Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game travel north to encounter chips in paper, drums, and a lust for life.
Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks
The words of the girl at the Stockport County FC (SC) ticket line, “you’re coming a long way for Chorley” are running around my head as I climb into the car around eight o’clock this morning, with a carrier bag full of my best CD’s, three Capri Suns, two cereal bars, and a Northern stowaway.
No Uber service for Tom today, I won’t be double parking outside his house this time, so he meets me at my local underground station, with his breakfast, a family bag of Haribo and a packet of peanut M&M’s. Petrol is required before we hit the M1, Tom not allowing the early start to dampen his sharpness, hits me with a helpful tip, especially for someone who is a new driver. There is a handy arrow, right next to the petrol icon on your dashboard, that points to the side of the car the petrol cap is on, who knew.
Our stowaway, is in fact more of a guide, a local we’ve hired, who can share their regional knowledge with us two Southerners. Venturing further than Watford, we need all the help we can get. Rachel my girlfriend of the past ten years, is among other things from the North West, Stockport to be precise. It’s her blue SC scarf, one of the two her parents gave us both the first time I met them, all those years ago, that prompts the person on the back seat of the white Renault next to us, to shake his Manchester United shirt at us.
The brown signs with an elephant pointing to Whipsnade Zoo, and then Gullivers World, distract Tom, and his pestering front seat requests for a detour, almost force me to pull over and make him sit in the back. I explain that if he’s good, that we will take him to Stockport’s premier attraction, the Hat Museum, but only if he doesn’t whinge for the next four hours.
Despite my excellent handpicked choice of music, conversation takes precedence. A wide gambit is covered, but mostly we discuss the choice of sandwich fillings on offer at Rachel’s parents house. My personal favourite, the morning special, is the ‘Omelette Sandwich’, Rachel’s is not one I’ve either had or can quite get to grips with, the ‘Ham & Potato Salad Sandwich’. Tom gleans about all that can be gleaned from this exchange, that the policy at Rachel’s Mum and Dad’s is, “stick it in some bread”.
Tom offers out the Haribo, which I regret accepting these along with the tropical juice, are not making for a suitable first meal of the day.
Traveling with Tom, is like traveling with an eye spy book, he insists on pointing out anything of interest that we pass, a sign telling us we’ve entered “Shakespeare country”, wind turbines, the Ricoh Arena, and an advertisement for “Crufts” on at the NEC which he announces in a very peculiar voice.
Our decision to use the M6 toll road seems completely justified, its near empty and when the sign tells us it’s only 64 miles to Manchester, I wonder why everyone isn’t using this black hole short cut. The only negative is when we come to pay for using it, and the machine stole a pound from me, which I had to toss from the window into a metal basket, like a fairground game.
It’s time to stretch my legs, only for Tom to inform me as he returns from the loo that there are “no arcades” the staple of every roadside stop, I was banking on at least one turn on an ageing Time Crisis, add this disappointment to the toll both thievery, and this is not turning into a good trip.
You can get a coconut in M&S, but can’t play Daytona USA, what is the world coming to? When my choice of sandwich is vetoed, apparently egg mayo is not the most sociable of fillings, I’m really starting to regret getting out of bed this morning.
They say opposites attract, this is no more apparent when we pass a sign for Alton Towers and then the Wedgwood factory. I can think of nothing better than a tour of one of the black country’s finest potteries, Tom however would rather spend the day spinning upside down and voluntarily getting nausea, just says it all.
A change of route forced by the closure of the motorway means we skirt the edge of Stoke on Trent, which is apparently overflowing with things to do, such as a shop called Bargain booze and the Monkey Forest, we even see a Vanarama League team in their unmistakable blue jackets being picked up by a coach on a bridge we pass under.
I don’t think the gravel patch behind The Bungalow Club, next door to Edgeley Park, home of SC, in fact the back of one of its stands is just opposite where we park, is an ‘official’ club car park. However the woman who tears a small beige ticket from her roll, and takes my £3 is convincing enough, plus the sun has not stopped shining, it was forecast to rain all day, and Rachel’s not stopped beaming since we passed out first sign to Stockport, we throw caution to the wind and drive on in.
Such is Tom’s wishful thinking that the good weather is going to stick around, he tells us he wished he’d brought his “sunnies”.
Turns out the club shop is not the place to collect our tickets, but it allows Tom and Rachel to indulge their joint love of a club shop, Rachel’s particular specialty is a museum shop, but branded collections of badges, scarves & t shirts come a close second. Waiting, I do hear an optimistic local suggesting it “should be 3 points today” as he purchases his programme.
Tom doesn’t find a pin that takes his fancy, Rachel does though get a key ring she can add to her cannonball sized tangle of Amplemann and Windsor Castle which has some keys on it somewhere.
Tickets secured, the shutter in the small dimly lit room goes up and someone disappears briefly, returning having fetched our tickets.
Edgeley Park’s shutters and turnstiles are all firmly closed, the only open door is that for the ‘Players and Officials’ which is being dutifully manned by a burly man. A wander seems in order so we go in search of a pub and a cash machine, but not before we gaze upon the long blue and white wall, with Stockport County A.F.C. written along it, a road’s width from the terraced houses opposite that it nestles among. Admittedly it’s just a wall, but it’s a unique feature of a traditional Edwardian ground, the likes of which that are becoming few and far between in the era of flat pack, out of town stadiums.
The unexpected sun has got a bit much for Rachel, who was suitably prepared for the predicted downpours with a big coat, and now has her SC scarf hanging from the strap of her handbag.
“What? they don’t have fresh orange juice” says Rachel when I present her with a neon pint of orange squash and lemonade in the garden of the nearby Robert Peel pub, someone’s been in North London too long methinks, Tom on the other hand is delighted at the price of the round, “fucking cheap”.
Waiting at the bar, a fan of SC opponents today, Chorley FC (CFC) asks Tom if he’s “confident” confusing him for a SC supporter. Not sure what to say, he shrugs his shoulders, gives a little eye roll and lets out a sigh. This seems to satisfy the traveling supporter, “more confident than me” he says chuckling in response to Tom’s noise.
“I don’t want to alarm you, but look behind you” says Tom, pointing skywards to the black clouds rolling in. I take a few moments to turn in my chair to look, and get distracted watching the heads of the passing mounted police bobbing up and down over the gardens fence, making their way up the road.
With the bad weather getting closer by the minute, Tom’s quick to asks if our seats in the ground are “covered”, I put his mind at ease and assure him we are. When I tell him that the away fans aren’t, remembering the Millwall Fans when I came last time, snarling at us under the open grey sky, I’m surprised by his response, “good” he says vehemently “that’s the way it should be”.
“That’s rain” says Tom, as the smallest spot lands on his hand. Rachel is not the only one to be caught out by the day’s early sun, one SC fan is wearing shorts and a t-shirt, enjoying a couple of WKD Blues, likes he’s on his summer holidays.
Life now fills the narrow streets surrounding Edgeley Park, the turnstiles are open, peering through them we get our first look at the pitch beyond, police horses are doing laps, however the weather continues to be the main topic of conversation. “It’s got cold quick” says Rachel, her scarf now back on, “don’t look too clever” says an elderly lady having her ticket checked.
Like a siren in the distance, calling me onto the rocks, I hear it’s song, “half time draw tickets”. No long flowing auburn hair or clam shell bra, but it has got a dark blue money belt and is more than happy to take my cash for ‘Countys 50/50 Draw’, “good luck” it says, sending me on my way full of hope.
‘Lust For Life’ by the Stooges is playing, as players of each team warm up on the pitch, some of SC are on the sidelines, yoga mats and all doing their stretches. What at first glance could be mistaken for a cave, is in fact the concrete covered stairs, whisking us to the upper tier of the Cheadle End, the largest of the four stands, behind one of the goals.
We don’t hang around the sparse grey concourse for long, where adverts in the toilet tell you if you take out a life insurance policy with a local firm, they will give you next season’s SC shirt for free, instead we climb the last remaining stairs, to the mouth of our block.
Cliches are a bit lazy, naff or even in some cases offensive, however the view before us, and beyond the confines of the stadium, are like something from a Lowry painting. The rolling hills of the Peak District, the dark roofed terraced houses in the neighbouring streets, the church spire, white smoke billowing from chimneys, a railway line running just behind one stand, “there’s my train” says Tom as another one thunders past.
“Proper nose bleeds” wheeze’s Rachel, as we find our seats, a few rows shy of the very back of the stand. A stand which has been adorned with all sorts of banners and flags. In one corner a St George’s flag and a Union Jack with Hatters written across it, hanging from one side a banner with a SC former captain ‘Captain Fantastic’ above him, ‘Mr Ever Present’ below him, opposite is what looks like a pencil outline of Danny Bergara one time SC Manager, who also has a stand named after him, but my favourite, is the blue and white striped scarf, which goes almost the full width of the stand, written on it “the scarf my father wore”.
A few people are eating chips out of paper, Tom looks on jealously at groups of kids and their “sweets”, Rachel having to remind him they get them, because they are “8”. I’m sure also much to Tom’s dismay is the fact that the CFC fans have been put in a covered corner of the ground, a couple of their flags hang from the railings and they are not exposed to the elements of the roofless stand at the opposite end, its seats below the dot matrix scoreboard, are covered in large adverts, one for a local Italian restaurant.
“Have a great time” signs off the stadium announcer, just before the the players arrive from the concertina blue tunnel. WKD man arrives not long after, he takes a seat a few rows in front of us, however the weather has got the better of him, he has a jumper on now.
“Jim Gannons blue white army” sing the fans, to the rhythm of a drum behind us. He changes beat and with it so does the song “Edgeley, Edgeley, we’re the famous Stockport County and we come from Edgeley”, once again he changes and the fans around us, lots of them kids, fall almost into a hypnotic trance, “blue army, blue army” they repeat, over and over.
“Think Jim Gannon was in charge when we came last time” says Rachel, reminded by the song. I think she’s right, and if I remember correctly he was getting so much grief from one home fan, he asked for them to be removed, however Gannon’s not been here all that time, he’s left and come back.
SC have the first chance of the game, a shot flashed wide “County, County, County” chant the fans.
“Oh I’m hungry” blurts out Tom, all the passing pies are getting to him. Looking for the nearest place for something to eat, he spots a tea bar in the distance, but it’s the sign below its hatch that has us all scratching our heads, “whats spud vac?” we all ask each other.
For all the early noise of the drum and the boisterous chanting, it’s just general football chit chat that fills the stand now. With a quarter of an hour gone, Rachel comments it’s been “evenly matched” so far. Tom suggests it might be the “horrible pitch” that’s preventing the game from getting going, “must rain a lot up here” he says, I promise that’s not another cliche, he really doesn’t get out of London much. Rachel tells him it was “worse than this” when we last came, then SC were sharing the pitch with a local rugby team, the “Sale Sharks”.
SC have another chance, but once again it’s only half of one, and it goes wide “ohhhh” gasp the supporters, coming back to life a bit.
“He likes a pink goalie” says Tom, Rachel quickly correcting him, “he loves a pink goalie”. I’m only half listening to what those two are saying, as I’m far too busy cooing over the CFC keeper in his neon kit, which is a few shades brighter than the Buffon classic, but it’s still by far the best colour for a keeper’s jersey.
At this point the game could be verging on the side of scrappy. The drum stirs again, and with it it’s disciples awake “blue army”. For the first time we hear the booming voice of a Brian Blessed come town crier character “come on County” he bellows from the pit of his stomach.
Whenever a game descends into a bit of a dull affair, people soon start to entertain themselves in other ways. “That’s gone” says Tom when a shot clears the stand. I join him sniggering at the poor attempt on goal, until I remember my cars behind there. A large group of kids pass the time playing “cat and mouse” as Tom puts it, with a steward, way down below us behind the goal. They line the fence, until they are shooed away, and as soon as his back is turned like a Mario World ghost, they are right back at it, only for him to turn around, and the whole caper starts again.
“He’s wearing gloves he’s a fucking wimp” shouts a standing fan, after SC’s attack is brought to a holt by the referee, because of a downed CFC player. The injured players choice of black woolly gloves, in the eyes of the man, means he’s surely the type to make a bit of a meal of what at least didn’t look like a serious injury. “I love a drop ball” says Tom as the referees way of resolving the stop in play turns into a bit of a highlight, but not for any of the home fans, “BOOOOO”, one is amazed that CFC are going to “contest it”, when surely it should be left to SC.
Half an hour gone, SC blaze over from a tight angle, “could be over by now” says the person directly behind us, “we could of had two by now” he adds.
Rachel much like Tom, is keeping herself amused. The overly tight shorts of the SC keeper are causing her much consternation, she is sure his kit is a couple of sizes too small.
The kids down the front jostle each other to be the one to throw the ball back on the pitch. When it eventually makes it’s way back on, the fans around us are begging for a bit of quality, “get it on the floor”, one shouts, many fed up of the lumping it up front approach so far, “take your time” suggests another, every time they get possession, they seem in such a hurry to move the ball on, but with very little thought.
On one occasion when they do break away, outnumbering CFC, it all comes to an abrupt end, once again due to the lack of a measured final pass “what sort of fucking ball was that?” one supporter asks, they had CFC on the ropes, and all it needed was a that little bit of class.
With five minutes left, CFC get their first meaningful chance, their number 10 is all alone at the far post, the cross is good and it looks like a certain goal, “shit” screeches a man behind me.
There is a mass outpouring of relief from the home fans, as we all watch the CFC player make a hash of the opening, “ahhhhhhh” they all say, “put your laces through it” adds Tom. To be honest he never looked committed to what was a great ball, in the end he just kind of dangled his leg in it’s general direction.
There is a final flurry of chances for SC in the final minutes of the half. A direct free kick, which goes up and over well enough, but is lacking any any real umph, a corner which causes Mr Pink to flap like nobodies business, but still no goal. All the late pressure rouses the crowd once again “I-O County, County I-O.” they sing.
“Off, off, off” demand the SC fans, buts its only a yellow, the town crier/Brian Blessed mash up is applauding, “you’re a chicken ref”.
Religion and football are inexplicably intertwined, and for the most part, the outcome can be quite unsavoury, however watching a man with his hands clasped together, one eye to the heavens, one eye on the Edgeley shroud of Bergara, muttering “I’ll never ask for anything, if we can just score” well it’s almost moving. His commune with God and the SC legend is as SC line up another direct free kick, which once again clears the wall, but goes straight into the keepers arms.
Their last chance, all the action off the forty five condensed into dying moments, is a fine shot, which is well saved by the stinging palms of the CFC keeper. The resulting corner, is another example of SC’s inability to take a set piece. “Did that even go in?” asks Tom as the corner limply goes straight into touch, one nearby fan is far from happy “he can’t take corners for Christ sake!”
On the final whistle, Tom springs to feet, “to action stations” he announces.
He descends the yellow stairs, disappearing into the crowd, as the voice of the stadium announcer comes over the speakers first filling us in on the “scores from around the country” and then he reads out birthday well wishes, in between snippets of ‘House of Fun’ by Madness. As nice as the messages from loved ones are, all I want is the 50/50 result, my tickets burning a hole in my pocket, but I can’t make it out from the garbled noise coming from the speakers, and when SC reappear, I don’t know if I’ve won or not.
“Very professional” says Rachel smugly, as SC go through a quick warm up before the new half, “Spurs don’t do that” she adds. The restart is muted in comparison to the rowdy kick off. To be fair there was little in the first half to inspire a raucous welcome, they do try “come on County” but it’s a little lacking.
Tom is late back, he returns holding a tray containing some brown and white matter, behind him a man waves his arms towards his fellow fans, asking for more noise, Tom tries to tell me what he’s eating, a “chicken balti pie and mash” I think is what he says, which certainly smells good, but he’s somewhat drowned out by the the fans, “Jim Gannons blue white army”.
“I like the trough” he explains, the “trough” being the tray his pie is in, he tells us at Arsenal it’s made of “cardboard”, which has a tendency to dissolve, requiring much hasty eating, at SC their choice allows a bit more time to leisurely enjoy your food.
“You dosy git” shouts the man behind me fifteen minutes into the half, towards the player who has just shanked SC’s best chance to date. “Just side foot it in” explains someone else, instead the culprit swung wildly at it, sending it high and well over. Rachel looks at me quizzically, “it’s like they don’t want to score”.
The SC fans are spiraling towards abject misery, they shout for everything, anything “handball”, “penalty”, they know it’s not, they can see the funny side, but they are desperate, some fans can only but laugh at the situation, laughter though that is tinged with a kind of maniacal madness that only football can bring about.
Once again they take to their feet, “off, off, off” they demand, this time it’s justified, their teams counter attack was cut short by a cynical foul. Again their request is ignored, it’s only a yellow, “you don’t know what you’re doing” they shout at the man in charge. “He does” suggests one fan close by, insinuating a conspiracy in a very mysterious X Files kind of way.
Quarter of an hour to go, and the back rows are now mostly on their feet, some around us seem to have caught a second wind, “we can do this now” someone says. The drum is making itself heard more and more “County, County”, they even add a new song to their roster of the day, one that has something to do with “Uruguay”.
Just when the home fans start to rally themselves, the team pushes them back down again, “what the hell was that!” decries someone after another shocking corner, “how many is that” asks Rachel, who’s lost count at the amount of awful SC set pieces. It’s no great surprise when shortly after, SC are presented with another corner, its outcome is equally hideous “this is fucking hard work” says a man to the person next to him, puffing out his cheeks.
Behind the goal is now two people deep in places, people have almost seen enough and are slowly leaving their seats, but don’t leave quite yet, instead joining others at a staging post, to watch the final minutes play out from ground level. Rachel and Tom’s attention is firmly on the the plastic bird of prey dangling above us, which I assume is there to keep the pesky pigeons at bay, Tom suggesting it will have the opposite effect, enticing fellow flyers for a kind of bird party.
I think the team have broken the supporters, “boring” one shouts as the game has well and truly hit rock bottom, one fan appeals to the players just to see it out, “come on lads not long left”.
For the third time the SC fans demand a CFC player is dismissed, “off, off, off”, for a third time the referee keeps it to eleven a side. The resulting free kick is on target, it’s not particularly vicious, however the keeper fumbles, passing it out into the six yard box, there is a brief moment moment of hope it will fall to someone in blue, until it’s whacked clear.
When the man of the match is read out, there is a mixture of applause and boos, not something I’ve ever heard before.
“We’re gonna throw this away” says someone anxiously, although it’s been far from a dominant display, SC get a little lax, allowing CFC back into a game they have never really been in.
Finally they get their wish, fourth time’s a charm is what they say isn’t it? “Off, off, off” they shout, this time they are not let down, a second yellow for the CFC player, who he is given his marching orders, “cheerio” shout some gaily. Some SC fans are not celebrating the advantage, more using it as another stick to beat the referee with, “he’s not had control of this match”. The departing player turns to his team mates, clapping his hands, offering them a ‘come on lads don’t lose it now, cause I’ll be the one that gets it in the neck’.
“Get it right this time, we’ll forgive you for the all rest” are the charitable words of one person, as the free kick taker lines the ball up, well over forty yards out. “This is it, an absolute pile driver” says a fan behind us, sure that he’s gonna shoot. He’s lining himself up in a Ronaldo/Gareth Bale kind of way, but it’s a hell of a long way out.
“Ohhhh” and for a fraction of a second it looked like we were going to get our blockbuster of an ending, but it sails just wide of the top corner, “not half bad” says someone supportive of the effort, not often you see a knuckleball free kick attempt from forty yards in non league football.
For the second time today there is a mixture of boos and applause, this time on the final whistle. A few players approach the Cheadle End clapping, before making their way back inside. The majority of people though are concentrating on getting home, I would think writing today off as one of those days and within a flash Edgeley Park falls quiet.
As we leave, I happen to pass a lady in a club uniform, and ask her if she knows the results of the half time draw. By chance she’s holding a folded piece of paper, but before she’s even unfolded it, my dreams are smashed “1st prize has already been claimed”. After checking my tickets, I won’t be claiming second or third prize either.
The last ten years following Stockport from afar have been eventful, although I can’t even start to imagine what it’s been like for an actual supporter. I thought being a Spurs fan was stressful, however being relegated from the football league and having Dietmar Hamman as your manager, might just be the definition of stressful.
Watching them gain promotion at Underhill and my previous visit to Edgeley Park, where I encountered a Millwall fan for the first time, has forged within me an affection for a club that my only connection with, is that it happens to be where my girlfriend is from.
It’s not a regular pilgrimage to the North West, it’s definitely a long one, but it’s one I enjoy making nonetheless. Although it’s not a scarf my father wore, or even Rachel’s, it is though other than Tottenham’s, the only other one that hangs in my house.
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