Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Pilgrims Progress

No football for me today because quite frankly the idea of visiting Wrexham just doesn’t excite me one iota. I’ve been there once a few seasons ago – a defeat - and that will do me just fine. As most readers know there is more to a Saturday then the ninety-odd minutes on the pitch and I’m afraid Wrexham just doesn’t cut it when it comes to pubs.

So an alternate plan was hatched a few months ago when I suggested to some of the boozier London Millers that we should have a day out drinking in Sheffield. The Millers would be playing in Crewe but they were happy to miss that and have a whole day boozing instead.

Why Sheffield? Well it has probably the best concentration of good pubs in the whole of the country and is a mecca for tickers and ‘normal’ drinkers alike.

In fact it is known as the Holy City to many devotees. Most of the pubs we were going to be visiting were covered in the recent documentary file, Tickers.

(left) Chris and John on the tram - no beer drunk at this stage hence glum faces

Trev, Brian and I tried a few of these pubs a couple of seasons ago before Darlo played the Millers at the Don Valley stadium and were impressed so it was time that I had another visit, especially since the chance of an FA Cup replay at the DVS had been denied us earlier in the week (when York knocked Rotherham out).

Unfortunately two of the London Millers had to pull out leaving just Chris Turner and me. However it was a case of DAFTS to the rescue when John W was given the nod by Bev to join us – likewise Tony by Lesley – and then local boy Brian made it a quintet.

Chris, John and I met in the Station Sandwich Bar near King’s Cross – a new cafe for us which was recommended by Tony – and very good it was too. I’ll be back for more.

We took the East Coast line to Doncaster and changed for the local service to Sheffield, complete with masses of shoppers on their way to Meadowhall. On the way we also passed Millmoor, former home of Rotherham, and I was duty bound to flick Vs at former chairman Booth’s scrap yard in solidarity with the Millers.

From Sheffield station it was a short tram ride to the first pub, the Hillsborough Hotel. Tony had arrived earlier and gone breakfasting with Brian but this place did not open until noon so they’d gone on elsewhere.

The Hillsborough is a nice, clean pub with a great selection of beers, mainly from its own Crown Brewery, so we gave most of them a try.

All were very good especially the Hillsborough Pale Ale and the Benny Goodman. They also had Cascade IPA from the fairly new Hardknott brewery which was excellent and in brilliant condition, almost sparkling.

As it name suggests this place is a hotel and it strikes me as a great place to stay. Andy, who was supposed to be with us, stayed there recently and highly recommends it (especially the chips - so sophisticated is our Andy!).

From here we moved on to the Gardeners Rest which was a ten minute walk away via the glamorous Neepsend Road where Brian and Tony were waiting for us.

A lot of the house beers on offer were from the Sheffield Brewery such as Crucible Best, Five Rise, Sheffield Porter and an IPA. We tried a few of these but I have to say that I wasn’t overly impressed with any of them, seeming to have a home-brew type taste.

Good snacks available though – bombay mix for most of us whilst Tony reverted to his childhood days and had a Tunnocks snowball instead. The pub seems to be quite the community pub with one wall taken up with entries to their annual photographic competition.

Unfortunately Brian had been hogging the conversation whilst we were here – nothing new so far - so much so that he still had a pint when the rest of us were ready to move on. With all the respect due to the elderly we left him behind and headed to the Harlequin walking past the Riverside which is supposed to be a good pub but we had to move on.

The Harlequin is a real tickers pub though it seemed fairly quiet when we got there – we only stayed for a pint (or a couple of halves) before moving on to the Wellington (Bottom Wellie in local parlance) as this is nice and close to the Shalesmoor tram stop.

Tony had been getting tweets from Craig Stoddart for the past hour or more so we were well aware of the Darlo line-up at Wrexham – this saw Main replacing Jefferson Louis and Senior dropped to the bench with starts for new boys Gillespie and Varna.

It didn’t fill me with confidence and we were soon behind. However spirits were raised in the second half when we heard that Hatch had equalised.

Brian had beaten us to the Wellie having bypassed the Harlequin – I was pleased to see they had a Steel City Brewing beer on as I certainly like the attitude of the two brewers behind it – they like hops and like to use them in their beers and whilst they give a nod to the US hoppy beers, they’re less extreme which makes them more drinkable. Their beer today was the Červený Bez which was a variant of one I had at the Nottingham beer festival a few weeks ago.

It was whilst drinking this that the news came through that Darlo were up to their old tricks and had conceded a goal in added time and had lost the game. Doubly glad I didn’t go now.

We then caught the tram down to the station so we could try out the Sheffield Tap. This is a the big brother of the recently opened Euston Tap and which is situated next to the station. Just had a couple of halves here – both in excellent condition. I also bumped into one of my Macclesfield CAMRA chums, Rob, who was making a passing visit to the Tap himself.

But it was soon time to get the train back to Donny – standing room all the way as it was packed with returning shoppers – and then get the train to KX.

I slept most of the way and was nice and refreshed (well nearly) by the time we got back to London. However neither John or Chris fancied a trip to the Euston Tap, probably a wise decision, and I traipsed off home via the curry house.

A great day out with a lot of excellent pubs and beers - there were plenty more pubs in Sheffield that we could have tried but just didn't have the time. You really need a weekend to do them all justice so maybe that is a plan to develop for next year...

Monday, 15 November 2010

Creepy Crawley (and Evil Evans)

Today was one of those rare days when we were joined by Howard - only his second home game of the season and worryingly he has yet to see a Darlo win.

After a nice breakfast at Da Vinci, we had a decent journey north - Howard and I chatting as Martin trawls through his pile of papers to work out his pool selections (but as ever, no winners today. As ever.).

After leaving Martin at Bank Top, we wander to the Quaker to find Waters pere et fils are already in attendance. And both are well dressed by normal match-day standards as Tony has a box for today's game against table-topping Crawley.

Both of us paid £20 at the start of the season to enter the season ticket holders draw to win a box for a game and during last week’s game against Tamworth, Tony was announced as the latest winner. A pretty good idea by the club and fingers crossed I'll also be a winner before the end of the season.

(left) You've got to hand it to Tony and Howard...

On the bar today in the Quaker we have Hambleton Stud, RCH Steam Carnival, Saltaire Cheeky Kriek, Banks & Taylor Dragon Slayer, Hadrian & Border Newcastle Pioneer, Jarrow Caulker, North Yorkshire Crystal Tips, Mordue Newcastle Porter and Titanic Lifeboat.

I manage to try all of them - halves of course - except for the Stud and Dragon Slayer and for me the Newcastle Porter and Cheeky Kriek were excellent. The latter especially had a nice sour edge as well as some sweetness and was not as sugary as I'd suspected it would be.

John W, John B, Brian and Trevor joined us to make up the numbers before Howard, having had his regulation couple of pints, departed to pop into Taylors for pies.

We popped up to N22 for a few beers and then taxi-ed a little earlier than usual down to the ground so everyone could spend a bit of quality time in the box before kick-off. Not for me though as it was pitchside duties as usual.

Today's opponents Crawley Town have hogged most of the non-league headlines this season as their Project Promotion has seen them spending big bucks in order to sign some of the big name players at this level.

As if that wasn't enough reason to dislike them instantly, they're also managed by that nasty piece of work, Steve Evans, who narrowly avoided a jail sentence after helping Boston United cheat the taxman out of £250,000.
(left) Brian, Trevor and John riding the heskeylater to Heaven

Cheats do prosper though and this was enough to see Boston promoted much to the disgust of promotion rivals Dagenham & Redbridge - not to mention most right-minded followers of the game.

The fact that he was never banned from football management is worrying but not surprising as the football authorities never seem to grasp the nettle when firm action is needed and examples need to be set.

From the kick-off it was difficult to see which team were the big-spenders as Darlo more than matched Crawley and went at them with a positive attitude.

This approach was rewarded after 21 mins when Bridge-Wilkinson hit a half-volley in the box and the ball beat keeper Kuipers. This soon got Steve Evans off his backside and shouting at his players (not that he ever seems to need an excuse).

Crawley then had a goal disallowed as striker Brodie was off-side but it wasn't long after that until they equalised - Hatch had an odd-lapse allowing Brodie to shot. Russell saved but could only parry it to Neilson who couldn't miss with a simple tap-in.

As half-time approached Brodie and Darlo defender Brown chased a loose ball when they both collided and Brodie went sprawling. It wasn't a surprise to see the red card as the referee had been making dodgy decisions all day.

(left) The ref refuses to listen to Hone's protests following the sending off

From my view it looked as if Brodie was looking to be clipped as far too many strikers do - I also thought he had a bloody cheek to hound Brown as he traipsed off. Truly playing in the spirit of his manager.

The decision certainly got the home crowd riled and when the ref wasn't on the end of their venom, Evans was. A true pantomime villain but sadly not funny.

Not surprisingly the second half was more about preserving the lead - Gray and Main replaced Senior and Louis with a view to holding the ball up front but it never worked. Main rarely won a header or kept possession and balls hoofed up front by Russell were soon returned. This meant the defence were under pressure for virtually the entire half but they held firm and Crawley rarely went close to scoring a winner.

There were loud calls for a pull on Josh Gray but it was the wrong side of the penalty box for me to get a clear view. Predictably the referee was unmoved.

There was a huge cheer when the final whistle blew and quite rightly – the team did very well to play the entire half with ten men against supposedly the best side in the division. Evans was clearly not happy and went off to a chorus of abuse but I’m sure that the norm for him.
(left) Dryden suspects two fingers are enough for Evans

Under the circumstances it was a very pleasing result and it was a happy bunch of Capital Quakers that made their way south. On the way I received a text from Steve to say he was unexpectedly in north London with time on his hands.

And so it was on our return, I made my way to the Euston Tap where Steve was waiting to buy me a drink. Liz and Jenny then joined us after getting back from their home game.

My chum Paul, photographer at Wycombe, popped in a little later as we’ve been meaning to meet up this season but this was the first chance we’ve had. It was good to see him and find out what’s happening there these days.

The Tap was a little busier than last weekend so obviously word is getting round...

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Life's A Gas

Whilst it is great to have a home tie for the second round of the FA Cup, the ticket prices for those travelling up by train are quite steep - £65 return in our case - and normally I don't think I would have bothered.

However as we'd been drawn against League One opponents in the form of Bristol Rovers this meant we'd have a chance to meet up with our old chum Stedders - who was responsible for the short-lived Football and Real Ale guides - and so I decided to travel north.

Stedders himself had gone up early to Darlo on Friday to settle in and judging from his tweets that night, he was having a good old time familiarising himself with Darlo's beer haunts (all in the aid of research of course).

(left) Stedders and the gang outside N22

As I arrived at the Quaker just after opening time on Saturday, he was already there - well, outside having a fag actually. Nice to see he is still ignoring what his doctor says.

The selection on offer at the bar was leaning heavily to the dark persuasion with five porter-stouts on offer. In all there was Hawkshead Brodie's Prime, Hammerpot White Wing, Wychwood Bountiful, Salopian Darwin's Origin, Jarrow Irish Stout, North Yorkshire Yorkshire Porter, Saltaire Cascadian Black and Marston Moor Wildboar Stout.

A newly clean-shaven Tony wasn't far behind me sporting a new set of specs which make him look like a cross between Wilfred Bramble and an elderly Kray Brother (though I didn't mention that at the time). Next up was John W - who'd kindly got some pies for Martin and I - and then Brian also rolled up to complete today's DAFTS contingent.

Later on in Number Twenty-2 we met some of Stedder's fellow Gasheads - not quite as many as when they last played us but then most had come north just a week or so earlier for their recent game at Hartlepool.

A decent array of guest beers here too today: Brentwood Devil's Dyke, Everards Tiger, Great Heck Bitter, Mithrill Fire Cracker, Titanic Anchor Bitter, Timothy Taylor Best and Wensleydale Black Dub Stout.

Down at the ground I made my way to reception with Echo photographer, Chris Booth. A new ticketing system was in place today which meant we both had to go back to the ticket office for our press tickets.

When we got there we found that what we thought there had been issues with the ticketing system and that there'd been delays for many people and some, so we were told, had left in disgust.

When we finally got in the crowd looked very sparse and so it was to prove - just over 1600 with maybe 150 from Bristol - but by the end of the game the home fans were rocking.

Like the previous week against AFC Wimbledon, Darlo took a relatively early lead - Chris Moore crossed to Bridge-Wilkinson whose effort was cleared but only to Michael Brough who hit it home from the edge of the box.
(right) Darlo's Michael Brough opened the scoring

It was to be an extremely short-lived lead though as the ref gave a foul against Liam Hatch for his tackle on former Miller Will Hoskins. I didn't think it was an offence but if it was it was clearly in the box.

The ref however had other ideas - as he continued to do for the rest of the game - and awarded a free-kick just outside the box. Hoskins took it and whipped the ball around the wall giving Russell no chance.

Hoksins had been Rover's main threat but he retired injured after half-an-hour after being hurt in a seemingly innocuous tackle with Brough.

Just before the break, assistant Richard Dryden was sent to the stand after angrily booting the ball after the ref and the linesman gave a throw-in to Rovers despite their man touching being the last to touch the ball.

Such poor decision making extended into the second half and helped galvanise the home fans in their vocal support of the team.

Chances were few and far between as both sides matched each other but Gary Smith was to give Darlo the advantage once more with a simple tap-in after a defender's attempted clearance came back off the Rovers post only to find Smith handily placed.

Russell had only one real save of note to make later in the half but for the majority of the time the Darlo defence kept Rovers at arms length and went on to reach the second round.

(left) Ian Miller with his proto-tache for Movember

As we had bought our tickets late, we opted for a cheaper but later return train which gave us the chance for post-match celebratory beers.

John and I walked back into town - we took a different route to normal walking west of the railway close to South Park. The firework display was being prepared and so it was fairly busy with people trying to find somewhere to park.

By the time John and I go to the Quaker, we found Tony, Brian and Martin were already having a beer so it seems that my suggested shorter route didn't really work. We won't make that mistake again.

After a few beers we wandered to the station - I popped into the Wing On chinese takeaway on Victoria to collect a pre-ordered takeaway as I wanted something nice and warm for the journey home.

The journey back was uneventful and conspicuously absent of any other football fans - we had been hoping to avoid any Palace fans on their way home as they're a boor-ish bunch based on past experience.

We didn't get back into London until after 10pm but I made time for a last pint at the newly opened Euston Tap. This is a new bar inside one of the gatehouses outside Euston station.

It is run by the same mob as the Sheffield Tap and by an odd coincidence, the manager Yan is a former barman at Stedder's former pub, the Admiral Rodney in Colne. Martin Deans and I spent a wonderful night here once before our first game at Accrington Stanley - I overdid the Titanic Stout that night and was not my usual match-day self next day.

The Euston Tap is exceedingly small and has all the draught beers poured from a set of beer fonts at the rear of the bar - no handpumps here as no doubt that would put off the young trendies - plus a couple of large bottle cabinets with a host of German and American beer.

London Miller Chris Turner was waiting for me as he'd eschewed Rotherham's cup game for a day out drinking in sunny Wainfleet.

There is an upstairs area which is reached by a twisted staircase - the one and only toilet is upstairs too so not wheelchair friendly but I guess that the building is listed and cannot be altered.

The beer was in good nick and not overly expensive so I dare say this may become a regular post-match venue. Give it a go if you're in the area.

Stedders now has an
online version of the Football and Real Guides and is looking to produce a book version in the near future. We'll let you know if he does...

Monday, 1 November 2010

Underground, Overground

After missing the FA Cup victory at Mossley I was ready for a good day out and it all started as I met Tony off his train at Kings Cross.

Our journey to south-west London allowed us to make one of our infrequent but very welcome visits to Maries which is just a short walk from Waterloo station.

John Wilson was already well through his breakfast when we arrived - no need to spend time perusing the menu here as I always head straight for the Number 7 (with a side order of chips). Tony is happy to follow my example.

We're then joined by Trev who has come down for a couple of nights with his wife but she has declined to join us in favour of a bit of culture and a visit to St Pauls. She doesn't know what she's missing.

From Waterloo we take the overground to Norbiton and from there it is only a ten-minute walk to the Willoughby Arms, the pub of choice for today, so that we arrive at 11am.

The pub actually opened at 10:30am which is extremely laudable and we're welcomed by one of the AFC Wimbledon fans already ensconced at the bar.

Cue the usual confused looks when he finds out that only one of us has actually made the journey all the way from Darlo.

Today the pub has a Halloween beer festival on - all the beers are sat out on stillage in the back yard and you order your beer from a till by the back door instead of at the bar which confuses us to begin with.

They have a good selection on offer - those that I get to try include Hophead and American IPA from Dark Star, Hepworth Iron Horse, Twickenham Strange Brew (which was but not in a totally nice way!), Isle of Purbeck IPA and Orchard Pig Medium Cider.

Mr Wilson tried out some of the stouts and porters on offer - Two Bridges Ink Pen Mild and Hammerpot Bottle Wreck Porter were both nice, less so was the Ha'Penny Spring-Heeled Jack London Porter. Unfortunately due to getting up too late and then train problems, Bev never got to try them.

(left) The Willoughby Arms

Various other DAFTS arrived as the session progresses - Steve is not far behind us but John B, Rod and then Brian are all delayed by problems on the line. Looks like we got here just in time. And then Iain arrived with a number of his chums, all of whom had come to see us before (and who still come again - they must enjoy the beer).

Landlord Rick offered to order taxis for us so that we can maximise our drinking but we decide that we need the exercise and head off.

Various DAFTS have already been to Kingsmeadow (or the Cherry Red Records Fans' Stadium as it is now known) as Darlo played in a pre-season tournament there back in July 2001 when Tommy Taylor was in charge.

I seem to remember Gregor Rioch, son of Bruce, was trying out for us that weekend but thankfully we never took him on. Very agricultural as I seem to recall.

Back then we were one of four teams playing which also included hosts Kingstonian (when it was their own place) along with Aldershot and Brentford. I think we came second overall.

The ground doesn't appear to have changed much physically in the intervening years though it is obviously a lot busier these days as AFC Wimbledon are pulling in decent crowds.

I make my way into the ground, collecting my press pass and hi-vis tabard, and head off to join the Darlo faithful who have been given one corner of the ground. It looks to be a good turnout.

No real surprises in the team sheet today with Liam Hatch back in the squad at the heart of the defence.

Darlo started the game slowly as Wimbledon looked the liveliest and we seemed happy to soak up the pressure leaving little for Sam Russell to do.

From more or less our first attack, Chris Senior prodded the ball past the Dons keeper after good interplay from Tommy Wright and Gary Smith. The home crowd were stunned whilst the Darlo fans went wild.

Darlo continued to attack whenever they could whilst keeping Wimbledon pretty much at arms length, restricting them to some speculative shots which flew high and wide.

Michael Brough was making his league debut for us after what sounded like a good game up at Mossley last weekend and he looked pretty solid in midfield - didn't do anything fancy but broke up play well.

Darlo went in at the break to loud cheers from the Darlo fans and I took the chance to have a chat with a few folk. There was also a rogue Womble wandering round too.

In the second half Darlo continued to hold their own whilst having a few opportunities of their own. Mark Cooper brought on Jefferson Louis for Wright after quarter of an hour just as Darlo were awarded a penalty.

(right) Mark Bridge-Wilkinson makes it two-nil

Darlo had taken a corner from which we had scored but the referee had already blown up for a foul on Danny Hone which took everyone by surprise. Louis grabbed the ball and decided he was going to take kick.

Unfortunately the confidence in his own ability was misplaced but fortunately Bridge-Wilkinson was the first to follow up as the keeper parried the spot-kick and slotted it home. Two-nil and the Darlo fans were delirious.

Danny Powell was then brought on for Chris Senior which struck me as a bit odd as Senior was having a decent game. However Powell's pace saw pass his marker and go one-on-one with the keeper on a couple of occasions but each time he failed to capitalise.

Wimbledon came into the game more as the half progressed - when the defence passed the ball out to the forward line, Louis was poor at retaining possession or offered little when competing for headers . On the touchline, manager Cooper was constantly directing him but to little effect.

Sam Russell managed to keep out a few efforts on goal and we appeared to escape what looked to be a valid shout for a penalty.

The referee didn't help calm the nerves as five minutes of added time were announced. More than enough time for us to concede two goals!

(left) Danny Hone's header hits the woodwork

Thankfully we held firm and Darlo recorded a well-deserved win with a great all-round team performance.

The 346 away fans (plus me) thoroughly enjoyed their day out and it was a merry throng that took the train back to Vauxhall (or Waterloo in Brian's case as he'd fallen asleep on the train).

From Vauxhall we all changed to the Victoria line and headed off to King's Cross. As we were on the escalators coming out from the tube, a message came over the PA asking everyone to exit the station.

John, Bev and I waited outside for Tony whilst Steve decided to head off to Paddington in case the tube situation didn't improve.

No sign of Tony so we headed off to the nearby Kings Charles pub as he knew we were heading there but it was shut - very annoying - so we decided to convene in the Betjeman Arms at St Pancras for a few beers before everyone had to go and catch their trains leaving Bev, John and me to wander home on the tube.