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For The Love Of The Game....

Pub, football, pub. A typical Saturday for many. As a World Cup starts at an unfamiliar time of the year in a controversial choice of location where the options to get hold of a beer are extremely limited, I've been thinking about the routines around matchday somewhat closer to home...

The 2022 World Cup finally kicked off last Sunday in the desert kingdom of Qatar. The event, the first to be held in an Arab nation, has been dogged by controversy ever since the country's bid to stage the tournament was accepted; allegations of corruption were rife, with 16 of the 22 FIFA executive members who were on the committee at that time subsequently being implicated or investigated for corruption or bad practice, the treatment of migrant workers building the stadiums for the tournament, the country's attitudes to the LGBTQ+ community, women's rights, and minorities, playing the tournament in the searing heat of the desert (even though it had been moved from its traditional mid-year timing when it would have been even hotter), accommodation and facilities for fans, and disruption to the fixture lists of many major leagues of the participating teams. And if that wasn't enough, less than 48 hours before a ball was kicked the host nation banned the general sale of alcohol within the stadiums, thus triggering the possibility of legal action for FIFA from tournament sponsors Budweiser, although of course set against the background of everything else it was in itself a pretty minor thing. But even if you try to consider things from a non-Western perspective, it is hard to find anything laudable in the background to this particular World Cup. And ultimately, though, back to the organisers, it exposes the reality that if FIFA wishes to spread the tournament to smaller countries or those not previously considered as hosts - like those where football is enormously popular, such as in say African nations like Egypt, Cameroon, Senegal, and Ghana - it ain't going to happen unless you have shedloads of money to throw at it. Step forward, then a tiny desert kingdom which has no real track record as a footballing nation with hardly even a league structure in place, but just happens to be very rich. Bud Zero anyone?

Meanwhile thousands of miles away, far removed from the dusty desert heat and ongoing controversies in Qatar, where the decision to drink Bud is thankfully an individual choice (not for me, thanks), football carries on in this country in the lower leagues and at the grassroots level, and last Saturday, the day before the World Cup kicked off, many fans were as usual able to see their teams and enjoy a drink as they wished. For many people, it's all part of the routine; a day out with friends that may or not be spoilt by 90 minutes of football. 

As I have written before, in this country, a few pints and a game of football is a relationship that is as old as the game itself. At the grassroots level, many teams have sprung out of pubs, as they did in the workplace, from within local organisations, social clubs, church groups, in fact anywhere where people met in any number, many going back to the smoky, sepia days of Victorian England. But the fact that a pub was able to provide refreshment, some sandwiches, or other food, maybe a room for club meetings, and was in any case where people met socially and informally gave it certain advantages. And a few pints back in the warmth of the pub after a hard game on a muddy council-run pitch in the cold and wet maybe with some new bruises is the perfect way to restore the soul. The match replayed in conversation, each from a different perspective, goals celebrated, decisions questioned, with banter flying of course. The pints giving the game a hazy, rosy glow, performances enhanced in retrospect. It'll all happen again next week, with the pub there to discuss the build-up during the week. And of course, for the teams that eventually get their own ground, a clubhouse is the holy grail, an income stream with a bar an essential component. This link between beer and football exists at every level of the game. For the long-established league clubs that were almost invariably in our larger towns and cities, often situated amidst rows of terraced housing, there were plenty of pubs where fans could meet before the game and have a drink after the game to celebrate or drown their sorrows. 

A Saturday afternoon at The Shay

We always meet up on Saturdays before Halifax Town games at The Shay these days at the Grayston Unity, situated in the shadow of the wonderful Grade ll-listed 19th century town hall designed by Charles Barry, and his son, Edward. Having said that, this has only been in the past few years; other pre-match venues have been the Shears by the river Hebble in the narrow valley below The Shay, The Three Pigeons, the long-lost original Pump Room, The Royal Oak/Dirty Dicks, with occasional cameos from the Victorian Craft Beer Cafe and The Cross Keys at Siddal. For night matches, there are different arrangements due to work commitments and the like, with either the Meandering Bear and VCBC which are closer to the ground the usual options. But, after the game, day or night, we always visit the Three Pigeons for the post-match pint and analysis of the match we have just seen.

The Three Pigeons, Halifax

It is the same for fans of other clubs, of course, and there are a number of great pubs and bars that I have visited that attract plenty of fans before and after the games. Not far away from here is the Record Cafe in Bradford, where owner Keith Wildman is a massive fan of Bradford City, with the club's Valley Parade ground conveniently situated a few minutes' walk away. Over in Huddersfield, these days many fans visit the Magic Rock tap in Birkby or the Sportsman in the town centre, but a former favourite haunt of Terriers fans that is sadly no longer with us is the flatiron shaped Slubbers Arms. Elsewhere, there was a pub situated at each corner of Brentford's former ground at Griffin Park, but every team's followers have their own favourite pubs. At Leeds there was the Peacock - now run by Ossett Brewery - on Elland Road opposite the ground and late Leeds United legend Peter Lorimers's pub, the former Commercial in nearby Holbeck. In Newcastle there was the Strawberry, now dwarfed by the towering stands of St James Park, but it is pretty much the same for every club. And for former East Manchester Football Conference side Droylsden, the club's ground was even called The Butchers Arms after the pub next door!

A big favourite with football fans: the now-closed Slubbers Arms in Huddersfield

Last Saturday, Town were home to Boreham Wood, and as usual we met at the Grayston for a pre-match drink. But both there, and at The Three Pigeons after the game, despite winning the game 1-0 and moving up a couple of places in the National League table, there was a cloud hanging over our group. Unfortunately, in the period since we had last met, one of our friends, Paul, more commonly known as Wardy, had sadly passed away. He had worked for the local council for many years before retiring early and had been a regular supporter of Town, following the team both home and away for many a season. However, having been diagnosed a few years back with an underlying heart condition he had gradually withdrawn from coming out except very occasionally, even though he only lived a stone's throw from both The Shay and The Three Pigeons. I think it was a year or so since I'd last seen him, out for a rare pint with another mate. And so last Saturday night was something of a wake for Wardy as we looked back on memories and stories from over the years, to the accompaniment of pints and occasional vodka chasers. He was naturally quieter than some of the other members of our group but had nonetheless been involved in many funny situations that had happened, particularly on away trips. 

And just to refer back to the World Cup, ironically there was a time when Paul might have followed England there. He was a massive fan of football in general, and aside from watching Town he also went to see West Ham from time to time with another friend from Halifax, and then got to watch England matches, sometimes going away to follow them in places as far apart as Brazil, Lithuania, and Moldova. And sat at home, he would most probably have followed the current tournament on TV, though sadly he never got the chance.

As we moved on for a final drink at the Ring O'Bells last Saturday, the karaoke was in full force with classic songs from the past being given brand new interpretations. Not my favourite form of entertainment I hasten to add, but hey, those that had gone there for it were having a right good night. We raised our glasses once more for Paul, a toast to an absent and much-missed friend. Football means different things to different people but away from the eye-watering sums of money and shady men in shiny suits it is essentially the game of the people, of the community, and it seemed fitting that we had paid our respects to Wardy following the same routines that he had done with us so many times, a few beers either side of 90 minutes of the beautiful game....

This blog is dedicated to our friend and fellow football fan Paul Ward, who has died aged 62.

Follow me on twitter: @realalemusic


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