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Missing: The Pieman 1/25/24




We’ve completed five seasons of high school football here at CPHC, and I’ve mostly been focused on being able to complete the entire 250-school gauntlet.  We must be about 1/5 of the way through the list, but they keep opening new schools all the time, so I don’t know if we’ll ever reach the end.  Until recently I’d never given much thought to what would happen if we didn’t get to the finish line, but now I’m beginning to wonder what that would be like.

 

You may not be missing The Pieman, but I sure am, and I bet I’m not the only one.  If you’re not familiar with him, his introduction should include the fact that, though I’ve never met him, I completely ripped off his idea.  When I was first encouraged to write about something, I couldn’t imagine what that thing could be.  But I had a favorite blog writer and eventually I convinced myself I could just do what he did, so I stole his idea.  His style is much different than mine, but I took his template, personalized it a little, and I was in business.  My blog idea came from that great old groundhopper, The Pieman, and I guess it’s past time that I own up.


According to a wise man on the internet, “This phenomenon (groundhopping), born in the UK since the 80s, is totally different from tifo, (conspicuous support of your favorite team).  It is something distinct that is more related to cultural diversity, the stadium atmosphere and love for architecture.”  I’d say that’s about right, but I’d also add something about going places you’ve never gone before, or seeing with new eyes places you have seen, possibly many times.  And people-watching.  And seeing each community’s different interpretation of a common event.  If you only have a few hours, I don’t know if there’s a better way to plug into a sense of place better than groundhopping.


As a groundhopper, (not to be confused with a grasshopper), The Pieman has been journeying to different soccer stadiums for decades, and as a blogger, his Pie and Mushy Peas site is always entertaining.  He always begins with the historical background of whatever place he happens to be visiting.  As an Englishman, this sometimes requires him to look hundreds, or even a few thousand, years into the past.  He talks about the geography and the geology, the industrial history, and the community’s place in the larger society.  He informs us of the high and low points in each club’s history, and of their current standing in relation to the football leagues.  He tells about the food and drink he either finds near the stadium or the refreshments he has while there, and usually ends with a short recap of the match. Sound at least a little familiar?



He most often takes a train to games, but he’s been known to take buses or catch a ride with a friend who happens to be going his way.  I don’t know The Pieman’s real name, but I have deduced that he lives somewhere in north London, and according to his official statistics he’s visited 791 different soccer grounds and attended 3938 total matches, including more than 1,000 featuring his beloved Tottenham Hotspurs.  Many of those games, of course, occurred well before there was any internet or people calling themselves bloggers, and for most of those games he has written accounts of the games retroactively.  At first you may question how he could possibly remember the details from his trip to Bolton in November of 1977, but he’s got the ticket stubs and match programs to prove he was there, so I assume he kept a diary until such time as he transferred all of his entries onto his blog.

Fatty Foulke

I don’t even know how he got his name, but I assume it has something to do with meat pies being the preferred mid-game treat for British soccer fans.  They’re warm, and they’re kind of self-contained, and fans like to chant about them during the games.  “Who ate all the pies?” is a common one, rumored to have begun when Sheffield United fans sang it to their own goalkeeper, William “Fatty” Foulke, who weighed over 300 lbs.  It was also sung for Newcastle forward Micky Quinn after, during a match in 1992, a Grimsby Town fan threw a pie onto the pitch which Quinn promptly picked up and ate. 


There’s even at least one site dedicated to rating the pies at each stadium, and though Arsenal came in sixth, somehow they still managed to finish behind Manchester City, even in a pie contest.  For the best pie you have to go to Morecambe, so I’ll probably never have the chance to taste one.


I’d like to have been to over 700 stadiums, but my real envy of The Pieman comes from the fact that nobody thinks he’s a complete madman.  Groundhoppers are common in other parts of the world, and thousands of Brits and Europeans spend their free time and money crossing grounds off their list.  Pie and Mushy Peas is only my favorite of many groundhopper sites, and it’s generally accepted as a legitimate endeavor in countries that aren’t the U.S.  In particular, The 92 Club is the most prestigious group of groundhoppers out there.  To become a member, you just have to visit each of the 92 grounds in the English Football League.  They have a handy tracker where you can mark the places you’ve been, and it calculates how many of the 19,410 miles you still have left to travel before you’re done.  Of the over 170,000 registered participants, there are 203 who have completed the full 92.  In fact, one member of the club did the 92 in one season, eating a pie at each ground, and wrote a book about it:  92 Pies.


As I mentioned, we’ve been through five seasons now of traveling around in our quest to visit the home fields of every high school football team in Oregon, and during that time I’ve had remarkably few people tell me what a great idea it is.  It’s always interesting when someone asks for an explanation for why I’m unavailable for other activities on a Friday night during football season, as I try to make excuses without really admitting the true cause of my scheduling conflict.  It usually goes something like this:


So, what are you doing that’s so important that you can’t make it to ________?

Well, I have a football game to go to.

Oh.  But they don’t start until 7:00 or so, right, so you should be able to stop by before then.

Actually, the game’s out of town so I’ll need to leave early in the afternoon.

I see.  Where’s the game?

It’s in _________.

Why would your son be playing in __________?

My son’s not actually on the team.

I get it.  A nephew? A cousin?

Not really.  I don’t know anybody on the team.

So, the person you know is on the other team?

No.  I won’t know anybody on either team.  It’s just a hobby.  I drive around going to football games in random places.


This is when it gets really good, as most people are too polite to tell me what they’re really thinking.  But you can tell:


Oh, wow!  That’s…  That’s…  Well, that certainly sounds interesting!  How…  How… interesting!  And… Fun!  That must be very... interesting and... fun!


I’m not the only one, though.  I did find a guy on the internet named Glen Wilson who gives this account of his experiences that I can relate to:


I ought to feel pride. But if anything, what waves over me instead is nearer embarrassment.


Because it’s not cool. …  I could have spent all those Saturdays mastering a musical instrument, learning a new language, maybe two. I could’ve travelled; to new countries rather than new leagues. Imagine how interesting I could’ve been! How many of the world’s great raconteurs have anecdotes that hinge on a knowledge of the Southern Counties East Football League Division One?


Twice watching Llannefydd I was asked if I was with the home or away team – by different people.  I’m not deliberately belligerent, and I responded “neither” with a wince, because it can’t be sidestepped. “Neither” in this context elicits either a look of surprise or an open judgement of your moral compass, usually followed by the not unreasonable question, “then why are you here?” One freezing February day at Holmesdale I was even asked this by an assistant referee, mid-game.  Imagine having how you spend your Saturday afternoons questioned by a tenth-tier linesman.


Not everyone asks “why?”.  Some reach straight for the “G” word, and I find that harder. I’ve nothing against groundhoppers, I’ve met plenty.  Some of my best friends are groundhoppers. I just don’t consider myself one. I’m merely a man who happens to like visiting different football grounds, on his own, whilst documenting them on an app. And yet, people continue to want to label me a groundhopper; a spurious assumption based on nothing more than all the evidence available to them.  I used to kid myself I don’t look like a groundhopper, but a trip to watch Sevenoaks Town ended that. Four other people alighted at the same station and I recognised them all as groundhoppers. Solitary men, each carrying a bag, each pausing to check the local map or train departure times before plodding up the hill. But any superiority I felt ended seconds later as I caught my reflection in a car windscreen and, like Samuel Beckett in Quantum Leap, was bludgeoned with the stark reality of my appearance; I was unmistakably the quartet’s fifth member.  


Soccer, practically a year-round sport, lends itself to groundhopping in a way that American football just doesn’t.  I’ve never discovered what The Pieman does, or did, for a living, but money doesn’t appear to be a limiting factor in his groundhopping schedule, and for anyone with enough money and time, there are few days throughout the year when there isn’t a soccer game going on somewhere within a reasonable distance.  There are literally thousands of soccer fields in England where you can watch a professional or club team play their home games.  Another guy on the internet, Tony Incenzo, brags that “One of the best groundhops was being part of a world record in March 2004. I joined 250 other groundhoppers to watch five matches at five different football grounds in one day in the Central Midlands League."


Days like that just aren’t possible with Oregon high school football.  The season is only three months long, and there are approximately 250 schools spread widely in a state twice the size of England.  If I can make it to 10-12 games each season I consider that a success, whereas it’s possible to complete the entire 92 in a single season, if you’ve got the time, money, and no spouse.


So, according to his official statistics, The Pieman has been able to visit all of those 791 different grounds.  But from all appearances he won’t be adding to that total.  He attended a game in Cirencester on November 26, 2022, and that was his last entry.  Prior to that, he would sometimes take a week or two off without posting anything.  Once or twice he was gone for a month or more and I wondered if he’d be back, but he always was.  But not this time.  If he is just taking an extended break from his travels I would hope that he’d post something to let us know not to expect anything for a while, but he hasn’t.  I’ve tried to contact The Pieman at the email address listed on his site, but those messages have been returned as undeliverable.  And it’s been over a year now, so, I guess he’s just… gone.

 

I hadn’t thought about what would happen if I was just… gone.  I suppose stuff on the internet just stays there forever, right?   It’s kind of nice to think The Pieman left something more permanent than he was, but it’s also kind of weird that his blog is just sitting there, incomplete, with no final episode; no sign-off to tie up loose ends and say goodbye.  He didn’t ever include much personal information, so I’ll always wonder who he was and why and how he did what he did.


I don’t really have any readers or listeners outside of my family and a few close friends, and they would likely be aware if something ever happens to me.  But this has got me thinking that maybe I should include some instructions in my will.  Along with finally getting her hands on my vast personal fortune, Mrs. Ednold will receive my password so she can come in here and let you all know not to expect any more of these things, probably to the relief of some. 


I miss you, Pieman, wherever you are.  Thanks for letting me steal your idea.

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