Wow, my first post for over a year! Truth is I’ve been lying low, desperate to avoid being sucked into that whole Brexit shenanigans, during which many of my friends and acquaintances felt obliged to offer up their own views on the debacle – courtesy of social media comments and re-tweets – despite me not actually asking for them. What’s that old saying… ‘avoid bringing up religion or politics in conversation if you want to maintain a friendship?’- sound advice indeed! But now all that seems on the way to being done and dusted – and the amateur politicians seem to have scurried for cover – let me dare to mention two other ‘flavours-of-the-month’ – plant-based ‘vegan’ food and non-alcoholic beers.
Most of you will know that I like a tipple, and I consciously avoid eating meat, and thus the original purpose of this Blog was to highlight the profound lack of good beer and veggy-friendly food at football grounds. When I started writing, around 15 years ago, and despite being ‘veggie’ for some 20 years, it was still difficult to hunt down my kind of food and drink in take-aways, let alone the nation’s footy stadia. Well Gregg’s seem to have changed the ‘tucker’ situation overnight! By launching the ‘Vegan’ sausage roll they’ve spawned another ‘Me Too’ movement as every High Street fast-food chain worth its salt has scrambled onto the table with its very own ‘Vegan’ delight, even if some haven’t quite got it spot-on (reportedly one high-profile company is cooking its plant-based burger on the same hot plate as its meatier counterpart – whoops!)
So what’s all this got to do with footy, I hear the odd one of you ask. Well, primarily because I’m starting this day at the Gregg’s branch in Victoria Coach Station, sampling their latest delight, the ‘Vegan Steak Bake’ – and it’s not three bad! I was not overly fond of their veggie sausage roll, I must confess, but this steak bake is a very different animal (or not, so to speak).
Another reason I’ve not been so active on this blog relates to its other main purpose – highlighting the availability of good beer in and around football grounds. The odd health scare and a nasty habit of overdoing it a bit on my overseas jaunts has meant I’m limiting my alcohol intake these days, and as such I’m not frequenting as many pubs on my UK away-days as I used to. But having been a good boy over Christmas – partly aided and abetted by a case of very tasty low and no-alcohol dark beers courtesy of the ‘Dry Drinker’ mail order company (thanks wifey!) – I’m up for a bevvy today and where better place to start than the Albion Tap. It’s in Horsham in West Sussex, a couple of hundred yards from the town’s railway station, and kind of en-route to my target ground for the day, that of Southern Combination Premier Division outfit, Broadbridge Heath.
Despite appearing as if it’s been part of the town’s drinking scene for a century or more, this impressive pub was only created out of a former coffee bar in 2016. As I step inside I’m greeted by a giant whiteboard detailing what’s on cask (6) and keg (10) today, ranging from a 2.8%abv cask light IPA, to a thunderous 10.6%abv keg Imperial Stout. Tempting, but so is the 4.2% Black Cherry Mild from local brewery, Kissingate, and I am royally rewarded for my selection. In truth, there were seven Horsham hostelries on CAMRA’s WhatPub website which appealed to me, but for my second drink I decide to call in at the Kings Arms on the edge of the town centre. This used to be the ‘tap’ house for the King & Barnes brewery which was sadly closed and then unceremoniously demolished earlier this century. However, the former head brewer is still active and one of his own beers, Firebird Heritage, is on handpump, alongside one from Dark Star and a couple from the local Brolly Brewery.
Unfortunately, the Heritage is not up to much. Billed as gluten-free, I’m not really sure what to expect and it certainly doesn’t seem to fit the descriptive of a ‘full malt flavour’. In truth, its probably end-of-barrelish and I ought to have alerted the barman to that fact. Maybe next time……
I set out on a 2-mile walk to the west of the town centre into the suburb of Broadbridge Heath, home of the eponymous football club. Their new ground is situated at the rear of a complex which includes a Tesco superstore, and an old athletics stadium which was the former home of said club before they relocated to the more-or-less adjacent Countryside Park earlier this season. The new home benefits from an excellent playing surface overlooked by a modern, capacious clubhouse, and sports a compact but comfortable seated ‘flat-pack’ stand on the opposite halfway line, with an even smaller covered terrace stand behind one goal. I’ve some time on my hands before kick-off and so settle into the clubhouse with the match programme, keeping an eye on the footy on the TV. There’s no real ale on the bar, but there are bottles of Greene King beers plus – somewhat surprisingly – Cruzcampo (Spain) and Leffe Blond (Belgium) in the fridge. I’m tempted by the latter but decide not to over-indulge today, restricting myself simply to educating the barman to the fact that the Leffe (“We don’t sell many of those”) is actually a beer, not a lager, and at 6.6%abv should be treated with some respect! There are some cheese & onion rolls on the bar, optimistically priced at £2.50, but nothing of any interest at the snack hatch.
The home side currently reside towards the wrong end of their Step 5 division table, but with today’s visitors Crawley Down Gatwick not exactly setting the pace much higher up, a win for the hosts looks eminently possible, particularly when they take the lead some quarter of an hour in, albeit with an O.G. The Zumba class in the Leisure centre on the opposite side of the pitch tends to catch the wandering eye during the quieter moments, but the game really comes to life after the break with a firmly headed equalizer and thereafter the writing is on the wall for the Heath. CDG look increasingly the stronger outfit and settle it with two goals in the last 25 minutes.
And so as I approach ground number 1,000 (which should be by the end of February, postponements notwithstanding) I can look back at a time when I was 300 grounds and counting and see if any progress is being made with the fayre on offer to (primarily) non-league football punters. And I have to say no. The greasy burger or hot dog still reigns supreme, chips are an occasional (and not particularly healthy) option, and if I want a soup it’s packet. A beer in the bar – well, there’s probably a one-in-three chance of something British (I don’t count Smoothflow!) and one-in-ten of it being local. And as for a non-alcoholic brew – forget it! Somewhere out there will be the Ultimate Match Day Experience. I’ll just have to keep looking……
Programme: £1 on the gate. 28 pages. Big on statistics.
Floodlights: 8 pylons
Club Shop – nothing evident
Toilets – in the clubhouse
Birdlife: eerily quiet. not even a parakeet. I’ve seen loads this year, but clearly they don’t venture into this part of Sussex
Kop Choir: No
Away fans: a few in the stand