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Barnsley/Blackburn — Awaydays
Wednesday, 23rd Mar 2022 17:03 by Clive Whittingham

The performance of the team at Oakwell and Ewood Park, as the decline of a season that promised so much started to unravel in earnest, was never going to result in a particularly joyous awayday even before the heavens opened and Sky started dicking about with the kick offs.

Hard yards

When you’re a home and awayer, these are the tough days.

Barnsley is moved from 15.00 to a - frankly really rather ludicrous - kick off time of 20.00 on the Saturday and then, once a hotel had been booked in Sheffield, back to 15.00 again, all at about three weeks’ notice. When the day dawns the game is played in a hurricane, and QPR look like they’ve never met. It is the Tykes’ first victory in 16 games and only their third all season across 32 fixtures. Blackburn is shunted in the opposite direction, to 12.30, reducing our train options to two services out of Euston for which Avanti West Coast would like us pile all the money we have left in the world up in a wheelbarrow and trundle it over to their place for counting. If it’s not enough, apparently they will accept blood - preferably dispensed through the nose.

We plump for the 07.30. It is at least sunny after the meteorological horror show at Oakwell, and having dipped the blind down on the window there’s a moment of much needed sleep and tranquillity as we start to fly through all of the horrible shitholes the train from Euston goes through. This is interrupted by an incredibly loud bang which, as it turns out, is the boy in the buffet car testing the microphone to see if it works. It does. Now very awake we’re informed that “the shop is open, but we don’t have a lot of… stuff. So, feel free to come down and see me but don’t get your hopes up.” My hopes haven’t been up since Reading at home mate.

If you want to actually “level up” the north of this country, start by sorting the trains out. North to south they’re connected to the rest of the country by big new trains that have been built with interiors like planes — the opposite of what you should be going for — that cost more to travel in than the majority of people could ever possibly afford. Type ‘London to Blackburn’ into Avanti’s website and it asks you for far north of £100 for the trip. Type ‘London to Preston’ instead and it nearly halves the cost, with just a tenner for a local ticket at the other end to add on. It is little short of scandalous that this is still allowed (it’s the same for Huddersfield by the way, if you’re thinking of travelling on Good Friday check to Leeds or Wakefield rather than a straight return to Hudds) and it is blatantly there to rinse and rip off infrequent travellers, tourists and good and right-thinking people who assume that wouldn’t possibly be allowed in a developed nation in 2022. The website makes LFW look like an award-winning design. Even when getting to Preston these days you’ve done well if you’ve change from 60 sheets — well, not well exactly, because you’re still ending up in Preston, but lucky it didn’t cost you north of 80 to do it.

Once there, things get worse. Major towns and cities across the north of this country deserve and need fast, frequent, electric, high-capacity, affordable trains to get their people out of their cars, off the dire M62, and away from sky-rocketing petrol prices. Instead what they get is something not far off a horse and cart, that these days turns up whenever it pleases. Despite being the first train of the day, with nothing in front of it, making only three stops, our extortionate Avanti runs late enough for us to miss the connection to Blackburn, at least vindicating our decision not to risk the 08.30. I say ‘late enough to miss’, that’s not actually true. The Blackburn train is idling there as we arrive, and as the doors open, and as a dozen QPR fans start running down the platform towards it, but it is then waved off by a smug dispatcher with an impossible moustache who claims he “didn’t see us coming” and is exactly the sort of horrible prick they have to put those posters up asking you not to abuse the staff for. In exactly the sort of self-satisfied, know-all way only people like him, and referees, can accomplish, he then tells us we don’t want that train anyway, we want the one to Mill Hill in ten minutes because that’s closer to the ground. Not our first rodeo chum, well aware of that, except there is now no Mill Hill train every hour — the next one is in 70 minutes’ time.

Northern and TransPenine Express, who “service” Blackburn and Barnsley, have done this a lot — halved the number of services to the towns they serve under the handy catch-all excuse of “Covid innit”. For Barnsley I head home to see my parents in Northern Lincolnshire where a population of around 180,000 has gone from a fairly paltry one six-coach train every hour to Manchester to one three-coach train every two hours because “Covid innit”. My mum’s nearest market town used to only have three trains a week in any case, all on a Saturday, but even these have been removed indefinitely with no promise of return and no replacement bus service because “Covid innit”. I get grumpy when the Northern Line is going to Mill Hill and I have to wait four more minutes for a High Barnet train. Babbling on constantly about “levelling up” a region where towns of 100,000+ are now lucky if a train arrives twice every four hours, “going green” while offering people no option but to drive their cars, and leaving people facing a rapidly escalating cost of living a choice between swallowing the current petrol prices to get to work or not get to work at all… Well, it’s a bold strategy Cotton.

Scunthorpe station that Saturday morning is last chopper out of Saigon stuff. It’s a mixture of Meadowhell, Manchester United (all those cunts nest in places like this) and people just desperate to escape Scunthorpe for the day — for which I make them right. Recognising the impending clusterfuck when the first train for two hours pulls in six carriages too short having already loaded up in Grimsby I pay the extra fiver to go in the “first class” compartment as far as Sheffield. Here I do at least get a seat, although - having been immediately joined by a ruddy-skinned sort, with a tomato in lieu of a head, who proceeds to ring his entire address book in order and inform them loudly he’s going to see “United” - I kind of wish I’d just gone and stood up in the cattle class. This is the sort of chap who still doesn’t think women should be allowed in the clubhouse at his golf club. “United” being held to a draw at home by Southampton - theoretically, in my mind at least, wrecking the day for this twat - is a rare highlight from these trips and gives me a very large erection indeed.

Interest in these sorts of trips from my friendship group dwindled long ago. You’re going to a place you don’t want to go, where the pub options rarely improve on the town Wetherspoons, at an expense you cannot afford, at anti-social times of the day dictated and pissed about with at short notice by television companies, on a train horrendous in both cost and service, during the depths of a British winter, in a cost of living crisis, and in the case of both Barnsley and Blackburn QPR reward you by playing like a bunch of complete tarts. All of that optimism and confidence and attacking guile we saw at places like Middlesbrough before Christmas drained away, replaced with this passive, negative, backwards-and-sideways bullshit that drek like Swansea serve up and try to brand as “progressive”. Jeff Hendrick’s influence can best be described as ‘weird’. At Oakwell Andre Gray touches the ball 12 times in an hour. Both games finish 1-0. Blackburn and Barnsley are thoroughly good value for that and should have won by a lot more.

The lockdown cravings for any sort of football awayday have waned somewhat as QPR’s season has faltered. These two are games I attend to report on, because where possible I don’t think you should be writing, opining and/or podcasting about teams you don’t watch and games you’re not at. If people are willing to pay into a LFW Patreon to keep me from defaulting on a mortgage during the pandemic then the least I can do is get my little bum out of bed on Saturday morning and go to Blackburn to report on what I see. Of course, on the occasions Albert Adomah steals in and heads home a last-minute winner at Coventry (another pit of despair), or Chris Willock runs riot at the Riverside, I go all mushy and emotional and over-the-top about how it makes it all worthwhile. Increasingly though, as this season sadly looks like unravelling, it's not.

When you’re going purely to report on it, and you derive so little pleasure from two long hard days like this, it essentially reduces what’s meant to be your favourite pastime to a sixth day at work.

The affair

It’s the Sunday morning after the Saturday QPR disaster before and I have made it precisely 16 miles from Oakwell. Yesterday’s wind and rain is now today’s wind and rain and it wakes me up hammering away at the window of my Sheffield hotel room. It’s one of those mornings I’m sort of disappointed to wake up at all. The window and I do not get along. It is sealed tight, and cannot be opened, which wouldn’t be an issue in South Yorkshire in the depths of winter were the air conditioning (such as it is) not stuck on a single setting Delia Smith might describe as a “cool oven”. A gentleman was complaining about this at reception when I checked in last night only to be told the entire place is set to that single temperature for the duration of the winter — phrased as if they were doing us a favour. This did at least save me the bother of going down to complain about it myself. It’s been like sleeping — or at least trying to sleep — in a coffin. I have spent better fifty-nine pounds.

Today I’m going to see my other woman, and frankly Queens Park bloody Rangers you can save the judgemental side-eye after that slop you served me up against the worst team in the league yesterday. Rugby league was something I got into as a lonely kid ditched in a northern secondary school by cruel parents. When I passed my driving test, and got my first car, hopping over the Humber Bridge with my little brother was the first real thing him and I did striking out on our own. We’d go and watch Hull FC at the old Boulevard — a wild sort of a place, that didn’t need much coaxing by the demolition crew when they finally moved out, where you changed ends at half time to always stand behind the posts Hull were attacking. I got special dispensation on some of my A-levels because a kind soul smashed the back of my Corsa in and nicked my bag with all my revision out of the boot while I was watching the locals make really rather heavy weather of knocking over Halifax Blue Sox.

When the marketing department aren’t fannying about with it, Hull FC play at home in hoops, which is always a good start. Irregular hoops, and black rather than blue, but hoops all the same. Some of their home strips down the years have been genuine things of beauty - mixed in with some absolute horrors it should be added. In my early days it felt like something was building there. You could watch genuinely world class players like Jason Smith and the original Richie Barnett, and occasionally a St Helens or a Wigan would turn up and get their arse handed to them. Consistency, though, and challenges for actual league titles and cups, have rarely ever materialised. Always, it seems, just two or three players short of making that leap. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

More recently they’ve become the sport’s Newcastle United (pre-Saudi blood money), and not just because of the colours. The proverbial ‘sleeping giant’, Hull FC have just about everything you could ever need to be successful in an increasingly marginalised and skint sport: they have one of the biggest and nicest stadiums; they are ridiculously well supported home and away regardless of how the team performs; they shift merchandise like Greggs sells steak bakes; they spend maximum salary cap; they regularly sign players who would get in any other team in the league and you think cannot do anything but succeed… and then the game starts. Shaun McRae, the head coach when I was a teenager, spoke about a “cancer within the club” more than 20 years ago, and Hull have rarely been able to shake the impression they’re not always entirely serious or that bothered about what they’re doing, certainly when compared to the professionalism, conditioning and consistency of the game’s perennial challengers in this country. Hull, whoever is playing for them, and whoever the coach is, will go off as 8/11 favourites to win at some idiot scum like Salford and lose by 40 points half a dozen times a season, and nobody has ever been able to explain why that is or fix it. I have heard “attitude adjustment required, lessons need to be learned” from Hull FC coaches more than I’ve heard “see it, say it, sorted”.

There was a brief and glorious period of challenge and success in 2016 and 2017, when they won the Challenge Cup (FA Cup) twice in a row, ending a hoodoo of never winning at Wembley in the club’s history. A team dominated by South Sea Islanders from the NRL complimenting a spine of local Hull lads had been put together by director of rugby Motu Tony, who’d won the cup at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium with the club as a player, but as he returned home so the recruitment went back on the slide. The players got comfortable, contracts were renewed on reputation rather than merit, the team grew old together. Coach Lee Radford was allowed to double down and down again on his “the bigger the better” signing strategy at a time when the rules of the sport were moving it more towards pace and agility, until he was unceremoniously sacked live on Sky post home demolition by Warrington. And now here they are again, as far away from winning things as I can ever really remember in my time with them.

I still like to stick my head around the door when I can. LoftforWords has, to a certain extent, turned QPR into a job for me, and that’s especially true when they’re playing like they did at Blackburn and Barnsley. It’s nice to go to a game that I’m invested in, but it’s not going to ruin my weekend if the score isn’t what I’d hoped for. It’s nice to watch sport without constantly taking notes about what’s happening. It’s wonderful to know I’m not going to be spending hours the following day pacing around the parks of Barnet trying to figure out what I’m going to write about it all, only for the first comment 2,500 words later to be “I can’t believe you gave Josh Griffin a seven when I thought he was only a six”.

Today they’re at Wakefield, which unfortunately we have to pass back through Barnsley on the train to reach. Oakwell looms out of the storm again as we trundle past. Just you be ready with that holy water. It is still raining. Fucking place. If Hull FC are Newcastle then Wakefield are very much what the old Wimbledon used to be to the Premier League — that is, a right royal pain in the arse. Expansionists have had their beady eye on this lot for decades, playing in a stadium barely at Conference North level in an area that already has Leeds, Huddersfield, Castleford and two Hull clubs in the top division; Featherstone, Batley, Bradford, Dewsbury and Halifax in the ones below. League has tried repeatedly, and frequently failed, to expand horizons into Wales, London, the north east, France and even Toronto and, for people who want to broaden the audience and participation in the sport, another club in this part of Yorkshire, playing in a ground that looks like the sort of thing you pick up on Homes Under The Hammer without first reading the legal pack, is, at best, in the way. Past talk of a merger with Cas is thankfully long gone, and it’s grounds like theirs and the ridiculously-named Mend-A-Hose Jungle over the M62 that keep me coming back to this sport away from the horrible identikit new-builds of my first love, but you get the feeling if this lot ever are relegated they won’t be back and certain figures won’t be too upset by that.

They’re not, however, taking the hint. They’ve been close multiple times, surviving a relegation play-off with Bradford one year, needing a result in the last game against Castleford (and getting it) another. They’re like the sort of floater a removal man might leave in your downstairs toilet - even crossing the streams might not be enough to conquer it. You have to admire the pugnaciousness of a team the competes year after year on a fraction of the finance, support, facilities and salary cap of its rivals. This year looked like it might be the one, with an expansionist-pleasing Toulouse side promoted in fine style after several years of steady build, only for France’s vaccine mandates and a lot of internal wrangling to rob them of key players and signings on the eve of the season and leave them miles short of Super League standard. Wakefield could potentially survive again this year simply by not losing the two matches with the French team, although I wouldn’t offer you a price on Hull FC not losing at least once to Olympique because, well, like I say, that’s the sort of thing they do. Stop me if you’ve heard… etc. etc.

The ground, to be fair, is about to be redeveloped. Mind you, that’s been true at every point of the last 25 years. The away ‘end’, such as it is, is ten uncovered concrete steps stretching down one whole side of the pitch, backed up by a pile of portacabins that are used as coach’s boxes and television “studios”. There are 1,500 Hull fans standing out there in the teeth of the gale today, and they’re braver men and women than I. We head up behind the posts instead because there is, now, a roof - added relatively recently to a large terrace that is slowly crumbling from back to front, sliding down the bank and onto the main road that runs behind it. The original metal railing to prevent us from going the same way has collapsed entirely and is taped off like a police crime scene. Two lads try to beat a quick retreat at the full-time hooter by hopping over it and sliding down which, in this weather, is, almost immediately, laid bare as a really fucking stupid idea. The toilets are in the same portacabin they’ve been in since I’ve been coming here, which looks a far more likely source of Covid-19 than any Wuhan wet market to me. At the far end are executive boxes and lounges assembled in the form of a high-rise block of flats in lieu of a stand, and to our left a covered grandstand that has done seriously well to survive the night. Wakey take it to the Antiques Roadshow every now and again and talk about how dear it is to them and how long it’s been in the family.

Already, here on the opening day of the season, Hull are missing the thick end of a dozen players injured, and there are a lot of names on that list who were injured much of last season, and the season before, and the season before. They take to the field with three full backs instead of one, no recognised centres at all, three hookers instead of one, and rotate one over-worked prop - the giant Chris Satae, who you can try and tackle if you like, but I’m stopping up here where it’s safe. Nevertheless, a 16-12 victory is theirs in a weather-affected game nobody who’s there will ever remember. Frankly if these aren’t two of this season’s strugglers then it’s going to be a long old 2022 for some of the others. There is some quality on show: Wakey winger Tom Johnstone, who could play for any team in the comp if he could get through a year without his knee exploding into a thousand pieces, scores a trademark airborne try in the corner; Hull full-back Jake Connor likewise if he could improve his defence and not come across as such a total arsehole; Joe Lovodua, an unheralded off-season arrival on Humberside, impresses out of position and scores one of his own off a show-and-go that had half the Trinity team having to pay to get back in. But, even allowing for the conditions and absentees, it’s poor fare. At one point a bored local hops over the hoardings to 'invade' the pitch, sets off at a lick towards the far end of the ground, immediately drops his phone out of his back pocket (rookie mistake) and completes a full length of the pitch while the game continues and nobody shows a blind bit of interest.

League’s perennial problem is people, and participation. It doesn’t have enough of either, in the stands or on the pitch. Attending a secondary school that was 25 minutes door-to-door from the Boulevard, and within an hour of six other top-flight professional clubs, I didn’t have a rugby ball in my hand once during five years of PE rotation. This a school that made us play field hockey, badminton, tennis and basketball, which offer similar prospects of a professional career in this country to Nasa’s astronaut training programme. Trampolining. We did fucking trampolining. Twice a week, for six weeks, every year, our 50-minute PE lesson would be spent hauling this enormous, creaking death trap they picked up from the collapse of the Soviet Union out of storage, setting it up with all the mats and harnesses and slings and nets, and then trying to get 26 boys at least one go on it before it was time to put the bastard thing away again. In a country of 66 million people, if there are more than a dozen professional trampoliners, honestly, I’ll pay the salaries myself. Half a dozen top flight professional sports teams within spitting distance, desperate for young talent, and we never touched a rugby ball once. At one point Hull FC and Hull KR merged their academies because there weren’t enough talented boys in the city to populate both and, well, let’s just say it’s not something you could imagine Rangers and Celtic going for. With low participation comes a smaller talent pool, comes lower quality games, comes fewer fans and smaller television audiences, comes lower ticket revenue and smaller broadcast deals, comes decline upon decline upon decline. If people aren’t playing it, then they’re certainly not refereeing it, and with a couple of creditable and notable exceptions the standard of officiating in Super League is shambolically bad. With that comes, at times, brutal abuse, particularly in the youth and reserve grades, which immediately puts people off taking it further as a career. Have I mentioned this is an angry country we live in at the moment?

For me, though, it now has an even bigger existential problem. This is no longer a sport compatible with modern medicine, science and attitudes and its biggest strength has become its key weakness. My experience through the years has been if you could actually persuade sceptical mates to come along and give it a chance with you they loved it immediately, because as a spectacle, atmosphere and matchday experience it can be second to none. The Crown and Sceptre regulars call it “Northern murder death ball”. Down south it’s judged unfavourably against rugby union when it should be looked at as a faster, better version of NFL without the constant stoppages, helmets and pads. Big, fast, aggressive, talented, muscly lads run at each other hell-for-leather with scant regard for their own personal safety and wellbeing and come up with all manner of skill at super high speed. It is fast, violent, unforgiving, skilful and exhilarating. You run a play, if it doesn’t work you snap the ball back and run another with no need to stop for a commercial break. If you haven’t scored after five of those you punt it away and they have a go. And you get hit — hard. NFL is surging in popularity in this country to the extent that Tottenham have essentially built their new stadium entirely to host a permanent American franchise here. If that can happen, rugby league should have every chance of at least holding its own. This year it has a long overdue and seriously helpful terrestrial television deal with Channel 4, freshening up Sky coverage which has gone horribly stale and is regularly hidden in far flung corners of the EPG — this drew three quarters of a million people to its first Saturday lunchtime broadcast of Leeds v Warrington. The potential remains but, like Wakey’s new ground, that’s been unrealised for decades as well.

And yet, much that makes the sport good is now being forced out of it. As medical and sport science has advanced, and more has been learned about concussion and brain injury, so this code of rugby has panicked under the threat of legal action by former players and attempted drastic changes. It has always been prone to needless fiddling about with the rules — let’s award them two points for a drop goal from more than 40 yards out, a once in a season occurrence, just because — and its decision to allow referees to just restart the tackle count rather than award penalties for ruck infringements has done enormous damage. This is the code of rugby known for having all the tries rather than all the rounds of applause for a kick into touch, but it’s the defence, and the tight low-scoring games, where the tension, drama and entertainment value lies. Sadly, what tends to happen now if a team is camped on the line defending for its life is the referee just restarts the set over and over again until a score becomes inevitable. This has sped the game up to silly levels, and with that extra speed has come extra mistakes in split second moments where players are caught high around the head by despairing and tired opponents. Concurrent with this deliberate, artificial and unnecessary speed increase, any contact above the shoulders, any contact whatsoever that causes a “flexion of the head or neck”, has now become punishable not only with red and yellow cards, but also suspensions of ridiculous length stretching many weeks into the future. Hull are not only asked to defend their four-point lead for the final quarter of an hour a man down — Connor sent off for little more than a high slap on a player who’d broken through and stepped him — but will also be without their star man for subsequent games as well. For the dubious charge of “sliding in with the knees” while trying to prevent Johnstone’s try, Andre Savelio is banned for a fortnight. A week later, at home to St Helens, their half back Luke Gale is sent off and subjected to a five-match ban for catching the kicker’s knee with his studs — not a good tackle at all, a red card obviously, but that ban was talked down from eight matches on appeal which would have been a third of the season, and is also what Tony Clubb received for racially abusing Savelio the season prior. Other appeals deemed “frivolous” have seen draconian punishments lengthened further.

Steve Ganson - a St Helens fan who refereed St Helens in cup finals with a St Helens tattoo on his back, as only British rugby league could conjure — was, kindly put, an eccentric when in the middle. It was something of a relief when he retired, but he hasn’t gone away. He’s now in overall charge of the Super League referees and leading a race to the bottom. Paul Cullen, a former player and head coach at Warrington, on whom you’ve always been able to make a handsome profit buying him at your valuation and selling him at his, is in charge of an inconsistent and ridiculously harsh video review panel which sits in secret on a Monday and chucks out mind-bending retrospective punishments for tiny indiscretions. Between them, they’re running riot.

Even the referees — bar card fetishist Chris Kendall, and Robert Hicks who’s always come across as the sort of bloke that would send his starter back four times in a restaurant — wear the heavy, weary expressions of people being asked to carry out something they don’t believe in. Poor James Child’s demeanour in taking an absolute blowtorch to the recent Huddersfield Castleford game was that of somebody checking job sites on his lunch breaks. Richard Silverwood and Ian Smith, vastly experienced former referees with social media presences, are happy to say publicly the game is an “embarrassing” “mess”, that the current refs have been hung out to dry and “don’t know whether they’re coming or going”. They're joined by a litany of current players rebelling against rules, in theory, there to protect them. Games are becoming card-fests, and farcical with it because if you think defending with these new rules is tough with 13 players try giving it a go with 11 or 12; star players people want to pay to come and watch or see on Channel 4 are suspended for weeks at a time; the sort of play-acting more usually associated with football is now commonplace because players know any hint they’ve been touched on the head or neck will get the other bloke sent off on suspicion; the sort of complicated, technical and unfathomable refereeing calls that used to be the doyen of the other code now riddle this one. This used to be a simple game, and superb to watch because of it; now it’s a complicated mess, and frequently difficult to watch at all. I would no longer take a friend confident they’d like what they saw, because I’ve watched a dozen games so far this season, quite enjoyed three of them, and switched several others off long before the end.

It's easy to fall into the ‘things were better in the old days’ bleat about health and safety. Adrian Morley’s swinging arm, Mick Cassidy’s cocked-elbow, Stuart Fielden head-hunting — I miss the biff, and the fights, and the savagery, but I recognise that you can’t go around repeatedly hitting young lads in the head in 2022, leaving them at risk of God-knows what later in life. Will Pryce’s disgraceful lift and slam on Connor Wynne the weekend just past was red carded immediately and he’s been banned for ten matches — it risked leaving Wynne paralysed and few would argue with the sanction. You should be free to play rugby league without Michael Korkidas making an attempt on your life while the referee just shouts “Korky gerrorf ‘is ‘ead” and without the fear it’s going to render you a dribbling vegetable for the second half of your life. But if boxing and UFC are allowed and thriving in the modern world, sports where the actual aim of the game is to punch the guy in the head until he can’t stand up any more, then a certain degree of the tough stuff that makes league what it is surely must be able to exist in some form. When this point was put to Karen Moorhouse, a career solicitor and now the RFL’s “chief regulatory officer”, during a recent debate on Sky she instead made a comparison with netball which… well, it hasn’t gone down well. And nor should it. This is a sport that has responded to a potentially existence-saving national terrestrial television deal by destroying itself as a spectacle and eating itself with public arguments. Channel 4’s viewing figures for its most recent game — actually a genuinely brilliant watch between Warrington and Wakey once more — were already down to just 160,000. Just when it needed a united front and its best foot forward, league has decided instead to rage a battle for the soul of the sport between those that play, watch and coach it, and pencil-pushing suits who sit in offices.

By trying to take this part of the game out of it entirely, you’re changing the sport at its most fundamental level - for the worse. Stacked lads running at each other without protection is, inherently, at some point, going to carry an element of risk. You can mitigate that, bring in rules and head injury protocols, as is only right and proper. But it’s like crashing a car into a wall - you can add air bags, and seat belts, and braking technology, and better tyres, and stopping distance sensors, and roll cages, and crash test the thing to the nth degree until, eventually, you just have to accept that crashing a car into a wall is a dangerous thing to do. That is, unless you’re going to put every car in its own 20-foot bubble, or say that only one person can use the roads at any one time, or that people are no longer allowed to drive at all, or build walls, at which point it becomes silly, impractical, and a bit shit.

Which brings me back to watching modern rugby league, in the rain, on the terrace, behind the posts, at Wakefield’s creaky old Belle Vue.

Ewood Express

I appreciate this has been long, even by LFW Awayday standards, and miserable, even by LFW Awayday standards, so I wanted to finish on a brief and happy note. When we finally do arrive in Blackburn we take the long walk up the hill to Ewood, once again making that mistake we’ve made here every year for the last three decades of following the fork of the road to the left and ending up trapped in a housing estate when you actually need to cross the road and keep right to get under the railway bridge. Post detour there is a long line of double decker buses taking up a whole side street next to the ground, emptying hundreds and hundreds of excitable kids into the world of Championship football.

The vast majority of the kids are Asian, and this is the so-called ‘Ewood Express’. The population of Blackburn, Darwen and the immediate countryside around it is just north of 155,000, and 45,500 of those are in the BAME category — not far off a third. Turn left out of Preston station instead of right, and end up in Blackpool instead of Blackburn, and there are 5,000 BAME people living in a population of 140,000, some 3%. A Championship football club losing money hand over fist, with entire tiers of stands behind both goals closed for most games, has looked at its crowd, not seen 30% representation, and moved to do something about it, targeting schools in often quite deprived areas and communities that have tended not to see British football as for them. The kids take up four blocks in the upper tier at the far end that otherwise would have been vacant, and enjoy the late Rovers win — little shits. Nestling among the usual beige buffet of matchday food options there is now a curry, for a fiver, and while it’s very ready-meal rather than takeaway, it’s a Marks and Spencer ready-meal rather than a Tesco, and it’s the best thing I’ve eaten in a football ground for a long time.

It’s all part of Blackburn’s Next Generation strategy. Of course there are advantages here that we don’t have — three enormous new stands built in their Premier League heyday, kitchens and catering facilities fit for the age and the capacity, thousands of empty seats, plenty of space around the stadium, local competition residing in Burnley and Manchester rather than a couple of miles down the road. But they’re working to build their crowds and improve their matchday experience, as we simply must do if we’re to maintain support into the future and push the case for a new ground. Nothing says ‘new stadium’ like weekly sell outs and a waiting list for tickets, and QPR can’t even do that at 18,000 Loftus Road. Too often it can feel like our club are throwing their arms up at the obvious limitations of Loftus Road, saying it'll never possibly get any better unless we’re allowed a new stadium, and leaving the team and its results to build the attendances — if we win people come, if we lose they don’t. Choosing to shove a rare Saturday 15.00 kick off to a Sunday morning to give the poor players a rest after Nottingham Forest, and to hell with any parents and kids who might have junior football Sunday morning, or out of towners ruled out of attending by this country’s wretched train service, brings the diatribe full circle.

This was probably my favourite bit of either trip. Apart from thinking about that Man Utd twat watching Che Adams score.

Barnsley: On the pitch >>> QPR performance 2/10 >>> Barnsley performance 6/10 >>> Referee performance 6/10 Off the pitch >>> QPR support 5/10 >>> Home support 4/10 >>> Overall atmosphere 3/10 >>>> Stadium 5/10 >>>> Police and stewards 5/10 In the pub >>> Pubs 5/10 >>> Atmosphere 5/10 >>> Food 5/10 >>>> Cost 6/10 On the train >>> Journey 3/10 >>> Cost 6/10

Blackburn: On the pitch >>> QPR performance 4/10 >>> Blackburn performance 7/10 >>> Referee performance 4/10 Off the pitch >>> QPR support 8/10 >>> Home support 6/10 >>> Overall atmosphere 5/10 >>>> Stadium 7/10 >>>> Police and stewards 8/10 In the pub >>> Pubs 6/10 >>> Atmosphere 6/10 >>> Food 7/10 >>>> Cost 7/10 On the train >>> Journey 4/10 >>> Cost 2/10

Totals, Barnsley 66/140, Blackburn 81/140

Links >>> Hull/Boro >>> Reading/Bournemouth >>> Fulham/Peterborough >>> Cardiff/Blackpool >>> Bristol/Birmingham >>> Peterborough/Coventry/Millwall

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switchingcode added 18:52 - Mar 23
Very enjoyable read Clive lve just finished reading The hard yards by Nige Tassell which basically is a review of last season’s championship.Have to say you are in a different league with your articles that are both informative but for me very amusing especially for fellow homeandawayer.

toboboly added 19:05 - Mar 23
Lovely read, thank you for doing these.

Funny you mention Blackburn in the last section, stat i saw today say they have the lowest attendance percentage of any championship team. At least they wont be charging £40 to head into the bar though.

00calben added 15:37 - Mar 25
Just brilliant

simmo added 23:46 - Mar 25
Annoying aren't they, these really long articles about the minutiae of British sport and fandom.

Not for me I like them.

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