Sunday, 23 August 2009

Talking (and Playing) Bull

Now I may be tempting fate but after years of miserable journeys on the West Coast main line they really have improved and today was no exception - on time arrivals at both ends of the trip with minimal fuss and bother. Even the electronic reservations were working.

My only gripe is the Virgin rolling stock - rather claustrophobic, too much like an airplane fuselage and useless for luggage any bigger than a briefcase. And the fact that they have a shop instead of a buffet and trolley service. And no at-seat service for we posh-types in first class - I mean, really!

The train pulled into Stoke at about 10:30am and after a short wait, I took the Crewe train to Longport station, just five minutes along the line. From here it's then a good 20-odd minute walk into Burslem - just enough to build up a thirst.

Since the Bulls Head would not be open until 11:30am, I decided to try one of the other pubs first.

(left) The Leopard - no swearing and no hats indoors please!

It was going to be the Post Office Vaults but it had a big sign saying "Home Fans Only". I probably would have been OK for a drink there since it was just after 11am and I wasn't wearing anything Darlescent.

However I decided to wander a bit further back along the street and try the Leopard instead.

This a very pleasant Enterpise Inns pub - a listed building no less - with an excellent choice of beers on tap: Tom Woods Shropshire Lass, Northern Valiant Knight, Coach House Toffee Bitter, Wincle Undertaker,
Wentworth Stout and Lymestone Foundation Stone.

That's a pretty fine list and of those that I tried - the Shropshire Lass and the Valiant Knight - both were in excellent condition.

Despite the Titanic website saying the Bulls Head opened at noon, it tends to open 11:30am on matchdays and today was no exception. They even had a barbecue on for us. How darn friendly is that?

I got myself a pint of Anchor and went to find the landlord, Bob Crumpton, to let him know that the Bulls Head was the winner of the DAFTS Pub of the Year award for last season. Thankfully he didn't go all Gwenneth Paltrow on me and we arranged to present it when a few more DAFTS had turned up.

(right) Landlord Bob accepts award from Colin - Jim and Steve look on

Colin and Lance were next to arrive - followed shortly by Steve and Fred Iceton. The pub started to get a bit busier so we got the presentation over with - Colin doing the honours as he was the only one in a Darlo shirt.

The Bulls Head had been up against some stiff opposition for the award but apart from the superb range of beers on offer - in addition to the Titanic range they carry several guest beers from various independents such as Bollington Vale - Bob is very proactive in attracting away fans to the pub, often advertising in opposition fans pubs in the lead-up to games - we could do with more landlords like Bob.

We were joined by those other good pub hunters - John and Richie - as well as Loidlanders Chris (comeondarlo) and Simon (bolshy) who'd wisely followed their Uncle Ted's advice on finding a pub.

(left) Blue Bros - John, Richie and Fred

Colin was in full nerd-mode today - not only did his bag contain the GBG 2009, he'd brought along the Definitive Darlington and a copy of a Farewell to Feethams. Lance then told us that he'd been to our first ever Division 4 game in 1958 when we drew 0-0.

Colin checked Frank Tweddle's tome which suggested our first Division 4 game was two years earlier in 1956.

Not one to have his little grey cells maligned, Lance pointed out that there were no southern teams in the fixture list until 1958. Looks like Frank got this one wrong.

We bumped into Andy McCormack, editor of the local fanzine, Derek I'm Gutted, who was selling the latest issue in the pub. It's always good to see a traditional hold-in-the-hand fanzine still being produced and as ever they're a labour of love. It's a good read too.

It's an oft-muttered maxim that in the life of DAFTS, a great lunchtime session is followed by a crap match - and today was a real example of that.

We never looked to be in this game at all - new signing Porritt was a huge disappointment whereas poor old Windass looked like a pensioner out there ,playing too deep to be useful and too slow to be up front. But they were not alone - there were few acceptable performances out there.

We rarely put any pressure on the Vale defence and we were probably lucky to be only a goal down. What made it worse was that Vale were clearly a poor team and any sort of cohesive display from us would have put them on the back foot.

And then we're offered a chance of salvation as Dowson was caught in the box. Deja penalty!

Unlike many others sat near me, I did think it was a penalty. It was clear from the replay on Saturday night that the defender's leg had caught Dowson - not deliberate but still clumsy - and that's good enough for a penalty.

What was not good enough was Gary Smith's spot kick attempt which was more akin to launching Sputnik into orbit - very reminiscent of Big Bad Baldie Bazza Conlon's effort against Peterborough several seasons ago where his effort ended up in the South Park. Quite spookily Bazza scored a two-yard tap in (what else?) for Grimsby today to leave us stranded at the bottom of the division.

Thankfully the new found timeliness meant Virgin got us back to Euston for 7:30pm. I was met by Brian Elsey who preferred the Ashes Test to a visit to the Potteries. We had a few pints in the Head of Steam (Landlord and Pale Rider) and then home for the lowlights...

Monday, 17 August 2009

Back Home

And so back to grim reality of the Northern Echo Darlington Arena....

I left home at around 6am - the District line is out of action for engineering so had to catch a local bus to Stratford and then onto Kings X. I hate buses - and after this bus is 15 minutes late I like them even less.

Still, due to my getting up in good time I'm in Da Vinci's for breakfast and have almost finished it all off when Martin joins me.

We're on a busy train north today - not just school holidays but the Edinburgh Fringe is in full swing and so we have lots of actor-luvvie types on the train - I did spot someone relatively famous - Pete Baikie - who was one of the folk behind Absolutely, one of my all time favourite sketch shows, and who has written the theme tunes for quite a few TV and radio shows.

I got chatting to a nice Geordie couple who were sharing our table and found that we had a mutual friend as well as (generally ancient) mutual musical tastes in common (despite their returning north from a U2 gig at Wembley!) so the journey just flew past.

Interesting to see on arrival that new ticket gates have finally been installed at Bank Top station - a bit of a pain but certainly preferable to the useless set of revenue inspectors they had there at the end of last season.

(left) The covered market

Down in the town there was a modest fair in place on the market square - not doing a lot of business but I suppose it was a bit early in the day for that sort of jollity. I nip into the covered market and get some savoury pastries for later.

John Wilson is already ensconced on my arrival at the Quaker House - interesting to see the "For Sale" sign is still up though current licensees Brian and Gary apparently have had their offer accepted. Let's hope that this is the case.

(right) For Ales - very funny...

Inside though it's service as normal- regulars George and Gwen are already in place and Linda is still serving with the usual good choice of beers on offer.
There's a trio from Hambleton Brewery (Stallion, Freckled Warrior and Lager), a brace from Captain Cook Brewery (Sunset and Black Porter) plus Springhead Leveller, Allendale Black Grouse and a seasonal offering from Caledonian Brewery.
I give the Hambleton Lager a try but it has an odd taste - I wonder whether this is their gluten-free lager? I tried their gluten-free ale once and it was not very nice.

John and I are joined by Tony, Colin and then Brian - Tony dispenses the season and match-day tickets he's kindly picked up for us. He also confirms that we should all systems go for our curry evening in a few weeks - more details soon.
We then move up to Number Twenty-2 which has seen the addition of two odd-looking chair-table contraptions in the bar - very odd they look.
Colin and I try the Goodrich Castle from Springhead - it's OK at first but then it's gingery taste starts to cloy and in the end I leave it. Colin moves onto the Monkey Wrench whilst I try a new beer (Old Knottingley?) from the Yorkshire Dales brewery. Much nicer all round...

As ever, the cabs from Station Taxis are on time and we get to the ground twenty minutes before kick-off where the car park looks very empty.

I wander to reception to meet Christine Balford after we'd spoken earlier in the week about my continuing sponsorship of Steve Foster. He'd been accidentally allocated to someone else but he's now back with me for a third term. I'm sure that's a relief for both of us.

(left) Unlikely lads

On taking my seat in block 11, it was clear to see the crowd was not brilliant - there were a few gaps around us where regulars seemed to be missing but maybe they're on holiday. Or moved to get away from me and/or Colin (as in the case of Harry who has moved further down the block).

And then the game. Well, there wasn't a great deal to cheer in the first half - Bury are pretty anonymous apart from the annoyingly-attired Sodje and we don't really make a concerted effort on their goal. The Bury fans claim Knight should have walked for a tackle on one of their players outside the box - looked 50/50 to my eyes.

The second half livened up after Bury took the lead - slack defending again - and the lead could have been doubled except for a goal-line clearance by my man Fossie.

At this point the crowd is getting quite agitated and it's tempting to join in but what's the point? Meanwhile Colin is back in his default mode and is berating the referee - seems fair enough.

In an effort to get a point out of the game, Todd brings on Windass and Main. Young Curtis looks as if he's grown a bit more since we saw him last season and certainly looks a bit more mobile - very encouraging, especially for the Capital Quakers who are now sponsoring his home shirt.

But it's Windass who has the chance to get on the score sheet after Main is taken out by the Bury keeper with seconds remaining. The crowd cheers in relief and then it's back to the groans as we witness possibly the worst ever penalty from a Darlington player as Windass almost passes the ball to keeper Brown. Unbelievable!!

The journey back to London was quiet - no Newcastle fans today as they're kicking off late - Martin and I ate our pies, had a good old moan and then fell into a slumber, thankfully free of nightmare penalty gaffes...

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Pub Football

I must admit that if Darlo are playing live on the telly, I much prefer to watch it from the comfort of my front room - that way, it's less of a journey home if we lose.

However both John Wilson and I got an email from Jamie, landlord of Hoopers Bar in Camberwell, a week or two ago asking if we'd like to watch the Carling Cup game against Leeds United round his gaff?

We've had a few trips to Hoopers over the past few years - it's not exactly local to us but is close if we're visiting Champion Hill Stadium, the home of Dulwich Hamlet FC - and so Jamie knows that we're both Darlo fans.

John was keen - so was I - so we take up Jamie's kind offer and decamp to SE5 for the evening, along with our respective significant others. He's got some decent beer on - an elderflower-flavoured ale from Dark Star which is extremely more-ish.

Before the game starts we bump into Andy, the former landlord of the Gardeners Arms in Lewes. Some DAFTS may remember our memorable visit to this pub a few years ago - so enjoyable it became the first "non-league" winner of the DAFTS Pub Of The Year.

(left) Andy, formerly of the Gardeners Arms, Lewes

Andy is a veritable football enthusiast - he supports Swindon as well as Berwick Rangers (and Lewes FC until recently) and goes to almost all of their games plus various others which last season amounted to to over 160 competitive football games.

Tonight he's off to the first home game of Fisher FC - back from the dead after going into liquidation during the summer - who are playing the mighty Beckenham Town at the Champion Hill Stadium. A visit to Hoopers is therefore an obvious pre-match move.

The pre-match preamble from Sky sees old boy Robbie Blake as one of the studio pundits and he's looking a tad nervous - no doubt he's still showing the scars of being descended on by Neil Johnson during a pre-season tour on the Isle of Man several years ago and wondering if it will happen again. Don't worry son, he's safely ensconced in Norway these days.

The game kicks off and after a nervy start we begin to move the ball around with a little bit of confidence - not much penetration but Lee Thorpe is competing well in the air and Dowson is working hard.

In defence Miller and Foster deal quite well with the threat from Showunmi and Knight generally copes fairly well with all that was sent in his direction. Going in nil-nil at half-time was heartening and was without doubt an improvement over the first 45 mins at Aldershot.

In the second half, Leeds came out and went at Darlo with a purpose and this soon told - a narrow escape as a shot hit the woodwork and then the goal - Knight and Foster hesitated allowing Showunmi to nip between them and prod the ball into the net. Very soft.

Windass came on, followed by young Curtis Main, and it spurred Darlo into action - Dowson slotted the ball neatly past Higgs and into the net but was offside - Windass then wasted a good chance from a free-kick. At the death Bower should have done better with a header from a corner but it wasn't to be.

Overall it was an encouraging performance following on from the opening day of the season - most areas showed some signs of improvement but there is still a lot of sloppiness to be cut out.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Aldershot Already?

And here we are again - first game of the season - something which looked highly unlikely several weeks ago but thankfully we've still got a club to support. Whether we'll actually have much to shout about remains to be seen but for the moment, we're just pleased to be here.

As ever, I met John at Waterloo for the ever predictable visit to Maries for the first pre-match breakfast of the season.

The No 7 and chips was as good as ever - just look at that plate of greasy goodness.

(left) Look away if your arteries are squeamish

Trevor popped along to join us there but clearly had already had his breakfast - he simply makes do with a cup of coffee as he watches us defile our bodies.

On the train to Aldershot, we bump into Quentin - an Aldershot fan we've made the acquaintance of during the past couple of seasons and a regular of the White Lion. He's trying to play down their chances today but he simply can't compete with our tales of woe.

Unlike last season's visits to Aldershot (for Darlo and Rotherham games), it isn't raining and we have a pleasant walk to the White Lion, which is the brewery tap for the Triple fff brewery.

Good to see that their full range of their beers are available today and even better the fact that my favourite, Moondance, is on special offer at £2 a pint. Result!

It isn't long before Millie, the pub terrier, has her little eyes on our group as prospective playmates.

She offers her tennis ball to us so it can be thrown and retrieved though she occasionally forgets to bring it back and then just looks at us forlornly. That's dogs for you.

(right) Millie wondering how many pints went into that?

Eventually Millie decides she's going to sit with me much to the bemusement of John and Trev though she occasionally jumps off to greet pub regulars as they come in.

We notice that one such regular bears a marked similarity to Paul Weller in his dodgy two-tone barnet phase - and so we're not totally surprised to later see him drive away in a van which suggests he's part of the Wellalive tribute act.

More DAFTS join us - John Bell and his mate Rod, Paul Brown and Iain Swalwell along with his son Robert on one of his rare visits to a Darlo game.

Quentin pops in too and during our conversation we discover that we're both keen Hawkwind fans (well I knew I was and he knew he was...) and that we're both off to see them for their 40th anniversary gig later in the month. How nice it is to find someone else with such taste. Cue a long chat on various space-rock nonsense not fit for you mere mortals.

Eventually it's time to leave for the big kick-off. We trudge up the slope to the away end through the trees and find one Darlo fan has collapsed before they've even got in - luckily St John Ambulance are in attendance.

There's a bit of a queue at the turnstile - only one of which is open - and by the time we get in they're halfway through the minute's applause for Bobby Robson.

By the time we've got ourselves settled on the paddock and checked out the many new faces in our squad, we're already a goal down. Damn and blast!

(left) Gavin on the bottle already

The first half doesn't improve and soon turns into a repeat of last season's visit when Aldershot put us under the cosh for long periods - the defence looks frail and new keeper Knight looks very unsure of himself (and not very tall from where we're stood).

In fact it's Knight's mistake in failing to gather the ball that leads to the Shots doubling their lead - the Darlo fans shake their heads, shuffle their feet and start to fear that a rout is in the offing.

Up front for Darlo, Thorpe wins quite a lot of headers but none of them go in the direction of Dean Windass who looks a bit lost. In midfield, it's Mark Convery who makes most of the forward running but we don't create any clear chances until almost half-time when one of the Smiths fires in smartly only for the ref to rule it out for a foul of a defender - looked very soft to us and we feel we're not getting the rub of the green from this ref.

If the disallowed goal suggested that we were getting back into the game, our hopes were dashed when Aldershot took a 3-0 lead just minutes after the restart. A breakaway on our right flank- where their player looked blatantly offside - lead to the ball rolling across our six-yard box before it was neatly slotted home past Knight.

A number of subs - Convery and Thorpe off, Dowson and Chandler on - come on in the hope that we can create some chances. We do look a bit busier - we soon get a free kick on the edge of their box - Windass takes it and forces a very good save out of their keeper.

We're still under the occasional bout of pressure and Knight makes one very good save to show us that he does have some talent, certainly as a shot-stopper.

(right) Trev can't watch

In addition Steve Foster was visibly tiring and getting left behind by the their nippy forwards. The only cure for this is more games under the belt.

Darlo then breakaway as a clearance from Miller reaches Windass who neatly flicks through the ball through for Dowson to smash home past their keeper - something positive for the 214 Darlo contingent to cheer even if it is a case of too little, too late.

It's clear that the team have a long way to go before they're playing as a unit and it is a waste of breath to be negative after this performance - things are going to be tough and I'm sure there'll be some more poor performances - however we're just going to have to hold our tongues and try and be positive (although I may not be able to stop myself having a go at the alice-band wearing Smith).

After leaving Trevor at Waterloo, John and I retire to the Wheatsheaf at London Bridge for some post-match chilling - a pint of something-or-other from Phoenix and then an excellent pint of Patrick's Porter from Brysons of Lancaster (even if John though it tasted like the bottom of an ash-tray!).

Thursday, 6 August 2009

GBBF 2009.... now over for another year.

As it traditional at this time of year, I've spent three afternoons at the Great British Beer Festival at Earls Court - apparently the biggest pub in the world if you believe the adverts.

The first session was Tuesday afternoon - the trade session, fewer members of the public but more of the brewing trade and the beer press/bloggerage fraternity - and I had fully intended to just spend a couple of hours wandering round, trying the odd beer and taking it easy.

However it transpired I spent most of the afternoon leaning against the foreign beer bar, chatting to other enthusiasts and barstaff as well as trying a variety of great beers, my favourites including :

- Heintje from the De Prael brewery - a steady wheat beer from the Amsterdam brewery and a great first beer of the day - a shame they didn't bring their Johnny as well though

- Foederbier from Bockor (Belgium) - a lambic beer not normally available in this form as it is used as a base for Bockor's other brews such as the Jacobins fruit beers - very tart but quite soft

- Bloed, Zweet & Tranen (Blood, Sweat & Tears) from the De Molen brewery in Holland - a smokey, stout-like beer - at 8% it's a good sipping beer

(left) Takeaway beers

- Woodwork Series beers from Revelation Cat (Italy) - this is a combination of New Zealand hops, Munich malts, and champagne yeast - there are four versions based on the barrel used (French Bordeaux, US, acacia or local wood).

These and a few more decent brews meant I left an hour or two later than planned - I woke up at Barking tube station, a few stops further on from home than I would have liked and had to double back. Still, that's a good day in my book.

On Wednesday I meet up with Richard, my old chum from Northallerton, plus occasional DAFTS compatriot and fellow football/beer enthusiast, Geoff Luke and his mates.

During the day I bought a wonderful book which was being launched at the GBBF - Played At The Pub is produced by the Played In Britain team who aim to document the sporting heritage of this country and who have produced some wonderful books on football stadia, lidos and specific books on sporting venues in places such as Manchester and Birmingham.

From a brief skim though it, it looks to be a cracking read and includes a few pages on Darlington Quoits club. The author, Arthur Taylor, was there to sign it too.

Also in attendance was Simon Inglis, perhaps best know to football fans for his seminal book, The Football Grounds of Britain, but who is the series editor for Played In Britain. Simon and his partner Jackie once visited Feethams, one of his favourite grounds, where Simon gave a talk and it was good to catch up with them both.

Later in the day we were joined by Liz - spoilt for choice at the massive cider stall - and then a horde of London Millers descended upon us, keen for beer.

(left) Richard and Liz

As we were sat near the North East bar I spent most of my time drinking beers from there - most of them I've tried in the Quaker House before but all worth drinking again. No chance of a dodgy beer here!

Quite predictably, London Miller Paul Martin rushed off to what he called the CAMRA Crap shop - one of those stalls selling glasses, beer towels and the like - so that he could add to his never-ending collection of pewter tankards (assuming he can sneak it past the memsahib).

(right) Paul Martin can't resist the lure of pewter

The Thursday afternoon session was a slightly more sedate affair - I met up as usual with Trevor, my mate from the Macc festival, and the usual posse of folks who all meet up on this day.

Also in attendance was Robert, Liz's younger bro and one of the western London Millers, who comes along as part of the Gloucester CAMRA mob.

Later on, I bumped into a couple of folk from Darlington CAMRA, Nick and Brendan, by Bar Nouveau. Brendan was able to give me the good news that the Quaker House is no longer for sale and is in safe hands. Excellent!

A pleasant afternoon's drinking and chatting but I must be getting old as by 4:30pm I was looking forward to getting home and having the remnants of Tuesday night's curry.

Still, it was an enjoyable three days and I'm sure I'll be back next year (not difficult when I work in Hammersmith though). After all, it is the perfect way to prepare for the opening day of the season.
Played At the Pub cover image used with permission

Monday, 3 August 2009

Aby Days Are Here Again

Following our trip down to Gillingham last month (and subsequent wander along to Rochester for some beer), Liz and I are finally in receipt of the latest additions to our household.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you the brother and sister Abyssinian act, Devin and Perry...

Aren't they scrummy?

Devin - on the left and named after the Strapping Young Lad guitarist Devin Townsend - is the able-bodied member of the duo - and being the only male cat in the household, he's making early moves to be the boss and is starting to annoy longstanding cat-in-residence Emma.

However in a month or so he'll be off to the vets for you-know-what and we'll see if he's quite so cocky after that!

Perry - not named after anyone (but with a nod to Kathy Burke's character) is more a reaction against the current annoying use of "pear cider" - was born without her left front leg.

No one is sure exactly why this happened but it's proving to be just a minor handicap in her life as she hurtles around the house.

Choosing names is always a problem and early on we decided against any names involving anything to do with Darlo or Rotherham as that would have been too cruel - Quaker and Miller are not good names for animals and would seem to predispose them to a lifetime of misery.

Apologies in advance to those that know us and who we'll probably bore rigid over the coming months as we describe their latest antics. Normal service will be resumed eventually.