Up until fairly recently I thought the actual name of the club was "Stranraer Nil". Abandon hope, all ye who enter here... The gates to the mighty Stair Park. At some points over the weekend I doubted I would see this...
Some years ago when I was a child, I was given a book about British Football. It was one of these big hefty tomes that listed not only the stuff that would interest kids like me (i.e. what was Stan Bowles idea of a great night out - generally gambling, women, gambling, alcohol, more gambling and then a dangerous amount of gambling - continue until poverty or death, whichever came sooner), but also had a very large section of footballing statistics. One of the things it boasted was a full list of every final league table and FA and Scottish FA Cup rounds from 1872 until about 1981. A friend of mine and I took great delight in going through the Scottish teams and picking out the silly names - things like Gala Fairydean, Third Lanarkshire Riflemans Volunteers (hard to chant that one in a crowd when you've had a skinfull) and finally, of course, the wonderfully named Keith. It just looks good on a scoreboard: Celtic 23 Keith 0. Poor old Keith, he didn't deserve that. Finally, almost succumbing to boredom we then looked to see which team in the Scottish leagues had the worst record, who had never been out of the bottom division, and up until 1981 when these records ceased we discovered it was Stranraer. And at that moment, my interest was born.
I had no actual idea where Stranraer was, but I soon found out. And it was the most remote team in the whole of the Scottish league. Stranraer is closer to Belfast than it is to Glasgow. It sits, on the shores of Loch Ryan, on the northern side of the isthmus connecting the Rhins of Galloway to the mainland. Which basically means its a bloody long way from anywhere. I sometimes shared my interest with Stranraer FC with various friends, including Mark Beed who was lucky enough to have been there many times as he was a native of Belfast and one of Stranraer's main reasons for existing, is as a ferry port to Northern Ireland. Our mutual interest in Stranraer reached a peak in the early 90's when I produced several joke magazines supposedly based on a local paper in the area - called "The Wigtownshire Thunderer" it contained reports on fictitious Stranraer matches (in which they would inevitably be thrashed by such mighty teams as a Kirkcudbright Paper Boys Under 13 2nd XI) and adverts from such fine local businesses as "Winesoak and Sporran - Solicitors, Estate Agents and International Chanteuses" etc. All very silly. I even wrote to Stair Park, Stranraer's home ground and told them of our long distance love of the club. They replied and sent some free old programmes from former matches. Even my Dad caught the bug, and Stranraer were continued to be admired and followed from afar. I always had a feeling that one day I would go there.
Late last year I was checking through Stranraer's fixture list for the rest of this season and noticed that on April 9th 2011 they would be playing at home against East Stirlingshire. Now East Stirlingshire have almost over taken the mantle of "most pathetic team in Scotland" and have taken up the challenge with gusto having managed to finish rock bottom of the Scottish Third Division many times over the past few years. So a chance to see them in action against the mighty Stranraer sounded good - added to which April 9th just happens to be my Father's birthday! I mentioned the idea to him of going up to see the match, thinking he'd just go "yeah, right..." and go off and mow the lawn as Fathers are won't to do from time to time, but he didn't, he actually liked the idea. So we decided this was it - it would happen. At Christmas I treated my Father and I to Stranraer scarves and badges in readiness for our expedition to the north. The time got closer - I mentioned the proposed trip to various friends, most of whom just patted me on the head and walked away quickly. One friend even asked me if my father was dying - was this visit to see Stranraer play a football match some sort of "bucket list" activity? I reassured them it wasn't. So on April 7th 2011 I drove out to Wales to stay at my parents, ready for the drive north on the 8th.
Now getting from South Wales to the motorway network of the UK is not the easiest thing in the world. You could go all the way down the M4 and pick up the M5 just over the bridge, but that seemed like more sideways movement than your average Ray Wilkins pass, so we decided to strike out north and head up through the country to pick up the motorways near Chester. Bad move. Stupendously bad move. It just took forever. There is no direct route, there are lots and lots of mountains, wibbly-wobbly little roads and, just to add to the mayhem, a closed road near Caeder Idris which involved us making a 30-mile detour round the peninsula near Barford just to get back on the road to Lake Bala. But the weather was nice, the scenery stunning, the roads relatively clear, my father's car (a very nice Mercedes - fresh from having a new alternator fitter two days previously) was purring along the road like a kitten, and life was very tolerable. We had left Newcastle Emlyn at 7.30am. We finally got onto the M56, the first part of the motorway network we had seen, at almost exactly 12 noon. We put a few miles under our belts on the M6 and stopped at the Charnock Richard services for a quick "easing of springs" and to grab a bit of lunch. I bought us two sandwiches, two packs of crisps and a cold drink each. It came to nearly £13. What a rip off these places are. I took over the driving for the next section.
We sailed along, up past Liverpool and Manchester, past Lancaster, Blackpool and Preston, and on up into Cumbria. We were just approaching Carlisle at a rate of knots when a big warning sign suddenly lit up on the dash board. "Alternator Fault - Go to Workshop NOW!" You don't argue with messages from Mercedes like that, especially if you read it with a vicious German accent. We pulled off the motorway and studied all the Mercedes dealership stuff my Father had with him - there was a dealership in Carlisle. We made our way there.
After some time sitting on our jacksies in the Mercedes waiting room we were told the car needed a new alternator, the one my father had had fitted two days previously was NOT a Mercedes one and was only second hand and reconditioned and was basically going haywire. A new one was likely to cost somewhere in the region of £1,000 and would not be ready until Monday. Oh dear. I was due in Yeovil on Monday for a Henry VIII talk at their local Probus club. The car was too dangerous to drive as it was - if the alternator packed up completely we could lose all power and that would include steering, brakes etc. The only course of action was to go for the new part and get ourselves a hire car, continue onto Stranraer with that and see if I could contact Yeovil Probus by phone, but it would be difficult as I had no contact details with me. Enterprise Car Hire loaned us a brand new Hyundai Santa Fe, a neat little 4x4 vehicle and we fought our way out of Carlisle as the rush hour really kicked in. If you have never experienced a Carlisle rush hour, then try not to - for such a small town it is HUGE. We got back on the M6, crossed over the border and turned onto the A75 towards Stranraer. We felt like we were nearly there. Then we saw the first road sign. "Stranraer 98 miles". 98!? MILES?? Jesus...
We were booked into a hotel at Portpatrick, about 6 miles out of Stranraer, as most of the hotels we could find in the town bore a worrying resemblance to the farmhouse in the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre". The drive out to Stranraer along the A75 starts off very unpromising, but you are soon rewarded with beautiful rolling countryside, sea loch views and even mountains looming about you. The road ran on and on, the miles clicked over and we soon found ourselves ever closer to the promised land of the Portpatrick Hotel. And then, we were there! Oh dear... It's like The Ritz gone to seed. Paint on the outside of the building is off white, and peeling. Everything has a slightly down at heel look about it. The view down into Portpatrick's charming little harbour is very picturesque though. We booked in and were told we had about 20 minutes if we wanted an evening meal as they stopped serving at 8pm. We dashed up to our rooms, dumped our cases and did very passable Usain Bolt impressions to get down to the dining hall. It was a typical British seaside resort dining hall - you sit close enough to every other dining couple or group to hear every single word of their conversation. The meal choice was limited to either "chicken in sauce or gravy" or "Salmon in sauce or gravy". Wow. We both went for the chicken in sauce, which turned out to be a pre-cooked deathly white chicken breast with what appeared to be a yellow soup of some sort thrown over it. This was all served with the usual British hotel side order of blanched wraith-like vegetables and solid waxy potatoes. The best part of the meal for me was when my Father's starter came out. He'd ordered a Caesar Salad and was presented with a tiny side plate sized dish with approximately six tiny emaciated and limp bits of rocket lettuce leaf, with seven greasy looking croutons thrown over it and a thimble full of Caesar dressing drizzled over this. His face was a picture - no words were needed. To add to our enjoyment of the evening, in the dining room was an automatic digital grand piano that played itself - a lot. High tempo jolly versions of "Roll out the Barrels" would boom from it's hidden speakers, then the "Theme from Hawaii 5-0" would bounce along. After about five songs it would then go back to the start and repeat them, and repeat them. It was enough to make a serious music lover weep. We retired to the bar, had a couple of stiff whisky's and then headed for our rooms.
Another reason to come up to Stranraer and the area was for my Father to catch up with an ex-serviceman pal of his. They had served in Aden with the RAF Regiment in the 50's and have recently got back in touch again via the internet. Neither my Father or his friend John had seen each other in over 50 years, but were eager for the meeting. All we knew was that John would be coming from his home in Dumfries to Portpatrick on the Saturday morning. After breakfast we hung around in the hotel reading our newspapers waiting in case John turned up. It got later and later and still there was no sign. I was eager to get over to Stranraer and see where the heck Stair Park was (the football team's home ground). I left Dad at the hotel and drove over to Stranraer. The town is neither big, nor pretty, but it has it's moments. I drove round and round and could find not even a sign indicating where the ground might be. Finally on coming back into the town again from the north western side I saw a tiny, apologetic sign saying "football traffic this way" and pointing left. I followed this until I was on the London Road and there, just behind a sweet little children's playground in a typical Victorian municipal park was Stair Park football ground. There seemed precious little in the way of parking, so I guessed we had to get there early. I drove back to the hotel fully expecting to find my father and John regaling each other with stories of old, but my father was sat by himself in the lounge reading his newspaper still. No sign of John again. We had a pint in the bar and a sandwich for lunch, and still there was no arrival of John. We were starting to get worried. It finally got to 1.30pm and we decided he was not coming, and packed ourselves up and drove over to Stranraer. As it was John never turned up, but I think he and Dad have sorted out what went wrong. Oh, and if you're interested with the help of my Mother back in Wales we managed to contact Yeovil Probus and the show was postponed until next year - a relief. Back to Stranraer...
We parked right by the gates of Stair Park and went in. It is quite an attractive little ground dominated on one side by a new stand. The other four sides are a little more in keeping with a non-league ground in England, with the area behind the goal to your right (as you look at the pitch from the grandstand) being simple grass terracing about 10 feet high. We were very warmly greeted at the ground, and when people discovered we'd come all the way from South Wales and Somerset just to see this match, our stock rose incredibly. We were greeted by an elderly gentleman called John who gave us some of the background on the club, he then introduced us to the team manager, a ferocious sun tanned terrifyingly sinewy man called Keith Knox who crushed both of our offered hands and then returned them. He offered to give us a tour round the ground and meet the players after the match. As I said to my father as we went through the turnstile, we'd only do that if Stranraer won - it might be a bit embarrassing if they'd just been stuffed. We sat high up at the back of the stand right on the halfway line - it was a lovely view, not only of the pitch but of the distant mountains and sea you can see around you. The teams warmed up and there was much ooh-ing and ahh-ing from the Stranraer faithful about their big French centre forward, the brilliantly named Armand Oné. He looks a bit like Emile Heskey - large, dark and immovable. He'd scored a stack of goals this season and you could tell he was a big favourite with the locals, however for the start of this match, he was only on the bench. East Stirlingshire, replete in their black and white hooped shirts, ran out to the cheers of their entire away support - seven (I counted them) incredibly drunk men, some of them wearing tam o'shanters, and one waving a huge skull and cross bones flag with ESFC emblazoned across it. Stranraer then appeared and the match was on! It was a bit blood and thunder at places - hefty bone crunching tackles flying in, but there was some odd moments of finesse to admire, particularly from two of Stranraer's players - captain Danny Mitchell, and playmaker Scott Agnew. Finally, about mid-way through the first half, after taking a short corner, Stranraer powered in a bullet header from just outside the six yard box - 1-0 to Stranraer. Half time came and went, then we continued apace for the second half. Stranraer constantly looked the better team and in the 65th minute they thumped in their second from another corner. 2-0 to Stranraer. After about 70 minutes a ripple of excitement ran through the crowd - Armand Oné was coming on! He ran on to great acclaim and then did - absolutely nothing. He was obviously more like Emile Heskey than I realised. Really, apart from one neat flick-on his sum total contribution to the game was just short of bugger all. Then, in the very last minute, Stranraer got a free kick in a very promising position just outside the box. Before kick off, Oné had been practising taking free kicks from just such a position and had curled, smashed and drifted shot after shot past a despairing reserve goal-keeper. This was going to be good. A hushed silence settled over the ground as Oné stood over the ball. He took about four paces back, then ran up and..... smashed the ball many miles over the goal and the stand, and it sailed off into the sunset towards Portpatrick. The final whistle blew. Dad and I waited downstairs for a possible tour of the ground, but there was lots of kids hanging around desperate to get souvenir footballs signed by the squad, and after about 15 minutes we gave up and went back to the car. We had finally done it - we had seen Stranraer play a match, and they had let us down by comfortably winning 2-0. What a shame! Somewhere near Portpatrick a surprised fisherman was wondering where the hell that football had come from that had just smacked him on the back of the head - if you hadn't guessed it was from Oné with love.
We have lift off... THAT free kick from Armand Oné just before it went into orbit and brained a fisherman in Portpatrick.
Back at the hotel there was no message from Dad's friend John, so we went and had dinner. It was a minor improvement on the previous night - a sort of school dinners approximation of a roast beef dinner, but the automatic piano was still hammering away in the corner belting out "Green Door", "Blue Moon" and various other "timeless classics". i.e. crap. We had been promised that on the Saturday night there would be entertainment in the lounge bar - an accordionist who was very popular apparently and that getting a seat early was a must if you wanted to see him. While we were finishing our puddings in the dining room, he began in the lounge, but we could still hear him. Now I hate accordion music, it does nothing for me and this was very run of the mill ordinary "Mist Covered Mountains" usual Scottish fayre. We finished our meals and walked out past the lounge, expecting to find it packed. It wasn't. A grim faced couple sat right in the middle seats in front of the musician, and that was it. There was no one else in the room as he honked merrily away in the corner. And the poor sods couldn't get up and walk out - how can you when you're the only ones there? Dad and I were very sympathetic and laughed like drains. As we sat in the bar downing some more whisky a terrible sound began emanating from the lounge as well as the accordion. It was a sort of high pitched nasal vibrato bleating. What the hell was it? It was the accordionists singing voice. This set us off guffawing again, little heathens that we were. It was time for bed.
We checked out after breakfast on the Sunday morning and headed back along the A75 towards Carlisle. Once in Carlisle we parked up in a retail outlet estate and pondered our next move. There was a Premier Inn right next door, but despite their advertised "from only £29 per night", they actually wanted £61 per person per night for room early. We headed down towards Penrith for a meet up with my friends Andy and Kate Blundell at their antiques workshop at Temple Sowerby (yes, I know John Summers is reading this and thinking why didn't he come and see me? We had very little time and weren't even supposed to see Andy and Kate, John, but I promise to come and see you next time, honest!) and on the way see if we could find a nice little pub which did bed and breakfast. Well we did just that, at a delightful little village called Armathwaite with a pub called The Fox and Pheasant Inn. Check them out at http://www.foxandpheasantinn.co.uk/ and if in the area go and see them, it is worth it. We went down to see Andy and Kate, and Andy talked to us all round his workshop, and then all round his show room, and then in his back garden over tea. He scarcely paused for breath for about 2 hours. Very impressive! But it was great to see them both. Such a lovely couple.
Back at the Fox and Pheasant music was being played on folky instruments and a man was handing out bowls of a pease pudding type dish. Apparently this was Carling Sunday which is only celebrated in certain parts of northern England and Cumbria on the weekend before Easter. The split peas or Carlings are boiled up with a knuckle of ham and then served with a dollop of butter in them, a big splash of vinegar and then a dousing of pepper. Delicious! He assured us this was a traditional thing in the north of England. I personally think he was a brilliant itinerant split pea salesman making a fast buck, but it was a bit different and fun.
Monday morning we drove back up to Carlisle, picked up the repaired Mercedes, said goodbye to the Santa Fe and headed on back down the M6. We paused for lunch at a very nice pub called The Mill somewhere near Stafford, then carried on down to the M50 and then along the A40. Finally, at about 5.40pm we were back at Newcastle Emlyn. It had been a long, fun, at times difficult, expensive but very memorable trip. When I mentioned the idea of going to see Berwick Rangers play sometime soon my father beat me unconscious with a rolled up copy of the Daily Telegraph. I took that as a "maybe". I drove back to Somerset this morning - I still can't believe we did it.
Easter holidays now for Henry VIII. The next show is on the 26th April at West Pennard School near Glastonbury. Should be a fun one like it always is up there. But no accordion music and singing, please.