ONE OF the rituals of my football-watching lifetime has been the post-match fish and chips, a prerequisite before getting the train home on an away trip. Sometimes it would work out well, but on other occasions, it has been an ordeal. I particularly recall trudging round Burnley looking for a chippie and ending up grabbing a bite at the Asda café – we obviously took the wrong turn out of Turf Moor. Current eating habits can make it difficult to get simple old cod and chips with a side of mushy peas.
Nobody would pretend that matchday culinary fare is high-end, but we have come a long way from those old rubbery burgers served from a heated mobile stall that got colder as the day went on. What was in them is anyone’s guess, but they were more suitable to sole your worn-out shoe. With better, more palatable food has come higher prices, but one might suggest that football stadium food is an almighty rip-off.
When I was involved with my local non-league club, I suggested we introduce vegetarian burgers. It went down pretty well and earned a mention on BBC Radio’s Bob Hat and Rattle. That was back in 1993, so I think we were ahead of the curve by some distance. Forest Green Rovers have taken food responsibility to a new level.
Back to those matchdays, you would think that a trip to a seaside stadium would almost guarantee decent fish and chips. Blackpool, for example, is full of chippies, some with memorable names, but one I have always remembered is “The Frying Squad”, which, I am glad to say, is still there.
Sometimes, you come across unusual combinations. Visiting Newcastle in 1997, I saw “Cheese Patties” on the menu. I asked, quite innocently, what a cheese patty was. “It’s a cheese patty, man,” came the reply from a tall Geordie who looked like Jimmy Nail. Oh well, I asked. Then there was gravy on chips, which back in the 1980s was almost unknown south of Watford.
But certain regional characteristics can prevent you from buying a common or garden portion of cod and chips. In Grimsby, for example, we went into our post-match chip shop and asked for cod and chips twice. The response was almost indignant: “Cod!, Cod!… we only have haddock. No call for cod here.” Little wonder that Grimsby Town once had their “Harry the Haddock” mascots.
Today, of course, the old ritual has been modernised. No longer do we eat fish and chips from a newspaper, a practice that was mythologised by TV, the media and folklore. Actually, we never actually ate out of newspaper, the food was wrapped in white paper and then newspaper was used to protect you from the grease and to keep them warm. Now, with nobody buying newspapers anymore and food hygiene at a higher level than it was in the past, special cartons invariably contain your grub. People may get nostalgic about ragamuffins walking the street eating their fish suppers out of the local newspaper, but we’ve moved on.
It’s not just about fish and chips, though. There’s nothing fans enjoy more than a trip to the coast, usually interpreting the day as a bit of a beano, plenty of beer, fish and chips and seafood and the odd “Kiss me Quick” hat. I’m not just talking about big time football, there’s a ripple of excitement when the FA Cup or FA Trophy hands a non-league team a day at the seaside. I recall a game at Lewes (long before they became the progressive outfit of today), when we hired a double-decker bus and included a few hours in Brighton on the agenda.
But the old working class staple of fish and chips now has a lot of competition. For starters, fish is no longer cheap and secondly, the produce is not as easy to eat on the hoof like a burger. They’ve tried to make it more portable but you really need cutlery and a place to perch.
As FW readers will know, food across continental Europe is treated quite differently inside football stadiums. I have been amazed at the sheer variety at some grounds, and the cost. Visiting Bayern Munich last year, I was impressed by just how much food and drink is consumed by fans all through the game. It’s part of the matchday experience. And can you beat a German sausage as a pre-match snack in the Bundesliga or the Patatas bravas at a Spanish arena?
And an afternoon at the seaside? Right now, wouldn’t we all just like to have the option? It may not be the golden age of those coastal resorts so favoured by Victorians or cloth-capped east enders on a day out, but I wouldn’t even mind a glimpse over the sea wall at Canvey Island and wonder what’s out there in the estuary…
This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine, reproduced with permission