Dateline: Colindale. The north-west London suburb best known for its RAF museum and quick access to the M1 has, for one night only, become a place where dreams are born. Or to be more specific, the local Morrisons has.
At the top of the escalators and next to a concession selling four pork sausage rolls for £2.50, the Colindale Morrisons is playing host to the draw for the first round of the Carabao Cup. For the past two years this event has taken place in south-east Asia, but now it is coming home. It is real football, the host, Sam Matterface, suggests, it is taking the game to the people. From behind a hoarding advertising Mandarin Orange Carabao, the people cheer in agreement.
Hosting the event alongside Matterface are Ray Parlour and John Barnes. In recent months, the former Liverpool legend has been crossing over into current affairs, speaking out on the issue of racial discrimination. This week he promoted this event by posing for photographs perched awkwardly on a wheelchair-friendly shopping trolley. It is apparent that the buzz in the Colindale Morrisons, and there is one, is largely there because of him.
Barnes is not treating the event, or his part in it, as a life-or-death matter. “Ex-pros don’t tend to take things too seriously,” he says of his supermarket photo shoot. “You wouldn’t get modern footballers doing that. I push a trolley every week at Tescos …” he corrects himself “… or Morrisons or wherever.
“The fans like it, it’s real,” he continues, describing the event. “This is the way it was in the past, with footballers involved in the community. The Premier League is more isolated, it has become elitist.”
Another thing about Barnes is that it does not take long for him to strike upon a strong opinion.
Carabao make energy drinks and the company originates in Thailand. Since they took over the sponsorship of the erstwhile League Cup, in 2017, they have been trying to jazz things up a bit. They sent the Guardian’s Barry Glendenning a box that said “Carabaoooo” in the style of a cow when it opened. He opened it several times on the Football Weekly podcast and it got a bigger laugh each time.
These draws, held previously in Bangkok and then Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, have also become a bit of a thing; mainly because they had a tendency to go wrong. Taking place in the middle of the night UK time, Charlton were pulled out of the hat twice on one occasion and, on another, a mix-up meant nobody was clear which teams had been drawn home or away.
While insisting they had not gone cold on hosting events in a different timezone, this year Carabao went to Morrisons and not Manila. The retailer sells a lot of the drink and Carabao believe a big supermarket is an ideal place to meet a cross-section of society. Keen to do whatever they could to get people talking about a cup draw conducted in the middle of June, the company approached Morrisons directly, who in turn got the publicity for free. Barnes and Parlour, meanwhile, were adjudged the best people for the job, within the given budget constraints.
Everyone I spoke to insisted that none of this was being played for laughs. This is especially the case for the EFL, which runs the competition, and a bevy of stern-faced executives were on hand behind a pile of white chocolate-chip cookies to make sure nothing went wrong.
And indeed, in the Colindale Morrisons it did not.
The draw moves first through the northern section, where Accrington Stanley get a “who are they?” from the crowd, before being paired with Sunderland, which gets an “oooh” of surprise.
There are boos followed by cheers when Salford City are paired against Leeds. And then, in the southern section, there is genuine – if brief – uproar when AFC Wimbledon are pitted against MK Dons.
As a public event, it is actually quite fun. Thanks largely to Barnes, who has dozens of people in vintage Liverpool shirts queueing up to speak to him, it also fulfils on its promise to connect with the fans, albeit on modest terms. But the event is really intended for the cameras, streamed live on Facebook and Twitter and online the experience is a little more like the Carabao draws of old. Live images from Colindale Morrisons appear above a feed of user comments, filled with expletives and characterised by a mutual antipathy between northern and southern fans.
You can take the draw out of Bangkok, perhaps, but you cannot take the cock-up out of the draw.