Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Wembley At Last!

And so the big day finally arrived and I was feeling very nervous. Like many other fans no doubt, I barely slept and it was all I could do not to wander into central London at my normal early time.

But I soon got bored of waiting at home and wandered into central London far too early and ended up wasting some time at a camera shop in Euston before heading off to meet John and Bev.

We’d decided to try somewhere new for breakfast, the Shepherdess Cafe, on City Road as we've walked past it many times and it has always looked quite tempting. Unfortunately it was rather disappointing – especially the strange spicy foreign-type sausage - and I’d made the situation worse by ordering some black pudding – a huge side order that turned out to be – when I didn’t really have my usual appetite.

After doing our best with the mountain of food, we caught a bus to Euston where we got chatting to a local woman. Turns out her boyfriend is from Darlo but it seems he wasn’t aware of his hometown club playing at Wembley – much like the rest of the town I suppose. Nevertheless Bev and her compared notes on the pros and cons of Darlo men. John squirmed in his seat.

As we got off the bus we bumped into Trevor and then, as we were waiting for the Bree Louise to open up, we were joined by Howard, Susie, John Bell and his mate Rod.

(left) Hairy photographer looking smug from his vantage point

The Bree Louise should really be a better pub than it is, especially with about 10 beers available.

Unfortunately some of these beers are straight from the cask and they always taste a bit tired and flat. Today was no different and so I ordered from the handpumps - a nice pint of Redemption Hopspur.

We were only there for half an hour though, merely putting in some time until the nearby Euston Tap opened up.
When we got there we found Neil, Martin, Chris S and his Mum waiting patiently outside. I was worried that it wasn’t opening but finally manager Tony opened the doors and let us in.

Unlike most lunchtimes, I was taking it easy today as I wanted to get into Wembley early and savour the atmosphere – Martin and Geoff felt the same so they joined me as I left before 1pm and headed for the tube.

A Wembley-bound Metropolitan train was pulling up as we got there, full of Darlo and Mansfield fans, and so it wasn’t long before we got to Wembley Park.

After taking a couple of shots of Martin and Geoff on Olympic Way I went to find the photographers entrance – thankfully it was at the front of the stadium and after a quick security check I was in.

Fellow Darlo photographers Chris Booth (Echo) and Rob Smith (freelance) were also there, queuing for their passes, and once we'd got those we were taken to the media room down in the bowels of the stadium.

Great facilities on offer for the TOGS – desks with internet access and plenty of sandwiches and soft drinks with someone to serve you – I could get used to this sort of treatment. I was told that the media room was half-full which isn't to bad I suppose.

The media room was close to the end that Darlo had been given and so once we were ready to go pitchside, we didn't have far to go. We would be allowed to go behind the goals - behind the advertising hoardings, not on the grass itself - but not down the side of the ptich so I went off to bag my place. As I did so I saw that one place had already been bagged by Al Jezerra TV - they must be desperate for football!

I then took the opportunity to go for a walk around the whole of the pitch and get a real feel for the place - not the sort of thing you get the chance to do very often.

It has to be said that Wembley is a very impressive stadium – it has had its fair share of criticism but I was very impressed – it gave the impression you can get a great view of the action from anywhere. I would be spoilt in this respect of course – it was hard to believe that just a couple of weeks I’d been at Hayes & Yeading.

There were many, many new faces amongst the Darlo contingent but every so often I’d find somebody I knew – certainly some faces I hadn’t seen at Darlo for many years. The weather was looking good and so I made sure I got plenty of crowd shots. People were only too keen to have them taken.

The players then came out to warm up and the atmosphere went up a notch. Then there was a lull whilst they went back and then the stadium exploded as the teams came out and we had the national anthem. The butterflies in my stomach looped the loop. Can't we just get on with it!!

I think it is fair to say that writing this now, the majority of the game itself is forgotten - it wasn't a bad game as such, just very tight. Darlo were the team who created most chances during the course of the game but Mansfield also had their moments.

After remaining goalless at the end of normal time, we entered extra-time and the tension went up several notches - this isn't the sort of thing we normally handle well and I was dreading the thought of penalty kicks.

(right) Paul Arnison and hero Chris Senior celebrate

However we kept at Mansfield and went close with Tommy Wright missing a couple of good chances. As we entered the last minute pressure in the Mansfield box saw the ball bounce off the top of the bar and super-sub Chris Senior headed it home.

It was hard not to jump up and celebrate like my fellow fans but I kept shooting the celebrations on the pitch. Get in!!!

As the players settled down for the restart, I still expected the worst to happen - this is Darlo, yeah? I almost wet myself as Mansfield got a quick freekick outside our box but that was wasted and then referee Stuart Atwell - who did an excellent job - blew the final whistle.

Cue the biggest celebrations we've ever had - I think today saw the release of many years of mutual pent-up frustration - an exorcism of sorts if you will.

The team were presented with the Trophy and then had a lot of fun on the pitch - and we had a lot of fun with them - it was great to see such a smile on chairman Raj Singh's face, he throughly deserved this for sticking by the club.

Finally the players left the pitch and happy fans started to make their way out - the Mansfield end was now completely empty - and so I head back to the media room. Inside Echo togger Chris Booth is already hard at work on his laptop, sending shots to the Echo.

I have a couple of cold drinks (water only unfortunately - no bubbly down here) and chill out for a few minutes before I pack up my gear and make my way out.

(left) DAFTS celebrate in typical fashion

Once I get outside there are not many fans around - it it surprising how quickly how people have left.

As I walk down Olympic Way I bump into into Gordon, Darlo's other tunnel steward, and some of his mates. I think it is fari to say they've had a drink or two and will be having a few more before the day is out.

And then I meet my former Northallerton neighbour Geoff Thompson - we've both been following Darlo since about 1973 and it feels like sone hell of a journey that we'e been on to get to this win today.

On the tube though I'm on my own save for some Wembley stewards going home - they're not keen to share the celebrations with and so I've no one else to clench my fist with and say "Yes!" - and that feels very odd.

I race back to the Euston Tap and find a healthy quota of DAFTS in full celebration - I change into a less sweaty t-shirt and then make a start on some of the bottled beers - damn the expense, it isn't every day we win at Wembley - knowiug Darlo this victory will have to last a long, long time and it needs celebrating properly.

Brian is doing just that and has broken into his stash of Cuban cigars and is doing his very best impression of Churchill - which isn't very good unless Winny had seriously good to seed!

There are a few Mansfield fans in the bar who are being friendly and congratulating us - good beer attracts good people more often that not.

And then after discussing THAT moment for the umpteenth time, everyone makes their way to their respective homes, to sleep, perchance to relive this happy day...

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Toer de Geuze 2011

Whilst otherwise sensible folk were flocking into London for some wedding, London Miller Chris Turner and I were speeding out of the capital on the Eurostar. Destination Brussels.

Such an early start meant we arrived at Brussels Midi at 11:33am local time - too early to check in to our hotel so we wandered off to the Fleur en Papier Dore - a small bar which had a couple of excellent new beers for me - a tasty IPA, Hopus, and De La Senne's Zinnebir.

From here we wandered to one of the newest bars in town - Moeder Lambic Fontainas - which had a large choice of beers on tap including an excellent range of saison beers which I've really got a taste for. One of the best was the IV Saison from Jandrain-Jandrenouille - really excellent and apparently quite trendy!

Others that I tried included a trio of fine beers from one of my favourite Belgian brewers, De Ranke, with their XX, Hop Harvest and Saison de Dottinges. An excellent start to our trip.

The third member of our party - Roger - met us here as he was on a later train out of St Pancras. After a couple more beers we wandered off to the hotel to check in and turn our bikes round (as Liz's dad would day).

In the evening we headed for the original Moeder Lambic bar though this took about 20 mins longer than it should thanks to Chris and his less-than-ideal map reading skills. A decent bar but service was a tad slow and I much prefer the vibrancy of it's younger sibling.

The following day we set out with the best of intentions to try some more of the city's pubs but for some reason we ended up spending the whole session - from noon to after midnight - yes, almost thirteen hours - sat in the quirky surroundings of the Poechenellekelder.

This bar is slap bang opposite the famous Manneken Pis which always attracts the tourists - we ignored it though and headed straight for the bar. The interior is like a small museum with odd, scary puppets hanging from the ceiling and giving the place a highly surreal air.

The beer choice was excellent and the time flew past as we tried beers old and new - we had the odd food break to keep our strength up with Roger having several servings of tette presse (brawn).

Before we knew it, it was approaching midnight. In all we spent over 200 euros and had about 14 beers each - steady going really and we didn't feel that bad considering. See the whole bill here.

We had an early start on the Sunday when we went travelled to Halle station for the main event of the weekend - the bi-annual Toer de Geuze - which is when all the major lambic producers open their doors to the public.

(left) The best of Boon

There is a very good report on the day on this posting from Des De Moor who was on our bus so I won't try and explain the intricacies of the day to you as he does it so much better.

Joining us on the bus were Jackie and Simon from London who we know well from many beer festivals. We also got talking to an American couple - brother and sister - and a friendly Belgian guy who sat with us so he could translate what our bus guide was saying.

At the first brewery - de Cam - there was a mad scrum for the bar and the way in which tokens were bought and beers were served was rather chaotic. After finally getting a couple of beers we wandered outside where we got chatting to some more Americans, one of who was Pete Slosberg.

Pete was one of the first to brew decent beer in the US and it sparked a small revival in brewing which led for a while to new US brews being sold in Oddbins back in the 1980s. I used to drink a lot of his stuff and it was great to finally meet him (even though he sold up many years again, preferring now to just travel and drink).

The bus then took us at a healthy pace around the breweries of de Troch, Boon, 3 Fonteinen and Oud Beersel.

The beers of Boon are amongst my absolute favourites and they didn't disappoint, especially the kriek which was beautiful.

(right) Simon, Jackie, Roger, Chris and our friendly Belgian chum

In all, it was a really interesting trip but the crowds were huge as it was a very sunny day on a bank holiday weekend which meant that a lot of locals were out in force.

The queues at most of the breweries meant that there was often less time that I would have liked for drinking. I'm not known for my patience.

We were dropped off back at Halle station and as we had an hour or two to spare before we caught the Eurostar home we went to the Moeder Lambic Fontainas for a few more beers.

On reflection I don't think I would do the toer again as the queuing makes it too frustrating for an impatient git like me but I will certainly head back to Brussels now that I'm beginning to get my bearings.