Match of the Noughties: 2002 – Luton 0 Macclesfield 0

HOW attractive does a female stranger (or a male one, if you prefer men) have to be before she (or he) can describe in vivid detail the violent bits in American Psycho without freaking you out? I had plenty of time to ponder that question during the most nightmarish journey home from a football match I have ever had.

You may have seen the film Clockwise, in which John Cleese puts on a few of his Basil Fawlty mannerisms to play an over-officious headmaster who is supposed to be travelling to a conference in Norwich, gets on the wrong train and then sees his orderly world slowly unwind with every desperate attempt to rescue himself.

After taking nine hours to get from Luton to Manchester – roughly as long as it takes to get from London to Venezuela – I was beginning to understand how Cleese’s character might have felt.

I’d travelled south by train to cover Luton’s match against Macclesfield at Kenilworth Road in April 2002. By that stage, I’d been sports editor of the Macclesfield Express for a little over three months, and to be honest, I was struggling.

With hindsight, it was a job that I wasn’t mature enough to handle. I was putting myself under a lot of pressure to do the job well, working daft hours and getting incredibly stressed on a weekly basis.

It wasn’t a particularly happy year for me, as it turned out. While a couple of the reasons for that were external (my grandfather died in the April, and I was involved in a serious car accident in the October), most were internal (I turned 25 in 2002, and while I’m sure there are people who have galloped through their mid-twenties in a state of joyful abandon, I wasn’t one of them).

In other words, I probably wasn’t in the best state to be dealing with, say, an expletive-filled email from a disgruntled reader demanding to know why I hadn’t given the bowling league tables more prominence. Now, it would be water off a duck’s back. Then, I felt as if I was drowning.

The main part of my job involved covering Macclesfield Town, who were experiencing a turbulent phase. The club’s chairman was forced to resign five weeks after I’d started, and the boardroom kerfuffles that followed lasted through the spring and summer, into the early autumn. All of that was overshadowed in November 2002, when midfielder Chris Byrne was shot in the leg near his Manchester home, ending his career.

Byrne had been a brilliant player, good enough to earn a move to Sunderland at a time when they were challenging for promotion to the Premier League. But he had a tendency to get into trouble off the field, and that undoubtedly prevented him from establishing himself at a higher level.

He had won his move to Sunderland after helping get Macclesfield promoted to the Football League in 1997. After a few twists and turns, he returned to the Moss Rose four years later and played a key part in keeping the Silkmen in the league after a ropey start to the 2001/02 season.

By the time Macc arrived at Kenilworth Road, they were comfortably safe from relegation, while Luton had already secured promotion, and were battling it out with Plymouth for the Third Division title.

It was not a great game, memorable only for Luton striker Steve Kabba somehow heading over an open goal from three yards in the closing stages.

And then my fun began. After interviewing Macclesfield manager David Moss, I phoned through my match report for the Manchester Evening News Sunday Pink. This meant I was a little late getting to Luton station to catch my train home, but I didn’t think anything of it – until I got to Nottingham.

At Nottingham, I was supposed to change to get a connecting train to Manchester. But the last one had gone.

So how would I get home now?

I saw I could still get to Sheffield, from where I knew I’d be able get a later train home. There were only two problems: 1) I’d have to wait in Nottingham for an hour; 2) Even then, there were no direct trains from Nottingham to Sheffield. So I got one train from Nottingham to Derby, and then another from Derby to Sheffield.

Problem solved? Er, not quite.

I got to Sheffield at around 10.15pm, more than four hours after leaving Luton. I raced up the platform to find the time of the last train back to Manchester. It left at 10.15pm.

I looked around to see that train pulling away from the station, and let out a howl of despair.

Had I been thinking straight, I would have walked the short distance into Sheffield city centre and booked myself into a hotel for the night. But I wasn’t thinking straight. And besides, the guard on the train up from Derby had taken pity on me.

“If you get back on this train lad, it carries on up to Leeds, and you’ll be able to get a later train from there,” he said. So I did.

What I didn’t know was that Leeds station was being rebuilt, and that most of their late trains had been replaced by bus services.

I must have spent an hour-and-a-half in Leeds, by which time it was getting on for midnight. As I was about to board the bus to Manchester, I got chatting to an attractive female student, who sat next to me for the journey.

I managed to avoid boring her to tears with talk of Third Division football, largely because she spent most of the journey telling me all about American Psycho, to the point where even her attractiveness couldn’t stop me from feeling uneasy.

By the time we reached Manchester, I was also feeling very tired. It was 2am, and I had been travelling for eight hours. As we got off the bus, the student gave me her address, and told me to drop by if I was ever in the area. I never did.

The Saturday night clubbers were now spilling on to the streets. And so there was not a taxi to be had anywhere. And that meant I had to get another bus back to my houseshare a few miles away.

As the bus crawled up Oxford Road, bursting at the seams with drunks, students and drunk students, stopping every few yards for reasons I couldn’t understand, I thought to myself: “I am never, ever, ever going to get home.”

I stumbled through my front door at 3.15am, more than nine hours after setting off, having set a new record for the slowest journey ever from Luton to Manchester. When I picked up the Sunday Pink much later that morning, they had managed to misspell my name on the match report.

From that day onwards, whenever anyone suggests I take the train to a football match, I smile weakly and change the subject.

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