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Stoke/Bristol/Leicester – Awaydays
Thursday, 18th Apr 2024 22:28 by Clive Whittingham

Take your mind off the potential calamity of the next fortnight by reliving the suffering that went before, in the latest Awaydays we’re calling Places I Woke Up Recently.

Some of these people have come from Stoke

There is, I’m immediately aware, an excoriatingly painful and excruciatingly loud banging noise. It’s there before I even open my eyes, or rather before I discover I can’t open my eyes without great effort and clouds of dried gunk. Bangs. One after another, bare seconds apart, louder and louder, faster and faster. Bangs. Emphasis on the G.

Obviously completely impossible to sleep through, but that was the point and the purpose. It’s my brain, armed with an axe from an African diamond mine, attacking the inside of my skull – demanding answers, demanding retribution, demanding an escape. It wants water, and medicine; it wants to evacuate my stomach in every direction it can of whatever poison I’ve inflicted upon it (although the sights and smells emanating through a crack of the bathroom door suggests we’ve had at least one good go at that already during the night); and it wants out, through death if necessary/possible. QPR have lost, and together we have embarked on the time-honoured ritual of Drink To Forget, that much is clear. Empties clink and spill to the floor as I roll onto my side and let out a fart that would have laid waste to the Roman Empire. Ohh God.

The time is less clear, though that in itself has solved any lingering mystery of where we are. My phone, and therefore my clock, I can see plugged in against the far wall of the room, as far away from my bed as it’s possible to be without climbing in with the couple in the room next door. This means we’re in a Premier Inn. In 2024, when the whole of western civilisation lives on/in their phones, this is where the Premier Inn puts the plug socket for you to charge your device overnight. You wanna check the time, turn off your alarm, answer a call while in bed? Ha ha, twat. Be quicker and closer to pop out into the car park and use the one in your motor.

I’ve had enough time this season to give this some thought and I presume it goes hand in hand with one of the other big modern trends in this country – cladding all our buildings in panels of solidified lighter fuel. When the government’s much vaunted “bonfire of red tape” has let a whole load of unscrupulous developers whack up cheap hotels/hospitals/homes wrapped in a material that’s one discarded cigarette or faulty fridge freezer away from turning Golden Acres Retirement Castle into 300ft Roman candle, the last thing you want is some poser like me forgetting to switch my hair straighteners off and leaving them on the bed as I rush out for a night in Sheffield, Leeds or, very frequently, Preston. Either that or the cleaning staff have said the propensity of the sort of people who stay in the Premier Inn to wank themselves to the point of drowning in a pool of their own sweat and cum when afforded nocturnal access to a handheld device and PornHub library is above their paygrade. Moving the plugs, simply, the cheaper option.

You’re not allowed to open the window in these places – silly Billy – to any great degree. This is never really explained either, other than the general assumption that some branches are over three storeys tall and if you could open the window fully in those somewhere between 60-70% of the clientele would almost certainly throw themselves to the sweet release of a squelchy concrete death. So, they allow you a centimetre, or two. Not enough to stop bodily gases gathering to dangerous levels up around the central light fitting (my bad), or the room heating up during the night to a Premier Inn universal winter setting Delia Smith might describe as a “cool oven” (very much their bad), but enough to let the fumes and the throb of the adjacent dual carriageway drift in and mingle making the whole thing smell like the men’s bathroom at a Glasgow petrol station.

This morning it’s also allowing in Kelly Clarkson. Kelly Clarkson on a loop. Kelly Clarkson all night long. Since u been gone, she can breathe for the first time, she’s moving on (yeh, yeh), thanks to you, now she gets, she gets what she wants. (‘U’ as opposed to ‘you’ presumably to avoid the threat of a court injunction from former Argent guitarist Russ Ballard over his 1976 hit Since You Been Gone, successfully covered in 1979 by classic rock five-piece Rainbow – shut up, I looked it up. Classic Rock is both classic and it rocks.)

And, now, it’s flooding back. The fucking death star Vauxhall garage. Old Gil’s death star Vauxhall garage. Forcing Vauxhalls on the local population through the medium of tying a lone balloon to each wing mirror. Muffling any customer concerns that the grotesque weight of those five door Corsa’s mean you’d need three or four of its 1.2 litre engines just to get the thing up a gentle incline, never mind reach anything approaching motorway speed, by blasting Kelly bloody Clarkson out of a lot-wide sound system you can hear from the middle of the North Sea. And… the Premier Inn over the road.

I actually owned one of those bastard cars, you know. For about 20 minutes. We did an experiment with it on an empty bit of the M1 in the middle of the night coming back from the annual defeat at Nottingham Forest where I put my foot flat to the floor and waited for it to get past 70mph. It never made it. As only I could, I knew I didn’t like it or want it – it test drove like an army tank - but bought it anyway because I liked the guy selling it to me, didn’t want to make him sad, and was so timid I preferred to give him the money and then drive the thing, almost immediately, straight down the road to We Buy Any Car and give it to them at a substantial loss. Here's the thing, we started out friends. It was cool, but it was all pretend.

He didn’t even need to play Kelly Clarkson to get me over the line, but these guys do and it means we can only be in one place, my angry brain and I. That’s right, we’re in the Premier Inn, in Stoke.

Oh God, of course. A lingering moan from the top end, an ominous gurgle, another vile release – Stoke.

Of course, Stoke. Of course, the gratuitous two pints of Peroni for just shy of £16 before we’d even set off from Euston. Of course, the little “you’re going to Stoke!!” email from Avanti West Coast, followed instantaneously by the other little “your train has been cancelled” email from Avanti West Coast, followed some time later by the complete fucking bullshit email from Avanti West Coast telling me a full cancellation of a train now qualifies me for… £14.50 of the £29 the ticket cost me.

Of course, the Lion King-style stampede of two train loads of people towards the one remaining service when its platform was finally declared two minutes before its scheduled departure. Of course, my short-lived joy at local knowledge snaring an unreserved table seat in secret weapon carriage U. And, of course, my subsequent despair at the family of three (plus dog) immediately honing in on the other three spaces with a lifetime’s worth of absolute tat to spread around in front of us: her about to embark on a prolonged whinge down the phone to her mum (“are you still there?”) about how utterly shite London was and how unbelievably long it was going to take them to get back to Ormskirk now; him swiftly getting stuck into such remorselessly sustained, petty over-parenting of a five-year-old I ended up trying to catch sight of some identification so when the child inevitably grows up, rejects these pricks, rebels and careers off the rails in such spectacular fashion she ends up dead in some railway cutting with a needle hanging from her arm, I can look out for the death notice in the paper and turn up at the funeral in a fancy hat.

It was all there, so painfully crystal clear.

The ‘there must be something nice in Stoke’ walk around Hanley Park, from which a set of roadworks have made escape near impossible, and some public money has been spent writing “I see you standing there as if on a distant horizon, I reach out and our hands touch” around the island in the middle of the duck pond, but you have to (like I just have) go home and look up the full quote as two thirds of the letters have dislodged and fallen into the water.

The queue for check in at The Premier Inn, out the door and into the car park, “because it’s Valentines Day”. The couple in front of me, already amorous at three in the afternoon, told there was no room left at the (Premier) inn without a booking, “because it’s got a Brewers Fayre attached” which makes it Valentines Day destination of the region. The devastating news said Brewers Fayre called last orders at ten (TEN!!? You must be out of your goddam mind if you think we’re shelling out 70 sheets to stay in a sordid little grief hole like this, wedged between two inner ring roads and the Kelly Clarkson Vauxhall garage, for any reason other than the bastard bar is meant to stay open a bit later than ten o’fucking’clock) and the dirty protest I staged against this with one of the smaller bath towels. Fuck em. 10pm indeed. Had to trawl around until 3am looking for an open off licence. Do these sound like the actions of a man who’s had all he can drink?

The respite in The Glebe, so welcoming a pub, rich of food and beer, warm and comforting by a grand open fire with its spectacular wooden mantlepiece. The profound regret we felt at having to leave, back out into the cold, and a bus (a bus!!) to one of modern football stadia’s worst examples, two thirds empty, perched high on a hill, and with a stand sponsored by The Tile Mountain. How many tiles does one person generally need? A mountain feels excessive to me, unless you’re redoing my bathroom back at The Premier Inn, in which case probably not enough.

The QPR ‘performance’, so insipid and inept it succeeds in losing even to Stoke, a team that hasn’t won at home for many months and is entirely unsuited to the manager that’s been foisted upon it – a manager who apparently will be sacked when he loses this game, only he doesn’t, because Rangers are worse. Mule With A Spinning Wheel 1, School For The Gifted 0. Haven’t we suffered enough? Apparently not.

The players trudging past the away end and straight down the tunnel with vague wafts of apology; the prolonged rant about Asmir Begovic on the dark walk back down the canal; the ridiculously angry and over the top Tweets that I chuck out in fury, then find in the morning with all their many dozens of thoughtful replies, each making me feel worse about myself in turn; the off license hunt (how hard can it be for goodness sake?); and The Premier Inn, by the A5008, and the Vauxhall Garage, with the Kelly Clarkson single.

All of it, now, so painfully clear, through the banging.

Oh, do fuck off.

At Stoke-on-Trent railway station mid-morning Wednesday, a man is ordering a tuna melt. And a chicken pasty. And a chocolate brownie. And sitting on the platform, wondering what on earth he’s doing with his life. Stupid bloody football team.

Get the badge in

We were all smiling anyway, walking away from whatever they call Leicester City’s soulless bowl these days a fortnight later.

Smiling about the QPR performance, chalk and cheese from the nonsense at Stoke. About Lyndon Dykes finally getting something right - not a goal (are you mad?), but an assist for Ilias Chair's opener. About Sinclair Armstrong running on from the bench and, almost without breaking stride, whopping one straight into the net with his first touch then continuing on that path straight on towards the QPR fans in the corner. About the packed away end and ceaseless backing for the team. About the carnage at the back of that stand after the goals. Young Samuel, suddenly airborne, back to the pitch, legs outstretched with the soles of his trainers flat and facing up towards us, across the top of at least six rows of people, and down to earth with a landing even Aeroflot would have deemed unsafe, producing a rip in the back of his jeans bigger even than the tear in the fabric of reality Patrick Agyemang once slipped eight goals in six Queens Park Rangers appearances.

Smiling, too, about the chap we ‘met’ in the lounge bar at Ye Olde Walkabout Arms before the match, who was not party to our conversation, and had not been invited to join, but nevertheless felt the need to tell us he felt the team Enzo Maresca had selected for the day’s festivities was probably good enough to beat Queens Park Rangers “four, or five, nil”. And the half dozen ruddy-faced, a bit-too-old-for-this-by-now-surely, limp-dicked wonders who didn’t have the stones for The White Horse after the first game in October and instead deliberately positioned themselves along the bar in the Crown & Sceptre, stamping about the place singing “straight back up, straight back up Leicester City” and trying to start punch ups with a pub of old men, women and kids. I ask you now… do you, like apples?

But smiling, also, about what was still to come. The train back from the happy days is often one of the best bits. Somewhere 70 miles and an hour-or-so north of here, somebody’s elderly white-haired mother was being gently loaded onto a London-bound train by a doting son. A lovely, relaxing few days of seeing the grandchildren for walks in the Peak District and traipsing/shopping round Meadowhall, pub lunches and bedtime stories. Now back home with her bags, and her book, and her cup of tea. You all settled in mum? Excellent, two rings when you’re home yeh? Now, 3,000 QPR fans marauding towards the same, doomed, 1727 from Leicester, full of Stella and cocaine, full of adrenalin and euphoria, and full of victory.

Two hours and one of Leicester’s most excellent curries later, we’re braving the train station ourselves. Our deliberate move to let the chaos clear has failed. Down in the dim light of platform three it is immediately clear that all is not well. The 1843 is still here and it is, palpably, no longer 1843. Expat Derby fans press pale faces against the windows. How delighted they were to see us all. That PTSD’s a fucker innit lads? The 1904, the 1913 and, very shortly, our 1932 we can see queued out the back of the station, lights blinking through the darkness, waiting to use the facilities, a North Circular on rails. Eventually we will board, chance our arm with the posh seats and find Sheff Wed-supporting actor Tommy Craig, of Coronation Street and Murdoch Mysteries fame, on his way back from Rotherham. Of course, we don’t know it’s Tommy Craig of Coronation Street and Murdoch Mysteries fame, because who watches Coronation Street and Murdoch Mysteries, but his mate’s keen for us to know and during Tommy’s first toilet trip his cheeks have barely left the seat before we’re invited to play “do you know who I am?” – or, rather, “do you know who that is?”

For now, though, it’s all going off at Leicester train station. Three lads are patrolling the platform – there’s a Stone Island jacket, another Stone Island jacket, and… a Stone Island cream sweater (did we know they did these?). The badges are most definitely in. All three are jolly upset. One is bleeding, very slightly, from somewhere around the top of his ear, risking a stain on the merchandise. Jacket boy is fuming on his behalf, pointing and testiculating towards bemused railways staff. Accusations are flying. Service is brought to a halt. Contestant number three stalks the train, up and down the front three carriages, peering in through the windows, past the fed-up Derby fans, with the menace of a boy who will absolutely, definitely be doing something very serious back to whoever has done this to his bruv/blud/fam just as soon as they’ve been located. Hold me back Gaz, hold me back. Scrappy Doo Kickboxing Gym and Spar.

Claims and counter claims are flying back and forth with testosterone and spit. So much angry vaping going on the station canopy is emitting clouds like a Soviet Russian tractor factory. Bleeding boy says he’s been hit, sweater boy says bleeding boy’s been beaten up, and stalker boy continues to stalk. Just you let him at them. They won’t know what’s hit them. Not a shaving product or sexual experience between them, but they’re king of this castle right now because the train is not leaving until the arrival of… dramatic music… The British Transport Police. They wish to make an official complaint. Bleeding boy is bleeding, fetch the rozzers.

A bored chap who’s been here a while longer than us says they got on the train and “larged it a bit” and somebody took umbrage and “larged it a bit back”. We wait with some trepidation for whatever monster caused the bleeding, very slightly, from somewhere around the top of Stone Islander No.1’s ear. A nearby off duty police officer involves himself in the chat and says the best thing whoever’s about to arrive on this scene could do would be to take vague details, make the process of giving statements and pressing charges seem long and laborious, then send the train on its way with the rival parties on opposite sides of the closing doors. Do not, under any circumstance, get the perpetrators out here, otherwise, my God, all hell could break loose. Who can imagine what further bloodshed may occur – have you not seen how that one is stalking the train, can you not see the fire in his eyes, he might kill someone.

A tiny police officer arrives, dispatched from the set of The Borrowers. A 30 second man hunt takes place in Coach B (standard class). The attackers are to be brought out to face their victims, hungry for vengeance, and a baying public, hungry for The West Country Pasty Co concession. A hush descends as the door slides open and the perpetrators are hauled before us to face justice. And then, laughter. Absolute, uproarious, laughter. It’s two QPR fans and, guys, if you happen to be reading this, please take it all in the spirit it’s intended, but it’s also two QPR fans of… a certain vintage. Old school QPR fans. It’s somebody’s grandad, basically, and somebody’s grandad’s mate. All the righteous anger, all the bleeding, slightly, from above the ear, all the stalking of the train, is now drowned out by the laughter and piss taking of literally everybody else on the platform. You got ‘beaten up’… by them? What did they do hit you over the head with a copy of Reader's Digest? The elderly white haired mother is laughing. Even the Derby fans are seeing the funny side now all the Bobby Zamora chants have died down. The lone, midget, British Transport Police officer is peering out from under a lowered pair of eyebrows and over a bitten lip stifling a laugh, wondering how exactly to phrase the next question.

Public safety secured against the ominous threat of Dad’s Army, the 1843 is waved on its way, the 1906 and 1914 use platform four instead (why did nobody think of this before) and soon there’s only us, and Tommy Craig from Coronation Street and Murdoch Mysteries, speeding off into the night, full of curry and beer, with three points in the bag and Sinclair Armstrong to toast. Today’s a dick swinging day, and for once we’ve got plenty of dick to swing. We're still in Mabel's at closing time. It’s back on. Stupid bloody football team.

The clap circle

Seven in the travelling party to Bristol creates the phenomena we refer to in Awaydays as The Seat of Doom. Seven of us, two train tables, one spare seat, who’s the poor unsuspecting sod with that seat reservation then? From further down the carriage Northern Steve has realised eight large cans of Kronenbourg and four additional cans of Strongbow Dark Fruits is manifestly excessive for a 90-minute train ride to Bristol at nine in the morning and is shouting from 20-30 ft away to see if any of us would like some. Very generous of you Northern Steve. Look, I’m making no apologies. You’ve all decided it’s acceptable to play music out loud on the Northern Line. You’ve all decided vaping is fine on the Underground. You think it’s ok to sit and bitch to your mum on the phone for two bloody hours all the way to Stoke. Fine. On Saturday I reserve the right to be that twat on the train.

Today she’s young, and pretty, and clearly a student at a good university - all Apple Mac and pie charts as she taps away there pretending not to know or care the answer to when did Lyndon Dykes last score away from home (it’s last Easter, not the one we just had but the one before, at West Brom, by the way).

She feigns indifference through the FourFourTwo football quiz, and listens while pretending not to listen as we go around the table detailing our various student tales accumulated in downbeat establishments that almost certainly used to be polytechnic colleges – have we told you about the time Andy won that microwave in the University of Bedfordshire (Luton, Dunstable if you’re really unfortunate) bowling competition?

This act holds until James talks us through life at The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), or “the university of white people with dreadlocks”. There’s a tale from there of students spaced out around lawn one summer’s afternoon enjoying their lunch until one of them starts to clap out an impromptu beat with four fingers in the palm of his hand. Soon, he’s passed it around and somebody else is clapping along in time. And it’s starting to spread. Now the whole lawn of people, previously strangers, have picked up the rhythm, beat in time and are engaged in a giant “clap circle”. I gently pointed out that when I was a student in Sheffield a clap circle was a very different thing and, well, there was to be no more work done after that.

I like to think she checked the football results later that evening (University of Bath, by the way, because of course), saw QPR had miraculously turned their midweek clusterfuck at Stoke into the annual victory at Ashton Gate after all and smiled. Smiled at how happy we’d all be, soaked to the skin from the post-match downpour but elbows deep in the finest curry and Cobra Bristol’s 4,500 Miles From Delhi had to offer; or, more likely, smiled at how slim the likelihood is she’ll ever see any of us ever again.

If I was doing this properly I’d come up with some whimsical epilogue about how this cyclical nine-month slog around the great shitholes of Britain (not you Bristol, you’re nice) and these torturous times spent in the Championship’s identikit citadels of mediocrity (not you Ashton Gate, we like you) praying Asmir Begovic doesn’t fuck up again between now and five o’clock, isn’t about football at all. It’s about the people we meet along the way. It’s the horny couple weighing their shagging options having been turned away from Stoke’s Premier Inn on Valentine’s Day, it’s Ormskirk’s Father of the Year, it’s Mr “Four or Five Nil” in the Leicester Walkabout (nobody asked you, mate), it’s the East Midland’s virginal answer to Danny Dyer in Stone Island's £380 “mock neck knit” (shut up, I looked it up), it’s Tommy Craig from Coronation Street and Murdoch Mysteries, and it’s Bath University’s finest reduced to spraying Diet Coke out of her nose and onto her keyboard by a cheap joke about chlamydia.

But it’s not, really. It’s actually about standing behind that goal at Leicester with your mates, seeing Sinclair Armstrong striking a ball that stayed hit and sprinting towards you as you all lose your damn minds together. It’s about being there, and always has been. Stupid bloody football team indeed.

Scores on the doors

On the pitch >>> QPR performance 2/10 >>> Stoke performance 4/10 >>> Referee performance 6/10
Off the pitch >>> QPR support 6/10 >>> Home support 3/10 >>> Overall atmosphere 3/10 >>>> Stadium 4/10 >>>> Police and stewards 5/10
In the pub >>> Pubs 8/10 >>> Atmosphere 7/10 >>> Food 7/10 >>>> Cost 8/10
On the train >>> Journey 2/10 >>> Cost 2/10

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 7/10 >>>> Police and stewards 6/10
In the pub >>> Pubs 7/10 >>> Atmosphere 7/10 >>> Food 8/10 >>>> Cost 6/10
On the train >>> Journey 8/10 >>> Cost 6/10

On the pitch >>> QPR performance 8/10 >>> Leicester performance 5/10 >>> Referee performance 4/10
Off the pitch >>> QPR support 9/10 >>> Home support 5/10 >>> Overall atmosphere 6/10 >>>> Stadium 5/10 >>>> Police and stewards 6/10
In the pub >>> Pubs 5/10 >>> Atmosphere 5/10 >>> Food 8/10 >>>> Cost 7/10
In the car >>> Journey 6/10 >>> Cost 7/10

Totals, Stoke 67/140, Bristol City 95/140, Leicester 86/140

2023/24 >>> Austria Pt 1 >>> Austria Pt 2 >>> Wimbledon >>> Oxford >>> Watford/Cardiff/Middlesbrough >>> Birmingham/Leeds/Huddersfield/West Brom >>> Preston/Sheffield/Ipswich

2022/23 >>> Blackburn/Sunderland/Charlton >>> Watford/Swansea/Millwall >>> Bristol/Sheffield/Luton

2021/22 >>> Hull/Boro 21/22 >>> Reading/Bournemouth >>> Fulham/Peterborough >>> Cardiff/Blackpool >>> Bristol/Birmingham >>> Peterborough/Coventry/Millwall >>> Barnsley/Blackburn >>> Luton/Nottingham >>> Sheffield/Preston/Huddersfield

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qprninja added 11:08 - Apr 19
Pity the poor house keeping that has to deal with your aftermath. :)

johann28 added 13:20 - Apr 19
' ... him swiftly getting stuck into such remorselessly sustained, petty over-parenting of a five-year-old I ended up trying to catch sight of some identification so when the child inevitably grows up, rejects these pricks, rebels and careers off the rails in such spectacular fashion she ends up dead in some railway cutting with a needle hanging from her arm, I can look out for the death notice in the paper and turn up at the funeral in a fancy hat.'

Holy cow. Masterful.

YorkRanger added 14:26 - Apr 19
As usual, the Awaydays write ups are pure poetry...

derbyhoop added 18:36 - Apr 19
I don't think the Stoke experience should be inflicted on lmere mortals without a public health warning.

NathanNI added 10:03 - Apr 21
Enjoyed that a lot. Nice one.

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