The streets of South London were eerily quiet as I emerged from my house and walked the short distance down the road to the tram stop. An early autumn breeze blew through the trees and the skies were still dark, occasionally illuminated by streetlights and the big forecourt sign at the Shell garage.
For the next 12 hours, the words ‘short’ and ‘distance’ would not be common bedfellows in my world. At 7.45pm that evening, a full half a day later, I had tickets to see Rovers play Barrow at Holker Street, a whopping 300 miles and at least five hours away by conventional means of transport.
Barrow had been an away match I’d had my eye on before the 2022/23 fixtures had been revealed. The last time the two clubs had met was in 1998 during our Conference years – also a Tuesday evening – and prior to that they hadn’t faced each other since 1972, when Rovers bagged a 2-1 away win in the old Division Four.
The ground has an aura of absurdity to it. Sitting at the tip of the Furness peninsula, close to the Lake District, it is sort of pinned in by Morecambe Bay, the Duddon Estuary and the Irish Sea in an area so cut off that even the football team chooses not to train there. Instead, they use Egerton FC’s ground through the week – more than 100 miles away from Barrow – and only travel to Holker Park for games.
Of course, for football nuts like myself, that makes it even more appealing and, coupled with the fact that there’s a bakery in the town that’s said to make the best pies in the country, I’d been pining to visit from the moment the writing was on the wall for Rovers’ stay in League One.
But there was a snag. Avanti’s misguided assumption that train staff would work on rest days had caused a dispute with the unions which, in turn, made it impossible to book trains in advance, with single tickets to Barrow costing upwards of £100, and open return tickets north of £350. So I decided to scope out an alternative route, which after much digging, landed me at Beckenham Road Tram Stop at 6:45am, headed for East Croydon.
The Tramlink in South London began operating in 2000 in response to the fact that people living south of the river are woefully underserved by the Underground network. It trundles along old rail lines and down streets occasionally making curb-side stops at places like ‘Avenue Road’, ‘Church Street’ and ‘Arena’, which sounds far grander than it actually is. But for £1.65 it will get you to East Croydon where you can take a 10-minute train (£5.90) to Gatwick Airport – or as the crow flies, 25 miles in the wrong direction to where I was headed.
When I first saw the train prices to Barrow I’d explored a number of different routes, from a flight to the Isle of Man and a ferry to Morecambe to flights to Glasgow and Edinburgh, but one route actually made sense. I figured out that by taking a £10 flight to Dublin and then a subsequent £9 flight from Dublin to Manchester Airport, I could board a direct train from there for £6.50 that, though going around the houses, would drop me in Barrow an hour before the game.
After breakfast in Gatwick (a Miner’s Benedict of black pudding, hollandaise sauce and a poached egg on a muffin) I set out on an hour’s flight to Dublin. A short layover of two hours in Ireland gave me enough time to polish off a couple of pints of Guinness before we made the quick jump to Manchester over the Irish Sea on a flight that was landing no sooner than it had taken off (but still allowing enough time to distribute tins of Magners to the Liverpool faithful heading over for that evening’s Champions League fixture).
The slow and meandering train from Manchester Airport up the west coast tested my resolve, but by that point my trip had caught the attention of a few people on Twitter, with word getting to a few local news outlets, including Sky Sports reporter Neil Mellor who graciously offered to give me a lift at one point. I turned down his offer but nevertheless agreed to meet him for a pre-match chat on camera.
It was at this point that things turned a little ridiculous. At the end of the interview, Gary McSheffrey and Steve Eyre both walked over and thanked me for my support, asking whether I would like to give a pre-match pep talk to the players and walk them through the journey up. So, with about 45 minutes to go until kick-off, and 12 hours after I’d set off from home, I found myself standing in the away team dressing room addressing Lee Tomlin, Ro-Shaun Williams and the like in the most inspirational fashion I could muster.
In the end we lost convincingly, and I don’t think I’ll ever be invited back into the dressing room. But hey, it wasn’t your everyday match experience, and I saved a few bob in the process. And the pies. Oh, the pies. They were worth the trip on their own.
by Jack Peat
This article first appeared in print in issue 110 of popular STAND fanzine, published in November 2022