The intrepid Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game continue their non-league odyssey, this time out venturing to the snowy north pitch inspection and all.

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks

Over two hundred miles separate Tom and I this morning, instead of the usual three. While I’m sipping my coffee in the warmth of my in-laws two bed semi, he’s sitting on a Virgin train surrounded by well mannered Huddersfield fans on their way to Stoke, complaining to me via WhatsApp about the seat I booked him facing backwards.

P1010024He cuts a sorry figure trudging up the cobbled ramp outside Stockport station, the rain has not stopped since the early hours, but at least it’s not the snow the BBC and every other news outlet had forecast for this particular part of the North West today.

I can’t think of a suitable Game Of Thrones “king of the North” reference quick enough as he opens my door, rain dropping on the upholstery, “it’s even wetter up here”, he says to me, unimpressed that he’s travelled all this way for weather worse than what he left behind.

The weather has been somewhat on my mind the last forty eight hours. Visiting my fiancee and her folks for the weekend, I wanted to take advantage of being somewhere other than Essex or Hertfordshire, so some non league football outside of our regular sphere was a must. Such levels of snow, wind and constant rain I’m informed is standard in January by my other half and her Mum. I thought it was just a bit of a cliche that it didn’t stop raining north of the Watford Gap, but from my experience it does always seem to be the case.

Bad weather is non league footballs arch enemy, pitches devoid of all the modern trappings of their cousins higher up the pyramid, means games postponed due to waterlogged or frozen pitches are all too common at this time of year. Constantly refreshing Twitter and the BBC weather page, I came to the conclusion late last night, that there might just be a window large enough for our intended game to go ahead, before all hell breaks loose.

When I told Tom to get his train as planned, if I’m honest I wasn’t 100% sure we would get a game, but blinded by the fact we’ve not been to a match for nearly a month, I was a little economical with the truth, crossing all my fingers, hoping his journey up from London would not be a wasted one.

The request from the AFC Mossley (AFC) Twitter account for volunteers to make their way to the ground to “fork the pitch” with “all tools supplied” did not boost my confidence, but there was no talk of a inspection, so I was keeping positive.

Sitting back in the office chair at the desk in my fiancee’s childhood room, life felt good, well better then when I got up and looked out the window, until an hour or so later a second tweet appeared, and it wasn’t what I wanted to see, “pitch inspection at 11am”.

The wait was agonising. I had hunted around for a plan B, C and D, but they were falling by the wayside, the weather having having already taken its toll, so as they say all our eggs were very much in one basket.

“Game on” said the tweet, like a 90’s sitcom, I could breathe easy. However the rain had far from let up and was continuing to stream across the window.

Once he’d told me about his less than appetising mocha he got at Euston that tasted of “mud” and the fact that the Southend United squad got off at Stockport too, conversation turned to the movements of a certain Chilean to this neck of the woods and that of a crying Armenian going back the other way. I was happy to go along with his Arsenal chat, a topic I’m not usually interested in discussing, but anything to help take my mind and his off the worsening weather.

IMG_20180120_133157Quite suddenly suburban red brick Manchester melted way and was quickly replaced by rolling snow covered fields separated by dry stone walls and as we climbed higher into the Pennines, the rain turned to snow. Tom was surprisingly upbeat, suggesting we do a bit of “tobogganing’ but as we passed the Welcome to Mossley sign and noticed what he called the “treacherous” looking ice covered pavements, it didn’t fill us full of hope.

“Lilywhites, that’s why you wanted to come” Tom says to me, having just passed the turnstiles with the club’s nickname written across the front, through the black iron gates with AFCM on them and into the almost full and slippery car park. Although not at the forefront of my decision making, I can’t help but gravitate towards a team who share such an excellent moniker with my beloved Spurs. However one of the main reasons we are here, other than because of the promise of a warm welcome, as well as a decent meat and potato pie, was the potential to see a cracking view of the Pennines in the distance, that at the moment are shrouded in clouds.

The pitch is covered in a light dusting of snow, like someone has been a bit overzealous with the icing sugar. It almost looks like a thankless task clearing it, as its still coming down, but a few locals with spades and rakes in hand and one on a sit on mower dragging some kind of device behind it, are doing their best to make the surface playable.

“Some of them been here since nine” says one of the stewards, pointing to the men on the pitch. Overhearing a conversation between two men in hi viz, one carrying a bag of orange salt, the “pitch is alright” its fan safety that’s the issue. The uncovered terracing in front and to one side of the black seat filled main stand are a little sketchy to say the least. The hope is that a liberal application of salt will be enough to melt the ice and placate the officials who are expected any moment.

As we arrive, so do the players of AFC’s opponents Skelmersdale United FC (SKEL), who look just as stunned as I’m sure we did, that what they see before them is going to be playable and when I ask one glum looking SKEL official clutching his leather folder he tells me he’s “surprised its on”.

Of course a friendly club and nice surroundings are high up our priority list when considering a team to visit, but the feedback on the food is also keenly considered, completing our decision making trifecta equation. With the snow still falling, Tom thinks the chances of a match are slim, but hopes he can ”get a pie at least” even if we don’t get to see a match.

All eyes are on the officials who arrive in suits and inappropriate shoes, they mill about on the pitch and then at its side for a moment, “the tractor is doing a good job” says one to another, as they pass us on their way inside.

The snow is not heavy but constant and despite all the umming and ahhing if the game is going to happen, it’s business as usual for the refreshments hut, its hatch being pinned open, Tom might just get his pie after all.

One of the early arrivals, one of the people who answered the call for help, whose been clearing snow for almost five hours, is perhaps a little miffed to say the least at seeing so many people standing around watching. With spade in hand, he shouts instructions to those observing to “get the fucking grit down”, there’s no way he’s breaking his back all morning, for the game to be cancelled due to slippery terracing.

Those not shelling out salt or getting cold feet on the pitch, are taking shelter in the clubhouse, most watching Brighton Vs Chelsea on the big screen. No-one, I can imagine only because they are not on yet, are playing on one of the three Xboxes set up alongside your obligatory non league clubhouse fruit machine. Said fruit machine that not long after we sat down, is making quite a hefty payout to a man that was only standing in front of it for a moment.

IMG_20180120_142258With all the entertainment on offer, not to forget the dart board too, there is little reason to go outside and as one AFC official says to another, snow on his shoulders having just come inside, “it’s still coming down”.

The table next to us is occupied by four members of SKEL’s travelling party, each with at least one piece of club crest covered apparel on. Before sitting they all stood looking out of the large window overlooking the pitch, at the man touching up the boundaries with white paint and the tractor still pottering up and and down. “Still at it” one says, with the tone of someone who thinks they are fighting a losing battle.

Edging closer and closer to two o’clock the tension mounts, officially the game is still going ahead, but I’m not sure anyone believes it. Every so often people will just stand and give a long lingering look outside, making their own judgement on the conditions. When there is a suggestion that the officials are doing their final walk on the pitch, many spring to their feet hoping to suss out his decision, but its a false alarm.

As much as a few goes on whatever games the Xboxes are set up with sounds like a great way to spend the afternoon, we head outside, having eventually finished our lava hot non league tea, which has struck again and burnt my tongue. Instead of just sitting and waiting, I’d much rather go in search of an answer to are we on or off.

I’m sure I can see some blue in the sky, Tom however is not convinced. The mist covering the distant hills and mountains has certainly cleared and we get our first good look at the view so many people said was worth the visit alone. It’s a patchwork of different sized snow covered fields, each distinguished by a thin black line.

The fact that all the trimmings associated with your standard pre match warm up are appearing on the
pitch, gaily coloured cones and poles are being put out at regular intervals, must be a good sign. Its gone two now, and when I ask the same SKEL official that was “surprised” the game was going ahead, he tells us that the referee thinks the pitch and ground are “fine”. I was expecting some great announcement, when everyone else is just getting on with it.

“Beach Boys, really?” asks Tom, the choice of music not quite in keeping with our “Christmassy” setting as he puts it, but I think Brian and the gang are the perfect remedy.

60’s surfer music or the alternative rock musing of Black Francis and the Pixies are the soundtrack to the warm up, every so often the speakers crackle and Tom suggests someone needs to “wiggle the wire a bit”. Watching on, wincing, the pitch getting mullered, Tom reckons after today the “pitch will never be playable again”.

One player has Tom jealous, his snood “way better” than his. The player in question has one that reaches from this shoulder blades to well over his ears and nose, making him look like one of The Knights Who Say “Ni!”.

So consumed with worrying about if we were going to see a game, I’d forgotten to get a programme or find out if they have a raffle here. It’s gone two thirty and I’m getting Erith Town flashbacks, so it’s a comfort, like music to my ears when I hear the call of the seller “programmes, golden goal”. As well as my programme I’m handed two borrower sized envelopes, sealed with sellotape. Within them the chance of a prize, if my number coincides with the first goal.

The familiar shouts of “come on you Lilywhites” is a joy to hear. The fans on the steps in front and to the side of the main stand applaud as both teams appear from the single file tunnel, which by the looks of it has what appears to be a garden gate at its end.

Someone has an air horn, and the SKEL physio has a hot water bottle which she clutches tightly to her chest, well prepared for her afternoon in the ice covered dug out.

SKEL have an early chance, with the game only minutes old, however the conditions play their part, the ball sticking in the six yard box, allowing the AFC keeper a vital few seconds to pounce on it and prevent any of the looming SKEL players to poke it goalwards. One fan suggests the players could do with “rugby studs” as a few go a bit Bambi, sliding and falling over.

IMG_20180120_145735There is a fair old crowd watching on, lots of local games falling foul of the weather and there is a steady stream of people coming in, even after the whistle. The group behind us are talking about AFC’s white kit “not being the ideal colour” for such conditions and behind them we see who is wielding the air horn. One of the onlookers from the hospitality suite, with all their drinks lined up on the window sill, periodically points it out of the window, not far from our heads and gives it a blast.

As the Pennines drift in and out of view, AFC create their first of many chances, the ball across the box is an excellent one, but the recipient on the other end of it, miss times his run and the ball goes through his legs, only two foot out from goal, “bloody hell’, grumbles a nearby fan. “How did he miss that” asks a bemused Tom.

“Chip him” shouts an AFC supporter towards the player bearing down on goal, the keeper has made his way to meet him and the chance is there for an audacious lob, but instead he rolls it past him, the ball eventually bobbling over the line on sixteen minutes giving AFC the lead.

“16 minutes the golden goal” says the voice over the PA, “you got it?” asks Tom, as I struggle to open the the two envelopes, neither contain the winning number, 2018 picking up where 2017 left off.

When one player does finish with a delicate chip, its sadly ruled offside, and AFC haven’t doubled their lead, for now. Tom though is only thinking about food, ‘’I’m hungry” he tells me, the draw of that pie is getting stronger, but he is also cold and needs something to warm him up sooner than half time, “think I might have a hot chocolate”.

The hummed tune of ‘Entry Of The Gladiators’ is a common thing at many football grounds, the sign of a cock up by a visiting player or official. When the linesman gives a throw in the wrong way then corrects himself he’s serenaded and it won’t be the last time today the men who run the line become the focal point.

It’s AFC who have acclimatized to the soft pitch the quicker, even though the surface is already looking a state, they are still passing the ball around well, look good on the break and are well on top. The “lively” number 10 as Tom dubs him, the scorer of AFC’s first hooks a shot over from close range, and not long after they hit the post. One home player is quick off the mark and slides in to connect with the rebound, connecting with the keeper with a full blooded, but fair lunge. The man in goal ends up with the ball, as well as a “kick in the head” as Tom points out and is applauded for his bravery.

On the half hour mark, AFC go further ahead. A poor punch from the SKEL keeper following a corner, doesn’t see the ball clear the box. It’s chipped back and after a ricochet, it falls kindly to AFC to stab home, 2 – 0.

“Fucking sharpen up” screams one SKEL player moments before the restart, his team are close to being overrun and the game being put out of sight.

“VAR” demands an AFC fan, the linesman having raised his flag for offside, that to my untrained eye didn’t look like it was. Another supporter goes into much more detail, not requesting the use of technology and a consultaion with a man in a room of monitors in Heathrow, but that it was simple “geometry”, meaning it couldn’t be offside.

There is a good case for agreeing with Tom when he says “game over”, following AFC’s third this time from the spot with about four minutes of the half left. Sending the keeper the wrong away the scorer nonchalantly chips the ball up into his hands and starts jogging back to his own half, receiving a few high fives from his teammates.

SKEL haven’t had a shot all half, and Tom points out that “their centre backs are too clean” his reasoning for why they find themselves three goals behind, because they just aren’t getting stuck in.

DSC_0169-001Halftime couldn’t come soon enough for visitors and fans, some who shake their hands to get the life back into them. When the whistle goes for the break, Tom joins the masses making their way for food or the shelter of the clubhouse.

There is nothing more annoying than being in the presence of a raffle and having not taken part in it. When the results are read out and the instructions to collect the prize from the “pie hut” are given out over the PA, I wonder again why clubs don’t advertise these things better, I’ve money burning a hole in my pocket.

Tom returns with a yellow Styrofoam tray heaving with pie chips and gravy. He’s shivering as we take a seat in the back of the stand behind a couple of blue scarf wearing SKEL fans and he doesn’t hang about tucking in. His food is hot, but he doesn’t let that stop him. “Good” he tells me it is, managing just one word while a column of steam rises from his mouth, much like the smoke from the chimneys of the houses that surround the ground.

He can spare one chip, dripping with gravy, opting to feed me, instead of letting me pick one myself.

The DJ in his tiny booth keeps up his eclectic music choices. The Strokes are followed by some 80’s light metal, that I can only imagine the front of the LP had a dinosaur on, but when that starts to skip in the CD player he hits the next button and the teams reemerge to the closing bars of ’Rocking all over the World’, entering a pitch which is now covered in a dense mist.

An early crunching challenge has Tom make his first quip of the day, “that was meaty like my
pie” and not long after, four minutes into the new half, there is the ever so slightest hint of a comeback, when SKEL grab a goal, a goal they have deserved.

They’ve come out for the second half with a lot more purpose that the home team. A free header from a deep free kick, seems to bounce under the keeper and in. There is no celebration, the ball is scooped up by one of the players in blue, who all run with purpose back towards the centre circle.

The few visiting fans in front of us cheer and clap, but it’s mainly groans and tuts from those AFC supporters around us. Its as if two different sides have come out. The home fans are growing increasingly frustrated, their team are sloppy and wasteful, like they think the game is all but won. A game that is certainly getting more robust you may say, tackles and niggly fouls are on the increase.

When one SKEL player crashes in to the hoardings, he is simply told to ‘’run it off” by someone in the crowd. Tom and I wince as he skids off the pitch, crashing into the boards, soon picking himself up and dusting himself off. Tom expresses something we’ve both been thinking that they are a “different breed” of men up here much tougher than us.

“Bit soft” says Tom, as the referee awards SKEL a penalty with just over twenty five minutes left to play. For the second time today the keeper facing the spot kick goes the wrong way and again there is no celebration from the SKEL players.

DSC_0245-001“Come on boys, come on” booms the SKEL fan two rows in front of us, who then repeatedly punches the air like he’s doing the signature move of a Tekken character. The young home fans are quite amused by his animated actions and royally take the piss out of him behind his back for the rest of the day.

Toms suggestion of the score staying at 3 -1, that that was “it” for the goals today, is now well and truly out the window. AFC almost add to the growing goal tally themselves with a free kick, but its just wide.

The home fans continue to gripe and the SKEL number four continues with his frequent war cries, “pick it up” he bellows so loudly he momentarily silences the crowd, rallying his team singlehandedly. A bit of a bull in a china shop at times he crashes into tackles, with hearty devotion. However when he goes down frightfully easily after barely being touched, it’s quite the irony.

Such is his enthusiasm at one point he runs into his own man trying to win the ball, “where’s your sense of direction” one fan asks, the nearby SKEL fan can only mutter under his breath, “Jesus Christ”.

He knows though his team can capitalise on the clumsy play of the home side, so does the air punching fan in front of us who’s getting even more emphatic, encouraged by his teams performance, “come on boys, come on skem”.

Ten minutes to go and it’s freezing. Tom is dumbfounded at the state of the pitch, and is concerned for the mental health of whoevers job it is to sort it out post match, “would you wanna be the groundsman?!?”. The SKEL fan continues to cheer his team on, “come on boys” but its getting increasingly hard to see what’s going on, the mist having turned to fog.

Tom has started to play ‘match the clubs kits with a team from the football league’ by himself, telling me the kits today look like Ipswich Vs Derby. He flip flops between teams who play in a similar blue giving me a headache, I’m just waiting for him to say Porto.

Five minutes to go, the anxiety is close to peaking, the match poised at 3 – 2 and there is the definite feeling more goals are to come. “Hit it, hit it, hit it” urge the SKEL fans as the players tee each other up on the edge of the area two or there times in a row, and two or three times in a row an AFC player makes the all important block.

BLOWN IT! I scribble in my notebook, 3 – 3. “That was offside” says the SKEL fan in front, turned round in his chair with his furry hat half off his head, his hands a foot apart to signal just how offside his player was, “I’ll take it though” he says laughing to himself. He is the only one laughing mind, everyone else is fuming.

This time there is certainly a celebration from the SKEL players, the scorer running along with his finger to his lips, shushing the crowd.

The linesman who failed to raise his flag is getting it both barrels from the AFC bench, many of whom are well outside of their technical area and have charged up the line to remonstrate with him, unable to understand how he’s not given what everyone was able to see was so blatant. Once more there is a demand for VAR, one fan outlines the shape of a screen high above his head.

The referee has a job in regaining control and has to march the AFC bench back to their area, his arm in the air waving them away.

Thankfully the fog has cleared now, allowing us to see the slight flare up on the pitch as the amount of sturdy sliding tackles starts to test a few players patience.

Any notion that the goal scoring was over, with four minutes of the game left is put to bed by the home side, two minutes after SKEL pulled level, they go ahead once more. The header aimed at the back post, the scorer doing well to get on the end of the cross in the crowded box, isn’t a powerful one, but is well placed and the SKEL players and keeper can only watch on as it nestles in the side netting.

Such is the outpouring of joy, one AFC fan rushes the pitch to join the full team huddle to celebrate what must be the winning goal. The AFC bench punch their fists almost all in unison at the linesman who gave the controversial third SKEL goal, a bit of ‘have that pal’.

The head of the SKEL supporter in front of us drops considerably, with only minutes of the match left, his team’s comeback and valiant efforts, seem to have been for nothing. Such is the confidence of one young AFC fan he is standing behind the SKEL bench with his index finger firmly against his lips, this time shhhing them. Such is our confidence that the game is all but over, we have left the stand and made our way pitchside, our view of the AFC goal now completely obscured by the flat pitch covered roof of the away dugout.

I’m only really aware that SKEL have scored a fourth, yes a fourth, they’ve drawn level again, bang on ninety minutes, because the SKEL physio who was getting the main brunt of the shhing, is now jumping up in the air. It’s made even clearer that AFC have chucked it away for a third time, by the amount of “fuck offs” and other such expletives that start being blurted out.

A little less blue and a lot more pre-watershed, one fan simply says the team “switched off”.

There is a reasonable crowd either side of the tunnel entrance, the garden gate open once again, holding back the fans, and allowing the teams to make their way off after the final whistle. “Fucking embarrassing” says one AFC player, distraught that they just couldn’t hold on. The referee and his assistants are told what for, in no uncertain terms as they leave, “shocking lino, shocking”.

I’m not sure either thought there was a cat in hells chance that the game was going to happen when
we arrived, so as we descend closer to sea level, one ear popping slightly like they do on a plane, just without the presence of peanuts, it seems even more remarkable that the SKEL fans were able to congratulate their players at all, as they warmed down after the match.

20180120_165126-001Tom since we started, has always had this dream of a “snowy game”, well he got it today, there were great piles of the stuff surrounding the pitch, which players were in danger of falling into. Once more he reiterates how no-one could possibly want to be the “groundsman’s” after today, but somehow I reckon all will be fine. Another group of volunteers will convene, tools supplied by the club of course, and they’ll get it ready for the next home game.

It’s not the fact we saw the come back that we did, a 4 – 4 thriller, that was the best thing about today, but the “attitude” as Tom put it, of those people who arrived at nine and plugged away and got the game on.

Dodgy decisions, freezing feet, crumbly grounds, views you cant see, nice food, even better company, the fact that the programme seller knew in an instant that we weren’t “local” but didn’t treat us any differently, watching goals through a gap between a pillar and floodlight, Tom having chemical hand warmers, but being too embarrassed to get them out, to quote one of the SKEL party from the clubhouse earlier in the day, these are “the joys of non league football”.

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