— Fine, two pints of Champagne then and a Champagne top for the lady.
Fuck yeah, we’re on the road with the Pink and Blue Army of the Isthmian Premier League – the swaggering dandies of non-League football, Dulwich Hamlet FC – and we’ve splashed out on the high speed train (slogan: ‘Feel like a god, until Ashford’).
Our destination: Margate, in deep mid-winter.
— A fixture to really separate the men from the boys.
— Like Operation Yewtree.
— As soon as I saw the fixture list I thought, I’m having some of that.
— I bought a calendar a month early just so I could put a ring round the 17th of Jan.
We pick up more Pink and Blues at the ticket office and load up on coffees, beer and stale bagels from Patisserie Valerie.
— Isn’t there a trolley on the train?
— Too dangerous. If you try to make instant coffee on a high speed train you can go back in time.
East London sweeps by: Gas holders, pylons, flashes of water; life in the brownfield. Stratford, Dagenham, Rainham and the QEII Bridge.
— Remember that time driving home from Canvey Island?
— Do I, the Barking Triangle?
— There we were, in North London, went through a tunnel under the Thames and came up in…
— North London.
— Can you imagine? Caught in an eternal North London loop.
— It’s noon, give me a beer.
— It could have been the Limehouse Link?
— Yeah, it’s a tunnel, but it doesn’t go under the river. It has the world’s only underground roundabout. They call it… The Undergroundabout.
A message comes through from other supporters on the Victoria train: Are you excited about the fast train? Yes, we were excited, we say, but we’ve just opened beer and now we’re excited by that instead.
— This is my first time on HS2.
— I don’t think so. This is HS1.
— Oh, why must you always pick hairs?
I could say it’s ‘split hairs’, but maybe that’s a bit mean.
— It’s ‘split hairs’, actually.
— Fuck off.
Faster than a speeding bullet to Ashford, the train slows after Canterbury and comes to a standstill shortly thereafter, next to a flooded field. The driver says:
— We’ll be stopping here for ten minutes.
— While we prepare the pony and trap.
— Didn’t mention this on the app.
— What app?
— I use Route Wanker.
The train crawls in to Ramsgate station.
— One of the finest examples of the neo-classical style in southern England.
— No, it’s true.
The train slows again. At this rate we’ll be beaten by the stopper. This country. Finally:
— We’re here!
— Oh, I thought it was taking a while.
The Harbour Arms
Out of the station, the wind bites and the smell of the seaweed at low tide sets off a flow of Margate associations.
It’s Only Fools and Horses, it’s fish ’n’ chips, it’s Chas & Dave, it’s Last Orders, it’s mods and rockers, it’s the Turner Contemporary, It’s I Never Stopped Loving You, It’s Dreamland, it’s cockles and mussels…
— ‘We’ll go on the pier and we’ll have a beer aside of the sea’. Chas and Dave, that is.
— I’m not sure this strictly counts as off-shore, though.
— No, it’s more a rigid superstructure conjoined to the land.
— Thanks, Partridge.
As we arrive, the sun comes out over the harbour waters. Inside, the tiny, warm bar is filled with more Hamlet supporters.
— Oh my God, it’s paradise.
— I hope they don’t mind us taking it over.
— I hope you don’t mind us taking it over.
— Everyone’s welcome, thanks for coming!
The Old School Brewery Textbook blonde ale is fresh and delicious, a straw-coloured session beer that reminds you immediately how wonderful you are. We carry our drinks outside to take in the view back across the harbour. Now the supporters’ coach has arrived and more Pink ‘n’ Blues arrive on the harbour arm.
— You seem strangely sober, Michael.
— Yeah, someone gave me bad beer. Took me an hour to drink it. I’ve got a bottle of Scotch in my bag, though.
— Good man.
A sudden squall sends us scurrying inside, reminding us that it’s January with a blast of wind and sleet. A local says:
— The vintage roller-coaster in Dreamland blew over the other day, you know.
— That’s listed isn’t it?
— It was. Now it’s listing.
— Get that man a drink.
— I hope it doesn’t rain, I’ve got holes in my shoes.
— Pick up some new ones in Primark.
— I’ve not bought anything new since 2010.
— Come on, we’ve got to get to The Lifeboat.
— Man The Lifeboat!
And we made a dash for the Old Town.
Did The Lifeboat, in the middle of the Old Town, kickstart the Margate revival, or was that down to the Turner? Let the historians decide, we’re too excited. The Lifeboat is overflowing with yet more Hamlet fans on their South Londoner’s seaside jolly.
— The Lifeboat’s full!
— Women and children first!
We stand outside, next to the owner’s 4×4, parked jauntily across the double yellows.
— What are you drinking?
— Cider. I’m banned from wine.
— It makes her clumsy.
— No, I’m naturally clumsy. If anything, wine helps. My grandad said I’d trip over the pattern on the carpet.
— Uh-oh, I just had my first twinge of nerves.
— Ah, PMT. Pre-match tension.
— We’ll win today. The boys love it down here.
— What’s that in your pocket?
— My wife’s knickers.
— Not that pocket, the other one.
— Oh, a tin of lager.
— And not just any lager, Marks and Sparks lager.
— Don’t tell Vice magazine, for fuck’s sake.
A man approaches the pavement throng.
— Are you Dulwich? I had trials for Dulwich. I’m from South London. Look at my tattoo. Welcome to Margate. You’ll love it up there. Great bar. Good luck, good luck.
— If I don’t eat something I’m going to keel over.
— The best chippy in Thanet is round the corner.
— Saithe or cod? Cod’s ten minutes.
— Saithe, then, please.
— What is saithe?
— Is it a type of sea snake?
— Oh, Christ. I’m never leaving London again.
— Hurry up, I’ve ordered a cab to the ground.
— How much do I owe you for the taxi?
— 90p? Bloody hell. We’ll take it to London after, shall we?
And we’re through the turnstile and into ‘Moneybags Margate’. They may have a new owner and big plans, but it still smells reassuringly of tea, turf and trans fats.
In nets for Margate, Nikki Bull, who has rejoined his old manager, Terry Brown. Together they did much to aid Aldershot’s ascent to the Football League. From kick-off the Hamlet fans’ singing starts, punctuated only by the odd call out to Nikki, who is rumoured to be on good money.
— Nikki, are your shirts spun in silver and gold?
— Have you got servants, Nikki? Or at least a cleaner?
A positive Hamlet opening is topped off with a shimmy from Ashley Carew, a whipped cross and a thump into the net by Nyren Clunis. 1-0 to the Hamlet!
— He’s blue and pink, he’s pink and blue, you ain’t seen nothing like the Ash Carew!
— Makes Messi look shite, makes Messi look shite, Nyren Clunis, makes Messi look shite!
— Nikki, you’ve dropped a £50 note!
A brilliant double save by Hamlet goalkeeper, Phil Wilson.
— Don’t you wish your keeper was Phil Wilson, don’t you wish your keeper was Phil Wilson, don’tchaaaah…
— I sometimes forget to say ‘keeper’ in that song and say ‘girlfriend’ instead.
— He’s such a nice bloke he probably would be your girlfriend if you asked him nicely.
Margate level on the half-hour, but the mood remains buoyant in the club-house queue at half-time.
— Did you see that article which said we’re ironic?
— What fucker said that?
— I know. When I call the opposition captain a cunt, it’s not ironic. It’s because I truly believe him to be one, based on all the available evidence.
— When we sing, ‘Hang the lino, hang the lino’, I would actually be the first one to prepare the gallows, if it were permissible under Ryman League rules.
— Seven pints of lager, please.
— And a bottle of house white. Have you got a straw?
Margate fans are hanging outside the toilets.
— Sorry, these toilets are for home fans only.
— Good luck in the play-offs.
— Ha! Very good. Good luck to you in the play-offs!
The second half is starting. We take our drinks down to the other end, behind the goal.
— Nikki, do you get carried around in a sedan chair, Nikki?
— Nikki, do you, Nikki?
Then it happens. A free kick from 30 yards, Ethan Pinnock rises like Ged the Giraffe and the ball is beyond Nikki and into the net. Pandemonium erupts, beer is spilled, dancing ensues and songs are mightily sung.
As the light fades, Margate try to get back into the game but the Dulwich back line holds firm and the referee is given every encouragement to protect our midfield.
— Referee, he climbed him like a fucking ladder!
— He’s not a piece of DIY equipment, referee, he’s a very gifted midfielder!
At full time, pink and blue streamers fly across the night sky, confetti fills the air. Jubilation in the club-house, where we warm up and congratulate the players.
— This day is straight into the top ten days of my life.
— And it’s only 5 o’clock.
— Where to now?
Ales of the Unexpected
Another micropub, of course, this one in a former fishmongers on the way back into town: Ales of the Unexpected. Owner, Carl, provides another warm welcome and plenty of Attwells’ Hoodeners, brewed just down the road in St Nicholas at Wade. A sign reads: Soup of the Day is Real Ale.
The locals are friendly and curious.
— Why are you wearing the colours of Westminster school?
— It’s Dulwich Hamlet.
— Is that by Shakespeare?
— No, it’s by Sainsbury’s.
Somehow, we manage a fourth micropub, Westgate’s Bake and Alehouse, before catching the 9pm train back to town. On board, a new song strikes up:
— We are the cross-dressing dandies, we are the cross-dressing dandies!
— Blimey, are we? Maybe I do have a chance with Phil.
— Let’s get high on this Marks and Sparks lager.
— Oh South London, is wonderful, oh South London is wonderful, it’s full of bear-baiting and the Dulwich, oh South London is wonderful!
— Must be the best awayday ever.
— They all are, aren’t they, though.
— Please God, Margate and Dulwich Hamlet are forever in the same division.
— Amen to that.
The ballers, the drinkers, the misfits, the screamers. The students, the grey-beards, the shy and the dreamers. We went down to Margate for the beautiful game and came back to London not quite the same.