Funny how things can change so quickly, isn’t it? A week ago, the fanbase was in meltdown, we’d just opened the campaign with a loss and the mood was very, very sour. Fast forward seven days (eight if reading this on Sunday, nine if this is your Monday, etc etc) and the corner of Berkshire where our club stands is a happy(ish) one once again.
Selfishly, it feels good to be able to write this having been to the ground in a meaningful way for the first time since early December. Of course, I’d been back to the friendlies and to purchase merchandise I didn’t need over the summer, but this was it: the real match, the big match, the large match, the massive match: PNE at home.
It’s fair to say that the matchday experience has changed somewhat, I’m assuming due to a deadly combo of a global virus and also the club having little to no money to spend on luxuries like catering staff. For those of you living abroad or in Wokingham, I shall talk about the match day vibe in the next paragraph, now.
Basically, there is nothing. Without being dramatic, it’s a barren wasteland of dreams. Like a naughty child expecting to receive a Nintendo 64 from Father Christmas on the 25th of December, there was disappointment in abundance. Gone are the stalls of Blue Collar and the “catering” options inside the ground.
The fan zone sort of exists, and there was a chip van outside the Dolan. No match day programmes, no sweet treats or pastries, no multi-kiosk system in place on the concourses (more on that later). To be blunt, my advice would now be to spend as much time as possible in the town centre pre-match, hop on a bus and turn up for the football and football only.
Pre-game, I visited the STAR base (oh forgot to say, I’m involved with them now) to meet the board members and suss out the lay of the land. I had a cracking chat with Pete, who used to walk the flags round pre-game and we discussed the idea of resurrecting this (more on that in the weeks to come).
Duties done, I made way round to the Dolan. As I strolled along the cobbled pavement, I noticed not one but two chaps wearing vests, Lonsdale vests at that. Despite it being a warm day, it wasn’t going to reach ‘Benidorm’ heat, was it? Nah, it was not.
Safely away from the vested gentlemen, I made way through the turnstiles, a gentle, knowing nod from the steward guiding me on my way and up the flights of stairs of B13 to my familiar and friendly blue plastic seat. I was saddened/perturbed/disappointed to see the ground staff not wearing the latest training wear, perhaps another sign of cost-cutting grossness.
On first-half showing, we weren’t too bad. A poacher’s goal from Femi Azeez (Olise who?) sent us into the break 1-0 up after some earlier chances had been squandered and I was sent down (not to prison!) to get the beers. And here’s where the afternoon unrivalled quicker than a fruit winder in the hands of a peckish toddler.
For those of you unfamiliar with the geography of the Dolan, I sit in B13 (gate five). The nearest kiosk to me is now situated outside B18 (the other end of the concourse). Although the service was swift (no pun intended), carrying three full pints of continental-strength lager the actual length of the concourse itself was not acceptable. I looked and felt like a primary school student out of their depth in a running race on Sports Day.
I then managed to perch them, without spilling a single drop, onto the shelf under the usual TV that I watch when I’m in the concourse drinking beers that I normally haven’t carried for a very long way. And to my horror, it was not showing any pictures. In fact, none of the TVs were showing the live feed of the game. Or any feed.
Honestly, it was like the club has/had set out to deliberately dissuade anyone from spending any time or money in the concourses. Once my dad and mate arrived, I said some things I now regret, the frustration of the 4,000-yard dash taking its toll on me physically and mentally. As I looked down, I noticed I had actually dropped some lager onto my crisp, white trainers. And at that point, I let out a swear word.
Back in the seat and it was time for the second half to begin in earnest. Preston equalised through a debatable 12-yard death kick and some people around me (who shall remain nameless) feared the worst. My dad needn’t have worried though, as Swift popped up with a well-worked, pleasantly executed winner to seal the three points securely, like a mother or father placing sandwiches in one of those zip-lock sandwich bag things that keep everything fresh for their children. Lovely.
As we skipped merrily out of the Dolan, I squinted like a church mouse nibbling on crumbs from communion in the early evening sunshine. The buzz from the fans walking down the road I can never remember the name of (might be Hoops Way? You know, the one where you can see all the timber in the B&Q yard? Or is it Shooters Hill? Dunno. But that road anyway) was a joy to behold.
Three pints, three points and a welcome change in mood around the club. Roll on Tuesday!