Me and Frankie are off to the football. As we make our way down the normally quiet thoroughfare of Shaw Heath, fellow fans- few of them sporting Stockport County’s blue-and-white colours but all of them nevertheless instantly recognisable as seasoned Saturday afternoon matchgoers by their quickened pace and heads-down, furrowed-brow, men- on-a-mission demeanour- begin to emerge from the terraced sidestreets. By the time our increasing numbers arrive within sight of the floodlights which tower like great many-shiny-eyed metal dinosaurs above the Victorian back-to-backs of Edgeley, we have formed a critical mass too wide to be accommodated on the Springtime-sunspattered pavements, and so spill out at intervals onto the ringroad, where our right flank narrowly avoids being flattened by a single-decker bus pulling in at its designated layby, there to disgorge a late-arriving and ragged battalion of supporters emanating- it is possible to discern from the service number displayed on the vehicle’s front- from points West of the outlying suburb of Reddish.
A short queue at the clackety-clack turnstiles later, and we are at our preferred station, a seat with a birdseye view of the nearest goalmouth, high-up within the lower tier of the vast Cheadle End Stand, a handsome corrugated-metal-sided construction of 1990s vintage which has become the vantage point of choice for County’s more vociferous supporters. Just above us in the top tier, the ‘County Band’- a halfdozen adolescents sharing two drums- are beating out an insistent pre-match rhythm, and a selection of familiar refrains: ‘Jimmy Gannon’s blue-and-white army’, ‘Aye Oh County, County Aye Oh’ - are being given their first airing of the afternoon.
Amid the hubbub, a football match breaks out. County’s opponents for the afternoon are Curzon Ashton, whose nearby provenance- the outfit hails from the post-industrial wasteland of the City’s far-Eastern fringes, where on alternate Saturdays they operate from a tiny, tidy, kitbuilt stadium whose overshiny functionality mirrors that on show within the vast next-door Ikea- would suggest the billing of this afternoon’s National League (North) encounter as a local derby. If so, then no-one seems to have told the Curzon Ashton support- or perhaps there just aren’t that many of them to begin with. Whatever, they make a sorry sight, the thirty or so of them, huddled together as if for safety across a couple of rows of the sizeable block of seats within the 7000 capacity ground routinely reserved for the away contingent.
As if to make up for the lamentable inconspicuity of their support, the Curzon team have taken to the pitch resplendent in luminous lemon-yellow shirts singularly offensive to common decency, and for the opening few minutes this attire, combined with an eyecatching line in intricate close-passing approach play, threatens to render County’s initially lumbering central defence bedazzled into submission. Not once but twice, their languid, longhaired number eight Luke Clarke (a throwback to when I was Frankie’s age, when, at least as far as I recall, every team in the top two divisions of English football boasted a strolling playmaker with an popstar haircut, an insouciant line in elegant but ultimately inconsequential throughpasses, a single England cap gained in a World Cup Qualifiier against Cyprus, and, in all likelihood, an advancing and career-threatening weakness for alcohol and/or gambling and/or glamour models) comes within a whisker of releasing a bustling forward into the space behind the home backline, only for fortune- in the form respectively of a linesman’s flag and the desperately-outstretched left limb of home number six Michael Clarke- to intervene. Far away by the Railway End cornerflag, the clamour of the tiny away following is momentarily audible above the low grumble of consternation emanating from the seats around us.
Just as the visitors’ dominance of early possession threatens to effect a stranglehold on proceedings, their backline is caught out by the rudimentary and very National League (North) expedient of a long, high hopeful ball hoiked sixty yards forward down the inside left channel by County left-back Hampson, in the general direction of the ever-available six-foot-three centre-forward Sefton Gonzales. The gangly number nine’s flick-on header threatens no immediate danger, until an underhit backpass by backpedalling Curzon right-back Thornley presents onrunning County leftwingman Danny Lloyd with the opportunity to steal in ahead of the desperately advancing goalkeeper and slip a careful slotted finish under his despairing grasp. As the ball proceeds goalwards, with the agonising slow-motion of a pocket-weight Terry Griffiths off-the-spot frame-ball, time stands still. Then, as it slows to nestle in the netting just inside the far post, we rise, with a roar of relief. Perhaps it’s going to be our day after all.
The remainder of the first half is played out with advancing composure on display both on and off the pitch, as the home team, clearly settled by the sight of the opposing goal being breached for the first time in 180 minutes (their previous two games have ended 0-2 and 0-0) begin to remind us how prior to those setbacks they had remained unbeaten since early November, thereby advancing slowly but surely to their present berth just on the cusp of play-off contention. Just before half time (‘the psychological moment- now’s the time to score’, I point out to Frankie in the build-up, like I always do after 39 minutes of every game) a training-ground throw-in routine ends with another cushioned header into the path of Lloyd, this one needing no Keystone Cops-esque intervention from any member of the Curzon backline to arrive at its intended target. The diminutive wingman- five foot four of permanently-pent-up nervous energy, and with a stock of technique which the cognoscenti reckon as belonging a good couple of levels above the National League (North)- blasts an unerring half-volley finish gleefully through the hands of the floundering goalkeeper and high into the roof of the Railway End net. The County Band reach into their repertoire and lead us, to the tune of KC and the Sunshine Band’s ‘Baby Give It Up’, in a belting rendition of ‘Danny Lloyd Danny Lloyd, Danny Danny Lloyd. Danny Lloyd Danny Lloyd Danny, Danny Lloyd. The referee blows for half-time, and all is well with the world.
Early in the second half County add a third, as debutant central midfielder Harry Winter, recently of minor league Trafford FC and hitherto looking slightly out-of-his-depth in this exalted company, suddenly morphs into Ferenc Puskas and loops a seventy yard crossfield pass, probably if not for certain entirely on purpose, onto the left-hand border of the penalty area where man of the moment Lloyd is loitering with intent. The winger, still brimming with the brio self-administered by that first-half brace, dances nimbly round his fullback, advances with knock-kneed authority to the byeline in the manner of a Pathe-newsreel clip of Stanley Matthews in his bryl-creemed pomp, and sends back a pinpoint centre which is despatched high into the Cheadle End netting by a bustling crewcutted number ten going under the perfect non-league forward’s moniker (if this were the 1950s, which just for a moment, it is) of Jimmy Ball.
With the team in the possession of that comforting all-too-rarity, a three-goal cushion, the Cheadle End relaxes into a final fifteen minutes in which full reign is given to the songbook, bringing in slower, more anthemic numbers belted out in valedictory style, such as the positively mournful ‘The Scarf My Father Wore’ (which I always join in with even though my father is alive and kicking and would in any case wear only the black and white of Newcastle United) and the jaunty ‘Here’s to the Man From Uruguay’, a homespun ditty in honour of one Danny Bergara, a celebrated native of that South American republic who strode the Edgeley Park touchline with aplomb for the best part of a byegone decade, in the process overseeing the capture of rare silverware for habitually struggling County, in the form of the Division Four championship title, 1966-67.
As the ninety minute mark approaches, a minority of the home support starts to amble towards the gangways with a view to beating whatever traffic three-and-a-half thousand people can engender by virtue of their simultaneous dispersal across the sidestreets of SK3 on an otherwise tranquil Springtime Saturday afternoon. Against the backdrop of their newly-vacated bucket seats, a patent neon sign the size of a small television, held aloft by the referee’s assistant, serves to inform those who remain that there will be three minutes of added time. The course of the afternoon’s dramatic arc demands that these are played out to loud ‘Ole’s’ accompanying grandstanding home possession, with perhaps, if we are being ambitious about it, a fourth goal slammed low into the Cheadle End netting igniting a cinematically gleeful closing scene featuring players and fans locked in mutual rapture. However the visitors don’t appear to have read the script, and in a rare advance into attacking territory, contrive to win that ultimate in footballing anti-climaxes, an injury-time consolation penalty. Warburton’s dead-eyed conversion, struck central into the netting, is duly met with comprehensive apathy by all concerned, save for the County goalkeeper Ormson, who clearly takes the late soiling of what had seemed a surefire cleansheet as a slight on his semi-professional integrity occasioned by a criminal lapse on concentration on the part of his defensive colleagues. Angrily intent on communicating his conviction on this matter to anyone who may care to listen, the beaten home custodian rises from his vain dive, collects the ball from the net, and boots it seventy yards into the emptying lower tier of the main stand.
The County defenders, making mental notes to keep a wide berth from their temporarily deranged number one in the players’ lounge, troop sheepishly back to half-way, where there is just enough time for the restart before the final whistle blows. In no hurry to escape via the now-crowded gangways, me and Frankie stay in the Cheadle End long enough to return in kind the overhead-clapped tribute of the departing home XI assembled near the eighteen-yard line. This timeless custom duly observed, the players troop off towards the sanctity of the dressing room. Me and Frankie head off back up Shaw Heath, where amid the thinning throng of homebound supporters we attempt to eavesdrop on the conversations of those in possession of mobile phone connections, in the vain hope that one of them will reveal the outcome of the matches featuring our promotion rivals: Halifax Town, Chorley and Salford City.
Back at home we find out that each of them has picked up the maximum three points, leaving County still where they started the day, tantalisingly on the edge of contention for a place in the play-off positions and thereby a one-in-four end-of-season shot at a coveted place in the Big Time, AKA next season’s National League (National). But the news is not enough to dampen our spirits. It’s been a great day out, and if The Man From Uruguay is watching from up there (and in the light-headed reverie of those closing fifteen minutes in the earthly heavens of the Lower Cheadle, Upper Section, we may well have believed he was) then he too would surely be revelling in a hard-won victory reminiscent- dare we say it out loud?- of his very own-promotion-achieving teams of lore.
The outcome, then:
County 3 (Lloyd 2, Ball) Curzon Ashton 1 (Warburton, Pen)
Attendance: 3495 (34 away)
Man of the Match: Harry ‘The Galloping Major’ Winter