MEN reporter Mike Keegan joins the Oldham Athletic team bus for a trip to Gillingham – Mike Keegan
It’s not the perfect start. We’re not even on Broadway and a voice comes from the bottom of the bus – “we don’t have the butt.”
Graeme Hall, our wise 53-year-old driver, expertly turns it around and heads back to Boundary Park.
This is the stuff of my childhood dreams. For just one game, I managed to convince President Simon Corney to let me go to the Oldham game at Gillingham on the team bus.
The joke begins almost immediately after the second start.
Deputy manager Paul Murray, in his trailing Cumbrian accent, teases general manager Neil Joy, who has yet to offer his candy.
“You could peel an orange in your pocket,” he told her.
Ten minutes after starting the 260 mile hike there is another hitch. Australian midfielder True Blue James Wesolowski, a jovial and aggressive midfielder, is generally outspoken. “G-man,” he said to our Graeme. “There is no toilet roll.”
Another unscheduled stop – this time at the Knutsford gas station – for the Sydneysider to mind its business. Welcome to the glamorous world of League One football.
The coach is quite impressive. Blackout windows, kitchen to the rear and plenty of space. The players settle down. Many are gathered around Wesolowski’s table and New Moston center-half James Tarkowski. They try to guide Saturday’s opponents to glory on Football Manager, a time-consuming computer game that kills marriage.
In front of them, winger James Dayton and striker Adam Rooney ridicule their attempts.
“They are unnecessary,” Dayton says. “They have already been made redundant at Mansfield and Kidderminster. “
Wesolowski intervenes immediately, his face like a wounded koala. “No,” he said. “We quit at Kidderminster because we promoted them and they cut the payroll. It was a matter of principle. “
Just as he says Tarkowski is moaning. “The guard has been sent off again.
Footballers love coffee. When we stop at Watford Gap almost everyone is heading towards Costa. Back in the bus, there are brown cuts everywhere.
Despite the previous hiccups, it quickly becomes apparent that this is a professional operation. Each player is given a small brown bag which contains a lunch basket approved by my management.
Five and a half hours after leaving Oldham, we arrive at the Gallagher Compact Stadium, home of Maidstone United. There, manager Lee Johnson puts his players to the test and snatches teenage QPR winger Mike Petrasso on a month-long loan.
Petrasso has been recruited to replace injured Cristian Montano but I am not allowed to tweet about it as it could alert the opposition and allow them to prepare for it.
At the nearby village hotel where there are sarcastic moans as players are told who they will be sharing their rooms with.
Before dinner, Petrasso has to stand on a chair and sing a song as part of an initiation ritual. He’s prepared and fights bravely through Chris Brown’s With You.
As players make their way to their halls, Lee Johnson and his backstage team take a seat in front of a TV showing Johnson’s father, Yeovil, taking on Doncaster Rovers. They lose 2-1. “It won’t do the legacy fund for nothing,” Johnson jokes, before hitting the sack.
Before leaving for the field on Saturday, there is an analysis meeting.
Johnson reviews highlights from Gillingham’s recent games. “They’re in good shape, but they’re not mobile,” he says. “Let’s take a tour of them. Planning is meticulous. The manager ends with “It’s a game we will win if we are at our best. Let’s come back to this coach with three points.
In a noisy Priestfield stadium, everything went according to plan thanks to a neat header from Petrasso in the second half who, exhausted after his first league start, was replaced moments later.
The late sacking of Swiss defender giant Genseric Kasunga, who had the audacity to push Gills forward Danny Kedwell in the chest after being smashed head-first in billboards, fails to shine three points well deserved.
Back in the bus, the pizzas are waiting for you. A quiz, hosted by yours truly, seems to be going well, although there are complaints when Joy and director Ian Hill take the top prize.
Back in Watford Gap, some players look longingly at the Pick ‘n Mix section. Johnson lurks in the background. “Everything in moderation,” fitness coach Lee Steele told young forward Jonson Clarke-Harris.
It never stops.
Graeme has set a deadline of 11pm to get us home in time for the Carl Froch / George Groves fight.
In the back, Wesolowski and Tarkowski are cheerful – somehow they managed to reverse Gillingham’s fortune on the simulation. “13 points ahead, Keegs,” said Tarkowski as he approached Boundary Park. “We are promoted.
Based on the evidence presented to me on this trip, their IT team might not be the only one going up at the end of the season.