The day gets off to a decent enough start – waiting at Euston for the train to be called, we make some bloke’s morning by letting him know England have beaten Scotland in the rugby. Jenny, Joy and I have a last-minute travelling companion in the shape of Clarkey, who’s probably put himself right in the dog house by coming to the game but doesn’t seem too bothered about it. As we wander down the platform in search of our reserved seats, Joy notices a squashed bird still stuck on the train’s engine. What is it with us and splattered wildlife this season?
We’re supposed to be meeting my brother at Crewe station, but his texts inform me the train he’s on has had to push another one whose engine has failed, and he’s running late from Birmingham. Chris Kirkland is also delayed, having had to wait for forty minutes or so to collect his ticket at Sheffield station. Chris Burrows has made it over from Manchester without any difficulties, and it seems Robert’s actually going to make the connection to Longport, as the train’s been pushed back to let the one he’s on come through first – right up until the moment when they decide the Crewe train has priority. Luckily, as soon as he gets to the bus stop outside the station the bus to Burslem pulls in, so he won’t be too far behind us.
Already, the day is freakily hot, and it’s all uphill from Longport station, so by the time we arrive at the Bull’s Head, we’re in need of a drink. It’s more than warm enough to sit outside – where, as ever, the barbeque is already in full spate, turning out burgers, hot dogs and bacon rolls. Of course Ted simply has to be informed that you can have the option of black pudding with your burger.
Robert eventually joins us, as does Chris K, and we all sit basking in the Staffordshire sunshine. One of the Port Vale fans drinking at a neighbouring table wanders over, but instead of discussing prospects for this afternoon’s game, he treats us to his surreal, vaguely Marxist stand-up comedy routine about football. As you do...
While we’re putting up the flag behind the goal, Boomer the Port Vale mascot wanders over and starts rubbing his furry thighs in a Vic Reeves stylee. I blow him a kiss in return, and before you know it, I’m being hugged by a six-foot squashy dog. Fortunately, no one is able to whip out a camera quickly enough to record the start of this beautiful friendship for posterity.
The defence has been rejigged again, with Michael Raynes, who we later find out has been ill all night and probably shouldn’t be playing, and Johnny Mullins as the centre backs and Troy Brown at right back, and unfortunately the result is decided by two defensive mistakes. Port Vale’s first goal comes from a Marc Richards free-kick which Logan only fumbles as he tries to save it, and the second is as a result of the defence in front of Logan going AWOL, leaving Richards with a one-on-on that he doesn’t miss. Tom Pope, who’s been on the end of some pretty ugly chants from the Rotherham support, provides the assist for the goal, which only goes to show what happens when you dish out the nasty stuff to a former player.
After that, we try everything we can to get back in the game, but it doesn’t happen. Tonge comes on for Brown at the start of the second half, and starts linking up well with the players in front of him. We actually have the ball in the net a couple of minutes into the second half, but it’s disallowed because Grabban is ruled offside. Apart from that, our best chance comes right at the end of the half, when Newey puts in a fine ball from a corner for Mullins to head home, but it’s saved.
The only thing to do is go back to the Bull’s Head – Robert pointing out the Guest and Chrimes hydrant cover in the square by the pub, a little bit of Burslem that is forever Rotherham – and drown our sorrows.
On the train back to London, Joy and I find ourselves perusing the match programme. We can’t decide whether one of the sponsors pictured posing with Marc Richards after their last home game is actually a pre-op tranny or just this year’s winner of the tallest woman in Europe contest. It’s amazing what you think of to pass the time on the way home. But at least we now know that, unlike pressed rats, dead birds are not an omen.
We have to wait ages for a tube out of Euston Square, the delay caused by some vomit-related incident which must have been of Exorcist proportions if it forced a whole train to be taken out of service. Ted eventually gets on at Kings Cross and we have the fun of watching a couple of lads trying – and failing conspicuously – to chat up a girl from Darlington. Blame it on the heat...