I’m in Devon. It’s partly Michael Appleton’s fault. In his first terrible year, I was so bored, I started to form my exit strategy from football fan to football consumer. Before giving up my season ticket completely I decided that I’d no longer wait for the fixtures to come out to make non-footballing plans. So, in 2015 we decided to go on holiday in Devon during half term week regardless of how the fixtures fell, and have been doing it ever since.
Then we had the best season ever and I never gave up my season ticket.
As the result of a traumatic traffic based experience around Cribs Causeway one summer a few years ago which resulted in a similarly traumatic mercy stop at the lawless Gordano Services in peak season to relieve aching bladders and ease mental fatigue, we decided this year to leave early to avoid delays.
We always stop at Chieveley Services, it acts as the gateway to our holiday. I like Chieveley for this and other reasons. If I’d had the foresight to spend my life doing something fulfilling, it would have been to undertake deep anthropological studies of the nation’s service stations on Saturdays.
I love service stations on Saturdays, particularly around lunchtime. You’ll be idly choosing whether to spend your last six pounds on a Mars bar or a single packet of peanuts and you’ll see someone in a Barnsley or Newport shirt come in. Or better still Cindeford Town or Bromsgrove Rovers. Then there’ll be others, bursting for the toilet, or a coffee. They’ll have just decanted from a supporters’ coach, like bees in a smoked out hive, the journey has made them soporific and so it’s time to stretch the legs. It’s less intimidating than a pub, the most aggressive thing that happens is someone asks for an extra gherkin in their Big Mac.
If they’re really daring, there’ll have their eye one of the naughty top shelf magazines. The pack mentality emboldens them. They wouldn’t buy it for their own gratification, obviously, just for laughs; a trophy to take back to the coach.
Incidentally, in a world of plentiful bosoms and vaginal exposure in digital form, this cannot be the way Razzle or Men Only survive in print form. Our local village shop maintains a small selection of specialist gentlemen’s literature. How big is the market for people who are desperate enough to seek sexual stimulation from pictures of naked women, and have enough bravado and means to happily buy this stuff – often from a thickset judgemental woman in her sixties who knows nothing of professional client confidentiality – but who are also not able to access the internet? That’s one venn diagram with a small intersection; which is no reference to something you’d see in Readers’ Wives.
Back at the services. So, ever since I was a child, whenever I’ve seen fans from other teams I’ve followed their fortunes for the day; who they’re playing, what the score was and what that means to their league position.
It’s an underrated branch of study, we know all about football through the lens of the media, and by attending games, but we never talk about the bit in the middle. Service stations are an administrative necessity for going to football, but they act as a cultural clearing house for fans dedicated to their own petty cause. Each one, heading off on a campaign to foreign parts from which a story, of some kind, will emerge. Football is a commonwealth, but it’s only at a motorway service station do we ever meet and accept each other as equals.
So, we’re at Chieveley, but it’s a bit early for most football fans, there’s a hockey team milling around in their team kit, and a couple of people in the colours of Jersey Reds, whoever they are. I still enjoy the hubbub; the curious mixes of inter-generational groups, a woman on her own with more children than she can have reasonably conceived, a couple of such an age that you wouldn’t trust them to leave their own front garden let alone drive down the M4, and another, so appallingly obese their bodies slide at a 45 degree angle from the roles of chin fat as though they’ve been inflated, they are not so much sitting in their chairs as being propped up against them. They are staring in opposite directions furtively as though the empty plates of full English breakfast they have evidently just inhaled are the only thing to have given away their dark secret that heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes are mere moments away.
Within this swill of people and their stories, I see a familiar light-blue top and an even more familiar yellow badge. Chieveley is only 60 miles from Bristol, so it is possible I will see the odd Oxford fan, although unlikely given that there’s still nearly five hours until kick-off. My heart lightens, this must be what it’s like for a panda to have a prospective mate introduced to their enclosure.
But, it’s not a fan, it’s Luke Garbutt, on his own, in his training kit with his washbag under his arm. He looks a little lost, and perhaps he is, he’s a long way from the changing rooms at the Memorial Ground. I hope to see John Mousinho shaking the last drops of wee into a urinal in the gents, or Derek Fazackerley trying the travel cushions fashioned to look like slices of watermelon outside WH Smith, or maybe Shandon Baptiste panic buying an over-priced iPhone accessory from a small kiosk. Perhaps Jamie Mackie is outside contemplating AA membership now he’s over 30 and has to think about his future. But there’s nobody. He’s on his own in what I assume to be a practical measure. Presumably it’s more convenient for him to be picked up by the team coach than to drive down to the Kassam and back along the M4.
I wasn’t bold enough to talk to him, after ‘I’m an Oxford fan’ we have nothing in common. And, let’s face it, being an Oxford fan isn’t something we have in common either. I point him out to my largely disinterested family; “I thought he was just a normal person” said my daughter afterwards. So did I, there he is ambling towards Costa, like, well, a normal person. I feel a bit guilty about whatever I might have said about him in the stands when I didn’t think he was a normal person, but just a footballer. Luckily, it probably isn’t much; he seems to have been OK whenever I’ve seen him.
Obviously I follow his day – which ultimately involved him not playing in our 0-0 draw. I’m pleased with the point; it’s another step in a slow recovery, and also sympathetic to Garbutt whose day seems to have been a largely pointless ball ache. I just hope he knows that they start charging if you park for more than two hours.