News and Views

Brothers In Arms

22 August 2013
By Neil Maskell

There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply sitting about in pubs. I must go down to the pub again, I'm a lonely passer by! And I all ask is a bag of nuts and a big screen showing SKY. What makes a good pub? Certainly not piped-in music stifling all conversation; if I do want to listen to music while I drink I'll stick on my iPod and listen to stuff I actually like, cheers. You do however want a creative and wide selection of beers served by a knowledgeable curator who ensures that said Ale is well cared for. Ideally you want the option for some decently priced appetizing grub as opposed to microwaveable gruel carelessly rammed into a microwave by some spotty disinterested name-badge-wearing young oik with a social awareness which makes Kevin the Teenager look like Peter Ustinov. Scoring as highly as any pub I have ever visited - and I have patronized a few in my time - is The Taps, Lytham St Annes. 12 real ales on tap! Succulent roast beef bap, oozing with gravy!

The missing ingredient - however - must surely be the company. We've all been stuck at the bar, desperately attracting attention of indifferent bar staff keen to stand our round, stood next to the pub loner (always with his ample derriere parked on a creaking bar stool) who tries to engage in conversation. Complete strangers shouldn't make idle chit-chat, we're British and we just do not do this. Pub Loner is quick with a quip, a comment - most likely - on your choice of beer and a sense of humour that he at least finds hilarious. Pub Loner is at least preferable to CAMRA Snob. CAMRA Snob hunt in packs, preciously guarding their table like circling wagons, passing all-too-vocal judgement on everyone and everything under the one roof and they can be instantly recognised by their greying beards and flip-flop/sock combo. CAMRA Snobs are dangerously dull and must NOT be approached under any circumstance. Such pub pests are best avoided at all costs, mere association with them can turn you into one of their kind, like in Father Ted when Jack is incarcerated in St Clabbert's Home for Elderly Priests and grows white whispy hair on his hands and cheeks. Better stick to the unwritten laws of Alcoholic Apartheid and keep to your own type. Those with whom you share a common affinity, those whose tastes match your own. Football Drinkers unite.

Football and booze go together like Cheese & Onion, Morse & Lewis, Terry & June, Nogan & Lovell. For the away traveller, the promise of shelter and a few sherberts at the end of a train journey and prior to the afternoon's entertainment is just as big a part of the day as the match itself. A chance to catch up with friends whom you only see on Saturday afternoons from August to May, a cursory query as to their general welfare before discourse inevitably moves on to more pertinent issues of team selection. And of course you will discuss the beer itself - 'what you drinking?' Since I was old enough to earn enough cash from a full time job to support my beer and football habit, I have built up a network of like-minded chums who are perfectly aligned by a shared love of an away trip and a good pub. Our fixture at Blackpool this weekend reminds me of my last visit to the Fylde Coast and a particularly enjoyable session in the aforementioned Taps. Of bonhomie, booze and beef baps. Greeted as you arrive many miles from home by familiar faces who seem genuinely pleased to see you. “Where is such and such”.....”he's running a little late, be here in a bit”.....and the cycle repeats itself as the latecomers then arrive to your own cheers and handshakes. This particular trip to the north west - more specifically the pub itself - also reminds me of two members of our group who we have sadly lost in the last couple of years. You can find a different place to drink of course if a pub changes ownership, goes downhill, stops looking after the beer so well. But it is a little harder to replace drinking buddies.

Tony Forge I first remember meeting en route to Brighton in 2002. Shaking off a debilitating hangover, my mood was not improved by a wretched train journey comprising several changes due to planned engineering work. Our group wearily boarded our 3rd train of our epic trek at a place called Liphook which as far as I cared might just as well have been twinned with Arseendofnowhereshire. A solitary gentleman waited with us on the otherwise deserted and windswept platform at Liphook as we waited for the delayed train and then proceeded to sit behind us during this last leg of the journey. After a time, he clearly had grown weary of listening to our ill-informed football opinions because he interrupted, put us to right and joined in the conversation. He was a very plain speaking chap, not unafraid to chip in on a topic of conversation relating to a subject matter he clearly felt very passionate about. And do you know what, he spoke with real authority, being a good many years our senior but more than comfortable with interrupting 3-know-nothing lads all young enough to be his son and to discuss football and RFC in particular. Breaking the 'First Law of Britishness' I referred to earlier? Perhaps, but football is unique in this way and long may that be the case.

It became clear that Forge was a regular away traveler despite every away game being an away fixture from his home in deepest darkest Hampshire. In time, we grew to associate Forge with a group of other like-minded gents with whom we became friendly through our ventures to various footballing backwaters across England. A thoroughly engaging set of chaps; utterly unpretentious, enjoyed each other's company and the banter, the beer and the football. To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive of course, and the travelling was always just that little bit more fun with the company of these gents to enjoy. Amongst their number was the incomparable Negative Jeff. A more sprightly sexagenarian you couldn't wish to find, as evidenced by his half-time star-jumps during our regular interval concourse congress. Jeff held court during what was affectionately referred to by the regular participants as 'the half time moan'. Passing comment on the game itself always seemed almost a chore to Jeff - although he regularly made mention of his dissatisfaction at McDermott's chosen style of play - rather more, he was curious to know whether you are attending the next away game and if so which train would you be on and most importantly of all which pub will you be in. And if he didn't like your choice of pub, you could rest assured he will convince you of the merits of the hostelry he was intending to stop by. This, after all, was the man who pre-booked train travel for a trip to Sheffield only for the fixture to be re-arranged a week or two before and yet he still made the trip up to South Yorkshire to enjoy an afternoon his favourite Steel City boozer! In many ways this was a preferential turn of events for Jeff - a whole day in the pub without wasting an hour or two watching second rate football.

This wasn't the only time Jeff spent an afternoon in the pub that had been originally designated for football. Jeff chose not to attend our most recent play-off final loss at Wembley due to the pubs in the area being second rate. Jeff instead spent the afternoon - and his ticket money - at the Euston Tap, one of his very favourite venues, and as some very disappointed faces joined him later on that bank holiday Monday the star-jumps were in evidence again.....we were to remain in the Championship; fewer Saturday afternoons ruined by SKY schedulers and better pubs! A sad foot-note to that day however was that as Reading fans slipped morosely away from the Capital feeling like their world had ended, Mr Forge himself was tucked up in a hospital bed having listened to radio commentary of his beloved team's first half defensive horror show. Having held out against a long illness it was rather poignant that he passed away a day or two after Wembley, the final hours of his life somehow entwined with his beloved football team. He clung on long enough to follow along on that big day in the only way he could before taking his rest.

Earlier this year, we very sadly also lost Jeff to illness. Life is a fleeting opportunity and the only inevitability is that our respective numbers will be up eventually. For centuries, man has pondered the meaning of life and has come up with more questions than answers in this, the best of all possible worlds. Sure, spending time and money travelling up and down the country, sitting in dead-end pubs drinking good beer wouldn't seem the best use of four score and ten to many. But without fripperies such as trifling debate about how best to tactically deploy a bunch of spoiled millionaires so that their ball-kicking skills will outperform another set of millionaires, life is reduced to a mere sequence of transactions, checks and balances. And therefore becomes rather empty and clinical. People such as Forge and Jeff embody what football fandom - and life itself - really is all about; friendship, mutual respect, a good old fashioned debate and a few drinks along the way. We greatly miss them both of course, but their values and passions live on through those of us who remain and reminisce. There is nothing quite like being there of course, but there is nothing quite like being there with people whom you like being with. It is comforting in its own way. Managers, players, even stadia change. Supporters - generally - do not. Long may the social side of attending football thrive, three cheers to the hostelries and buffet cars of Great Britain!

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