Originally written for a publication on ‘funny / strange / good / bad encounters with footballers’…
On a Sunday night in December about three years ago, my flatmate and I bumped into a whole host of Premier League footballers down the local pub. We only went there for some Sunday dinner, but little did we realise the spectacle that awaited.
Friends from school back in Blackburn, we’d recently moved into a two-bed, ex-council flat in South London and were not well-acquainted with the local area. Brim full of a dreary hangover, and after watching Aston Villa and Leicester City desperately struggle to live up to a much-billed Super Sunday, it was finally tea time.
A quick Google search pointed us towards a local pub just around the corner – a quaint little joint right on the river, with an open fire and a menu tailored towards roast lamb, chicken or beef. Just the ticket.
As we pottered towards the pub, we could see the blue spinning lights of an ambulance in the distance. Closer still, a drunk bloke talking to a bouncer. It was Jason Puncheon, inadvertently swaying to the beat of the heavy bass from inside the pub, like a buoy on choppy waters.
We could just make out Steven Caulker, who was standing alongside both men. My mate and I were dumbfounded, but we shrugged it off and headed through the packed-out smoking area and into the side entrance.
Pop-dance music blared out of elevated Bose speakers, and strobe lights shimmered across the beamed ceiling. It was dark, but half of the crowd was clearly in head-to-toe fancy dress, the other half dressed like plus ones for an awards night at the Grosvenor House Hotel. Bar staff threw bottles of spirits around in that unnecessary way, as though attempting to up the price of a Daiquiri cocktail by just d*cking about a bit, smirking inanely at their bemused customers.
It was a haunt but it seemed at odds with the surroundings – a place of opposites. A paradise for footballers and WAGs in The Woolpack. This wasn’t Cristal champagne in a tulip flute, it was £5.50 p*ss-weak lager out of a plastic cup. It was a cartel, as though the people here were all in it together, pretending it wasn’t Sunday night.
And there were girls, lots of girls. Bright blondes, dark brunettes, red heads, almost exclusively in high heels, clutch bags held tightly under their yoga’d long limbs. The faint air of perfume drowned out the pumping music.
Word must have spread across London – a sea of future Love Island contestants came flooding through the doors. It was a far cry from flat caps, dartboards and oversized Yorkshire Puddings. It felt like we were a long way from home now, and it was glorious.
I contactless-tapped 11 quid for a couple of pints of Camden Hells and we battled through the crowd into the snug. It soon became clear that the half of the room in disguise were footballers attempting to blend in by wearing something unique and ridiculous. It was QPR and Crystal Palace’s joint Christmas do.
Scott Dann sat lonesome on a radiator dressed as Tarzan. Charlie Austin cackled, garmented in your grandma’s favourite Christmas jumper. Rob Green stood adrift, staring into thin air as though recounting the ghosts of World Cups past. Captain Joey Barton was enthusiastically buying a round at the bar. Joe Ledley was also dressed as Tarzan, although it was unclear whether or not he was in fancy dress at all. Brede Hangeland, seemingly already eight feet tall, wore an afro wig to add further height. On-loan QPR striker Eduardo Vargas just looked happy to be there. It was a ridiculous scene, but in the moment it seemed perfectly normal.
In the main bar area, there was also a few minor celebrities, apparently from TOWIE and the like, and several England rugby union players who seemed perfectly content with their relative anonymity. It was all good-natured stuff, and they were friendly.
At the bar, I asked Charlie Austin a poindexter question about him getting suspended for the next match when he was in my fantasy football team. He was rightfully dismissive, and it made us laugh. My mate told him we were Blackburn fans and we ripped him a bit about being ex-Burnley.
QPR had won the previous day and it was nine days until their next fixture. There was an enthusiasm about the group. It wasn’t a private function reserved for VIPs, and there appeared to be nothing sinister going on. It was just a bunch of Premier League footballers, with a harem of beautiful women, having a laugh in a local pub. Standard Sunday fare.
Later on, we shuffled home, laughing about the night while munching on Big Macs and Chicken McNugget chasers. After all, we never did get around to that lamb and mint sauce.
The next morning, tabloid newspapers ran the story of a ‘bust-up’ at the party after a drink was spilt on Rio Ferdinand. An onlooker said there was “claret everywhere”. Luckily, we just missed all of that commotion.
The previous week QPR boss Harry Redknapp warned, “I’m not into Christmas parties, not for footballers… I think they understand the pitfalls of going out.” Prophetic words. A QPR official statement later announced that Caulker had not been involved in any altercation, but simply slipped and suffered a cut to his head.
As for me and my mate, we live separately with our girlfriends now, but still chuckle about it to this day. For the two years we lived there, we went back to that place a good few times, in a much bigger group, but it never quite lived up to that surreal Sunday night.