed a lack of ambition. Each passing Nahki Wells goal conceded brings these grumbles back to the surface of social media. Wells himself said after his last-second smash and grab in September that he’d told QPR’s owners it wouldn’t be the last time, because they should have signed him when they had the chance. Stoppage time promises to be looooooong.

But we shouldn’t have signed him, and nor should Bristol City at that cost. To press the point, this time, it’s QPR that score with the last kick — Yoann Barbet returning the favour from the corresponding fixture with a flying header in injury time that sends the travelling faithful into delirium and further cements Rangers’ place in the top six. Two lads I'd never met before, but happened to end up standing next to, listening to them nervously talk their way through the game exactly the same way I do, get a full airborne assault the second it hits the net. Only football can do this to you. Bristol City, meanwhile, have suffered such injury time gut wrench on seven occasions this season alone, languish in the bottom half of the table, and can’t find a place for Wells in their team. His goal at Loftus Road is his only one this season. They have got steadily worse for spending money, while QPR have improved for saving theirs. This has been a theme, for both clubs, for a few seasons now.

For a long time it was the opposite way around. The Robins were something of a dab hand model club at this level. They received huge transfer fees for the likes of Adam Webster, Aden Flint, Jonathan Kodija, Bobby Reid and Joe Bryan, and reinvested it well. Buy low, sell high, lather, rinse, repeat, the only way the non-parachute payment clubs can survive, thrive and progress at this level under the current rules without gambling on a promotion to the Premier League and destroying themselves if it doesn’t come. They have blamed a collapse in the transfer market during Covid - and were perhaps unfortunate that sellable asset Famara Diedhiou stubbornly ran his contract down to a free transfer - for an eye-watering recent financial loss of £38m in a single financial year. But QPR with Ebere Eze, and Hull with Jarrod Bowen, showed that Adam Webster-style money was still around during the pandemic, you just had to have an Adam Webster to tempt the buyers with. City’s investment in replenishing their squad has been nowhere near as smart as it was, and coughing up a transfer fee, and a three-and-a-half-year contract, for an out-of-contract, 30-year-old Wells who, prior to a red hot January, most QPR fans were happy to take or leave, is pretty high up the list of stupid profligacy. Still, it gave them a few weeks of ‘just happy to be here’ internet memes, and that seems to be half the game at the moment — the other half being transfers.

Short term, picking through the wreckage of their accounts, it’s hard to see how they can avoid transfer embargoes and points deductions in the near future. The new CEO, Richard Gould, who took over from the heavily criticised Mark Ashton (now already under fire for the work he’s doing at Ipswich Town), has as good as publicly admitted that points will be coming off as soon as next season, such was the situation he inherited. On the more positive side, there are impressive kids graduating from a burgeoning youth system here — Alex Scott, “The Guernsey Grealish”, is one of few to impress in this game, and I liked the look of centre back Ryley Towler when I saw him earlier in the season, albeit in a Conference game between Woking and Grimsby.

The substantial outlay by chairman Steve Lansdown included precious investment in infrastructure for the long term — an impressive new training ground is up and running, Ashton Gate has been converted into one of the league’s best stadiums. You can see it all the way down the valley, it lights up the night sky, it’s a magnificent example of what can be done with an old ground as opposed to moving out to a bowl on a retail park. The away end, now at the opposite end to where we all knee capped ourselves celebrating Damion Stewart's goal, is jumping. The atmosphere overall moves up, notch by notch, with each 50/50 call from referee Andy Davies that goes QPR’s way. Nigel Pearson is so keen to test the official's knowledge of wolf wrestling and ostrich behaviour at full time that he body checks him on the way off the pitch - I'll write you a cheque. His team is struggling to cough into life, and it’s difficult to see how that changes any time soon. They lose here, as they do rather too often.

What feels like a stupidly short amount of time later, we’re at Birmingham. I feel like I'm still possibly hungover from Bristol. The Blues never even had their model right in the first place. You blow that out of the water the moment Harry Redknapp walks through the door. The good news is they’ve finally got Marc Roberts off that five-year contract ‘Arry treated him to. The bad news is… everything else.

From the rebuilt splendour and lively atmosphere of Ashton Gate under lights, to St Andrew’s on a Sunday lunchtime, is quite the contrast. Media in the old main stand are greeted by signs warning against disturbance of the asbestos structure. Still, at least they’re safe to sit in there, or so they're assured, as long as they don't touch anything. Stretching around two sides of the ground are the Tilton Road stand and The Kop, built as recently as the mid 1990s when the club was hauled out of administration by Davids Gold and Sullivan, but to such a dire standard that concrete rot and foundation problems have been discovered and the lower tier is now unsafe and closed. Rumours abound that the club’s Chinese owners, against whom supporters are now openly protesting, have no intention of carrying out the laborious, expensive repairs required, and this will now be a permanent situation at Birmingham home games. A project manager was wheeled out in January to tell stories of 15 workers, doing 11-hour shifts, across seven days a week, which will, he hopes, mean that some sections could be reopened… in time for next season. Ten tracksuited locals gather to the right of the away end to engage in “mega bantz” but the ground, the game, the kick off time, the performance, the score, and the size of the travelling support, make it a forlorn effort. Thanks for playing lads. A local Tweets later that “being a Blues fan is about sitting in a half empty stadium watching the away fans having a great day out”. There’s a chap outside with a banner that says “God is Love”. If he is, he’s hiding it well.

These are the potential consequences, under the rules of this competition, if middle-of-the-road clubs attempt to ignore the regulations, spend the money anyway, and gamble that they will be one of the three promoted teams, in a league dominated by those with parachute payments. Leicester and Wolves bask in the rewards that are on offer, but everywhere we travel in this division there are far more examples like these two. And yet, still, reports about Bournemouth having a “good transfer window” sit alongside those of the disastrous meltdown at Derby, nobody apparently ever conflating the two, happy instead to hold “fuck the EFL” marches when it all melts down, as if it was the league that paid £8m and £37k a week for Tom Lawrence. Or, dare I say it, Nahki Wells.

QPR, having been one of the worst offenders, are now hopefully well ahead of this game, however many times he scores against us.

The good pub guide

While there are some towns we continue to struggle with — Blackburn, Stoke, Coventry — now eight consecutive years in the Championship means if you name the away game, we can probably tell you which pub we’ll be using straight away. In Bristol, it’s The Old Fish Market. Good start, it’s a Fullers’ Pub, which means the beer selection is good, it’s a nice place to spend time, original features are preserved and highlighted and, at this time of the year, it’s decorated like Vienna’s Christmas Market. There’s a tree in here bigger than my house. This is opposed to, say, a pub owned by Greene King, who apparently employ a vandal to travel the country ripping the inside of old buildings apart, replacing them with Ikea’s cheapest table and chairs set, and whacking a few black and white pictures of the nearest railway station on the wall by way of ‘local character’, all of which you can enjoy while drinking, well, a pint of San Miguel and not a lot else. Their butchering of The Tut ‘n Shive in Doncaster continues to carve a bitter swathe through my soul.

The Old Fish Market is a long, grand-fronted building and although the pub stretches on for what feels like half a mile, there are no tables free when we crash in mid-afternoon, Thursday, during the height of the omicron variant. I’ve rarely been prouder. Luckily, three guys are having one of those ‘man talks’ about politics that escalate the way these things occasionally do between friends, where one of them witheringly says “yeh mate, whatever you need to believe, you keep getting your news off Facebook if you like” and slaps him a bit harder than necessary on the back, then he replies “yeh, thanks mate, I will, because I can think for myself, not your mainstream media bullshit” and slaps him a little bit harder still on the back, until there’s nothing for it but to step outside and have a bit of a sort out — which clears a table for us, and we’re in.

It’s a lovely pub, in a sturdy old building, with 4,000 Miles From Delhi just around the corner (up there for our best curry house this season), entirely in keeping with the city in which it resides. I love everything about Bristol. The walk from there to the ground, along the quayside, dodging the old railway trucks and dock cranes, is certainly a bit different to dodging the flashers by the canal in Stoke. Turn down the daylight, add in the Christmas feels, and sprinkle with a last minute winner from Yoann Barbet and the walk back to the pub afterwards is right up there in life affirming moments for 2021/22. I’m not, as it turns out, completely wasting my time.

Birmingham… less so. Sorry, slightly cheap shot. There’s money being spent here, another leg of tramway is snaking its way slowly up towards St Andrew’s, and we’ve often joked that the train and beer here is so cheap, and QPR’s record so good, that maybe a move to the second city could be a solution to our Loftus Road problem. Book early enough and you can do Marylebone to Snow Hill for the same price it costs me to do Woodside Park to Shepherd’s Bush. There’s a stylish Fullers’ pub here too, The Old Joint Stock, set in an old theatre opposite the cathedral, and sporting a menu of homemade pies that I rather wish the Crown and Sceptre would adopt instead of their Thai one. Sorry, philistine, I know, but I’ve had everything off that one at least twice now and it’s getting a bit old. The Post Office Vaults, also, is a decent boozer. The Shakespeare, on the other hand, is a cave of many increasing horrors.

Sadly, the shifting of our game to Sunday lunchtime means none of it is open. In fact, the only one that is as our train trundles in is the All Bar One atop New Street Station, where the sub-£3 pints of Birmingham generally have been replaced with the £6+ pints we’re used to back home. I pay not far short of a score for a “club sandwich” which looks like the sort of sandwich you tried to make yourself when you were six-years-old — there’s half a dry loaf of white bread on my plate, and a serving of chicken breast that would shame a Weatherspoon’s curry night. How, why, people would use these places out of choice, for pleasure, rather than out of necessity, to numb the pain of standing in the cold hoping Scott Hogan doesn’t score, is beyond me. Free country I suppose, but when people do that with it I’m not sure it should be. Bring on the benevolent dictatorship.

On the plus side, the entertainment is pretty decent. Once we’d settled down, got a round in, moved some money around accounts and delayed mortgage payments to ensure we’d be able to afford another, it became apparent outside that some sort of stand off was taking place. On the right a line of seven or eight boys (and they were), and on the left a near identical line up. If you said half of them were shaving regularly, I'd go lower. There’s a lot of posturing, a lot of filming things on phones, and a lot of Stone Island. One moves in, another steps up, they sort of bob and sway a bit, admire each other’s coats, and then retreat until… a punch. Well, not really a punch, more of a swing and a miss. And then, it’s on. Well, not really on, just sort of children charging around, pretending to try and kick each other, grabbing away, flailing wildly open palmed. The whole thing is over in, at most, eight seconds, and then they scatter their separate ways, as if the police are about to show up and nick them all which is far from the case — three officers trudge by about 25 minutes later, look around a bit confused, say something into a radio, and wander off. There’s some QPR boys in the bar with us at an adjacent table, proper old school Rangers, faces I’ve seen every week for 30 years. Not, I suspect, people you’d mess about with. They watch the whole thing unfold in a sort of perplexed bemusement, like introducing somebody to British television for the first time by showing them an episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys. Is this what counts for that these days? Apparently so. The whole thing would have shamed Audley Harrison. Presumably it went down well on TikTok.

Afterwards, The Crown. Not that Crown, another one. It’s opposite the Magistrate’s Court, and people come in here to celebrate or commiserate depending on the result from over the road. Always a good start. I’d say I don’t know why we keep ending up here, with its cold downstairs, smelly toilets, and selection of beers more off than on, but then I remember you can get a yard of onion rings and 50 chicken wings and have plenty of change from a tenner. It’s the pub where, at the height of the spice epidemic, a gentleman having some difficulty walked in and pooed himself in front of us. It’s also a pub where a young couple in the first throes of love took the first throes of love and turned it into a full on, noisy, fingering in the pool room, while we all sat there next to them and watched Burnley get knocked out of the FA Cup by Lincoln City. Sean Raggett scored.

It takes all sorts of pubs to make a season.

The train home

The train home from an away game is a strange beast.

Win 3-0 at Middlesbrough, stand right on the apex of Heidar Helguson’s thunderbastard header as it arcs into the top corner for the goal that kills it all off, then three hours from Darlington with cold beer flowing can pass in about 20 minutes. You feel the breaks go on at Finsbury Park and you’re almost disappointed it’s over already. That’s why Mabel’s Tavern remains a going concern.

Lose to a succession of farcical Keith Stroud penalty decisions at MK Dons, nearly kill yourself legging it across dual carriageways trying to make it back to Bletchley in time for your train, and the short 45-minute hop into Euston can feel like a nine month course of chemotherapy. Emergency cans from the station offy numbing the pain, but also bringing you closer to the moment you have to brave the sliding door toilet in which somebody, earlier in the day, dramatically ended their life through their arsehole.

Preston is a bad one. And, by extension, Blackburn, which you have to travel from for a bit just to get to Preston. It’s a long way, on the country’s most expensive train. QPR rarely win at either, and for a long time Ben Pearson has been waiting for us in one, and Bradley Johnson the other. It’s like completing the Dakar Rally just to see that cunt you hate from work.

The train back from Bristol City was a deep, personal trauma. As mankind welcomes in the year 3000 and looks back over its achievements of the previous millennium, me making the thing in time at all will be listed among them. Not low on the list either. Last minute winners may be orgasmic wonder but they’re not conducive to a good night’s sleep and so once they’d rung the clapper out of the closing bell at The Old Fish Market we drove around until 3am looking for another all you can eat fish restaurant. Then we went fishing. Eventually there was nothing left for it but to sit in the bath back at the hotel with some emergency Peroni procured from a 24 hour store and wait for the adrenalin to subside while watching an old episode of Air Crash Investigation with Spanish subtitles on DailyMotion. Ahhhh Swiss Air 111 heavy - smoke in the cockpit means land the thing first and do the checklist later. Please make a note of this, pilots that may end up flying me somewhere in the future.

It's a very thick five minutes after waking up in the morning before I clock where I am. It feels.... hotely? Any self congratulation at making the train subsides quickly. I am asleep again, almost as soon as I hit the seat, but it’s restless and soon interrupted. There’s a train passenger we’ve all met before here, with a wheelie suitcase. I’m vaguely aware of her as I stumble on board and slump down in my seat, she’s a little way away, not too dissimilar in appearance from Judi Dench but with a bit of a face on, staring at her seat, at her ticket, at the reservation sign, and then back at her seat, at her ticket and at the reservation sign again. Off she goes down the aisle, banging past me with the wheelie suitcase. Back she comes down the aisle, banging past me with the wheelie suitcase. She looks at her seat, and her ticket, and the reservation sign again. Then disappears in the opposite direction, banging past people with the wheelie suitcase. Maybe she’s gone forever? She has not gone forever. Soon the haemorrhoid is back in my arsehole. She does another full length of the coach, banging past me with the wheelie suitcase. There has never been anybody so desperate for a conversation about her seat reservation as this woman and while I know I should have obliged her in that I fear it would have come across slightly agitated - more “THE FUCK IS YOUR PROBLEM?” than “can I help you with anything madam?” - because I’m in advanced stage kidney failure and have already been banged by the fucking wheelie suitcase four times.

A member of staff has the misfortune to pass by. “This seat reservation,” he is told very earnestly, “is not facing in the direction of travel.” This, to be fair to her, is manifestly true. He’s willing to admit to it after doing the look at the ticket, look at the seat, look at the reservation display thing. “I’ve specifically asked for a seat reservation faced in the direction of travel because, if I don’t face in the direction of travel, I’ll become travel sick and vomit almost immediately.” Almost immediately. We decide, first of all, that the wheelie suitcase should be placed in the rack at the end of the carriage, so I get banged with the wheelie suitcase again on its way past. Another round of ticket, chair and display staring takes place. We decide, after an imponderable time, that the seat three feet away, on the other side of the carriage, that is facing in the direction of travel, doesn’t have anybody sitting in it, and isn’t reserved, might be a suitable solution. This process has taken 20 minutes. The stoppage time at Coventry passed quicker.

Eyes closed. We’re underway. The public address system crackles. It’s our train manager. He’s a talker. There’s a welcome to the service and a reminder of which service it is which, if even I’ve made it this far, must have been really fucking obvious to everybody anyway and, as we’ve already locked the doors and set off, is too late for anybody who’s erred somewhere along the way. There’s the name of the company, which we know, and the make of the train, which we don’t need to. There’s a bit about the buffet, and the trolley, and the disabled toilet, and all the places we’re stopping between here and London which, though I would think this at this point, seems like a lot. There is then a story similar in length and bleak pointlessness to Once Upon A Time in Hollywood about how this was supposed to be a ten-car train, but they couldn’t find one, so they were going to cancel it altogether, but then they found a five-car train, which is what this is, so there are no seat reservations (as it transpires, Judi could have sat in the fucking driver’s seat if she thought it might settle her stomach), and it’s going to be very busy, so don’t put your suitcases on top of other people’s children. There’s an apology that goes on so long we’re already in Bath, and he has to interrupt himself to tell us this, open the doors, let another few hundred people on, and then recommence again with the welcome, the name of the company, the make of the train, the buffet, the trolley, the disabled toilet, the places we’re stopping between here and London, which still seem like a lot, the ten car train, the cancellation, the five car train, the seat reservations (sorry Judi), the overcrowding, the suitcases, the other people’s children, the grovelling apology. We get five minutes of peace in which I take up smoking Marlboro Red. Then we’re at Swindon (nice this time of year, though I bet it's pissing with rain over that open away end), and he’s back, with the welcome, the name of the company, the make of the train, the buffet and the trolley…

If you brought together everybody I’ve ever listened speak in my entire life, transcribed it all, added it all up, and worked it out, I reckon a full percentage point of the total, is this guy. Was going to be a ten-coach set but they didn’t have one, should have been cancelled altogether… five car set… buffet car… disabled toilet.

And I care not one bit. About any of it. Such is the power, of the last minute awayday winner. Sweet, glorious, migraine-inducing, liver-destroying, last minute winner. You're a candle in the window on a cold dark winter's night, and we're getting closer than I ever though we might.

Scores

Bristol City: On the pitch >>> QPR performance 7/10 >>> Bristol City performance 5/10 >>> Referee performance 6/10 Off the pitch >>> QPR support 8/10 >>> Home support 6/10 >>> Overall atmosphere 7/10 >>>> Stadium 8/10 >>>> Police and stewards 6/10 In the pub >>> Pubs 8/10 >>> Atmosphere 8/10 >>> Food 8/10 >>>> Cost 7/10 On the train >>> Journey 5/10 >>> Cost 5/10

Birmingham: On the pitch >>> QPR performance 6/10 >>> Birmingham performance 4/10 >>> Referee performance 7/10 Off the pitch >>> QPR support 7/10 >>> Home support 4/10 >>> Overall atmosphere 5/10 >>>> Stadium 5/10 >>>> Police and stewards 5/10 In the pub >>> Pubs 5/10 >>> Atmosphere 5/10 >>> Food 3/10 >>>> Cost 5/10 On the train >>> Journey 7/10 >>> Cost 8/10

Totals, Bristol City 94/140, Birmingham 66/140

Links >>> Hull/Boro >>> Reading/Bournemouth >>> Fulham/Peterborough >>> Cardiff/Blackpool

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ngbqpr added 08:19 - Feb 3
Ladies & Gentlemen, welcome to England 2022. Wonderful stuff.

I just so happen to be on an early morning train, and no word of a lie, as I pressed log in to comment, the announcer began telling us where we were going, how many coaches etc…
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Antti_Heinola added 11:37 - Feb 3
Fantastic stuff Clive.
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NorthantsHoop added 11:55 - Feb 3
Nice bit of REO Speedwagon reference from their song "Can't fight this feeling" with your penultimate line "You're a candle in the window on a cold dark winter's night".
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johann28 added 12:17 - Feb 3
Another masterpiece. Wonderful writing.
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MrSheen added 13:04 - Feb 3
I can't resist an episode of Bath Electrocution Investigations myself.
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CliveWilsonSaid added 19:06 - Feb 3
I found a good pub in Birmingham called the Craven Arms. It's about 10 mins walk from New Street Station on Upper Gough Street but the wrong direction for St Andrews. The old brick building clinging for dear life amongst all the glass towers in that part of the city. Forlornly welcoming. I actually went there the night before the match. The guy running it seems like a bit of a local legend. It's probably a bit small for the football in truth but worth a visit if you're ever there.

I went to the Wellington first thing on the Sunday which was it's usual charming self. A good mix of fans from all the Birmingham clubs, drinking pints of mild and other traditional ales, plentiful as always (probably not one for you Peroni drinkers). I think I was the only Rangers fan there this time unlike on previous visits. Then on to the Railway, a bit dingy but comfortable and a good presence of the hoops.
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Northernr added 23:50 - Feb 3
Definitely up for trying all of those next time mate, thanks for the tips.

And the kind comments everybody else!
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extratimeR added 08:13 - Feb 4
Magnificent.

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thehat added 15:22 - Feb 4

Love this Clive - As always brilliant writing!!

Bristol City away was magnificent - We made a family trip of it and stayed overnight with my Daughter and I going to the game.

Its been quite a while since I've celebrated a goal like Barbets winner - My 13 year old daughter was also standing on her seat going mad with me.

Moments in life that will live in the memory for ever.
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Hadders added 19:56 - Mar 9
I've been trawling through Clive bits all evening, reading bits out loud to my partner, who keeps asking for more- seriously, you need to turn all this into a book. You're writing is funny and moving and goes down like a cold bottle of your favourite nectar on a hot day. A Fever Pitch type thing, but Rangers rather than boring boring Arsenal. Do it, please.
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BasarMin added 18:54 - Dec 30
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john00 added 17:42 - Apr 29
Physical activity is also important for toddlers. They need opportunities to move and explore their environment. Regular exercise helps build strength, coordination, and balance. It is recommended that toddlers get at least one hour of physical activity per day. https://alltoddlerneeds.com/best-toddler-sleep-sacks/
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misavama added 13:58 - Aug 15

Bristol/Birmingham — Awaydays 2nd Feb 2022 22:31
A Christmas double header on the road provides sliding doors moments, a Stone Island tear up, the best pub of the season, the worst, and six more points for the mighty Rangers. 15

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DecoreNest added 22:42 - Jun 20
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