As both a new year and decade dawn, it’s back to life and reality for most of us after the holidays. Conventional wisdom has it that we return to our jobs and studies revitalised and rejuvenated following such breaks ready and roaring to get going again.
While such a train of thought no doubt bears some semblance of truth, it’s with mixed emotions that sit here in warm and sunny Indonesia. As I contemplate returning to work next week I look back on my recent two-week break in cold and bleak Blighty.
As a footballing ex-pat, the main reasoning behind choosing the winter months for a vacation in England rather than the warmer days of summer was, of course, to be able to take in as many football matches as possible.
So, as soon as the season’s fixtures were released back in the heady days of June and July, dates, matches and venues were considered and the holiday itinerary finalised accordingly.
Fifteen days in England commencing in the middle of December enabled me to take in five games ranging in variety and prestige from a National League (South) local derby played in front of fewer than 500 people to a Carabao Cup quarter-final played with almost 40,000 in attendance.
Match One: Ipswich Town v Bristol Rovers (League One)
Arriving at Gatwick in time for breakfast on the Saturday, I was back ‘home’ in Braintree, Essex, by mid-morning. My trip to Ipswich Town’s Portman Road ground for their 3 pm kick-off against Bristol Rovers in League One was planned for that same afternoon.
It’s a long time since the glory days of Bobby Robson for the Tractor Boys with last season’s relegation from the Championship still fresh in the minds of the faithful. Back when Sir Bobby was weaving his magic, I was a fairly regular visitor to Portman Road and indeed was fortunate enough to witness the debut of Dutch Master, Arnold Muhren.
Back to the present, though, and it was Muhren’s compatriot Frans Thijssen who was being introduced to the crowd just as I made my way to my 30 quid seat in the main stand a few minutes before kick-off.
A freezing cold day had seen me required to walk around the entire circumference of the ground in search of the ticket office to buy a ticket so by the time I actually took up my seat within the ground I was frozen to the bone and seriously wondering whether I wouldn’t have been better off sleeping off the jet-lag back at the hotel.
Fortunately, a reasonably entertaining game unfolded in front of me as second-placed Ipswich quickly found themselves two goals down to a Bristol Rovers side hovering on the fringes of the play-offs. Along with 18,805 other hardy souls, I then witnessed Ipswich stage a comeback of sorts and pull a goal back before half-time through star forward James Norwood.
Despite both sides having chances in the second-half, there was no addition to the scoreline and so Ipswich fell to only their third defeat of the season.
The highlight of the second-half was the strange dismissal of Rovers’ player Ollie Clarke.
Already booked for a foul in the first half, Clarke left the field due to injury in the 77th minute and was then yellow-carded again and subsequently dismissed for re-entering the field without the referee’s permission.
A short hop back to the station was met by the news that trains heading back to Essex were delayed and so the 30-mile journey ‘home’ ended up taking 3 hours instead of the anticipated 45 minutes.
Never mind. The next few days were a time of catching up and trying to acclimatise once more to the wonderful vagaries of an English winter before Family Nesbit headed north to spend a few days in Liverpool.
Initially, I had been hoping to catch a Liverpool home game during the vacation but what with timings and the World Club thingy that Liverpool decided to take seriously, the only home matches they played during my vacation period were on the days of my arrival (Watford) and departure (Wolves). I decided to settle for a pilgrimage to the, ahem. ‘Theatre of Dreams’ to take in Manchester United’s home Carabao Cup tie with Colchester United.
Back in the days of my misspent Essex youth as well as trundling along to Portman Road a few times a season, I also used to make semi-regular trips to Colchester’s old Layer Road ground and vividly remember the last time they met Manchester United in the League Cup back in 1983. Played before a capacity13,000 attendance, Ron Atkinson’s United prevailed by a 2-0 scoreline that day.
Now, 36 years later my tickets were booked and together with spouse and 9-year-old offspring I was looking forward to what I had been assured would be ‘an experience’. However, two days before the game and a potential problem reared its head.
Despite booking the tickets a month or so earlier and having various conversations on the matter, 48 hours before kick-off the good lady wife expressed both surprise and dismay at the realisation that it was an evening and not afternoon kick-off.
Staying in Liverpool as we were it was decided that returning to our accommodation around midnight after an evening of bitter cold and, potentially, even more bitter football, perhaps wasn’t a great idea after all, especially with the afore-mentioned little one in tow.
Match Two: Everton v Leicester City (Carabao Cup)
Instead, I set about trying to procure an alternative. Playing the same night also in the Carabao Cup was the blue side on Merseyside, Everton, against Leicester City. After a few clicks online I was able to ascertain that a few tickets were available with the rider of ‘restricted viewing’ and so purchased one for the Lower Bullens.
The number 34 bus from Liverpool One station took me the 20 minutes or so to Everton Valley and from there it was a ten-minute walk to Goodison. A wet yet not too cold evening saw an almost capacity crowd turn up and be entertained by a 2-2 draw, ultimately decided in Leicester’s favour by way of a penalty shoot-out.
Highlights included a 90th-minute wonderblast from Leighton Baines, Duncan Ferguson parading up and down the touchline in his shirt-sleeves in the pouring rain, Jamie Vardy being sledged by an Everton player as he made way from the half-way line to slot home the deciding penalty kick, and the three days of severe back discomfort I suffered as a result of trying to gain any kind of view from my ‘restricted viewing’ vantage point.
Match Three: Blackpool v Shrewsbury Town (League One)
Next up was a day trip a few days later and visit to my hometown club, Blackpool for their home League One game against Shrewsbury Town.
A mid-morning train for the three of us from Liverpool Lime Stree station took us to Blackpool North, and from there a taxi to the Norbreck Hotel. A quick check-in and dumping of bags were followed by a brisk walk along the seafront before catching a tram to the town centre and a spin around the arcades. The obligatory Blackpool lunch of fish and chips was wolfed down and then came the walk to the ground around 15 minutes from the town centre.
The clear blue skies were welcome but if anything assisted in dropping the temperature even further and so as it had been a week earlier at Ipswich, it was a frozen form that took his seat in time for kick-off.
Before the game, a minute’s applause was held in honour of Blackpool stalwart, the former player, caretaker manager, and director Tom White who had died the week before. Everyone in the 7,500 attendance including the 1,000 or so away following stood to applaud Mr White before settling down to watch what turned out to be rather a turgid affair bereft of chances at either end.
What was noticeable, however, was the bouncing atmosphere and general feeling of anticipation and excitement about the place. After years of protests against the ownership of the detested Oystons, the people of Blackpool have finally got their club back and there is a positive feelgood vibe resonating around Bloomfield Road these days.
Unfortunately, such positivity couldn’t inspire the home side to victory and the only goal of the game came ten minutes into the second-half when Shrewsbury were awarded a controversial penalty.
Match Four: Chelmsford City v Braintree Town (National League – South)
Three games watched and three away victories witnessed, I was beginning to think I was a bit of a jinx for the home sides. So now it was back to Essex to watch local rivals Chelmsford City and Braintree Town do battle in a Boxing Day clash at Chelmsford’s Melbourne Park ground in the National League (South).
After being ousted from their iconic New Writtle Street ground in 1997, Chelmsford led a nomadic life sharing grounds with nearby Maldon and then Billericay Town before ending up being housed in the town’s athletic stadium in 2006. Although far from perfect, it is a tidy ground allowing for the fact that a running track separates the main stands from the pitch.
December 26 saw some of the chilliest weather of our two weeks in England, and so it was not surprising that the attendance was somewhat lower than had been anticipated. As it was 919 people with perhaps more time on their hands than sense turned up to watch a match that eventuated into a convincing 4-1 home victory. Amongst them, and perhaps against their better judgement, was once again the entire Nesbit clan.
To be honest, the standard of football on offer wasn’t much to get excited about and both teams looked to be exactly what they are; mid-table sides playing at the sixth level of English football.
Match Five: Braintree Town v Concord Rangers
The fifth and final match of my winter footballing sojourn was less than 48 hours later as Braintree Town once again met up with local rivals in a league clash. This time it was Braintree doing the hosting as neighbouring Concord Rangers made their way to Town’s Cressing Road stadium. A mere 469 spectators deigned to drag themselves away from either home comforts or the New Year sales to watch another mid-table clash in poor conditions.
Sitting in the main stand at Braintree as the dying embers of a single goal Concord victory were played to a conclusion, I took time out to consider my ‘footballing holiday’ and the matches I had attended.
I had witnessed some good football, some fair, and some downright poor but all-in-all it had been a cathartic experience and had scratched the itch I had been feeling based so far away in Indonesia.
The match-day experience as much as anything else was what I had been missing and despite the cold and the fact that not once did I see ‘my’ team win in the five matches I attended, I thoroughly enjoyed them all and my spell back on England’s finest shores.
Now as I sit here going through the Youtube highlights of the games I attended trying to spot myself in the crowd I’m already thinking ahead to the next visit in a couple of years.